Kid Busts Loose
Darby was just about to take a fifteen minute smoke break when the kid came tearing out from Sattler & Grand. The mall was slow, and the few people milling around in Darby’s sector of the Circle turned to stare. Big mistake for one guy carrying a yellow hatbox wrapped in black twine. The kid plowed into him, jarring him so hard that his glasses fell off. His hatbox fumbled out of his hands like a plucked piglet, and the man had to step on it to keep from falling down.
“Thanks a lot, kid,” shouted the man. He hung his be-balded head and retrieved his fallen frames. The kid was running at Darby now, so Darby sucked up fast against his magazine stand and let the tyke chug on by. What was he supposed to do? Stick his foot out? No way. Finally, something was happening tonight. The man with the hatbox plundered on behind, cursing and trying to pop out the dent in the package with his thumbs.
Darby watched the kid run past the bend and out of sight. People were screaming now from the straightaway.
“Stop him! Somebody stop him! Block the exits!” shouted Petra, the Sattler & Grand security guard. She came wheezing out of the department store clutching her walkie-talkie and sporting twin sweat-holsters under each of her linebacker shoulders.
“Which way did he go, Darby?” asked Petra, hands on her knees. Darby shrugged and pointed. Petra waddled over to the closest set of double glass doors and leaned up against them. After a few seconds, she started bleating into her walkie-talkie.
“We’ve got a runner. He’s a fat little white boy. Real fat,” shouted Petra. “He’s wearing a cartoon t-shirt and jean shorts. He runs real fast, though. Real fast. Try to catch him, but don’t let him leave the mall. Make sure you cover all the exits. I’ve got to maintain over here. You better believe his momma’s freaking out.”
A group of three high-school girls were sitting on stools in front of Twisted World eating pretzels from paper cones. Their purchases were stacked up around their trim ankles like severed heads around a trio of bannerets.
“Don’t worry,” said the tallest, thinnest one. “He won’t make it around once. They’ll catch him in the food court.” The other girls giggled. A pretty blonde who Darby had his eye on started laughing so hard that she sprayed gummy pretzel aerosol all over the Twisted World sneeze-guard. The pretzel jerk narrowed his eyes at her, but didn’t say anything.
“What’s so funny?” asked the tall one, nervous that a private joke was slipping by.
“I know that kid,” said the pretty blonde. “I just remembered how. He goes to my church. He sits in the back and picks his nose. I bet he’s shoplifting handkerchiefs.”
The three girls all laughed together.
“Hey Darby,” said old Mr. Honeycutt from the candle stand on the other side of the mildewy fountain that separated their carts. “Isn’t it time for your smoke break? Do you want me to watch your stand for you?”
“In a minute,” said Darby. “I’ve got to see this.”
Darby peered into Sattler & Grand, stretching the invisible responsibility tether that harnessed him to his magazine stand. If he went too far, he might lose a sale from somebody who thought the stand was empty. Not that it mattered much on a day like today. Realistically, the only business he was going to get was from old Mr. Honeycutt who liked to thumb through skin mags while Darby was smoking or eating lunch.
Sattler & Grand was a wreck. Clerks were flitting around the department store like customer service carrion butterflies. There was a line of carnage that stretched all the way back to the escalators, where the little boy had upended clothes racks, knocked down mannequins, and swept ointments and perfume off of dimly-lit counters like dirt from a porch. Colorful islands of reeking floral-print scarves and broken glass dotted the checkered tile as far back as Darby could see. Harried counter-jockeys sailed between them like ships trading spices. A man with a measuring tape around his neck was trying vainly to attach an arm back onto a black plastic nude. A sign that had once said “The Grand Difference” now just said: “The Grifference.”
“Ah, shit. Here she comes,” said Petra into her radio. A woman in a red frock chundered heavily through the Grifference, tears shining on her flat cheeks like heat waves on asphalt. It must be the kid’s mom. Darby could see the resemblance.
“My baby! Where’d he go? Oh, GOD. I think I’m going to fall over dead. Can somebody help me? Can somebody tell me what’s going on?”
“Stay calm, ma’m,” said Petra, “He’s probably just scared. Can you tell me what happened?”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him, if that’s what you’re asking me. He’s spoiled, but I suppose that’s my fault. I brought him here to try on some new clothes and he just didn’t like anything. I dragged him all over the little boys section, but he just couldn’t find anything that fit him. He’s a big boy, but he’s going to grow into it, like his grandfather. He’s got his grandfather’s chin. Anyway, I made him march right into that dressing room to see how he looked in this SHIRT he wanted so bad. He looked at me like he was going to die. Like the very act of trying on clothes was going to strike him dead on the floor. I made him go in there, and then I thought I heard him crying, like he was hurt. Is that my son CRYING, I asked the lady? What did you do to him? I don’t know, she said, let me check. When she opened the door, he just started running. I tried to stop him, but he just pushed me over. His own MOTHER. Can you BELIEVE that? Do you think its drugs?”
“He’s a little bit too young for drugs,” said Petra, “He’s probably just real scared.”
“I’ll bet he wet his pants,” whispered the pretty blonde girl. She and her friends giggled again.
“Jennifer?” asked the kid’s mother, turning to face the three girls. “Jennifer Shoemaker? Is that you?”
The pretty blonde girl flushed bright red and shimmied her stool in the opposite direction. But it was too late. The kid’s mom thundered past Darby, grabbed the bottom of Jennifer’s stool, and spun her around.
“Jennifer! It IS you!” croaked the kid’s mom with the horror of recognition. “Oh, God, Jennifer. I’m so embarrassed. Tell this police officer that I’m a good mother and that this is some kind of fluke.”
Jennifer’s friends held their hands over their mouths in barely suppressed laughter. But Jennifer just looked at her own pointy shoes and grimaced.
“I’m not a real police officer,” said Petra. “I just work for Sattler & Grand.”
“I’ll pay for the clothes,” said the kid’s mom, whirling suddenly on Petra. “I don’t mind. I’ll pay double. I just don’t want him to get into trouble. I don’t want ANY trouble.”
“Are you gonna pay for all the damage he did, too?” asked Petra. The woman just hugged her purse.
“We need to get him to stop running, first thing,” said Petra. “He could hurt somebody.”
Petra’s walkie-talkie started spouting garbled mush that only she could understand. Darby could hear fresh screams from the other straightaway.
“This is a real problem, here,” said Petra into her radio, “Go ahead and call them. We’re going to need real help.”
“Here he comes,” shouted old Mr. Honeycutt. Everybody turned to look.
The kid hadn’t slowed down at all. If anything, he had sped up. His tenacity was impressive: the Circle was nearly three-quarters of a mile around and tiled with shin-busting hardwood tile. In the morning before the mall opened, leather-boned old women walked around the Circle for exercise, but everybody else usually only made it around once before heading home exhausted with their lucre. This kid didn’t show any signs of stopping. And there wasn’t anybody chasing him, either. The rest of the security guards were just waiting. Where could the kid go?
The whole bend was mesmerized as the kid galumphed past. Darby thought the kid was some kind of rare suburban prodigy. His rubber tennis shoes slapped the floor like monstrous lace-up flyswatters. The kid was fat – true -- but he moved like a beast chewing through stalks of grass while chasing prey on the savannah. He had perfect form, and his dimpled knees slapped in time like a card in the spokes of a bicycle. Not a breath went wasted.
He was wearing a green shirt with a picture on the front of a cartoon bulldozer leveling skyscrapers. The shirt was too small. Much too small.
While the kid passed, the bend was stunned into shocked silence. It wasn’t until after he had rounded the corner that his mother started shrieking for him to come back. That she would pay for everything and that he wasn’t in trouble. But her screams were like shots fired after the battle. The folks in the bend listened to his cheap slapping tennis shoes squeak, turn, and then fade away.
It was obvious that it couldn’t last. Darby thought the smart policy was just to wait for him to collapse from exhaustion.
“That kid can run,” said old Mr. Honeycutt, who fancied himself something of a sportsman. “He’s a born defensive end, if you ask me. When do kids start playing football, nowadays?”
“Oh, he doesn’t like sports,” said the kid’s mom, “Besides, sports are dangerous. You always read in the paper about some awful little child getting his head bashed in or dying of sunstroke because he didn’t get enough water.”
“He looked a little green though, didn’t he?” said Petra nervously. “Real green. I hope he’s going to be okay.”
“He has a very limited constitution,” said the kid’s mom.
“We’ve got enough guards to keep the doors secure, and he can’t get upstairs without somebody nabbing him,” said Petra. “What we need to do is stop him here in one of the bends while he’s off balance.”
Petra didn’t move. She looked at the rest of the mall employees, sizing them up.
“I’m not getting in front of that little demon,” said old Mr. Honeycutt. “Just let him keep going.”
“The longer he keeps running, the higher the chance that he’ll hurt himself or somebody else,” said Petra. Everybody looked at Darby. Darby sat down in his fold-out burlap chair and grabbed a gun magazine.
“Don’t you play sports, Darby?” asked Petra. “Why don’t you go bring him down?”
“I sell magazines,” said Darby. “I don’t see what the big deal is, anyway. He looks like he’s having a good time.”
“He sure isn’t crying now,” agreed old Mr. Honeycutt. Petra gave an exasperated, overdramatic sigh.
“He’s never done anything like this in his life,” said the kid’s mom. “I just want to take him home.”
“If we don’t do something real fast,” said Petra, “The cops are gonna get involved. You don’t know how big a nightmare that is, ma’m.”
The kid’s mom looked at the ground. She looked like she was about to fall over. Darby priced shotguns.
“Let’s try and stop him on his next pass,” said the kid’s mom, finally. She fluttered a hand in her face, trying to get some oxygen flowing. “He won’t try and run over his own mom again. Not my baby.”
“Get your spatulas ready,” said the tall, thin girl under her breath. Jennifer glowered at her. No one laughed.
“Alright,” said Petra. “Well, why don’t you position yourself somewhere where you can get right out in front of him? I’ll get beside you and we’ll present a real obstacle. There’s really no way that kid can get through both of us.”
The kid’s mom set her purse down along one wall and joined Petra right at the sharpest curve of the bend. Petra kept squawking into her radio, and the kid’s mom just stood there talking to herself. Her thoughts definitely ran deep and bloody, from the few words Darby could make out.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life,” said old Mr. Honeycutt, stacking a set of swirly green-and-white unicorn’s horn candles. “Where does that kid think he’s going?”
Darby just put his heels up and shrugged. He put the gun magazine back and fantasized about lighting up, right then and there. Everybody was so worried about the kid. Who was going to stop him?
“Here he comes,” shouted Petra. “Better get ready.”
“I can’t believe he’s still going!” said his mother.
“Never in my life,” said old Mr. Honeycutt.
It was amazing. The kid was going even faster now. His body looked like a circus tent in a hurricane. Every limb was flapping at full steam, and his shoes were slapping the ground like they were tenderizing meat. His face was the color of uncooked eggplant. He had one arm hooked behind his neck to rub his shoulder as he ran, and the other arm was whirling around three-hundred and sixty degrees like his shoulder was the hub of a merry-go-round.
“He don’t look so good,” said Darby, getting to his feet.
“He looks like he’s gonna pop,” said old Mr. Honeycutt. “If he was a zeppelin, people would be putting on hats.”
“No! Stop!” said Petra weakly before diving out of the way. His mom just stared as the kid barreled past her. They collided and the kid clutched his stomach. The kid never slowed down.
“Here it comes,” said Darby. The kid looked at the girls and moaned. He stumbled, found his feet, kept going, and started puking. He was a big kid and he had a big appetite. The girls started screaming as if they were all three connected at the throat. The kid slipped a bit on his own bile, but – by this point – his body was so slick with his own sweat that the vomit just rolled right off him.
“Maybe you should call the police,” said the kid’s mom as the kid disappeared out of sight. “Maybe they’ll know what to do.”
“I already did,” said Petra. “The mall has a dedicated line. They should already BE here.”
There was a knock on the glass doors. Petra spun on one heel and shuffled over to answer. Two police officers moseyed in, slurping on large coffees. Darby had seen them around before. The mall must have been part of their beat. They usually only showed up when somebody passed out in one of the bathrooms, when there was a fight, or when somebody was breaking into cars in the parking lot.
Both of the cops were tall and bony. Officer Moses had long sideburns and crazy eyes. The other one – Officer Canton – was the diplomat.
“What’s going on in here?” asked Officer Canton. “Why are all the doors locked up?”
“There’s this kid,” said Petra, “It’s nuts. He’s running around in circles.”
“That’s his puke,” offered old Mr. Honeycutt, gesturing with a candle.
“That’s his mom,” said Petra, pointing to the quivering, sequined mass. “I think she’s freaking out. He’s a young kid. Supposedly he’s never done anything like this before.”
“Everybody gets to be a first time offender once,” said Officer Moses.
“He’s probably just real scared,” said Petra doubtfully, remembering the puke. Remembering his face like a tortured thumb.
“We’ll take care of it,” said Officer Moses, rubbing his sideburns with one hand and his sidearm with another. “We’re very good at dealing with trouble-making kids. Kids love to test boundaries. It’s their nature.”
Officer Moses didn’t seem like he would be very good at dealing with kids. He seemed like the kind of guy who enjoyed television shows about very large animals mauling their trainers. Or video tapes in blank boxes that had women doing unspeakably awful things for money or freedom. He was the sort of guy that didn’t have much patience for magazines. What was literature when you got to carry a gun?
“Why don’t you take care of that pile of vomit?” asked Officer Moses, patting Petra deprecatingly on the shoulder.
The three girls were gathering their things and making ready to leave. They didn’t seem to have much enthusiasm for their pretzels anymore. Officer Moses strolled over to them.
“You girls had better stay,” he said with a wink, “You are witnesses.”
“I think we have plenty of witnesses,” said Officer Canton.
“Pretty girls have better memories,” he said with a slow chuckle. “Everybody knows that.” Officer Canton shrugged in resignation and took out a notepad and stub of pencil.
“So where is this kid now?” asked Officer Canton.
“Just listen,” said old Mr. Honeycutt. “He’s coming.”
This time the slapping noise came first. It was like a tapping woodpecker very far away, but as it got louder and faster, it sounded like the whole mall was having a heart attack. The kid made his third lap in record time. Darby was impressed. The kid was faster than most of the guys on the track team.
“Stop!” shouted Officer Moses with authority, dropping his hands and leaning into a crouch. Officer Canton just stood there holding his hat. The kid’s mom swooned into a dead faint. She was lucky that Darby was quick on his feet and was there to catch her. Cops were useless.
“That kid’s not scared,” said old Mr. Honeycutt. “He’s got balls like penthouse elevators.”
“Jesus,” said Petra. “He looks like he could take off from the ground and start flying.”
“That’s not possible,” said old Mr. Honeycutt. “He’d need something to shear the wind. To get some lift.”
The cops looked at each other and took off after him. They didn’t get very far before they gave up.
“The exits are covered?” asked Officer Canton, holding his sucking gut.
“Yep,” said Petra.
“Then he’ll be back,” said Officer Canton. “You weren’t kidding. This IS nuts.”
The cops didn’t have long to wait. The kid was back before they had a chance to get comfortable. Both his arms were straining like wagon wheel spokes now. His feet didn’t even seem to touch the ground.
Officer Moses pulled out his sidearm and pointed it.
“Stop, kid!” he shouted, “Or I’ll shoot you!” Officer Canton looked at his partner in shock and amazement.
“My baby!” shrieked the kid’s mom, leaping out of Darby’s arms by some eternal, maternal instinct. Darby grabbed one arm on the fly and was able to restrain her from jumping on Officer Moses and clawing out his eyes. She thrashed around a bit and then fainted again.
“What the hell are you doing, Mick? He’s just a kid!” roared Officer Canton, slapping his partner with his hat. Officer Moses dropped his gun on the ground. By the time he picked it back up, the kid was already gone.
“Were you seriously going to shoot that kid?” asked Officer Canton.
“I was just going to scare him,” said Officer Moses, sheepishly holstering his weapon.
“This is going in the report,” said Officer Canton. Officer Moses made a whining noise, pinched his eyebrows together, and stamped his foot. But Officer Canton just crossed his arms and turned away.
As Darby gently lowered the kid’s mom to the ground, he felt a breeze on his face. His forelocks parted and he caught the strong and overpowering scent of fresh baking pretzels. It was inexplicable. The mall was climate controlled. Unless…
His magazines started rustling like leaves or wind-chimes. Old Mr. Honeycutt smacked his lips and started inching his cart closer to the wall, giving Darby a knowing look. Darby followed suit and did the same.
The kid bucketed past like a demon airplane. Darby had never seen anyone run so fast in his life. You could barely see the kid move now. He was chewing up ground like he was running on a conveyor belt. Darby and the kid stared at each other as the kid rounded. The kid wasn’t going to stop. Ever.
As he flew by, Darby was buffeted aside by a blast of icy wind and nearly lost his footing. Several of his magazines flew from their shelves and landed in disarray on the slick, wood-paneled floor. The skirts of all three girls were swept up to their shoulders. Yellow, black, and red panties respectively, noted Darby. Like a coral snake. The water in the fountain rippled and lapped over the edge, sending ancient visions of the great copper emancipator swirling pell-mell like bobbing apples.
The two police officers had been knocked down in the last spin, but they picked themselves back up and dusted themselves off.
“I’m gonna taze him,” said Officer Moses. Officer Canton frowned and then nodded.
“Isn’t he too young?” asked Petra. “Won’t it fry him?”
“If we don’t do something, this will end badly,” said Officer Canton.
“This ain’t natural,” said old Mr. Honeycutt. “The best thing to do is just let that boy run.”
But Officer Moses had already pulled out the snub black jigger and planted his feet.
“He’s already coming around again,” said Petra, perking up one ear. The girls started to scream. The kid’s mom lay flat on her back like a played domino.
“Somebody ought to call an ambulance about this woman,” said Darby. Petra looked at him. Her radio was making non-stop racket now, but she picked it up and tried to take charge.
The kid zoomed up the straightaway. The slapping of his shoes was now just a spellbinding, merciless drone.
“He’s all mine,” said Officer Moses. “Get ready!” The kid lowered his head and charged, bellowing like a tea kettle. Officer Moses aimed and fired.
He was a good shot. The electrified shuttlecock hit the kid square in the chest, and the pulsating streamer that strung between the jigger and target started to tremble and pulsate with blue flame. The kid started to jerk and twist. Smoke billowed out from underneath his shirt sleeves. But he didn’t slow down.
Officer Moses gripped the jigger like a possessed fire-hose as the kid bolted past. The cable looped around one of the kid’s legs and started to pull Officer Moses forward on his unwilling heels.
“Watch out!” shouted Officer Canton. But it was too late. The cable cracked like a whip and yanked Officer Moses head over heels into the greasy, stagnant mall fountain. His legs started to buck as the taser discharged its dented battery into his arm. Officer Canton grabbed him by his belt and hauled him out. He flopped like a hooked trout, foam spewing from his lips. The kid was gone.
“Is he dead?” asked Jennifer.
“He’ll be fine,” said Officer Canton, unhooking the police radio receiver from his shirt. “Don’t touch him.”
And then suddenly the kid was back. And then he was back. And then he was back. Like some kind of screaming supernova, he tore circles around the mall in an unfathomable blur. He was faster than a car. Then he was faster than a diving roller coaster. Then he was faster than a jet airplane. The people in the bend scooted against the wall and listened to the whine of his shoes and the screams of shoppers. Darby tried to wake up the kid’s mother, but she was out cold. Darby’s magazines leapt from the stand and were sucked into the kid’s wake, joining an already cyclonic cloud of sweeping, spiraling debris.
“What’s happening?” shouted Petra. No one could give her an answer.
Suddenly, the kid wasn’t there at all. He was a human time stain, just a pink and white streak that carved through the center of the mall like a train track. There was a flash, a sonic boom, and then he was gone. Every storefront crashed down as the glass was blown apart by the pressure gap.
All that was left of the kid was a foot deep trough that ran the entire length of the mall.
With wide eyes, Darby wormed two fingers into his jeans pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. As the others huddled whimpering around the edges – as an ambulance and every alarm in the mall sounded in dizzying orchestral cacophony -- Darby walked with careful steps over to the trough. Down at the bottom were a pair of burning tennis shoes.
“That kid’s gone to hell,” cackled old Mr. Honeycutt.
Darby checked his pockets for matches. All gone. He frowned, and then lit a cigarette on the flaming shoe rubber. He dragged deep. It tasted wrong.