It seemed so benign when my mom suggested it. "Hey, Peanut, want to come to the mall? Vickie, Rachel, and I are going shopping for some school supplies."
I gave it some thought. Mom had bought clothes for me recently, but I was pretty sure I'd outgrown my exercise clothes, and I had a required P.E. elective I was taking first semester. Plus, I honestly could use a trip out of the house. I was going a little stir crazy with all the sitting at home I'd engaged in this summer. "Sure, Mom."
After Mom finished corralling everyone, we all piled into the car with me behind the wheel to get a bit more practice for my upcoming driving test, and 15 minutes later we arrived at the Outlet.
The Outlet is a pretty big mall in our area, whose main claim to fame is a lot more outlet stores than you normally find in a mall (go figure; whoever named the place deserved some sort of award for least creative mall name ever). It's not my favorite place in the world; the building is setup as a giant circle, and invariably I end up walking the whole thing because the two stores I need are on opposite sides. The food court is also underwhelming; not a whole lot of variety, though maybe that's more due to our smallish town more than the mall itself. In any case, I usually only come to the Outlet for the King Cinemas that are located just to the east of the main mall complex. That was where Hayden and I suffered through that awful movie, for instance.
"Let's see," said Mom, as we approached one of the mall's entryways. "I'm going to take Vickie and find her some clothes. You both need clothes for P.E., right? Xavier, why don't you show Rachel the way to Big 6 and we'll all meet up later?"
Great, alone time with Rachel. Although I guess as long as I avoided changing rooms, I could probably dodge most of the standard "shopping with a girl" manga hijinks. "Sure, Mom. This way, Rachel."
We made it to Big 6 without issue, but the peace only lasted up until we started browsing. Big 6 has an extensive clothing section, with discrete areas for men's and women's clothes. However, there is only one clearance area, with both men and women's clothing on racks side-by-side. So of course that's where we ended up first. I was going through a rack of sweat pants, while behind me and one rack down Rachel was checking the sizing on shirts, and I wasn't paying particular attention to my surroundings when—
"Hey Xavier! I thought that was you!"
I looked up, and there was Jillian.
Jill and I grew up in the same neighborhood; she lives about a block and a half away from our house. I don't know if you'd call us childhood friends, at least not in the way that manga always seem to mean it: we were never attached at the hip and barring the occasional birthday party we've never spent any significant time in one another's houses. However, we did play together a lot because Jill has always been something of a tomboy and was quite capable of keeping up with—and in some cases outstripping—the boys in the neighborhood when it came to sports. These days we aren't particularly close. We didn't share any classes last year, so I only spent time with her during track and field. Growing up, Jill was always taller than me, but over the last couple years I've gained a few inches on her. She has medium brown hair that she keeps closely trimmed to hang down near the top of her neck and is one of those girls who is either naturally trending towards flat-chested, or just constantly wears a sports bra. Hard to call, honestly.
"So what's up, Xavier?" said Jill, walking up to me. "How's your summer going?"
"Oh, things are—good," I said. "What about you?"
"Ah, I'm great. I've been doing a ton of training with the cross-country team, so I guess not too exciting? But better than sitting around the house all day, eh? So what are you up to today?"
"Oh, we're just doing some shopping for school."
"We?" said Jill, raising an eyebrow.
Rachel looked over at us from down the aisle and waved.
"That's Rachel," I said. "She's Seamus Doyle's cousin, but she's staying with us for a while. Rachel, this is Jillian. She lives a block and a half away from us in the opposite direction of Dykstra Park."
"Hello," said Rachel in her Ms. Demure mode. "It's nice to meet you."
"Eh?" said Jill. "You guys are living together?" She had a look on her face that I couldn't interpret. In other words, it wasn't rowdy competitiveness, the crushing disappointment of defeat, or a cocky grin, which were her three normal modes of expression so far as I was aware.
"Yes, the Brocks were kind enough to take me in. The Doyles don't have a lot of room to spare."
"Ah, is that right? Cool, cool. Well, I suppose I'll let you get back to…shopping? And I actually need to, uh, shop, too. Over there. I'll see you at school, Xavier!" And Jill was off, practically jogging down the aisle. She's such a weirdo.
"Well, that's Jill for you," I said. "Never walks if she can run."
"Hmm," said Rachel, and turned back to rifling through the clearance racks. "You two grew up together?"
"Well, in the same neighborhood, yeah," I said. Hm, there was a shirt that might work. I pulled it off the rack and held it up to my chest to eyeball the sizing. "Jill's big into sports, so we played a lot of soccer and basketball and stuff together growing up. That's right, are you planning to go out for any sports?"
"No," said Rachel.
"Not the athletic type, huh? I only do track and field, which is where I see Jill the most these days."
"Mm, I don't dislike sports, really," said Rachel. "They're fun enough in P.E., I guess, but I'd always have to move before I could participate in more than a single season, so it's never been worth it to do any sort of organized sport for me."
"Ah, right. Well, you could do track and field if you wanted. Almost everything in track is individual, so as long as you can run or jump or something it's not like you have to worry about getting practice as a team."
Rachel glanced my way and smiled. "Maybe I will," she said.
After a bit more searching, we were both able to find decent exercise clothes for P.E. Thankfully the men's and women's changing rooms were on opposite sides of the clothing section, so I dodged any potential lucky lechery.
We checked out—Rachel using a credit card, which I wasn't expecting—and exited Big 6 together.
"Where to next?" I asked.
Rachel blushed a bit. "Well, I noticed an Elizabeth's Secret on the way here that I'd like to visit…"
"And I'll leave you to that," I said hastily. No way was I going to walk into that particular trope-laden situation with eyes open. Also I always hated getting dragged to Elizabeth's Secret by Sasha, and saw no reason to relive old trauma when I had a choice. "I think I'll go grab a snack. Text or call me or Mom if you need anything, and we can meet up in a bit."
"Okay," said Rachel. "Enjoy!"
"Same to you, I guess." And we parted ways, Rachel heading back the way we had originally come in as I peeled off to head around the ring of the mall in the other direction.
To be honest, I wasn't all that hungry. I thought I remembered there being a Samba Juice down near the food court, though, and that sounded like a decent way to kill time while everyone finished up their clothes shopping.
I was about halfway around the near corner of the mall when I ran across three assholes hassling a woman. And like an idiot I paused.