The Baldwin Mall security office was next to the Hot Topic, which was next to Daniel’s Jewelers. It’s about as interesting as you’d imagine - a little room full of CCTV screens where the guard on duty can sleep or jack off in peace. We burst through the door to find Axel sitting in front of the monitors.
“Um, you guys…” he started.
Evie and I began talking before he could finish his sentence. She went on about the jewelry store hologram coming to life, I demanded to know everything Axel knew about the cracks and the doors and the constant painting.
“Guys!” Axel said, louder.
We both shut up. He gave us a confused frown.
“The Daniel’s Jewelers hologram figure is here,” he said.
He pointed. We turned around.
He was right. Resting against the wall opposite the monitors was the grey, girl-shaped screen. I’d been so worked up, I hadn’t even noticed her as we’d blown through the door.
“The manager wanted to keep her here, because she’s really expensive,” Axel continued. “So I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Evie and I gaped. I had the sudden urge to put my fist through the wall, just to make sure we were existing in reality. Axel’s eyes shifted between us.
They settled on Evie. “You saw this, or did he just tell you about it?”
Before Evie got the chance to respond, the door opened. It was Kevin the manager. Right away, he shifted into full douchenozzle mode.
“Employees can’t be in here,” he said condescendingly. “Go back to work, now.”
I looked at Axel, blindly hoping he’d stick up for us, but he avoided my eyes.
I strung together a half-coherent excuse/apology combo for Lina as I re-entered the kiosk. She shrugged, then cheerfully returned to her hot dog with anchovy chips and mustard.
I was scared, and I was pissed. Axel had always liked me. We’d joke around when he came by Jackie’s Dogs; he’d show off pictures of his kids and tell me about the local rappers he freelance produced for - the guy could talk and laugh for hours. But since the day he’d found me on the floor of the storage room, he’d been treating me like I was an annoying little kid.
I’d walked Evie back to Forever 21. She talked the entire time. It was a joke, she reassured me. Some asshole was having a laugh at our expense. I pretended like she’d convinced me, but I don’t think I convinced her. I don’t think she convinced her.
I needed to quit.
I’m a pretty easygoing guy. I’ll put up with a lot at work. Lazy managers, asshole customers, even a tolerable degree of John Carpenter shenanigans. I wasn’t about to give up an easy, full-time gig for the sake of a floating old witch or a few black-eyed demon children.
But the Minnie shit? That crossed a line.
My mom, or my dad, or my grandmother had some basis for their paranoia. I didn’t know if the Baldwin Mall was playing host to a fairy or an alien or a demon, but I had no desire to face any of the above in a fight to the death. It was time for me to stop acting like a white guy in a horror movie, cut my losses, and take a long walk.
I took a deep breath. Lina was adding onions to her smelly concoction.
“Um, Lina, I have to tell you something…” I started.
It was Axel. He stood with his arms folded, Kevin and the new security guard at his heels.
“Damien, can you come out here?” he asked.
I nodded and pushed through the door. Before I had time for a “what the fuck,” the young security guard had me pressed up against the counter, my arms pinned behind my back.
“Are you crazy?” Lina cried.
I struggled as Axel strode into the stand and grabbed my backpack off the floor. He started digging through it, unceremoniously tossing my wallet and my jacket onto the floor.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I managed.
Axel pulled his hand out of my backpack again, this time dripping shiny tendrils. Diamonds. Necklaces. Bracelets. I blinked. There was no way…
“What?” I yelped. “That wasn’t there this…”
“D, what’s going on?” Lina demanded.
Axel turned my backpack upside down, dislodging a discarded t-shirt, my bible, my crucifix, and a stash of expensive-looking jewelry. Kevin smiled at me triumphantly. He pointed towards a support post outside Daniel’s Jewelers.
“Look there… Damien, that’s your name?” he oozed. “That’s a security camera. Axel and I were looking through the footage from last night, on the off-chance that our robber was dumb enough to walk right into the shot.”
Pain shot through my still-tender wrist. I flinched, and the young security guard tightened his grip on my arms. What was left of my logical capabilities fled the building. There was no way they were insinuating what I thought they were.
“And lo and behold,” Kevin continued, “who should we see but Damien here, busting though the glass with a chair. Right in front of the camera. Quick tip, buddy - find a new calling, because a life of crime really isn’t for you.”
“I was at home last night,” I insisted. “My cousin was with me. She can vouch for me.”
“Daniel’s was broken into at four-thirty this morning, actually,” the young security guard said, sounding like what I think he thought Danny Trejo would sound like.
“Four in the morning?” I laughed nervously. “Do you actually think I would wake up that early?”
Kevin just smiled that fuckboy smile. “Why are you arguing, man? We got the proof right here.”
Lina glared at me. Axel stood up, avoiding my gaze. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Evie, wandering towards Jackie’s Dogs.
“Should I call the cops, sir?” the young security guard asked Kevin eagerly.
Kevin’s smile drooped. He looked suddenly confused, a rookie trying to remember the rule book. For a moment, I could swear I saw panic dart across his face.
“We’ve recovered the stolen merchandise,” he finally said. “Let’s not waste the PD’s time.”
He turned to me contemptuously. “If it was’t obvious, you’re banned from the mall. Get out of here. And if I see you again, I will call the cops. Got it?”
I pulled myself out of the young security guard’s grasp. Evie stood a distance away, eyes wide in horror. The reality of the situation hit me - someone had just framed me for a robbery. Possibly - likely - the three of them. Because there’s no way I’d been on that security tape.
“Screw you,” I snapped at Kevin. I pointed at the others in turn. “Screw you, screw you, and screw you.”
I threw my stuff back in my backpack, swung my backpack over my shoulder, then noticed my bible at Axel’s feet. Axel was looking at the floor. He seemed upset about all this. Regretful.
I bent over to grab the bible and, when I stood back up, he finally looked at me.
“You know what?” I said to him, “take this.”
I handed him the bible.
“You’re going to need this a lot more than me.”
As I stormed to the exit, I heard Evie calling my name from behind me. I slowed. I owed her, at least, a goodbye. She caught me as I entered the squat hallway, between Perfumania and Johnny Rockets, that led to the parking garage. I’d planned on cutting through the garage to get to my car. I had no desire to spend a second longer in the mall than I had to.
“Damien, what happened?” Evie asked.
“The morons think I robbed the jewelry store.”
“Did Kevin say that?” She spat Kevin’s name like it was distasteful.
“Yeah. But Axel didn’t exactly stick up for me either.”
“Did he start talking to you like you’re a naughty kindergartener?” Evie asked sardonically. “And act like he’s doing you a huge favor by not ratting you out to the police?”
“He did the same thing to me after I found the little girl in the dressing room!”
At the door to the parking garage, I stopped. “Wait. He didn’t call the police?”
Evie shook her head. “He said we shouldn’t. I think Axel talked the kid’s mom out of calling the cops herself. She didn’t speak much English. Maybe illegal.”
She pushed past me, and we walked into the garage. It had been nearly eighty degrees when I walked into work at ten. But there, the air felt cold. It was also darker than it should have been. I realized the natural light from the large vehicle entrance had, somehow, been dimmed. All around us was dusky grey.
The lights flickered, and went out. It was, impossibly, pitch-black. Evie screamed. The lights came back on.
There were elves everywhere.
Elf dolls. Hundreds of them, sitting upright on the floor, a carpet of red and green. Elf dolls on top of the few cars. The car nearest to us - an old neon - was stuffed full of them. Their pink faces, eerily-lifelike eyes, were pressed against the windows.
And every single one was looking at us.
A voice. Minnie’s voice, amplified, reverberating from all around us, mechanical and chirpy, as it had been in the storage hallway.
“Do you surrender, Damien? The man The Old One has chosen.”
Evie grabbed my arm and tugged me towards the door.
“Damien!” she cried. “Let’s GO!”
I pulled away. She grabbed my arm again, but I held my ground.
“What?” I screamed at the air. “What… happens if I surrender?”
Minnie laughed. A low, vile laugh that sent shivers down my spine.
“They’ll call it something,” Minnie chirped. “Fire. Terrorist attack. Earthquake.”
Evie gasped. “Damien, LOOK!”
I looked where she was looking.
I saw a figure at the far end of the parking lot. A three-dimensional, pitch-black entity, the size and shape of a man. So dark it hurt my eyes. Like a black hole, sucking in warmth and light. All that was happening, all that had happened, he was the epicenter. He was The Old One.
And I knew my options. I knew them like I knew my name. Every last, horrible, impossible option.
“I don’t!” I screamed, as loud as I could. “I don’t surrender!”
The lights went out.
When they came back on an instant later, the parking structure was warm. Around the corner, I could trace the light seeping in through the vehicle entrance. There were a few cars, and not an elf doll in sight.
We sat in the front row of Theatre 5 at the Baldwin Mall AMC. Evie, Saskia, and I. The theatre was dim and empty. I believe it was the Storks movie that was showing, but it wouldn’t start for another 45 minutes, so we had temporary run of the place. As Evie frantically explained the episodic hijinks of our day to Saskia, I leaned back, closed my eyes, and willed my neurons to collect and move in the same direction.
“I need to see that security tape,” I said, half to myself.
“Really?” Evie snapped. “You’re still on the jewelry? After what just happened?”
“Well, what am I supposed to be on? The fact that I’m being Cicada’d by a living black hole and a talking hologram?”
“You saw that thing,” Evie said, with an angry pout. “If you can’t figure out… whatever it wants you to do, it’s going to kill every single person in this mall. You understand that, right?”
“Okay, let’s hear your ideas,” I bitched back. “This is an open forum here, guys.”
“Calm down,” Saskia said. “What did Minnie the hologram girl say to you back there? What were her exact words?”
I thought about it. She had sounded like a corrupted sound file.
“She said that I was… the man The Old One had chosen,” I said. “Um… do I accept the challenge? Winner takes all. Three out of five.”
“Clues, too,” Evie added. “Something about clues.”
“Three clues,” I said.
Saskia regarded us with the poker face of a high school guidance counselor. She closed her eyes and shifted her lips around, thinking.
“That’s interesting,” she said finally. “The concept of a hero chosen by destiny is actually really common in mythology. And then, the hero has to prove their worth by completing a series of impossible tasks. Think Hercules. Think every poor boy or girl in a fairy tale. Or that tournament Harry Potter won in the fourth book.”
Harry Potter. I was facing certain death at the hands of a shadow monster and a broken sales mascot, and the girl was talking about Harry Potter.
“Okay, so I’ve got five… challenges,” I said. “I’ve got to win three of them. And I get… clues? Like, weapons?”
Saskia shook her head. “I think if it were weapons, she would have said weapons. In a lot of legends, though, the hero gets… hints. They’ll notice something, and it’ll end up helping them later on. Like the girl in Baba Yaga - the gate creaks, and asks her for butter. She puts butter on the hinges, and later that helps her escape, because the gate doesn’t creak and wake up the witch. Have you noticed anything like that, Damien?”
“No!” I snapped. “I don’t know what you think this is, but I’m not Frodo. I’m not Ash Ketchum. This isn’t a young adult novel. Setup and payoff isn’t a thing in real life.”
Saskia was getting annoying. I’d had the worst day of my life, and she was acting like it was all a show she could binge-watch on Netflix. Then I thought of something that took a two-flush shit on my already piss-soaked mood.
“She said I already have them. I already have the clues.”
Saskia considered this, then pulled out her phone. As she scrolled, I mentally went over everything I’d seen since that fateful November 1st. The diarrhea-scented monstrosity in the bathroom. The floating homeless lady. The demonic children. The possessed Furby.
“Look at this.” Saskia thrust her phone at Evie and me. I took it.
She’d pulled up a post on 4Chan’s /x/ board. I’d spent a bit of time on 4Chan when I was a bored, easily-distracted high school kid, but got off it pretty quickly. My life is sunnier without right-wing nut jobs and shitty porn, thanks. And I’d always ignored /x/, the paranormal board.
This post was titled “I took a picture of my daughter at the mall, and this is how it developed.” It didn’t specifically say the Baldwin Mall, but I recognized Santa’s sleigh in the atrium, and Lady Grace Candles, Spencer’s, and Abercrombie & Fitch in the distance.
The photo showed a little blonde girl gleefully sitting on the sleigh. Behind her, to her right, was a blurry figure. A woman, it looked like, in a flowing white dress, her face covered with long, thick, filthy black hair. According to the proud parent, the woman hadn’t been there when the photo was taken.
“Yeah, that’s photoshopped,” I told Saskia.
“Keep scrolling,” she said.
I did. There were a few useless responses, then another photo, taken from a different angle, posted by someone else who claimed to have had a similar experience. This woman reported that her kids were perfectly happy, but started freaking out and crying as soon as they set foot in the mall, begging her to go home.
The photo showed two little Hispanic boys, sitting side by side on the sleigh, both near tears. Again, the Baldwin Mall wasn’t mentioned, but I recognized Godiva, American Eagle, Mrs. Fields, and the curve that led to the food court.
There was another blurry figure behind the boys, except this one was hovering at the top of the photo, either unnaturally tall or floating. She was hunched forward, dirty plastic bags hanging from each bony shoulder. Stained grey sweater, long billowing black skirt. Big hooked nose, no teeth, milky-white eyes.
“I saw her!” I exclaimed. “That woman. She was… floating in the food court. She doesn’t have legs.”
Evie gasped. Saskia shrugged.
“A banshee, I think,” Saskia said. “Ugly old women are so common in horror, though, she could really be anything.”
“For the love of Christ, Saskia,” I snapped. “I get it. I’m a TV trope. But, if you haven’t noticed, this is reality. Five challenges. Great. When are these challenges happening? What’s challenging me? And how do I beat a banshee, or an invisible chick in a wedding dress, or freaky middle-schoolers with black eyes? I need practical advice here.”
“Black-eyed kids,” Saskia said.
She smiled. “Lemme guess. Pale skin. Disappear into thin air. Ask you to invite them in.”
“Actually… yes,” I said and, inexplicably, I felt relieved. “So that’s a thing? Black-eyed kids?”
She nodded. “Internet legend. People claim to have seen them all over the world.”
“So, what’s their weakness?” Evie cut in. “How do you kill a black-eyed kid?”
“No idea. Also, no one has any idea what happens if you actually invite them in. Painful death, probably.”
Evie sighed and closed her eyes.
“But if you’re looking for practical,” she continued, “I do have an idea.”*****
Written by NickyXX