Way Lost

Officially speaking, Archie Hammel's disorientation began on Christmas Eve. But the official accounts do not include the illusive woman he mistook for his wife or that moment she turned away, nor does speculation reveal insight into Archie's desperation as he churned an erratic path through the grim-faced Sterling Mall shoppers in pursuit of the unsuspecting, vanishing woman.

A Channel 13 reporter interviewed witnesses who claimed to have seen him outside the mall wandering about the packed lot, presumably in search of his car. One profiler's testimony states that Archie's feelings of detachment, loss and isolation had erupted into "deranged hopelessness" after he re-entered the crowded mall of Christmas shoppers.

Outside in the dark cold, endless waves of SUVs formed menacing black swells upon the vast asphalt lot that stretched before him. From a thousand indigo windshields, tiny luminous explosions erupted as pellets of sleet gouged his cheeks and eyes. Archie lifted his pleading arms to the towering blue halogen overhead. He called her name. No one answered.

As he entered the flow of human lava at the mall's entrance, Archie's shoulders slowly lifted and tightened like a bird tucking its wings and his wet face held that slack-jawed blankness you see at a magic show. A jangly version of Winter Wonderland spilled down from high above.

His wife was not at home, he had gone looking for her. Somehow he'd landed here. That is all he knew. "Why?" he whispered. He gaped at the crowded ascending escalator unfolding before him as if it were a giant totem. He trudged forward. Nearing the moving staircase he saw the endless circulating steps disappear into the bright lights above. "There," he said. Then closing his eyes, he slowly bent his ear to its whispering mechanics and awaited a prescient voice from the earth below.

"Drop something?" The broad windburned face hovering over Archie's looked like a human pincushion trimmed in black fur. "Lose a contact?" The kid lowered the volume on his iPod. The words Death Cab For Cutie were printed across the front of his black shirt. Archie straightened himself, but his head still fell to one side in a way that made the smiling kid tilt his head too.

"Contact is exactly what I've lost," Archie said. The kid knelt, his eyes scanning the tiles like searchlights, his pierced septum roaming the escalator's steps. Archie stopped him in mid-motion. "No. No use," Archie said. He liked the kid. Something about his smile.

"Sure?" the kid said. His fingers hadn't left the iPod's volume control.

"Once a thing is lost," Archie said, "can it be more lost?"

"Whaaat?" The kid's smile expanded, his whole face was smiling. He did a quick two-step. When he crossed his arms, the barbed wire tattoos that circled his biceps seemed to hang like blue icicles from the black sleeves of his T-shirt.

Archie didn't want the kid to walk away. "I mean," he blurted, "are there degrees of lostness?"

The kid, too, was liking this. "Well, yeah," he chuckled, as if Archie had asked him if dogs have fleas. "If your contact fell out and it landed on the floor and you can't see it cause you're half blind—"

"—It's not my eyes," Archie said, mirroring back that smile.

"—Then the contact is lost, right?"

"You bet."

"But if it fell there—." The kid pointed to the narrow space where the escalator's steps magically materialized from below the mall floor. "Then that contact is way lost. Get it?" The heavyset kid was done, eager to move on. "Good luck," he said.