Gandalay MarketingSophie squeezed her tongue into a scarlet U with her lips and judged its reflection in the Gandalay® shop window for a final time. Acceptable. She could now show her mother, and claim the title Master of Curled Tongues, the most humorous of super-powers. Sophie turned to find only a thin Monday afternoon crowd of passing shoppers, walking lazy and light through the mall. Great. Her mother had drifted off again.A voice came from the window display, “Sophie Adams, you would look delightful in a slinky Sprite™ turtleneck from Gandalay Outfitters®.” She turned to see the window cream-over with white, concealing her view of the face-mimicking SIModels in the diorama behind. A picture of her wearing the turtleneck faded in over the cream background. It looked big on her, even in the simulation. She had just turned 10 years old, much too young for Gandalay’s target market of 18 to 100 year-old women. She didn’t think she’d ever get old enough to wear that shirt.Her mother must have gone into Gandalay to look around, because Sophie couldn’t see her anywhere out here. So, she drifted into the store, past the two SIModels displaying faces of professional Gandalay girls flanking the door. As she passed, the SIModels remolded their flexible faces to match Sophie’s and waved a welcome to her with their plastic arms.Sophie ignored them like she ignored the constant marketing parade of movies, toys, and sugary snacks on the net. She envied people who had the money to buy all that, because she sure didn’t.She couldn’t remember what her mother was shopping for, so looking around in Gandalay might just get Sophie more lost. Her mother should notice she wasn’t around by now, shouldn’t she?Usually, Sophie loved to visit Gandalay stores for the experience, if not the clothes. They had rooms connected by thin passages segmenting the shop into themed areas where she could view each of their designs on SIModels displaying her and her friends’ faces.As they moved from room to room, the SIModels would morph to mimic their faces and actions. Gandalay had lots of rooms and three or four SIModels in each, and as Sophie passed, they all stuck their tongues out in a little red curl at her. The spokesmodel said, “Sophie, stop a minute and try the Microskirt Paisley™. Get tight with it this season. You’ll love its bold pattern and fine tailoring.” It did have a nice look, brown and green with white highlights dancing in paisley curls. Her mother would never approve.“Sophie, your mother would love this dress on you.”Sophie looked around at her mother’s mention, but she wasn’t in this room. She ran past the overlapping walls and into the next. The visual blocks allowed Gandalay to market individually to groups as they passed through the store, but Sophie had never felt so alone here before. She called out, “Mom? Are you here?” Her voice cracked over the store’s mellow and omnipresent mood music.The spokesmodel spoke up once again, “Your mother would look sick in a new ankle-length silk SlimSkirt™ and Flapper Blouse™, special this season. From the 1920’s to the 2020’s, celebrate a century of fashion.”Sophie’s mother’s face appeared on the SIModel’s skull, and it twisted its hips in a spastic jerk that set the long, blue skirt flopping against its legs, the illusion of dancing hindered by the steel posts and power cables attaching the SIModel to the black, cylindrical pedestal they each stood upon. The computers had recorded her mother’s face recently and identified their relationship, probably with links via recognition software to the publicly available social media image data.Sophie’s mother called it “spooky spam,” but to Sophie, it seemed normal. It had existed all her life. It just meant her mother was close.Sophie frowned and stuck her fingernail between her teeth to give a nervous chew. Her mother would snatch Sophie’s hand from her mouth if she saw, but at this point, she would welcome it.The metallic grinding sound of a motor operating came from the front of the store, and Sophie didn’t know what it might be, but it made her more nervous.She has to be here somewhere, she thought. She sprinted through two more display areas and stopped short outside a dark room. The only light in the room emitted from the tan back-lighting under the SIModels’ skin that altered their texture and coloring. They morphed into her mother’s face and the spokesmodel said, “Sophie, come see how your mother looks in these…”Sophie stopped. Her mother lay on the sleek floor, a fold of skin flapped up and away from her scalp exposing red and white beneath. Her head pressed into a pool of liquid that glinted dark red in the dim light. Sophie took a sharp breath and choked back the scream pushing to erupt from her throat.She heard a movement in the store then. She hadn’t seen anyone else around. Not so unusual for a light shopping day, until she saw the scene before her. Now, the simple and innocuous scuff of a foot on floor shot a flare of shock up her spine.She shouldn’t leave her mother, but she couldn’t help if the person in the dark caught her. She turned heel and ran for the front, through several boxy rooms, until she reached the main entrance, where she realized the sound she had heard was the store’s folding steel doors closing on an automated rail, cutting her off her from the crowd in the mall proper, and leaving her alone with the SIModels and someone.She crept behind a SIModel and shimmied down into a crouch. She listened. A step, a scraping sound, and a stifled, “Bitch. Got what you deserve,” came from deeper within the store. A man’s slurred voice. “You need to treat a man right, right? She don’t leave until I let her.”What am I going to do?A SIModel spoke up, revealing Sophie’s location, and making her jerk in surprise. “Sophie, check this boy-shirt and Lanai® jeans combo from Gandalay’s celebrity designer, Ava Yan.”Sophie did the only thing she could think of – she asked in a very small voice, “Can you help me? Can you send me someone?”A bright blue line appeared on the milk-white acrylic floor with arrows every few feet, pointing along a route direct to Sophie. The intercom replied, “Absolutely. One of our courteous associates is on the way. Please wait while…”“No!” Sophie screamed, then slapped her hands over her own mouth. The intercom cut out and paused.“How can I serve you best?” it asked kindly.Another scuff on the floor. Closer this time.Sophie whispered. “Turn off the arrows. Turn them off. I’m alone in your store and someone hurt my mother. I need help. I need help now. Can you call the police?”The system turned off the service path on the floor and a cleaning robot scudded out of a small door in the base of the floorboard near Sophie. It had a tiny display on its case, and it said, in the spokesmodel’s voice, “Follow me.”Sophie saw the robot whisk behind another SIModel and through a passage she hadn’t noticed, hidden in a decorative bend in the wall. She stood to follow, and when she did, she saw something retreat from around a corner leading back toward her mother, perhaps the shadow of a head or hand.She swallowed the lump in her throat and ran into the concealed doorway. The robot waited on the other side. Its small video screen popped on, and a face shone up at her.“Hi, this is Yolanda, with Gandalay Marketing. How can I assist you today?” The robot sped down a service corridor and Sophie followed.“I’m Sophie, I’m trapped in your store, my mother is hurt. Someone’s trying to get me, call the police!” The robot stopped before a tall set of double doors. Sophie tried them, but they were locked.“Are you serious, Honey?” Yolanda said. “Where are you?”“In the back corridor of your store.”“Which store? Which mall?”Sophie dropped down on her heels and talked into the service robot’s microphone. “University Market, San Diego. You have to help me,” she pleaded.Her head turned right and Sophie heard “Gerardo, call the cops… Don’t ask questions, do it, man.” She turned back, “We’ll call them for you, but it’ll take a few minutes.” She motioned someone out of frame to hurry. “You need to hide. You need to protect yourself… Wait, got an idea!” Sophie saw Yolanda’s head turn to the side again and she disappeared from frame.Sophie listened. The scuffing started again, coming down the corridor she had used. This passage had many other exits, and she needed to move. Now. She grabbed up the vacuum robot and took it with her through a swinging door back into the main store. She entered the check-out area from behind. In front of her, two women slumped against the ground, one with her neck twisted into an impossible angle, the other had blood dripping from a gash in her head similar to her mother’s.Sophie shivered and looked away as she skirted past them, too close to the women for her comfort.This room still had bright LED lights overhead, but the two doors leading to the shopping floor showed darkness beyond. Sophie thought the man still stalked behind her, along the service walkway. She moved slowly and quietly, keeping low, around the corner into the well-lit display area, aiming for one of the blacked-out rooms beyond. She could see several SIModel’s faces, now shifting back and forth, cycling through several of the Gandalay girl’s looks.“Come back,” said Sophie to the robot. A face appeared, Yolanda again, but she looked determined now, her service-smile gone, a hard set to her eyes tightened her skin into hard fissures between her eyebrows.“Honey, the cops are coming, but they’re going to be a while; until then, I’m going to do what I do best, and there ain’t no one better. There’s only one other person moving in the store with you, and we’re tracking him on the real-time monitors now. You have some space, because he thinks you’re alone, but you’re not alone. You have me. And we have the GandalayGlamour™ marketing system. Top of the line in giving people what they want.”Yolanda looked over her shoulder and shouted, “I need control, now.”Another disembodied voice shouted back in a muddle which seemed to satisfy Yolanda. She turned back and smiled at Sophie and cracked her knuckles near the microphone. “You and I are partners, Honey. You do what I say, and you ignore the store. You understand me? You ignore the store. Can you do that?”Sophie liked Yolanda, and she could do that. Practiced most of her life, in fact. She nodded hard, once. Yolanda took one hand and started typing in quick clacks on the keyboard beneath the video frame. She moused with the other, and her eyes flickered back and forth across a monitor to the left. Yolanda said, “Slowly now, go back to the checkout stands. He’s circling back.”Sophie moved, and as she did, the house speakers got louder. The music intensified, and switched to some sort of hip-hop beat from the Tens. The bass thundered through the store, and Sophie could barely hear Yolanda’s next command. “Stay behind the checkout counter, Honey.”She didn’t want to. The dead clerks lay there, looking at her. No, that was just her imagination. She scrunched down next to them, trying to keep her shoes out of the blood. Hiding behind the counter, she saw a solid steel safe, a pair of boxy, old PCs sprouting cables into holes in the floor, and stacks of unfolded boxes and packaging tape.Then she heard the spokesmodel’s voice echo from deeper in the store. “Hey mister. Mister Mark Hampton. You like hitting girls?”Yolanda smiled and clicked in the robot’s little screen and Sophie thought she looked a bit scary. Reassuring scary.The spokesmodel said, “Mark. You come here and play with me. You like me like this?” There was another scuff, and a crash that came from somewhere far from here, near the front entrance. “Betty made you feel bad? So you had to show her who’s boss, right? You’re a real man with your little stick. You come where she works and you think you can get away with it?”A scream. Mean, frustrated. “You don’t know. You don’t know.”“Mark, how would your mom feel if she saw you now?” taunted the spokesmodel from another location. Sophie glanced around the corner of her hiding place and saw the face of one of the SIModels. It bore the face of a late-middle-aged woman, with a haggard set around her eyes, a mole on one side of her chin that looked cancerous, and a look of stern patience in her thin lips. When she moved her mouth, the voice of the spokesmodel emitted from the front of the store.“Mark, you want someone to beat, beat on me. I’m your mom. You hate women? You probably just hate me. Did I ever really love you? How could I?”Yolanda’s voice came across as a whisper, “Sophie, there’s someone new in the store with you. There are three people moving now.”Sophie leaned back into her hiding spot and the spokesmodel continued taunting her hunter. She heard another crash from the room nearby. “Is it my mom?”“Do you think she’s alive?” Yolanda flashed another screen into the frame, a layout of the store, with red dots. The murderer had a dot labeled ‘Mark Hampton,’ Sophie saw her own ‘Sophie Adams’ label at the check counter. The third dot just said ‘unrecognized,’ but indicated the room where Sophie had left her mother.“I have to get to her. Can you distract him?” Sophie whispered as she started to move.Yolanda’s face came back. She hit a key on her keyboard with a crack and replied, “Do what you need to do.” The store lights dimmed down in every room Sophie could see, and Sophie used the cover of darkness and the furious beats of Dr. Zed to conceal her footsteps.She had memorized the layout of the store from her look at the map and she shot through two rooms into the area where her mother had to be. Sophie spotted her, still face-down, pushing herself across the floor toward the front exit with her hands. Sophie grabbed a hand and pulled. Her mother looked up, one eye rolling in a crazy panic, and then she calmed. “Sophie! Get out of here. He’s a maniac.”Sophie couldn’t let her mother lie here alone, but she couldn’t help with the maintenance robot clutched under one arm, either. She set it down and pulled her mother up by her armpits, dragging her back the way she had come.The SIModel closest to Sophie said, “Sophie, hide. Fast.” Sophie couldn’t. She couldn’t leave her mother here, but her mother pushed her.“Go.”Sophie heard a scream filled with rage that came rushing toward her. She couldn’t see him yet, but he had the deepest, most terrifying voice she had ever heard.Sophie stood, undecided. This room had three SIModels, a closed curtain where you could pass into the changing area, and a rack of sample clothes. The SIModel’s heads all turned toward the yelling and shifted into the face of an old man. The spokesmodel’s voice took over, “Mark, your old man wants to talk to you. He’s back from the dead to deal with you.”Sophie had an idea. She raced to the SIModel closest to the door and slid down behind it. She had one shot at this. If she did it right, it might just save two lives.A bang came from the distance, something loud, and a rattling followed. Something was happening at the front of the store.She ignored it. Much closer, the rage of an angry man approached. He stalked through the door, eyes flared open. He couldn’t possibly see well in this darkened room, after coming from one fully-lit. He looked around to settle his ire on something, but only saw the face of his father scowling down on him and the judgmentally-sexy voice of the spokesmodel echoing, “Did you kill him too, Mark? Did you kill your pop?”Mark took one more step into the room, focused his attention on the SIModel’s face nearest him, and hit it with a golf club that seemed to Sophie to swing in from nowhere. It crashed with a familiar sound and the light in the SIModel’s face flickered off.Then Sophie pushed the SIModel from behind.In that stunned moment as Mark realized the SIModel had not just broken, but actually fell toward him, he froze, and Sophie pushed again, harder.Mark jerked back, but not fast enough. It fell and smashed square into his chest with its shattered head, and knocked him back onto the ground.Flashlights flared through the doorway a few seconds later, and people started to pour into the room. Guns and Tazers waved around, lights came up, and Sophie’s mother rolled onto her back and lifted her hand for help.Sophie sat back on the floor with her back against the wall to calm her breathing, and to wait out the shivering in her heart and hands. The maintenance robot rolled up to her as a policeman knelt beside her to see if she was okay.“Sophie,” said Yolanda. “I’m glad you’re all right. Make sure the paramedics take good care of your mom.”Sophie put her hand down on the robot and said, “Thank you. Thank you so much.”“You got it, kid. Is there anything else I can do for you?”Sophie shook her head and smiled.Yolanda glanced at her other monitor, laughed, then said, “Remember, you may get a call asking you to rate the service I provided today. Anything less than a ten, I consider unsatisfactory.” Yolanda winked, and her screen faded to black.“I’ll tell them eleven,” she whispered, as she raced to hug her mom.
Each week authors will be given a new question to answer which will lend additional insight into their story and writing process. Do you have a question you'd like to see the authors answer? Tweet it to @aNextAuthor!