The cup left a ring of condensed water on the tabletop. This ring had been corrupted by the minuscule collapse of a vacuum, caused by the disengagement of the liquid seal gathered at the base of the fast-food cup when it was snatched upwards and dashed against a nearby cinder block wall. This had caused some of the water in the ring itself to streak inwards and conglomerate into dots and curved lines. The unfortunate aftermath of this minute opera of physics was that a highly detailed face with three eyes, a sturdy Roman nose, and a deeply cleft chin had been born and began to stare up from near the napkin dispenser.
"It sure doesn't sound like a joke to me," Janet Cund said, "and, by the way, I'm not laughing!"
"That's pretty much alright, though. Humor is subjective. There are different schools within the pantheon of comedy. All it needs in order to be classified as a gag is my intent. I intended for it to be a joke; therefore, it is a joke."
"I can't believe you've been this type of person all along."
"What? Funny?" Gary Leqat asked.
"I'm staying at my mom's tonight," said Janet.
She rose from the table. Her forearm was striped with narrow caramel-colored tracks from the cola she had launched across the back corner of the food court. There were deep lines carving shadows in twin arcs from her nostrils to the down-turned corners of her mouth. Gary stared in the direction of her heels as she maneuvered her hips through the jagged labyrinth of tables and chairs. She had some sort of green juice stained on the back of her white canvas sneakers.
It took Gary about five minutes to contemplate the fact that he was now alone. Not alone in the grander sense--hardly worth a thought--but alone with a sudden sensation of physical isolation, fostered by the sea of fake marbled formica tabletops, which glared under a buzzing grid of fluorescent bulbs, suspended in cylindrical aluminum housings thirty feet above him. The food court was vast, its entrance terminating a quarter-mile away in a palisade of waist-high cement nodes that had been painted yellow.
Suddenly there was someone sitting in his vicinity who hadn't been there before. The man sat dead in the center of the thronging tables. Before him was a blue plastic tray, upon which four juicy burgers spun threads of water vapor into the air from under their artisan buns. This man ignored his cooling food as he stabbed at the screen of his smart phone with nimble hyper-extended thumbs. He had short patchy hair; hair archipelagos drifted across his light-bulb pate. A cyst protruded from the folds in his forehead, pregnant with old fluids.
Gary was hungry, looking at the newcomer's burgers. He stood halfway up and felt for his wallet in his back pocket. The pocket was empty. Janet had offered to hold the wallet in her purse earlier while he had fumbled with a jumble of dollar bills in order to purchase her wasted soda.
He sat back down. There had been no cashiers standing at the registers in the dug-out restaurant cubicles in any case. An hour before, sunlight had rushed in from slanted windows in the roof above the mall's atrium, just beyond the handrail across from the food court entrance. The sun had set.
Gary bowed his head and clenched his hair in his fists. When he noticed the three-eyed face peering up at him from the table, he released a staccato yelp. The man in the center of the food court laughed without looking away from his phone screen.
Then Gary's thigh began to buzz. He took his phone out of his pocket and drew a virtual geometric glyph onto a matrix of white dots in order to unlock it. There was a text from Janet:
"I'm sorry I overreacted, but I am still upset by the joke you made. We can talk about it later. I'll be home tonight."
This was followed by a .gif of Bill Cosby eating a spoonful of gooey pudding that had been photoshopped to look like corn-encrusted feces. His face the color of slate, Gary sent "lol, hun" as a reply.
He was about to shove the phone back into his pocket and leave the mall when the phone vibrated again. On the top border of the home screen was a lowercase "g" in sans-serif font. He swiped down to expand his notifications. Someone had mentioned him in a massive post on his Gendo page.
"I really hope that Gary Leqat manages to find his way out of the Groever County Mall!
Gary sat still and made a point of keeping his face trained on his screen. With his free hand, he shielded his eyes from the rest of the room. In doing this, he unknowingly struck a line through the gaping face on the table. He didn't recognize the person who had posted the message on his wall. From the thumbnail, the poster's face was hard to see. It was as if the picture had been taken of someone or something else while this person had been in the far background, and he had later appropriated the photo and cut everything out but his face before blowing it up by several orders of magnitude. The artifacts in the image all but scrambled its particulars. But one detail sent a jolt of panic through Gary's wrist, nearly causing him to drop the phone. In the center of this distorted face's forehead was something round and red.
He almost looked up then, but a messenger notification popped up in the top corner of the screen. He tapped it, unleashing a jiggling square frame containing an ongoing conversation with his friend, Martin Neubauten. The latest message had reached his inbox less than a second ago:
"There's someone messaging me who keeps saying he's a good friend of yours, heh. He says he's hanging out with you or something. I don't know who he his. What's going on, bud? Is this another one of your Gendo stunts?"
Before he could reply, another message came in from Janet. It was a picture of Gary, sitting at his table in the food court with a tray in front of him, loaded with burgers. Below this, she had typed, "Who are you hanging out with and why did they buy all of those cheeseburgers for you? Should I throw dinner away?"
Gary felt the burgers before he saw them. His hand had fallen from his forehead on seeing the image in Janet's message and had landed upon the seedy terrain of the upper bun. He screamed for three seconds straight with his eyes closed. Once he had opened them, he found the burgers were quite there. They were so very there that a pinkish admixture of ketchup and mayonnaise had been squeezed out under the pressure of his hand and had dripped onto his pinky nail. The face on the table was still there as well. A large swath of its incidental features had been earlier rubbed away by the nub of Gary's elbow, giving it a mutant-like visage.
Looking up from this small gruesome scene, he immediately encountered another. He was now sitting in the middle of the food court. A damp brown soda stain was drying on a wall in the far corner over a hundred meters away. Gary scanned the food court for the other man who had been sitting at this table. He was gone.
Gary stood up and carried the tray, full of mountainous burgers, to a nearby trash receptacle. Before lifting the swinging door and sliding them into the shiny fetid abyss within, he took one of the burgers for himself and set off for the mall entrance in mid-bite.
At the head of the staircase leading down into the atrium, he had a better view of the glass panes set at impractical angles in the ceiling. He could see stars and a fat sickle of moon. On his way down to the first floor, he glanced at a standing brass clock surrounded by purple-veined plants. It was getting close to eleven o'clock. No one was in the mall.
He sprinted down the corridor, keeping to the shadows provided by the walkways jutting out of the walls above him. None of the stores he passed had been barricaded. All of the lights were on. The merchandise was still on display. He took another nervous bite out of his burger while bounding toward the glass-enclosed vestibule leading out into the parking lot. Marbled smudges of red, white, and yellow glistened at the border of his bloodless lips.
He made short work of exiting the building. The doors weren't locked and opened automatically once he had entered the field of the motion sensors. Outside, the crisp air draped itself around his hot neck. He trotted over to a nearby glass and metal enclosure where, luckily, the Groever Transit Authority would be stopping every twenty minutes until half past midnight. The dim orange lamps above the central column of the parking lot (still packed with empty cars) hardly illuminated the area of sidewalk, into which the small structure of the bus stop had been bolted.
Seven minutes later, a glowing bus pulled up to the curb. Gary embarked, rubbing his eyes, and paid his fare. He took a seat near the back of the bus. As the driver wrestled with the steering wheel in order to navigate a complicated serpentine of narrow one-lane turns, Gary looked through the yawning windowpanes into the gloom of the parking lot. The mall was nearly 500 meters away now, looking like a blind elemental, half-exhumed from the fathomless depths of asphalt and concrete surrounding it for miles in every direction.
Closer by, someone was suddenly standing under one of the streetlamps. The onlooker watched the bus depart, his face illumined in a cone of lamplight, haloed by gnats. It was the man that Gary had observed earlier in the food court. His nose was missing, as well as a diagonal wedge from his mouth and the outer curve of his right eye, all of which had been replaced by a plain flat band of skin. In his forehead, the cyst was moving.
Or perhaps, more accurately, the cyst was blinking. Maybe. As the bus hauled Gary onto the highway, he couldn't be entirely sure.