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by Teal Ivy Hall

The police find June’s body stuffed into insulation, buried in between the walls of the JCPenney and the mall bathrooms. They realize she’s there on a Sunday morning after a sales associate complains of a noise coming from the wall of the break room, a soft sort of moaning.

They don’t tell us this. They tell us how they had to dig to find her, how she’d probably been there for a week, at least, but they give us a story with all the gross parts cut out. We only know what’s really happened because our parents watch the news reports religiously with their teeth in between their tongues. There was the stench and smell that wafted out so strongly into the shops it kept customers away. There were the bruises on her throat, so dark and deep that her skin seemed to dent around them. There was the man who had taken her on the way to the bathroom because he’d wanted to do something bad to her. (This “bad” is never specified to us, but we know exactly what type of bad it was.) Newscasters blur images of her body but share details about the horror of it all. She was just a kid, they say to our parents every night in our living rooms, us watching from the hallways, She was only a child.

I have fantasies about her anyway. June had always loved Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, loved to watch me squeal and squirm as she showed me the pictures of each monster: bloated, stitched up, falling apart. I dream of her as one of those drawings, her body sketched in pencil and all the shadows cross-hatched. All the different ways she might have been bent or broken. It’s only if I’m really, really lucky that I’ll dream she’s completely fine, not a scratch on her, and the way she laughs when I find her — Phoebe! I’ve been waiting for you!

I keep thinking that if I saw the real thing then maybe the dreams would go away. The fantasy of it seems worse.


Obviously, the mall becomes deserted after they find her. You’d think that the three of us would want nothing to do with the place anymore, but we spend more time there that summer than we did when June was alive. The boys have to lie to their moms about where they’re going every day: Oh, we’re playing games at James’ house, or, We’re gonna go to the movies, but where we always are is the food court. Kit makes us sit at the same table every day, right in between the Hot Dog on a Stick and the McDonald’s. I drink gulps of a smoothie as the boys bicker. Kit is halfway to growing some sort of mustache – his puberty break through – and he likes to argue that it makes him more mature than me and James, and therefore in charge, even though he’ll be the last of us to turn fourteen this year.

Time in the mall moves slower than if we were outside of it. Here, we can take hours to wander around one store, pointing out all the things we would buy if we had any more than $20 chores to our names. Kit sweet-talks the worker at the candy shop to give us free samples and then he steals toffee when she’s not looking anyway. James and I figure out how to jam the Crazy Taxi machine in the movie theater arcade so that it thinks it always has coins in it, and we play until our eyes hurt. No one ever bothers us here because no one wants to, because no one knows what to do when there’s been a dead kid.

It’s on Monday when James gets nervous. I can tell by the way he walks, lagging a few feet behind me and Kit as we make our way to smell all the candles in the soap store until the inside of our noses go numb. When we stop at a candy machine so I can get a gumball, James fiddles with the hem of his t-shirt and blurts out, “Do you think our parents will find out?”

Kit turns on him instantly. “Find out what?” Kit asks, squaring his shoulders and puffing out his chest like he’s daring James to tell him that our plan is something to be worried about. “And I told my mom I was sleeping at your house.”

I say, “Same,” while I rock the machine to one side, seeing if I can get it to give me two gumballs instead of one.

James looks toward Kit. “Well, I told mine I was at your house.”

Kit shrugs easily. “Then we’re fine, right? It’s not like they’ll call and check.” We know this because our parents have forgotten about the maze of worry they lived in when June first died. Their lives have returned to normal. They feel assured we will be alright, especially when we lie to them.

I chew, cracking the hard shell of the candy against my molars. “You’re just a worrywart, Jamesie.” I tell him. He scowls at the nickname and it makes me feel better, like what we are going to do is okay. I put another quarter into the machine and give the gumball that comes out to James. It’s green and shiny, and I can tell that James’ palms are sweaty from the way the green food dye starts to leak into his skin. “Everything’ll be okay.”

Hours later, when the PA system sounds off ten minutes to closing, we start our usual route home: out the food court, left by the Shoe Locker, and down the long stretch of stores. We pass by the old play place that has a flashing neon light boasting that it is OPEN, OPEN, OPEN, even though the inside is plunged with darkness, only the silhouette of a large teddy bear visible from the window. Then we head down to the first floor where we usually make our exit by the nail salon. They’ve put up a fake exterior here. It walls off a few stores and the entrance to the JCPenney, as if everyone will forget what happened here as long as they can’t see it.

Kit kicks the wall. The cardboard bends against the toe of his sneaker, but it doesn’t break. He looks back at us: first James, and then me, his eyes lingering on me like I’m the deciding factor. “Are we ready?”

I burst out, “Of course.” But I’m shaking and both of them can see it. I am so scared of the doubt in my body that I move toward the wall and dig my nails into it.

The cardboard shreds easily under my fingers, fibers begging to be torn down. Slowly, the boys follow suit and the three of us break into the wall like a trio of ants. When we make enough room to slip our bodies through, we go forward: Kit first, me after, James following. The few dozen feet of shops they’ve left abandoned behind the wall look like the facade of a haunted house. We walk straight into cobwebs because only the emergency glowing EXIT sign in the back has any power anymore. Everything else is in dark disarray. A noise buzzes somewhere in front of us or above us or below us, errant air conditioner humming or some part of the mall creaking, desperate to come back to life.

In the low light, the three of us hold hands, stringing each other along to the back corner. We haven’t seen it—haven’t even been shown the pictures—but we know exactly where it is: right under the unlit JCPenney sign and down the empty hallway that once led toward bathrooms.

The hole is—well, just a hole. It is just a chunk cut out of the wall, decorated with the last drippings of police tape. Ripped insulation fluffs out from the sides, making it look like an entry to another world, and there’s a little bit of blood still splattered on the ground around it, red like cherry syrup. I kneel down to stare at it, and it’s only when James goes, “Phoebe?” that I realize I have my hand outstretched, ready to dip my finger in to see how sticky it is. I pull it back instantly and cradle it to my chest.

The three of us stare at the wall, at the hole, and we say nothing. The hole stares back at us. What did we expect? Her body? Her ghost? My hands buzz. I clench them and unclench them over and over, digging my nails into the soft skin of my palm.

I am the first to go in. “Phoebe!” Kit whispers harshly, but I keep going, stepping my left and then right foot into the wall. It’s pretty big. It smells—not like June, but like the leftover stench of Kit’s dad’s breath after he’s been drinking beer. Like the inside of a mouth: gross and warm and somehow sour.

I close my eyes. This is where she died. This is where they found her. This is where he took her. The hole is bigger inside—they must have had to make more room to cut her out of it—and soon, the boys join me. Wordlessly, our bodies smush together, limbs against t-shirt sleeves and the roughness of James’ jeans scraping my bare calves. We curl up against each other. Kit’s head fits under my chin and his hair tickles my nose. James' torso squeezes next to mine, ribs against ribs. I feel the thump of their hearts beating fast with mine and all I can think is that I wish it had been all four of us, I wish it had been me, I wish she had lived, I wish we would have found her here still gasping and eager to get out.

We stay there, our breaths in sync, thinking of her. We become one body instead of three, elongated and curved. We want to stay here forever, stuffed tightly just like she was. We want to die here.

Outside, the mall lights shut off in clumps. Teenage workers close up their stores, ready to go home. Janitors head into the wandering wings of the mall to pick up crushed up soda cans and clothing tags that people have stepped on and stomped over all day. But the three of us stay here, waiting and waiting and waiting for the echo of a moan or a cry, for us to find any part of her at all.

Teal Ivy Hall is a Los Angeles based writer and a graduate of the UCLA English program. She enjoys writing stories about the messiness of girlhood, because she was once a messy girl. Her work has been featured on her mother's refrigerator.

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