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How Orbiton Killed Mulkarth

           On the last Saturday morning before Christmas, Celeste asked her children, one by one, if they wanted to spend the day with her at Quaintbridge Mall in Heavenburg, finishing up a little Christmas shopping and eating at the food court, maybe catching a movie at the attached multiplex, and just soaking up the busy holiday spirit. Celeste didn’t ask her husband Pete to come along because getting away from him for a while was the main reason she wanted to spend the day at the mall. Things had not been good between them for the last few weeks and there had been an explosive argument the previous night. Celeste decided that any hope of salvaging the holiday for the kids depended on her and Pete being in each other’s presence as little as possible, saving their dwindling patience for traditional family events such as key dinners, gift opening, car rides to the grandparents’ houses, and so on. Once New Year’s was past, they could reevaluate. Reevaluate everything.

               But interesting the children in spending the whole day at the mall in Heavenburg with their mom proved more difficult than Celeste expected. Which hurt.

               Evelyn wouldn’t answer Celeste’s repeated knocks on her bedroom door. Then, when Celeste tried the knob, she found the door locked, which was not allowed unless Evelyn was actively in the process of changing clothes, but Celeste knew that her daughter would still be asleep at 7:30 in the morning on a Saturday over Christmas break, so that meant the door had been locked all night. Celeste glared at the closed door as if the sheer force of her irritation would allow her to see beyond it to her teenage daughter burrowed into her bed under an absurd mound of blankets with a pillow clamped over her head. “Evelyn,” called Celeste, burying her irritation under maternal sweetness as best she could. “Do you want to come to the mall with me today?” No reply. Well, Celeste wasn’t going to debase herself begging Evelyn to join her. She had other daughters. Evelyn’s presence would not make or break this trip.

               Jeni was already dressed and reclined on her bed reading a book. She had discovered an unexpected love of reading the moment she turned 12, and Celeste had at first been delighted, but now, six months later, she was over it. It had begun to seem like a smug, exclusionary hobby, or maybe it was just the way Jeni went about it.

Celeste made a small noise in the back of her throat in hopes of drawing Jeni’s eyes. It failed. “Do you want to come to the mall with me, Jeni? You can read your book in the car on the way there and back.”

               Being directly addressed also did not cause Jeni to look up. “No,” she said. “I’m reading.”

               “But you can read in the car,” said Celeste.

               “I’ll get carsick,” said Jeni.

               “If you don’t want to come, just say so,” said Celeste.

               “I don’t want to come,” said Jeni.

               “But why not?” asked Celeste.

               “I don’t like the mall,” said Jeni. “And I have no reason to go there.”

               “But it’s fun,” said Celeste. “We can spend the whole day together.”

               “It’s only fun for people who like it,” said Jeni. “And, the whole day? Woof. Now I’m definitely not going.”

               Amelia was asleep, but unlike her oldest sister, she had left her door unlocked per house rules. Celeste crouched next to the expensive, elegant bed that had been last year’s Christmas gift and shook her 9-year-old’s shoulder. “Amelia, honey? Do you want to go to the mall in Heavenburg? Just you and me, all day long, doing whatever we want.”

               Amelia’s eyes opened to venomous slits. “No,” she said. “You were mean to Dad last night.”

               “I know,” said Celeste. “We didn’t intend for you kids to see all that. And I’m sorry. But your dad was mean to me, too.”

               “Well, I’m not going to the mall with him either,” said Amelia.

               “But the reason I’m going is to give Dad some space,” said Celeste. “That way we can calm down and have a nice Christmas together.”

               “Then why do I need to go?” asked Amelia. “Dad doesn’t need space from me.”

               “Your other sisters won’t come with me,” said Celeste. “And I don’t want to go alone. It’ll be too sad if I go alone.”

               “Take Perry,” said Amelia. She opened her eyes a bit wider so she could gauge her mother’s reaction, seeking any hint of hesitation so she could use it against Celeste as another sign of her unfitness as a mother.

               But Celeste would not give her the satisfaction. She knew Amelia’s ways. “I’d be happy to take Perry,” she said. “I’m going to invite him next. But it would be even more fun with the three of us.”

               “Maybe if you hadn’t been so mean to Dad,” said Amelia. “You told him he-”

               “I know what I told him!” said Celeste. Her knees cracked as she rose from her crouch. She almost said more, but she could tell that Amelia was in a state of hyper-awareness, noting every detail of the interaction, so she turned and left the room, closing the door softly behind her.

               Celeste did not want to invite Perry. Not now. She had planned on asking him as a courtesy just so he wouldn’t feel left out, but that had been when she’d thought one or two or three of his sisters would be accompanying her. She figured that when he heard who was going – and, crucially, the one person who was definitely not going – he would categorize it as a girls’ thing and decline in favor of staying home with his toys and cartoons and father. Or, even if he had said he wanted to come, at least a sister or two or three would be there to help keep track of him. He listened to his sisters better than he listened to his mother. Celeste thought Perry had picked up his disregard for her from Pete. Perry idolized Pete.

               But now that none of the girls were going to the mall with her, Celeste was nervous that Perry would want to go, he wouldn’t be able to resist that promise of direct attention even from his less-preferred parent, plus he’d probably assume a steady stream of treats to keep him pacified. He was just such a handful, and no longer in a cute way. He was in first grade, now, and while he still had his cute moments, Celeste tried to remember the last time she’d thought of cuteness as one of Perry’s defining traits. Maybe when he was 4? Two years ago. She couldn’t not invite him, though, now that Amelia had observed the sensitivity of the subject. Amelia would check with Perry to make sure he’d been asked. She would happily hurt Perry’s feelings if it meant exposing Celeste’s favoritism. And Celeste really did not want to go to the mall alone, and she really did not want to stay in the house, so maybe taking Perry would be the best of the bad options that remained. Still, when Celeste found Perry watching cartoons in the basement with a bowl of cereal on the floor in front of him and droplets of milk sprinkled liberally across the carpet between the lip of the bowl and the lips of his mouth, a part of her hoped he would refuse.

               Instead, Perry sprang to his feet and asked, “Can I get a toy?”

               “Christmas is coming up,” said Celeste. “You’ll get lots of toys then.”

               “But can I get a toy today?” asked Perry. “At the mall with you.”

               “I don’t know,” said Celeste. “We’ll have to see.”

               “I’ll get dressed so fast!” cried Perry, and he barreled up the stairs in a way that made Celeste wonder if maybe he had been 3 years old the last time she’d found him to be consistently cute. The bowl of cereal, not even half consumed, was left for Celeste to deal with. She stooped to retrieve it, then stopped herself. Why not leave it for someone else to deal with? And she left the TV on, too. In fact, she turned the volume up a few notches before she went upstairs to make sure Perry’s hurried clothing choices were more sensible than usual.


               The drive to Quaintbridge Mall was trying for Celeste. Perry was excited about the trip – too excited, really – which meant he wouldn’t shut up. Celeste had struggled with how much to bundle him. It was gray-cold and slushy-wet outside, but she knew as soon as they got inside the mall, Perry would be whining to shed his coat, scarf, gloves, and stocking hat, and she didn’t want to be lugging his discarded clothing around all day. She had opted to under-dress him, but she threw a few backup items in the trunk in case they got stranded on a country road in the mostly-empty farmland between Multioak and Heavenburg.

               Celeste tuned the car radio to a station that switched to a 24-hour Christmas format the second the clock struck midnight on Black Friday. The music, and even the commercials, helped her endure Perry’s incessant backseat chatter, although it annoyed her when Perry would parrot Pete’s critical opinions of certain songs. Perry kept begging to listen to a cassette tape instead, but the only tapes in the car were Pete’s, so Celeste denied the request. By the time the 1-hour drive concluded in a parking spot far distant from the Quaintbridge Mall main entrance, Celeste was eager for the clamor of shoppers to drown out not only her son’s inanities, but her own un-motherly thoughts.

               “Why did you park so far away?” asked Perry.

               “Did you see any closer spots?” asked Celeste. “I’m not going to waste time circling when we’re perfectly capable of walking.”

               “But I’ll get cold,” said Perry.

               “Not if we walk fast,” said Celeste. “That’ll get your blood pumping.”

               “Can I get my heavy coat out of the trunk?” asked Perry.

               “No,” said Celeste. “Because then I’ll be stuck carrying it around all day. Let’s go.”

               Hand in hand, mother and son speed-walked across the parking lot, weaving around dark puddles, slower-moving mallgoers headed in the same direction, and cars backing heedlessly from spots that Perry could not resist identifying as nearer to the entrance than the one on which Celeste had settled. Just outside the mall’s giant glass doors, Celeste and Perry passed by clots of hunched smokers leaning against decorative planters. “Are those people smoking cigarettes?” asked Perry.

               Celeste didn’t answer. She knew that he knew that they were.

               As soon as they stepped inside, a wave of merry noise engulfed them, a tide of human voices not competing with the Christmas music reverberating through the cavernous space, but suspended within it. Plus the other mall noises: the escalators and elevators, the massage chairs, the demo merchandise at the junk-toy kiosks, the food-prep machinery behind the counters of food court food stands, thousands of brisk footfalls on floor tiles, and more. It was the noise more than the sight of thronging shoppers which triggered a small alarm in Celeste’s gut. She took Perry by the shoulder and pulled him aside so that they would not obstruct the paths of enterers and exiters. She knelt next to her son and looked him in the eye. “You are to stay near me, understood?”

               “I know,” said Perry, widening his eyes at the depths of the mall visible over her shoulder.

               “Don’t tell me you know,” said Celeste. “Tell me you understand.”

               “What’s the difference?” asked Perry, his eyes darting back to Celeste’s as he sensed an opportunity to be difficult.

               “One of them means you’re trying to dismiss what I’m saying as unnecessary because you think you don’t need my guidance,” said Celeste. “The other means you’re actually listening to me and absorbing what I’m saying.”

               “But what if I do get lost?” asked Perry.

               Celeste knew he knew the answer to this question too, but it wasn’t a bad time to review. “You tell me,” she said. “We’ve talked about this a lot.”

               “Ryan’s family has a cell phone,” said Perry. “If we had a cell phone, then if I got lost, I could use a pay phone to call you and tell you where to find me.”

               “Ryan’s family is rich,” said Celeste. “We’re not. Come on, Perry, tell me what you’ll do if we get separated in a store.”

               “Find someone who works there and tell them I can’t find my mom,” said Perry.

               “What if we get separated out in the main part of the mall?” asked Celeste.

               “Find someone who works for the mall,” said Perry. “Or go into a store and find someone who works there.”

               “And what will they probably do?” asked Celeste.

               “Ask me your name,” said Perry. “And then call for you over the loudspeaker thing.”

               “Right,” said Celeste. “And what will you tell them my name is?”

               “Celeste Jade Marrow,” said Perry.

               “Don’t use my middle name,” said Celeste. “They don’t need to know my middle name.”

               “But what if there’s another Celeste Marrow here?” asked Perry. “And then she comes and takes me instead?”

               “That won’t happen,” said Celeste. “I’ve never even heard of another Celeste Marrow. But even if there were another Celeste Marrow and she happened to be in the same mall as us at the same time, then when she came to get you, you could just tell the workers who helped you that she’s not your mom.”

               “But what if she looked exactly like you, too?” asked Perry. What had started as an attempt to annoy Celeste appeared to have warped into a real worry. He was freaking himself out.

               “If she has my same first and last name and looks exactly like me, then what would keep her from having my middle name, too?” asked Celeste. “So there’s no reason to use my middle name. But you won’t have to worry about any of this if you just don’t get separated from me. Right?” She figured she could use her son’s illogical fear to her advantage for once.

               “I know what I’ll do!” said Perry, abruptly triumphant. “If we get separated and I have to get a worker to call for you over the loudspeaker thing, then, when you come to get me, I’ll ask you a question only you would know the answer to. That way I know it’s you!” He was proud of his solution. Too proud, perhaps. Proud to the point of being eager to put his solution into practice.

               “This is silly,” said Celeste, standing upright and adjusting the strap of her purse over her shoulder. “We’re not going to get separated. Understood?”

               “I know,” said Perry. “Can I have a snow cone now?”

               “No,” said Celeste. “It’s not even 9:30. You can have a snow cone after lunch.”

               “So what are we going to do until then?” asked Perry, less whinily than Celeste would have guessed.

               “Walk around,” said Celeste. “I have a little more shopping to do. I want to see if they have the book Jeni wants at Book Region.”

               “OK,” said Perry. He extended his hand for Celeste to take, something she hadn’t seen him do for years, probably not since the last time cuteness had been one of his defining features. She took it, but she didn’t trust it. A gesture so calculated could scarcely be cute.


               Celeste knew she hadn’t succeeded in putting Perry off thinking about his plan to identify her in case he got lost, but she hoped that if she were vigilant enough, she could foil his attempts to manufacture a separation firmly enough to weary him of trying. But she had barely located the Fantasy section in the back corner of Book Region’s second floor – it was far larger than any mall book store needed to be, in Celeste’s opinion – when she looked around and saw that Perry was gone. Celeste had thought that he, the child, would be the one to get distracted and lose focus on whatever plan he was hatching, but instead it was her, the adult, who had let her practical mission cloud her awareness. And now Perry had slipped away. Unless he had been lured away and nabbed by a creep? What if Celeste’s aggravation over what she assumed was Perry’s deliberate disobedience prevented her from looking hard enough for him and she never saw him again, and was then blamed for the loss of Perry by Pete and all three of her daughters? It didn’t look like Book Region had the book Jeni wanted anyway. Celeste didn’t know where she’d find it if Book Region didn’t have it.

               Walking perpendicular to the ends of the nearest aisles and glancing down them one after the other, Celeste kept a lookout for Perry’s green sweatshirt and close-cropped blond head amid the browsing customers who were not her son. No one would be able to accuse her of not trying to find him. That said, she expected to hear her name over the public address system at any moment. The only surprise when it came a few minutes later was that Perry hadn’t used her middle name after all.

               “Celeste Marrow, will you please come to the Customer Service desk at the front of the store? Celeste Marrow, come to the Customer Service desk at the front of the store. Your son is here.” The voice, though distorted, was male and youthful.  

               Celeste was conscious of not appearing to be in a hurry as she made her way to the escalator and rode down to Book Region’s ground floor. She didn’t want all these strangers to think of her as the panicked mother who had somehow lost track of her precious boy. They didn’t know the context, they didn’t know what Perry was like, and she didn’t want them pitying her, feeling relieved for her, judging her, none of that.

               At the front of the store, Celeste found Perry actually sitting on the Customer Service desk, his feet dangling as he sucked a lollipop. A young man in a blue Book Region uniform shirt and khaki pants stood next to Perry, one hand on the boy’s shoulder in a posture of consolation. Perry did not appear to be in need of consolation. When Perry saw Celeste approaching, he narrowed his eyes, looking her up and down for visible signs of an imperfect copy, a faulty clone, flaws in her disguise.

               “I’m here,” said Celeste to the Book Region employee. His name tag read, “Tag.” Was that a joke? The name “Tag” on a name tag?

               “You are…?” Tag left the end of the sentence blank for Celeste to fill.

               “I’m Celeste Marrow. This is my son, Perry.” She reached for Perry’s arm, but he pulled back from her in a way that she noted Tag noting.

               “Is this your mom?” Tag asked, putting his arm around Perry’s shoulders and leaning close, keeping a watchful eye on Celeste as if she might try to snatch Perry and make a run for it.

               “I’m not sure yet,” said Perry.

               “Come on, Perry,” said Celeste. “Stop wasting this man’s time.” She shifted her attention to Tag, summoning phony gratitude for the unwitting role he had played in this family drama. “Thank you so much for helping us. I was so worried! And for the lollipop, too. You didn’t have to do that.”

               Tag, still puzzling over Perry’s declaration, said, “You’re not sure if this woman is your mother?”

               “I have to ask her a question that only she would know,” said Perry. “That’s the idea that I came up with to be safe.”

               “He thinks I might be an impostor,” said Celeste. “Someone who looks and sounds exactly like his mom, but who isn’t really her.”

               “Do you have a twin?” asked Tag.

               “No,” said Celeste. “This is a problem of his own invention.”

               “Wow,” said Tag. “You’re really creative, Perry. Just like my little brother.” His eyes took on a glossy sheen as tears began to form on their surfaces. He blinked them back, then set a protective expression in place on his face.

               “And only I would know about your plan, Perry,” said Celeste. “So that proves I’m your mom. Let’s go.”

               “No!” said Perry. “I have to ask my question.”

               “Then hurry up and ask!” said Celeste.

               “Hmm,” said Perry, sucking hard on his lollipop. “Hmmmmmmm.”

               “If this plan were actually good, you would already have a question ready,” said Celeste, hoping that a little spite would spur him along.

               It worked. “I do have a question ready,” said Perry. “How did Orbiton kill Mulkarth?”

               Celeste stared at her son with every ounce of the blankness she felt. To her, his words sounded like complete gobbledygook. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said.

               “Then you must not be my mom,” said Perry. “Because I told my mom all about how Orbiton killed Mulkarth in the car on the way here today.” He was not smug about it. In fact, he looked frightened, as if he had honestly expected Celeste to be able to easily answer his question.

               “Perry, listen, I can’t pay attention for very long when you talk about your cartoons. They just don’t interest me. I’m glad you like them, but I don’t.”

               “But I asked you if you thought how Orbiton killed Mulkarth sounded cool and you said yes!” said Perry.

               “Sometimes I say things without thinking,” said Celeste.

               “You’re not my mom,” said Perry. “My mom listens to me.”

               Celeste turned to Tag. “Look, you can tell I’m his mom, right? You can tell he’s just being weird?”

               “Uh, I don’t know,” said Tag. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”

               Celeste was tempted to walk away. Let Perry stew at the Book Region Customer Service desk for a while. See if that would change his tune. But she didn’t know how Tag would respond. He might contact mall security, which would only make this mess bigger. And then it struck her. She knew how Orbiton had killed Mulkarth. She remembered that when Perry had explained it to her, she’d thought about how stupid his cartoons were and she’d wondered if they were having a negative effect on him, if they were making Perry stupider. “Orbiton punched Mulkarth through the sun,” said Celeste. “That’s how she killed him.”

               “Yes!” said Perry, relief overcoming his features. He hopped down from the desk, the jolt of his heels on the floor making him gag on the lollipop stick.

               “Throw that away,” said Celeste.

               “You are my mom,” said Perry, tossing the mushy paper lollipop stick in the garbage can next to the Customer Service desk.

               “Thank you,” said Celeste, giving Tag a perfunctory wave. Then she hustled Perry out of the store and into the mall concourse. She looked for a bench, but they were all occupied, so she forced Perry to sit on the edge of a planter and crouched down to look into his face, gripping both of his hands in hers. “You’re pretty proud of yourself, huh?”

               “I did what I was supposed to do,” said Perry. “To be safe.”

               “You got separated on purpose,” said Celeste.

               “Nah ah.”

               “Yes, you did. I know you did.”

               Perry paused to consider the probable efficacy of another flat denial.

               “Listen to me,” said Celeste. “You don’t deserve a bribe. But I do not want to go home until we have to. But we’ll have to go home if you keep behaving like this. So if you don’t get separated from me again, I’ll buy you a toy at the end of the day. Understood?”

               Perry nodded with feigned solemnity. Or maybe it wasn’t feigned. Maybe his greed for toys was enough to make him approach this agreement with real solemnity. But then a worrying thought occurred to him. Celeste watched the evidence of its bloom on his face. “But what if I get separated on accident?” he asked. “Or what if it’s your fault?”

               “Then you still don’t get a toy,” said Celeste.

               “That isn’t fair!”

               “I know,” said Celeste. “So you’d better make extra sure it doesn’t happen. You’d better stick close to me no matter what.”

               She saw a ripple of resentment go through her son, but he gave her a grudging nod. “I won’t get separated.”

               “Good,” said Celeste. “Want to go to the pet store and look at the puppies?”

               “Sure,” said Perry, hopping up from the planter. He offered his hand for Celeste to take. It was a little cuter this time.


The remainder of the morning, lunch at the food court, and Perry’s post-lunch snow cone all came and went without incident. The promise of a toy of as-yet-undetermined value kept Perry in line. He was always at Celeste’s elbow. He even chided her for walking too quickly, or for moving more than a few steps away from him. It was an overcorrection for sure, but Celeste supposed it was better than the alternative, especially since, as time passed, the volume of people at the mall continued to climb.

               After a bathroom stop, Celeste and a protesting Perry went to Rappleman’s – one of Quaintbridge Mall’s giant anchor stores – so Celeste could look for a scarf. Something pretty. She might be dating again before the cold weather was gone, right? Who knew?

               But she hadn’t even located the scarf section – or, if there wasn’t a dedicated scarf section, then the section in which one might find scarves – when a surge of bag-laden women, many of whom were wearing scarves Celeste would have been interested in owning herself, came between her and Perry at a convergence of several aisles, and when they had passed, Perry was gone.

               Celeste hurried after the group of women, thinking perhaps Perry had been caught up in the middle of their bunch, swept along in the stream. They weren’t moving fast, so Celeste cut through the racks of winter coats and tables of folded sweaters in order to pull ahead of them and position herself in their path. As the edge of the group broke around her, Celeste pawed her way through their center, but found no trace of Perry, and she emerged empty-handed. Maybe Perry had been frightened of the mass of women, or, more likely, worried that they would ruin his chance for a new toy, and had sought a way around them rather than through them. Maybe he’d gone in among the racks and lost his way, or had arrived at the point where Celeste had been after she’d already headed in the wrong direction in search of him. Or was this intentional? Was he testing her resolve to deny him a toy even if the separation did not seem to be his fault? Had Perry decided he would rather collect another concrete example of his mother’s unfairness than get a new toy? Or was he consciously trying to force that choice upon her: be weak or be a villain. That was the kind of tactic his father would certainly employ in a similar situation.

               Perry had seemed intent on staying near to Celeste, though. It would be odd for him to reverse course so suddenly with no prior sign of slipping motives. Well, whatever the case, he did know what to do when separated from his mother in the mall, Celeste was sure of that much. She only hoped he would not opt for the identification question this time. Knowing that what’s-her-name had killed what’s-his-name by punching him through the sun had been a lucky break. Celeste did not think she was capable of replicating that kind of clutch response.

               “Celeste Marrow. Come to the Security Window.”

               That was it. One announcement, then back to the Christmas music. No directions to the Security Window, no mention of the fact that her son was there, although what else could it be about? Celeste assumed the Security Window was on the first floor of Rappleman’s, but after a futile circuit thereof, she decided she needed to ask an employee, which should not have been as difficult as it turned out to be. The main issue, Celeste thought, was that the Rappleman’s uniforms looked too much like regular clothes. After asking two other people if they were employees and being told in offended tones that they were not, Celeste finally found an actual employee crouched behind a display with a tiny hand-vacuum. The employee gave Celeste directions to the Security Window, which she said was actually on the second floor, and then returned to her surreptitious vacuuming. Celeste followed the employee’s directions perfectly, but when she arrived at the Security Window, a narrow booth set into the wall with no identifying signs of any kind, the portly man squeezed into told her that there were two Security Windows, and that she was probably at the wrong one. He gave her directions to the other Security Window and she set out for it in a fury, pushing through shoppers and merchandise with equal disdain.

               Celeste arrived at the other Security Window in time to see a woman she’d never seen before leading her son away by the hand. For his part, Perry looked terrified, but he also looked compliant.

               “Stop!” shouted Celeste, breaking into a trot.

               She saw the woman’s knuckles whiten as she tightened her grip on Perry’s hand. The little boy winced. He looked at Celeste with pleading eyes, but did not pull away.

               “Who are you?” asked Celeste. “Let go of my son.” She turned to this other portly man in this other Security Window. “Aren’t you supposed to be security? Why are you letting this stranger take my son?”

               The man shrugged. “The kid said she was his mom.”

               “Perry, is that true?”

               The blood was drained from Perry’s face. He looked from Celeste to the woman holding onto him and back.

               “I answered his questions correctly,” said the woman. “All of them. I proved that I’m his real mother.” She was at least a head shorter than Celeste. Her hair was a different color – dyed red instead of natural brown. She had a rounder nose than Celeste, thinner lips, fuller cheeks, smaller ears, wider-set eyes. She didn’t look anything like Celeste.

               “You don’t look anything like me,” said Celeste.

               “And why should I look like you?” asked the woman.

               “Because I’m his mother,” said Celeste. “Perry, come on, does this woman look anything like your mom?”

               “She answered the questions,” said Perry. “All of them. I thought of more and more and she knew all the answers. She must be my mom.”

               “What were the questions?” asked Celeste.

               “Um,” said Perry. “I asked what planet Sarthyn is from.”

               “Planet Warkoff,” said the woman.

               “See?” said Perry. “She knows. From when I told her in the car. And I asked her who cut off Balexx’s leg.”

               “Hurvester,” said the woman.

               “See?” said Perry. “See?”

               “Perry, isn’t this show you’re talking about a popular show?” asked Celeste. “Isn’t it possible that she knows the answers not because you told her in the car, but because she’s seen the show?”

               “No,” said the woman. “Why would I watch a kids’ show? He told me in the car! Did you know the answers to those questions, you interfering witch?”

               “Yes,” said Celeste, lying directly through her teeth.

               “Liar,” said the woman. “Perry, ask her another one.”

               Perry stared into Celeste’s eyes. She could see him trying to select an easy one, willing her to get it right. “What kind of tree is the Jekistar Fort made out of?”

               Celeste thought hard. She tried to remember. She couldn’t.

               “There,” said the woman. “That proves it. She isn’t your mother. And even though no more proof should be required, the Jekistar Fort is made out of an Izarash tree. Now come on, Perry, it’s past your bedtime!”

               “Bedtime?” Perry was shocked. “It’s…it’s still just the afternoon!”

               “Sir!” said Celeste, turning back to the man in the Security Window. “Can’t you intervene here? Can’t you see how ridiculous this is?”

               “The kid says that’s his mom,” said the man. “If I’m gonna get out of this booth to deal with anyone, it’s gonna be you.”

               The woman renewed her efforts to pull Perry away, but he was resisting now. The sight of Celeste, or maybe just the mention of bedtime, had awakened his rebellious spirit, the only time Celeste had ever been thankful to witness its emergence.

               Celeste didn’t crouch, she knelt, both knees on the floor. “You have to ask us questions we couldn’t know from watching your cartoons, Perry! Ask us what color our shoe rack in the mud room is, ask us what happened to the garden last spring, ask us how much we spent on fireworks last 4th of July!”

               She could see the lights go on in Perry’s head as he grasped the concept.

               “No more tests,” said the woman. “As your mother, I forbid it. It’s disrespectful after I’ve already proven myself.”

               Perry bit the woman’s hand and she yelped and released him. She made another grab for him, but he sprang away. Celeste thought the woman would flee, now, but no, whatever her malign intention, it made her persistent. “Fine!” she said. “Ask your question. But when I get you home, you will be punished.”

               “All right,” said Perry. “If you’re my mom, then what did you call my dad while you were fighting with him last night?”

               The woman blinked at Perry, then glanced at Celeste as if she might give her a clue. It was clear that she realized she’d have to make a wild guess. “I called him a pig.”

               “Wrong,” said Perry. He turned to Celeste. “Mom, what did you call Dad last night while you were fighting with him?”

               “She already got it wrong,” said Celeste. “Let’s go, Perry.”

               “But you got the Jekistar Fort question wrong,” said Perry. “And I told you all about it in the car. That one was so easy!”

               “Yes,” said the woman, sensing that she still had a chance. “So easy, Perry, you told me all about the Jekistar Fort and the Izarash tree.”

               Celeste ignored the woman. Perry did, too.

“I called your dad a lot of things,” said Celeste.

               “I know,” said Perry. “Like what?”

               “A loser,” said Celeste. “A failure. A monster. A maniac. Um, a misogynist. A serial manipulator.”

               A smile spread across Perry’s face as Celeste went through the litany of insults. The contrast was odd. “It’s you,” he said. “You’re Mom.”

               “Yes,” she said. She turned again to the Security Window. “See this? This means that woman was trying to kidnap my son. You should arrest her.”

               “Too late,” said the man. “She’s getting away. There she goes. She’s gone.”

               “Use your radio to tell the other security guards what she looks like!”

               “What radio?” asked the man. “And I forget what she looked like.”


Back in the main concourse, Perry, clinging to Celeste’s hand, said, “I know I can’t get a toy, now, but it really was an accident. All those people came between us and I tried to find you, but I couldn’t.”

“I believe you,” said Celeste. She considered the situation. This could be one of Perry’s fake good attitudes he mustered when he wanted something. But she didn’t think so. “You can still get a toy. But stay close, Perry, please.”

“I will,” said Perry, his voice shaky. He interlocked his fingers with his mother’s and they made their way toward GiddyToy as a chain of two links, buffeted by the crowd, but inseparable.

Inseparable until, as they were getting onto the glass elevator that would deposit them on the second floor right next to the GiddyToy entrance, a man pushing a double-wide stroller packed full of chubby twin girls in matching pink snowsuits ran over the back of Celeste’s foot, scraping her heel and knocking her shoe off. In pained surprise, Celeste released Perry’s hand just as he stepped onto the elevator. As she tried to slip her shoe back on, she looked up in time to see Perry’s hand reaching out for her between the long coats of two tall shoppers who had followed him onto the elevator, trapping him inside as the doors slid shut. Celeste, holding her shoe in one hand, hobbled backward as she tried to catch a glimpse of Perry through the elevator’s glass sides as it rose, but her view of his small form was obstructed by the people packed in around him. When the elevator reached the second floor and unloaded, Celeste tried to call up for Perry to stay on the elevator, to ride it down to her, but she could not tell if he had heard her or done what she said, and when the elevator returned to the ground floor and the people on board streamed out, Perry was not among them. Celeste hurried onto the elevator and installed herself in the front corner in an effort to be one of the first to disembark. She was not a claustrophobic person, but she struggled to breathe as more and more people wedged themselves into the small transparent box.

Celeste couldn’t help but think of the woman who had tried to trick Perry into thinking she was his mom. Would she try again? Maybe she wouldn’t settle for deception this time. Maybe she’d use force, threaten him. Maybe it wouldn’t be her, but someone like her. They should have just forgotten the toy and headed home. Celeste had already gotten separated from Perry twice at this mall in the span of a few hours, why had she believed it wouldn’t happen again? It was her own selfishness, wasn’t it? She’d convinced herself it wouldn’t happen again because she hadn’t wanted to go home. She’d wanted to avoid her problems by staying away from Pete, and she had endangered Perry in the process.

When the elevator doors opened, Celeste channeled her fear and self-loathing into rudeness and shoved her way out with no concern for the expressions of outrage hurled at her back. Perry was not waiting for her. He was not there. Celeste looked up and down the concourse, but she saw only strangers, many of them menacing, all of them potentially menacing. She hurried into GiddyToy. Perry had known that was where they were headed; maybe he’d assumed she would find him there. But he wasn’t there, either. It was a small store, and it didn’t take Celeste long to search it in its entirety. She asked every employee if they had seen a boy matching Perry’s description, but all of their answers were noncommittal. Besides, if Perry had come into GiddyToy, he probably would have sought an employee right away and given Celeste’s name so they could attempt to page her. But if he wasn’t in GiddyToy, then he could be anywhere. Celeste walked to the railing next to the elevator and looked down over the chaotic scene below. Would she ever be able to pick her son out of the mob? If he went to a mall employee and had them page her out here in the main concourse, would she ever be able to hear it over the unceasing cacophony?

She needed to be proactive. She needed to find a mall security guard, hope he or she was more competent than the Rappleman’s security team, and explain that she had gotten separated from her child. They would radio Perry’s description, they would search, and they would know if he had approached another employee with a matching report of a missing mom. Calmed by her plan, Celeste strode off in search of a mall directory, silently cursing at each of the similarly-shaped signboards that turned out to just be ads on both sides.

So focused was Celeste on locating a directory that it took her a moment to recognize Perry’s shout. “Mom!”

When, after a delay in comprehension, she whirled toward the sound of Perry’s voice, she saw him running toward her pursued by a man in a gray stocking cap and a flannel coat. A man she recognized: her husband, Perry’s father, Pete.

“That’s not Dad!” said Perry, running into Celeste’s arms, embracing her, then scrambling around behind her.

“Pete?” said Celeste as her husband, red-faced with a combination of anger and embarrassment at the scene this part of his family was making, stalked up to her. “What are you doing here? Did you follow us?”

“The girls told me about your little plan to spirit him away,” said Pete in a low voice. “He’s coming home with me. You’re not poisoning his mind anymore. Not today, and not ever. It’s over, Celeste.”

“Poisoning his mind?” asked Celeste. “What are you talking about?”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. Now he’s saying I’m not even his real father? That’s disgusting, Celeste, even for you.”

Celeste turned to Perry. “What happened?”

“He couldn’t answer the question,” said Perry. “The one only my real dad would know.”

“What was the question?” asked Celeste.

“Please,” said Pete. “As if you don’t know.”

“What was the question, Perry?” Celeste crouched again, right on her son’s level, his hand connected to hers.

“I asked him who my favorite parent is,” said Perry. “And he got it wrong.”

Discussion Questions

  • How susceptible to bribery are you? Feel free to email me at to let me know about specific mutually beneficial bribery situations we could engage in. I could also be the bribee.

  • Should I have done even more research than I already did to figure out if it would be common for people to be smoking outside the mall entrance in the mid-90s? Do you remember if they were doing those massage chairs at the mall in the mid-90s?

  • List three equally cool ways that Orbiton could have killed Mulkarth.

  • What’s a question you could ask a person the answer to which could convince you that said person who looks nothing like one of your parents is actually one of your parents?

  • Did you go through a period in your childhood where you thought it was kind of fun to get separated from your parents, find an employee, tell them you were lost, tell them your parents’ names, get taken to the front, and then hear them page your parents over the PA system? I did!