It shattered his skull, blew a large exit wound from the rear of that vessel, and drove a bright red spatter pattern across the pale satin of his throne like some sort of twisted abstract painting. Worse still, the ballistic energy unleashed an upper-body spasm that shook his hat comically askew, and it slipped off his face and caught on his ear and hung there like a large red sock.
The four-year-old girl sitting in his lap stared not so much in horror but in fascination. She understood that this was “different” but had no larger context against which to compare it. She had no acquaintance yet with the concept of horror and the human fear of seeing the body’s vaults penetrated and eviscerated, but she picked up immediately on the appropriate response from her mother, who grabbed her and started screaming as the hundreds of others clustered around Santa’s throne began to do the same.
A FEW MINUTES EARLIER
It was like combat, except the food wasn’t as good.
It was . . . shopping . . . in a mall . . . on the day after Thanksgiving, the blackest of black Fridays.
Ray Cruz decided that he would never take an IQ test again, for the results, after he had agreed to this adventure, would provide suicidally depressing.
He shook his head, even as someone in the crowd jostled his shoulder. That person was outbound down the corridor called Colorado—after the river, not the state—while he was inbound. His fault? Maybe, maybe not, and courteous as ever, he shot a look to his victim, issued a tiny smile of contrition, noted that it was a she and that she was under twenty and concluded that he did not register as a carbon-based life form, and turned back to what lay ahead.
What lay ahead was people, confusion, greed, stuff, the despair of the holidays, the crunch of families that did not get along, duties and responsibilities only half-articulated but completely felt, guilt and regret, endless and passionate. All that was evident in the tableaux before him, the long corridor of mall America, a place he hardly knew, lined on each side by mercantile units offering the usual treasure—jewelry, clothes, shoes, ladies’ undies, toys, a stop here and there for junk food or hooch—all of it lit through the daylight by the red-green-yellow spectrum of holiday illumination, though the temp was a steady seventy-two and the echoes that amplified the ambient noise level testified also to its indoorness. So much data, so many splendors, a multitude of faces and costumes, the range from beauty to grotesque, from health to sickness, from the very young to the very old. It was like a village bazaar he’s once seen in Afghanistan, except for the Afghanistan part. It sucked the energy out of him. He wanted to take cover. It was incoming, like an artillery barrage to the senses, 24/7. He felt his normally impassive face collapse in unwilled but undeniable melancholy.
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