Scenes From A Mall: The Skin Beneath
By Allison E. Lane



The measured, deliberately casual pace of the footsteps echoing across the main gallery of the mall could signify the approach of only one person.

"Hey there, big boy," Monica said cheerfully in greeting as she came into view from behind Hallowed Grounds, flashing a playful smile. "How come you're not up top?"

Michael looked up from the book on guns he was reading and smiled in return. Most of the others had gone to the roof for their daily dose of sunshine and undead skeet shooting (courtesy of Andy from across the parking lot), but he had elected to stay indoors. Monica obviously intended to join the rooftop party, however, and was dressed to kill—a skimpy bikini that left nothing to the imagination, with a matching sheer waist wrap and a pair of sunglasses pushed up into her blonde curls. A folding lawn chair was tucked under her arm.

"Doctor's orders," he replied, nodding in the direction of Metropolis. Ana could be seen inside, taking inventory of the medical supplies the group had stockpiled. "I hurt my back a few days ago and she wants me to take it easy for a while. No roughhousing or playing volleyball."

Monica pouted, looking at him with sad puppy eyes. "Aww, and make you miss out on all the fun? That's not very nice of her." She put the lawn chair down against the coffee stand's counter and sauntered over to where Michael was perched on a stool. "I could give you a massage," she said, circling him speculatively. "Work all that pain out. I'm very good at it."

Hands on her hips, she arched one slender eyebrow in invitation, and Michael had to wonder whether it was only physical pain she was referring to. Closing his book and setting it aside, he opened his mouth to reply, but Monica was already beating him to the punch. "Come on, big boy," she said in a low voice, leaning across the stool in front of her to tap a teasing finger under his chin and draw him forward, displaying an unobstructed view of her ample cleavage. "I think you could use the break… don't you?"

Michael just stared at her for a minute, burningly aware of their proximity to each other, the unspoken promise in her eyes, and the glaringly obvious fact that she was just barely clothed. He hated to admit it to himself, but there was a part of him, buried deep in the depths of his rusted heart, that was tempted by what she was offering. He wouldn't be human if he wasn't, just a tiny bit. And he wouldn't blame anyone who gave in. Wasn't this what people did, when the world was ending?

But…

As neutrally as possible, he reached up to gently push Monica's hand away, and said the first thing that came to mind: "Why do you do this?"

Monica's brow furrowed in confusion, and the slyly seductive expression she wore slipped for just an instant. "Do what?"

Backed into a corner, Michael's eyes darted around, landing everywhere but on her, hunting for a delicate way of putting his thoughts into words and coming up empty-handed. "Do… this," he attempted lamely. "Try to seduce every guy in sight."

The words were out of his mouth before he had time to consider how hurtful they might be, and it was Monica's turn to stare at him, dumbfounded. Michael was shocked to see something very much like hurt welling in her eyes, the fallen ingenue façade abruptly vanished and gone. All too quickly, the fleeting impression of loss had hardened into indignant anger. "What's it matter to you?" she snapped, turning on her heel to stalk away.

"Monica—" Michael impulsively grabbed her arm, and she glared at him with a world of old, ugly bitterness radiating from her like a tidal wave. He thought of how they had all been so quick to dismiss her as an empty-headed sexpot, never stopping to think of her as anything else, and he was ashamed. There were so very few of them in this little microcosm of society, and already they were pushing past their initial bonding through disaster back to the old human pastime of stereotyping. Monica deserved better than that—they all did. "It's okay," he said quietly. "You can talk to me."

"What's to talk about?" Monica snorted, yanking her arm away. "I'm a slut. That's what you think, isn't it?"

Michael did his best to swallow down his initial impression of her for good. "No," he said carefully. "I'm just wondering why you seem to feel the need to make the, um, rounds… as it were. I mean, we all saw you and Steve on the televisions…"

Monica almost seemed to crumple then, her spirit folding in upon itself—no longer vivacious and seductive, she instead looked lost and forlorn. She looked down at her feet and mumbled something unintelligible.

"I'm sorry?" Michael asked, looking at her inquisitively.

She jerked her head up, red-rimmed eyes flashing with tears. "I was an early bloomer, okay? I've always had big tits. It's the only thing the guys ever see in me, it's the only thing they ever want from me. So I give them what they want." She choked on the words, fiercely wiped at her eyes, and glared at him again, defiantly. "You know I only got into that church because the jackasses guarding the door said I was too pretty to be one of them? They were everywhere, and they weren't letting anyone else in, and I had to promise to make it worth their while if they let me in. So you're right. I'm a slut. But I don't know how to be anything else."

In that moment, Michael saw Monica for who she was: an angry young woman resigned to a stereotype she'd neither wanted nor asked for. Someone determined to survive at any cost, even if that meant shedding her dignity time and again and being perceived as someone she really wasn't, deep down inside.

He reached behind the counter of the coffee stand for a napkin and held it out to her—he hated to see any woman cry, especially when it was his fault. He felt he'd done too much of that in his life. After a moment's hesitation, Monica took it. "You can be something else," he said simply into the pregnant silence, and he meant it. "You're a survivor. That counts for something, too."

Monica smiled briefly, wanly, touching at her eyes with the napkin before crumpling it into a ball in her fist. Then she drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "So," she said, and it was clear that their deep conversation was over. "How about that massage? Think you can handle it?"

Michael let out a snort of laughter—one had to admire her remarkable ability to bounce back from whatever situation life threw at her. "Have fun up top, Monica. And be careful."

She rolled her eyes in mock disappointment at him; it was as if their conversation had never taken place, and Michael implicitly understood that it was to stay that way. "Sure, whatever. You don't know what you're missing." She winked at him, once again the playfully sexy bombshell; it was possible that the casual observer wouldn't even notice the red still rimming her eyes. "Catch ya later, big boy."

Tossing her hair, Monica picked up her lawn chair and flipped a coy little wave. Michael watched her, contemplatively, as she headed for the employees-only door that led to the staircase up to the roof, swaying her hips for show as she went. Putting on a show for no one and everyone.

"Let me guess," a voice said next to his ear as Monica disappeared from view, and he jumped. It was Ana, evidently finished with her inventory. "She offered to give you a blow job and you turned her down."

Michael chuckled wryly again, smiling in mild disapproval as Ana hitched herself up on the stool next to him. "We all have our roles to play," he murmured to no one in particular, still lost in thought.

Ana looked at him strangely. "What?"

He shook his head in dismissal, and smiled at her again. "Never mind."