The fifth installment of this fiction story sees the characters pay a visit to Cumberland Mall.
"Don't look." Peg looked over Tyler Galt's shoulder. "Jesus, I know that guy."
"Who? Behind me?" Ty twisted around.
"Don't look! See that skinny guy?"
"I can't see if I don't look."
"Well, don't." She pulled him out of the Starbucks line. "Stand still. Be quiet."
"Does everybody you know live at Cumberland Mall? Every time we come here we meet somebody you know."
For once they were having a leisurely afternoon together, and on a Sunday, instead of a hurried meal on their lunch hour. They'd spent an hour shopping first. They found the right kind of gloves, but not masks. Then pizza from Sbarro in the food court. Tyler was very happy with how the day was going. Now this.
Peg peeked around him. "They just came out of Macy's. I said don't look! I know him from the Burgh."
"Pittsburgh? Back in the '90s?"
"I know it's him. Tanager. Gave me a jar full of nickels."
"That's a long time ago. I'm gonna look."
"Well, do it casual, idiot."
Tyler turned around. Why did Peg Teasdale's insults give him such keen pleasure? It's like an addiction. Okay, let's look. "Okay, who?"
"Oh. Tall black guy?"
"Mixed. My God, corduroys and a raggedy golf shirt. Just like when we were kids."
"Carrying a new suit, though. Who's that with him? She looks hot."
"She's old enough to be your mother, Ty. Jackass."
"She looks like Ms. Light, my high school English teacher. Nothing wrong with that."
"There's a lot wrong with that."
"She looks like a Rossetti painting."
"More like a Rubens. Guess you like them plump."
"Maybe. They're coming over to the Haagen Dasz."
"Like she needs it."
"You think that blouse is silk? I like that."
"Shut it — you say stupid things, and we get off track. Shut up and let me spy."
"I can't just stand here like an idiot."
"Yes you can, idiot. No—go wait by the entrance where we came in."
* * *
With Wishes holding all the bags, Moira carried her rum raisin cone and his mint chip Dazzler to a table.
In seconds Wishes was going to town on the mint chip. "This makes me happy, Moira. It's like shopping with my mom. Two peanut butter jars ought to cover the clothes."
She patted his shoulder. "Hon, do you know that girl there? She spent the past five minutes hiding behind that man."
The man was wandering off now, cargo shorts flapping against his knees. Good calves, she thought.
The girl was under five feet, a pale red-haired doll, wearing a little green dress.
Wishes looked up. "Wow, that's M&M, from the Burgh. Hey, M&M! I tried calling you in 1998, but they said you'd been adopted. Who adopted you?"
"Teasdales. Hey, Tanager." The girl smiled, and Moira thought, She must have worked hard, learning to imitate a real smile so well.
* * *
Ronnie looked at her phone again. No calls, no text. WillEm was ten minutes late. Agreed-upon time and place. I'm the only idiot here with a pink carnation behind her ear. This is the last time. No more making blind dates over the Internet. At least, no more dates based solely on mutual enjoyment of the original Outer Limits episodes.
I should use Venn diagrams to keep track of all the guys to forget about, she thought. After Lamar, she'd crossed off the set of "guys met at cons." Probably some overlap between those two sets.
What did that leave? How do normal people do this?
What kind of a name was WillEm, anyway? She'd asked once if it might be a typo. The e-mailed reply was, "WillEm knows the spelling of WillEm's name." Referring to yourself by name all the time — who does that?
Usually "odd" worked for her. But lately, between Lamar and WillEm, "odd" was looking like "creepy". Except for Wishes, who was odd but nice. Just too damn nice. Out of the question.
She scanned the crowd from her seat on one of the couches against the wall by H&M. She knew WillEm liked sweets; his last text said "WillEm will share WillEm's sweets with Ronnie." Is that normal? I should forget about dating until I find a job. Maybe she should check down by the Cinnabon.
Fifteen minutes late. She grabbed her sling pack and stood up. She sat back down. Let's review. Ten days ago you left everything and moved three hundred miles because of a con hookup. Now you're abandoning a date, maybe a relationship because he's a quarter hour late. Cut the guy some slack. He says "happy in the pants" instead of "horny", so you know he's got a sense of humor. Just needs somebody who gets him.
She closed her eyes and tried to focus on a moment from a few mornings ago. Down by the Chattanooga. I mean Chattahoochee. The river was smooth and quiet, just after dawn, before the day's heat revved up. Happy place. Peaceful. Damn it, Ronnie, be brave.
She exhaled, opened her eyes. There were two people smiling down at her.
Side by side, a short, rotund man, and a short, almost spherical woman. Between them they held a Cinnabon bag. They wore identical blue overalls and fat-cheeked smiles.
The overalls bore embroidered names on the upper left chest. (Breast; really, they both had breasts, and his were the same size as hers.) The names were Will and Em.
Abruptly, they spoke in unison. Oddly, their combined voices almost matched the modulated male tenor she'd imagined while reading the mediocre poetry in WillEm's e-mails. "WillEm has sweets for Ronnie." They held out the bag. The sugar smell was almost a haze in the air. Her stomach audibly growled. And then they said, "Ronnie makes WillEm happy in the pants."
In her mind's eye Ronnie reviewed the dozens e-mails from WillEm. Not a single pronoun; never a specific statement from WillEm that WillEm was in fact a male. Or that WillEm was one person, rather than two short fat people who considered themselves one person. They love not wisely but too well. Too much togetherness. These were crazy people.
Oh my God, Ronnie thought, I'm never having sex again. I think my nipples just inverted.
She looked from Will to Em. It's like an Outer Limits alien group mind. Happy place.
Wishes had walked with her to that spot on the Chattahoochee. He'd said, "I never get lost if I keep track of where the river is. Or if I have a decimal latitude and longitude. GPS."
WillEm was waiting for an answer. Ronnie laughed and said, "Nope!" She left the carnation on the couch, left WillEm behind and headed for the escalators, laughing without covering her mouth. She found Wishes was on her mind; now she had a funny story for him.
Downstairs, she found Wishes in person, with that sexy middle-aged lady, Shane's Aunt something.
Wishes waved at her. He was looking up at the balcony; she didn't turn, but knew what he was looking at. He said, "Those people look like Tweedledee and Tweedledum."
* * *
Tyler was playing Angry Birds when Peg finally showed up. "So?"
"It's like a sign. He's about to start working at BPM."
She looked at him with the flat pitiless stare he saw in the dark when he lay trying to sleep. Like a Serpent Goddess. "Okay. I heard M&M. What's that?"
"Mary Margaret. Me, idiot. Tanager is our way in."
"But don't the cops always look for an inside man?"
"Idiot, the cops won't ever be called. We've talked about this for weeks. We stop talking, and we do it. Say it."
"We're going to rob Bridgehead, Pikeman & Markham."
"No, we're going to burgle Bridgehead, Pikeman & Markham. Quick, clean, and we're out in twenty minutes."
"Or twenty years."
"Twenty minutes. Trust me. We're doing the right thing." She patted his cheek. "Think of where we'll be in six months."
"No, not together. Think of a place you'll be happy. Don't tell me where it is."