She could forget it if she tried. The bright letters of “Inspiration” jutted from a wall over a permanently gated shop. The only immediately clear sign that remained in the place, it was hardly ten years ago when it flickered out for the last time. After that, it wasn’t long before the water penetrated the food court doors on the lowest floor, washing away a cheap Indian restaurant that she once considered good food. Effortlessly scavenging, the water dredged up everything. Victoria’s Secret bras sequestered in dark corners started to float on top along with upended trashcan contents. Condom wrappers and Dorito bags were ubiquitous, signifying the stages of evacuation.
When they knew the water would rise, the facilities closed to the public. Then the sellers who weren’t local cleared their shelves while the local sellers put their stock in duffle bags and boxes, sobbing and whispering about flood insurance, altered dreams. Schools were slower to shut down and neighborhoods even slower to evacuate, so children played in what was left of Tisdale Mall.
Ashley Bryson had known a few of them, she thought. Naturally, they had vanished. Children who had lived on the perimeter--the boundary of hope, almost certainly going to fail high school--perished on the perimeter. The water pushed Ashley’s family out before the mall even shut down. By the time the valley filled to the brim with water, all except the top two floors of that mall and a few other tall buildings that were also on high ground, Ashley was so far inland that disaster was almost an afterthought.
Staring at the pager, Ashley knew she needed to respond to the call:
SOS AT TISDALE MALL--0U0--RESPOND TO PINE BLUFF STATION 1300
After the water rose, people still got lost in the new channels and rivers. People boarded boats to find debris from their lost homes. Every crazy method of gathering old memories or personal items had been tried, and Ashley was certain that the situation with the mall was no different. Ashley volunteered with Arkansas Search and Rescue to attempt to help the people who were essentially lost in the New Gulf of Mexico, which now pushed nearly to the Ozarks.
“SOS” meant here that some signal had been sent, but the “0U0” meant that no clear identity or numbers of subjects had been spotted. It was a common signal that her group had to send often when a boat would be seen drifting, unattended. Tisdale Mall was an uncommon target because large buildings were uncommon. Flood damage created massive structural issues quickly, and ten years had not been kind to the buildings that remained.
Packing up her gear and driving out to the trailers where the responders operated, she couldn’t remember any other functions of the mall beyond that one store. Of course, standard options (like Old Navy and Barnes and Noble) were a part of the Tisdale Mall. While she was still in middle school, standard options pushed out almost all of the more exciting aspects of the place. An arcade became a Payless. An ice rink became a sporting goods store.
The fourth floor was nearly undeveloped because no one could be bothered to go up there to shop. “Coming Soon” banners were blockades to store gateways that would never be ungated. A smattering of smaller shops (a Christian bookstore, a local candle shop, a sheepish rental meeting hall with aluminum chairs around a plastic table) frantically eked out an existence.
“Inspiration” never opened, so Ashley never had a chance to examine the wares. When she was a sophomore in high school, the year before she preemptively moved, she pretended to have a job there for a month before her parents found out the truth. They dropped her, clad in khakis and a navy blue polo, bookbag at her side for “studying on break time,” four nights a week at the mall. Instead of working, she met a boy with brown hair in front of the lit up sign. He vanished less than a week later, and Ashley sat alone in front of the unopened store with an illuminated logo, wondering idly what it might sell when it opened, working on homework until the mall was nearly closed and her parents arrived.
One day, when her parents arrived, she admitted to everything. It was a wistful kind of guilt--something was lost when she spelled out her lies for them. Still, when the waters rose and everything she knew from her childhood was drowned, it made little sense to think about it further.
Save Us, the white paint on the roof of the mall said in jagged, giant lines. No boats were found amongst the debris surrounding the unsubmerged base of the mall, and no easy or safe entry points were observed even though they circled it three times, shining lights into the cracks. The search team had to anchor their boat to the building for stability before raising a ladder up the side of the building. Seven people climbed the ladder, including Ashley, leaving the boat with two others.
The only reasonable point of access in and out of the mall was on the roof, where a maw grinned from one corner to another. Parts of the crevice opened to a janitor’s closet--that was the easiest point of entry, since the other portions of the gap overlooked a drop where the escalators were, into the third level.
The painted cry for help occupied what was left in another corner, and it had not been there more than a week. One part of the crack had a makeshift staircase which was partly caved in ceiling and partly stacked cinder blocks, seeming intentional enough to merit concern. A few beer bottles adorned the roof top; although the garbage seemed new, garbage had a peculiar way of getting places when only so many resources could be allocated to the cleanup. It was a sign, but the team decided that they needed to enter the mall through the roof in order to either confirm or deny the presence of a subject.
“Help is here! Anyone there?” Ashley called into the chasm, but only heard her own voice echoing back at her.
Two people stayed behind to offer support in case structural issues caused harm to the team or further supplies were needed. The humidity made the cinder block stairs slick even for their waterproof boots, and mold growth was ever present. Little outside light penetrated the fourth floor when the team climbed into the janitor’s closet and stepped across the crack again as it stretched further into the building and the foundation.
When they opened the door to the fourth floor, what wasn’t pitch black was masked by a dark green luminance. It’s probably the sunlight from the roof crack reflecting off the fakely green garden down in the food court, since the elevators and escalators are right over that, Ashley considered. It was a disconcerting hue that hid where water had accumulated. The hallways were tilted through slow fracturing, and on one side of the hall brackish water had pooled against storefronts as if they were gutters. The old benches in the middle of the walkway were firmly rooted in and gave the whole atmosphere an unstable look, since the fake plants next to those had fallen completely towards the draining wall.
The remaining five team members split up. Three went downstairs using the service stairs, leaving Ashley and Roger to survey the upstairs. Ashley knew it wouldn’t take long, but she felt a strange interest in it, since the shift may have opened areas that she had never seen before. She reminded herself that she was looking for people. They walked together slowly with flashlights, trying to examine each corner.
Sure enough, part of the foundation had shifted around two stores, leaving a gap with something that resembled a footprint where the display window led into the shops. Ashley couldn’t remember what the purpose of the stores had been, but she understood where they were relative to her memory. Roger followed the footprint in while Ashley turned to examine “Inspiration” behind her.
For once, the gate was wide open. The letters were untouched and still seemed to shine, even though unlit. Procedure dictated that Ashley follow Roger, since no one would be allowed to explore on their own, but Ashley rationalized that the never opened store could not be very large. It would not take much time to have a look. A part of her did not want to share the first glance.
It was a non-descript, rectangular room with a desk built into the wall at the back. The floors were wood laminate and seemed to be in remarkably good condition for all that they had been through. In fact, the air in the store seemed somehow drier--it was difficult for Ashley to notice that with the mold-proof mask on and a head-to-toe antimicrobial suit, but the walls weren’t beaded with humidity like many other parts of the mall.
Ashley walked slowly through the room. I’ll savor knowing that I finally solved at least part of the mystery, she thought. Then, on the desk at the back of the empty room, she saw an object.
Moving closer and inspecting it with her flashlight, strange connections fired inside her skull. It was a tan bookbag with a couple of bumper sticker like pins attached to the clasps. Inside the bag, a navy blue polo and a pair of khakis greeted her. When she picked them up, an employee ID fell out between them, bearing her name, followed by her first driver’s license. It looked authentic, even though the licensing place put a hole through her first driver’s license when she went in for one at 21 years old.
The door seemed remarkably far away, but Roger suddenly appeared, shaking his head.
In the years after finding her own bag in a shop she had never entered, especially considering that the call had come up with no found subjects, the bag never left Ashley’s mind. She saw it as a split possibility, a reflection of the huge change in the world and the chance that she might not have escaped the rising water. She began to wonder if the bag had been planted behind the counter, but she never told anyone besides her parents about the story of her pretending to work. Perhaps the store or someone responsible for it wanted her there to live the role she had imagined. "Inspiration" wanted her or had expected her, and it was denied.
She could not forget, no matter how hard she tried.