It was late on a Tuesday night, and Hayley was stranded in the underwear section, going through the racks the customers had messed up and re-hanging bras on their little plastic hangers. Hangars? No, that was a different thing. That was for airplanes. Hayley imagined flocks of bras flying through the sky in formation and coming to land with a zoom.
It was that kind of late night.
A month ago, when she'd been feeling this loopy, the store would still have had three or four other employees working, and she and Jazz would have goofed off with the battery-powered singing toys the manager kept near the checkout. But it was January, she was one of the few staff whose contracts had been extended past the Christmas rush, and there was almost no one around to be silly with.
She heard footsteps in the next aisle. She looked up, inevitably mid-yawn. Luckily, it wasn't a customer - it was Aveline, the duty manager. Aveline was an okay sort of person. She'd stood up for Hayley and Jazz when the franchise marketing team had come in to be bossy, and Hayley suspected she even had a sense of humour.
"Mm," Aveline said, sympathetically, to the yawn. "There's no one left in the store, and the mall's dead. I reckon if you come help me with the changing rooms, we can lock up a little early."
"Sure," Hayley said, pushing the bras aside and getting to her feet.
She wasn't really sure why Aveline needed help with the changing rooms. Sure, people sometimes left rubbish in there, which was gross, and you had to check the items that people had tried on in case they'd snapped off buttons or stained things, but it didn't take long to do that.
Aveline started to grab things off the return rack and sort them. She waved Hayley towards the cubicles. "Okay," Hayley said, collecting a pair of jeans someone had left crumpled on the floor.
The last cubicle in the line was a pain to use. It was built into the corner of the store, and there were some pipes that came out of the wall and disappeared into the roof that meant you had to squeeze around them to actually get in.
Hayley squeezed around the door, which clicked shut behind her. There was nothing in this cubicle, of course, because no one used it if they didn't have to.
Shifting her grip on the jeans, Hayley grabbed the door handle again.
It didn't budge.
She tried again.
"Hey, Aveline?" she called, with a bit of a nervous giggle. "I'm having trouble with the end cubicle door. Uh, more than the usual."
"Coming," Aveline said, sounding like she was right outside. Hayley heard her trying the handle. "Stand back?" Hayley stepped back, and heard Aveline give the door a shove.
"Can you try..."
Nothing seemed to work. The handle acted like it was fused to the door.
"Huh," Aveline said after a minute. "Okay. Tell you what, I'll go get Lee, he'll have started doing main door lock-up by now. He'll probably have access to maintenance tools, and we can get the hinges off."
"Okay," Hayley said.
"Hang tight," Aveline said.
Hayley sat down on the floor and made herself comfortable. She listened to Aveline's footsteps fading away. Then she could only hear the humming of the lights and the air conditioning, and a faint hiss of steam from the pipes. At least it was always warm in this corner.
Then the lights went out.
Hayley's heart gave a giant thud. What was Aveline doing?
"Hey!" she yelled, then louder. "HEY!"
Maybe she just turned the lights off to save power, Hayley told herself. She really cares about environmentalism and stuff. Maybe it was just one of those things you do out of habit.
It was so quiet. Hayley kept thinking she heard footfalls, then deciding there was nothing after all.
Maybe there's a creepy serial killer in the mall, she tried not to think. Maybe he got Aveline, and he's coming for you.
It wasn't completely dark. There was a very dim glow, probably from the lights in the corridors between the mall shops, shining through the store front. Hayley's eyes adjusted.
After half an hour, Hayley was sure Aveline wasn't coming back.
She had a new reason to freak out, too. The hissing in the pipes was getting louder. It wasn't just warm in this corner, it was hot. She could actually see steam escaping.
Worse, the steam was shimmery.
There's probably something whacked-out in that steam, Hayley thought, blinking hopefully in case the shimmer went away. Why am I not panicking? Why am I not kicking down the door?
(As if her cheap work flats were any use in kicking down doors.)
Maybe there's something in the steam, she reasoned, and that's why I'm not panicking.
There was nowhere to go. She pulled her knees up to her chest and just waited. Maybe if she was lucky she'd fall asleep. At least that would make the night go faster. She hoped she wouldn't have to pee in here.
The room was filling up with steam. Her skin felt clammy. Some of the steam got sucked out through the gaps in the top and bottom of the door. Okay, good, I'm not going to suffocate, right? Hayley thought. But most of it stayed in the cubicle, doing its weird sparkly thing. Hayley shut her eyes and held them shut for a full minute. She opened them. Still sparkly.
Now they were forming visions. Actual pictures. She saw mathematical symbols and constellations. She saw leaves and birds. She saw buildings and dragons.
It was quite bright in the cubicle now. Hayley had no idea where the light was coming from, unless it was coming from the steam itself.
But, gradually... the things she saw started to make sense. And then she began to find words for the ways they made sense. She knew things. The images lay impressions on her mind; she could feel herself making connections between them and between everything else she'd ever learned. She breathed in deeply. She could feel the steam drawn down into her lungs - she could feel it when the shimmers travelled out into her blood. She could feel herself becoming different. She could feel herself evolving. Wiser. Stronger. She could feel herself ascending.
The lights went back on, and Hayley blinked. The steam was gone now. The carpet felt perfectly dry.
There was a knock on the cubicle door.
"Hayley?" Aveline said. "I'm sorry I frightened you. Do you understand now?"
"I do," Hayley said. "I understand everything."
She heard the door unlocking. She forgave Aveline for that.
"I'm different now," Hayley said. "Everything is different. Everything is amazing."
"You seemed like a nice kid," Aveline said. "I thought you should have a chance to experience... this."
"How did you know it would do this?" Hayley asked dreamily.
Aveline pulled a newspaper advertisement out of her pocket. It was yellowing; she had sealed it in plastic. "Careful," Aveline said.
"'I am a human being'," Hayley read.
"Long before my time," Aveline said. "I thought it was printed as some kind of joke, but I was younger then. I had time for all kinds of crazy things. So my friend and I dared each other to stay in here for a few hours..."
"And now you know the secrets of the universe."
"And now we know," Aveline agreed. "And one by one, everyone shall know, and we will create a perfect world."
Jay stood in front of his dad's desk and scowled.
His dad was wearing the same scowl, only (if Jay were honest with himself) a better one. If he were really honest with himself, it was the scowl he dreamed of one day mastering. But Jay's honesty was a bit of a contentious issue here.
"The water damage alone will be very expensive," Jay's dad said heavily. "Not to mention removing the paint or the toilet paper that you seem to have turned into a papier-mâché carpet. Or replacing the paint. And my favourite plaid shirts. Or my E.T. memorabilia."
Jay wanted to say, well, plaid, duh. But he kept up the work on scowling.
(At least his dad hadn't mentioned the garden gnomes.)
"But the worst thing," Jay's dad said, "is that you expect me to believe your explanation for all this."
"But-" said Jay.
"I mean really," Jay's dad said - and here it was, here he made his fatal mistake - "could you think of something less plausible?"
His dad might have another opinion, but long after, Jay thought of that as his finest hour.
3. sometimes weird IS the best explanation
"I never," declared Mina, "had to go in the bushes!!" She beamed at everyone in the circle. Not surprisingly, everyone else drank. David took a small, resigned sip.
"Hey, my glass is empty," Mina continued. "Someone should come fill it for me." She got up. David felt he should clap at this achievement. Junko and Alexander got up too.
Sliding into the gap Alexander had made, Miri leaned unsubtly on Tim. There was a burst of laughter from the kitchen. "Wonder what they're talking about," Tim said, pushing Miri back gently and standing up. Miri followed him to the kitchen.
That left David and Liz.
"You look bored," Liz said.
David swallowed. Oh great. What a first impression to make. Well, second, because they'd been introduced an hour ago, but she'd kind of just looked at him and away.
"Drinking games aren't really my thing," he said, aware that this didn't correct the vibe of disdain.
Liz gestured at the circle and the empty glasses. "So?" she said.
"But they're a way to get to know people," David said. He didn't add a dumb way.
"Can you think of a better way?" Liz said. Okay, now she was smiling. Was she flirting with him? That was good, but also not so good, because David did not know how to flirt back.
"Like, people talking about the dumb stuff they've done is okay," he said. "Like, I wish it was actually the whole stories, you know? Like I did this dumb thing and this crazy stuff happened."
"Be the change," she said drily.
"I'm not good at funny," David said.
Awkward pause. "Maybe you're good at weird," she said. Ouch.
She looked as though maybe she hadn't meant to say that. She looked down, shifted her position on the cushion. She looked as though she was about to get up, join the kitchen party. Last chance.
"I like weird things," David said. "I like really normal weird things. Like kids not stepping on cracks in the pavement because they'll fall down or bears will eat them. Like people taking their umbrellas and saying it won't rain."
"That's Murphy's law," Liz said.
"Sure," David said. "But I mean, I like thinking about, if all that were true, how would the world work?"
"Yeah, okay," Liz said. "What else is weird?"
"Changing rooms in stores," David said positively. "Those used to really freak me out as a kid. Like, my mom would leave me outside and I used to have this thing I scared myself with - what if when she came out she wasn't my mum any more? What if there were all these people who didn't have lives, so they had to get people at a moment when no one could see them and steal their faces and take their place in their families and jobs?"
"You're right," Liz said. "That is creepy."
David wasn't sure whether to go on or just stop. For the first time in an hour, he took a real, deep swig of his rum and coke.
"What about aliens?" Liz said unexpectedly.
"Changing rooms are kind of bare. They're like little capsules. What if you get in one and then the aliens teleport you to their space ship for experiments?"
"Yeah, I can see that," David said. "But worse if maybe you don't come back."
"Maybe they eat you."
"Nice," David said. "Brutal."
Junko yelled from the kitchen. "Hey, Liz, you're missing out! You have to see this!"
David looked down at his mug.
"Nah, it's cool!" Liz yelled back, and grinned at David.
"What about robot mannequins?"
4. still some kinks to work out
Where do you think the Men in Black get their gear?