Debris crunched beneath Pepper’s wheelchair as she rolled along the top floor of the Stonegrove Shopping Mall. Just small scraps, though, the kind she could roll over without her wheels catching. This area of the midsized mall was largely cleared out since most of the community lived up here, where they could access the vegetable gardens on the roof. Up here, folks would sweep up to make Pepper’s going easier, but she had to dodge little piles of crumbly ceiling tiles on her way to one of two escalators leading downward.
Natural sunshine shafted in through big overhead skylights. Pepper wore a lemon-yellow T-shirt and orange shorts for this summery day, scrounged from one of the few clothing stores remaining in the mall. The community’s scouts had spotted a caravan weaving along the vehicle-choked highway that morning, and she wanted to trade them something useful they could spread to others.
The Stonegrove Shopping Mall had already begun to decline before the slow but inevitable collapse of society—more empty storefronts than full, escalators running for handfuls of visitors, and the elderly using the circular central plaza as climate-controlled walking tracks.
Back then, Pepper had managed the Illumenary Candle Store on the second floor. Back then, she’d used the elevator to get around. Back then, she’d been taking her lunch break in the food court on the fourth floor—a desultory affair of rubbery fries and leathery burger—because she hadn’t had time to pack lunch.
Back then, the city power grid, already spotty, had flickered. Surged. Flickered. And failed for the last time.
As the mall had emptied out, everyone had left Pepper behind with a dead elevator. Security guards hadn’t even come up to clear out any stragglers because what was the point? The mall didn’t matter anymore. It was the end of the world. Everyone knew it.
Up high near one of the broken skylights, a bird trilled. Down below, there came an answering tweet from a man sitting on the bottommost escalator steps where water lapped at the metal stairs. When an upriver dam had sprung a leak, part of the new flow had routed right through the mall’s first floor. Everyone had shrugged and cleared a way for it to pass out the other side. Now they had their very own creek, gurgling against columns and around benches.
The man wore khaki shorts and had one brown leg dipped in the water. In his large hand, he held a fishing rod from the old sports outlet. A tall, white plastic bucket sat at his side. Pepper knew it would be filled with fish. Booker was a good fisher.
Moss clung to the rubbery handrail of the escalator that Pepper approached. Previously chugging metal stairs now lay still and silent beneath a plywood ramp laid down its length. A cable pulley system, the very one from the elevator, hung strung along one rail with a big metal tow clip attached to this end. Pepper paused to tie back her dark, curly hair. She then backed up to the clip. With a lot of twisting and stretching, she got the clip hooked to the crossbars beneath her wheelchair. Braided steel nipping at her palms, she let herself down the ramp.
Without power for refrigeration, the food left behind in the food court with Pepper couldn’t last long. But at least, trapped on the same level as the food, she could eat. Figuring she would die soon, Pepper had wheeled around the fourth floor, munching gross, cold chicken nuggets, wondering what was happening outside.
Since the power hadn’t come back up, she assumed the city had fallen at last, if not the whole country or the whole world. She regretted now that she’d kept working even as the economy slid, but government disability had vanished with any semblance of a government and the remaining corporations were not much given to charity. Still, she would’ve liked to spend more time crafting artisanal candles of her own before the end.
Her reaction wasn’t as blasé as all that. She’d cried a lot.
Lucky for Pepper, as she’d wandered around—aimless, a heavy lump of tears in her chest—she’d found the grill in the burger joint was gas powered. When she’d idly punched the red starter button in passing, blue flames had sprung up underneath the griddle with a whumpf, heat licking over her face. Surprised, she’d shut it off at once. But then, with a tiny spark of hope, she’d wheeled every melting bag of ice she could find to the nearest freezer, then dumped all the frozen food in there, too.
She could survive this way, she’d told herself. For a while, anyway. At least until someone found her.
Still, it had taken a long time for anyone to find Pepper. Even then, only because she called.
Pepper had understood the power of light in a dark world. Fortunately, the food court featured a floor-to-ceiling wall of windows, one of the few in the entire mall. Pepper had found cooking oil with the chicken nuggets and shoestrings from a small shoe store and built a crude oil lamp. She’d set the oil lamp on the floor in front of that wall of windows every evening.
Unfortunately, the window didn’t face the main drag where anyone passing would notice the light, or where she could even see anyone passing. Each night, she’d parked next to the lamp, gazing out into the absolute darkness of an unpowered city for about an hour before blowing out the flame. For all she knew, there was no one out there.
But someone had seen her light.
Sweating, Pepper managed to lower her wheelchair about halfway down the steep escalator ramp before Booker called her name from below.
“Can I help you down?” He stood next to the ramp on the second floor, face tipped up toward her, pointing at his end of the pulley.
Pepper smiled. She loved when people asked first. “Please!”
Booker’s added strength made Pepper’s trip down much easier. When she got to the bottom, she said, “Thank you so much. Can I do anything for you?” Though their community functioned on trade, it had grown enough that acts of kindness with no expectation of return could flourish again. Still, it was polite to ask.
Smiling, Booker said, “It’s my birthday today. Do you have any good jokes?”
Pepper tapped her lips a moment. “What do you get when you goose a ghost?”
“I don’t know. What?”
“A handful of sheet.”
A snort escaped Booker. He shook his head, smiling bigger. “Yeah, I’d say we’re square. Where’re you going?”
“My store,” said Pepper. “Got ’em to turn the lights on for a minute.” Salvaged solar panels had just gone in on the roof, allowing them to save propane for the emergency backup generators now. That meant they could power various areas of the mall for short times if they were careful. “Will you still be here in thirty?”
Booker’s expression went a little solemn. “I’ll help you when you get back, don’t worry. Take your time.”
One night, the echo of voices around the mall had woken Pepper. Flashlights had strobed around the central plaza from the first floor as a group of people clattered up the motionless escalator. She’d wheeled out to meet them, holding her hand up against the glare as several flashlights jumped to her in surprise.
“Can you point those somewhere else?” she’d said.
Several lights had clicked off and the rest pointed at the floor. Twenty people of varying ages and skin tones had stood clustered together with a middle-aged woman in a business suit at the front. She’d had fake nails, but several were broken off. Her blonde ponytail showed brown roots. Nature taking over. “Were you the one with that light in the window?”
Pepper spread her hands wide, indicating both her wheelchair and her little food-court kingdom. “That’s me. Can you help me get down?”
Amanda, as Pepper found out her name later, had exchanged glances with none other than Booker at her side. “Sure,” she’d said. “But we wanted to know … can we stay here?”
Pepper had pressed her lips together, fighting back tears. She loved when people asked first. “If I can stay with you,” she’d said thickly. She didn’t have family in the city to look for her. Nowhere to go if she left. But with a community, she could survive here. “And if you let in anyone with a disability, then sure.”
Amanda had directed the group to build ramps around the mall for Pepper and rig up the pulley system. It was no elevator, and Pepper would always miss those, but at least she could get herself around now.
Illumenary still smelled amazing when Pepper wheeled inside. A glorious intermingling of scented candles, incense, wax melts, and bath bombs in lavender, coconut, cotton, rose, citrus, and more. Her original stock, once overflowing the shelves into the clearance bin, had dwindled as she’d brought candles upstairs for light until they’d set up the power generators, then for celebrations and trade. She paused to gather three jars, laying them on her lap. Thick glass clinked as they rolled together.
In Pepper’s back office, sunlight poured in over her dusty desk from the single window. Several vines and weeds poked up here and there from piles of plaster and crumbling sheetrock. A young tree had sprouted in one corner, its leaves flicking like big yellow-green coins in a light breeze. This close to the creek a level below, humidity made her keyboard tacky. As Pepper waited for the computer to boot up, she picked up her old mug embossed with the Illumenary logo. Inside, she found a fat, sleeping frog.
Pepper was after a candle-making recipe she’d emailed to herself with an eye to using it for a promotion. It was historical, circulated among candlemakers for the novelty of the crude ingredients. With this, she wouldn’t have to worry about running out of candles. She rested her chin in one hand, daydreaming about the spread of the recipe through the caravanners. Passing from person to person until the whole continent could make candles again.
But when she pulled up her inbox, she found an unopened email. It was from her boss up in Cincinnati, dated three years ago, just after Pepper’s city had gone dark. The previewed text showed: I hope this email finds you well.
Pepper hovered the mouse pointer over the message. Just that wording alone gave her flashbacks to meaningless corporate politeness. So distant and empty and cold.
Three years of unemployment, wherein her value to her community was not determined by her ability to contribute but by her existence as a person, had made Pepper forget the despair of corporate life. She raised her head from that old computer screen where she had so often stressed about meeting sales quotas and passing district management inspections, taking in the peace of her new home.
She reminded herself she never had to go back.
Pepper clicked the email open. Keys clacked as she typed a response.
I hope this email does not find you.
I hope your office has overgrown with vines. I hope your chair has collapsed into dust and that a frog sleeps in your old coffee mug.
I hope you’ve forgotten about quarterly reports and 8 a.m. business meetings. I hope moths have eaten every single file in your filing cabinet.
And I hope, wherever you are, that it’s quiet.
When Pepper hit send, a message immediately appeared in her inbox. Message failed.
She smiled. No one was there.
Back at the escalator, Booker climbed up from his fishing spot. With the printed candle-making recipe tucked into her pocket, Pepper handed him a candle jar from her lap. A spicy ginger-and-orange scent bloomed between them when he popped the glass lid open for a sniff.
At Booker’s delighted sigh, Pepper said, “Happy birthday, my friend.”
Copyright © 2022 S. G. Baker
Depositphotos with additional processing by Katrina Archer
S.G. Baker is a writer and editor of fiction who penned the Hopeful Wanderer web series. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from West Texas A&M University with a focus on writing, editing, and linguistics. Summer has received honourable mention for the 2017 Writer's Digest Writing Competition.
Her publications include short stories in With Words We Weave 2022: Hope and Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers, Vol. 2. A wanderer and a dreamer herself, Summer travels often to bring the wonders of the world to her stories.