“Be back in a sec,” Cathy says. She carries a black, knee-length sheath dress, priced at $14.99, into the dressing room. There is no attendant, but at TJ Maxx, that is typical. Cathy wonders if it is strategic, intended to make the customers feel trusted, welcome, but from the dusty floors, she concludes that this particular TJ Maxx is probably just understaffed.
Cathy closes herself into one of the cubicles. The light flickers a little, but it is the price you pay for a bargain. Cathy tries on the dress and finds it comfortable and respectfully loose. She is glad; it is not polite to wear something sexy to a funeral, especially not to the funeral of a friend. Especially especially not to the funeral of a friend whose husband you’d been sleeping with. Just imagine it: everyone is supposed to be crying, but then here comes Cathy with her shapely legs in a bodycon dress typically worn by twenty-somethings to bars or nightclubs, and now everyone is distracted, wondering if anyone else is as horny as they are. Is Cathy so fun, or what? they wonder. Is she better, in all ways, than Barbara ever was? These are questions Cathy does not want brought up. It is a time for mourning. Cathy unzips the dress and puts her regular clothes back on. She remarks at the firmness of her ass, far firmer than the asses of other women her age, and then she feels guilty, just for a moment, until she reminds herself that everyone grieves differently.
Someone tries the handle to Cathy’s dressing room and Cathy says, “Occupied,” but the door opens anyway. The four special-needs children she was tasked with supervising today are no longer waiting for her in front of the dressing room area, instead peeking into the dressing room and giggling as they inch their way in.
On Wednesdays, Cathy was supposed to teach the children how to shop in an orderly way and how to identify the correct amount of money for what they wanted to purchase. Technically, Cathy was supposed to bring them to the dollar store, as each child was only allotted five dollars by the school, not enough to buy much anywhere else. But the funeral was tomorrow morning and Cathy was always so tired after work and she knew if she didn’t find something to wear now, she’d end up in the bodycon dress and make everyone horny, and again, she didn’t feel it appropriate. “C’mon, my little Maxxinistas,” Cathy had said. “We’re going somewhere fun.”
Now, the children are fully crammed inside her dressing room, shoulder to shoulder. One child presses himself against the wall, and the other three do little dances, as best as they can in the limited space. Though the children hadn’t walked in on her naked, they laugh as though they had, as though they got away with something. Cathy makes a scary face, the one with the crossed eyes and the wide-open mouth that the children hate. They scream and run out of the dressing room and serpentine through the clothing racks. Cathy gathers her things and exits the dressing room after them. The whole building rumbles. The lights brighten and a few bulbs explode. Cathy hears what could only be described as a whooshing vortex-y sound. She falls to the ground for a moment, and after she steadies herself, she notices that the children are nowhere in sight. Even worse, she got a little dust on her new dress.
Cathy approaches the front of the store, to purchase the dress and ask if someone could call the children through the loudspeaker, so she doesn’t have to search the store. The kids were good at hiding; she’d learned that in Victoria’s Secret last week. As she gets closer, she notices the front counter is much lower than usual, absurdly low actually, only a foot or so off the floor, the cash registers level with Cathy’s shins. A woman in a red turtleneck and a nametag crabwalks over; by crabwalks, Cathy means shuffles on all fours, not facing downward like a dog, but facing up, like a crab. Does everyone know what crabwalking is? she would ask the children when she found them. Consideration of different levels of understanding is but one strength Cathy brings to the table.
“Ready to check out?” the cashier asks, her neck bent sharply to keep her head upright, looking perfectly comfortable. She must do yoga, Cathy thinks.
“Yes,” Cathy says. “But also, could you call for my students over the loudspeaker?”
“Sure,” the cashier says, lifting one arm from the ground and to the walkie-talkie clipped to her belt. She maintains perfect balance. “What are their names?” Cathy realizes she doesn’t know.
“Ah, it’s a new group,” Cathy says. “I think one of them is named Glenn, maybe?”
“Glenn to the front please. Glenn, come to the front please,” the cashier says.
“Wait, I’m not sure that’s his name.”
“Well, what does he look like?
“Dark hair, I think?” Cathy tries hard to remember. “He’s always shaking. He usually drops his money.”
“I’m looking for a dark-haired person, always shaking?” the cashier asks over the loudspeaker. Three dark-haired elderly women emerge from the clearance section, each of them crabwalking. When they get close enough, they each raise a shaky hand.
“Do you see Glenn?” the cashier asks. Cathy confirms that none of the women are Glenn. The women must be shaking for non-Glenn related reasons. Cathy huffs and searches the store. As she passes by a mirror, she realizes that she is crabwalking as well. This does not strike her as strange until a few aisles later, and then she crabwalks backwards, back to the mirror, and studies herself. Cathy’s neck is bent sharply, like the cashier’s, and so she is looking straight ahead instead of up at the ceiling. Cathy looks comfortable too, in that position, as though it was natural. But Cathy vaguely remembers moving about differently. She remembers herself being taller. In the corner of the lingerie section, she finds the children in crabwalk position. They bump into the walls and each other and one of them is crying softly. Cathy waves to the children, and three out of the four look relieved. They say hello in their clumsy, affected way. The child that is crying continues to cry and meets Cathy’s eye, its expression questioning and fearful. It is an expression of awareness, awareness that something about its body has changed. It was hard enough for the child to manage the old body. It shakes and Cathy realizes the child is Glenn, and then she realizes that Glenn is actually named George, just in time to say, “It’s okay, George,” and intertwine her legs with his legs in a sort of scissor-grip, a movement Cathy instinctively knows is meant for comfort and closeness. She remembers hugs, the ones with arms, for just a flash. George seems to remember too. He cries and pulls back, bumping into a shelf and knocking a lone, precariously perched shoebox to the floor. “Come on, everyone,” Cathy says. “It’s time to go. Did you find something to buy?” The children shake their heads no.
“Money,” a child says, gesturing to their pocket.
“Yes, there is money in your pocket,” Cathy says patiently, like Mother Teresa. She crabwalks towards the front of the store, where her dress is waiting. She assumes, from the noises, that the children are behind her.
Outside, the sky is full of neon pink and purple swirls. Cathy notes this for a moment, but then thinks, of course it is. She crabwalks towards the parking lot, looking for something she cannot define, the children following, until she thinks the word car, which now sounds like gibberish. The parking lot is full of little metal pods. Cathy peeks through the windows of one of the pods and has no idea how to operate it. Her thoughts about the pod are tangled and dense, and trying to sort through them feels like trying to remember a dream just after waking.
“Well, I guess we’re not going anywhere,” Cathy says. Since she cannot return the children to school, she tells them to run, to be free, but they don’t leave. She sighs. This is the situation with her grandma all over again. She leads the children to the McDernalds across the street and buys them each a churnburger, so they’ll stop crying. Everyone does, except for George. They sit upright in a booth, which feels familiar, except for George, again, who is lying flat in the booth with his face buried in a comic book, presumably to hide his crying.
“Why are you being such a crybaby, George?” Cathy asks. He wipes his tears and turns a page. Cathy has never seen him look so focused. “Want to go in the playplace?” she asks everyone else. They cheer, and one child says, “Miss Williams, Miss Williams,” before getting out of their seat, crabwalking around the table, and kissing the hem of Cathy’s skirt with appreciation.
Outside, the playplace is much more horizontal than it is vertical, and the tubes between the various rooms and alcoves are large. The children crabwalk through them single file. The whole thing seems downright orderly. A McDernalds employee crabwalks around, brushing food residue off of nearby tables, while Cathy smokes a cigarette. She doesn’t smoke every day, usually saves it for special occasions, mostly for when she needs to look hot and mysterious. But today, she feels out of sorts, like she’s forgotten something. A mother starts screaming at the employee that there is a pigeon in the ball pit, and Cathy wants to say, “Who cares?” so she does.
“My son is in there and he could get pecked!” the mother says.
“The pigeon is probably already dead,” Cathy says. “Kids are stomping around all over the place.”
“No, no, it’s still alive. I can see it flapping.”
“What do you want me to do about it? the employee asks.
“Go in and get it out of there!” the mother says. The employee is paid too little for this. He compromises by shutting down the entire playplace with a handwritten sign that says, “Out of Order” and then he takes his own smoke break. The children crabwalk through the exits in disappointment. The pigeon flaps, victorious. George exits from the McDernalds lobby, comic book resting on his upturned face.
“Have you been reading all this time?” Cathy asks. George nods and a single tear slides down his face. Cathy snatches the comic book. “ADVENTURES IN THE MULTI-VERSE,” its cover shouts. On the open page, a cartoon girl with purple hair stands before a doorway full of a dark and swirling smoke. “A PORTAL TO ANOTHER DIMENSION?” the cartoon girl wonders. George jabs the speech bubble with his index finger, tapping insistently. A younger Cathy would have called George a nerd, probably before peeling off on the back of some guy’s motorcycle, but she is older now, so instead she calls him a dork and tactfully crabwalks away.
Cathy leads the children back to the TJ Maxx, and they hide out in a large handicapped dressing room. In a regular department store, they would be found quickly, but in a TJ Maxx, chaos reigns. At one point, Cathy sneaks out and snatches a few blankets from the bedding section and returns to the children undetected. She rests happily for a while, thinking about how she would have made an excellent mother, but she still believes it would not have been worth the damage to her figure. George is still absorbed in his comic book, shuffling through the pages and pointing at things, whispering to the other children. Cathy feels as though she has forgotten something. She concentrates hard, but gets nowhere. She supposes the mental fog is a product of grief; Barbara was her friend since high school and Cathy now has no way to get to her funeral and honor the years they spent together. She has no way to alert Barbara’s husband that she won’t be able to have sex with him in a hotel room tonight after all. Cathy guesses that in death, everything feels a little wrong.
In the corner of the dressing room, George grabs onto a metal rack hanging on the wall, intended to hold clothing as one tries things on. He tries to pull himself upright. The other children moan discontentedly, and Cathy hisses at them to be quiet, before their cover is blown. George’s prepubescent legs tremble wildly as he pulls himself into a standing position. He wobbles to the left and then the right and then he steadies himself. He cries with exhaustion and relief. Suddenly, Cathy remembers standing on two legs instead of four. She remembers arm hugs. Cell phones. Cars. McDonalds.
“This is a bad dream. I’m trapped in the TJ Maxx with a bunch of kids and I’m not even going to get to go to Barbara’s funeral tomorrow, and I’m going to miss Zumba, and all this crawling is probably terrible for my posture.” Cathy talks out loud. The benefit of working with children is that no one will believe them if they try to say you’ve said something rude, and the added benefit of working with these particular special-needs children is that they usually won’t be able to effectively communicate that you’ve said something rude to begin with. The feeling is one of total freedom.
With shaky legs, George crosses the dressing room. He bends to pick up the comic book and carries it to Cathy, eventually dropping it in her lap. He opens to the same page. “A PORTAL TO ANOTHER DIMENSION?”
“Yeah, yeah, a portal to another dimension. This page is very pretty, George.”
“Miss Williams,” one of the children says. “Try it on.” They point to her dress.
“You want a fashion show?” Cathy asks, delighted. She starts to take off her shirt. The children cover their eyes and shout, “NO, NO!” They aren’t laughing anymore.
“In there,” George manages, pointing to the left, in the direction of the dressing room Cathy had used earlier. Cathy is impressed with George’s speech.
“Alright, I’ll try it on. You guys didn’t get to see it the first time, anyway.” Cathy crabwalks out of the handicapped room and into the smaller, adjacent room. It, like the playplace, is more horizontal than it is vertical. Cathy changes with some difficulty and admires the length of her body in the horizontal mirror. This is probably what I look like during, Cathy thinks. The children shuffle into the room behind her, closing the door behind them.
“Oh, so you only want to try and see me naked if I don’t want you to? Is that it?” Cathy asks, and then she screams and shields her face with both hands, as the lights flicker until they go dark, glass shattering on the ground. The children form a nervous mound in the corner.
When Cathy opens her eyes, she finds that the mirror is vertical once more. She exits the dressing room and examines herself in a nearby three-way mirror. The dress looks great, but here, she finds that she has a tail. The children walk over and they have tails as well. George’s tail is like a zebra’s. Cathy’s is some sort of scaly lizard deal, thumping loudly on the floor. George waves his comic book in the air.
“Go again!” one of the children shouts, and this time, Cathy understands. They return to the dressing room and pull the door closed. Lights out. Broken glass. Cathy gets a small cut on her cheek and imagines suing TJ Maxx for millions of dollars. In the courtroom, she’d mention the blog post she read about TJ Maxx knockoffs. Though a TJ Maxx dress might have the Calvin Klein label, sometimes the clothing was produced with the intention of being sold in a TJ Maxx at a discounted rate, and so the material and the stitchwork are of a lower quality than the same dress purchased at a Calvin Klein outlet. If Cathy won, she could buy authentic Calvin Klein whenever she wanted. The stitchwork would be so durable.
Cathy exits and this time, the dressing room area is full of water. Cathy clutches her throat, prepared to not be able to breathe. She finds she has gills. All of the children except one have gills. The one without gills has a panicked look in its eyes and bubbles issue from its open mouth in a wordless scream.
“Again, I know,” Cathy gurgles. They shut the door. Lights out. Broken glass floats through the water.
Cathy no longer feels the weight of the water. The air feels right and she doesn’t have a tail or gills and she isn’t bent over backwards. A Mariah Carey Christmas song drifts in from the store. It will be Christmas soon. She exits the dressing room.
“Cathy,” someone says. Cathy turns around. The children are standing upright, not grimacing or twitching or letting out incoherent moans. They look alert, attentive.
“Cathy,” George says again, clearly. “Let’s stay in this dimension.” Cathy is impressed.
“George, you’re talking so well!” Cathy says. She notices he is holding his comic book steadily, no signs of dropping it.
“I feel well,” George says.
“Me too,” the other children murmur. “Much better.” They tighten their shoelaces and presumably complete complex math problems in their heads without assistance.
“This isn’t the right one, though,” Cathy says. “I’ve got to get home, so I can get back to the real versions of everyone.”
“The real versions?” one child asks.
“Are we not real?” another one asks.
“We don’t need your help, Cathy. We want to stay here,” George says.
“Well, you can stay here, then. But I’m going home. Barbara’s husband is waiting for me at the Hyatt.” Cathy doesn’t mention that it is an economy Hyatt. The children draw nearer.
“Cathy,” George says. “When you go to another dimension, what happens to everyone that stays in this dimension? Do we die?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“But there would be a version of you in each dimension, George, wouldn’t there?” Cathy says.
“But which one is the real version, as you say? If I travel with you, will I continue to exist and be a different George next? If I stay, will I be nothing, so some other George can live?”
“George, I don’t have time for this,” Cathy says, exasperated. She rushes towards the adjacent dressing room once more.
“Wait, don’t go!” George shouts, chasing after her, but it is too late. Cathy has shut the door. The lights flicker. George waits for a moment, and the children whisper about how their hands and feet are tingling, how any second they’ll start becoming more and more translucent, slowly disappearing into the vastness of space. Nothing happens. George breathes a sigh of relief. Then, on the exhale, he really does disappear, along with the rest of that dimension. But it’s fine, because like Cathy says, there is a version of him in the other dimensions, and if a few Georges have to die for Cathy to make it to Friday night Zumba with the hot instructor, so be it.
Cathy opens her eyes. The same Mariah Carey Christmas song plays. She exits the dressing room and finds the children waiting for her outside of the dressing room area, as they were that morning. George’s hands are shaking. He drops his comic book. The other children laugh. Cathy picks it up and hands it to him and his expression is utterly uncomprehending, and Cathy thinks, thank goodness he has me.
After driving the children back to school and finishing up the day, Cathy meets Barbara’s husband at the economy Hyatt and has sex with him once again. If the children were here, Cathy would tell them that this is what people do when a man loves a woman very much because she is sexy and more interesting than his wife. The next morning, they go to the funeral together and throw flowers on Barbara’s casket. If the children were here, Cathy would tell them that it is okay to feel confused. Everyone grieves differently. She would tell them that the little voice inside their heads- the one that says they’re stupid or lazy or cruel- that little voice, if ignored, gets quieter with time. But the children aren’t here, and if they were, they wouldn’t understand.