Bigger Fish
By Michele Briere
Summary: Skipping school can be hazardous to one's health.

***

    The crowd pushed and shoved, not in a deliberately rude manner but in that absent-minded way that happy shoppers decide that they are the only people in the world and have the right of way down the middle of the isles. Entire families walking at a snail's pace, with a tribe of small children and multiple strollers, caused traffic jams behind them and didn't seem to hear people threatening dire consequences if the damned strollers weren't pushed out of the way.
    For the middle of a weekday afternoon, there were a lot of teenagers roaming who should have been in school. Unlike earlier times, truant officers were no longer in existance, and the police didn't particularly care if the teens were educated or not. All they could do was to take the kids back to school or to an empty home, which would do nothing except cause a minor inconvenience for the teens to find their way back to the mall.
    It's hard to say if the teens learned anything at the mall. Discovering the mysteries of math was out of the question; with mommy and daddy's credit cards, they only learned how to forge a signature. Parenting skills weren't gathered; younger siblings, being taught the ways of the world, were left at the game room or food court with pockets full of quarters for the game machines and sugary treats.
    Most parents no longer cared where or what their teens were doing. They'd lecture calmly, logically, under the assumption that their teens were reasonable human beings. Their assumption was incorrect; teenagers weren't human, yet, they were giant hormones without a brain cell between them.
    Smaller siblings knew this, although it was beyond them as to why their parents didn't know it. Smaller siblings would slowly forget, though, as they, too, began to grow into giant hormones. Their memories would slowly return as they approached twenty-five or so. Some were late bloomers, and didn't regain memories of being human until they were about thirty. There were, of course, those odd ones who never rediscovered their humanity and remained teenagers for their entire life.
    His sister was supposed to have taken him to school. He argued, not wanting to deal with the creepy bug mound for the science portion of the day. He saw no point in tearing apart a bug colony just to see how it worked. So she either took him with her, or he would tell their parents where she spent most of the day. Sabrina took him to the mall with her, gave him money, and hissed at him to get lost.
    Bored with the games, Billy wandered out of the food court, pausing to look at the movie posters that lined the wall. The monster ones looked cool. His mother didn't like them, but she'd take him to see one of her girl movies which he would duck out of on an excuse to use the restroom, and he'd slip into something else.
    The main concourse was crowded with people over twice his height. He looked forward to the day when he no longer had to look around fat bellies and big asses in order to see where he was going. The worst was when he got scrunched into someone's large butt. For some reason, fat people were always farting.
    Once more he ran into someone's butt. This time it was because another group of teenagers stopped in mid-schreek at some stupid joke that made absolutely no sense. They were looking at their iPhones at something that was apparently important enough cut into stupid-time. Some new movie, if their dropped jaws were any indication. Something about UFO's. That could be interesting, he thought; science fiction movies were fun.
    He squeezed around bodies and went to the video store to look for something more interesting that the Law & Order boxes his father collected. The guy with the hazy blue eye behind the counter was also looking at his phone. He thought maybe the guy was blind in the hazy eye, but he didn't know how to ask so he just talked to the eye that wasn't hazy when he needed to.
    The two guys were talking as they watched whatever was on the video on the phone. They thought whatever it was must be real because a local news team was reporting it. The second guy had a strange sound in his voice. Billy looked at them and then out at the people outside the store. People were clumping together and looking around. Maybe there was a fight or something, Billy thought.
    He went out to look. Of course, all he could see were butts and bellies. Seeing a large percentage of them moving toward the food court around the corner, he followed. The glass doors were crowded with people looking outside. The light seemed a little darker than it should for the middle of the day. Maybe there was a storm. He heard a rumble and the mall seemed to shake a little. A bad storm, he decided.
    Although, that didn't explain why people were backing away from the doors and screaming.
    A strange lightning bolt struck the concrete near the doors, blasting a large hole in it and shooting pieces of the concrete into the air. Some of them came through the glass, shattering the doors and striking people. Glass stuck in their hair and clothes. The blood was darker than Billy expected.
    The building rumbled again. When getting trampled by screaming people was a real threat, Billy decided to move out of the way. He ducked around people and under the tray sliders at the rice bowl stand and the pizza stand. The walkway to the restrooms was relatively clear of people, so he headed that way until the crowd thinned out.
    Another lightning bolt struck the building. This time it took off part of the wall behind the cookie shop. Billy was getting the feeling it wasn't a storm. As far as he knew, storms didn't take off walls. Unless it was a tornado or hurricane or something, but they didn't get those in Seattle. Sometimes the ground shook from a tremor, but no big storms.
    Sparks shot out from the destroyed ceiling and lights went out. From the hole in the ceiling, Billy saw a gray sky. It moved. Was it clouds? Gray storm clouds? No, it was shiny. He saw silvery reflections off it. But...it can't be real, he told himself. Another bolt struck the building. Billy turned and ran down the hall, following a few people in uniforms from the food court.
    A man in a janitor's uniform ran by, urged Billy to run, and then locked himself in a mop closet.
    Billy ran. He rounded two corners and came across a ramp leading to an unloading dock behind the food court. The view was blocked by more of that reflective gray sky. He looked around. The walls along the bay were lined with crates and other sorts of containers. He tried to climb a crate but couldn't get a grip on the wood. Further down was a metal stand with trays on each of lower the layers, and metal serving dishes on the upper section. It didn't occur to him that it might tip over as he began to climb the side, finding footholds and handholds as he scampered up to the top. Metal tops and bottoms clanged as he pushed his way behind them, thankful for once that he was smaller than most other ten-year old boys.
    Another shadow loomed across the open end of the bay. It was tall and thin, with things poking out from the top and sides. He couldn't make out what it was, only that it was entering the open bay doors. More shadows just like the first joined it. They shortened as they came closer. He couldn't breath or even blink when the creatures came into the loading dock. The things had thin bodies covered in a dark green armor, and something like two wires at the top of their heads. Sparks flickered between the two points of the wires. Long, thin arms ended in hard, rounded hands with three pinchers holding a weapon.
    The creatures were tall, walking on the tips of their long feet, and had legs with two joints instead of just one, like humans. One joint folded forward and the other folded back. One of the creatures folded both joints, making its legs into accordions, and jumped over a pallet of boxes. It sprang up and over as easy as hoping across a puddle of water.
    Billy needed to breathe but he was afraid they'd hear him. Those things on top of their heads looked as though they'd hear anything. Including his pounding heart. One of the creatures paused and looked around. There were clicking sounds echoing off the walls of the bay. Another set of clicking sounds came from another creature. They were talking! Billy felt his stomach bottom out. A warm liquid spread across the front of his jeans.
    The creature closest to him lifted its face, turning slowly in place. Its head revolved almost a complete circle on its spindly neck. There was a soft clink. The creature spun and looked up. Billy drew a deep breath, not having realized that the change in his pocket was so close to falling out. The creature lifted its weapon, pointing it in Billy's direction.
    Over the next rack of pots and pans there was a hole in the wall. An air duct that was missing its grill. Billy kicked out, sending the metal containers down to the creature. He scrambled, hopped to the next rack, and scurried into the air duct. Several blasts hit the wall, showering his feet with pieces of concrete.
    More blasts from those weapons hit the wall. The creatures were trying to make the hole larger. Their clicking voices were close; two of the creatures had their heads at the entrance, trying to see their run-away quarry. Billy had turned a corner, though.
    The smell of food and old grease was strong in the metal tunnel. The closer he got to the food court, the more oily the tunnel became. The sound of people running and screaming came near. There was light up ahead. Billy paused, looked back, and then silently slid up to the grill in front of him.
    Half the food court had been opened like a tin can, letting in the air from outside as well as the dozens of tall, green creatures who stalked people, and shot them. Billy expected to see everyone who was shot laying on the floor. Some people were on the floor, people with bad cuts and burns, a few with pieces of metal or wood sticking out of their bodies. Red blood covered everything. He didn't see anyone who looked like his sister. The people who were shot by the creatures disappeared.
    Those wires on top of the creatures heads were firing even more rapidly than before. All the creatures slowed, turning, looking up. Could they have heard him? He slid backwards until he was at the intersecting air conduits.
    Once more he slid along the greasy metal, heading further into the mall. When he found another grill to peer out of, he saw that he was over the video shop. It was empty. The screaming of the people was fainter, too, and he didn't see anyone in the small part of the mall he could make out from his hole in the wall.
    Carefully tapping on the metal grill, he was able to knock it loose. It slipped! He caught it by the edge, slicing his hand on the metal. He dragged the grill into the hole and put it down. He looked at his hand. It wasn't too bad. He had worse cuts from climbing trees. He wiped his hand on his pants, and looked into the store.
    The floor seemed a long ways down. The counter-top next to the computers looked like wood. If he jumped, though, he'd either not make it or he'd slide off. Either way, the creatures would hear him.
    Maybe if he slid out and hung from the air duct. Then he'd be only a few feet from the floor, instead of being so high up. Billy turned and slowly slid out of the wall, feet first. Was he strong enough to hang on? He was able to go hand over hand on the bars at school, once across and then once back. He slid down, hanging onto the edge of the air duct. There was a crash but not too loud. His feet hit the display of new videos on the wall.
    He considered his position for a moment, and then dropped the couple of extra feet to the floor. He fell, slipping in the DVD's and magazines that littered the floor. Heart pounding, he hid in the cabinet under the computer registers.
    The close quarters reminded him of the pee stain on his pants. Between the blood and the pee, his mother was going to kill him. He could only hope no one would blame him for the mess on the floor. He needed to find clean jeans, or his sister would make fun of him in front of everyone.
    Could the creatures really be aliens? He had to consider the possibility. Large gray metal object in the sky, half the food court missing, and those things with pinchers and antennas. He watched Animal Planet; he had never seen a show with creatures like them, so they had to be aliens. They didn't look like those gray aliens with the big eyes, though.
    The screaming outside was faint. There weren't as many blasts from those weapons. Billy swallowed hard and put his arms around his knees, rocking himself. His stomach was sore. His chest and throat felt like fire was eating away from the inside out. He noticed a blue recycle bin. People didn't always drink everything before throwing the bottles away. His dry throat told him to try.
    Still not hearing anything from nearby, he stuck his head out from under the counter. Nothing shot at him, so he crawled to the blue bin. A plastic water bottle still had a couple of mouthfulls left in it. He drank it. Then he remembered that there was a soda case and snack stand in the store. That was riskier.
    Billy carefully stood and looked around. All was quiet. He tip-toed to the sodas and snacks, grabbed an armload, and took it all back to his spot under the counter. Two waters, three sodas, two candy bars and a moonpie later, he was falling asleep. He did need to pee, though. He looked around. An empty water bottle would do, just like at camp during the night.
    He didn't know what time it was when he woke up. All the power was still off, so the clocks were off, too. Without thinking about it, he stood up as he rubbed his eyes. Something tall stood also.
    When Billy awoke again, he was no longer in the video store. There was a dusty, wooden floor under his face. Someone came near. A woman. She touched his hair and turned her head toward the door, calling out to someone that he was awake. She took his hands, helped him up, and went to a sink where she rinsed out a cloth and wiped his face, hands, and dusty hair.
    She took his hands and led him to the door. He hesitated, digging his feet in and pulling away from her. She gave him a weary smile, told him it was alright, and urged him out of the building.
    Others were sitting on the ground. Some slept, some ate, some talked quietly. What was everyone doing there? he wanted to know. Taking a break from work, she told him. What work? She pointed at the dome far above them. We dig tunnels for the Masters, she said. Their sun was giving them too much radiation and their exoskeletons no longer kept them healthy.
    Billy didn't want to dig tunnels, he wanted to go home. He wanted his parents, and yes, even his sister. His jaw trembled and he tried to suck it up, not wanting to cry in front of these strangers. The woman knelt and hugged him. You must work, she told him in his ear. Work, be productive, or the Masters would take you for something else. What? he asked. She grew pale and shook her head. What? he insisted. She pointed at the bowls that littered the ground. Billy looked closely at them. Small white things, some gray from being in the dirt, were on the ground and in some of the bowls. He was sure they were bones. He looked at his hands and then at the people on the ground. The lady held out her left hand. She had only three fingers on it.
Bigger Fish
The Curse of the Lady Bug
The Man in the Moon
The House on the Corner