A TRIP to the MALL
by Lawndale Stalker
May 04

"Hey, Daria! Where are you guys going?"

Daria stopped as she was about to get into the driver’s seat of her father’s blue Lexus, and looked toward the sidewalk. "Books by the Ton. Why?"

Quinn and her friend Stacy turned in at the Morgendorffers’ driveway. "Can we get a ride with you? Stacy wants to look for tops at Junior Five."

Daria cocked her head slightly. "Where’s the rest of the Fearsome Foursome?"

Quinn did a little "if you must know" head toss/hair flounce. "Sandi sometimes has a problem with Stacy’s color choices. It just works out better if we shop for certain things without her. So will you give us a lift?"

"I’d say ‘sure’ if it weren’t for the rounding you up later part."

"It’ll take us half an hour at the most, and we’ll meet you at the book store. If we don’t, just leave. We can always get a ride."

"Well, on that basis… okay. Go let Dad know you’re going with us."

Later, the four girls were heading out of Lawndale Mall, each carrying a bag except Jane. "Did you want to go anywhere, Jane?" Daria asked.

"Well, I’d like to hit the Art Barn."

"Okay. That’s right by the Read Book used book store. I can wait for you there."

"Hey, could you drop us by Sweet Petites on your way?" asked Stacy.

"I guess. We’re having lunch at the Sedalia Trail steakhouse first, though. It’s right across the parking lot."

"Megabar, here I come!" crowed Jane, rubbing her hands together.

The two fashionistas traded a series of looks and shrugs, then Quinn said, "Sounds good. They have a good salad bar." They exited the mall—and Stacy stopped in her tracks just outside.

Quinn stopped when Stacy did, and Jane and Daria, coming behind, had to stop likewise to keep from piling into them. Clutching their Cashman's shopping bags, Quinn and Stacy were looking down at a dead cat in the mall parking lot. It was apparently a recent accident---no flies, no smell.

"What do you suppose that poor kitty was doing here?" wondered Stacy.

"Who knows? Maybe it wanted to check out the food court." Quinn replied. "Come on, lets…"

But Stacy had already grabbed her shopping bag and was saying, "I'll just put my things in your bag, and then I'll take this tissue…" She dumped her purchases into Quinn's bag and then used the tissue paper to pick up and lower the former feline into her own Cashman's bag and cover it.

"STA-ceee! What in the world…"

Stacy gave Quinn a piteous look. "Please, Quinn, don’t say my name like that! You sound just like Sandi!"

"I’m sorry, Stacy, but what in the world do you want with a dead cat?"

"Just to give it a decent burial. Someone loved this cat, Quinn. It deserves at least that."

Daria and Jane looked on, bemused. This was the first sign of individuality and initiative they’d seen from Stacy. Quinn turned to her sister with a what-should-I-do-now expression. Daria, puzzled herself, merely shrugged.

It was but a short walk to the car, and they stashed their loot in the trunk. But Daria held up a hand to Stacy. "Sorry, but I don’t think Dad is ready to trade in his new-car smell for a dead-cat smell. The inside of that trunk will get pretty hot in this sun."

"But what can I do? I don’t think it’s a good idea to take it in the restaurant."

"You got that right." Daria thought of telling Stacy what sensible people would do with a dead cat in a shopping bag—if by some strange circumstance they found themselves in possession of one—but realized it would be a waste of breath. "Just leave the bag on top of the trunk. We can sit by a window so you can keep an eye on it."

Stacy looked at Quinn, who shrugged. "I don’t know what else we can do, Stacy. You’re the one who wants to hold a kitty wake."

Daria made a little noise like a smothered snicker, but said nothing.

The girls filled plates and sat down at a window table, where they had a view of Jake’s Lexus with the Cashman's bag still on the trunk. But not for long. A large, obese black-haired woman in a flowered dress strolled by the car, looked quickly this way and that, and snatched the Cashman's bag without breaking stride. She quickly waddled out of their line of vision. The four exchanged wide-eyed looks of amazement. It had happened so fast that none of them could think how to respond.

"She stole it! She just… stole it!" Stacy said unbelievingly, still staring out the window.

"Wasn’t that Mrs. Johanssen?" Daria asked.

"Sure looked like her to me," Jane affirmed. "This town ain’t big enough for two of her."

Quinn turned to Daria. "You know her?"

"She almost died right in front of us, and then she ratted us out to Ms. Li because we wouldn’t sell her all our chocolate bars. Remember that fundraiser for the coffeehouse?"

"Oh, is that what you two were getting chewed out about that day? You should have sold them to her. I would."

"That’s what I said," agreed Jane. "See there, Miss don’t-want-to-take-a-human-life? Your silly scruples have unleashed a heinous cat burglar on our fair city."

"You guys!" whined Stacy, "It’s not funny! What’s she gonna do when she sees the cat in there? She’ll throw it in the trash!"

"Naah, she’ll probably dip it in chocolate and eat it," chortled Jane. "You’re right… it isn’t funny. It’s hilarious!" Daria, thinking of the moment when she’d get her first look at her plunder, tended to agree but said nothing.

"Jane!" Quinn glared at Jane, then turned to Stacy. "It’s okay, Stacy, you tried. You did your best. I’m sure the kitty appreciates that."

Stacy looked back at Quinn. "You really think so?" Then her big puppy-dog eyes got even bigger. "Omigosh! Look!"

Quinn, Daria, and Jane looked in the direction that Stacy was surreptitiously pointing. Mrs. Johanssen was being escorted to a table by a waitress. She put a Cashman’s bag down on a chair seat and headed toward the megabar, an unpleasant smirk on her face. Daria heard her wheezing, labored breathing as she approached, and caught the odor of perspiration as she passed. Looking up after she’d gone by, Daria noticed that she wasn’t the only one looking. Several others glanced or frankly stared, and one of those was the manager. Daria couldn’t help smiling as she saw his expression. I swear I can read his mind, she thought. He’s thinking, "Oh, hell, there go the profits for today."

Stacy put a hand on Quinn’s shoulder and whispered, "Should I run over there and grab it?"

Quinn looked horrified. "No!"

"But I’ve got to do something!"

Quinn looked toward Daria for help. Jane spoke up. "Stacy, think of your poor parents! Think how they’d feel if their daughter got herself hanged for cat rustling!"

Stacy and Quinn both glared at Jane, who grinned back. Daria leaned toward Stacy and murmured, "Stacy, no way do you want to be in possession of a dead cat inside a restaurant. You’d never be able to explain it."

Stacy looked to Quinn, who nodded. "But I can’t just let her get away with it!" she whined.

Several sarcastic remarks sprang to Daria’s tongue, and she set them aside with regret. "What you could do is go to the manager and tell him you saw that woman put the cat in that bag just before she came in here."

Stacy stared wide-eyed at Daria, then she turned to Quinn, then back to Daria. The other three girls looked back at her, waiting. She looked at the shopping bag, then at the manager, then at Quinn again, as if wrestling with her inner fears and uncertainties. As they sat there, Mrs. Johanssen returned from the food bar, her plate piled high with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, breaded shrimp, and more.

Daria ate a bite of her own food, casting glances out of the corner of her eye toward the table where the fat woman sat. The other girls were doing likewise. Mrs. Johanssen tucked a napkin into the neck of her dress and attacked her food with gusto. After she’d half emptied her plate, and had apparently taken the edge off her hunger, she paused and looked over at the Cashman’s bag on the seat beside her. A glance at Stacy showed Daria that she was mesmerized by events at the other table like a sparrow by a serpent.

Mrs. Johanssen picked up the bag and set it on her lap. Daria was surprised that she had one. She peered inside, then thrust in a fat arm.

Stacy gasped and opened her mouth to shout something, but Daria expertly filled it with a hush puppy. As the four watched, a look of surprise crossed Mrs. Johanssen’s face, followed by one of puzzlement. She seemed to grope around in the bag, then withdrew her hand holding the tissue paper and peered inside again.

Her eyes widened in shock and she gasped and tried to jerk away from the bag. Her gasps grew in volume and took on a moaning note. The bag slid from her lap as she rose unsteadily to her feet, wheezing and clutching her chest.

A waitress rushed over to offer assistance, while another one ran for help. After several more loud wheezes, Mrs. Johanssen toppled over backward. Fortunately for her, her fall was broken by a man at the table behind her, and she slid off his back and onto the floor. He came up gasping as her considerable weight slid off him, his face covered in blueberry cobbler and vanilla soft ice cream.

The girls soon found themselves hemmed in by gawkers, and got only brief glimpses of the manager and the soup chef fruitlessly attempting to heimlich Johanssen’s ponderous prone form. Quinn looked distressed, and Stacy nearly started hyperventilating, but Daria and Jane merely watched and ate an occasional bite, sometimes coughing, covering their mouths, or pounding on their knees with their fists. An ambulance arrived within minutes, and the EMS crew ordered the crowd back.

"Come on, you guys, let’s get out of here," Quinn said as soon as she could see a path to the door.

"Hell, no," Jane replied, "I paid for lunch, and I’m not about to leave just when I can finally get to the food bar again."

"The blueberry cobbler that guy was wearing looked pretty good," Daria agreed, rising to her feet. "I think I’ll try some."

By the time the two wormed their way back to the table Mrs. Johanssen, strapped to a gurney and still wheezing, was being wheeled away, the Cashman’s bag balanced on her stomach.

"I just hate to think of her getting away with it," Stacy groused from the back seat. "I should have told the manager like you said, Daria."

Daria turned onto a tree-lined residential street much like her own. "She hasn’t gotten away with it yet," she said. "They’re going to ask her a lot of questions at the ER about what brought on that seizure. And even if she comes up with a good story, there’s still the cat. If it’s discovered, it’ll bring on a whole other batch of questions." She slowed and pulled up in front of a house. "This looks like the place."

"Thanks for the ride, you guys," Stacy said as she got out of the Lexus. "Sorry about all the weird stuff."

"What weird stuff?" asked Daria.

"We want you to come with us the next time we go out raising hell," said Jane.

"Yeah, you’d be a riot at Pizza Forest with a dead raccoon," added Daria.

La la LA la la.