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The topic was Waiting...Writing this one was very, very difficult. I knew what the "gimmick" was going to be almost from the moment we were told what the theme was. But knowing what the gimmick is and making the gimmick work are two completely different things. I struggled hard with it. None of the obvious approaches worked at all, the story just sat there dead in the water. I re-wrote it from scratch at least half a dozen times before I got something that I was even remotely happy with.

And of course I'm far too close to it now, and I have absolutely no idea whether it works or not.

 

The Waiting Room

It was David’s habit to go to the shopping mall every Saturday afternoon. He liked to do his weekly grocery shopping at the supermarket. When he finished shopping he would put the food away in his car and go for a coffee. That was his weekly treat and he always looked forward to it.

One particular Saturday, he was walking through the shopping mall on his way to the coffee shop when he saw something that he’d never noticed before. Tucked away in a corner, behind the information kiosk, was an inconspicuous door. A sign on the door said WAITING ROOM. Another sign, just below the first one, said CLOSED. David went up to the information kiosk. The man behind the counter was wearing a smart uniform and a badge which proclaimed that his name was Peter Gledhill and he was in charge of both information and security. "What do people wait for in the waiting room?" David asked him. "And when does it open?"

Peter looked puzzled. "What waiting room?" he asked.

"The one over there," said David, pointing at the inconspicuous door. "Just behind your kiosk."

Peter craned his neck and looked over to where David was pointing. He seemed puzzled. "I don’t know," he said. "I’ve never seen it before."

"Neither have I," admitted David. "But it’s there now."

David walked over to the waiting room and tried the door. It was locked, of course.

"What’s the point of a closed waiting room?" David asked rhetorically, and Peter shrugged.

Two teenagers pushed their way through the milling crowds of people. They wore baggy trousers and T-shirts that were four sizes too large for them. They were carrying skateboards. One of them jostled David as he rushed past and the skateboard hit David in the stomach. "Ooof!" said David, winded by the collision.

"Watch it, grandad," grunted the teenager as he raced to catch up with his friend.

"You two," yelled Peter, "come back here." The teenagers took no notice. They hurried away and were soon out of sight.

"If this was America," said David, "you’d have a gun and you could yell ‘Stop! Or I’ll shoot!’"

"Unfortunately," said Peter, "we’re in New Zealand and all I can do is yell ‘Stop! Or I’ll shout Stop again!’ Somehow that doesn’t have quite the same authoritative ring to it."

"But you have admit, it’s just as effective," said David. "Teenagers never do what they are told to do. Gun or no gun."

Peter nodded his agreement. "I’ll keep an eye on the waiting room," he said as David continued his interrupted journey towards coffee. "Come and see me next time you’re here and I’ll tell you what I’ve found out."

* * * *

The next Saturday, David went to the shopping mall as usual. The information kiosk had been turned round, and now it was facing the waiting room, which still proclaimed that it was closed. Peter was standing in the kiosk staring blankly at nothing in particular. "So have you got any more information about the waiting room?" David asked him.

"I’ve been watching it carefully ever since you pointed it out to me," said Peter. "Strangely, it’s only ever here during the day. It’s my job to close the mall down in the evening and lock the main doors. The waiting room has always gone away by then. But when I open the mall up in the morning, there it is again."

"That’s odd," said David. "I wonder where it goes."

"Probably it goes home," said Peter. "Everybody else in the mall goes home at the end of the day. Why shouldn’t the waiting room do the same? The mall is empty by then. There isn’t anybody who might need to do some waiting. So there’s nothing for the room to do until the mall opens up again the next morning. Why should it bother to stay?"

"Does the room ever open?" asked David. "Every time I’ve come here the sign on the door says that it’s closed."

"Yes," said Peter. "It’s always open first thing in the morning. But it’s usually closed by lunchtime. Sometimes it opens up again in the middle of the afternoon."

The same two teenagers who had caused trouble the previous week came racing through the crowded mall on their hurried way from somewhere to somewhere else, pushing and shoving if anyone got in their way. As they passed the waiting room, David noticed that the sign on it said OPEN in big friendly letters. But the teenagers took no notice, and once they’d got lost in the crowd the sign said CLOSED again.

"Did you see that?" David asked.

Peter paid no attention. He was staring angrily in the direction the teenagers had gone. "I wish I could do something about them," he said. "They’re a damn nuisance, always racing around upsetting people. They come through here almost every day."

David strolled off to do his shopping and drink his coffee, leaving Peter alone with his furious, frustrated anger.

* * * *

The following Saturday David went to the mall again. As usual, the waiting room said it was closed and Peter was standing in his information kiosk. He had a big smile on his face. "Hello David," he said. "Guess what?"

"What? asked David.

"Those teenagers won’t be bothering us again," said Peter.

"That’s good news," said David. "What happened?"

"I’ve been keeping a very careful eye on the waiting room," said Peter, "and I noticed that if anybody went in, the room immediately closed. Also, while I saw plenty of people go into the room, I never, ever saw anybody come out of it again."

"Odd," said David. "I wonder what’s going on?"

"I think I’ve worked it out," said Peter. "We’ve got the emphasis all wrong. We’ve been thinking of it as a WAITING room, a place for people to go and wait. Perhaps a place where they can sit down and have a little bit of a rest in between shopping stops."

"Is that not what it is?" asked David, puzzled.

"No," said Peter. "It’s a waiting ROOM, a room that is waiting for people to come in to it. It’s only open when it’s trying to attract people and it’s closed when it doesn’t want people to come in."

"Let me guess," said David. "The teenagers went in to the room?"

"Yes," said Peter gleefully. "They went in yesterday. We’ll never have to deal with them again."

"So what does the room do with the people who go in to it?" asked David.

Peter shrugged. "I think it eats them," he said. "I think it’s a predator that has adopted the shopping mall as its hunting ground. Prey is plentiful here, and it’s very easy to catch."

"So the room is only open when it’s hungry?" said David. "That makes sense. And, of course, that’s why it’s always open in the morning. It wants breakfast."

"I suspect it opens when it’s angry as well," said Peter. "After all, a lion that’s eaten its fill will still kill you if you disturb it. I think the room found those teenagers just as annoying as everybody else found them. It was always open whenever they came past."

David eyed the waiting room with a new respect. Perhaps it could feel his interest for the sign flickered a bit and then it said OPEN. "I think I’ll go and have a coffee," David said to Peter, and he turned his back on the waiting room and walked away.

 

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