The people-mover was full of people. Cindy considered squeezing onto the moving platform, but then decided to just walk it. Her back and legs hurt from carrying so much extra weight, but at least she understood the source of the pain now.
“Bastards,” Cindy cursed. A woman turned and gave Cindy an evil look. Cindy gave her an evil look back. She might be in pain, but she was feeling very spunky, very rebellious—even reckless.
By the time she had walked the two and a half blocks to Jacob’s dorm, Cindy was soaked in sweat. The sweater felt like a personal heater, making her itchy, hot, and miserable. As she stared into the entrance hall into the government dorms where Jacob lived, she changed her mind. She would see Jacob—but only after she had something decent to wear.
Cindy looked down the street. A giant sign advertised the city mall. It was just a few blocks away. Cindy and her mom—her real mother, not Marian—used to shop there all the time. They would take the late morning train into the city and have a big brunch in the restaurant adjacent to the mall. And then they would go and watch the fashion shows on the top floor. Beautiful women twirled around in wonderfully textured, brightly colored fabrics. The salesmen would bring coffee and chocolates for Cindy’s mom, and soda and cookies for her. The latest pop music played and Cindy would laugh and laugh. At the end of the shopping visit, her mom would take home some amazing new outfit and model it for her dad, twirling around like the models at the mall. And then they would all have a big dinner and watch a movie—Cindy’s choice.
It was a happy memory.
But right now, the mall looked as impossibly far away as that memory felt. Cindy just didn’t have the energy to walk there, so she pushed her way onto the people-mover, shoving some skinny girl in high heels out of the way. The girl yelped, but she was too disgusted to touch Cindy, so she moved aside. Cindy stuck out her tongue at the girl and turned away. Let her complain all she wants, Cindy thought. It’s a free country.
In front of the mall was a giant brass sculpture of a nude fat woman. But she wasn’t fat in the way Cindy and others like her were fat. This was a graceful kind of fat: small, tennis-ball-sized breasts, column-like legs supporting a big but flat stomach—with even some muscle definition—big arms with small fingers, The figure’s head was well-proportioned and lacked even a hint of a double chin. It was an idealized fat, without any of the grotesqueness of reality.
Cindy walked by and touched the statue’s toes, which shined with polish from thousands of visitors rubbing them every day. When she was little, her mom would lift Cindy so she could touch the toes. “A bit of nail polish,” Cindy’s mom would joke. It was the same joke every time. Cindy remembered trying to make sure that all the toes shined with the same brightness, giving the little ones an extra rub to even them out with the luster of the big toe.
“A bit of nail polish,” Cindy murmured as she walked through the big doors of the mall.
Right in front of the main entrance were four escalators going up, surrounded by ads showing happy skinny people showing off their beautiful new purchases. A big sign just before the escalators read: “250 pound weight limit.” Security guards stood to either side of the bank of escalators; their job was to stop fat people from going up.
They were watching Cindy carefully.
Cindy pretended to wobble toward the escalators, making the security guards jump to attention, but at the last moment, she veered off to the left. The pretty guards sat back down, and Cindy was greeted by a fat woman in a uniform, who directed her to go straight through the doors behind the escalators. They would lead her to the part of the city mall dedicated to people like Cindy. Only the beautiful people were allowed upstairs.
The “fat people’s mall” was divided into men’s and women’s sections, and colored flags hanging from the ceiling signaled the zones allocated to sizes by volume. Instead of being partitioned by walls, the space was divided by columns, and the diameter of each column was another clue to the size of the clothing sold in that section. If you could fit behind the column, then the clothes in that part of the mall would fit you.
There were no mirrors on the lower level of the mall.
The columns started off relatively thin at the center, where the main entrance was, and got progressively more massive toward the sides. Cindy figured the mall architects wanted to funnel the fattest and most grotesque individuals away from where the beautiful people might accidentally spy them from the escalators. “We wouldn’t want anyone to lose interest in shopping or lunch, would we?”
Cindy started walking left, following the main path of columns. There was hardly anyone around. Fat people didn’t often shop at the mall in person. After all, that’s what the mail-order catalogs were for: pick a color, pick a size, and send in the money. There were no fashion shows for the fat. In fact, there was hardly any fashion, period. There was just a measure of square footage necessary to cover the body.
Cindy had stopped going to the mall over a decade ago. She mostly only wore her C.O.F.E. uniform anyway. On the weekends, she preferred long black t-shirts and some black leggings, and there was no need to go to the mall to get those. But today was different; she really didn’t have anything to wear.
With each passed column, Cindy felt a palpable increase in her anxiety level. It wasn’t just that she was getting totally winded from all this walking and carrying unaccustomed extra weight. It was also that she had never been in this deep before. It felt like walking into the bowels of hell. Each step meant another inch in circumference, another indignity, another breath closer to death. By the time Cindy finally stopped in front of a massive column that matched her current size, she was in a state of almost complete panic. She was surrounded by tents on hangers. Red tents and blue tents, striped tents and flowered tents, tents with little ribbons and frills, all kinds of horrors reserved for people like Cindy.
“I just want plain black. Please let there be just black,” Cindy said to herself.
Someone behind the rows of billowing fabric stirred. “Do you need some help, Miss?”
Cindy would have jumped if she’d had any strength left in her body. But all she was able to do was hiccup.
“Can I help you find something, Miss?” the voice repeated.
Cindy couldn’t place the voice, but it sounded familiar.
“No, no. I’m good.” Cindy tried to back away. She didn’t want any interactions with the mall’s staff.
“I think you’ll probably need to walk down a bit farther,” the voice suggested.
“I’m fine, really. Please leave me alone,” Cindy said and grabbed something purple and red hanging in front of her. Without another word, she turned and started to walk out.
A small movement to her right caught Cindy’s attention. She glanced to the side and saw a face peering out from behind the racks; it must have been the store clerk that had just spoken to her. Their eyes met, and for a moment Cindy felt something like electricity zap between them. She knew those eyes from somewhere. But where?
If she could have, Cindy would have run out of the mall right then. But all she could do was wobble faster. She was breathless when she stopped at the cashier to pay.
“Would you like to try these on, Miss?” the woman asked Cindy as she swiped her card.
“I—” Cindy was about to say no, but stopped herself. She was hot and sweaty, and she felt like she was about to suffocate in her sweater and uniform monstrosity. “Yes, I would,” she heard herself say.
“It’s right that way.” The woman pointed to a wide doorway behind her.
Cindy made herself walk into the dressing room. It was an act of sheer will. Her soul was trying to flee this place as soon as possible.
At least the dressing rooms were large and comfortable and appeared to be rarely used. Cindy stripped off her sweater and her doubled-up gray blouse and dumped them in the trash. The purple and red thing she had just bought turned out to be a purple t-shirt with red tights. The tights didn’t fit at all, but Cindy coud stick with her black skirt—it was the only part of the C.O.F.E. uniform that still sort of fit her. She wiped her sweat off with the useless tights and then threw them into the garbage as well.
Fortunately, the purple t-shirt was a decent fit. It wasn’t a color that Cindy would have chosen for herself, but the shirt itself was fine. It was long enough to cover Cindy’s enormous butt, and the high neck was good as well. Cindy didn’t feel like she was going to “fall out” or have a “wardrobe malfunction” in this thing. She ripped off the tags and was ready to go. Adjusting the little pillbox with her five golden apple seeds, Cindy stepped back out into the mall.
From the corner of her eye, Cindy noticed someone duck among the racks of clothes. It was that same familiar-looking woman who had spoken to her back in hell. But the last thing Cindy wanted was to have another conversation. Looking straight ahead, she walked past the escalators to the main mall entrance.
Laughter and happy squeals echoed down from the people riding up. Cindy glanced up idly at the group of shoppers, and what she saw caused her heart to skip a beat.
Her stepmother was riding up the central escalator, happily chatting with a tall, handsome man who was holding her arm. Cindy had to look again to be sure—the man was Charles Perrault II, Second Level Government Administrator of the Civil Office of Fat Excision. Cindy’s supervisor. Marian Rella looked young and thin and beautiful—as beautiful as ever—and was flirting shamelessly with the man who had taken away Cindy’s hope for the future.
Cindy couldn’t believe her eyes. But she also couldn’t turn away. She stood, frozen, as her stepmother and Charles rode up to the top and disappeared into the mirrored world of thin shoppers.