Tara at the Mall
Tara is hiding in a stall in the public bathroom of the mall. The final closing announcement had pealed from the speakers fifteen minutes earlier and the doors to the outside were locked, but it would be at least another forty-five before all the salespeople and cooks and managers left. Then the security guards would make their rounds. The grates would be pulled down and padlocked on some of the stores, although she couldn’t figure out why. She’s the only stowaway she knows of here, and there’s no chance she’s going to break into a store. But if the food areas weren’t closed up so tight she’d probably be stealing whatever she could get her hands on. Wouldn’t that be cool, she thought, to have tons of food, endless amounts of food, enough food to never be hungry?
There was a time, before her father died, before her mother got hooked on painkillers and then smack, before they lost the car and the house and all their things, before everyone they knew started pretending they didn’t know them or hadn’t seen them or didn’t recognize them, before the nightly line-up for a bed at the shelter – when she had a real kitchen, with a refrigerator and cupboards full of food. But that was so long ago now she wasn’t sure it really happened.
Gates clanged down, and she sighed with relief. Less possibility of someone finding her. The cleaners would come through soon, but they’d already done this bathroom right before closing. She knew because she watched and waited until the cleaning lady wheeled the pail out into the hall. The woman turned her back to lean the mop against the wall when someone called her into the mens room, and that brief absence made it possible for Tara to slip in without being seen.
Hopefully none of the cleaners would have to pee. That happened once at another mall and she’d been caught and the police came because of her age and she’d been sent to another foster home. She liked it better here, in this mall, in this bathroom. It was quiet. No noise. No one to bother her, chatter at her, pull at her or touch her in ways she didn’t like and wasn’t sure how to talk about – if there was anyone who’d ever listen.
Her wariness subsided a bit as more lights went out. She liked that. So dark. Well as dark as it could get when some lights were always left on – it was a Mall.
Tara climbed atop a toilet in the small end stall where she could rest her head against one side wall, and dozed, snapping awake at the sound of footsteps. She had stolen a phone. It wouldn’t last long since she didn’t have the charger, but at least until the battery went dead she could tell the time. She pulled it out of her pocket and checked. One in the morning.
A toilet flushed close by. Men’s Room. Footsteps again, getting fainter and fainter. Must have been a guard needing to take a piss.
When she couldn’t hear the footsteps any more she climbed down from the top of the toilet, opened the door to the stall, and walked to the sink to wash her hair. She’d gotten a free haircut at the shelter, where they cropped it real short because there’d been an outbreak of lice. She preferred her hair short because it made washing it quick and easy. It was still tough going with such a shallow sink, but at least the hand soap didn’t smell too bad and there were lots of paper towels for drying. The thing that blew hot air over people’s hands worked better than paper towels, but she’d surely be caught if she did that.
She really liked the Mall’s bathrooms. They were private and clean so she didn’t have to worry about bugs. When she finished with her hair, she slipped out of her jeans and underpants, and washed and dried all the places she could reach. A towel would have been nice, but she always had to make do with whatever was available and the paper towels weren’t the worst she’d ever used. She didn’t wash her feet in sinks anymore, not since the last time she’d tried. She didn’t want to slip and risk banging her head on the floor again. Tara climbed back into her underpants and jeans and pulled off her sweater and undershirt. She washed her chest and neck and under her arms as best she could, used a ton of paper towels.
The noise of the water running or the crinkling of paper towels must have blocked out the sound of footsteps, because she wasn’t at all prepared when the door opened. She hadn’t even put her sweater back on yet. Her eyes widened in surprise and met the same expression on the face of the female security guard. They stood, staring at each other, neither one of them moving.
The guard’s face softened. “Don’t be worried,” she looked at Tara quizzically. “How old are you honey?”
“Ten,” Tara tugged her sweater back over her head. “Please don’t call the cops. They’ll make me go to another foster home and I’ll just have to run away again.”
The guard nodded. “Well then, what should we do?”
“Maybe you could forget you saw me.”
“And where would you sleep tonight?”
“On the floor like I planned.” Tara suspected, even as she asked, that wasn’t about to happen.
“I don’t think I can do that,” the guard said. “How about we find a place to sit and see what we can figure out. There’s a machine that makes tea and coffee and,” she paused, “I think hot chocolate too. You like chocolate?”
Tara nodded. Chocolate was her favorite food. She could feel the first smile of the day coming on.
“Well then, let’s start with this,” the guard’s hand disappeared into her pocket and reappeared with a candy bar.
Tara eagerly reached for it. She tore off the wrapper and chowed down before the guard could change her mind. Tara looked at the woman’s kind face and thought that maybe getting busted by this particular guard wouldn’t be the worst thing that could’ve happened.
Author Bio: Jane Sloven is a writer, retired psychotherapist, and former attorney. Publications include a memoir, Chocolate, (RiverPoetsJournal, Special Anthology - 2013, Tales From the Matriarchal Zone), a chapter in Women and Addiction (Haworth Press) and two articles on Lyme Disease (NASW Journal, Maine). She has completed a mystery, writes poetry, short stories, and flash fiction. Jane lives with her husband, Joe, and pooch, Benji in Portland, Maine.