There’s teddy bears in the window of KB toys. They’re shaggy and white, humanoid in shape, with long arms and legs and uncannily ape-ish faces.
“They look like the Abominable Snowman in Rudolph!” Mom says.
I force a nod. The Abominable Snowman still scares me a little.
“What’s scarier, buddy?” she asks me. “The Abominable Snowman, or the raptors in Jurassic Park?”
I shrug. Both of those things are scary. But I’m a big boy, I tell myself, and big boys aren’t afraid of dumb fake monsters.
“Are you putting them in your book?” I ask her.
Mom smiles. “Maybe. I’m thinking about adding a creature that hides in Ricky’s closet. He’s a scout. Then when Ricky’s asleep, he goes through a secret tunnel to the cavern under the house and alerts the big tentacle monster.”
Mom always tells me about her book. The main character is a little boy named Ricky; he’s seven years old and has a dog is named Puff. Puff’s a Pomeranian like our neighbor’s puppy, an impossibly friendly ball of fluff who’s fallen in love with me.
Ricky, the story goes, moves into an old house with his parents. But there’s already monsters living there, monsters with claws and spikes and glowing eyes and big teeth. Ricky tells his parents, but they can’t see the monsters, so he’s alone with his worst nightmares.
Mom’s still talking. “The catch is… um… somehow, he’s trapped in the closet until Ricky goes to sleep. So Ricky has to stay awake all night long. That’s scary, right, buddy?”
She looks at me with a big, goofy smile. I’m thinking about the closet in my room, whether or not an Abominable Snowman could fit in it, and how I might have to stay awake all night long now.
“Does Ricky go to the cavern under the house and beat the big tentacle monster at the end?” I ask her hopefully.
Mom shakes her head. “I don’t know, buddy. I don't know how I’m going to end it.”
The fourth challenge was the one I, personally, was the most proud of.
After defeating the giant troll with the Lady Grace Candles handbell, after Noor told me about her family, we found Kevin chatting happily on the phone with his buddy in the antique jewelry business. I grabbed my bag, and found my purchase from the day before - my Acatec candle. My first clue. Which now made more sense.
The candle had nothing to do with it - Lady Grace was the clue. The troll, and the bell. The truly pertinent, if somewhat convoluted, significance of the Mayan symbol on the credit card receipts made me eager to identify the two other clues that, apparently, had been left lying around for me. Nothing immediately came to mind.
Until the next day. Rather by chance.
Exhausted from troll-hunting, I’d been woken by Kelly at 11:35, which gave me twenty-five minutes to shower, dress, and get to work. That’s when I remembered I hadn’t done laundry in weeks, and I was out of work pants. So I dug the least-dirty pair out of my hamper, threw them on, and drove like a maniac to spare myself the wrath of Lina and her compromised bladder. Luckily, Lina was in a good mood when I arrived at 12:13, dipping anchovy chips into sauerkraut and happily crunching.
Behind the register, I unthinkingly stuck my hands into my pockets, and my fingers brushed against something hard. I pulled out a little chain-link necklace with letters spelling a word.
BA Y CA ES.
I remembered finding it, discarded on the ground. Probably dropped by Kevin, or whichever asshole framed me for robbing Daniel’s Jewelers. I still thought it was Kevin. Though that was a little unfair, I guess, seeing as how he’d saved our lives.
And that wasn’t even right. I’d found the necklace before Daniel’s was robbed. I’d thought it was Lina’s. But I’d showed it to her, and it wasn’t, so I must have shoved it in my pocket. Was it my second clue?
I tore off some receipt paper and wrote out the letters. I played with them, arranging and rearranging.
No, no, no. There were too many vowels.
My game of scrabble was interrupted by the occasional customer. Melody Leung, a manager at Foot Locker, was in a bad mood because two of her employees quit that morning. They claimed they’d seen midgets with swollen heads hiding in the shelves, waiting to bite the unfortunate hand that reached to the very back for the last pair of Air Jordans. She assured me they were unreliable stoners. Though, now that she thought about it, it was weird how many pairs of new shoes she’d had to write off as damaged goods lately. Customers would find them chewed up, like dog toys.
Then, Emerson Yen and Parker Jimenez, who both worked at H&M, ordered chili fries while bickering about which horror movie universe we were existing in.
“Help me out, D,” Parker said. “There’s a poltergeist in the mall. This is, like, the tenth time I’ve come in to open, and found the shirts I just folded tossed around. I keep on thinking there’s going to be a gross chick hiding on top of a shelf, like in The Conjuring.”
“That wasn’t a poltergeist, bro,” said Emerson. “It was a demon. And everyone’s saying they see this man out of the corner of their eye, or in a reflection. He’s like ten feet tall and he doesn’t have a face.”
“That’s just people who spend too much time on Creepypasta.com,” Parker argued. “It’s a ghost. Or, like, lots of ghosts. Did you know that, during World War II, this place was an internment camp for Japanese-Americans?”
I nodded. Not exactly right, but I let it slide.
“Well, this Japanese guy lost everything, and he went crazy. He stabbed his wife and his three children to death, then he killed himself. And they say that, if you stay in the mall past midnight, you can hear his youngest daughter crying.”
Emerson sighed. “That’s bullshit. It was the racetrack that was used as a temporary internment camp.”
“The mall was built on the racetrack parking lot.”
“You ever hear of a haunted parking lot, bro? Don’t be stupid.”
They took their chili fries and left. I made a mental note to tell Kevin we had an infestation of melon heads. And possibly a Japanese poltergeist.
Then Adam Raines appeared. He asked the exact question I was afraid he would.
“Have you talked to Evie?”
I shook my head, probably too forcefully. “I heard she had mono.”
“Yeah, I heard that, too,” Adam said. “But now her roommate’s AWOL. She’s missed two shifts at Spencer’s, and no one’s heard from her.”
“Well, you know what mono’s like. It’s really contagious.”
Adam looked back and forth, then dropped his voice.
“Saskia - the roommate,” he said. “I saw her car in the parking lot. It’s been in the same spot for a couple days.”
I nearly punched myself in the face. Evie didn’t have a car. Saskia did. And I hadn’t thought to move it. Not like I even could have; I didn't have the keys. I feigned shock.
“Listen, dude,” he continued. “Everyone’s talking. They’re all saying the mall’s haunted. I thought it was just 4Chan bullshit, but… but I’m pretty sure I just saw a door in the wall that wasn’t there yesterday.”
“I didn’t see a door,” I said, probably too quickly.
He frowned. “If I don’t hear from her by tomorrow, I’m calling the police.”
He left without buying anything.
I returned to my amateur codebreaking. Near the end of my shift, I recalled that two letters had fallen off - the necklace was supposed to read BABYCAKES. I added a B and a K to the string I’d written down. Then I had an epiphany.
It was the missing letters that were significant. B and K. KB. KB Toys.
The KB Toys was long gone; it had been replaced by Pirandello’s Fine Foods, a froofy place that sold fancy gift baskets. I, having no particular need for dutch cheese or Rose Blanc, had barely given the shop a second glance.
My thoughts were sent scampering by a loud BEEP!
Noor’s voice sounded from my radio. “Damien! I’m at Abercrombie! There’s a tall guy outside! He’s got a cloak and no…”
She was drowned out by static. Hands shaking, I grabbed my radio and tried to contact her again and again. Each time, I got nothing but dead air. I called her phone. It went immediately to voicemail. I texted her. Message not sent, red exclamation point.
Something was interfering with her ability to use technology. She’d seen a tall man with a cloak. I thought about what Emerson Yen had said. Could she possibly be talking about…
Pain - the familiar stinging burn - shot through my marked wrist.
Fuck my life, I thought, gritting my teeth. Fuck my life.
I radioed Kevin, and he came running. I noticed yellowish stains on the sleeves of his white dress shirt.
“There’s something living in the abandoned Disney store,” he told me.
“What do you know about The Tall Man?” I demanded.
Kevin frowned. “You mean, like Der Ubermann? German cryptid, hides in the Black Forest, kidnaps children who stay out after dark. There’s a couple similar legends in old English lore. Um, he became a fixture in modern pop culture because of a post on the Something Awful forum; he’s probably the basis for…”
“Not helping!” I interrupted. “How do we kill him?”
Kevin closed his eyes. “Religious iconography, maybe? That’s the baseline for supernatural entities. Do you still have that big cross necklace?”
“No, I don’t,” I said, nastier than I should have. “I left my cross at home. Because the last time I wore it I got half-drowned in water spirit snot!”
And then, like the Bagiennik’s snot-stream, the answer hit me square in the face.
I told Kevin what to do. Thanking God and The Universe that Lina and her fetus were craving smelly foods, I handed him the big bag of anchovy chips she’d stashed under the grill. I could tell he wasn’t quite on board with my harebrained idea, which was understandable, seeing as how my last brilliant plan - the lightning balls - had failed rather epically. But I trusted he would do what I said.
Did I trust he would do what I said? I put the thought out of my mind as I walked from the lit food court to the dark hallway, searching for Noor.
In the atrium, I noticed there was something new on the Christmas tree. I went over to investigate. It was a note, scrawled on dirty lined paper, attached to a branch with a sticky white substance.
It depicted six crude stick figures. Two had long hair, one had a tie, the fourth held a flashlight, the fifth appeared to be wearing something around its head, and the sixth had dots for eyes and a big frown. Three - the two with long hair and the one with a flashlight - were crossed out.
I folded the note, shoved it in my pocket, and kept on going, using my cell phone as my light source.
The second note was stuck to the door of Sephora. This one displayed jagged text.
YOU CAN'T SAVE THEM GOD DIDN'T SAVE HER
At the bottom was another stick figure with long hair, laying on its side. I felt a pang of sadness, then anger bubbling in my stomach.
Then I saw him.
Just for a second, reflected in the blacked-out window. He wore a long cloak over leggings and the sort of tunic men wear at the Renaissance Fair, all black. His skin was milky white. And he had no face.
I whirled. The Tall Man was nowhere to be seen. I had to keep moving.
I unlocked the door to Abercrombie with my skeleton key and closed it quietly behind me. Abercrombie resembled a cave on the sunniest of summer days; that night, it was a bottomless pit. My cell phone illuminated a rack of polo shirts, a shelf of scarves, and then the counter with the cash register, to which another piece of notebook paper was stuck.
I collected it. This one depicted the counter itself, with a pale face peeking up from under it.
My head immediately snapped up.
So did the head behind the register.
I screamed. It screamed.
Noor, pale as a ghost, held her pepper spray at the ready. She looked thoroughly rattled.
“Damien, there was a man standing outside the door! I was alone, and he was at least eight feet tall, and he had no face! He wouldn’t leave! Like, he was waiting for me!”
“He’s gone,” I assured her. “Give me your necklace. The one with the hand charm”
Noor frowned. “What? Why?”
She did. I put it in my pocket, and she came around from behind the register. I swung my cell phone light to the door. Something kicked at my brain. I moved my light beam back a few feet.
He was in a corner, facing the wall, as tall as the ceiling. His arms were long and curling, and there were too many of them. Slowly and rhythmically, he swayed.
Noor had her boxcutter knife out in a second. I clutched her arm and pulled her to me.
“Run to the food court bathrooms,” I whispered in her ear.
The Tall Man stopped dancing. He turned. We ran like rabbits.
We ran through the atrium, around the curve, into the food court. Kevin stood in front of Tutti Frutti, plugging his nose with his fingers.
“Guys!” he called out as we approached. “I did what you said, now what the fuck is…”
He fell silent. He froze.
“Damien!” Noor screamed.
And then I felt icy, gelatinous fingers wrap around my waist.
How do I describe The Tall Man’s grasp? It’s a difficult thing to put into words. Cold. Very, very cold.
My head spun as I was roughly lifted into the air, and then I was looking into an egg-like mockery of a head, sprouting from a black, flawlessly-neat tunic. Multiple arms, flailing bonelessly, were raised in the air like the spines of a starfish, each topped with a baby-sized, deformed hand. It was jarring. For a second.
Then I reached out my arms and slipped Noor’s necklace around his white, inhuman neck.
The world spun, my stomach dropped, then pain shot through my left side. Confused by my actions, I guess, he’d lost his grip on me and I’d come crashing to the ground. The stars cleared from my eyes just in time for me to see my half-assed plan come to fruition.
Noor gasped. Kevin smiled.
They surrounded us, each standing upright on its third pair of turd-colored legs, dust of anchovy chips stuck to their damp, wrinkled noses. Every protuberant amber eye flashed. Every overlong, amphibious jaw unhooked, revealing rows of sharp crocodile teeth. There was a wet SPLAT! SPLAT! SPLAT! as fat, fleshy tails swished back and forth.
One let out an earsplitting shriek. Then they were growling like a pack of dogs, sextets of feet pounding tile, launching themselves, claws brandished, at the creature who dared don religious imagery in their midst.
It was a bit like watching dogs play tug-o-war with a chew toy.
The angry Bagienniks hooked their sharp teeth into whatever portion of The Tall Man’s reaching appendages that was not already occupied by the teeth of another angry Bagiennik. The Tall Man twisted and shook, tossed his head, and produced smaller, floppier arms from some portion of his body hidden beneath the tunic, which were immediately locked onto by even more angry Bagienniks, streaming from the open bathroom doors like ants, aroused by their siblings’ cries or lured by the smell of Lina’s anchovy chips.
Kevin watched this all unfold, eyes wide. Noor helped me up. I fished a note out of my pocket and handed it to her.
“Go!” I commanded. “Go look for these. I've played the game, there should be five more.”
Kevin disengaged from the snarling, squishing monster fight as Noor departed. I gave him another note and told him to search the second floor. He didn’t need to be told twice.
For what seemed like an hour, I witnessed The Tall Man trash the food court, unsuccessfully trying to fight off the dozens of pissed-off water spirits intent on tearing him to pieces. He either didn’t realize the significance of Noor’s necklace or wasn’t able to spare a hand to tug it off his neck.
Kevin and Noor finally returned, clutching sheets of dirty paper. I looked back to The Tall Man, and saw a particularly large Bagiennik, with a particularly vicious hold on an extremity, give its oblong head a violent jerk. There was a sound like velcro being pulled apart.
Then the lights went out.
The routine was becoming a familiar one. When the lights shot back on, seconds later, the wet, oily floor and overturned tables were crowded with motionless, staring elf dolls. The Bagienniks cowered. All except the large one, who was too busy slurping down a thick, wriggling white arm like a strand of spaghetti.
And there was a door in the floor.
The Tall Man shook himself off, limped to the door, and turned the brass handle with a gnawed-on hand. The door opened towards me, and The Tall Man descended.
The lights went off again. Then on. The door was gone, the elves were gone, and the Bagienniks were squelching their way back to their bathroom crash pad now that the fun was over.
The big one - the one who’d turned The Tall Man into calamari - didn’t look so great. Its turd-brown skin had taken on a greenish tinge, and it swayed on its hind legs. There was a low, throaty gurgle.
The Bagiennik lurched.
I ducked and covered just in time.
Red paper or blue paper? Read the next chapter here.*****
Written by NickyXX