Tom slowed the van when they were a safe distance away from The North Pole, in a park-and-ride off the highway.
"Ok," he said, to no one in particular. "Ok." The car was rolling in circles around the big empty lot.
Ariel had smuggled a palette of oil paint out of the park and was painting a giant stag on the right side of Harriet's face - its antlers were wildly exaggerated, wrapping across her nose and eyes, to the other side of her face.
"Tom, I'm gettin' Hungry." Ariel called. "Think we could get lunch?"
"Yes, I could definitely go for some food."
"You know what I could really go for?" Ariel mused, "An Orange Julius and a Chicken Basket from the Dairy Queen."
Tom looked in the rearview mirror to Harriet, Ariel, and Ben; then also to what used to be Rodger and Ethel. "If that's fine with everyone."
"The Lakeline Mall has both, about ten feet apart from each other." Ariel added.
Tom nodded and pushed the accelerator down, drying the paint on everyone's faces.
The inside of the mall was crowded beyond what Tom considered a comfortable capacity, and a slight panic beset him as he attempted to keep track of his companions. They integrated seamlessly with the sloshing crowd orbiting the center of the food court, like minced fruit in a blender.
Ariel sashayed up to the counter of the Orange Julius. Behind it a boy in tight black jeans sat on the edge of an ice bin, playing with his phone, while two girls stood chirping against the frame of a door leading to some back office.
"You must be Craig." Ariel said to the boy on the counter. "You're not wearing your tame tag."
Craig slid off the counter and straightened his shirt. "You . . . did Rodney?"
"Oh, I've known Rodney a very long time. And I can tell you that if he were here he'd be throwing a fit."
Craig made a knowing glance to the girls by the door, who immediately halted their conversation and began to make themselves look busy with a pair of bleach-stained rags. Their name tags read Ashley and Bethany.
"How do you know these people?" Tom asked. "They don't seem to know you."
"We're related by causality, that's all. Through the complex web of interrelations. This Orange Julius is a very complex, entity, you know."
Craig wandered around the fruit bin with three blenders clutched in his left hand, scooping heaping piles of strawberries and orange juice into their open tops, his hand already caked with all sorts of colored stains. As he dumped heaping scoops of white powder into the blenders, clouds of white dust billowed out like tiny smoke grenades.
Ariel inhaled deeply. "Craig goes to the special high school across from the mall here, where troubled kids end up. They don't have a cafeteria, so he spends most of his time hanging around here on an extended lunch period. Rodney offered him a job after seeing that bored look on his face day after day. That's how a lot of kids end up here." Complacently she set into place the crooked lid of a nearby straw dispenser. "Rodney has always had a strong heart and a good sense of who to trust. He hired me after all, and I was no troubled kid, I was probably ten years his senior. I had been fired from the Dairy Queen over there after a bad case of the shakes landed some french fry grease on the arm of another employee. The manager there, Chrissy, she knew Rodney, and they basically exchanged me. If I were to drop a blender, no harm done. That's how this place sorts itself out. It finds a place for you."
"This Orange Julius?"
"Well, yes, but on a larger scale, this mall. Its all interconnected into its own strange society. Just coming here occasionally isn't enough to realize that. You spend a lot of time here, you start to notice new things. The way everything works together."
"It's true," Bethany said, leaning over the counter with a handful of straws. "Did you notice The King of the Mall is here?"
"Oh I didn't! Can you point him out to me?"
Bethany motioned to a man in his early twenties standing by the bathroom's entrance with a long ponytail, dark reflective sunglasses, and a leather trenchcoat.
Ariel began to laugh. "Oh, that's a new one. The King looked different when I was here."
"Who is The King of The Mall?" Tom asked. "And how is he . . . appointed?"
"The King is the leader of the mallrats." Craig said.
"There's always been one." Ariel added. "The mallrats need an older gent to flock to, one that can buy them cigarettes and alcohol, teach them in the ways of life after high school. But its important that this person also be as immature and petty as a teenager. So this man here, who would never be able to relate to people his own age, has found a niche area of society where he has been declared king."
"Its sort of poetic, really." added Ashley. "Even though that guy is a total douche, he serves a purpose. For instance, you'll never find mallrats around the Gap. That's because all the pretty girls The King went to high school with work there, and he doesn't want to be seen with his legion. And that works out perfectly because the Gap doesn't want mallrats."
"But there's more" Bethany said, leaning in. "With the mallrats gone, all the girls feel comfortable to go in and try on clothes with their friends. And when there's a bunch of girls in there, the janitors come stand in front of the store and watch them, just mopping the same part of the floor over and over again.
"Now this makes the woman that runs the Celtic Treasures kiosk angry," Craig cut in. "She's like, either jealous - or the janitors are blocking her view of the Gap!"
"Yes, there are several theories," Bethany continued. "Anyway, she'll get all flustered and call the security guards, always something about the perverted janitors raping young girls with their eyes. It is pretty creepy, after all. So the guards will come and hassle the janitors, and keep an eye on that general area."
"And THAT means that the security guards are too preoccupied to keep an eye on the mallrats." Ashley concluded. "They're free to smoke, yell profanity, and basically be themselves with no intervention. It's a very delicate ecosystem." Ashley wrung her rag out into a gutter built into the orange-plastic floor. The water could be heard trickling through the floor beneath them and through pipes somewhere behind the walls.
Ariel nodded her head at the clusters of people making their way through the food court. "It's a complex entity. And like I said, not just this Orange Julius, but also not just this mall. Do you see the way relationships play their way into everything, Tom? Nothing is disconnected from the whole. You may think of yourself as separate, but you're just as caught up in it as all of us. You always have been." Ariel reacher her hand into a bucket of orange halves sitting on the counter beside a juicer. "And that is a demonstrate-able fact."
Without much hesitation Ariel launched the orange at a truly remarkable speed directly into the Dairy Queen - a boy behind the counter showcasing the structural integrity of a Blizzard moved his head out of the way just in time as the fruit made a loud THUNK against the soft serve machine.
A rotund woman emerged furiously from the back room, her bouffant hairdo held down by a cloth visor. Enraged, the woman scanned the crew of Orange Julius, but her glare weakened when she saw Ariel - a mutual smile spread across their faces. The woman thrust her hand into an open plastic bin, producing a half dozen or so sliced limes.
Ariel went in for more oranges as a fistful of limes peppered the counter top of Orange Julius like errant machine gun bullets. The occupants of the crowded food court watched at first in horror, then in fascination, as Ariel reached into the bucket for more oranges.
"Embrace the complexity!" Ariel hollered loudly to Tom, tossing extra fruit to the workers behind her. Craig emerged from the back room with another five gallon bucket as everyone in the food court turned their attention to the two fast food shops, clearing the path between them.
"I knew we'd meet again!" the woman with the bouffant called to Ariel. "I hope you know - this is where it ends."
They were both chuckling uncontrollably. Ariel raised an orange in her right fist, and the workers behind her followed suit.
"Grab some damn fruit Tom!" Harriet insisted, struggling to remove a jug of strawberries from behind the counter.
"CHARGE!" Ariel screeched, and as she let launch another sling of oranges, shouts of protest and camaraderie alike rang through the food court as people everywhere dashed to either leave or join in the soggy fruit crescendo sailing above the white and grey tiled floor.
There were slices of pizza, chicken sandwiches, double cheeseburgers and Pepsi, god, so much Pepsi. Cartons of Red Hots burst in the sky like sucrose fireworks, french fries pounded the linoleum like a monsoon, and Tom stood in the middle of all of it cradling a tub of mashed blueberries, staining everyone who passed with bright cobalt smears. Teenagers, children, and a surprising number of adults ran cheering through the food court, picking up scraps from the floor, feverishly purchasing more food to be thrown.
Ariel caught Tom by the elbow, pointed out the window that lead to the suspended balcony. On it a crowd of people stood appalled, face to the glass, looking in on the mess inside.
"You see those people?" she said. "Those people are fighting the current, trying to stop nature! You don't get anywhere that way."
"Participation!" Harriet seconded. "It doesn't matter if it hurts!"
"THIS IS COMBAT TRAINING!" the King of the Mall declared, smashing a handful of raspberries into Tom's forehead before laughing hysterically. "This is the best day of my life!" he exclaimed, shaking Tom's hand. "FUCK!"
Tom knew what was coming, and had not lost himself too completely to forget it. As he saw Ariel begin to stagger he collected a wheelchair he had seen sitting by the entrance, and circled around behind her just as she collapsed.
"Harriet! Ben! We're done here!" he shouted as he made his way to the door. The crowd failed to notice as the three and Ariel burst through the double doors laughing, stained from head to toe with smears of fruit and other foodstuffs, their face paint blurring in with it all. Pushing off the wheelchair like a skateboard Tom balanced himself upon the handles and rode the chair down the hill of the parking lot, to the van. "Hurry hurry!" he called as Harriet helped him lift Ariel into her seat, strapping her in.
"Nobody smells yet, that's good." Tom fumbling with the keys, at last coercing the van into drive.
"Watch the chair!" Harriet called to Tom, who swerved but still managed to clip the wheelchair that was still rolling down the sharp incline of the parking lot, shattering the right headlamp of the van.
"Don't stop!" Harriet yelled as they shot quickly back onto the street and sped away.
In heaven, Ariel checked her blouse for bits of fruit, and found none.
"Rodger! Ethel!" she hollered into the crowd ahead of her. They waved politely back, beckoning her to join them. A group of people ran to Ariel to begin explaining things, while Gregory, Helen, and Vincent remained listening to Ethel and Bradley. The man was seated now, calmly discussing things, a confused look on his furrowed brow.
"I don't remember any part of it, not the normal way. I can recall places and events, but I can't - I don't remember the feelings."
"Feelings like when you look at me?" Ethel asked.
"Yes, I feel a feeling I remember when I look at you."
"That's the important part." Ethel said. "Let's focus on that. That's all memory is really good for."