Fiction by Eliza Tudor
The problem was that the Lar had always lived at the Crossroads Mall. An outdoor mall, built on land that was once a cornfield, the Crossroads was set between housing developments. It had a department store on one end and a movie theater at the other, a craft shop where you could buy stickers and resin and silicone candy molds, and a sporting goods store down from the food court. A high-end grocery sat next to the parking lot, and a large hunting and fishing outlet stood across the street.
The Crossroads Mall held shops that sold clothes primarily to teenagers, shops that sold clothes to women over fifty; shops that sold just purses, just jewelry, and just scarves. There were two nail salons, a spa, a barber shop with big screen televisions playing sports, and a beauty parlor that also offered lash extensions. There was a shop you could smell from the far edge of the parking lot that specialized in candles, scented sanitizers, and holiday-themed body lotions. There was an entire warehouse full of shoes. There was an Old Navy.
The Crossroads Mall once boasted of fifteen restaurants and an entire troop of food trucks. And, once upon a time, there was a bookstore. But by the time that I began walking through the Crossroads Mall every morning just after sunrise, the world was still trying to outlast a pandemic. The bookstore was long gone and even the Halloween superstore that replaced it was going out of business. The movie theater closed months before. The craft shop’s shelves were bare. The sporting goods store now sported an EVERYTHING MUST GO sign, and the grocery was empty. The beauty parlor, the spa, the barber shop, and the nail salons all had signs on their front doors: PLEASE CALL AND WE WILL COME OPEN. But most people had stopped calling.
There was something reassuringly surreal about walking around this artificial landscape with its well-tended flowers and empty shops and streets in the early morning. The apocalypse was underway, and in the moments when I walked at the deserted Crossroads Mall it felt—finally—as if the outer world was reflecting everything inside me. At that time of day, it was just me and the security guard in the white Smart car. We waved to one another because it was Indiana, but never spoke a word. His windows were always up, and I was simply happy for the quiet.
But then, that ended as well. One day, I was walking normally, just alongside the empty food court, the sky turning pink, when suddenly, I was flattened. I found myself on the ground, something floating in my line of sight. For the briefest second, I wondered if I’d hit my head, but then the shadowy movement came closer, and I realized that a tiny being was standing mid-air right in front of my nose.
About the same size as a large insect, it wore a louche purple suit, white platform boots, oversized glasses, and a bolo tie. It had a short haircut that either took hours or only a second to style.
“Did the property management send you?” It demanded.
“No,” I answered.
“Then who are you?”
“I’m a writer.
“So why are you here every day all of a sudden?” It folded its arms and glared.
“I just like to walk here.”
“But nothing’s open when you come?”
I noticed its look of disdain at the sweatpants I wore.
“I like it better that way,” I answered.
The Lar stared at me for a minute.
“Okay,” it said finally. “Get up and walk.”
I knew it was a Lar because we had two Lares at the house we rented when we lived in England. Behind their backs, I thought of them as Lucy and Ethel. But Lares don’t have names. What they have are places.
In ancient times, Lares were believed to observe, protect, and influence all that occurred within the boundaries of their particular location. In the past they were deified. Tiny statues were commissioned to sit in the middle of the dining table or on the mantlepiece. Nowadays, they are often ignored. But some Lares, even today, refuse to be overlooked. Important witnesses to all domestic celebrations—holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries—I learned the hard way that Lares should be invited even to pizza night and the rewatching of all the High School Musical franchise.
We’ve moved often, almost yearly, but I’d never noticed Lares in any of our apartments or homes—or even in the places I worked or visited regularly—until we lived in England. Our Lares in England were a study in contrasts. One round, pretty, and near silent, and the other a pinched, thin kind of soul who, when I announced that we were leaving the house to return to the States, said, “And I was just getting used to you.”
I was about to tell this story to the Crossroads Mall Lar, only to realize I didn’t have to.
“You know I can see you,” I said as I walked. But the Lar just hovered silently not too close to my shoulder.
“Great platforms,” I said, smiling.
The Lar looked down at my dirty sneakers and sniffed.
For the next few days when I walked, I didn’t see much of the Lar, but then the FOR SALE sign went up at the movie theater. It had been empty for months.
As I stood in front of it, the Lar came up beside me.
“Who do you think will buy it?” I asked.
“Possibly a megachurch. But these days, who knows.”
“How do you feel about that? About all this?” I noticed the Lar was wearing gold boots.
The Lar gave me a look. “What are you now, my therapist?”
I began to walk, and the Lar joined me.
The flowers in the planters were still showpieces, bright in their fuchsias, yellows, and blues. It was the beginning of October and suddenly too warm; I was in shorts. The grass at the house we were renting was brown.
“Someone must water those constantly,” I nodded towards the planters.
“Twice a day.”
We passed an entire row of empty shops. Someone, probably the property management, had papered the windows on the inside with a roll they doubtless had stockpiled. It said, in a once attractive font, over and over again: Coming Soon. But now, the paper was so faded you could only read the words with your face up against the glass.
“The Beginning of the End?” I commented.
“More like No More Coming Soon,” the Lar corrected.
In ancient Rome, the phrase ad Larem (literally, to the Lar) was used to describe those homeward bound. I had recently returned to Indiana with my own family, to the place I was born, in the middle of a pandemic, after a decade of being away. People I loved were dying. At some point I might not be able to see them in the place they called home.
“There won’t be trick or treating this year. The Christmas lights will go up, but Santa won’t be sitting in the heated gazebo. And two more shut down this week. Miko’s Jewelry and the Skate Shop.”
The Lar was upset. I was so pleased that we’d finally gotten to the point of actually talking about the important stuff that I almost smiled.
“Are you listening?” the Lar asked.
“Always.” I’d arrived later than usual for our walk. I blamed my children and work, but the Lar barely noticed. It seemed preoccupied and emotional.
“No one seems to care.”
“I do,” I answered. It was the truth.
I looked through the windows at the stores that were still open. The employees were no longer even pretending to reorganize the same fifteen sweaters in 90-degree heat in October. Bare shelves were status quo. We could all give up the pretense that life could still be divided into XS, S, M, L, XL. It was a lie before, and now, even if an XXL arrived, or if it wasn’t made by a sick child, or if it was made of fifty plastic bottles, it wouldn’t matter.
“I hate people,” I said one morning as we walked. There was a man and a woman in the distance in sweatpants keeping pace. Their arms in motion. As they turned the corner, I could see they carried hand weights.
“Mall walkers,” I pretended to gag.
The irony began to bloom. I laughed. So did the Lar.
“I hate people,” I repeated.
“So do I,” the Lar sighed.
It was disconcerting to be at the mall later than usual. There were actually a few people walking into the shops. Employees, I guessed. A car parked in front of the food court and barely a minute later, a motorcycle came around the corner.
The Lar pulled up sharply in mid-air and I stopped.
“What is it?”
I noticed the Lar watching the motorbike closely. The rider parked. They pulled off their helmet and long black hair fell down their back. They seemed to be looking through a backpack for something and then I realized what it was. I watched as they took an elastic out and tied their hair up into a knot. Then, they stood and walked up to the door of RealGrrrl and waved to someone inside.
“Who is that?” I asked.
We watched as the doors opened.
“The manager. Jacqui. She’s going to pretend like she didn’t just arrive herself.”
“No, I mean the other one. The one on the bike.”
I waited for an answer.
The Lar didn’t give one. We just kept walking.
I started walking a bit later in the morning. I blamed this time shift on work. I started wearing a mask on my walks, often pulled low, because I was now more likely to see other humans, even if they were ten feet away. Instead of being a landscape unpopulated, the cast was now oddly depressing. Some people were even pretending to shop. One took a picture of herself, nestling her highlights just so against her mask. There were five people in the entire mall carrying bags, pretending life was normal. I wondered if the property management sent them.
They hadn’t had a customer in days.
“But what can be done?” I demanded. The Lar looked bored.
I made suggestions.
The Lar didn’t even answer.
“But they’d still have to pay rent, wouldn’t they?” I asked, looking once again at the Coming Soon on repeat through the windows. Two more stores had closed overnight. The mall was down to one restaurant. There were no more food trucks.
“You need to stop.”
“But we have to think of something,” I pressed. The morning actually felt cool, and the trees had all changed color overnight, finally giving up on the green and showing who they truly were all along. I could at least try to do the same.
“Why do you care?” The Lar asked in a voice that wasn’t tired.
That was the part that hurt the most.
“How do you even have the energy to have a crush? I mean, I get it, but—”
“I don’t want to talk about her.”
Fine, I said. Fine, the Lar answered.
(But we did.)
I imagined what it was like to be tied to a place. Forever.
“I care.” It was the truth. “I don’t care about the mall. I hate malls. The only reason I even walk here is because it’s empty.”
“Part of the problem, aren’t you?” The Lar had a horrible smile. “You’ll let someone deliver you stuff, but you sit in your little house and even if everything changes, you can say, ‘Maybe it’s all for the better.’”
“Maybe some of it is.”
“There you go. Then maybe it is.”
“I’m not shopping my way out of this—even for you!”
“I wasn’t asking you to. Who would in those shoes?”
We turned the corner and I thought for a moment that this might be the end. That the Lar would leave me and—the Lar reached out an arm. It didn’t touch my shoulder, but I could feel the air move. It was a ripple of energy and I turned only to realize that the Lar’s attention was focused elsewhere.
The motorcycle, a perfectly dented Japanese bike, was parked out front of RealGrrrl and the door was open. A girl, standing in the doorway looking out, her mask pulled down. She was tall and sturdy. She looked athletic and capable. No nonsense in her black pants and thin tee shirt, her black motorcycle boots, and beautiful hair piled high on her head.
I never looked like that. I could never look like that. I will never look like that. If I looked like that, who would I be? What would life be like if I looked like that?
She didn’t appear to be wearing makeup, but then she didn’t need to. Her skin, warm and brown, was thoughtlessly perfect. I felt angry, but she was too cool for that. Her eyes glanced over at me warily. I hadn’t kept my distance. I was close enough to see that she had a series of small, delicate tattoos up her arm.
I turned to look at the Lar only to realize I was now on my own.
I pulled up my mask and kept walking, nodding to the girl as I said a muffled hello. According to the Lar, I was almost the same age as her grandmother.
My own skin was no longer the color of plywood, dotted and streaked with pinks. It wasn’t even the shadowy grey it had become after I was sick. My skin was now a bright yellow. The color of children’s backyard slides or the lids of recycling bins. I looked down at my hands, plastic and puffy like mittens. I lifted a thumb and then turned it to the ground.
“You’re in love, aren’t you?”
The Lar shrugged.
It was very early. The air crisp. I was wearing a stocking cap and gloves. Halloween had come and gone. It was now November.
The Lar was dressed in a fur vest, a thick black turtleneck sweater, and leather trousers. Who knew if they were fake or not.
“I get it,” I said. “Crushes are important. Maybe it will get you through all this.”
And only then did I realize the problem.
“But if the store closes, she won’t be here anymore.”
“You talk too much,” the Lar sighed. “Have you noticed the new plantings?”
“Have you talked to her?” My stomach ached. I must be hungry, I decided.
“What do you think?” The Lar answered.
I didn’t smile. I nodded.
“I hate people,” I said.
So do I, the Lar was supposed to respond.
“I know,” was the answer instead.
I suddenly wanted soap that smelled of mandarin and ginger. I craved hair the color of bubble gum. I needed holiday paper napkins printed with cats and dapper turkeys. Plastic forks. Dessert plates. Everything could be individually wrapped in a layer of plastic placed into a plastic bag. I could buy sweatshirts in every color of the rainbow and line them up in my closet on hangers and watch the price tags sway like wind chimes.
“Would you like the receipt in the bag?” someone would ask.
My friends’ parents were dying. My children were afraid to step outside. And those without power or privilege who had always felt that way, were dying even faster. No one was in charge. No, it was worse than that.
And then, from a distance, I saw someone taking a picture of himself in the deserted children’s play space. He moved the CAUTION TAPE aside and posed suggestively on a plastic spinning duck. His smile, no teeth, all lips, shifted instantly. He stared into the screen, modifying, filtering, editing. Finally, he was satisfied. When he finished, he pocketed his phone and stuck a palm under the sanitizer dispenser.
“It’s not free you know!” I shouted.
Home is where the heart is. Heart is where the home is. You can’t go home again. You can go home but it will never be the same. It will never be the same, but it will still be home. Home is inside of you. There is no place like home. Every place can be home. Home is wherever you are planted. Take me home.
One of the first stores in the mall to close was the Indiana shop. Tee shirts with phrases about Hoosiers. Wooden cutting boards cut in the shape of the state. Jewelry designed to look like stalks of corn.
When I was younger, I told the Lar, I used to detassel the fields on which the mall was built. Day by day, row by row, I would pull the tassels from the tops of the corn and throw them into the dirt. Now, the job was more easily done by machines.
“I passed out once. Right in the middle of the field. Probably right over there.” The Lar didn’t even look where I was pointing.
I lied to the Lar.
“That’s where I found an arrowhead one day.” Detasseling corn, I repeated. The mall rising up around us. But that arrowhead was found by someone else, elsewhere.
“Have you ever felt this way before?” I asked, instead.
“Once,” came the answer.
Only later did I wonder: Had I once been loved and never noticed?
The argument was my fault this time. I was grumpy and sick of hearing about the perfect Kriya. Yes, Kriya. She had a name. Kriya of the cool pants and the motorbike and the tiny perfect stars up her perfect arm.
“It was never about the mall,” I shouted. “You can come stay with us.”
“You know that isn’t an option,” the Lar answered.
I stepped inside. It was worse than I imagined. I thought there would be pastel doll barrettes and Trapper Keepers, tee shirts printed to look like Princess Diana’s sweaters, reissued copies of My Life With Evan Dando, Popstar. I imagined thick, messy lipstick; words and names scrawled on arms and legs. I conjured ill-fitting dresses too short or too long, with flannel hanging from the waist. Instead, it was a nearly empty room with two racks of baseball style shirts bearing the words Purple Rain and Californication.
“Need something?” The woman I knew as Jacqui asked, her face mask nowhere near her nose. Kriya wasn’t even there.
“No,” I answered, but it came out exactly like Yes. I walked back towards the dressing room. The exit door was propped open. For a second, I thought of walking through, but I changed my mind. I turned and walked out the front door. Jacqui called something behind me. I walked hard, almost running; my breath trapped beneath my mask. Any words I might say becoming moisture.
Where are you?
I passed an entire row of faded Coming Soon and turned the corner. It was the back of the mall. The spots where the employees used to park. No words, no windows, just doors painted brown.
She stood there with another woman, unmasked, smoking. The other woman looked to be crying, washed out blue hair, deep roots. Both of them dressed all in black, barely taking turns, talking loudly. They didn’t even look at me.
I thought about screaming. I thought about coughing. Instead, I fell to the ground, knowing the Lar would appear.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead, the man picking up trash with a metal stick took a step closer. He asked if I was okay. I answered in a language never my own. I’m not sure, I said.
There were too many questions I hadn’t asked the Lar. Did you know me before? Did you know my ancestors?
I wanted to tell the Lar about the flashes I’d been having. Moments coming unexpected, taking me back to stoplights I’d waited at, handmade sign for perogies to the right, lines I’d stood in, giving my name, spelling it out, bending down to pick up a ball, putting on lipstick, sliding across a booth and catching my reflection in the mirror, a smile, the match on the tv reflected above my head, already planning my order, the joke in the air, laughter.
I could see my breath. It was early. The Lar was nowhere to be found. Jerry, the security guard, passed me in the Smart car and we waved. There was only the beat-up Subaru in the parking lot. The one that the kid from the shoe warehouse just left behind when it closed. It still hadn’t been towed away. The Christmas lights were not only up, but still lit in the morning dark. The mall glowed, its veneer of decoration over devastation, only another layer. Nothing new. Still, it glowed. For the first time in weeks or maybe months, I felt a kind of peace. My chest still hurt, but I was breathing.
I had no idea what any of us would become, but I was this moment, this place in time, before it too was eroded by the wind, or a bulldozer, or covered up with another layer to become something new (or, at least, not old). A workbook page my child filled out—deposition, erosion, rising sea levels, plate tectonics—asking me a question when the multiple choice offered too many options. I had to look to the back at the answer key to double check. I turned the pencil to the eraser and began again.
I saw the sign. Hanging over the doorway of RealGrrrl. Letters dark, spelling out the words: GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE GOING ON NOW!
Who is asked to stay and watch the dissolution of a world? Days passed. Then a week. I wanted to talk about assimilation and appropriation, about gender and love and what hope could mean now. Now. Not coming soon. Now. But the Lar could not be found. Only then did I understand my disadvantage. The Lar would be the only one with the chance of ever being lost and I could never do the finding.
A megachurch might buy the movie theater. Maybe some tech company would turn the mall into a campus. Maybe the mall would even go back to being a cornfield. I thought how much the Lar would hate that—platforms between cornstalks, all that dirt—but maybe I was wrong. The hunting and fishing store across the street was still open. The fake lake they’d built to park expensive boats held geese confused about the weather. What stories do we have for this moment? Lot’s wife turned to look and was changed into a pillar of salt. Who’s to say that wasn’t reincarnation? I thought the word again, this time as Beyoncé. Come on, ladies, now let’s reincarnation. My shoulders insulated in puffer coat; I wondered if I might not even feel the Lar.
I knew that it wasn’t about the coat I wore. Mask in my pocket, if I took my time, chest aching in the cold, my breath might hover thick. But it only steamed my glasses. I did it again even though I couldn’t see what was right in front of me. I took off the glasses as if to clean them. The sun was coming up. I went ahead and looked. Why not? Eyes open, then closed. The image reversed, eyes closed, eyes closed. The lights returned, eyes still closed, dark became bright, and the shadows danced.
Eliza Tudor is a writer, editor, and teacher newly returned to the Midwest. She is the author of Wish You Were Here (Minerva Rising Press, 2017), and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, TLR, Hobart, Annalemma, Paper Darts, The Conium Review, and New Letters, among others. Several of her stories have been anthologized, most recently in An Indiana Christmas (Indiana University Press, 2020). You can find more at www.elizatudor.com.
Photo by zhang kaiyv on Unsplash