Mlia dropped Jarod, Aaliyah, and I off at the main mall entrance, though letting my car park herself still seemed completely odd to me. Jarod was checking his wallet, obviously considering what he could buy. Aaliyah seemed to be counting credit cards. I had to wonder if some were expired or fake, since letting a girl of any age out of the house, especially into a mall, with such potential debt seemed negligent at best. With how their smiles seemed to grow in synch, I realized that I was truly the one throwing prudence to wind. Jarod was a master of being childlike, and Aaliyah was literally incapable of growing up, in the vertical sense at very least. “Hmm.. you don’t have much cash, boss-man, sir, but I do have a copy of your company credit card if run out. Looks like you have your debit card as well, if you’d prefer to draw from your bank.” I wanted Aaliyah to be able to access my credit for company business through the internet, but I had no clue how she managed to get a copy of the actual card or even my wallet out of my pocket. “Aaliyah, may I have my wallet back?” Her great blue eyes seemed to sparkle as she smiled up at me, shaking her head in dissent of the idea.
I bent down to pick her up, but she ducked out of the way, grabbed Jarod’s hand, and yelled “Run from the boss-man!” I chuckled to myself as Jarod ran along with her, half hunched over so she didn’t have to reach up as high to hold his hand. Aaliyah was actually surprisingly quick when she wanted to be, despite her tiny stride. Though I surely could have caught them with ease if I had ran, they were ducking down a hall before I even made it to the door at a fast walk. I picked up the pace in time to catch Aaliyah’s pink backpack disappear into a store several stores down. I nearly fell, stumbling backwards out of the store when Jarod and Aaliyah jumped at me, masks covering their faces, from two different directions the moment I stepped inside. After lifting the monster mask off her face, Aaliyah stared up at me and said, “Constant vigilance, boss-man, sir!” Then she darted back into the store with Jarod following her, laughing all the way. I had been to this mall many times, so I knew what the store sold. I should have been expecting those two to prank me.
I headed back inside and looked for the most ridiculous mask I could find, which turned out to be a big-nosed clown mask with a shocked expression. I hurried back past the girl at the register, who was shaking her head with a bemused expression, and peered over the shelves looking for any sign of movement. Aaliyah’s backpack gave her away as she was attempting to hide behind the pant leg of some 80’s rockstar costume. Not seeing Jarod nearby, I carefully snuck up behind Aaliyah, crawling on my hands and knees. I purposely knocked over a cane with my left foot as I stuck my masked face near her head. She bumped into the enormous nose as she quickly turned around and fell backwards giggling. She reached up and honked the nose right as someone grabbed my shoulders from behind, causing me to jump. I nearly knocked Jarod over as I slipped the mask and spun around. Aaliyah then hugged me from behind and whispered “Still not paying attention, boss-man, sir. Upsie!” I accepted Jarod’s proffered hand and lifted Aaliyah on my back. We played around with various props, roaming around the store and trying everything that looked remotely interesting out. Jarod seemed to feel outmatched when Aaliyah and I, both armed with fake swords, attacked him until he fell to the floor with my sword held under his arm.
After Aaliyah insisted on purchasing a miniature top hat from the costume store that looked small even on her head, we only went one down where Jarod wanted to see if the comic store had anything he was missing. While he browsed, Aaliyah, who was obviously a comic book enthusiast as well, started telling me about every last comic book I picked up, even the more obscure ones I hadn’t known existed priorly. Even the lengthier graphic novels weren’t so laden with dialogue to be extremely long reads, but I was impressed the girl managed to keep up with so many on top of her schoolwork and secretarial duties. The girl had to read extremely quickly. I stopped our little game of “do you know this one” when Jarod exclaimed excitedly over finding a comic for which he had been searching. “Seriously! I’ve been looking for this one for years!” I congratulated Jarod even though I never could get into anything from the “Golden Age” of comics. Many of the stories seemed dated and the artwork wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as the modern ones. Of course, the only ones I ever read were borrowed from Jarod at his insistence, so I didn’t truly have a large enough background in them to judge well. Aaliyah, on the other hand, had started going on about what happens in the comic until Jarod put a finger to his lips to shush her.
Five stores later, we had already spent over an hour in the mall. Aaliyah insisted on making Jarod and I model for her whenever she saw an outfit in a window that she thought “would look absolutely, completely perfect” on one of us. Aaliyah and I split the price of a shirt for Jarod that he obviously adored but would never buy, which earned me back my wallet from Aaliyah. He was planning on becoming a certified mechanic and on eventually taking over his father’s shop, but even with Mr. Davis loaning him the tools he’d need he still had to save up to help cover the courses. Beyond getting his schooling, Jarod’s monetary priorities were heavily weighted toward entertainment over clothes, although he seemed to have a spot somewhere in there for Laura, since he bought her a nice box of chocolates after Aaliyah insisted that she would “die in horrible agony” if she wasn’t saved by a slice of chocolate-dipped cheesecake. If I had any less experience with how easy-going Chad was, I’d fear his reaction to the sugar high for which Aaliyah was certainly heading. Then again Aaliyah didn’t have any trouble last night after she consumed an exorbitant amount of birthday cake. There was no way a girl her size should have been able to eat that much. I had no explanation for most things Aaliyah, so the realization was simply added to the stack of mysteries in my head.
“Boss-man, sir! I think we may have to start making evasive maneuvers.” I was bewildered until a moment later when a couple girls I didn’t recognize walked up to us. “Oh James! Is this your little sister? Who’s your friend?” They seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t account for how they knew my name. “Hello. This is Aaliyah, whom I’m babysitting for her father, and this is Jarod, my best friend.” I stated as I gestured to each in turn. Then I said, “I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t put a name to either of you.” Luckily, they didn’t seem disappointed by my confession and one of them said, “Oh. Sorry. We met at our school’s dance before the sprinklers drowned the place out. I’m Kim and this is Amber.” With a point of reference, I did remember meeting the two of them, but we hadn’t really talked, since I had been preoccupied in my attempts to keep Michelle happy through the tragedy that was her night. After visiting with them as briefly as I could manage without being impolite, I told them that I needed to finish taking Aaliyah around shopping before we ran out of time. The girls, whether ignoring or missing the hint, followed us from store to store where we somehow picked up more of their friends in tow.
To me Aaliyah’s displeasure at the extra company was obvious, but the numerous girls appeared to completely miss the subtle insults laid on them by the little princess. She managed to maintain a perfectly sweet, cute pretense while casually making fools of the girls on every topic they picked. We only managed to escape them shortly after Aaliyah fiddled with her pink phone when one of the girls received a phone call. The phone somehow died while the girl was talking with her parents. After she insisted on calling them back with another’s phone, that one “miraculously” died as well. Jarod, Aaliyah, and I walked with them as far as the nearest phone provider. The random entourage quickly became too engrossed in complaining to confused sales reps about malfunctioning phones to notice the three of us slip out. “You didn’t actually break any of their phones, did you?” I inquired to Aaliyah who was walking beside me, playing some game on her phone. She gazed up at me in wide-eyed innocence and said, “What do you mean, boss-man, sir? I’m playing Tetris!” I stopped walking and just stared down at her, keeping a straight face as well as possible. “Well… Their phones may need to have their operating system reinstalled, but the hardware should be just as it was!” she explained as she ducked behind Jarod. I couldn’t hold back a laugh after Jarod started.
Who would believe that such a little angel could also be the bane of all cellular providers. I took her hand and pulled her back out from behind Jarod, lifted her up, and carried her in one arm as she hugged me, resting her head on my shoulder. “You’re not angry, boss-man, sir?” Though I was surprised she could even think that after seeing me laugh, I waited a few moments for effect before responding. “That’s probably not the nicest way of handling people, but I can’t say that isn’t effective. I’m just glad you didn’t damage their phones. Costing people money just because they’re annoying you isn’t right. You don’t want to become a villain like the ones from the comic books. The world would be doomed.” She smiled at me, not the ear-to-ear grin, but a small, content smile which preceded another hug. “Yeah, and we’d have to take you out, being the heroes and all!” added Jarod. Aaliyah giggled and reached from my arms to hug him too. I couldn’t explain how we had gathered a crowd or precisely what Aaliyah did to disable all of their phones, but I was quite certain that there was a great deal of power in the tiny girl I carried. One way or another, I needed to help her keep faith in the good guys. I didn’t know if I would have the heart to stop her if she fell to the dark side on my watch, assuming I even had the ability.