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“I get that,” said Joyce. “Sometimes—” She cut herself off, blinking at something behind me. “What the hell is going on over there?”

There was a new air of confusion to the general chatter in the mall. I’d been too busy focusing on Joyce to notice it before. I twisted in my seat, following her gaze to a little girl outside the boundaries of the food court. She was too young to be on her own—no more than six or seven—and she was half-walking, half-staggering toward the exit. From the way she was moving, she’d hurt her foot recently. If she’d been older, I would have suspected her of having had a stroke. And yet her gait managed not to be the strangest thing about her, possibly because the sight of a little girl towing a fully grown woman bodily along was weird enough to make everything else seem incidental.

“Helen, sweetie, come on, stop playing this bad game,” said the woman—her mother, judging by the resemblance between them. There were tears running down her cheeks. Her obvious dismay just called the utter slackness of the little girl’s expression into sharper relief. “Let’s go back to Daddy, okay? Okay, sweetie? Please?”

The little girl—Helen, her name was Helen, and that seemed suddenly very important, although I couldn’t have said exactly why—gave no indication that she’d heard a word her mother said. She just kept plodding forward, moving surprisingly fast considering that she was barely lifting her right foot off the floor. Her mother was dragged along in her wake, unable to stop the girl’s forward motion.

I heard Joyce gasp. “There’s another one,” she whispered loudly. Her hand stabbed past my face, pointing into the crowd. I turned to look where she was pointing, and saw a man shamble through the gathered bodies, moving with the same unsteady speed as the little girl. Like the little girl, his expression was slack, eyes focusing on nothing in this world… and like her, he was heading straight for the exit.

“What the hell…?” I stood, taking a step back, so that I was standing next to Joyce. She scrambled to her feet, latching onto my arm with surprising strength. “What’s wrong with them?”

“I don’t know. Food poisoning maybe?” Joyce gave me a pleading look. “It’s not something contagious, is it? There’s not something in the air vents?”

“You’re the one who works in a lab,” I said, keeping most of my attention on the man and the little girl. “Shouldn’t you know what causes this sort of symptomology?” Helen’s mother wasn’t stopping her, but she was slowing her down, and the man was starting to catch up. I wanted to see what would happen if they saw each other. I wanted to see what they would do.

“Helen!” wailed the mother.

Helen plodded ceaselessly on. The man’s longer legs were rapidly shortening the distance between them. He was walking better than she was, although his balance didn’t seem to be as good; several times, I was sure he was going to topple over. But he didn’t.

And then they were next to each other, and with no more ceremony than a step, they stopped. The little girl turned to face the man, tilting her chin up as she stared into his eyes. Their expressions remained slack, neither showing any emotion as they considered each other. The entire mall seemed to have gone quiet; the only sounds were the music playing softly through the speakers overhead and the pleas of Helen’s mother.

Unsteadily, Helen extended her free hand toward the man. Just as unsteadily, he reached out and took it, mashing his fingers around hers with so much force that it had to hurt her. She didn’t react. Now hand-in-hand, the pair turned and resumed their trek toward the door, dragging Helen’s wailing mother in their wake.

They had almost reached the doors when the mall EMTs descended, summoned by someone who reacted better in a crisis than the rest of us. They had no trouble separating the man from the little girl—when they pulled on their joined hands, the pair just let go. They had more trouble getting Helen’s mother to let her go. I think they may have finally threatened to sedate her, because she dropped Helen’s hand and stepped away, pleas fading into sobs.

Joyce and I watched as both man and little girl were strapped to gurneys and wheeled away, vanishing through an EMPLOYEES ONLY door into the back corridors of the mall. A stunned silence hung over everyone who had witnessed the scene. Several people had their phones out and were snapping pictures of the crowd, like the disoriented faces of the witnesses would somehow provide the answers that none of us had on our own.

“I think we should go home now,” said Joyce, in a very small voice.

“Yeah,” I said. “I think you’re right.”

Joyce switched the radio from station to station as she drove, taking her eyes off the road so many times that I was afraid I was going to start hyperventilating. “Traffic, weather, stupid comedy show, traffic, traffic—God!” She slammed her fists against the wheel. “Doesn’t anybody talk about anything important around here?”

“Do we need to pull over so you can calm down?” I asked the question as calmly as I could, but my hands were pressed against the dashboard so hard the skin on my fingers was bleached bloodless white. My stomach felt like it was turning backflips. The only thing stopping me from giving in to the urge to throw up was the knowledge that it probably wouldn’t improve her driving.

“No! I’m fine.” She stabbed the search button with her index finger, sending the radio skipping to the next station.