So thought Thomas Rourke as he waited for his family to finish its meal at the food court in the local megamall. His 6-year-old son Thomas Rourke III was intermittently eating and then playing with his chicken nuggets, an exercise his wife Rachel patiently abided. This shopping excursion was what his wife wanted, a chance for TR and his little sister Madison to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas while she shopped for her sisters and her in-laws. Rachel felt that the trip to see Santa was a family tradition for which Thomas should be present. Thomas pleaded that he did not have time with his firm orchestrating a leveraged buyout for an important client. He eventually capitulated passive-aggressively, letting her know that this would mean he would have to spend more time at the office over the holiday break. During the entire ordeal, Thomas kept on his wireless earpiece—a small sleek rectangular black device—as a silent protest.
Thomas glared at his wife as she wiped the ketchup from TR’s face. She had been something to look at when Thomas was finishing his MBA, but she had let herself become frumpy and soft since the kids were born. She wore jeans and an oversized sweatshirt while Thomas’ appearance remained immaculate. He wore a two-piece wool pin-striped Navy blue Armani suit with Bruno Magli black leather shoes. His continued respect for his appearance was one of the reasons Thomas felt no guilt about the fact he was fucking the secretary who worked for the M&A team. The other reason was that Thomas felt entitled to certain fringe benefits as a creative, powerful person that orchestrated multi-million dollar transactions. This sense of entitlement had always been percolating in his mind, but it was reified after he saw a Fox News segment about a highway billboard that asked “Who is John Galt?” This lead Thomas to discover the novel Atlas Shrugged, a dystopian vision of a United States where burdensome regulations and taxes prevented society’s creative entrepreneurs from accomplishing their goals. In response, these great minds, led by John Galt, decide to withdraw from society. Without its business leaders, the backbone of the country, society quickly collapses into chaos. Like Atlas, they once held up the world, but now they shrug. Indeed, if there were not people like Thomas Rourke, how would companies get the capital they need to build businesses and sustain payrolls? True, some of the buyouts that Thomas had helped financed resulted in downsizing, but his goal was to optimize the value for the shareholder. So, at a bare minimum, Thomas was increasing the worth of mutual funds and retirement plans across America. Thomas felt he was doing God’s work by fueling America’s economy and thus making sure the masses—even if they were ungrateful—had jobs. And while his extramarital dalliances might run afoul of biblical dictates, he kept his commitment to divine truths by voting for candidates who oppose abortion like President Trump. Even Trump himself admitted with his “locker room talk” that he felt entitled to intimacy with woman.
The shopping trip was made more unbearable by the presence of a woman in a wheelchair at the table next to his family. The food court’s white metal swivel chairs were attached by a beam to their table so the woman’s companion—a heavy-set middle-aged man—had to place her into the aisle next to Thomas. The portly woman’s head slumped on her shoulder with eyes that stared inertly in front of her. Her mouth was agape with a string of drool connected to her shoulder. Thomas was subjected to a smacking noise as her caretaker fed her a mushy substance. Thomas wondered about the relationship between the man and the woman; was the woman a spouse who had become incapacitated? God forbid if that ever happened to Rachel. The author of Atlas Shrugged even stated that children should not be subjected to the sight of the handicapped.
Thomas took a bite of a chicken nugget, which had the texture of hard cardboard. He tried with some difficulty to chew it and when he finally resolved to swallow it, the food became lodged in his throat. For a second, he could not breathe and he even had a sensation of everything going black. But he was finally able to force the bit down his throat. Rachel asked if he was okay, but Thomas’ irritation had amplified. She may have sensed this and told the children that it was time to go.
After discarding their trash, Thomas and his family walked to an elevator where four of the mall’s corridors met like perpendicular lines hitting a vertex. TR asked for some change to put in the Salvation Army bucket at this hub causing Thomas to exhale with exasperation. Thomas did not believe in charitable donations, adhering to the biblical principle that “God helps those who help themselves.” An acquaintance had pointed out that this phrase was not actually in the Bible, but even if this was true, Thomas still felt the expression was a good representation of biblical values. And American values, for that matter.
TR deposited his coins eliciting a pleasant smile from a woman with grayish-white curly hair ringing a bell next to the bucket. Rourke bid farewell to his family; he had to walk down a different spoke of the mall to reach the parking garage where his BMW was parked. As he headed down his corridor, the Salvation Army lady grabbed his arm firmly, too firmly. She pulled herself close to Thomas who noticed her eyes had widened considerably, practically bulging from her sockets. She looked intently into his eyes and stated urgently, “God does not comfort us to make us comfortable,” then turned her head to smile pleasantly at the passing shoppers.
Her grip had left four pale circles on Thomas’ arm that slowly returned to their natural tone. Thomas paused and asked, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
The lady, or Beatrice according to her name tag, faced Thomas and smiled earnestly. “Merry Christmas, sir,” she chirped.
Thomas thought about saying something further but decided not to waste his time. Being at the mall was a living hell for Thomas, and he wanted to quickly vacate the premises. The mass of ignorant, insignificant people was too much for him. He started up a brisk pace. Ahead, to his left, a man in a wheelchair wearing military fatigues was spinning towards him. The veteran’s legs ended at his thighs, but he was able to use his hands to quickly wheel past Thomas. To his right, a young Hispanic adult approached with a large cleft in the middle of his upper lip, exposing a mangled knot of gum and crooked teeth. Thomas could not turn his gaze away from the unusual sight, but the man looked ahead of him with wounded, haunted eyes. As they passed each other, the man shot a menacing glance toward Thomas. Quickly, Thomas turned to look at the man, but he shuffled forward without glancing back.
He paused at a book store that displayed a new translation of Plato’s Republic and the latest in a series of young adult books about modern teenagers who are really Greek gods in which TR had shown some interest. Across the corridor a large stuffed dog—the Disney character Pluto—was beckoning kids to drag their parents inside a toy store. He turned to head down the corridor when he almost ran into a hairless teen-aged girl with scabs all over her face and scalp. He shuddered at the sight and near collision, drawing a curt stare from the girl.
The succession of aberrant appearances had distracted Thomas, who wondered if perhaps there was some sort of shelter or clinic at the end of the mall. He surveyed the other passersby within his vicinity, but they appeared to be the typical holiday mall clientele: a father with a boy window shopping; a couple of fortysomething women walking together with multiple Macy’s bags; and a fetching woman in a red dress that particularly caught his eye. He continued on his way while checking out the lady in the red dress as she walked towards him. She returned his glance with a sheepish smile. As they passed each other, they played a flirtatious game of averting and then returning their gaze at one another. As she walked by, Thomas continued to try and look at the woman with his vision askance. He noticed something off in her eye that on closer inspection appeared to be moving and was in fact a worm crawling out of her tear duct. Or thought he saw. He paused to get a better look at the woman and she stopped too, smiling demurely. But there was no parasite on her face and she looked ravishing. She tittered gently and continued on, seductively swinging her hips as her heels clicked against the mall floor.
Travis McGavin is a writer and educator living in Northern Virginia. He is using his writing to overcome tragedy, and to honor his late son's creative spirit. His work has previously appeared in CommNow and The Writers Newsletter.