When my mother asked me to move back home I didn’t wonder, even for a minute, if she was joking. I had just started my second semester at SUNY New Paltz, hadn’t even declared a major yet, though I was leaning toward astronomy. In my introductory course we were already learning about robotics, elliptical galaxies, black holes. As the professor—a youngish woman who wore long skirts and heavy jewelry, a crown of wild hair—lectured about the unknown things in the universe, I felt myself rising out of myself, my fingers grasping at stars, both figurative and literal.
And then my mother, like the force of gravity, pulled me back to earth.
“I’m not doing so good,” she said.
“It’s hard without anyone here to help me,” she said.
“I can’t feel my hands or feet,” she said.
My mother suffered from an autoimmune disease that attacked her own nerves. She received chemotherapy treatments twice a month, an unorthodox strategy for suppressing her immune system, weakening it so it couldn’t do its traitorous work. Through middle school and high school I’d served as her nurse, but now I was nineteen and in college. There was a whole universe out there, waiting to be discovered.
“Grace,” she said, “I’m afraid of dying alone.”
I returned in early February. Left the mountains and drove down 87, skirting New York City and crossing the Hudson River. The land outside my window flattened as I reentered Long Island’s stratosphere. When I told my astronomy professor I was moving back home to take care of my mother, she asked if I was withdrawing from the university or taking a leave of absence.
“Leave of absence,” I lied. She smiled and her hair appeared to undulate.
“Good,” she said. “You’re very talented. I look forward to working with you next semester.”
Instead of exploring the universe I got a job at Compass and Quill, the bookstore in the Bellhaven Mall. The shop was long and narrow with ceiling-high stacks, the looming rows of novels vaguely threatening.
Just before I left for college, I swore off the mall. In high school it had been a sanctuary of sorts, a place that offered everything a person might want. My friends and I often cut school to walk its icy halls, where we’d try on elegant prom dresses at Sweet Sixteen, ripped jeans and punk t-shirts at Last Resort, pencil skirts and silk blouses at Working Woman. Twirling in front of the mirrors, I would imagine different versions of myself, the transformations lying in wait. That same impulse sparked my love for astronomy. I wanted to know how something—the whole universe, a single person—could materialize from nothing.
As high school drew to a close, the mall began to lose its charms. Each time I walked through its doors the building seemed to shrink, as if it were collapsing on itself. The fluorescent lights forced me to squint. The smell of the food court made me nauseous. The air conditioning chilled me to the bone. I tried on outfits in different stores but nothing looked right. I’d been accepted to college, I was beginning to materialize. I didn’t want to waste time in the mall anymore. I wanted to be in a world that was real.
When I moved back to Long Island I returned to the mall, this time to beg for employment; Compass and Quill was the only store that called me back. During my interview Ms. Webster, the woman who would become my boss, asked me about my five-year plan.
“Um,” I said.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Ms. Webster said. “We have a high turnover rate here at Compass and Quill. I’m not sure why—it’s a good job, quiet, clean. But no one, it seems, lasts more than six months.” She stared at me accusingly, as if I were already crafting my resignation letter.
“Well,” I said, “I’m not sure what I’ll be doing in five years, but I can assure you I don’t plan to quit in six months.” I paused, wondered if I should play my most powerful card; it was clear that I should. “My mother is ill,” I said, glancing down at my lap. “I moved back home to take care of her.”
“I’m sorry,” Ms. Webster said. She waited for me to go into more detail. I didn’t. I was only willing to use my mother to a degree. “I can tell you’re a good daughter. When would you like to start?”
On my first day at Compass and Quill, Ms. Webster trained me. She said I was fast a learner. The hardest part was practicing my new skills. The store was devoid of customers, so I rang up and then returned the same bookmark for thirty minutes.
“It’s busier on the weekends,” Ms. Webster said.
She smiled, satisfied. “I’m going to take a short break. Are you okay here by yourself?”
“No problem,” I said.
The store was almost peaceful when I was the only one in it, but my sanctuary was short-lived. A few minutes after Ms. Webster left, a man strolled through the doors. I watched from behind the register as he browsed the new releases. Ms. Webster had instructed me to personally greet everyone who came into the store. At night, my mother asleep in the next room, I practiced in front of the bathroom mirror—“Hello, my name is Grace, welcome to Compass and Quill, have you read anything good lately?”—but now that the moment had arrived, something held me back.
The man was older than me, in his 30s, maybe. He was tall, with dark hair and shoulders so sloped they looked as if they might slip off. Even though we were indoors he wore a pair of sunglasses, a small white tag hanging off the left side. As he wandered closer to the counter he picked up books and put them down in the wrong spot, mixing the mysteries with the science fiction, the romance with the horror. It was a passive aggressive way to communicate.
“Hello, my name is Grace,” I said. “Welcome to Compass and Quill. Have you read anything good lately?”
“No,” he said. “Have you?”
I tried to remember the last book I’d read. At night, exhausted by yet another day, I lay in my bed and paged through astronomy textbooks, my bedroom door propped open in case my mother needed something. Did that count as reading? Did it count as good? I didn’t think so.
“Knock, knock,” the man said. “Anyone home?”
“I was trying to remember the last book I read.”
I shook my head.
“That’s pretty sad, considering you work in a bookstore.”
“It’s my first week.”
“I know.” He picked up a magazine as he spoke, slid a cologne sample from the pages and rubbed it on his neck.
“How do you know?” I bristled, but I wasn’t surprised. I was nineteen, pretty enough. I’d heard it all.
“I work at Sunny Daze, the sunglasses store?” He rolled up the magazine and pointed it at a kiosk across from Compass and Quill’s entrance. “I own it, actually.”
“That’s more of a stall than a store.”
“Well, it’s my stall. Is this your bookstore?”
“No,” I said. “It’s not.”
“I rest my case.”
His name was Liam and he’d owned Sunny Daze for three years. Three years in the mall, his kiosk a shuttle that moved through the long hallways, orbiting bigger stores like a small moon. I’d probably tried on his sunglasses when I was in high school, admired my reflection in the smudged mirrors mounted to its walls.
“Do you like working here?” I asked.
“Sure. Everyone loves the mall.” He stared at me appreciatively. “The window shopping is exquisite.” I rolled my eyes, but Ms. Webster returned before I could come up with a withering response. Liam floated back to his kiosk and I spent the rest of the afternoon stealing glances in his direction. It wasn’t until I saw him reading in his stall that I realized he’d taken the magazine with him.
On Saturday, my day off, a card arrived in the mail. It was from my astronomy professor. On the outside was an image taken from the Hubble telescope, swirls of light and gas circling a tight center, all reds and purples and silver. Inside the card, my professor described the image—the violent birth of a star named S106 IR—in her small, precise handwriting. “Formed from a cloud of gas and dust, the star is just about to mature and settle down to what astronomers call the main sequence portion of its life, where it will glow steadily like our sun.”
My professor was a fan of metaphor, so I knew she wasn’t only sharing a picture from space. There was more to her message, and it wasn’t hard to decipher. I’d been caught in the black hole of my old life, and this card was a consolation prize. You can shine, even if you’re stuck on Long Island, which is the furthest thing from outer space. Even if you work in a mall, which is the worst kind of solar system. Even if your mother is slowly breaking apart like a meteor that missed its mark.
I threw away the card but the image, beautiful and lonely, stayed with me.
After two weeks Ms. Webster trusted me enough to take a whole day off. “If anything happens tomorrow, call me. I’ll leave my phone number beside the register, along with the number for security.”
“I’ll be fine,” I told her. “Bookstores aren’t usually a target for criminal activity.”
“Books are valuable,” Ms. Webster insisted, her feelings hurt. I apologized profusely.
The next day I opened the store alone and sat behind the register, sipping a cup of coffee while waiting for the mall to wake up. After an hour or so, Liam appeared in the doorway. Again, he browsed the tables before he made eye contact—or, I should say, before I assumed he made eye contact. He was wearing sunglasses again, a different pair this time. The oversized bright blue frames looked like something Jackie Kennedy might have worn at a rave.
“Hello, my name is Grace,” I said. “Welcome to Compass and Quill. Have you read anything good lately?”
“I’m not much of a reader,” he said.
“Then why are you in a bookstore?”
He wiggled his eyebrows and I sighed. Everyone wanted something from me. The previous night my mother woke up multiple times, calling my name from across the hall. For a while I ignored her plaintive cries, as if she were a house cat someone locked out. Eventually I went to her, asked what she wanted. “I don’t know,” she said. Her cheeks were wet with tears, her fists balled with frustration. Her body was warring with itself again, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. So why cry? I wanted to ask her. Why drag me out of bed?
“Would you like to have dinner with me?” Liam asked. “I know all the best deals in the food court.”
I stared at him and saw my mother’s face. What was it like to lose control of your body? To feel the natural order of things fail within you? Something inside me unhinged.
“Sure,” I said. “Okay. I’ll have dinner with you.”
“You will?” Behind his sunglasses, I imagined Liam’s eyes widening in surprise.
“I will.” I said. “I will.”
Ms. Webster started taking a lot of days off. I suppose she trusted me, that I was doing a good job. I tried to feel proud of myself, but it was hard when the store remained barren. Even the weekends, which Ms. Webster swore were busier, dragged endlessly. I sold a few novels, some children’s books. I tried asking customers if they’d read anything good lately, but no one wanted to talk. The mall, like everything else, was merely a stop on our cosmic journey, a layover where we waited for the sun to burn out.
Liam visited each day at 3 o’clock, always with a different pair of sunglasses. We ate dinner together nearly every day, always at the same table in the food court. He was well liked by the staff, the frequent recipient of free drinks and complimentary desserts which he gave to me, his version of roses and jewelry. While we ate I talked about parallel universes, realities running alongside ours in which we were not mall employees but something else, something better.
“Better?” he said. He shook his head. “I saved up for five years to buy Sunny Daze. I’m living the dream, baby.”
I wouldn’t let him kiss me, not in the food court over plates of cheese fries, not in front of Compass and Quill when he walked me back to work. Despite our dinner dates and daily conversations, I wasn’t particularly attracted to him. Like everything else in the mall, he was a matter of convenience.
One morning, a Tuesday in June, I was getting ready for work when my mother announced she was stopping the chemotherapy treatments. “It isn’t helping,” she said, hovering in my doorway. “This is no way to live.” Instead of suffering, she would let nature take its course.
“What does your doctor think?” I asked.
“He said it’s my choice.” For once her face was serene, as if the disease could no longer reach her. I pictured her nerve endings, frayed and fraying, her limbs slowly going numb.
“I’m going to hire a nurse,” she said. “Things will get ugly, and it’s not fair to you. You shouldn’t be here, anyway. You should be out there, living your own life.”
She withdrew from the doorway so I could finish getting ready for work, her apology hanging in the air. I stood for a long time, one earring in my ear, the other in my palm. My mother thought she was setting me free, but the damage had already been done. A body in motion stays in motion, but my life ground to a halt the day I returned to Long Island.
And what about my mother? Could I really leave her now, when she needed me the most? Could I rocket through the world without her energy behind me, pushing me forward? Could I say goodbye, without knowing who would be there when I came back?
When I finally arrived at work I was still thinking about my mother and the loss that loomed before me. The phone rang loudly. I jumped. Ms. Webster, calling in sick again. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it’s new release day—I hope you can handle it.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
Everyone around me was sick and one day we would all die. That’s what I was thinking when I heard the first gunshot. It was 11AM and an older couple browsed the mysteries, occasionally holding hands as they read the blurbs out loud to one another. When the sound, sharp and loud, burst through the mall, the woman gasped and clutched her chest.
There was a second shot, then a third. The man pulled the woman out the door and together they ran, scurrying away from the bookstore, much faster than I expected. I should have followed them; I don’t know why I didn’t. Perhaps I felt beholden to Ms. Webster, wanted to protect her books. Perhaps I was simply too scared to move.
Someone shouted, another shot, closer this time. I ducked behind the counter, tried to hide myself among the wrapping paper and plastic bags. A volley of gunshots, a scream cut short. In the distance, the wail of a siren.
At that moment, huddled in a dark corner, I didn’t think about my mother, or my future, gun control, or what I would tell reporters on the evening news, if I survived. I thought instead about how small we are compared to the universe, how what we do, who we love, how we hurt doesn’t particularly matter. Once, someone in my astronomy class asked our professor about the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan could cause a tornado in Texas. “That’s known as Chaos Theory,” she said, “and it’s a bit more complicated than that.” As the siren got louder I realized my professor had been unnecessarily kind. The theory wasn’t complicated. It was, quite simply, bullshit. A single butterfly couldn’t make a difference, and neither would I.
The whole episode lasted two minutes, and the shooter never made it to my side of the mall. Still, I did not emerge from my hiding place until a police officer stood above me, asking if I was all right, did I need medical attention, what did I see, could I stand up? My ears were ringing from the sound of the gun, but I heard him. I told him I was fine, I hadn’t seen anything. He left the bookstore and went searching for someone who needed him, someone he could save.
In the end it was the same old story, so boring it didn’t even make the evening news. A white male in his late 40s decided to shoot a bunch of strangers at the shopping mall, forgetting, perhaps, that no one comes to the mall anymore, especially on a Tuesday. I can only imagine the disappointment he felt when faced with his choices—a few mall walkers, the food court employees, and that guy selling sunglasses out of a stall.
Because of course it was Liam who stopped the shooter, cutting the massacre short. According to storeowners and security, he’d crept up behind the gunman, leapt onto the man’s back, wrestled him to the ground. Liam had been shot in the leg, but he was alive. Because of his bravery, no one died. He’d defended the mall and saved us all. He was a hero.
Sunny Daze was dark for a few weeks while Liam recovered. On his first day back at the Bellhaven Mall, he limped through the front doors to thunderous applause. I hadn’t visited him in the hospital, hadn’t seen him since the morning of the shooting. Many things had changed since then, but the mall was the same. There was an unspoken agreement among the employees—we were preserving it for him as an offering of thanks. It was the least we could do.
When Ms. Webster took her lunch break that day I left the bookstore unattended, walked the length of the mall until I found Liam. A large crowd surrounded him, all of them wearing sunglasses, but when I beckoned he followed. We walked in silence to Compass and Quill, passing a security guard eating an ice cream cone who nodded at Liam reverently.
I led Liam into the stockroom and shut the door behind us. There, I pushed him toward the table where Ms. Webster once showed me how to place magnetic strips into random books, so they would set off an alarm if anyone tried to steal them. In all my months at Compass and Quill, I’d never heard the alarm. We kissed and I wondered what it sounded like. As he took off my shirt, ran his hands over my bra and unhooked it, I thought about what it meant to work in a place full of unread words. The table was cool when I laid down on it, warmer when Liam climbed on top of me. He tasted like the mall, sterile, astringent, and I was relieved when he moved his tongue from my mouth to my breast. I reached down and pushed his sunglasses off his face. He looked up at me, my nipple in his mouth, and his eyes were brown and ordinary. All this time, he’d been hiding nothing.
I’d thought ahead and wore a skirt, no underwear. He pushed the fabric up past my hips, unbuckled his belt and thrust inside me. I felt a sharp pain and closed my eyes against the florescent light that swayed over us. Back when I thought I might become something, I’d decided to save myself for—what? Under Liam, in the stockroom, it was hard to remember and it didn’t matter. My body cleaved and I felt closer to the truths of the universe than I ever had in the classroom.
When we emerged hardly any time had passed. The security guard was still across the hallway, eating the same ice-cream cone. Ms. Webster was still at lunch. The books were where I’d left them, their spines unbroken. We hadn’t heard the alarm and we never would.
“That was fun,” Liam said, his sunglasses perched on top of his head.
I didn’t tell him it was my last day at Compass and Quill, that I was quitting and going back to college. My astronomy professor pulled some strings and got me into summer school at the last minute, which meant I’d still graduate on time. My life was back on track and soon enough these last few months—the mall, the shooting, my mother, and Liam—would fade away, a parallel universe that could have been, but wasn’t.
He kissed me in the doorway and limped to his kiosk, which was still surrounded by crowds, his humble stall the mall’s new center. I imagined it glowing under the fluorescent lights, each pair of sunglasses twinkling like a newborn star.