The mall was quiet that day. There were only a few people around, sitting on benches or strolling, relaxed and clasping arms, from storefront to storefront. There was a couple, the woman with a red hat and a round face and several shopping bags swinging from her arms, and the man blank-faced as if he would switch back on when they got home. They walked idly past stores, chattering, the woman’s voice eager and sweet as he nodded companionably. The teenagers sitting on a bench nearby snickered at them, but quietly, and the husband’s eyes slid over before he nodded again. The kids were clustered around one, in the center, a tall blond boy who was showing off his new tattoo. Several of them were round-eyed, but a few were biting their lips and glaring behind calm faces.
A man walked through this peaceable crowd briskly, upsetting the gentle waves of shoppers with the wake of his motion, pushing them to the side with his presence. They looked at him a bit oddly. He was frenetic as he walked, and they watched him go with lips parted and eyes puzzled. He needed a toaster – his had broken this morning – and he hurried through the mall with his brow drawn close and worried, his eyes shadowed and his lips tight.
He tried to avoid things like malls at all costs. Crowded areas – even scattered with the remnants of a Tuesday afternoon, like today – and especially streets, and sidewalks. He never ate in restaurants, never went to bars, never had gotten a job in an office, tried to go to supermarkets when they were emptied of harried housewives.
Sometimes it couldn’t be helped. He knew the mall was never quite empty, and it was usually more full than this. Probably everyone would drift away as soon as he left, that was how these things went.
He did his best not to look at anyone though, shielding his eyes from the giggling teenagers and grimacing as he passed the couple, the wife now clinging to her husband’s arm as she pointed to a very pretty dress in a window. The husband patted her elbow absently.
The man pushed on. The woman was going to die quite soon. The visions, though they weren’t truly that, got so much stronger, more distinct – more solid, perhaps – the closer the death was. They weren’t visions only because they didn’t take place in his head; they took place in the world in front of him, the world he could see and hear. The woman’s death was overlaid, blurred atop her form like a transparency roughly pushed in between her body and his eyes. She was there, pointing, but the shifting shape showed her terrified as she was pulled toward the window with the pretty dress, the windshield exploding in her face and the glass sprinkling across her skin. She slumped forward, her neck twisted, on a dashboard that wasn’t there as the husband pulled the reluctant woman toward the next store. He saw this, not sequentially, but over and over, as if each motion was entwined with every other, and as she dragged her feet he saw her sprawled flat, he saw the fragments of glass sparkling in the passing headlights, and quite faintly he heard her wail as the metal twisted and broke around her.
He shuddered and kept walking. The husband’s death was very far away, faint around him, and the old man coughing and hacking into stillness was barely discernible before the young man’s indifferent expression.
The man couldn’t see his own death. It was the only one. He often wished, staring at the mirror and seeing only his own gaze, his own ordinary face, that he could see it. Perhaps he’d know if he died an old man or despaired sooner, the mirror showing him with a pistol in his mouth or a noose tied and yanking before the crow’s feet around his eyes deepened.
He ducked his head as he passed the teenagers. He couldn’t look at them, always tried to hide his eyes from children. It was almost as if his vision ensured their death, as if his knowledge of their impending doom hastened it to them. The blond boy was still holding court on the bench, and he caught only a glimpse of a face twisted with disease before his feet, tripping, took him past them. He wasn’t even sure which child it was. Perhaps it was another one.
This was always the challenge he faced. When he first realized, or first gained this power – though he couldn’t remember a time before it, and he certainly didn’t feel powerful – he puzzled over what it meant. It should have been easier. Death was natural, something he knew must come to all. Even if that was difficult, it should have worn into him, he should have gotten used to the faint screams and the crashes, the cries of rage and fear, and the choking gasps that hadn’t yet been heard. It had never become bearable.
So he hurried through the mall, head down, hoping to be untouched by death. He hunched his back, and winced occasionally, but he kept on. He needed a toaster.
The people at the mall – shopping, sitting with a drink and a pastry, chatting with their friends – looked after him curiously as he pounded across the floor, wondering.