Old Man River Walks the Mall, Friday Flash Fics by Jeff Baker for May 20, 2022

Old Man River

by Jeff Baker

(A Food Garden Court Story)

The sun was streaming through the skylight in the Mall as T’amec finished filling one of the canisters with shredded, cooked meat. No customers yet, and most of the stores weren’t open this early but they were way ahead of schedule.

“Comin’ thru! Comin’ thru!” Skid said pushing the swinging doors open with his foot. He was carrying a big tray with an assortment of smaller containers on it at an awkward angle, ready to put in the slots on the counter where they could throw together the made-to-order food the Food Garden Court was famous for. T’amec gave Skid an appreciative glance. Skid was shorter, darker and muscular where T’amec was tall with grubby blonde hair. They had been good friends since they started working there part-time after graduation. They had only pushed the friendship somewhere else when a spell by the fae had required them to make out in the moonlight but that had been almost a year ago.

“Hey, c’mon!” Skid said. “Wake up and help me with this!”

T’amec grabbed the containers off the tilting tray and put them on the counter.

“Another disaster averted,” T’amec said. “All we need now is more room, a few more employees who won’t quit so we won’t have to cover shifts and managers who know what they’re doing.”

“Yeah,” Skid said grinning. “This isn’t what I got my degree for.”

The two of them worked putting the canisters in the slots and keeping them stirred, shooting the breeze and people-watching as the regular trickle of early-morning browsers and mall employees wandered by. Early morning regulars like Mr. Aloysius who ran the Augury shop at the other end of the mall coming up for his morning cup of steamed broth.

Then there were the mall walkers, usually older people (“You know, about 40 or so…” Skid had quipped.) who exercised by walking around the mall some even carrying small weights.

Then there was Old Man River.

Skid had nicknamed him that, an old, wrinkled man (“Looks like a preserved Pharaoh,” T’amec had said) because he kept moving around like in the old song. He had been one of the regulars who strode around the mall in the morning, usually in grey sweats “and matching face,” T’amec said. Sometimes T’amec or Skid would wave at some of them, sometimes they’d just nod. Sometimes they would buy something at Food Garden Court, usually coffee. Then they’d sit down at one of the tables under the indoor palm trees that towered over everything and smoke a cigarette and drink coffee.

“Sort of defeating the purpose,” Skid had muttered on more than one occasion.

It was a weekday morning so there weren’t many people in the mall that early but T’amec spotted someone familiar.

“Hey, look! There he goes.” He pointed.

Old Man River was unmistakable staggering along the side of the mall where the shops stopped and the polished brick wall started near the end where the Food Garden Court and the palm trees were. Some of the Mall exercisers ran their hand along the wall and at least one of them would grab the trunk of the palm tree and old on as they swung around it to head back the other way.

“And you were worried,” Skid said.

“I was not,” T’amec said stirring the broth.

“Yeah you were. The last couple of weeks you kept saying ‘Hey, I wonder where our Old man River is?’ You made it sound like you were in love with him.”

“I did not!” T’amec said with a laugh. “He’s too old and wouldn’t look as good in a Food garden Court uniform as…” He stared for a second and looked away.

Skid grinned.

“Anyway, you notice he got a new suit?” T’amec asked.

Skid craned his neck to look down the mall.

“Yeah. Must have a formal to go to later.”

“Or his sweats are at the cleaners.” T’amec said.

They finished the prep work and all that was left was the stirring. After a few more minutes Old Man River came back around, followed closely by three men in uniforms. One of them grabbed him by the shoulder and escorted him back down the hall, swinging him right past the counter where Skid and T’amec were working.

Enough of a moment for Skid and T’amec to get a good look at his face. Emotionless and a lot more grey.

A little bit later in the morning one of the regular mall Security came up to the Food Garden Court for a cup of vegetable root coffee.

“You had a little excitement here this morning,” Skid said as he filled the cup.

“Yeah, I heard,” said the guard.

“We saw it,” T’amec said, stirring the broth. “They arrested the guy right in front of us.”

“That wasn’t an arrest,” the guard said sipping his coffee. “They apprehended him because he walked away and wasn’t supposed to do that.”

“From a hospital?” T’amec asked.

“From the cemetery,” the guard said. “He went all zombie a few days ago and crawled out of the ground. I was amazed the tux looked as good as it did.”

Skid and T’amec stared at each other; the glimpse they’d gotten of that face…

“Hey, will ya lookit this?” The guard set his coffee back on the counter and pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket as he bent down.

He stood up and showed them the handkerchief which he’d used to pick something up from the stone floor.

“Must have fallen when they got a hold of the guy. I’d better take it to ‘em.”

The guard grabbed his coffee and walked off nonchalantly carrying Old Man River’s fallen, stiffening hand.

—end—

This entry was posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Food Garden Court, Friday Flash Fics, Friday Flash Fictions, Horror, LGBT, Short-Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

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