The holiday season was slowly winding down, drawing close to Christmas. Another in a series of indistiguishably grey, slow days at work ended and I bolted from the door to the subway. As soon as my handful of change clattered into the fare box I realized I had forgotten to pick up a few things before heading home. Nothing essential, it could have easily waited until the next day, but I had a surfeit of energy from work and somehow, somewhy decided to go to Dufferin Mall.

A brief introduction to my relationship with the place is in order. The last time I lived close enough to the mall to consider visiting, it was seven or eight years ago. My occasional trips there were usually conducted with bared teeth and music playing at eardrum-perforating levels; as close as I could come to a hazmat suit to keep the mall and I entirely separate. This will probably come off as snobby at best, and prejudiced at worst, but I cannot abide the people who frequent the place. The trashiest teenage girls (landfillies?): stretch jeans or asstext-emblazoned sweats, tube tops perched atop muffin tops, inhumanly straightened hair, too much makeup, and as often as not, pushing a stroller. These would inevitably draw the eyes and the leers of the ethnic old man bench social clubs. You know those storefronts in Little Italy, Little Portugal, Little… Greece? The ones that are a haze of tobacco-smoke yellowed tiles, floors, drop-ceilings, filled with a dozen or so old men smoking and watching a TV perched somewhere in a corner? Combine those with the benches in a mall, a bristling palisade of canes and eyebrows, heavy with the rich musk of eight forty-year smoking habits, eight sets of ancient slacks and eight handfuls of brylcreem. Roving between the Sex-Ed dropouts and the packed benches and into and out of stores that exist nowhere else (with the possible exception of the Dufferin Galleria) are huge families of huge people (waistline = 10+age*2),  glimpses into what the future holds for the teens. These act not so much as a group of individuals but like macrophages writ (appropriately) large. The children-as-pseudopods flailing out to engulf fried foods, too-tight clothes, brightly coloured objects and unwary shoppers and bringing them back to the core to be assimilated or discarded.

Perhaps it is that I’m older, calmer, more tolerant. Perhaps it was the mall ownership’s program of renovation (upon hearing of this, I blurted out, “Can you renovate the people who go there?”). Perhaps it’s just my love of grocery shopping at No Frills, but now that I live within striking distance of Dufferin Mall, I’ve gone there fairly regularly.

And it hasn’t been that bad. Not until December 21st. Then it was that bad.

By the time the holiday-busy subway disgorged me at the nearest stop, I was beginning to suspect that I had made a mistake. Perhaps I was not as brimming with energy as I had initially suspected. Perhaps the dry, close, salty press of purses and parkas on the train got me into the wrong frame of mind. But the die was cast, the fix was in, there was no turning back now. I took the not-very-shortcut across the lawn of Kent Senior Public School and past the vendor peddling pirated DVDs from a country that no longer exists. I navigated through the mall’s extremely full parking lot (sideways between parked rear-views, hop away from the suddenly braking minivan, vault the low concrete island) but failed to notice it, failed to hear the warning it was screaming.

I approached the doors on the east side, one of several sets I almost never use on my regular grocery excursions. I walked through the first set of doors, turning back to hold it open for an old man just behind me. I went blindly through the second set and as I felt them settle closed I looked up and blanched behind my scarf. A wall of flesh, limbs jutting out wrapped in nylon, vinyl, polyester – heads, feet, arms, all mismatched by race and age and gender. This mass was gaily lit in playground colours by the Toys ‘R’ Us sign and rhythmically pulsating, driven as pistons by the insert-a-coin kiddie rides just inside the door. Eyes wide, I backpeddled, but didn’t make it a step back before hitting a sickly yielding cushion. I reflexively began to apologize, but stopped as I looked back and saw that one of my gloved hands was buried in stretched-to-translucent fabric, barely containing bales of pallid flesh, the opposite elbow distorting gigantic woman’s face, her beady eyes barely registering. Pushed by those behind her, ceaselessly entering the mall, she plodded forwards, carrying me with her, towards the rest.

In the few seconds I had before we were absorbed, I used my free hand to button shut pockets, secure the clasps on my bag, pull the hood up on my parka and cinch the hood as closed as I could. The end of a thick tongue, callused from use and impossibly long, weakly inchwormed out of the press and wrapped itself around my ankle, pulling. Using its strong grip as leverage, I jerked my hand free of the massive woman’s torso but overadjusted, tumbling into the mound of bodies. I went fetal around my satchel and turned up the volume on my mp3 player, drowning out the cacophony of voices, the wet packing sounds, all over a low, insectile drone.

The rest passed in a flicker of moments. Small, cruel children flitting by me, somehow moving fast as bats. The crushing weight of pendulous lobes of flesh, embossing my back clean through my army surplus parka with the mark of JUI CY. Numberless fluorescent rows of plastic-wrapped products, the whiff of shoe polish, cinnabon, and decay. White, staring, milky eyes under heavy lids, and always grasping hands, snuffling noses, wet chapped lips smacking.

Time passed.

I felt cold. Wet and cold. There was a taste of salt in my mouth, my eyes burning. Unwilling, my eyes pried open to the roughly sideways grey of sidewalk against my cheek. I sat up and brushed coarse kernels of rock salt off of my face. I had been blessedly discarded, disgorged, out of the mall’s southern door. Blinking, I took an inventory. Hat, both gloves, one shoe, missing. Shins, back, badly bruised, I may have broken a rib. In my bag I was stunned to find exactly what I had gone to the mall to buy, plus a hearing aid and three matching socks, one of which contained a still-sticky lollipop. I carefully piled these strange objects on the lid of a garbage can and began my awkward, limping walk home. I slowly began to come to terms with the horrors I witnessed at Dufferin Mall, all the while trying to calculate if I could go without groceries until after Christmas.