I whirled around. At the window, I saw nothing but backs of snow princesses and lounging elf dolls. There was no sign of the yellow clown that had startled me just hours before.
I heard loud, frantic voices from outside. Axel was clumsily patting his pockets. Kevin stood stiff and still, his mouth hanging open. Saskia looked me in the eye. Pure horror on her face, she pointed upwards.
Something wet and hot landed on my shoulder. Noor gasped. I looked up.
Like a huge, demented spider, the clown was crawling on the ceiling.
Its head was turned completely around. Its unhinged jaw gaped grotesquely, saliva dripping from its many, many rotting teeth. The lights flickered and died.
There was a flash of yellow, and then a thud. The thing had dropped.
“Run!” I screamed at Noor.
She darted behind the register. I ran for the door. I grabbed the handle, twisted, pulled. Axel indicated for me to step back, then violently threw himself against the glass. Nothing. The door wouldn’t budge.
“Of course there’s a clown!” I yelled to the air. “I was just thinking this story needed a scary-ass clown!”
Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!
I turned, and stared into glowing red eyes and a hissing, foot-high, black hole of a maw. On all fours, back arched, the clown crept towards me.
There was a flash of movement. Something came out of the shadows.
Noor. Clutching a long cylinder.
She went at the clown like a goodfella with a baseball bat.
SLAM! She got it in the face, flipping it onto its back. It writhed like an overturned turtle, hissing and jabbering. Noor wound up and swung again, landing another hit square in the clown’s groin. Again and again and again. The clown rolled onto its side and emitted a hideous, eardrum-shattering screech.
I pressed my hands over my ears. Noor flinched, nearly losing her grip on her weapon. The clown took advantage of her momentary distraction and, with a dainty gloved hand, pressed the ridiculous flower on its suit.
There was a noise like aerosol exiting a can. Noor raised the long cylinder again, stumbled as though the weight overwhelmed her, let it slip from her hands, and broke into giggles. Smiling and laughing, she sunk to the floor.
This might have struck me as odd, had I not been overwhelmed by a feeling of… well, happiness. Euphoria. As though all was right with the world and I was right where I should be - giggling and swaying, while the yellow-and-red monstrosity righted itself on two legs. Humming to myself as it took large, squeaky steps towards me, its limbs bending the wrong way.
Falling into a happy, drunken pile as its cold hands wrapped around my neck, its jaw stretched, a worm-like black tongue lolled, and two rows of alligator teeth inched closer. And then I was sliding the loops of its endless throat, exhilarating as a carnival ride, laughter ringing in my ears.
I woke up sideways. Listless and numb, I watched Noor pull herself to her knees, brush away an elf doll, and stumble to her feet. I was convinced we’d just been to the circus, and she’d won the doll at the strongman game. There’d been a clown there.
Fuck. The clown.
I sat up so fast my head spun. The killer clown was gone. Noor was leaning against a shelf. The door was open and Kevin huddled in the door frame, arms clasped around his knees, shaking and heaving with ragged breaths.
We all looked at each other at the same time.
“What was that thing?” Noor screamed. “One of you idiots better…”
“It was him!” I shouted, pointing at Kevin. “What did you do, asshole?”
“Spit it out!” Noor demanded. “I don’t get paid enough to baby-sit a side show.”
“Where’s Evie, huh?” I screamed at Kevin. “What kind of black-magic bullshit have you been playing with?”
“And you!” Noor shouted at me. “Whenever something like this happens, you’re always right there!”
“Me? I tried to warn you!”
“So you knew about that… monster?”
“Guys…” Kevin croaked.
“Well, not exactly!” I snapped at Noor. “But there are very bad things happening at this mall, and I’ve been trying to deal with them for two weeks, and you haven’t been all that helpful!”
“Guys,” Kevin stammered again, louder this time.
With a trembling hand, he pointed at the plain, white wall.
“The elves. They took them,” he said weakly. “Axel and the girl. They took them through the door.”
My stomach dropped. Axel. Saskia. No.
“I think I know where they are,” I said.
There was another black X on my wrist. The turnip-faced man smiling maniacally from the mural wall had two new spectators - one female, dark-skinned, and dark haired; one male and chubby, wearing a crude depiction of an untucked uniform shirt.
Round Two - The Old One. He got two hostages this time. Bastard.
I helped Noor sweep up broken ceramic figurines and re-stack Furbies. I told her about everything that had happened to me - from the black-eyed boy in the storage room to the pictures on my phone. She listened somberly, disturbed but never disbelieving.
“I’ve seen the doors, too,” she said. “And I’ve come here in the morning after closing the night before, and the dolls have all moved.”
She picked up her weapon - a meter-long roll of heavy-duty wrapping paper - and put it back behind the counter. It was green and white with cartoon snowmen. My stare must have been incredulous.
She shrugged. “We offer complimentary gift wrapping.”
According to Noor, we’d been drugged with laughing gas. Yes, the creepy clown had an accessory that released laughing gas. Tim Burton-esque. Begrudging respect.
Grandma’s Toys and Dolls was nearly presentable when Kevin came back, a manila folder under his arm. He’d vanished while Noor and I were at the mural wall.
“Damien…” he said, almost shyly.
I paused my rearranging of sock monkeys and raised my eyebrows. It was rather satisfying to see him in that condition - designer suit wrinkled, stammering like a psych ward patient in a zombie movie.
“I know what that thing on your arm is.”
I told Kevin about The Old One. I didn’t spill every single detail, but I explained how all the creatures popping up in the mall were working for one bigger, more powerful creature; that the big, powerful creature had challenged me to a five-round death match. I didn’t trust him. I couldn’t un-see those pictures on my phone - pictures which had, inconveniently, all disappeared. But I was down two rounds and working with limited resources, so I thought it best to keep my options open.
Kevin pulled a photocopy out of his manila folder and handed it to me. It depicted a triangular structure with three large, thick posts. Large crossbeams sat on top of the posts, the ends overlapping. Fit snugly between each set of two posts, below the large, thick crossbeams, were smaller, thinner beams, forming a triangle within a triangle. The caption below the grainy photo described it as a Mihashira Torii.
“What is this?” I asked Kevin.
“Turn it upside down.”
I did. I figured it out in a second.
“It’s the symbol on your wrist,” Kevin confirmed. “It’s the symbol that was painted on the walls.”
“Great. What does it mean?”
“A Torii gate, in Japanese culture, is placed at the entrance to a Shinto shrine. It marks the border between the sacred and the profane. Some say that, at a Torii gate, the barrier between our world and the world of the spirits is the thinnest. Traditional Torii gates look like this…”
He pulled out a pen and drew two lines, then another perpendicular line connecting the two at the top, then a fourth below that line.
“If you put three of them together in a triangle, you get a Mihashira Torii. Some claim that the Mihashira Torii was a calling card for Japanese Christians, and that the three Torii represent the Holy Trinity. As for why the Mihashira Torii is upside down… well, in Christianity, an upside-down cross is demonic; evil spirits mocking the crucifixion of Christ.”
Kevin stopped to breathe. Noor rolled her eyes.
“You didn’t answer his question. What does the upside down Torii gate mean?”
“Nothing!” Kevin seethed through clenched teeth. “Culturally, theologically, nothing. It means whoever came up with that particular design is an amateur. And there’s nothing more dangerous than an amateur messing around with the occult.”
He sighed. “I thought I could control the monsters… at least until after Christmas. I have a Ph.D. in anthropology. I did my thesis on urban legends. But there’s more every day - this mall is turning into some kind of boogeyman zoo. And they’re getting stronger.”
“So why not shut down the mall?” Noor demanded.
Kevin shook his head. “I don’t know what kind of power you think I have around here. I can’t just shut down the mall. I can recommend to corporate that we close temporarily - which I did, at first. They laughed at me.”
“Wait,” I said, “what do you mean ‘at first?’”
Kevin fixed me with a despondent stare. “Because it won’t make a difference.”
It was during the construction of The Promenade, Kevin said, that the dark forces had been released. They’d dug a big hole for the underground parking structure. And, about ten feet down, the workers found a box.
It was a small box, and it looked old. It was covered in occult symbols. Which symbols, or what they meant, Kevin could only guess. Every picture taken of this box had disappeared.
What Kevin did know was that the construction workers were more amused than scared of the box, and had dared each other to open it. One of them did. Inside was a children’s toy - a doll of some sort. It was rumored that the doll was an elf.
Kevin didn’t know for sure. Because that night, the doll, the box, and half their equipment was destroyed by a fire that broke out at the site. The insurance company concluded that flammable chemicals hadn’t been properly secured, and refused to pay out. Kevin had doubts about that explanation.
The old manager did, too. He’d felt the pressure to quit when the Promenade construction ran over-schedule and over-budget, but the real reason he resigned was because, since the night of the fire, the mall hadn’t… felt the same. Over the phone, he told Kevin that he’d been scared to come to work.
“Spirits,” Kevin told us, “attach to things. Dolls. Houses. People. And once their host is destroyed, they’re free to find something - or someone - new to possess.”
“So you’re saying,” I said, “that someone in this mall is possessed?”
“There’s got to be some way to stop it,” Noor said. “I mean, if all this is because of a shape on his arm…”
“You don’t get it,” Kevin said firmly. “You ever hear of a Tulpa?
“I have,” I said. “Something to do with rich white kids on Tumblr who reblog everything tagged ‘introvert.’”
Kevin sighed. “What I mean is, evil spirits feed off us. They feed off fear, anger, hatred… and they are what they eat.”
“They become the things we’re afraid of,” I said. “Like clowns.”
“The point is, we painted over the symbols on the walls. I thought if I fired you, if I got you out of the mall, it would all stop. But it hasn’t. Whatever was trapped in that box, whatever came through those upside-down gates, whatever this Old One really is - we’ve got to beat it the old-fashioned way.”
Kevin got me my job back at Jackie’s Dogs. Moot point, perhaps, but it was a nice gesture. I had asked him about that security tape.
“I’m sorry about that, man,” he said. “The tape was pretty blurry, and the thief was wearing a hoodie. It was probably a guy who looks like you.”
“Well, can I see it?” I asked.
Kevin shook his head. “It’s gone, man. I don’t know what happened. It disappeared from the security office, maybe Axel took it.”
I guess The Old One needed a break, because the next day was quiet.
I spent the day wandering around the mall, eyeing merchandise I could use as a weapon in a pinch. I’d looked everywhere for the bag of monster-fighting supplies that Axel, Saskia, and I had methodically collected. It was gone. The elves had taken it.
So, I theorized, a No Outside Food rule was on the books. As far as self-defense was concerned, I couldn’t bring my own gear. I had to make due with whatever was already on hand within the mall.
A loud DING DING DING! jostled me from my thoughts. A child was going at it with the Lady Grace Candles bell. I followed the sound. If it weren’t for the bell, Lady Grace would have been little more than wallpaper to me. But they had candles and lighters, and fire could be effective against some supernatural creatures.
I was greeted with a noseful of peppermint and the earthy droning of Enya’s Christmas album. I browsed aimlessly, amazed there were so many different varieties of candles on the planet, and wondering why this place felt so different than the rest of the mall.
There were no cracks. There were no elf dolls. There were no doors. The maybe-fifty-square-feet of Lady Grace Candles was the one refuge in the entire Baldwin Mall from that trio of scourges.
I found myself staring at one candle in particular. It was tall and thin, cinnamon scented - hand-made in Guatemala, according to the label. Acatec was the name of the brand. Their red logo looked like a curled fish tail.
It took me an embarrassing amount of time to process what I was looking at.
The Mayan logogram for “fire.” The exact doodle that had appeared on the credit card receipts at Jackie's Dogs.
The first of my three clues, perhaps? Which meant…
I didn’t know. I bought an Acatec candle.
As I walked past Abercrombie and Fitch, someone called out to me.
“Hey! Chosen One!”
Noor was there, folding sweaters. I was surprised. After her cage match with the clown doll the night before, after Kevin’s explanation of the phenomenon as a whole, and after his confirmation that the only way out was through three more confrontations with the minions of The Old One - three confrontations I now had to win - I hadn’t expected her to stick around for the end credits.
“It’s Damien,” I said, wandering into her loud, dimly lit workplace.
Her eyes lit up. “You Greek?”
I shook my head. “Irish and Cuban. My mom liked horror.”
Noor’s face darkened. I sensed I’d disappointed her.
“Ironically,” she said, “I hate scary movies. But that’s not the point. I’ve got something for you.”
At that, she left me with a pile of striped sweaters and jogged to the dressing rooms. She returned with a black duffel bag, which she handed to me.
I set the bag on the ground and unzipped it. Inside was an 8mm camera and a pile of film canisters.
“You said the security guard caught a bunch of monsters on film. Kevin said those monsters probably haven’t manifested yet, but will as soon as they’re strong enough to pass into our dimension. I say let’s catch some more.”
I stared at her. That was actually a really good idea.
“My roommate’s an editor,” Noor continued, picking up a sweater. “Her boyfriend’s a purist cinematographer.”
“Noor, you need to get out of this mall.”
She stopped folding. “I can help.”
“Did you not see what happened to Axel and Saskia yesterday?” I demanded, incredulous. “They helped me. Everyone who helps me ends up trapped in the wall by the Macy’s with that disturbing mural man.”
“I saw,” she said. “But it seems like the only person in this mall who’s put up a fight is me.”
I blinked. The lady had a point. She’d been doing pretty well against the spider clown freak before it resorted to chemical warfare.
“Five challenges, right?” she continued. “You’re down two. So you’re really not in a position to be refusing help. And I’m not going to run and hide while some boogeyman murders innocent people.”
She crossed her arms and set her jaw. I wasn’t going to talk her out of it. And, honestly, I felt better knowing that if I was going to die, I wasn’t going to die alone.
It was strange, being back at work on Friday. Even though I’d only been fired for two days, my spot behind the register of Jackie’s Dogs felt foreign. Lina played it off like nothing had happened, and I let her. I spent the morning staring at Daniel’s Jewelers. They'd put Minnie back.
I wandered to the other side of the stand and looked at Best Buy instead. There were advertisements all over for their midnight Black Friday sale. I imagined a sea of spandex-clad bargain hunters, bursting through the automatic food doors and into the waiting claws of The Old One.
“How’s it going, Damien?”
It was Kevin. He was trying really hard to look like he had his shit together. He was wearing the same suit as the day before; I got the impression he’d slept in it.
He lay something on the counter by the register. A radio with an earpiece and a PTT switch, the type the security guards used.
“Take it,” he said. “I’ve been running all over this place, making sure no monsters have escaped and no new ones have crawled out of the woodwork, and, last night, Axel’s replacement quit, so I’m down to zero security guards.”
He nodded. “Take the radio. If your arm starts burning, call me.”
“Can I have another one?” I asked. “The girl from last night wants to help.”
Kevin made a face. “Muslim girl? Really? Does she know what she’s doing?”
“I doubt it. But neither do I.”
Kevin shrugged and produced another radio. He showed me how to use it, then presented me with a second present - a skeleton key.
“It’s Axel’s. I found it on his desk. I wondered why he couldn’t get the door open last night.”
He laughed nervously. I put the key in my pocket and glared at him.
“I’ve got to go feed the thing in Tsukaya Grill,” he said quickly. “It stays nice and quiet, so long as it has a pile of rotten meat. I’ve been dumpster-diving behind The Cheesecake Factory.”
After work I gave Noor her radio, then sat in the food court and trolled around paranormal subreddits on my iPhone. By nine-thirty, the mall was quiet and I was alone.
At ten, I heard a BANG!
BANG! BANG! BANG! It was coming from upstairs.
My wrist started to burn.
This was it. This was it.
I radioed Kevin. No answer. Fuck. I radioed Noor. My earpiece crackled, and I heard her voice.
“It’s happening, Noor,” I said, with as much composure as I could muster.
“Where are you?”
“The food court. I…”
I stopped. I thought. My mind snapped into the focus I’d managed during calculus tests. Little pieces, little pegs, all must go in the right-shaped hole. The monster is at Point A. Damien is at Point B. Noor is at Point C. And the weapon to defeat the monster is X. Find X.
“Noor, listen to me,” I said decisively. “Come to the food court. I’m leaving a key on the counter of Jackie’s Dogs. Get the key, and go to the atrium. Stay there until I radio you again. Then do exactly what I say. The key opens every door in this mall.”
I heard Noor exhale. “Okay.”
I left the skeleton key. I ran through the atrium and up the escalator, following the bangs and thuds, ready to confront my third challenge. Alone.
What do you call the middle of a song? Read the next chapter here.
Written by NickyXX