I opened the door. Through it, I saw grey.
I was standing in a filthy grey room, with grey walls and empty grey shelves sporting cobwebs and rot. The layout seemed familiar. After a minute of processing, I figured out why. The grey room was Macy’s. I saw the alcove of the changing rooms, the desk that would have had a register on it.
I took a cautious step forward. Yep, this was Macy’s, abandoned and left to the elements for decades. The rough walls were stained with layers of black mold. Shelves and bits of drywall had broken off, and wood and insulation littered the filthy concrete floor. There were no windows and no lights, but I could see perfectly, albeit through a musty haze.
Deep cracks lined the floor and the walls. I blinked. Because I could swear the cracks were slowly… closing up. Healing themselves.
I reached for the door, and grabbed empty air. I whirled.
The door was gone. I was looking at the grey, crumbling wreckage of the Baldwin Mall.
I didn’t have time to marvel at the run-down, diluted dimension I’d stumbled into. Because, from somewhere below me, I heard a giggle that sounded like a duck on helium.
Evie’s laugh. Evie was there.
I ran across cracked, filthy tiles, past shattered glass and exposed wood foundation, over small hills of wreckage, down collapsing, creaking steps. The place was not, I realized, completely devoid of life. Pitch-black critters lurked under discarded brick and rotten wooden shelving. Thumb-sized spiders. Cockroaches. Bloated slugs sucking on patches of mildew.
I wandered the post-apocalyptic inversion of the hallway I hurried through every day, past what would have been Forever 21, Abercrombie and Fitch, Grandma’s Attic - all abandoned, crumbling, crawling with fungus and those scavenging, pitch-black bugs.
One storefront looked considerably worse than the rest. The roof had caved in, the windows were shattered, and piled rubble rendered the area impassible. If I looked hard, above the exploded wood and drywall, I could see light.
Another giggle. Evie was close.
I arrived in the atrium. A figure stood there, its back to me. A redheaded girl in skinny jeans and the frilly green top she’d been wearing when the Bagienniks attacked us.
“Evie!” I took a step towards the girl. “Evie! It’s me, Damien! Where are…”
The girl turned. I gasped and stumbled backwards.
It was Evie, all right. Her face was stony. And her eyes were pitch-black.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, it all happened so fast.
They came out of nothing, bursting from shadows and under shelves and behind doors. They’d fully manifested.
Kevin could see them on the six CCTV screens, set up in a grid pattern in front of him. The bottom-right screen showed thumbnails of the feeds of all 40-odd cameras positioned throughout the mall. By clicking on a thumbnail, Kevin could see the full-sized image in one of the other five monitors.
Camera 18B. The Christmas tree in the atrium swayed. Something emerged from beneath the lowest wire branches. A pit lined with teeth, an unholy gaping mouth. Then a pulsing, meter-thick rope, undulating across the tile floor. Ten feet. Twelve feet. It reached the door of Spencer’s. It reared into the air like a cobra, its body still pouring from some subterranean wormhole. There was no color on the screen. But Kevin knew the bloated, segmented bulk was bright red.
He pressed a button on his radio. “MDW is in motion. Team One, go. Everyone else, stay clear of the atrium. I repeat, stay clear of the atrium.”
Adam Raines and Tyler Atwell emerged from behind Santa’s sleigh. The boys quietly pushed a mannequin into view. They wore rubber boots, long rubber gloves utilized by the cleaning staff, and leftover Halloween masks from Hot Topic. One was Donald Trump, the other was Hillary Clinton.
They procured large buckets and, together, poured a healthy stream of thick liquid over the mannequin. Nacho cheese. Bright yellow and, if they did their jobs right, boiling hot. The one with the Trump mask stomped his foot. Once, twice, three times.
The gargantuan worm turned. Teeth protruded from the black, dripping mouth. Droplets fell to the ground. Smoke blurred the screen.
“Get OUT of there, guys!” Kevin yelled into the radio.
He was then distracted by Camera 13B, which showed the accessories department of JC Penney. A large humanoid figure ran into frame. It had hooves, leading into muscular legs covered with coarse brown hair, which bled to a tanned human torso, then an angular, goat-like face with a flat nose, killer animal eyes, and magnificent antlers extending from each temple. In one calloused hand, it held an axe.
Camera 6A. Bryce Chou dashed in one end and out the other. Seconds later, a stumbling herd toddled after him. Their movements were uncoordinated, mindless. One was missing an arm. Another’s head hung at a 90-degree angle. Behind the initial group, yet another crawled along the ground, bones protruding through decaying elbows, one leg amputated, dripping maggots and clumps of rotting skin.
Zombies. Bryce was going for the stairs.
Camera 20B looked into the Ladies’ Workout section of H&M. With no provocation, a rack of sports bras levitated, then flung its contents. A male figure, Emerson Yen by the looks of it, stepped into view - and was immediately pelted with flying yoga pants. A second figure, Parker, tugged him out of frame, a second before a looming wall shelf collapsed.
Everything was still. Then, Kevin nearly fell out of his chair.
There was a face. A hideous, white, elongated face with protruding yellow eyes; dead grey tongue lolling, rotten teeth brandished.
SNAP! The bottom left monitor went dark. Camera 20B was compromised.
Camera 8B. Yesi Alvarez stood with one hand behind her back, the other squeezing a rubber chicken. Something dripped onto her shoulder.
Camera 6B. Old Navy. A girl, Karen Naguro, backed against a family of mannequins, scanning the store methodically. Karen turned slightly to the left. In the space where her head had been, there was now a hideous, wrinkled blue face.
“She’s behind you, Karen!” Kevin snapped.
Black Annis must have heard Karen’s radio, because she rose into the air, cackling. Karen whirled around and pitched a handful of rock salt. The witch vanished.
“Keep an eye out, I don’t think she’s gone for good.”
Two girls with black dresses, pale skin, and pitch-black eyes wandered the halls. Camera 5A was momentarily obscured by a giant wing, then the Snallygaster landed on a railing. An Asian woman with a surgical mask paced outside Wet Seal. She held a large and formidable pair of scissors.
“Remember, she’s average-looking,” Kevin said over the radio to Eugene Wu.
He didn’t need to see Cameras 1, 2, and 3C to know what was going on in the food court. He smelled the ripe fecal stench. He’d heard the mighty BANG, and the screams, that signaled the Lizard Man had broken through his cinderblock holding cell and across the line of salt.
And, in spite of all that noise, he still heard Bing Crosby crooning “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” The Best Buy crew was blasting music from their massive speakers. So long as no one heard the Banshee’s wail, she couldn’t do any harm.
Bryce Chou’s distraught voice came over the radio.
“THE ESCALATORS!” Bryce screamed. “TURN OFF THE ESCALATORS!”
Evie just stared, loose red tendrils falling over emotionless, pitch-black eyes. Her chapped lips curled upwards.
“What the…” I stammered.
Evie laughed. Then her face folded in.
It was like a claymation movie, when a character is thrown against a wall with a splat then… rebuilds itself. I watched in horror as Evie’s skin darkened, her body expanded, her red hair melted, and her face became that of a black-eyed Axel.
I choked back vomit.
“Who the fuck are you?” I screamed at the thing.
Axel - the thing posing as Axel - grinned. Then it transformed again. It condensed and shrank, hair sprouted from its head, and a red splotch extended into a red t-shirt. It was me.
“You know who I am,” he, it, I said sweetly.
I did know who he was. I recalled the Tall Man’s note.
I AM WHAT YOU FEAR MOST.
I was looking at The Old One. The Old One was a shape-shifter, and he had taken the form of my greatest fear. Of everyone’s deepest, darkest fear.
Each other. The people we trust. The people who could, in a second, reveal their true, horrifying nature.
The Old One appeared as Noor to lure me there. The Old One, as Kevin, left those photos on my phone. The Old One, as Noor, hid under the food court table while I was besieged by Bagienniks. And the Old One, as me, robbed Daniel’s Jewelers and smiled for the camera.
The Old One drove wedges between us. Made us wary of each other, distrusting. I thought Kevin was possessed, and that he and Axel were working against us - meanwhile, Kevin and Axel had gone around thinking the same thing about me. He had dressed as Noor and planted the jewelry in my bag, so I would turn on her.
It was brilliant. Divide and conquer. Make me suspicious of my allies. Isolate me. Lure me into some dark, twisted dimension with no escape and no assistance.
I’d made an idiotic mistake. I was on par with the pretty white protagonists of one-star horror movies on Netflix. I was so busy cursing my own stupidity I didn’t notice The Old One had changed once more, and I was again staring into Evie's empty black eyes. She blinked. The inky darkness receded, revealing the kind, playful baby blues I’d fallen in love with.
“Seriously, humans,” Evie - The Old One - chirped. “You tell your little stories around the campfire, leave them on the internet, invent imaginary monsters to be afraid of. Have you ever wondered where all that misplaced fear ends up? Well, a little bit of it trickles through the void and collects here. That mold you saw - that’s residual human fear.”
“What do you want from me?” I demanded.
The Old One smiled.
“Oh, we’ll get to that. But you’re curious. You need… resolution. Payoff. Humans are all about that, right? You want a satisfying ending. That’s fine. I can give you the spoilers.”
The abomination laughed. Evie’s duck-on-helium giggle used to turn me to mush. Now, it made me sick.
“Years ago, a pair of morons began toying with mystical symbols, ancient incantations, eldritch tomes of the dark arts. Eventually, they fell ass-first into a combination of the three that opened a gate, let’s call it. And I’m the thing that came through the gate.
“They were after the things your species always screams for when it screams into the void. Money. Success. The envy of friends and neighbors. I could’ve given it to them, of course, but where’s the fun in that?
“They were gambling men, guys who liked to play games. So I made up my own game. Five rounds. If they could defeat me, three out of five, I would grant them everything they desired. But if they failed, I would drain them to obtain the thing I desired - a body. A body, fit to hunt.”
The Old One chuckled menacingly.
“Unfortunately for me, I… underestimated their mental capacities. Actually, no. I underestimated the mental capacity of the poor, penniless doll maker they bribed. He trapped me in a child’s toy, then buried me deep underground. For decades, I waited. Until a squadron of morons dug me up.”
The construction workers. The box. The doll.
“Here’s a fun fact,” The Old One said gleefully. “That mysterious fire - actually, not so mysterious. The old manager, real nice guy, came to the construction site after hours to see what the workers had found. The dolly must’ve spooked him, because he set it ablaze. The flames got out of control and he ran. I owe him a lot. Because as soon as my prison was incinerated, I was free.
“I was free to wander your dimension, but without a body. My corporeal form was trapped in this wasteland. Except… want to see a cool trick?”
The Old One raised his - Evie’s - hand, pointed, and made a zigzagging gesture with a finger.
“Look behind you.”
I looked. On a cobwebbed, cracked wall, a symbol in black ink had appeared, identical to the one on my wrist. The Old One laughed.
“The morons who summoned me opened a gate. And gates like that, once opened, are a little tough to close. I simply… unlatched it. And that trickle of residual fear I told you about? Through my gate, it flowed like a river.”
The gate. The symbol slathered all over the walls of the Baldwin Mall. I watched a black spider skitter across the floor and crawl up The Old One’s leg.
“So I waited, and I fed, and I gathered strength. Those monsters you fought so bravely - the troll, the clown, and… the Tall Man, you called it?”
The Old One reached down, picked up the spider, let it rest in an open hand.
“All of them looked like this when I found them here. Leeches, cockroaches, subsisting off mold. Once my gate was open, they gorged themselves. They gobbled up the ridiculous fears of your species until they nearly burst. And…what was it your little friend said? They are what they eat.
“But, you wonder - why you? What makes you so special? Why did I choose you, an unremarkable half-wit who can barely hang onto a job squeezing ketchup, as my personal feeding trough?”
I looked at my wrist. At The Old One’s gate, and the two X’s.
“You see, I signed a contract in blood. And a contract signed in blood is rather difficult to break. Five battles. Three wins. But I needed an opponent.”
It hit me, then. The Old One had attached to someone, possessed them, fed off them. It wasn’t Kevin. It wasn’t Noor. It was me.
“See, Damien, I know you too well. I’ve eaten like a king, because you’re scared of so many things. Clowns. Troll dolls. The ugly little pictures in your books. You’re scared of loving people, because it hurts so much when they’re gone. Am I right, Little Ricky?”
I felt myself tear up. But The Old One wasn’t done.
“You’re scared you’re stupid. You always were the dumb kid in class, weren’t you? The little boy who couldn’t read, who couldn’t focus. So you never try. You hang onto piddling little jobs, piddling little hobbies, a careless existence free of responsibility.”
The Old One took threatening steps towards me until I was pressed against the cold, mildewy wall.
“So here we are. Round Five. You can forget about the salt in your pocket. It’s not a weapon, it’s a means of trapping my kind, and it only works in your dimension. As for your little knife…”
I pulled out the knife. And The Old One changed again.
Kevin switched to Camera 8B as Yesi Alvarez looked up. The clown dropped.
It took awkward steps towards her, knees bending the wrong way, madness in its glowing eyes. Its painted blue smile broke. Its jaw unhinged. It raised a dainty, gloved finger to the pink flower on its suit.
Yesi revealed what she’d been hiding behind her back. A Cheesecake Factory banana cream pie.
Camera 18B. The giant worm in the atrium was thrashing. It overturned Santa’s sleigh and sent the Christmas tree flying as scalding-hot cheese burned its insides. There was a distinct lump halfway down its ringed body, the mannequin caught in its throat.
Adam and Tyler had taken refuge behind the door of Mrs. Fields, holding their breath. Kevin held his. He knew the Mongolian Death Worm liked yellow. He hoped the effort swallowing the mannequin would keep it sufficiently occupied.
The worm opened its mouth, expelling smoke. The lump moved.
Camera 8B. Yesi ran for the stairs. The clown was splayed on the ground, limbs twisted, long black tongue flapping grotesquely as it licked banana puree from its eyes and bulbous nose.
Then, like a marionette, the clown righted itself. Its jaw dropped and it emitted a violent screech. The Snallygaster fell off its railing, the giant spider hanging over the entrance to Nordstroms writhed on its web, and even the dispatch of aggressive, animated mannequins cornering Avni Ali inside American Eagle pressed their fingerless hands to their imaginary ears.
On all fours, the clown bounded after Yesi, who waited in Camera 7B at the head of the stairs. Moving like a scorpion, the monster gained on her, blue mouth wide, revealing its endless, ringed black hole of a throat, twisting and gyrating like a tilt-o-whirl.
Yesi reached into her pocket. She pulled out a banana peel. She dropped it on the ground. Then she stepped to the side.
BANG! SCREEEEECH! THUD!
Kevin smiled. No matter how evil and twisted, a clown can’t resist the classics.
His attention was then drawn to Camera 18A. The Mongolian Death Worm had swallowed the mannequin, and now it was pissed.
“Adam,” Kevin said over the radio, slowly and deliberately. “Don’t. Move. A. Muscle.”
But the worm’s ferocious head snapped away from the two boys. It reared its bulk towards Macy’s. It saw something it liked better.
Camera 5A, the foot of the stairs. The clown had fallen in an uncomfortable pile, limbs tangled. It held up a gloved hand, popped the fingers back into their appropriate sockets, and was in the process of prying its leg from its neck when a shadow fell over it.
The clown uttered another violent screech. Its malevolent red eyes burned, this time with fear. It frantically reached for the pink flower on its yellow suit.
And the Mongolian Death Worm descended, vacuous mouth first.
Camera 6B. Black Annis had reappeared. Her blue face registered murderous fury.
“Boy’s jeans, Karen!”
Karen turned and ducked, barely avoiding a face-full of foot-long, iron claws. She fell. Her bottle of rock salt skidded away and under a counter. She squirmed backwards as the raging witch took another swing.
Kevin saw something in Camera 5B.
“Karen! Get out of there, and go towards Brookstone!”
He watched Karen roll to her feet and follow his directions, Black Annis on her like a tiger. She ran out into the hallway, nearly hurtling into the pair of girls with black dresses, flawless white skin, and black eyes.
Black Annis lost interest in Karen. She always did prefer children.
Kevin felt the floor shake. The Mongolian Death Worm had fallen and lay motionless. The clown was somewhere within its elongated abdomen, being digested by the worm’s caustic fluids. As was all the laughing gas emitted from that ugly pink flower.
His radio cackled. “Clown is down! I repeat, clown is down.”
“Great!” Kevin responded. “Yesi, go to the Hallmark store. I think they have some merchandise from that new Dreamworks movie, or The Secret Life of Pets. Grab all you can and take it to the Disney Store. They need backup.”
He hadn’t known what lurked behind the tinted door of the trashed, abandoned Disney Store. The demented mascot hemorrhaging yellow blood had been an… unpleasant surprise. But if the thing was created by Disney, Kevin was fairly certain it was scared of competition.
Camera 11B. There was something on the ground. Kevin looked closer. It was the lower half of a woman’s body, violently severed at the waist, planted like a stump. Blood coagulated. Intestines hung like vines.
Oh, crap. He had to warn Lina.
He switched to Camera 2C, which pointed at Jackie’s Dogs. It was the oldest camera and produced the shoddiest image, but he could make out a blob resembling a pregnant woman standing by the grill.
There was a dark blur. Another figure had run into the shot. Kevin stared.
His jaw dropped. No. It had to be the shitty picture quality, because if she was there, then…
The second figure was gone. Kevin heard the door of the security office creak open.
The Old One’s body swelled, stretched, and expanded until it nearly reached the ceiling. Thick, puke-green tentacles extended from a bloated, cone-shaped trunk, and a tangle of massive, octopus-like legs exploded from its base. If I craned my neck I could stare into huge red orbs, glowing hatred and malice.
A warted tentacle reached backwards, then was flung towards me.
I closed my eyes.
Something warm collided with me, and I was falling. I opened my eyes in time to brace myself against the cracked floor. I looked up.
Noor stood above me. She clutched her boxcutter knife.
“Damien, get UP!”
Then everything happened at once.
Another tree-sized tentacle flew at us. I got to my feet, stumbled, dodged, then was falling again. Noor grabbed my hand. With her other hand, she drove her knife into the filthy wall and dragged it down, leaving a long slice. A fresh crack. She shoved me, and I fell through the wall like it was made of paper.
As I collapsed backwards, I was afforded one last glimpse of the grey, ruined dimension. I saw a giant, decaying hand reach out. The rotting fingers grazed me, but I was out of reach. Instead, they wrapped around Noor’s waist. Her hand was violently tugged from mine; she screamed as she was dragged backwards, into blackness.
And then I was on the floor of the atrium, the Baldwin Mall around me, staring at a fading hairline crack on the wall outside Spencer’s Gifts.
If you don't want anyone to do it, don't put it on the internet. Read the next chapter here.*****
Written by NickyXX