A Short Story About Malls, Money, and Teenaged Cruelty
'The Outlets at Zion' by Walter Kirn is the latest story from the VICE 2015 fiction issue.
This short story appears in the June 2015 Fiction Issue of VICE Magazine.
At last it was my turn to go: a 200-mile trip, each way, to the Outlets at Zion in St. George. The three kids from church who'd gone the previous years—a reward for their performances in the annual Book of Mormon trivia quiz—would handle the driving. All I had to do was ride along and think about how to spend the money I'd saved. There would be a Nike store, I had learned, an Eddie Bauer, and a Pro Image Sports. If I had anything left over, there was also a shop called Gymboree where I could buy some cute booties or a jumper for little Kylie Kay, my aunt's new daughter.
The morning of the trip I woke up early, no sounds in the house but the creaking of the heater placed to blow directly across my bed. It was late August, but there had been a frost. Summer in Blanding had been short that year, a terrible flare-up of infernal heat that withered gardens and sickened people's pets but was otherwise perfect for my purposes. To earn the money for the splurge, I'd rigged up a snow-cone machine from dirty parts scavenged from a broken air conditioner bought for $10 from my cousin, Orrin, who'd taken the Zion trip 15 years before. I had begged him to describe the outing, but Orrin was not willing "to spoil the suspense."
The snow-cone stand was a wild success. I flavored the fluffy, white shaved ice with homemade syrups strained from jams and jellies canned that winter by my aunt during the busy, excited early weeks of what became an exhausting pregnancy. Some booties would be a nice way to pay her back. I was fairly sure I'd have enough, especially after finding out from Orrin, who had a computer connected to the internet by a satellite unit on his roof, that Pro Image Sports was running a big sale. Three hundred dollars was a lot of cash, and because I'd made the teller at the bank put it all into fives and tens, no 20s, it looked, all spread out on my dresser, like more.
I cooked myself breakfast, working quietly, whipping up what my mother called a "skillet" from three jumbo eggs and the neatly sliced-off edges of various peppers and other vegetables that had been sitting for too long in the fridge. My plan was to skip lunch to save on funds, although I wasn't sure we'd stop for lunch. Maybe I was supposed to bring a sandwich—the instructions for the journey had been vague. I was rinsing my plate when the other kids pulled up, parking on the brown lawn like outlaws and calling me from the windows of a black truck. It was a SuperCab model with a backseat, jacked up on icy chrome wheels and off-road tires that made it look cool, like a wolf about to spring. The leader, the girl who was driving, Mistee Eldredge, must have borrowed it from a boyfriend or a relative. I couldn't wait to hear its stereo. It would be one of those thumpers with lots of bass, the kind that drew warnings from the Blanding cops if you dared to play them loud downtown.
"Not back there. Up here with me," said Mistee when I reached out to open the rear door. "You're the new kid. You're the honored guest."
Mistee leaned way over and unlatched the door for me from the inside. I mounted the running board and climbed in next to her, stopping myself when I went to use the seat belt because I saw she wasn't wearing hers. She smelled like a blend of lemons and rubbing alcohol, and her fox-colored hair was up in a bright clip. The other passengers, two older guys, Jared Slark and Cody Mergens, were jammed in together on a little bench seat that forced them to sit up straight and hold their knees. I felt funny riding with my back to them. They ranked higher than I did in the Aaronic priesthood, and Jared, though shorter than I was and much lighter, with unhealthy-looking purple eyelids and oddly curled-in shoulders, was known as a fighter—a dirty fighter. Cody was milder, handsome, and well built, but his father was Blanding's only women's doctor, which seemed to cause Cody permanent embarrassment. He earned A's in school and didn't say much and was adored by girls he didn't love back. I had known them all since I could remember.
Mistee steered with one finger, but steering was barely required—the highway across the desert ran straight and flat, the only man-made form in sight. Jared dominated the conversation, describing the items on his shopping list in a way that bothered me because it was so specific, so detailed, suggesting that the excursion would be rushed and not the enjoyable, open-ended thing that I'd been hoping for. "I need a red waterproof phone case with its own battery, a watch with a stopwatch feature, and a down sleeping bag that crushes down in its sack to football size and is rated at ten below zero, minimum. I want a pair of Ray-Ban aviators, green lenses, gold frames. And a light-blue Izod polo." As Jared went on, I tried to estimate the cost of this fabulous catalogue of goods. I knew that Jared's family was poor—no man in the house, just his sister and his mother, both of whom worked at the grocery store, as clerks. Jared mowed lawns, but in Blanding that didn't pay much, since grass only grew for a couple of months a year.
Fifty miles along we stopped for gas at a station that we could see coming, growing larger, for a good five minutes before we got there. Cody hopped out and operated the pump as I watched him out the windshield while fingering the hefty roll of bills crammed in the right front pocket of my jeans. I watched the reels spin on the pump and tried to predict when they would stop, amazed when the amount passed $60 and kept on going higher.
"Sorry for this," said Mistee, who'd caught me looking. "The reason it's so steep is that I promised my uncle we'd use premium. Let's go in the store, you and me, and grab some drinks."
"What do you want? I can buy them," I offered.
"Mountain Dew. Diet. But let's go in together."
The man at the register, young, with Jesus hair and a neck tattoo of braided thorns that peeked above the collar of his T-shirt, rang up our pops and a fistful of spicy beef sticks that Mistee set on the counter at the last minute.
"With the fuel," said the clerk. "Unless you want them separate—"
"No, that's fine. Together," Mistee said. She was touching her neck where the man had his tattoo, which I found difficult not to do myself.
"Your total then is seventy-four sixty."
Mistee stepped back from the counter and turned sideways, angling herself toward me, not the register. She did a trick with her face. She blanked it out. A voice, not hers, not the sweet one I was used to, said, "This is yours, kid. Last year it was Cody's. It hurts, but it's sort of supposed to. It's tradition."
I faltered. The blood surged down my arms and pooled in my fingertips. Ten small separate pulses.
"That's more than a pair of sneakers!"
Mistee shrugged. "Whoever started it, blame them, not me."
"Who started it?"
"No one, I told you. It's tradition."
The stereo stayed off and no one asked for it, though Jared seemed to have music in his head to judge by the way his fingers tapped the headrest only an inch or two from my right ear. On the side of the highway, ragged, puffed-up crows hopped and danced on drying scraps of roadkill. The country was growing more scenic, less monotonous, opening into vistas of tall red ridges topped by stands of gnarled, wind-warped cedars. To escape my bad mood and to hide it from the others, I told a story, a family legend, about my great-great-grandma, who was called by the Church in her late teens to leave her home along Idaho's Snake River and travel south on horseback to St. George to marry a middle-aged bishop who'd lost his wife. During an overnight stop in Nephi, Utah, her older brother, her guide and guardian, contracted a fever and sent her on without him, directly into an unexpected blizzard. She made camp in a cave, with her horse tied up outside, but the snow was so heavy, so unceasing, that it sealed her inside, in total, perfect darkness. Time passed, but she had no way to judge how much time. On what turned out to be day three, an angel materialized, neither male nor female, hovering in the gloom with a bright sword whose handle was inlaid with glowing rubies. It pointed the sword, or the sword-shaped beam of light, at the cave's blocked mouth, and the snow began to melt.
"Dewey," Jared said.
"Dewey," Cody echoed.
I was puzzled. "Who's Dewey? Dewey who?"
The boys responded together: "Do we care?"
Mistee laid a long hand with many rings, Indian-style rings of dull, carved silver, on my knee. "I knew that one was coming. Little bastards. Finish your beautiful story."
"That was it."
"She lived? I guess she had to. You wouldn't be here."
We drove for a while.
"Jared," Mistee said, "I'm thinking it's probably time to deal the cards. He needs a chance to win his money back."
"Moron Cody didn't bring the deck."
"Huh?" Cody said. "The deck?"
"You didn't bring it."
"Then we'll do it with license-plate numbers," Mistee said.
The rules of the betting game were complicated, and I suspected they didn't really exist, that they were an invention of the moment. Jared and Mistee went back and forth describing them, revealing a rapport that I sensed was the product of a deeper alliance. In Blanding you never knew who was dating whom, only that the chatty, light relationships I saw at dances and such couldn't account for the pregnancies and marriages that so often and suddenly emerged from them. I felt unready for these mysteries. Thinking of them made me feel lonesome, almost orphaned.
Your gang broke up and then you had your family, with only a couple of years to make the switch.
The bet was $50 a person, winner take all. You chose a color first. When a vehicle of that color appeared, Mistee would drive close enough to it so that everyone could read its plates. Letters had values according to their positions in the alphabet. Numbers were themselves. The players with the highest and the lowest sums divided the pot.
"I don't want to," I said.
"It's a one-in-two chance," Jared said.
"I'd rather not." I flicked a look in the rearview at silent Cody, whose handsome profile was pointed out the window. We would both lose, I knew it—the game was rigged. I felt sure that Cody knew it too, but I detected no emotion in him. Another captive of tradition, the best-looking boy in Blanding, powerless.
I chose blue. There was no way out of this. The vehicle that Mistee said was blue, a low-slung sedan whose backseat was heaped with kitchen pots, looked silver or gray to me, but I said nothing as she shot forward to pass it and read the plate. Cody's job was adding up the score, which came to 99. Ten minutes later all the scores were in, but there was confusion about what they were because of a new stipulation, announced by Jared after a whispered consultation with Cody, that O and zero both counted as nothing. This dropped my score in the way that I'd anticipated, landing it in the middle, tied with Cody's, because the new rule had lowered Mistee's score too, placing it at the bottom. Either someone had done some incredibly fast thinking to lock in this outcome on the fly, or there was a set of ghost rules in reserve that could readjust the scores as needed. An artery in my neck that I'd felt just once before, during a track meet, thrummed and throbbed.
"There's a gun in the glove compartment," Mistee said. "Use it. Shoot us. Otherwise, pay up."
The first sign of St. George was a smudge of dirty air that hung in the sky like a disembodied mustache. With half of my money left, I concentrated on what I might buy, and when Mistee parked the truck, I scrambled out and headed off alone, determined not to think about the drive or let my thoughts skip forward to the drive back. In Pro Image Sports, I browsed a rack of Brigham Young University jerseys. Their tags had red slashes through the regular prices, with the new, lower prices written in purple marker. I chose a sleeveless basketball jersey whose fabric was pricked with little holes. Next I found a Denver Broncos keychain with a built-in laser pointer that projected a tiny, trembling red dot. I aimed it at a salesgirl's back, trying it out. I drew an X on her, then drew a circle around the X, then raised the dot and centered it on her head, clicking it off when she turned around to face me. I looked for a cap then. The caps were marked down too. As I fingered their brims I noticed that my anger had magically subsided, replaced by a lighter, trickier emotion that rose and fell as I touched things, checked their price tags, replaced them on the shelves, touched other things. My throat itched. Was I thirsty? Getting sick? I saw a red backpack I wanted. I put it on. I sidled up to the mirror, turned right, turned left.
"That one's full price," said the salesgirl, startling me. "It's worth it, though. It's nice. It just came in."
I worked my way section by section through the store, shadowed by the girl. Her gaze seemed suspicious and accusatory. I flashed my money at one point to let her know I wasn't a thief, that my presence was legitimate. I passed a rack of shiny track pants, handling each of them along the way.
Ten minutes later I'd piled my selections on the counter by the register, but when the clerk began to ring them up it hit me that it was all over, I'd spent everything.
"I'm sorry," I said, and patted my front pockets, pretending I'd lost my money or forgotten it. The clerk stopped smiling and fixed me with a stare as the salesgirl moved up on his right. She'd seen my roll; she wouldn't fall for this. I glanced at the door and considered running off, but suddenly I felt queasy and unsteady. I fished out the money, a messy clump of bills that had escaped its rubber band. The clerk swiped the backpack's tag across the scanner. It didn't work. He had to scan it twice.
I stood on the sidewalk with two blue sacks suspended from the same curled index finger. The sacks were full, overstuffed, but didn't weigh much. Across the parking lot I spotted Jared wearing his flashy new aviator shades and eating a Subway sandwich on a bench. Beside him was Mistee's denim purse, an orange shoebox with a Nike symbol, and a fluttering stack of paper napkins, one of which blew away across the pavement and out into an undeveloped lot. Then another blew off, but Jared didn't look up—too busy attacking his sandwich. Cody and Mistee were nowhere to be seen, which probably meant they were kissing and making out, betraying Jared. Betrayal was in the air here. After Blanding, St. George was a wilderness of choices, every one of them shadowed by a better one or one that you imagined might be better until you learned otherwise, having tried them all.
I had given up on Gymboree and the present for my little niece. Four dollars wouldn't buy anything worthwhile, not even a combo meal at Subway. Next year, maybe, when I took my cut of whatever the next kid earned and saved. That's how it worked. I clicked the laser pointer in my right hand and aimed the dot at the toe of my right shoe, then swept it gradually across the parking lot, picking out small stones and bits of trash before it reached Jared, sitting there still hungry on the bench.