Imagine dying in a mall and being stuck there for the rest of your afterlife. Imagine also that you are there with other folk who died in the mall, and though you’ve all lost your senses, i.e., your sensory abilities to touch, taste, smell, you still retain the habit of doing, feeling, and thinking through your senses. And, imagine that you’re made to re-experience your death (die all over again) once a day, which allows you to experience through your senses again, but only the last ones you had.
The narrator in Nalo Hopkinson’s short story “Old Habits,” her first publication for the year 2011, finds himself in just such a damnable condition, and the story begins with his description of it:
Ghost malls are even sadder than living people malls, even though malls of the living are already pretty damned sad places to be. And let me get this out of the way right now, before we go any further; I am dead okay? I’m fucking dead. This is not going to be one of those stories where the surprise twist is and he was dead! I’m not a bloody surprise twist. I’m just a guy who wanted to buy a necktie to wear at his son’s high school graduation.
He, and the others in the story, died in the mall--his was a bizarre accident in an escalator--and it appears they are condemned to remain there in a repetitive sense-less existence, constantly longing for what they left behind.
The mall as a setting for the afterlife, or as a setting for a community of after-lifers, is of course the idea upon which the story’s ironies and its inevitable societal commentary (its depiction of a certain modern-day human condition) lie. That commentary is handled deftly with humor and tender sentiment in the story. And there are many instances of this handling to choose from: While on one hand the narrator laments the loss of his sense of smell, for instance--he wishes he could smell his husband’s warm milk breath after his morning coffee--he’s glad he can no longer inhale the “migraine-inducing” esters cloying the air around the mall’s perfume counters. Another kind of backhanded plus may be that they can only walk “through” each other, which means there’s no possibility of human connection, but there’s also no bumping into each other in crowded situations (as happens often in a mall). And though old habits appear truly hard to die, some may be worth the extra baggage in the afterlife. One man’s “habit” of homophobia seems ridiculous and out of place in a world where human contact is no longer possible, but another man’s habit of belief (so to speak) that one should have a caring person bear witness to his or her death, allows us another view that maybe some beliefs are hardy enough to last wherever human beings commune and whatever the circumstances.
Perhaps the most damning depiction of the mall existence of the after-lifers in the story is a dark moment when they surround a young girl who has somehow regained her senses, her sensory abilities, and demand that she tell them how it feels. They do so until nothing is left of her; she dissipates “like fog,” the narrator tells us. And he shamefully concludes “you stay long enough in the mall, and you learn what happens if you begin to get the knack of living again. We’ve used Kitty up. And we are still starving.”
And what about escape from this mall existence? Is that at all possible? Well, it appears one could leave by simply opening a set of big glass doors and stepping out into the “blackness” if one were either an adventurous wandering child or a stir-crazy adult. But maybe because once those people stepped outside they never came back, the after-lifers stuck in the mall are reluctant to do the same. The fear of the unknown looms larger to them than the encouraging lesson of those who left, which the narrator interprets as follows: “...we can touch the doors to the outside. Not everything in this mall is intangible to us.” The story concludes with him standing in front of the door staring at the blackness beyond and contemplating how it would feel to open it. Whether it is a positive moment or not, it brings together the story’s “mall” themes--mall as escape; mall as entrapment; mall as addiction to be broken--and leaves the reader with plenty of which to speculate about the things we carry around with us (the tangibles and intangibles) and about whether or not we’ll continue to carry them around with us when we die. “Old Habits” engages, thrills, and raises questions. Those qualities make it a satisfying read... in every sense.
Hopkinson’s story appears in the fourth edition of Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse Four: New Science Fiction and Fantasy. If you’re a fan of Nalo Hopkinson, or a fan of science fiction / speculative fiction period, be the first to let me know here or via email, and I’ll send you a copy of the collection.