Art was hiding behind the inflatable cactus. His buddy, Darren, was squatting behind a rack of model war machines, primarily airplanes. They’d bought their polyester balaclavas—yellow—from a dollar store owned by the family of Jennifer Lin, a girl from Art’s chemistry class, otherwise they would have lifted them. They’d bought the toy guns from Amber—who was still at the cash now, only alone—then sat at a table in the food court and used a black marker to obscure each gun’s orange tip.
Amber was a year older, but had been in Art’s English class to try and upgrade her mark. Or maybe she hadn’t got the credit the year before. Art wasn’t clear on that fact. But Amber had liked getting Art’s help with understanding the books they were studying in class and Art liked to spend time with Amber, even if it was, until summer started, in the food court trying to get Amber off the topic of her ex—who sounded like a pretty cheesy guy, actually, all tuxedos and limos and flowers and poems—and back on the topic of Hamlet or whatever.
Ever since the Art and Amber thing had started, Art was spending, according to Darren, too much time at the mall.
Darren was one to talk, though. Sure, he was always talking about how shit the mall was and how much he hated the fake people who hung out there all the time. Or hurling abuse at the mall rent-a-cops who had learned to ignore the abuse. Act like they were ignoring it anyway. But since Darren had declared that he had graduated high school, you could always find him at his post by the merry-go-round outside the Walmart where he sat on the bench under the burned-out light fixture and tried to catch glimpses of himself in the carousel’s small circular mirrors as they passed and passed and passed. Even before he’d “graduated,” he’d been there at lunch and after school, somehow earlier than anybody else could get there, like he had some secret—maybe underground, definitely more direct—route. Or maybe he just left class earlier than other people.
He’d known Amber for a few years because before the toy store she’d worked at the flavoured popcorn place. Darren told Art that her ex-boyfriend was runty and longhaired, but that he used to play these tricks on Amber and that Amber loved them.
Amber had told Art about this one time that, “My ex,” he was “like, I don’t know, being a dick or something, not answering my calls or whatever. Or maybe that was the time that my friend posted a selfie hashtagged ‘creeper’ where he’s in the background totally checking her out. Anyway, he comes up and orders popcorn from me like we’ve never met. And I’m like, crying, but my coworker was on her break so she couldn’t come to the cash and then he walks away.”
“What a dick,” Art said.
“Then, like five minutes later he’s back and all like, ‘Uh, there’s something in my popcorn,’ and there is and it’s flowers for me under the first maybe inch of popcorn.”
“Wow,” Art said. “Nice flowers?”
“Fake flowers. I’ve still got them, but they're all grease stained.”
She had pushed her poutine around with her plastic fork. “I miss him. He could be a dick, right? But he was super funny.” The poutine was making a wet sound. Art had to swallow to stop from retching. “You’re never a dick. Maybe we’d still be together if he was just that much more like you.”
Darren told him about other pranks where the ex would, say, lurk in the harshly lit, back hallways of the mall and jump out of little nooks or, like, run from bush to bush behind Amber as she walked home. There was no reason to think Darren was lying.
Eventually, Art was convinced that the way to Amber’s heart was to pull this fake heist.
It was fun to plan it, too. I mean, Art was finished school now, and he was working twenty hours a week sorting files in his dad’s office—“some doctor’s office,” he called it to Darren and Amber—but the boredom that he’d known every summer of his life as he remembered it was all in his bones like ether.
But crouching there as Darren moved from behind the shelf of models to behind a bucket of hobby horses, crouching there worried that maybe Amber would see them, Art felt anxious, sure, but all sorts of excitement, too: pure, heart-hurry-hurry-hurry-up.
With a great flapping of paper, Amber dropped the magazine she was reading and bent down behind the counter to get it.
Art stood up and raced over to a rack of dress-up clothes. He put on an oversized pair of sunglasses and smiled at Darren. Darren just waved his toy pistol forward, forward.
Amber sat up and smiled. “Hello.” A woman answered back. Customers.
Art heard the squeak of Darren’s rotten sneakers and turned in time to see one half-off sole flap as Darren passed the far corner of the shelf.
Somebody shouted as Darren disappeared back into the mall. Art peaked around the corner. Amber was pressing her hand to her breast, pressing like she might be able to grab her heart and slow it down. Art wondered if she was panicked or if she was hoping it was her ex who’d just run off. A woman stood near the cash reaching for a hand that wasn’t there. She turned. “Sweetie? Sweetie?”
“Look, Mom, there’s another one,” a boy said.
Art turned. The boy was standing there at the end of Art’s aisle, dressed up in a shirt with black and white stripes and holding a brown paper bag with a dollar sign drawn on. Art left the gun on the ground and put his hands up.
“You look like a smiley face,” the boy said. “From Mom’s phone.”
An arm, the mother’s, pulled the boy away from the rack.
Art took off the oversized glasses. He pulled up his balaclava. “Amber,” he called. “Amber? It’s me, Art.”
Art cautiously peaked above the rack he was hiding behind. The store was empty. People weren’t even walking past anymore. He could see one or two people standing almost off to the side, you know, so they could still see around the edge of the storefront, like the walls were a curtain and they were actors in an amateur production. “Here they come,” Art heard someone say.
Mall cops. He knew immediately.
He left the gun and the balaclava on the floor and ran through the “EMPLOYEES ONLY” door at the back of the store. There were more racks of boxes, a desk with an empty cash tray, a safe, a door with a tiny window admitting a glimpse of a too brightly fluorescent lit hallway.
The hallway was empty. Art knew that the exit was to his right, so he turned and ran towards the metal door at that end. When Art opened the door, the humid dusk rushed in and sucked him outside. As the door was closing, he thought he heard someone shout, “Hey!”
Outside, Art heard sirens and knew they were coming for him. He walked quickly, but was trying not to draw attention to himself. He looked both ways and crossed the road to the parking lot. The cars’ auras were warmer than the summer evening. He heard a couple arguing as they put their children and their shopping into their car. An engine burst to life. A screaming squad car drove into the parking lot towards the mall. Art didn’t even turn to see the car stop and the officers get out.
As each step took him further from the scene, Art felt lighter and lighter. Too light.
Darren wouldn’t answer Art’s texts. Maybe he’d been caught, maybe he was telling the mall cops and the real cops everything in some interrogation room through some door in that too bright hallway. Maybe Darren was sitting on his bench trying to catch his own reflection.
Amber wouldn’t answer Art’s texts either. He figured that she was probably describing Darren’s shitty clothes to someone, cop or mall cop, who was standing or sitting and nodding and making notes on a tiny pad. She hadn’t seen Art. At least Art didn’t think so. Would they ask the kid questions? What could he tell them? What Art was wearing. And that Art looked like an emoji with shades?
Cameras. They must have cameras in the toy store. Would the cashiers they bought the balaclavas from remember them? Would forensics experts take prints from the guns? Would they, they, know what Art’s prints looked like?
There were no police outside his house.
Art took his clothes off in the garage. He threw them in the garbage. He walked to the house in his boxer shorts. “Welcome home Art,” his mom called. “Art?”
“Everything okay, Sweetie?”
As Art went upstairs, the lightness seemed to lift him. He had to hold onto the banister so he didn’t just keep going up up up and float away.
Toronto, ON, August-September 2015
Emoji sequence: Cecilia Evoy, the former West End Alternative Student who has had a greater impact on my teaching than any student I have had to this point in my career
Story: me, Lee Sheppard