Bad Survivalist: “What Makes You Feral,” a short story by Julie Wernersbach

What Makes You Feral

PIPE BURST. COME EARLY.

She rushed. What did she expect? A pipe shattering in mid-air, hard water bursting from the metal and plastic ceiling in frozen shards, an icy scream hovering above the Junior Prom dresses.

But when the woman got to work, the emergency was only water on the floor, all the way to Petites. A belly in the ceiling where more water had collected. She couldn’t even see the pipe. Sales associates and dock hands and her fellow housekeepers worked to move merchandise and mannequins out of the way, all of the faceless, hairless, smooth white skulls clustered like nervous adolescents by the fitting rooms, gossiping in their glitter and sequins about what they saw when that pipe exploded.

The woman pushed water over the slick faux-marble floor, coaxing it towards a larger puddle not far from the escalators, where one of the dock hands sucked it up with a deafening Shop Vac. Her own daughter had borrowed her Junior Prom dress from a friend. Pink and too tight. Slutty, the woman hadn’t said out loud. Or tried not to. There were tears that night anyway. The daughter’s hair came out wrong. They saved and bought the girl a new dress for Senior Prom, at least. One of their last joint purchases. Her daughter’s father only waiting for college before hiring a divorce lawyer. The department store job had been the woman’s way of paying for her whole new life: rent checks to write, groceries to buy alone, her daughter off at school and then in apartments whose addresses the woman struggled to track. Wherever the girl was, she was not in front of the woman to envy and argue with. And then all grown up, her own husband, kids, a house bigger than any place the woman had ever lived. The department store kept the woman on with quarter raises each year, cookies and donuts and eggnog in the break room at the holidays.

The floor was dry by the time the woman clocked out, the mannequins still huddled. She drove home on roads slick with ice and ate toast and milk for dinner. She watched videos of a band she’d loved in the 70s, and of an old coworker’s granddaughter smashing birthday cake in her highchair, and then the latest weather report. Texas had frozen and would stay frozen for several days. It snowed more than half a foot, and then a few inches more. A record. The pipe at the department store burst because pipes in Texas did not know what to do with winter weather. Neither did its people. Her landlord had been surprised when she’d called and asked if he was going to shovel the front steps.

It seemed terrible, inevitable, inescapable to the woman, all of this disaster. A bad harbinger her daughter didn’t want to hear about when the woman called asking after the big house’s pipes. But then, a few days later, it warmed up. The pipe was repaired. Prom dresses were replaced with Back to School outfits. The woman went to work and came home again for weeks, months, a full year, until the contagion that came before the freeze still wouldn’t go away and people were still afraid to shop, and the department store declared bankruptcy and had a going-out-of-business sale. Double-masked scavengers picked over discounted fixtures that did not make sense anywhere outside of a department store, pantyhose racks and makeup shelves, enormous cubes of treated pressed wood that once displayed folded shirts, denim jeans, high heeled shoes. The mannequins were sold off one by one.

The glass doors the woman had Windexed three times a day for eighteen years were locked. The department store had been an anchor at the mall. Other stores shuttered. A holiday cycled through and the company that owned the mall did not hang any decorations.

The mall closed. The property group declared bankruptcy. There were legal filings and then the building and land belonged to the city. The city had its hands full of boarded up retail buildings and restaurants and bars. There was little hope that anyone might ever again spend an idle afternoon in an enclosed space touching fabrics and objects others had touched, breathing in the same air that a stranger breathed out, handling a communal paper currency that astonished young people, who could not fathom passing so many unsanitary items of anonymous origins among a global population.

The mall sat empty, settling into its years. Though it was not entirely empty, not for long.

Native plants, their ancestors long buried by asphalt and concrete, found hairline cracks and burst through the tile, one millimeter at a time. They wound their tendrils up the escalator arms. The skylight ceilings and airy corridors turned the building into a greenhouse. Mushrooms grew in the fountain where, on her lunch breaks, the woman who was once a department store housekeeper used to toss pennies into the shallow bottom, saying a wish for her daughter and feeling a hot wash of shame for the quarters she fished out when she believed no one was looking, and even when she knew that they were.

Small creatures ventured inside, mice and chipmunks. A multitude of insects. Stray cats. Raccoons. Rabbits. Snakes. Birds. Deer. Stray dogs. The animals fought for territory. They ate each other for sustenance. The birds shit everywhere. The mall amassed a smell that knocked the woman’s socks off when she returned, nine years after the pipe burst, to see if she might find some refuge.

Texas had frozen again. The state’s energy conglomerate notified the city that power would be shut off to all but hospitals and a few key downtown condos until the April thaw. It wasn’t even Halloween yet.

The woman was older now, in her mid-seventies, and she was sick of the cold. After the department store, she had worked part-time in the frigid warehouse of a company that had a single website, until they didn’t even have that anymore. She was laid off again. Her small apartment was not insulated and even if it had been, the landlord evicted her. The eviction notice had been a single sheet of paper. The woman spilled coffee on it and the paper drifted away. For months, no one bothered her, until she was in the bathtub one afternoon soaping the inside of her thigh and heard a key turn in the lock and knew it was over.

She would miss that bathtub dearly, the woman thought as she gagged on the dank, fetid funk of piles and piles of animal excrement. She forced several deep breaths, trying to merge with the smell, standing there at the east entrance where a creature had knocked through the bottom half of the glass door. She crawled through, tossing in her backpack first and dragging her rolling suitcase behind her. Two hundred dollars in her pocket from her son-in-law, whatever good that would do. 

The woman stood in front of Annie’s Pretzels, its sign intact, its display case full of mouse droppings, the map of the mall precise in her head, and thought about where people might hide. Her breathing settled and her ears picked up the cacophony of bird song, the humming chatter not unlike the buzz of artificial light and pop music and cash drawers that belonged to the old department store. She had loved that noise, that life. The woman gripped the handle of her suitcase, adjusted the pack on her back, and approached the main corridor.

Human trash was everywhere. Beer cans and soda cans, fast food containers and empty chip bags, all of it dressed in the sunlight that streamed down as though nothing had changed at all, the sun sparkling on the metal edges of doorways that gleamed in their obsolescence. Sparrows and blue jays darted above her head. A flock of grackles perched along the mezzanine railing.

The woman kept going, alert and overheated in her winter coat. It had been a long walk across the city, some of it alongside a highway. Thick ferns spilled out of original planters down the center of the corridor. Vines crawled across the floor and up the wall from Foot Locker to Gap, tangling in the wheels of her suitcase so that she had to carry it. Where the light shone, it was most green, and there was an abundance of light and an abundance of life. Skinny, thin-leaf trees drew their trunks up through broken tile. A Pecan tree rose near the elevator, already old enough to bear fruit. Leaves stretched up into the light beside the elevator and the woman realized she was staring at the escalator, all rust and ivy in the bright, wide skirt of sun descending from a domed skylight. Shrubs crowded at its base as though waiting to step on—but no, nothing here was waiting for anything. In the great stillness, the woman felt the extraordinary mediocrity of time, how it passed through her, how she was the least of its worries. No one in the world knew where she was.

When the eviction notice came, she still had the stack of black polo shirts the department store issued employees, the company name stitched in white over the heart. The woman felt no particular affinity for her employer, but putting the shirts on the Goodwill pile had seemed like bad luck, as though she was handing in some final resignation to god. The shirts had made her think of the mall in the first place, knowing, because her daughter had driven them by it not even three weeks prior, that the building was still here. The woman had spent more hours of her life inside this mall than she had hours with her own daughter. She knew it much better, too.

The department store was at the other end, past the Orange Julius and Things Remembered. She picked up her feet to find it and was yanked back, hard. The woman spun around, her heart wild in her eyes, facing nothing but ghostly light and growing things. She was only ready for danger insofar as she knew it was possible. She had a hammer in her suitcase she considered a weapon. The weight pulled her again and she flung her backpack to the ground. A large squirrel scampered out snapping its bushy tail. She had granola bars in her pack, and fresh apples. Had it known? Could it tell she had cans in the suitcase, too, packed in with her blankets and hand crank radio? Tuna and vegetables and the sort of ravioli her daughter had loved as a child and reviled now.

The woman charged, screaming and stomping. The squirrel fled for the Pecan tree, which she now saw was rustling with life. The woman snatched the heavy pack from the floor, her daughter’s purple nylon junior high bag, and licked saliva from the corners of her mouth. Smoothed a hand along her hair. The woman had called her daughter twice on her way here with the final charge of her cell phone, but the girl did not answer. When she called a third time, the husband picked up. Enough is enough.

“Heartbreak makes you feral,” the woman said, adding her voice to the birds, making herself known. Choking on the smell again. 

*

The best thing to do, she had told her daughter when she left her for college and did not shed one single tear even though the woman knew the girl was afraid, was to develop a routine.

Bathroom

Exercise

Food

The bucket of snow was heavy. The handle dug into her palm. “We got lucky today,” she told the dirty white cat beside her. “Bird’s not home.” The cat appeared one afternoon when she was on her way back from the bathroom. It had followed her, unafraid. She shared a can of tuna fish with it and it remained with her, defending against the blue jays that lived in the Body Shop sign and sometimes bringing the woman a dead squirrel she would split open with a knife and let the cat eat. The woman had not yet tried to start a fire. It had been two months.

She had settled in the office of the Yankee Candle Store, swinging her suitcase against the front window until it shattered. She had shattered many windows that first week looking for an office door that was unlocked, so many dutiful hourly-wage managers securing things one last time for no one. The woman cried when the knob of Yankee Candle’s steel office door turned in her hand, the tiny room pristine and smelling, blessedly, of vanilla sugar. Whoever the candle shop manager had been that final day, the woman sent them blessings, little golden orbs of light she imagined kissing their cheeks. The candle store manager, in her imagination, looked like her daughter.

In the office the woman had found a small key in a drawer that opened a utility closet full of forgotten cleaning supplies, matches, candles in shattered jars, and perfectly fine candles with the labels torn off or misprinted. There was a bucket she used for snow, tucking through the same hole she’d first crawled through and harvesting the never-ending white mounding against the sides of the building.

At the restroom corridor the woman pulled a flashlight from the deep pocket of her winter coat. It was an old model, a relic from Girl Scouts camping trips. They had paid for those sorts of things, clubs and their requirements. The woman wrote her daughter every day while she was at camp, the letters returning home at the end of summer in a duffel bag full of dirty clothes, unopened.

The bathroom was pitch black. She hardly needed the light anymore, her steps to the first stall memorized, and slipped the flashlight in her pocket so she could lift the heavy bucket and dump snow into each toilet tank, one at a time, four stalls total. The drainpipes seemed to work, though where any of the waste collected was likely not an unlimited reservoir. It could be seeping out of a broken pipe into distant walls. But she was one creature, it was one winter. She flushed only when absolutely necessary.

When she was done, the woman flicked on the flashlight and dumped the last bit of snow into one of the sinks. The cat leapt up on the counter, squinting in the wavering beam as the woman fastened the flashlight through a duct tape loop she’d fixed to the soap dispenser so that she might see her own hands as they scooped snow into her mouth. She swished it around, her teeth aching at the cold, and spat into an empty sink, removed her toothbrush and a rolled up tube of toothpaste from another coat pocket.

“We have a treat today,” she told the cat, savoring her minty mouth, the flavor familiar to her old bathroom, her old life. “We’re going to the sa-lon.” The woman removed a comb and scissors from an inside pocket. Her hair was past her shoulder blades, as long as her daughter’s had been in second grade when the girl insisted on a perm. Eight years old. Stick arms, stick legs. A pudgy tummy. Still a baby, playing with Barbie dolls and My Little Pony. When had it stopped? Had the woman said it could stop?

The chemicals the hairdresser used to treat her daughter’s hair had made them both gag. “You know it won’t last,” the woman told her, grinding her fingernails into the girl’s scalp to scrub in the special shampoo that had cost as much as the treatment. “Every day the curl’s going to come out a little bit more and a little bit more until it’s limp again. I don’t have the money to keep taking you to the salon.”

“The sa-lon.” The woman dropped her gray ponytail in the sink and snipped the bottom of her hair until it was up to her ears, the flashlight’s beam not positioned quite right for her to see what she was doing. She shook her head, felt the shortened hairs brush the tops of her ears. When the snow melted, she would try again. In the Spring, before it got too hot. She would walk back to the house. While her son-in-law was at work. When the snow melted.

Her daughter’s second grade picture had been ruined. It had been the beginning of the end. Her daughter rebellious after that. Detention. Suspension. Long-faced principals wanting to know what she was going to do about the girl’s behavior.

Exercise.

The cat followed her out of the dark restroom and into the light of the mall, dimmed now by the snow that had accumulated on the glass ceiling. With every storm, the sliver of overhead light grew smaller. Eventually, there would be only darkness. It had been October when she arrived. It was late December now. On the radio they predicted another storm, and another after that. It was the coldest winter yet. Twenty feet of snow had fallen since Thanksgiving. None of it had melted.

The woman kept to a tight exercise loop, past the fountain, where she set the bucket down, and all the way to the Orange Julius and back around. Only the first floor. The second floor was where the hollering came from. The woman was not going up there.

At the brink of the Orange Julius, the skylight stopped. The mall went dark. Down by the department store it was pitch black. Her phone was long dead, the battery drained in her first two days leaving messages for her daughter. Her daughter finally replying, once, with a text: I’m sorry. I can’t. Bright in the woman’s mind was the payphone in the employee break room, how it used to cost a quarter to talk to her daughter, or to her ex-husband, those few instances she had had to call him to settle something or other about the college, or the lawyer, the business of divorce taking up so much time during a workday. It was where she had spoken to her daughter the day her first grandchild was born. “He’s perfect,” the woman said before she even saw him. “Your baby is absolutely perfect.” A difficult birth. A long recovery. The daughter soft, finally. Needing her mother, finally. Napping on the couch with her feet in the woman’s lap, the tiny boy warm in the woman’s arms. “We have everything we need right here,” she whispered to her grandson. “She’ll do a better job than I did. And maybe you’ll be better than she was.” The woman cooked meals for the family, casseroles and meatloaf and pot pies, hearty foods that came out through her daughter’s breasts into the baby’s mouth so that they were a continuum, the three of them. And then it was over. We just need some time to bond on our own, as a family. The woman back in her apartment, alone. Calling every day. Begging—asking to visit. This was when the woman still had a job. When she could provide.

The woman looped back around to the fountain. The tall spout was covered in green and black blotches that looked like something from an art museum, some piece of ancient pottery on a pedestal she might gaze upon and wonder if the lives on Earth a thousand years ago were remarkably different from her own, if the person who made the piece was a woman, if the woman had been hungry, what she did when she had her period. But this was not art, it was mold. Beautiful, intricate, living mold.

Food.

Brown and white mushroom caps filled the basin with so much soft life, the woman could hardly stand to look at it. Their smooth curves, the way they bunched themselves together, like little families. Her eyes watered. They were perfect. She bent to finger a cap, to feel its tender gills. She had been afraid to eat them at first, but with her rations dwindled to a few chalky granola bars and cans of green beans, she had little choice. She had underestimated what she would need.

The cat froze on the bench where it cleaned itself, eyeing shadows moving on the second floor mezzanine. Was that a human? A dog? The cat went to the second floor sometimes, trotting up the stalled escalator instead of coming into the room with her. The periodic sounds she heard sounded human—grunts and guffaws, shouts and screeches. The howling.

The smell of fire drifted into her nose, as it did some mornings. Up there on the second floor, they would know how to cook a squirrel. But she could only imagine bogeyman around the campfire, dangerous, dirty, gruff men who would use her body against her, who would be drawn to her own fire if she started one.

The woman pulled mushrooms by the bottoms of their stems and dropped them in her bucket. The elementary school sent her daughter home with handouts from safety assemblies that used to terrify the woman. Bullet point instructions about what to do if an unknown car started to follow her or if she had to walk alone at night. When the girl was older, in sixth grade, there were other handouts, about how the girl could still jump and swim, so long as she was protected. How the body lost more than blood each month. The soft lining of a future life unfulfilled. That’s how the woman thought of it every month of her own life, anyway, from fifth grade, when no one gave her any handouts about her body, until the blood stopped coming decades later.

As soon as the snow melted, she would try again.

The sounds above grew louder, a great cackle and belch. Her fingers pulled faster, clumsy, snapping caps and leaving stems, breaking the caps into pieces. The back of her neck was cold. Her daughter had been a great terror in school, a hollering bully. The woman was constantly called in to talk to a teacher or the principal, the woman alone in those meetings, the girl’s father at work. The girl was a taunter. A name-caller. A hair-puller. A biter. The teachers asked the same question, in gentle voices that pointed a sharp finger, their brows knit in phony concern: Are things okay at home? The girl wasn’t pulling any hair or biting anyone at home, the woman once snapped, and the doe-eyed twenty-three-year-old teacher had drawn back as though the woman had slapped the cheap blush right off her cheeks.

A whooping up above. Clearly human. More than one human. A bird flew from the railing and landed at her feet. Not a bird. A baseball. Dirty brown.

“Give it back!”

Her granddaughter. She had one. And a grandson. She had been allowed to see them, for a while. What had the child wanted back? What had the woman, her grandmother, refused to return?

So much had happened. The pipe burst and it was nothing—a mess to clean up. She had cleaned it up. Why did no one ever give her credit for that? The girl made it to college. She graduated. She didn’t drop out. She wasn’t arrested. She didn’t die of an overdose. The woman kept her safe. Fed. Warm. Sent her care packages, when she had the girl’s goddamn address.

Once, in junior high school, the girl said she’d left a blood stain on a classroom chair. The woman had been horrified. The girl wept. “Did anyone see?” the woman asked, humiliated to think of the janitor who would clean it. “You have to change them more often. They start to smell, you know.” The girl demanded tampons because nothing was ever good enough. The woman bought her tampons.

The granddaughter had wanted her cookie back. That was it. But the woman had eaten it. She saw it on the plate and she wanted it. It hadn’t looked like a cookie that belonged to anyone. But it was the last straw.

Give it back!

The woman ran from the baseball, the bucket banging her leg, the cat running ahead of her, leaping into the air to swipe at the blue jay as it descended. The cat did not stay to fight. It overtook the woman and was in the office first. She slammed the door shut and turned the lock. The cat paced while the woman wrapped herself in the sleeping bag, covering her cold head, and huddled in the nest of quilts. The cat curled up beside her and she spent an unmarked amount of time stroking its back in the dark and snacking on raw mushrooms, imagining in the black around her every home her daughter had ever known.

*

Her bladder woke her. She sat up and patted the floor for the flashlight. The cat stretched, kneaded the blankets, resettled. Her empty stomach clenched. Food. Bathroom. Exercise. The woman pulled a half-eaten can of green beans from beneath the desk, lifted the candle topper she used as a lid. It made the waxy beans taste like a chemical peach. She ate them with her hands and stuffed a few mushrooms in her cheeks to wash it down, one horrendous flavor on top of another. Her last can of food. The thaw predicted to come later now. May, the radio said. Was it still February?

Out in the corridor, the mall was dim. When the thaw came she would find her place in one of the tent camps under the interstate or in the parks or on that old hike-and-bike trail where they used to take her daughter on Sundays when they didn’t want to spend any money. There were people who brought food to those camps. Waiting lists for showers at the overrun homeless shelter. She had looked into it once, when the eviction paper was new. She would not ask her daughter for anything. She would take care of herself. She would not need anything from her daughter but to listen when the woman told the girl she loved her.

A hunger headache pounded her temples in the dark bathroom where she hoisted herself up to piss in a sink. The toilets were backed up. She had the ten digits of her daughter’s number written on a piece of paper she kept in her wallet in the front pocket of the coat she never took off. She had thought to do that. This calmed her, moderately, as she walked down the restroom corridor, queasy from the green beans and mushrooms, and found the cat cleaning its paws in front of The Body Shop, a blue jay dead on its side on the floor.

“What about its mate? Those jays always come in twos.”

The cat glared at her.

“We better get out of here before that other one comes around.” The woman bent to pet the cat, but it backed up out of her reach. She moved to lift the dead bird by the wing and the cat growled. It pounced and snatched the blue jay in its teeth, took a few steps back, and stopped and looked at her.

“I’m going the other way.” The cat took another few steps, its paws a perfect, gentle movement. A cat a perfect creature, the woman thought. “No.” The cat trotted off, the bird in its mouth, and stopped again in front of the candle shop.

The roiling in her stomach was worse. The cat was right. They ought to eat. But as she neared the shop, the cat kept going, its hips swinging all the way to the escalator. It stopped once more at the base of the Pecan tree, set the dead jay down and quickly cleaned itself, sharp jabs of the tongue on its own stomach and legs. That feline flexibility, its agility—the woman loved this cat and it broke her heart, to ever love another living thing. It was too much. The cat sat up again and blinked at her. The woman shook her head, backed up. After a moment, the cat picked up the bird and trotted up the escalator, out of sight.

They thought she was some kind of animal. Some volatile, uncontrollable witch who couldn’t take care of herself. The woman had been raised so differently. Her own mother—well she was dead now anyway.

In her room, in her blankets, the woman turned the hand crank on the radio and listened to the news, rocking back and forth to answer the swell in her stomach. The city was a ghost town, the voice said. People had fled for Florida and Louisiana, where it was still warm enough some days to melt the snow. Others were captured at the border to Mexico, the dream of South America’s rain on the other side of Panama beckoning them. People were dying in snowy deserts trying to cross illegally.

What if her daughter wasn’t in Austin anymore? The woman panicked. She took several swallows of melted snow and it eased her stomach. She rose from the blankets, her odor coming to her for just a moment, metallic, nothing like her daughter’s scent, and dug the hammer from her suitcase. It was heavy in her hand. Solid. It felt like an extension of her arm. She had to call her. She had to know. When her daughter left for college, that was the end of ever knowing where she was.

Why hadn’t the woman shown up at her daughter’s door and avoided all of this?

Oh—but she had. The woman stood on the doorstep with her backpack and suitcase and rang the bell. Her granddaughter answered. A shy girl. Dark haired. Eight? Nine? Ten? Taking after the father’s side of the family. The woman saw nothing of herself in the granddaughter and it was as though her daughter had engineered it.

The daughter had shooed the little girl away. She looked tired and pregnant, even though she was not. Her t-shirt was tight around the middle. Her gray-black hair sagged in a heavy bun. The woman had smiled, flat-lipped, and the daughter’s shoulders dropped. Fine.

A cold welcome, but the woman had been flooded with a relief she called love. She was quiet and gracious during dinner, even though it was not nutritious: macaroni and cheese, hot dogs. But then, days later, after she had cleaned the daughter’s whole house and done the dishes without the dishwasher, after her daughter held up a plate and they argued about whether or not the dishes were actually clean, after the woman put her head in her hands and cried because she could never do anything right and that’s why the girl’s father left, after the daughter reminded her that the woman had hated the father—for years before he left, the woman hated him—and it was time to move on, after the woman called her daughter an ungrateful daddy’s girl, after the daughter leaned against the kitchen counter and shook with tears and said You need me too much, after the woman had relented, dropping back into her body the way it happened when it happened like this, crashing into her maternal instincts—she did have them!—as she approached her daughter from behind, put her hands on the girl’s back, after the woman said she was sorry, that she loved her daughter more than anything on this earth and it was true it was entirely true, and after the daughter also relented and turned to the woman, wiping her eyes and cheeks with the heel of her hand the way she did when she was four years old, after the daughter hugged her, after they held on tight like that with the grandchildren watching, her daughter smelling of dried sweat and chicken nuggets—after all of that, two days later, the woman ate the granddaughter’s cookie. And the child, crying, told her mother. And the woman told her granddaughter to shape up, the world would never want her this way, a big selfish baby who ate too much, and the child cried because her daughter was raising them too soft—that’s when the daughter’s husband—the fucking husband—shoved two hundred dollars at the woman and told her to get out.

As if money meant anything.

The corridor was still dim, but softer now that she’d rested, beautiful in the diffused light. Her grandchildren would like this, a magical jungle land. She would tell them there were fairies everywhere and great big trolls who lived up on the second floor. The queasiness in her gave way to a looseness, an ease in her body that came sometimes with the mushrooms. All of that potassium.

As she walked, the mall came alive. The mannequins were back in the Victoria’s Secret window, little whores in their lacy lingerie. The stink of overpriced lotion and fountain-of-youth salt scrubs wafted from The Body Shop while a song with heavy bass pounded out of Foot Locker. The woman weaved around shoppers walking so slow it was as if they were standing still. The sleek floor sparkled, freshly waxed. The Gap looked like a commercial for itself, all khaki and denim perfection.

The skylights ended just before the mouth of the department store, so that the corridor’s grand terminus was in shadow. The mall was dead inside again. Graffiti scrawled across the steel door, big bubble letters in pink and green and orange and purple. A rocket ship. Blast Off! A lock halfway down held the rolling door shut, anchored to the wall. The whole mall as it once was floated inside of her, a ball in her belly, a universe, a baby. She held the lock in her hand, heavy and cold and stiff, and let it drop.

The woman brought the hammer up over her head and down hard, its head skidding the lock.

“Excuse me?” She thought the lock was talking to her, moving its little keyhole mouth. “Excuse me?”

The person speaking was younger than her daughter. Female. The woman could smell her, standing all those feet away in stained jeans, sneakers with holes, greasy hair in a ponytail. A Mickey Mouse sweatshirt with the collar cut off. The kind of outfit her daughter came home in once from Girl Scouts camp, the neck of the shirt exposing one shoulder like a mannequin whore. “Lady, what the hell are you doing?”

The cat sauntered up looking satisfied, blinking slow, twining its body between this stranger’s legs.

“I work here.”

“Dude.” The stranger laughed. Her cheeks were gaunt. She was missing teeth. Mickey on her shirt laughed with her and the music piped in again, the instrumental soft jazz that pulled the mall inside of shoppers. “My boyfriend can pick locks, though.”

The jazz was birds, too many birds, squawking and screeching, trilling and calling.

“You the one in Yankee Peddler?” The stranger sprouted wings and a beak and her daughter’s face.

These are unprecedented times, everyone said in the weeks and months and years leading up to the day she arrived at her daughter’s house. What do you mean you didn’t see the eviction notice? What do you mean you ate her cookie? How could you just stop paying rent? Why didn’t you ever explain anything to me growing up? How was I supposed to know how to be in this world?

How could the woman have possibly prepared anyone for this world?

“It’ll be even colder in there,” the stranger-daughter said. “Smaller spaces are better.”

“I tried,” the woman said, and it sounded like a squawk. She was afraid.

“We’ve been waiting for you, you know. Figured you’d come up eventually.”

The hammer hung at her side. The feathers on the stranger-daughter’s back twitched. She had looked like an angel, curled up on the woman’s chest, and smelled of wax. The girl cried her entire first year of life. The woman felt sick again, really sick this time. She walked away. The stranger followed alongside her. She meant to get back to the department store, to walk under the burst pipe and understand the problem. To find the payphone. To clean up. To call home.

“Want to get your stuff and come up?” The stranger walked into the storefront, her beak broken, her face unrecognizable. The woman dropped the hammer and ran into her room and slammed the door. The cat was already there. How did everything get ahead of her?

It wasn’t fair, the woman thought, for all of these therapists her daughter had in her twenties and thirties and forties to only ever hear one side of her daughter’s whole entire life with her mother. What had she done, specifically, that was so bad? What was so unforgivable?

“I was a good mother,” she whispered to the cat, drowsy and nauseous. “I did my best.”

Knocks landed on the door. The woman flinched. “Hey, man, can you just let my cat out?”

*

Soon the snow covered the entire length of the skylight and the whole mall was dark. The cat had sharp eyesight in the dim shadows and was a better hunter for the dark’s cover. It was a stroke of fine fortune that the woman had tried to make it to the bathroom, that the civility in her thought she should deposit her vomit in one of the toilets. If not, the cat would have been trapped with her behind a locked door. It would have eaten her, and when it was finished, it would have died itself.

Instead, the cat was alive. It missed their routine, until a new routine emerged and dissolved what had come before. The cat pounced a chipmunk, small kill, and trotted up the escalator with it, its paws darting between the curls of so many vines, the lifeless creature dripping a trail of blood.

The people upstairs never put their fire out. They skinned whatever the cat brought them, impaled it on a spit, and shared the cooked meat with the cat. The man today gave it the whole chipmunk. He knew the woman was still sprawled downstairs, he could smell it sometimes, but they kept to themselves up in the lobby of the old movie theater next to the food court. Let nature take its course, he told his companions, a young woman and man who used to live under the interstate downtown. They were frightened of the man and did what he said.

When it thawed the snow fell off the roof in great, thundering chunks. Sun sparkled on the trees and ferns, on the vines that were slowly claiming the surface of every abandoned store. The man kept his camp. The young couple drifted away. Others drifted in. It was the only world to live in anymore.

Julie Wernersbach is a writer and bookseller currently living in Jersey City, New Jersey. Her short fiction has appeared in Juked, Bennington ReviewPortland Review, and Arcadia. She is the author of two nonfiction books, Vegan Survival Guide to Austin and The Swimming Holes of Texas. Her nonfiction has been published by Texas Monthly online, Texas HighwaysAustin Monthly, Texas Highways, and Tribeza. She is currently working on a novel and is represented by Aevitas Creative Management. She is the general manager and buyer for P&T Knitwear, an independent bookstore in New York City. Previously, she worked for the Texas Book Festival and BookPeople. 

Image: Seph Lawless, cnn.com

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