Mai Presses the Button

Cover Art for Time Harbor, the 2015 Community Novel Project for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public LibraryMai from Time Harbor, tscpl Community Novel Project 2015 art by Heather KearnsYou followed the path of Mai. Check out her profile.

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Mai closed her eyes and pressed the button. She felt nothing. No queasiness. No dizziness. She opened her eyes and found herself in a darkened room, screams and flashes of light came from behind. She swiveled to see an engine barreling toward her. And then, suddenly, the engine, an old locomotive, disappeared in a flash and was replaced with the gigantic head of a woman, her mouth open in horror.

“Would you mind sitting down?” came a voice from the darkness.

She blinked a few times and scanned the void. The room was larger than she’d first imagined; it was half-filled with people, all looking past her at the image on the wall. She crouched and clumsily crept along the path away from the screen. Upon reaching the door in the back, she peered into a nearly empty corridor. The corridor was wide and luminous. The colors—from the wall to the floor—were vibrant. With slight hesitation she made her way into the brightly lit space. There were only a few people in the corridor, but no one yelled at her or glared; she blended in.

Inhaling deeply and standing tall, she took note of her surroundings. The words THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN were scripted above the door she’d just exited. Similar signs with different words were posted along the corridor. It appeared she was in a kinema, what until the 2020s had commonly been called a movie theater. With the new name came smaller, more intimate spaces, as well as food and discussion. She remembered that it was this rebranding that had saved the movie industry when it was most floundering.

Mai continued down the corridor and eyed a poster for the film Beetlejuice. A familiar title! The third film, Beetlejuice Beetlejuice Beetlejuice, had been released when she was twelve and was a favorite of Saki’s. Nearly thirty years separated each film which meant she had to be in the 1980s. Of course, 1988: the year West Ridge Mall opened and the Wanamaker area boomed!

But this didn’t look like the big event she’d heard so much about. Where were the droves of people? Maybe she’d been transported to the wrong place. Perhaps the timing was off.

As she was considering this, she heard them. At the end of the theater’s corridor came the ecstatic voices of enthralled people. She rushed forward and saw the men, women, and children pointing, smiling, and gazing around with wide-eyed wonder. Mai fit right in.

She entered the stream of people and found herself carried along past store names and fashions that belonged to her grandparents’ time. She wasn’t here to shop though. She wasn’t here so much for history, as how truly different was a shopping mall in 1966 or 1988 different from 2050? No, she was here to see people. How was society in 1988? How did being in one of the most affluent periods of American history affect people’s spending habits? Where better to observe people than a festive occasion? And certainly she wouldn’t mind catching a glimpse of the original Nintendo system in brand new condition.

The deeper she moved into the mall, the slower the herd moved. Down one wing was a long line of people that didn’t appear to be moving at all. Navigating around this line was difficult. She walked parallel to these people. There were thousands, many craning their heads and trying to gaze at the front of the line. A woman in a ruffled blue dress sat behind a table at the end of the line. Mai had no idea who she was. Perhaps she should’ve spent more time reading about this occasion, but of all the events she was to visit, this seemed the least worthy of study. Whoever the woman was, the fact that thousands waited just to say ‘hi’ to her told Mai one thing: people in the 1980s didn’t have enough to do.

Ducking into a clothing store, Mai was immediately taken back by how life-like the mannequins were. Never would she have guessed they’d have been so intricate in the twentieth century. The skin was alive with color. The eyes moist and aware. The—had the eyes moved? It seemed they had glanced at her. Mai stepped closer and eyed the mannequin. The pores, the creases, the tiny hairs—there was no way this was merely a mannequin.

“I swear if you touch me, I am going to scream,” said the mannequin in a rushed and animated voice. Mai took a step back, bumping into a display of blazers. The mannequin dropped her shoulders, turned, and looked directly at Mai. “All morning, people staring and poking. What is it with people? Have they never seen a live mannequin before? And the kids! I can’t imagine what this job is going to be like when school gets out for the summer. You know what, forget it. I can’t take this. I quit. You wanna go get a pretzel or something?”

Before she could respond, Mai’s hand was in the other girl’s and she was being pulled along, against the flow of shoppers. “Can you believe this?” she said, motioning to all the people. “I thought this would be a really cool job, but seriously, I can only take so much. My name’s Lilly, by the way; it’s nice to meet you. Thanks for saving me. What’s your name?”

“Mai,” she said, glancing at her hands.

“What school you go to, Mai?”

Here was where things got sticky. Did she lie? Did she conveniently lose her ability to speak? Did she play dumb? No matter what, there were risks. “West,” she said, deciding to opt for the truth whenever possible.

“I live way out north—you know Elmont?—but it doesn’t matter because I homeschool. My parents had me in private school for a while, but I think they were worried about me. But that’s okay because it means I can work while everyone else is in school, and school pretty much whenever I want to. I take it you’re skipping out today?”

Skip school? Had she ever even considered skipping school? The thought worked its way under her skin and left her scratching uncomfortably.

“Can you believe I totally walked out wearing this dress? Oh well, I’ll bring it back later. Or maybe I won’t. It’s not like it’s really worth anything. Like you, totally boss. You definitely have a way with fashion. This stuff,” she said, motioning to her own outfit, “this is so last year. But you, you’re a trendsetter.”

“This old thing,” said Mai. All the attention made her uncomfortable.

“Oh my gosh! Look at that! I have a pendant just like that at home.”

“My medallion?” Mai asked, covering the metallic face with her hand. “You have one—”

“Just like it,” Lilly interrupted. “Strangest thing. So, it was like 1875 or ’76, I was probably five at the time—“


“Did I say 1875? I meant 1975, obviously. Or ’76. Anyway, I think we were at a parade or something, somewhere with lots of people. My parents were right by me, but they were distracted by what was going on. Then this guy comes out of nowhere, kneels next to me, says he has something that belongs to ‘the both of us,’ and that it’s very important I keep it until he returns. Then he hands me the necklace, pats me on my head, and disappears into the crowd. Weird, huh? I mean, how could it belong to the both of us? I’d never even seen this guy before. Anyway, I was a little freaked, but I also hoped he’d come back. I thought he’d give me money or candy for holding onto it, but he never came back.”

“What did he look like?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I was only a kid. I mean, he was definitely old, but was he Andy-Gibb-old or Elvis-old or Ronald-Reagan-old? I don’t know. When you’re five, everyone over the age of twelve seems old. For some reason, I remember he had dirt on his face, but really, I couldn’t tell you anything else.”

Was it possible? Could it have been Han? Or Mr. Detrick? Had one of them ended up in the seventies and met with a five-year-old Lilly? But why would either of them have given her his medallion? Why would he have never returned? What was he doing in the 1970s?

In the middle of considering all the possibilities, Mai and Lilly had made their way outside. The landscape was surprisingly desolate, void of many of the buildings that would eventually grow out of the various lots. It was windy and very cold. Immediately, it was obvious that Lilly, in her lifted plum-colored dress, was under-dressed. “We should head back inside,” suggested Mai.

“Nah, I really want to take you to see it.”

“The medallion?”

“Yeah. Don’t worry, it won’t take long. It’s just down the street.”

“I thought you lived in North Topeka.”

“I do,” she said, without the slightest hesitation, “but the medallion’s at my friend’s house.”

Mai was certain that Lilly’s story had changed. She wanted to see the medallion. It might be the one clue that leads her back to Han. But if Lilly was lying about the medallion’s location, wasn’t it also possible she was lying about the medallion to begin with? Or was it that Lilly was just easily confused? There was a risk in going with this stranger, but what was the worst that could happen? If things got out of hand, she could always activate the fail-safe.

Lilly stopped at a boxy brown car and opened the door. The silver lettering on the boot of the car read Dodge. “Come on,” said Lilly, who plopped down in the driver’s seat. Mai opened the passenger door. She was overwhelmed with equal feelings of dread and curiosity.

Perhaps the safest option was to see the medallion without getting into the car. She could tell Lilly that she couldn’t leave, make up some reason why she really had to stay, and convince her to bring the medallion back. But what if Lilly didn’t return? Would she get another opportunity like this? She was probably overreacting.

“You coming?” Lilly shouted over the roar of the engine. Mai fingered the medallion and leaned into the car.

If Mai gets in the car with Lily, CLICK HERE (New paths published on August 1st!)

If Mai refuses to go with Lily, CLICK HERE (New paths published on August 1st!)

If Mai asks Lily to fetch the medallion and bring it back, CLICK HERE (New paths published on August 1st!)


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“Mai Presses the Button” written by Chris Blocker

Mai drawn by Heather Kearns