It’s Christmastime at the Baldwin Mall. The tree in the atrium towers over us like a pillar of color and light. White-tinged garlands dangle from the rafters, metallic baubles the size of my head refract sunlight seeping in through the skylights.
Mom and I sit on a bench. I run my child fingers over her pale hand, mildly entertained by the thick blue veins I can see and feel through her tissue paper skin. Her fingers are bony and delicate.
Santa sits in his sleigh, bouncing kid after kid on his knee. Crying babies, giggling toddlers, proud parents making faces at their children from behind the photographer. The line bends and curves and doubles back like a large snake stuffed in a small box. Grandma wants a picture of me with Santa.
Mom cradles her thin face in her palm. She’s alright, she says. The walk from the car just tired her out a little bit. Her scalp is covered by a scarf, red and green for Christmas. A bit of it pops up behind her ear, revealing a bumpy purple lesion. I can’t wait for her to get better. When she’s better, her beautiful hair will grow back, and she won’t be tired anymore.
“Mom,” I say, “can I get a peppermint hot chocolate?”
She straightens, turns her sunken blue eyes towards me. She smiles. Her lips are chapped from all the throwing up, bright red like a cherry popsicle.
“Maybe after dinner, buddy.”
The week after my encounter with the black-eyed, pale-skinned little boy was a mental roller coaster.
By the time I’d gotten home that day, smoked a bowl, and zoned out to a couple episodes of Bob’s Burgers, I was well on the way to normalizing the experience. Smoothing it out like a geode in a rock tumbler, forcing it to fit comfortably into the cold, hard mold that is reality.
The kid had been creepy. But that had been the point, right? To creep me out. It was the day after Halloween. The pale, mannequin-like skin was stage make-up. And I know they sell pitch-black contact lenses. It was just a costume. Just a stupid kid’s trick. For a horror writer’s son, I was pretty fucking gullible.
An hour later, I was bug-eyed in front of my laptop, scrolling through WebMD’s archive of grisly consequences for untreated head injuries and Googling concussion symptoms. Could hallucinations be indicative of a traumatic brain injury? Or maybe the boy in the storage room was a symptom, rather than a cause. Did I have a brain tumor? Should I go in for an MRI? I had no health insurance and a deep-seated hatred of hospital waiting rooms, so I opted for no on the last one.
I alternated between those two states - fear for my health and embarrassment at my gullibility - until I passed out on the couch.
I went back to work the next day. And I started noticing stuff.
For starters, there were more cracks. I saw them everywhere. Weblike, hairline cracks all over the Baldwin Mall. Stretching across walls, floors, windows, and even the ceiling. In every store. In the bathrooms.
I thought that, maybe, that was what the maintenance guys were doing. Fixing the cracks. Because I started seeing them everywhere, too - men in grey jumpsuits, sometimes on ladders, layering white paint over some wall.
I brought it up with some other Baldwin Mall employees. The Lees offered a 30% discount to mall staff, so I’m friendly with a lot of them. On the second, I struck up a conversation with Yesi Alvarez, who worked at Boba Time, and Eugene Wu, from Lady Grace Candles.
“The mall’s structurally unsound,” Yesi had said. “I mean, that’s what I’d put money on. They dug that underground parking lot for The Promenade, and now everything’s going to collapse in on itself the next time there’s an earthquake.”
“So we’re all going to die,” Eugene said sarcastically.
“Yup,” Yesi said. “We’re all going to die here.”
Eugene rolled his eyes. “You know, it’s weird. Everyone keeps on talking about cracks and elf dolls, but I haven’t seen either of them at Lady Grace.”
“You’re the only store in the mall, then,” Yesi said. “I heard Bryce at Hot Topic saw one of those creepy elves crawl out of the trash.”
“That’s ‘cause Bryce is a stoner.”
“I don’t know how you don’t go crazy there,” I said to Eugene. “With that stupid bell. Whose genius idea was that?”
He shrugged. “You get used to it. What’s driving me crazy is the incense. We sell it, so Rynette insists we burn peppermint incense all day. You know, because if there’s anything we don’t have enough of in this mall, it’s peppermint.”
“My mom used to be really into incense,” I told him. “She’d use peppermint to cleanse evil spirits from the house.”
“Yeah, well, I hope your mom didn’t play Enya’s Christmas album on repeat. Rynette does that too.”
Bryce from Hot Topic wasn’t completely wrong about the elf dolls. They, like the cracks, were multiplying. The next day, Adam and Steve showed up at Jackie’s Dogs complaining about them.
“Adam and Steve” were actually Adam Raines and Evie Ritter. They called themselves “Adam and Steve” because Adam’s an openly-gay hipster type who likes dry humor, and Evie’s the girl who ironically calls him her “boyfriend.” They both work at Forever 21. Evie’s my age, red-haired, sarcastic, and wears a necklace with a little plastic Evey. She studies biology at Pasadena City College and wants to be a veterinarian.
“It’s a corporate publicity stunt,” Adam said. “It’s got to be. No one’s bringing elves into the store. We found three of them buried under a pile of sweaters some asshole left in the changing room. We just assumed some kid had dropped them, then the next day there were like ten more sitting in the window display.”
“I bet it’s a smuggling operation,” Evie said. “There’s drugs inside the demon gnomes. They smell like weed.”
Adam laughed. “Okay, well, who smuggles weed into a mall and leaves it lying around?”
“That’s the point!” Evie said. “Hiding in plain sight. And we’re all too creeped out by the things to ask too many questions.”
She giggled. Evie had a really distinctive laugh, like a duck on helium. I had a bit of a thing for her. I like girls with a goofy sense of humor, and I’ve always been attracted to redheads.
Adam pointed at my left arm. “Did you get a tattoo?”
I knew exactly what he was looking at. The bump on my head had deflated, but the bruise on my left wrist had seemingly gotten worse. It didn't even look like a flesh wound anymore. Distinctive straight lines were visible against the purple blotch, like an overcomplicated game of tic-tac-toe.
A few hours later, Avni Ali strode up to my register with Karen Nakano and Joe Tapia. I was debating whether or not it would be racist to inform Avni that the mall got another Muslim when I heard what they were talking about.
“It couldn’t have been the custodians,” Avni was saying. “They’re not in until six, and why would they even do something like that?”
“I agree, it’s weird,” Joe responded. “But it doesn’t mean the mall is haunted.”
“The mall is haunted?” I asked them, faking sarcasm.
Avni leaned on the counter. “Dude, the most fucked-up thing happened last night.”
Joe snorted. “Avni’s a ghost whisperer.”
“It’s not funny,” Avni said. She turned to me. “I had to stay late last night, to change the display from Back to School to Winter Wonderland. Yes, I’m aware it’s eighty degrees outside. Anyways, I undressed the mannequins, then went to storage to grab some boxes. I was gone for, like, five minutes. When I got back to the store, the lights were off, which was weird because I knew I left them on.
“So, I unlocked the door and turned on the lights, and the mannequins were… well, we’ve got nine mannequins. Eight of them were in pieces. The heads had been torn from the bodies, the arms were broken at the joints, the trunks were pulled off the poles, and all of the bits were just thrown all over the floor. And the ninth mannequin was standing there, in the middle of it all, with its arms raised above its head. It was like, the other mannequins were dead, and this one killed them all.”
“It was a prank,” Joe cut in. “You probably left the door unlocked, and someone decided to mess with you.”
“The door was locked,” Avni said firmly. “There’s one door at American Eagle, and it was locked when I got back. And it only locks from the outside. So if it were a prank, whoever pulled it would’ve had to have the keys.”
Joe shrugged. “The custodians have keys. The manager has keys.”
“The custodians weren’t there!” Avni insisted. “And why would the manager want to mess with me?”
I looked at Karen, who’d been listening quietly as her friends bickered.
“What about you, Karen?” I asked. “Have you seen any ghostly apparitions at Mrs. Fields?”
Avni and Joe shut up, both silently fishing for support of their version of events. Karen frowned.
“I mean, not like Ghostbusters ghosts,” she said. “But there’s been a couple weird incidents. You know, stuff moved around, chocolate chips spilled all over the floor. Another time, I came in to open, and the oven was hot, like it had been on for hours.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “That’s not a ghost, dude. That’s a moron closer.”
“I closed the night before,” Karen said defensively. “And I cleaned the oven. It was off and unplugged when I left.”
“It’s not just us,” Avni added. “I heard another security guard quit. Luke from Coffee Bean says it’s because he heard growling inside Sephora at night. And when he went to check it out, something big and furry with blood-red eyes ran at him.”
Joe laughed out loud. “There’s no fucking way that happened. Damien, can we get cheese fries?”
I glanced over the top of the kiosk. Lina sat at a table, her back to us, eating Chinese food. We were in the clear.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Depends on what you're offering.”
“An eggnog-scented candle,” Joe said sarcastically.
“Not you, Lady Grace.” I gestured to Karen.
Karen smiled and placed a white bag on the counter. “Half a dozen candy cane cookies.”
I put the bag under the register and got to work on their cheese fries. If Lina was in a good mood, I’d offer her half. Mall trades were technically against the rules, and in theory she’d write me up if she caught me bartering fries for baked goods, but she’d been craving chocolate and might turn a blind eye if I shared.
As for Avni’s story, and her suggestion that the mall was haunted, I didn’t know what to think. It wasn’t that I was a true believer in ghosts or magic or Bigfoot, it was that I didn’t exactly… well, not believe in those things. The paranormal had always been in my periphery. My mom had her incense cleansing and fairy hunts. My dad was a junkie for UFO conspiracies and cryptids. And my grandmother’s Catholic upbringing had instilled a wariness of demonic possession that had survived her conversion to Protestantism.
But it was also easy to dismiss the whole thing as a prank. Axel had said there’d been pranks and vandalism. Plus, I knew Avni. She was a bit of an overreactor and an attention whore. And I knew the security guards at the Baldwin Mall. Specifically, I knew exactly how responsible the security guards were with their keys. More than once, a skeleton key - which could open any door in the mall - had been left at my register by some 19-year-old rent-a-cop with a shiny new badge.
Either way, it was oddly comforting to know I wasn’t the only person having scary experiences at the Baldwin Mall. I’d take a ghost or a prankster over a brain tumor any day. But that comfort was short-lived, because stuff kept happening to me. Stuff I couldn’t tell the other employees because I couldn’t wrap my head around it myself.
Like the numbers. The day I was assaulted by the kid with pale skin and black eyes, the number “24” was written in ketchup all over the walls. Then the next day, I noticed a big sign over Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt. 23 FLAVORS!!!, in pastel comic-sans. I stared right at Tutti Frutti all day, every day. It’s across from Jackie’s Dogs, next to the bathrooms. That was the first time I saw that sign.
The day after that, the 3rd of November, there was a big banner in the window of Bath and BodyWorks. SALE! Boxed Sets All $22.22. The 4th, I was off. On the 5th, the clock on our register froze. The time displayed was 20:20. All day. I restarted it twice, but nothing changed.
I thought it was all in my head, at first. There’s numbers all over the mall. I could have pointed to any numbers on any price tag, menu, or banner and claimed it meant something. But it wasn’t just any numbers I was fixating on - it was a countdown. 24, 23, 22… Friday would have been 21, and then 20.
Then, there was that time in the men’s room. I was at the urinal. In the mirror, I saw movement under one of the stall doors. Now I’m not the sort of guy who pays attention to other guys in the bathroom. I’m just dandy the way God made me, thank you very much. And I’m definitely not the sort of guy who zones in on other guys while they’re on the throne, because that’s just rude.
So I stared, respectfully, down at my own yellow waterfall.
Then I heard a groan.
I breathed through my mouth and sang “Black Betty” to myself in my head.
Then another groan. This one was louder, lower, and not like any gastrically-instigated intonation I’d ever heard. It sounded like the bastard spawn of a bullfrog and a lawnmower. My head snapped up.
It wasn’t feet I was seeing below the bathroom door. It was two massive, webbed claws, the color of a fresh dog turd, leaking black sludge onto the tile.
My jaw dropped. I sucked in air through my nose.
It was a miracle I managed to zip up before I stumbled out the bathroom door and, retching, to a safe distance. Whatever was in there, it wasn’t human. No human being could stink up a public restroom so thoroughly, so fast.
The next day, both Food Court bathrooms were closed, indefinitely, for maintenance.
It was Sunday then, and a busy one. The lunch rush kept me occupied until around three. When it slowed, I needed something to look at to distract me from a lighted menu board flickering on and off above Tsukaya Grill. Combo option number 19.
I stared into the dining area instead. People everywhere, tables piled with shopping bags, children laughing and crying and screaming. My eyes rested on an old woman leaning on a walker, making her way through the crowd.
The poor woman looked like she’d seen better days. She was hunched over, and her thinning hair hung, grey and scraggly, over her face. She wore a stained grey sweater and a long, billowing black skirt. She was coming towards me. Despite her frail appearance, she was making good time.
About ten feet from my register, she managed a half-glance upwards, as close to meeting my gaze as her humped back would allow. Her face was wrinkled and tanned, her eyes were milky, and she had no teeth. I was about to call out to her, to ask if she needed help, when she abruptly changed direction and plodded away from Jackie’s Dogs, back into the humming crowd, back towards where she’d come from.
My breath caught in my throat.
Under her skirt, where there should have been ankles and shoes, there was nothing. Just stained black fabric, hovering inches above the ground.
The woman had no feet. She wasn’t walking, she was floating.
I blinked. When I opened my eyes, she was gone.
On Monday, I started seeing the doors.
There was one in the wall by Macy’s. There was nothing particularly interesting about the door. It was white, it was plain, and it had a round gold knob. The type of door you’d walk right past without a second thought as to what might be behind it.
The weird thing, though, was that I entered the mall through Macy’s every day, and exited through Macy’s every night. And I could swear there hadn’t been a door there yesterday.
Then, there was another door, just like the first, in the stretch of wall between Claire’s and the upstairs bathrooms. White, nondescript, round gold knob. As the food court bathrooms were still closed for maintenance, annoyingly, the upstairs facilities had a near-perpetual line. And I’d never seen that door.
Halfway through my shift, I glanced up to see a third door leading into the wall outside of David’s Jewelers, sticking out like a gold tooth. This frightened me. Because I stared at that wall all day, and the door definitely hadn’t been there the day before.
It also hadn’t been there five minutes before.
I nearly dropped a chili dog on the girl standing at the register. She must have noticed my horrified expression, because she followed my gaze to the door in the wall.
“I wouldn’t open it, if I were you,” she said.
I looked her over. She was a black girl, small-boned and slender, about my age, kind of edgy. She wore hipster glasses, a lacy choker, tight black jeans, and a t-shirt with the Five Nights at Freddy’s bear on it.
“Seriously,” the girl continued. “Leave those doors alone. You ever hear about the stairs in the woods?”
I realized she was asking me an actual question. “Uh…”
“People who spend a lot of time in the woods say they see stairs, sometimes,” she said. “Just random flights of stairs in between trees. They say you should stay away from the stairs.”
I blinked. I had no idea how to respond to this chick. She took her chili dog, gave me a half-smile, and went to sit down.
I spent the rest of the day doing everything I could to avoid looking directly at the door. When I was finally forced to, it was gone. After my shift, when I walked back to my car, the door outside Macy’s had vanished as well.
That night, I shoved a bible in my backpack. I found the huge wooden crucifix on a cord my grandmother had given me before I moved out. And I swore I wouldn’t set foot into the Baldwin Mall without either.
Written by NickyXX