On Friday night, me and Kyoko drive out to the Pine Valley Mall. The mall shut down six years ago, but we still go every weekend. It’s something of a tradition of ours. It’s where we first met back in the nineties, standing in line at Wendy’s in the food court. At the time I never knew what to say to girls, so without thinking, I forced myself to ask her the first thing that came into my mind: what are you going to order? Turning her head a little bit to the side, just enough to glance at me from the corners of her glinting amber eyes, she said, two spicy chicken sandwiches. Then she winked and turned back around. I don’t know why she winked or what that gesture meant, but it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen anybody do. I fell for her right there.
Her old words replay in my head as we park in the mall’s abandoned parking lot and slip past the thick chain and reinforced steel padlock sealing off the entrance to what used to be J.C. Penny’s. After I clamber up a gutter pipe hidden behind the skeleton of a dead hedge, I lay on my stomach on the roof and reach down for Kyoko’s bulky backpack. She tosses it up to me; my arm aches and quivers as I pull it up; I rest the backpack on the roof and rub the burn from my shoulder. Then I reach down and hold out my hand to help her up. She shoots me a look of amused annoyance and whispers a single word.
I nod, pull back my hand, and get out of her way. In seven seconds she’s up on the roof beside me, huffing from the effort of the climb.
Five minutes later I jump down through a broken skylight and into the hollow corpse of an old Sam Goody music shop. My favorite store back in high school. A sharp sting buzzes through my knees upon impact, but thankfully, whoever used to come here before us dragged an old, waterstained mattress beneath the skylight to cushion the fall. Standing under the skylight, I open my arms and wait for Kyoko to carefully drop her backpack. Once that’s safe with me, I tell her to jump down. I tell her I’ll catch her. I remind her I never miss. This time she doesn’t argue. After counting down from three, she drops into my arms. Her heel bangs hard into my shoulder and sends a hot spike of pain darting down my side, but she grins at me and lets out a little giddy giggle, so I swallow a pained groan and place her on her feet.
Out in the dark hallway, Kyoko clicks on her flashlight and grabs hold of my hand. She scans the heavy gloom to make sure we’re alone. She looks at me and nods.
Come on, she says, in a swishing whisper.
Breaking into a run, Kyoko pulls me toward the expanse of filthy tile that used to be the food court. Our footsteps click on the hard floors; our huffing breath echoes through the empty hallways of the dead mall; we dodge puddles of scummy water browning the tile before us. Following the swinging cylinder of sharp blue light coughed out by Kyoko’s LED flashlight, we reach the food court in two minutes. Hugging the wall to our left, we slow to a leisurely walk and admire the line of thirty or forty paintings hanging on the wall. Each painting is a still life of a spicy chicken sandwich from Wendy’s. As we progress farther along the wall, we watch in delight as the paintings grow more expert and realistic, before taking a sudden turn into strangeness and surrealism. Stopping at each painting and furrowing our brows in a parody of haughty, pretentious, all-too-serious art collectors, we make silly comments to each other about the paintings.
When we reach the end of the line of paintings, Kyoko kneels down and unzips her backpack. She hands me a hammer, two nails, and two pieces of sturdy twine. Then she removes her two most recent artworks. The first is a still life of the spicy chicken sandwich seen in ads, the version with the giant, crispy, perfectly-cut slab of chicken housed within an artistically crafted bun. The second is a crude pencil drawing of the high school versions of us fucking between the misshapen, deflated bun you get in the real-life version of the sandwich.
I pick up the two artworks, fasten a piece of twine to the back of each canvas, and hammer the two nails into the next vacant spots on the wall. Then I move aside and watch as Kyoko hangs up her newest works. Taking a few steps back, she holds up her phone and snaps a few pictures of the newest additions to her gallery. She slips her phone back into her pocket and looks at me. A wide grin slices across her face. She points at the pencil-line sketch of us fucking between the buns of the sad-sack spicy chicken sandwich.
“I think this one is my favorite,” she says, her grin widening.
“It’s your masterpiece,” I say, throwing my arm around her shoulders and nodding in agreement.