"The Girl at the Mall" by E. Sparling



Aubrey was perusing the 5 for $15 underwear display when the text came through. Purple boyshorts with daring black lightning bolts, so punk, like the girls who wore arm warmers, pink briefs with a suggestive row of buttons up the front, and one virginal white lace thong that she would have to wash in the sink to keep her mother from seeing, the way she’d washed the underwear she’d nearly ruined when she first got her period back in freshman year, long after it seemed everyone else had.


Have you seen this?


The text read.


She recognized the photo immediately, because she had taken it herself, in her room, the stuffed pink duck of her childhood moldering in the corner, a mummified relic of her past self. Even over text, with its graininess, it was unmistakably her, pale white skin and dark tangled hair.


Around her a buzzing seemed to set in, the strains of American Boy by Estelle which wasn’t on the radio nearly enough falling into the background as blood rushed into her eardrums.


Where did you get this? Audrey typed, clacking, then slid the pink Motorola Razr shut with a thud, like shutting it hard enough would erase the photo, erase the reality that the picture she’d sent, her body with its 17-year-old newness, clothed only in the very same kind of cheap underwear she was pawing through right now. Like she’d been caught in the act. At the scene of the crime. An underwear pervert, and if Lisa had that picture who knows how many other people had it too?


She swept the phone open with her thumb and paged through her contacts for Sean, even though she’d memorized and forgotten and re-memorized the number last month when they’d broken up.


Huddling in the fitting room, she hunched over her full bags from aerie, from Bebe, from Clinique. This was not the way her night was supposed to go.


Surprisingly, he picked up on the first ring.


“Hello?”


“Sean?”


“Yeah?”


“Who the fuck did you send that photo to?” she hissed, her grip on the phone loosening with flop sweat, the horrors of being known, of being seen, of being perceived by so many when all along she had only intended it for him, her golden boy.


“You told me you deleted it,” Aubrey stammered.


“Need any help in there?” a chipper voice called out and Aubrey flashed her teeth at the clerk who backed away and pulled the curtain closed tighter.


Silence echoed through the receiver.


“Fuck,” he said.


“Who did you send it to?”


“No one. No—just. Greg asked.”


Greg, the shithead son of the local pastor whose youth group passed out promise rings at Valentine’s and tiny fetal models to guilt you away from the Planned Parenthood for your Mirena insertion.


“How did he know it even existed, though, Sean.”


For a second she remembered his eyes on the day when he broke up with her for good, when he said they’d be friends, when he said it was better this way. Back to the way it was when he’d get her a Slurpee and it would mean nothing instead of everything, when they were all part of a big group of friends and before they became a satellite to that. His eyes had burned golden brown when he told her he’d delete the picture. Because they were friends. Because he was a good guy.


Which made her what, exactly?


“I’m sorry, Aubs,” he said, and the nickname burned her again, the ease and familiarity of it.


“I didn’t mean for it to get out.”


If Lisa had sent it to her, maybe creepy Greg had only sent it to her. Maybe, maybe, maybe.”


“It’s kind of a big freaking deal,” she said “It’s my body!” She strode out of the dressing room with her bags and a fistful of underwear that she paid for in a rush at the counter to the same bewildered salesperson who’d tried to help her. Monday would be school and only then would she know the real impact, how far the photo had traveled. When she’d taken it, her hands mashing her breasts together with the camera overhead, she felt sexier than ever before, some keeper of secret carnal knowledge unlocked on their fourth date together. But on the phone she looked like any other skank on Myspace.


***


When Monday morning came, two weekend days of sweating out who knew what, who saw what, who knew her, two things were immediately apparent.


Most of the school had seen her semi-naked.


And her debit card was missing.


Aubrey wasn’t sure which was more upsetting or disorienting. All she wanted was a Frappucino to face the day and she had one wrinkled dollar bill in her purse. As she walked through the double doors of Eagle Rock High School she saw a flicker in the eyes of Billy Carter, auxiliary friend, and immediately knew.


They’d seen it. So many of them had seen it. From the covered-mouth whispers of the brace-faced sophomores to the head nods from guys who’d never glanced her way before, she pulled down the two carefully-layered ribbed tanks she’d chosen as if she could cover herself in the past, go back, never take the picture.


She had to find Sean, and she had to—who knows. The rage she felt towards him was electric, mixed headily with rage at herself for being that stupid, to think her friend deserved to see her, just because they were “dating”. Like that movie where the girl sets her prom on fire. She stood in gym class picturing Sean’s head bursting into flames, but even if that happened, well. The picture would still exist.


Lisa sidled up to her after AP Bio.


“Are you okay?” she said, anxiously, chewing the ends of her brown hair, a disgusting habit that Aubrey allowed due to loyalty.


“I’m fine,” she lied.


“I’m sure not that many people saw it. And it’s not like you’re totally naked.”


Mr. Britt, the Stat teacher walked by her and for a second a glimmer crossed his vision. Like he’d seen it, too. Aubrey shriveled inside.


“I just need to get through this week. Then APs. Then graduation. And I can fucking escape this town and these people and no one will know me at college.”


“So, so true,” Lisa affirmed.


“Can you come to the mall with me after school? I think I left my debit card there,” Aubrey said. She wasn’t sure why she needed emotional support to run this errand, but she had to believe the card was there or else the finely constructed shell of a life she’d put together would crumble, somehow.


She was called into the vice principal’s office by the end of the day.


“It seems there’s a photo of you circulating,” Mrs. Tate, neck a deep crimson red, blurted out.


“That was private.”


“Honey, you shouldn’t be sending things like that. It could be considered child porn.”


“Well what about the person who actually sent it out?”


“We can’t keep track of all that, dear,” she said.


Aubrey felt the rage rising again, fire-in-the-blood, her pulse at her neck pounding as she gripped the armrests of the sad industrial chair.


“Well maybe you should,” Aubrey hissed.


“I hope this is a valuable learning experience for you,” Mrs. Tate said, “One time I saw something on the Internet about how fast an image could spread. It was very powerful!”


Aubrey shook her head and laughed, the sound brittle and hollow, echoing out her pale throat.


“Am I in trouble?”


“We can’t punish students for what they do in their free time. This is more of a woman-to-woman conversation,” Mrs. Tate said.


“Well is anyone going to talk Sean about sending it? A more man-to-man conversation?” she pressed.


Mrs. Tate looked uncomfortable.


“We can’t litigate every dispute between students.”


Aubrey rose from the chair, hair on fire, and walked out of the office.


***


At the mall, the scent of the hot pretzels turned Aubrey’s stomach. She felt like she might never eat again, but there was Lisa chomping away, the paper turned translucent under the power of the butter.


“When did you use it last?” Lisa pressed.


“I was at Charlotte Russe,” Aubrey said, headed in that direction over the smooth, polished floor, her flip flops thwacking as she strode with a purpose to the escalator.


In the store, the same salesperson stood at the register, petite nose stud twinkling under the warm lighting.


“Can I help you?” she asked.


“I think I left my debit card here. Friday?” Aubrey pressed.


“Name?”


“Aubrey Schlesinger,” she said. The clerk punched in a code and the cash drawer opened with a thud. She pulled out a piece and located a small pile of colorful credit cards.


“Right here,” she said, delicate french tips pulling the blue Wachovia bank card from the crop.


Aubrey exhaled, at least one thing in her fucked up life fixed.


“Hey, are you okay?” the clerk asked. “You seemed real upset on Friday.”


“Boy trouble,” Lisa chimed in and Aubrey cut her a glare.


“Sounded more complicated than that.”


At the risk of having another conversation about her tits with a random woman today, Aubrey took the card and headed towards the exit.


“You need to check out the last dressing room,” the clerk called over her shoulder.


“The what?”


“The last dressing room. In the back. But not today. Let me check, hang on.”


The clerk opened a browser window and searched “Full Moon May 2008.”


“Next Tuesday.”


Aubrey scoffed, this weird Mall-witch telling her to come back on a full moon, like she understood.


“It’s a special place,” she said.


“Oh, like a coven meets here?” Aubrey said.


“Just come back. It will help. I can tell you need the help.”


“C’mon, Lisa,” Aubrey said. “Thanks for holding onto my card.” She pulled Lisa by the arm out of the store and past the giant planters she had once been kicked out of the mall for sitting in as a pre-teen.


“What was that about?”


“Who fucking knows. Mall weirdo,” Aubrey said, headed towards the exit and the last few weeks of shouldering a world where so many people had seen her boobs.


***

By the next Tuesday the situation had fluctuated from bad to worse. Sean not speaking to her, random guys from her class she never spoke to trying to touch her in the hallway, girls hissing “Skank” under their breath as she walked by. When she found out Jenn Untley was also going to Providence with her, dashing her hopes of escaping the situation fully she cried in the last stall of the girls locker room, bitter tears that lit down her cheeks and left her telescoping mascara pooled under her eyes.


She caught a flash of Sean leaving out the band hallway where he thought no one would see him.


“Sean!” she yelled out and he turned, a man caught by his executioner.


“What do you want?” he asked, and his response gutted her, a fishhook slid cleanly into her guts and turning them out onto the worn tile of the floor.


“Maybe a fucking apology for ruining my life?” she said, words that turned into sobs. Somehow, on some planet, her parents hadn’t found out yet, but she was sure they would and the final nail would slide neatly into her coffin, sealing her promised senior summer shut.


“Don’t be so dramatic, Aubrey, no one cares about you.”


He turned and headed for his car and the familiar flicker danced in her belly where her guts once lived.


She headed for her car in the other parking lot.


She headed for the mall.


***


The same clerk was there, folding a t-shirt that read “Blonde But Bright” in lacy gold script, so impossibly flimsy the fabric shone through already, pre-washing and wearing.


“You’re back,” she said.


Aubrey nodded her assent, her freckled knees knocking. What was she doing here? Why had she come?


“It’s a little early but it should still work,” the clerk said, leading her to the dressing rooms. A girl from school lingered near the chandelier earrings, her fingers brushing the beads without breaking eye contact with Aubrey.


“Just through here. Press hard,” the clerk said.


Aubrey closed the curtain behind her again. The scuffed beige wall and tilted mirror, cleverly askew and leading the girls to believe they were taller, thinner, better, taunted her. Her raccoon eyes and tangled hair were a disaster. Her life was worse.


Aubrey pressed on the shared wall, then the mirror, leaving sweaty marks. Then she turned and saw the faint grubby outline of other handprints on the back wall and placed hers there. A chill ran down her warmed neck as she stood in one spot. Bleeding Love remixed played loudly as she just stood there, waiting.


And then it came. That same fire, the one that had marked her for the past few weeks, made her wily and raw and red-hot to the touch, to the sight, coursed through her. Like it was coming from the wall but also meeting her somewhere in her belly. Her forearms edging out from her shrug sweater took on a reddish cast as her skin began to transform.


Scales, delicate reds and yellows and oranges, the colors of a firebird, of a fire bonding her, began to form over her arms. She felt an instant of pain as her tongue, the same one she’d kissed Sean’s stupid face with, split at the end into a muscular, forked entity. But that was the only pain she felt. For as she became a monster what she mostly felt was relief. To be divorced of her human body, her human heart.


And also the comfort of knowing that there were other monstrous girls before her.


Somehow she knew she couldn’t bare the mirror, so she remained with her back to it as the transformation proceeded.


The same clerk’s voice rang out, the same chipper “Everything okay in there?”


Aubrey laughed, a pleasingly deep rumble from the rib cage that now contained her terrible monstrous heart. She ran her new tongue over her new teeth, the pointy tips a delightful prick to her senses.


“Take this,” the girl called out, tossing an XL hoodie that read “California Dreamin” across the chest. As Aubrey turned she caught a glimpse of her eyes, the irises a deeply unsettling, wolfish yellow. But there was something else in them that had been gone for weeks.


There was life.


She pulled the hoodie over her new body, delighted with her disappeared breasts, her smoothed out belly. She wished for a devil’s tail but felt that was probably going too far. And where would she go to next?


To Sean’s.


Aubrey slid into her tiny Honda Civic, her new skin flashing out of the sleeves of the oversized hoodie. The sun had set while she was in the mall and she drove to his house by memory, back roads to the little neighborhood with the big houses.


But how to conceal her face, her new self, from him long enough to get close?


The dark would enclose her if she could wait another half hour. She texted him.


I’m sorry for everything. Can we meet up and talk? Alone?


For as surely as the Gregs and Seans of the world closed ranks around one another, the promise of a female body could sometimes break that pact. She promised it once again, like she’d done in his car, like she’d done with the photo. She shed her clothes, her skin for him. And now she was new once more.


The Wendy’s Drive-Thru lit up the night and as she sucked down a large fountain Dr. Pepper, cooling some of the fire the mall dressing room had imbued in her, she pondered her next move.


Sean’s name flashed across the screen of her pink phone. She swallowed and slid it open.


Nah


That same deep, inhuman rumble echoed out of her. He didn’t have time for her. But she had time for him.


She had all the time in the world.


Sean was taking shots on the basketball hoop outside his house when Aubrey pulled the car up and cut the lights. He was alone. Yes, he was totally alone. Even the porchlight was dark as the late spring shadows wrapped her up like one last gift to him. She had already given him so much.


“Sean?” she called out, deliberately throwing her voice into a delicate, more womanly, more human form. She did not know what she was, but she was no longer just a girl.


“Fuck,” he muttered, and shot one last shot, a bad one that banked off and thudded into the soft, wooded area next to the house.


“Can we go for a walk?” Aubrey asked. Isn’t that how it had started? In the woods, among the remainders of parties they weren’t cool enough to be invited to marked by the pine needles, empty beer cans and dead blunts that he’d sweep away for her to lay back. She glanced at her face in the mirror and knew that only her eyes had changed, that the scales on her arms and chest hadn’t reached her cheeks or brow.


Sean rolled his eyes and shrugged. “What’s there to talk about?”


“I wanted to apologize,” she said, careful to avoid s-sounds that would reveal the parting of her tongue, the glorious change. The moon loomed high above them, round and full and maybe just a little bit red. Red like her.


“For what?” he asked.


“Making a big deal of things.”


Isn’t that why they’d broken up? Her emotions? Too sensitive, needs too much, too, too, too. Too everything.


“C’mon,” she said, wishing she could unzip the unwieldy hoodie to show him some skin, except that she was no longer in possession of the same breasts he had once loved so much.


She slunk off into the woods and listened for his footsteps behind her. Sure enough, they came. Her ballet flats slipped among the dead leaves as she pulled the sleeves of the sweatshirt over her scaled hands. In a few steps, he caught up to her.


“Further,” she said, leading him. Her third eyelid slid over her eyes for a second and she was innately aware of every other living, breathing thing in the woods with them. The owls, the bats, the clouds of mayflies she walked serenely through without swatting.


Finally they reached the clearing with the party detritus.


“Is there anything you want to say to me?” she said, still with her back to him. She cursed the moon for revealing her secrets as much as she wanted to thank it for giving her the gifts.


“No, I don’t know why you brought me here,” he said, a whine in his voice. His stupid, whiny voice. That he would take to UCLA next year and get new pictures of beautiful, naked, clueless girls like her. And send them along to new, even worse versions of creepy Greg. He didn’t care. He wouldn’t stop.


Unless she stopped him.


“Are you sure about that?” she asked. She turned slowly, feeling like her curls would turn into Medusa’s snakes, feeling that her brand new acrylic tips would fall from her glorious curved talons, feeling like the fire she’d felt for the past two weeks would leap out of her throat and consume him.


“What the FUCK??” Sean called out. And then she knew for the first time that he was truly seeing her for the woman she had become. The rumble came from within her chest as she reached out and tackled him to the soft, spring-sodden earth. She reared her head back, incisors bared to the moon that made her, and sunk her teeth into his neck. The primal scream that echoed out of him gave her life, gave her power, made her somehow whole again. The taste of blood was honey on her lips, sweet and oozing. He pushed her off him and scrambled to his feet.


In his eyes was almost the same look as the first time he saw her naked, a fear and agony in it.


“Don’t fuck with me, Sean Cartwright,” Aubrey said, smearing the blood across her chapped lips. She fake-pounced and he whimper-screamed, turning on his heel. She pushed the sleeves of the sweatshirt up and saw her skin beginning to return to her pale peach hue, the scales receding under the fine blonde hairs she would shave during swim season.


Maybe it was better this way. To be a girl, vulnerable and talked about and hated and loved and loathed most of the time, with the power to drink blood when it really mattered. She owed that Charlotte Russe clerk a thank you. The blood wouldn’t come out of the hoodie, though. She pulled it against herself, the chill of the evening settling in. She walked out of the woods and back to her car.


She headed to the mall.




A word from the author: Inspired by an adolescence in suburban New Jersey and the feeling that the only true justice in the world can come at the price of sacrificing our humanity for something darker...in a mall dressing room. I am a writer, librarian, and parent located in northern New Jersey.