In their foolish hurry to open while covid 19 cases are still increasing at a terrifying rate in Nebraska, they spread the virus even more than it was spreading. This lead to "The Mutation", which is recounted to his grandchildren years later, as detailed below:
An old man, wearing his last remaining clothes from the Before Time--a stained, torn dress shirt that had once been white but was now a pastiche of various shades of yellows and browns, and a threadbare pair of denim jeans with one missing back pocket and no knees--sat silently in the warm sand on a nondescript beach with his two grandsons, both no longer children but not yet men, and gazed wistfully past them toward the reddish glow of sunset. It had been a good day; they hadn't seen an AI drone since yesterday, and they had stumbled upon a cache of mostly-well-preserved candy bars in an abandoned store, which made a wonderful dessert for the random wildlife he had managed to kill, skin, and cook for dinner (tonight they had dined on a particularly plump squirrel). His thoughts were mildly troubled, but the only thing wrong with this night... was that nothing was wrong. It was a condition the old man just wasn't used to, with the chaos of the last decades, and all the suffering--so, so much suffering--he had borne witness to. His discomfort was expressed in an ever-so-slightly-pained expression on his face, evidenced by just the tiniest bit of squint around his eyes, and perhaps an extra wrinkle or two on his tanned, mottled forehead.
His eldest grandson, who that night was almost exactly in the middle of his fifteenth year, noticed his grandfather's expression (for he was prone to being thoughtful, as the older ones usually seem to be), but mistook it for simple sadness rather than the complex mesh of emotions underneath it, and resolved to try to cheer the old man.
"Hey, Grandpa," he said, trying to keep the grin from his own face and potentially giving away his scheme, "When we were at that store earlier, it made me think of one of those things you talk about sometimes. What was it called--a 'shopping hall?'"
Of course, the old man had seen through this ruse the moment the young man had begun to speak. But he revealed nothing of this understanding, and instead chose to allow a small smile to begin in the corner of his mouth. Truth be told, the man didn't "allow" the smile to happen as much as he simply chose not to stop it when it came.
"Shopping Mall," he replied. "They were called Shopping Malls. And no, I have no idea what 'Mall' means or where it came from. So don't ask." He punctuated this with a quick point at the eldest boy, who could hold his grin no longer when he surmised his plot had been successful.
The old man pretended not to notice the smile and continued. "They were really big places, with a whole bunch of different stores in them. You could go get shoes, clothes, tools--heck, some of them had food from all over the world. China, Italy, Mexico... there were a couple that even had roller coasters in them, just like that one we saw by the highway in Oklahoma City." The older boy looked surprised by this. The man took a breath and began to decide how to approach the next bit.
"For a long time, the shopping mall became kind of the heart of the town they were in. People would meet there to shop, see movies together, eat together. That all changed by the turn of the century--people figured out that the malls were expensive to shop at, and started ordering things online..."
"The AI drones," the young man interjected.
The old man held up his hand. "Not at that time. Not yet. But that's kind of where they got started..." He paused, trying to make sure he was actually remembering the story, or just making it up on the spot. Had any of it been real? he thought, then cleared his throat. "Anyway, around the turn of the century, because of all the computer shopping, and the economy not being super great, the malls started closing, and you wouldn't see any new ones being built for a long time. But then, somewhere around '15 or so, malls started reinventing themselves, remodeling, opening different kinds of shops, that sort of thing. And in a lot of places, it worked. People started shopping at the malls again. Sure, it was never like it was before. But they were able to hang on a little while longer." The old man looked down, feeling an unexpected wave of nostalgia and melancholy.
"Then what happened, Grandpa?" This time it was the younger boy, not quite twelve, who chimed in. The man realized he had paid the boy no attention until then, and was unaware he had been listening to the story. He chided himself for not being more mindful, and continued.
"Well, this is where we run into the end of the Before Time. Before long The Virus came around and everything changed. Nobody wanted to shop with other people, or meet friends for a movie. Most people didn't even want to be in the same room as each other, much less have dinner together. That first wave was really bad, both for all the people it killed, and for all the lives damaged by the stress of living in that time. Nearly everywhere shut down, especially the malls, to try and stop The Virus. And it mostly worked. At least at that time."
The boys looked at each other, dumbfounded, then back at the man. The older one spoke. "But... if it worked... why did everything happen like it did? How did The Mutation happen if people weren't spreading The Virus?"
The man took a deep breath and began.
"Well, kids, you see, a bunch of FUCKING REDNECK ASSHOLES WHO WOULDN'T KNOW COMMON SENSE IF IT KICKED EM SQUARE IN THE NUTSACK STARTED PITCHING A SHITFIT ABOUT MAH FREEDUMZ AND THE SOCIOPATHIC ADDERAL-SNORTING HUMAN CHEETO IN THE WHITE HOUSE SAID OOOOOOOOHHHHH YEAHHHH LET'S DO ALL THE THINGS RAHT NAO AND THEN SOME DIPSHITS IN BUMFUCK, NEBRASKA DECIDED EVERYTHING'S GREAT AND IT'S WORKING AND PEOPLE ARE STARTING TO NOT DIE SO LET'S PUT EVERYTHING BACK JUST LIKE IT WAS BECAUSE IT'S THE BEST FUCKING IDEA IN THE HISTORY OF FUCKING IDEAS TO CUT YOUR PARACHUTE LOOSE WHEN YOU'RE IN THE MIDDLE OF A JUMP AND WE NEED TO DO THIS RIGHT NOW SO KAREN CAN GET HER GODDAMNED NAILS DONE AND THE BOOMERS CAN DRIVE THEIR HOVEROUNDS STRAIGHT UP TRUMP'S ASS FOREVER AND EVER AMEN."
The old man managed one last, weak, "WHARRGARBL" before falling backwards into the soft sand, exhausted and breathing heavily.
After a moment, the younger boy carefully spoke. "Grandpa?"
Between breaths, the old man replied, "Yes, my boy?"
"Did you ever think maybe you spent too much time posting on MessageBase?"
The man groaned and rolled onto his side. As he drifted into a deep slumber, he looked at the remains of the squirrel he had cooked, and realized with a slow, helpless horror that there was only one part that had not been eaten. He dreamed of bourbon.
/// Great props to bmix
No props to dumb mall owner for opening so early and kicking out reporters.