The doc and I turn to look at Regina expectantly, and she continues. “Brian’s into urban exploration. You know, poking around abandoned places? He’s always showing me pictures of forgotten amusement parks and empty factories and things like that.
“Anyway, there’s a place near here — remember Stonefield Mall?”
“Sure, the big place that opened up on the east end of town like a decade ago,” I say.
“Opened up and then closed down all within about a year, yeah. It was supposed to be this big revitalization project, only none of the stores ever really moved in and the whole thing folded almost as soon as it started.”
“Well, the supporting infrastructure wasn’t there. You can’t just drop a mall in and expect it to thrive if it’s totally removed from its clientele’s businesses and homes. Not to mention that the roads out that way aren’t built to handle to volume of traffic that the mall could have produced, if it had been successful.”
Doc and Regina are both looking at me weirdly, and I shrug awkwardly. “What? I work in construction. I listen when the city planners talk.”
“Wisdom of the builders aside,” Regina says, “the point is that there’s a large empty building that, as Dan points out, is not particularly close to many people. Which are pretty much the criteria we’re looking for, right? I don’t know if Brian ever actually went in there or not, but he talked about it sometimes, so — it seems like a good bet, maybe? I don’t know. It’s the only idea I have.”
“It sounds good to me,” I say. “‘Urban exploration,’ huh? I didn’t know Brian was into recreational breaking and entering.” I’m aiming to get a laugh from Regina, but she gives me an earnest look.
“I accused him of that once, and he said, ‘It’s just modern archaeology, you know?'”
She manages to capture Brian’s speech pattern, tone and even his body language perfectly, and I’m the one who laughs.
“That was a pretty dead-on impression!”
“‘Man, that doesn’t sound anything like me,'” Regina continues as Brian, her grin interfering with the sound of slight affront in her voice.
I laugh again, and the Doc is smirking as well. “All right, I’m convinced,” I say. “If you can sound that much like Brian, you can probably think like him, too. We’ll go check out Stonefield tomorrow morning.”
Regina frowns. “Why not right now?”
I shake my head. “I still don’t think it’s a good idea to go out there at night, same as I told Peterson. It’s easier for him to hide, it’s easier for us to get hurt. Even if there’s no one else there, a place that’s been shuttered for a decade isn’t likely to be in pristine condition. I don’t want to end up back here because I stepped through a rotted section of floor that I couldn’t see in the dark.”
“Oh, but you’ll leave Brian out there for another night?” Regina retorts angrily.
Doc Simmons chimes in. “Actually, I have to agree with Dan here. By going out at night, we multiply the risks, increase the chance of failure and get very little extra reward. Additionally, we’re not fully prepared to go out there yet. Do either of you even have a flashlight?”
“I mean, at home, sure,” I say.
“So we go home tonight. We prepare for what we’ll need to go search an abandoned mall store to store. Flashlights, probably some tool for cutting chains –“
“I can cut chains,” I volunteer, raising my right hand.
The doc grimaces. “Fine. The point is, pack up whatever you need, whatever you think Brian will need, and get some rest. We’ll meet at Stonefield at 7 o’clock tomorrow morning, and we’ll rescue Brian then.”
Regina doesn’t look happy about this, but nods her assent. We walk back out to the parking lot and get into my car.
“So,” I say, starting it up, “back to City Hall to get your car, then?”
“Actually,” says Regina, “can I…can I stay at your place tonight? I don’t want to be alone right now.”
“Sure, I guess so! Whatever you need.”
Back at my place, I propose my standard evening wind-down: vegging out on the couch. I’m pretty exhausted, and Regina looks even rougher than I feel. She’s on board with this plan, so I settle in with a glass of soda and a stupid comedy about zombies.
Regina and I are at opposite ends of the couch initially, but after a few minutes she scoots over next to me, moves my arm out of the way and cuddles up against my shoulder.
“Um,” I start, not really knowing where to go from there. Fortunately, Regina cuts me off.
“Shut up,” she says, and I do. After a short while, I can feel her crying, so I awkwardly put my arm around her shoulders and hope that’s what she wants here. She stops crying a few minutes later, so I suppose it worked.
Not long after that, I realize that Regina’s fallen asleep pillowed against me. I look forlornly at my glass of soda sitting on the floor, well outside of arm’s reach. My position isn’t entirely comfortable, but I fluff up the cushions behind me with my free arm and make the best of it.
I wake up at around 3 AM with a crick in my neck. I reach up to rub it, and when I lift my arm off of the couch, I can’t feel my right hand.
“I dissolved my hand in the night!” I think, panicked. A moment later, I realize that this is a stupid thought. All that’s actually happened is that I’ve managed to pin my arm against the couch, and my hand has fallen asleep. Still, that split-second of terror is enough to have flushed all possibility of further sleep from my system.
Regina’s still out, so I carefully extricate myself from beneath her and sneak off to prepare for the day. I set coffee on to brew and go to take a shower. I never feel less clean than when I’ve fallen asleep in my clothes. Which is funny, because I come home filthy on a regular basis from work, but there’s just a greasy feeling when I wake up fully clothed that’s much worse than actual dirt. It’s like I’ve slowly bonded to my shirt and pants overnight.
A shower and a cup of coffee later, Regina’s still not awake and I’m trying to quietly sift through my disorganized closets in search of what we might need today. I put two flashlights into a backpack, then can’t really think of much else that we actually need, so I start putting stuff in more or less at random. Water bottles? Sure, we might be out there for a while. Maybe we’ll get dust in our eyes that we need to rinse out. In they go.
Box of Band-aids? Yeah, lots of places to get cut there. Pair of work gloves? Sure, why not. Bungee cords? I mean, I can’t think of any situation that would need them. But on the other hand, they’re not doing me any good sitting around here, so they’re coming along!
I’m in danger of emptying an entire closet into the backpack, so I step away for a minute and go scramble some eggs for breakfast. Regina makes her way into the kitchen in the middle of this process and stands there, rubbing her eyes.
“Morning,” I say. “Coffee?”
She accepts a mug and sits heavily at the table. “What time is it?”
“I don’t know, 4ish?”
This seems to be all she has to say on the subject, which I can understand. I’m not much of a conversationalist before my first cup of coffee, either.
She’s still working her way to the bottom of the cup when I pass her a plate with scrambled eggs, toast and half of an only-slightly-elderly tomato that I found in the fridge.
“Haute cuisine, Dan?” she says, smiling.
“Man, I am an excellent cook!” I exclaim. “No matter what Brian says about it.”
Regina’s face falls. She grabs my wrist, and I turn to look at her.
“Dan, he’s going to be okay, right?”
“He’s going to be fine,” I assure her. “We’re going to fix this. We’re gonna get him back.”
“Okay,” she says, letting go of my arm. “Okay.”
After a pause, I say, “Hey, speaking of, what should we be bringing today? I put in flashlights and some Band-aids, but then sort of ran out of reasonable ideas.”
Regina snorts. “Dan, you can go from reassuring to clueless in about two seconds flat, did you know that?”
“It’s been mentioned,” I say.
Sunrise on the Ides of March finds me in the parking lot of an abandoned mall with my best friend’s girlfriend, waiting for a doctor to arrive so that we can bring him home, by ambush and force if necessary. Despite the chill in the air, I’m sweating a bit. I’ve taken the advice I gave to Peterson and have worn multiple layers. I have an undershirt, a regular shirt, a flannel hanging loose over that and a jacket on top. I’m wearing a hat to protect my head, and I’m basically just hoping that Brian doesn’t go for my legs, because I’m only wearing a single pair of pants. I thought about doubling up there, but decided that I wouldn’t be able to take them off in anything like a timely fashion if I needed to. My life has never before called for me to own tearaway pants.
The doc shows up at five minutes to seven, and steps out of her car carrying the satchel we saw her pack yesterday. We stand and regard the mall for a moment. With the sun rising behind it, casting the building into silhouette, it looks normal, even inviting. If it weren’t for the cracked and weed-strewn parking lot extending out in front, it would be easy to believe that the mall was still alive and preparing to open for the day.
“Shall we?” asks the doc, gesturing forward, and together we walk to the front doors.
Simmons tries the first set, which are locked, and moves on to the next one, then the next. “All locked at this entrance,” she reports, starting to walk away.
“Doc? I can open any door you want,” I say.
“Yes, and if we can’t find Brian’s entry point, we’ll go that way. But I’d rather find the route he took in, and reduce our search radius immediately, wouldn’t you?”
“Okay, your logic’s sound, Doc. But your bedside manner could use some work.”
“No one ever got better through false hopes, Dan.”
“You live a very uncompromising life, is all I’m saying.”
“Look!” says Regina, cutting our argument short. Ahead, sunlight glints off of the glass panels of doors protected behind a gate of steel bars. The bars have a large hole eaten out of them, though, and one of the doors is missing its glass. No shards are visible on the ground, just a thick coating of dust.
“Well,” says the doc. “Once again: shall we?”
I take a deep breath and step inside the abandoned mall.