by Dash Owens
There once was a great Mall, the largest of its kind, with parking lots the size of football fields and three designated exits on the interstate highway. Within The Mall was a theme park with three roller coasters and a ferris wheel, at the top of which riders glanced the dark upper floors where the workers lived and the elaborate ceramic flooring below patterned into the shapes of popular cartoon characters. The theme park occupied the entire central atrium. At the primary central gate, rows of lockers were available for patrons to store their shopping bags full of items from the endless corridors of specialty stores. Elsewhere in The Mall a movie theatre with giant screens and wide, cushioned chairs beckoned the more leisurely shoppers. There too lockers were available to protect the wares of shoppers.
The Mall first opened to much fanfare and news coverage. Families traveled hours to see The Mall, to take their picture at this most original of human creations, an ultimate testament to the expansive ambitions of its architects. Politicians pointed to either its brilliance or its obscenity; celebrities cultivated certain brands especially featured at The Mall’s shops; even musicians performed great concerts in the atrium televised across the world.
Hundreds migrated to The Mall to find work. They lived in the top two floors in dormitories. In the evenings after work, they gathered around the televisions posted in common areas or the electronic devices they saved their earnings to purchase at one of the several stores in The Mall. The workers were for the most part content, though they sometimes complained about their working hours or wages, but they understood these complaints were minor as long as they had a place to sleep, meals to eat, and means of entertainment. If anything, the workers were most oppressed by their sense of ennui. Their days had a bland sameness with the scanning of items and cleaning of floors. Sometimes, they whispered to one another hypothetical disasters: What if a great flood washed away the theme park and everything sold in the stores? What if a ravenous fire burned the cars in the parking lot and the smoke choked the patrons inside The Mall? What if an earthquake split the mall in half, and thousands of people fell to their death in the bright, seething hot magma deep in the earth? What if another war happened, but this one required The Mall to be an important base, and all the workers the last bastion of hope against the forces of evil outside its walls? What if, one day, the The Mall bosses were poisoned by another Mall, and they the workers had to make a choice to stay and rebuild or venture out somewhere new?
What happened next was not one of their hypotheticals. A plague gripped the lands around The Mall, and, within a day, no one from outside came to shop or play or take a picture. The Mall bosses posted notes of warning on the exits before they locked all the doors. None of the workers could leave.
At first, the workers embraced their new freedoms. There was no longer anyone to serve but themselves. Initially, no one stole anything besides food, which hardly seemed like stealing. The theme park operators booted up the rides and workers waved to one another from the top of the ferris wheel. Unconstrained by work hours, the televisions were always on surrounded by a crowd.
The euphoria of novelty did not last another week.
When the toilets first backed up, everyone looked to the custodians to repair and care for the facilities. Insulted by the suggestion that they should work when no one else needed to, the custodians sat back and watched as the number of working toilets dwindled.
The workers grew suspicious of the pestilence outside of The Mall, and began to wonder if the bad airs were also within its walls. The television spoke about high communicability in close quarters, and the population of workers diffused throughout The Mall. The workers unlocked the glass doors of all the stores and put to use the clothes and comfortable furniture to create separate havens. Most stayed in small groups of three or four, and with quiet firmness different cohorts staked out concession stands. Even these groups did not last long. Disagreements arose over which stores to stay in, and the inevitable clash of interests led pairs and individuals to find another shop to live in. Throughout The Mall, shops had televisions and places to sit and places easily converted into bedrooms. Beyond the search for food, no one desired to see anyone else. Even then, the workers gathered as much as they could on short expeditions beyond their specific haven, but the workers as a whole demonstrated a tendency to go without additional food rather than leave their individual dens.
There was the matter of sex. But the workers didn’t have much of it. It was true when the gates of The Mall were unlocked that the workers, complaining about their exhaustion and early mornings, didn’t bother to have a lot of sex. By the end of their days, they preferred the relaxation offered by the devices in the dormitories. Now their new spaces gave the workers a grander sense of privacy, and a majority used the opportunity to care for themselves.
When the bosses finally reopened the doors and called out for the workers, no one came. A couple creeped to the edges of the floors to see if the bosses really had come back, but they scurried back to their hiding places. A new fear came over the workers, a dread of the squished dormitories and the unbearable counting of hours and minutes. The bosses brought in policemen to search out and find the workers. Some came quietly — some who even whispered words of gratitude and relief. But most thought they could keep hiding. Some claimed to fear the pestilence even when the televisions explained there were now medicines and treatments; of these, a few were dragged out of their stores, forced to confront an old reality that now seemed new and awful.
When The Mall finally reopened, the bosses gathered the workers in the atrium to give a short address. They congratulated them on their resilience in a time of great challenge. The bosses complimented the workers in particular on their sense of community and camaraderie as they faced the lock-in. The bosses then gestured to the entrances, the openings that beckoned the return of real life, and said to the workers, “We couldn’t do any of this without you.”