“Is everything ready to go..?”
“Yeah…my bike’s ready, I've got some supplies upstairs, and my watch is recharged.”
“Excellent, my good man. I’ll see you outside your house.”
“Bye," I said as I hung up, slipping the phone back into my backpack. I grabbed my helmet and bag and rushed out of my room, making sure to close my room’s door behind me. Greg and I were going on what we called an “adventure”.
That was last summer. Greg and I were 18 and 17 respectively, and with this our last summer before university, we were trying to pack it full with things to do before our schedules got more serious. We’d been friends ever since ninth grade, and man, we were an odd pair. Greg Rockwell the klutzy big guy with a heart of gold, and I, Gabrian Vasquez, the flimsy, nervous flamboyant one. He and I met after realizing we both liked action movies and had the same penchant for mischief. Plus, hanging around a guy much stronger than you did wonders for the people who would make fun of me for being “delicate”. But that’s another matter. That day, we were headed off to Primrose Mall.
Primrose Mall was considered one of the greatest business disasters in Saskatchewan, or maybe at least in our town. It opened in 1989 and stayed open for maybe a year, after which it was completely shut down. The mall was boarded up and remained an enormous, boxed eyesore on the edge of Regina’s city limits. Nobody would take the land to redevelop it, but the police patrolled it pretty heavily for the first few years it was closed down, yet Greg and I had heard they’d begun to let up on it recently.
It was about 5 PM now. I slipped upstairs and grabbed some granola bars, avoiding the eyes of my father, who was cooking something at the stove.
“I’m going biking with Greg,” I called out before getting the door.
“Dinner’s at 6:30,” my father said as something sizzled loudly in canola oil.
I headed outside, where Greg was already waiting on his bike, a satchel in tow, the strap hanging over his shoulder. I waved as I rushed to retrieve my bike from the garage. That was when Old Frankie came up the street.
Frank Hollister, or Old Frankie, lived across the street from my family, with his husband and dog. He was a quiet little man in his late-fifties who was a lot like family to my family. He always wore fine second-hand suits, his curly red hair laced with grey, a cane in his left hand. Greg was really not fond of him because Frankie had a habit of telling wild stories, but I trusted him quite a bit.
“Are you lads going camping?” he asked in his thick Liverpool accent, gesturing to our backpacks. Greg looked away awkwardly.
As I walked my bike to the curb, I said, “Yeah. Greg and I are heading down to check out Primrose Mall.”
Old Frankie’s face suddenly froze over with concern, and after a moment of thinking, he turned to the ground and shook his head. “Oh, no, no, no. What a terrible idea. The things I’ve heard about that mall…”
“Anything good?” Greg could not help but ask.
“I’m not sure what you mean by “good”, but, well…” Frankie looked at us both. “Word is that it’s haunted.”
Greg just shrugged. “Well, yeah, that was what was making me want to go.”
“But it’s much more than you two prepared for…” Frankie rearranged himself so he was leaning on his cane. “I went there once when the mall was open to the public, way back in the day, and I always got the feeling that something was off about the place. The employees were so nice, but it was that awful, awful forced kind of nice. You know, when people smile, but their eyes aren’t smiling. I bought myself some bedding at the Zellers, got out of there, and never went back. Next thing I know, they’re shutting the whole mall. I tell you, I’m bloody glad.”
I glanced over at Greg, whom looked entirely doubtful. After a second, I said, “We won’t be in there for long. We just want to explore, take some pictures, and then get out.”
“I even took some precautions…” Greg fished a little white bottle out of his bag and held it out. “My mom is friends with a priest, and she got this for me.”
“Well, that’ll keep you safe, assuming the mall’s not rotten to the core and the very floor you walk on collapses under you…” Frankie was still disapproving. “Haunted or not, it’s still dangerous.”
I shook my head, but appreciated the concern. “Frankie, we’ll be fine!”
“If I don’t see you two back up the lane in two hours, I’m telling your father where you went.”
“We’ll be just fine!” I reassured, getting into my bike. Old Frankie couldn’t help but sigh as we begun to bike off. I waved behind at Frankie quickly and then turned back to face Greg.
We were biking side to side. Greg had an MP3 speaker attached to the front of his bike, and he switched it on, and we biked along in a cloud of “Addicted to Love”. Primrose Mall was on the way out of town, so we had quite a way to go. Greg and I passed the time by pretending we were piloting Robotechs, calling out attacks and command operatives.
The area towards the edge of town slowly became more and more shifty. The suburbs full of elderly couples and families eventually turned into hastily-made brick apartment houses and little shacks. We passed a faded strip mall occupied with a Vietnamese restaurant, a sex shop, a loan office, and two empty storefronts. I was a little uncomfortable, but this was a bad side of town, after all. The sun beat down on us, and I felt one pronounced trickle of sweat roll down my back beneath my backpack. We weren’t even there yet and I already felt groggy and dirty.
The big box that was Primrose Mall was quickly coming into sight, and soon enough, we found ourselves just outside of the building. We stood in the parking lot, which definitely had signs of people being there recently. There were candy wrappers, beer bottles, even what looked like a used condom. Greg and I locked our bikes against a rusting, ancient bike rack, Greg stuffing his MP3 speaker into his bag. We now had to get into the mall.
A thick metal door, obviously an old fire escape door, was propped up against a crumbling doorway; the hinges obviously had given out years ago. Greg and I attempted to push it aside, but the door toppled over into the dry, patchy grass at our feet. Dusty earth rose in clouds and Greg batted it aside helplessly while I took a step into the mall.
We were standing in a corner of the mall, facing two different walkway options that would take us deeper into the structure. This part of the mall was fairly well-preserved, but dirtied from where other teenagers had come and hung out; they probably hadn’t attempted to go in very far. Above us was a large skylight, shaped like a hexagon and matted with dirt and mold from the outside. The area around us was thick with the smell of decay. Greg quickly took a picture of what used to be either a flower shop or a boutique.
I kicked at some of the toilet paper at my feet, obviously discarded during a failed TP-ing. “This is so far disappointing.”
Greg turned and picked up a dusty glass object; a discarded water bong. “Hey Gabrian, check this out.”
“Oh, is this a magic trick?”
“Sure is!” He hurled the bong by the neck into the wall on our left, and it exploded in a shower of glass, ash and water. We laughed at it for a bit, but slowly, laughter turned to silent horror as we realized a portion of the wall was coming down.
Greg shuffled back as a door-sized chunk of the wall, slathered in graffiti and dirt, tipped over and shattered all over the floor. A cloud of powdered drywall rose towards us and I began to breathe through my sleeve, shouting at Greg to do the same. The smell that filled the area was indescribable; it was beyond rotten, as if we’d just opened a grave. The stench of mold and decay surrounded us, dust settling over our hair and clothes. I shuddered at the idea of twenty-five years of decomposition washing over my body.
When the dust cleared, the first thing we saw was a mound of rotting insulation and…something else. It was black and looked like beef jerky, soaked into the insulation, maggots writhing out of the pink and black mound. I looked back at Greg in horror, and his face matched mine.
“We’ve gotta move,” Greg said through a hanky, hurrying forward. I followed without a word. We had two options of corridors: one that led to another corner of the mall that was well-lit with another skylight, or one that took us deeper into the structure that was plunged in total darkness.
We obviously chose the lit path. On the way there, Greg and I swatted drywall dust off each other as we walked.
Under the second skylight were two things: the remnants of a shop, and a structure Greg and I would later describe as The Stairway to Nowhere. The shop was surrounded in rainwater, as a variety of holes had been broken in through its ceiling, with the letters of its former sign scattered all over the floor. Most were damp and visibly moldy. I had no interest in the shop, but Greg snapped a picture anyway, and we turned to focus on the stairway. The stairs led to an upper platform, and then another row of stairs, and then nothing.
“What do you think it could have been?” I asked after a second.
“It doesn’t seem to go anywhere…” Greg craned his neck around the stairs. There were no signs of what could have been behind it, but there were piles of broken, dirty shelving units and ventilation ducts. Some of the ducts even looked like they’d dropped from the ceiling on their own. I started to walk up the stairs, gripping the banister tightly in my right hand, but Greg tugged me back.
“Gabe, no. Don’t do it. If that wall can come down from a little bit of glass, hell knows if this thing’ll be able to support your weight.” I’d rarely seen him so concerned.
“You calling me fat?”
“Gabe, c’mon…” He gestured to the door beside the stairs. “I wanna get a picture of inside this. Something feels off about it.”
We approached the door; chunks of glass remained in what had been its window, and it was absolute blackness inside. At my feet was a sign that had probably been stuck to the glass ages ago, reading, “Management Only”. I picked it up, showing it to Greg, who considered it for a moment before taking it from me and dropping it in through the window.
We didn’t hear it collide with anything for a few seconds. Then, distantly below us, came a faint, wet squelch.
Silence fell between us. Wide-eyed, we drew away backwards from the door, walking quickly towards the rest of the mall.
Our only choice of paths was to walk straight ahead, down a corridor that was once lined with shops. The floor was dusty but clean, and it was clear we were the first people to go down there in a while. It was getting darker, but we’d each brought flashlights in case, and flipped them out, arming ourselves.
But nothing interesting was down there. Aiming the flashlights into the shop entryways, locked up behind security cages, we could see nothing worth worming our way into them. There were only a few shelving units and the occasional piece of discarded wood on the floor. I could have sworn I was starting to just feel bored. But then it began to feel cold around us.
At first I didn’t notice – I was wearing a flannel shirt over another shirt – but Greg, in just a t-shirt, started to rub his arms uncomfortably. He bit his lip and turned to me, asking, “You think it’s because of the shade?”
“The cold. Because of how shady it is in here.”
I was starting to feel it, too. “Maybe. Doesn’t it feel weird, though?”
It felt damp, too. The only other time I’d felt a cold like this was one spring day at school when it was raining heavily outside, but the air conditioner was at full blast inside. It was a cold, wet, greasy feeling that made you want a hot shower. A cleansing. Greg was getting more and more irate the closer we came to the end of the corridor.
“This is bullshit, Gabe,” he said between shivers. “And…and, you smell that?”
“Don’t tell me you can’t smell that. It’s awful. How…how can you not smell that?!”
“Smell what?!” I searched the area around us for whatever was bugging him. “Shit, Greg! Don’t freak me out!”
“Well, you’re the one freaking me out! How can you not smell that?! It smells like expired marmite!” He threw one thick arm towards where we came from. “It’s worse than the broken wall out there!”
“Stop shouting, Greg! You’re scaring me!”
He inhaled, a little reluctantly given whatever he smelled, and then sighed. “Okay. Sorry man. Let’s figure out what to do.”
We were at the end of the corridor. To our right, a dead end; what had probably been a security door was now boarded up with plywood. To our left, a piece of the outer wall was missing, next to a hallway. The hallway was smaller than the rest of the mall corridors we’d been through.
I’ve never seen a place so devoid of light in my entire life. No security lights, no holes in the ceiling like the rest of the mall, just…nothing up ahead. A lot of light shone in through the hole in the building, letting us see one office door and a former shop down the hall, and nothing else. There could have been a flat wall painted in black ahead of us, and I wouldn’t have known the difference.
I turned to look at Greg. He was taking a few steps back from the hallway, his eyes buggy, arms held out in front of himself. “No,” he repeated. “There is absolutely no way I’m going down there.”
“Well, take a picture of it!” I insisted. Something was fascinating me about the hallway. Greg flipped out his phone, took one look at it, and hissed in irritation.
“Battery’s dead! I could’ve sworn it was fully charged when I left my house…”
I turned to walk forward towards the hallway, curious.
Greg cursed loudly and ran in front of me. “Gabe, what are you doing?!”
“I want to see what’s down there,” I said. I didn’t sound right as I said it. The words came out in my voice, but strange to my ears, like I was hearing myself on a tape recorder.
“The…the…” Greg looked back at the hall, then to me, and back and forth, dumbfounded. “The hall smells like a garbage pile and you still wanna go into there?!”
I couldn’t smell anything. “S-something’s telling me to go in there. I swear, Greg, I’m gonna be fine.”
“That’s what we told Old Frankie, and look what happened with the wall. The stairs. The cold.” Greg pointed at the hole in the building beside us. “We’re going out through here, now.”
“I’m going into that damn hallway!” I exclaimed. Greg just looked scared; I’d known him for four years, and never had I ever seen him this scared, even when he was in trouble. He dropped to one knee and dug through his satchel, soon pulling something out.
He stuffed the bottle of holy water into my hand. “Take this, buddy. I’m gonna be outside. If I don’t see you in ten minutes, I’m calling the cops.”
I swallowed hard, slipping the holy water into the flannel pocket that was over my heart. “Okay, man. I’m gonna be just fine.”
Greg pointed one thick finger at me, stern. “You commit to that, okay?”
“Okay,” I said with a nod and a grin. Greg nodded back, and then hurried out through the opening to the field outside.
I watched him leave, turned back to the hallway, and walked forward. I felt like I was stepping into a pool, plunging myself into complete darkness. I kept on walking, my hands on my backpack straps, the only sound around me the grinding of my footsteps in drywall dust. I kept on walking. And walking. And walking.
Was the hallway sloping down into the basement or something? I couldn’t understand why it was taking so long for me to reach the end; I had been expecting to reach the opposite corner of the mall by now, to turn and see light at the end of a pathway that would take me back to where we came. But I kept on walking through pitch black darkness for what could have been three minutes. At least.
A tingle on my skin made me more uncomfortable than I already was. There was faint electricity in the air, and even fainter, the smell of rot. Decay. Like someone back in 1989 had strewn around pieces of uncooked meat along where I was walking. I suddenly knew what agony Greg had been in back there and regretted whatever possessed me to come down here.
What made me keep walking down that hallway with a blasé, straight face was something my father once told my sister and I. He works on films as a props master, and during one late night filming session at an old school, he had to go to the top floor to get some tools the crew had left. He headed upstairs alone and begun to feel an awful, awful negative presence in the building with him, following him. He told me he’d retrieved his tools, and all the while perfectly calm, turned around and walked down two flights of stairs and out to the crew truck. Because, as he said, “Whatever was in there wanted to see me turn and run. I proved it wrong and got out just fine.” It wanted to feed on his fear. Whatever was following me in that hallway wanted to feed on my fear, and I swore I’d prove it wrong too. So I kept walking. And walking.
I heard the faintest sound of someone exhaling. I bit my lip.
My feet were starting to ache. How long had I been walking? And there wasn’t a single source of light to be seen. Reluctantly, I turned back to try and see the light from the opening in the wall that Greg had gone through, hoping to see how far away I was.
It was gone. I was alone and submerged in total darkness.
But I had to prove it wrong.
I looked back to where I was going and almost gasped. Up ahead was light pouring out of the cracks in a door up ahead. I probably found an emergency exit! Breathing steadily, I walked up ahead until I reached the door, carefully felt around for the knob, found it, and opened the door.
What I saw left me breathless. I was now standing in Primrose Mall, brand new and in operation. Had I gone back in time? The place was clean, bright, colourful, and bustling with people. A big, stupid smile spread on my face. This place was gorgeous! I quickly closed the door behind me and looked around. I had come out of that strange door beside The Stairway to Nowhere, which was oddly still in its ragged, pointless state. But the messed up shop beside it was now a shoe store. A woman with a huge perm walked by me, and I tried not to stare. I was so happy to be out of the darkness, I was just about giddy. I had no idea how I wound up in 1989, but it was beautiful!
I could smell oil from a nearby Burger King. I stopped by a clothing store’s racks and could touch the clothing. I went to a vending machine and bought a super ball for a quarter. This was no fever dream. This was real.
I walked around for a bit, exploring the different shops, taking in the 80s fashions around me. Up ahead I noticed a man coming out of a Zellers. He was a quiet-looking little man in his mid-twenties wearing a fine suit, his curly red hair shaved around the sides, a shopping bag in his left hand. The grin on my face only widened; it was Old Frankie! But young! I hurried ahead to try and meet up with him.
Something hit me. This was four years before I was even born…there wasn’t any plausible way that Young Frankie would know who I was. I made up a quick story in my head; I’d ask him for the time, and then maybe pretend I was new to the province and ask what shops he’d recommend around here.
I stopped beside him. I hastily cleared my throat and asked, “Excuse me, sir, what time is it?”
Young Frankie turned to me, smiling. And in that instant, I learned what Old Frankie had meant when he mentioned when people smile but their eyes aren’t smiling.
Young Frankie’s face was slathered in six or seven chemical burns, the flesh of which puffed from his skin, crusty and frothing, in a nauseating mixture of purple, brown and yellow. His left eye had been splashed by whatever he’d come into contact with, giving it a dull grey colour under a flat, brittle film. All the while, his eyebrows were cocked, his good eye wide, and he wore a big, bright smile on his face.
He moved his whole head to focus on me, the scarred eye never moving, his mouth slowly stretching into a wider, goonier grin. I couldn’t move.
He begun to say something. “H...hh…hhhh…”
“Y-yes, sir?” My voice cracked.
His jaw lowered. Slowly, a thick, black pudding-like liquid begun to seep from his mouth, dropping into puddles on the floor. I could smell the liquid from where I was, and it was not unlike the smell of raw sewage.
I scrambled back a few steps, then turned and bolted down the mall, my eyes searching for an exit. Up ahead was a mall cop stepping out of an office room. I shrieked at him, “S-sir! I need help!”
He turned, saying, “Son, what’s wroooooOOOOONNNNNNNNNHHHHHHHH—”
His face was a crater, a cave-in of purple and black scalded flesh, pus dripping down his chin and all over his shirt. I turned on my heel and kept running through the mall, searching for someone else to help, maybe even Greg if he were here. More and more people turned to look at me, smiling, each of their faces or arms scalded in different ways.
I soon found the emergency exit that Greg and I had come in from. I flung it open, sending loud alarms through the mall, but disregarded them and bolted out of the door. My joy over being freed was short-lived, as I realized I was now standing in a six-by-six foot room that looked like it was made of wet olive green rubber, with large drips and bubbles in its surface on the walls. I reached back for the door, first thinking it had locked on me, but no, it had formed shut into the wall, sealing me in. There was no way out that I could see. The room reeked of rotting meat and something acidic.
I had thought it was rubber at first glance. But as I focused on the walls, I realized they were moving. Gestating. What looked like a dripping face or a hand would occasionally try to press through the walls, each face twisted in agony as it attempted. I took a step and shrieked.
There were pores in the floor, spurting some sort of translucent yellow paste when pressure was applied; it smelled not unlike Drano. It seeped in through the cloth sides of my sneakers, stinging the soles of my feet and my ankles. I clawed at the wall where the door had been, but only ragged shards of a tough, jerky-like substance came off in my hands.
It was very much the same as the stuff Greg and I found in the wall. I opened my mouth to scream, but a dry whisper came out. I dropped to my knees and buried my face in the darkness of my arms.
A moment passed. I was moving. Was I being…carried? My body was on a cot…I let my hand try and feel around…no, a stretcher…? I nervously opened my eyes, finding one emergency worker at each end of my stretcher, lifting me out of the dark hallway. I let out a shaky sigh of relief, and one of the workers seemed to notice.
“The boy’s conscious,” she said loudly. Other police officers up ahead seemed to notice, and they waved at us as we drew closer. I let my eyes fall shut, waiting as they escorted me back to the parking lot Greg and I had first been. Everything smelled and sounded normal in the mall now. I wanted to sob.
There were so many cars in the parking lot now. I could spot my mother’s car, and panic shot through me again…had Old Frankie told my parents where I went? How long had I been gone? Out in the sun, they put the stretcher down next to where Greg had been waiting, and to the emergency workers’ surprise, I got up and stood on my own. Some of the workers were surprised, asking me if I could or couldn’t feel various parts of my body. But I felt perfectly fine.
“You passed out only four meters down that hallway, kid,” the emergency worker said again. “We’ve got every right to be concerned.”
“I-I passed out?” I couldn’t process it. “No, that’s not what happened at all. I went all the way down that hallway, opened a door and…and the whole mall was operational! There were people in there! Things were clean! I saw—“
She sighed. “Must have been a hallucination from the past contamination…”
My parents suddenly hurried into view, followed by an equally concerned Old Frankie. My father asked, “What was this I heard about a contamination?”
“The contamination should be at a minimum, if any traces still remain,” a bulky cop with a thick mustache said before the emergency worker could respond.
I looked at Greg in horror, and he looked at me just the same. Sputtering, I asked, “Wait, contamination? What?!”
The cop sighed, and continued. “Supposedly around ‘85, several hundred litres of liquid industrial waste were dumped in this lot. Crap like run-off, unused solvents, God knows what. The mall was built here anyway, and the provincial government claims things were cleaned up pretty well, but…”
“B-but what?” Greg asked.
“Mall employees kept gettin’ sick,” he replied. “Most of them got seriously ill or died. I wasn’t workin’ in this city at the time, but supposedly a number of people went missing around here, too. The mall managers claimed that they had everything under control, though...”
The cops poking around the emergency door began screaming and waving at each other, which caused some other cops to go check out what was going on. I saw one officer stumble around the side of the building and vomit. Another officer bolted up to the guy we were talking to, screaming, “Preston! Preston, you won’t believe this!”
The mustache cop looked up. “What is it?”
The guy stopped, gagging, trying to catch his breath. “There…there are corpses sealed into the walls!”
“Th-they’re rotten! They must’ve been in there for decades!” The officer nauseously waved his hands around, trying to make a shape. “They’re barely recognizable!”
Greg looked right at me. “Then that stuff we saw was…”
“…But what about that stuff down the door by the stairway?” That faint squishing we had heard when Greg dropped the sign in...
The cop whirled around to look at me. “What stuff? What door?”
The emergency worker just shook her head. “It’s no use asking that one. He’s still convinced he traveled back in time.”
“But I did!” I howled, feeling humiliated. I began taking off my backpack, remembering the vending machine. “I even bought something back then! It was a super bounce ball!”
I hastily unzipped my backpack and reached inside, feeling around for the ball. But my hand stopped, slowly recoiling from what I felt. There was a dark, greasy, stinking residue on my fingers. Breathing heavy, with the eyes of my parents, Frankie, the police, and Greg all on me, I took a look into my backpack. Where my trip supplies and the ball had been were now large portions of ragged, blackened chunks of decomposing flesh.