“It started around September,” Axel told us.
When we’d re-entered the food court, we were amazed - though not unhappy - to find the place spotless. The brown muck had been wiped off the floors, the tables and chairs were replaced, and every single stand and kiosk looked exactly as it had before the salamander monsters attacked. The stench hung in the air like a lingering fart, but to a much less toxic degree.
I felt like a kid in hand-me-downs, swimming in the oversized khaki shorts and Kings sweatshirt Axel had fished out of lost and found. I’d taken a hobo-shower in the upstairs restroom. I still stank, but at least I wasn’t sticky anymore. And when I dared to look at my face in the mirror, I was surprised to see that the knick on my jawline I’d sustained shaving was completely gone.
I reached up to touch it, and I saw my wrist. Under the cryptic arrow was a dark, mocking “X.” Round One - The Old One.
Saskia had finally, somewhat, calmed down. If it hadn’t been horrifying, her grim realization that this was all serious might have been satisfying. Just hours before, she’d seemed excited at the prospect of investigating a haunted mall.
“At first,” Axel continued, “it was these symbols on the wall. All different colors, all over. They’d just show up out of nowhere, at all hours, but we never caught anyone actually painting them. And I know all the gang signs around here. None of them look like that.”
He gestured towards me. “They were all the same. They all looked like that thing on your wrist.”
“So you had the maintenance guys paint over them?” I asked.
Axel nodded. “I mean, what else could we do? Then, it was the cracks. Then those ugly elf-on-a-shelf toys.”
“Then the doors, we know all that,” Saskia snapped. “None of this explains why my roommate just got sucked into a fucking mural!”
“I can’t explain that, either!” Axel said firmly. “I can’t explain anything! I’ve trained five security guards since then. We started… seeing stuff. At first, it was little things. Mannequins that may have changed position. Scratching noises. Weird howls. Eyes peeking out of the dark.”
“How long have you known about the things in the bathroom?” Saskia demanded.
Axel sighed. “About a week. Some customer complained about the smell. So I went in, and I found five of them piled in the handicapped stall.”
“And you didn’t tell anyone?” Saskia asked, with exasperation bordering on a screech.
“I did!” Axel snapped back. “I came back with the two other security guards. But they’d all disappeared. They could do that - disappear and reappear.”
This struck a chord with me. I remembered the pale girls at Grandma’s Attic - the Black-Eyed Kids. They could not only disappear and reappear but also, apparently, pick and choose who saw them.
“So you closed off the bathrooms,” Saskia said nastily. “How about all the other places that are closed around here? Claire's?”
Axel looked down, embarrassed. “Two little girls in 1800’s clothes. Twins. They talk in unison. And they float.”
“Okay, how about Sephora?”
“Weird little creature with pointy bat-ears and black fur. It can talk. It keeps repeating something about its tailypo.”
Axel made a face. “Well, I thought it was the chupacabra. But Kevin…”
“Wait,” I cut in. “Kevin’s in on this, too?”
“Yeah,” Axel said. “He’s the one who keeps on closing down stores as soon as… something like that happens. He says he’s taking care of it.”
Saskia let out a loud, high-pitched laugh that suggested she found absolutely none of this funny.
“Well, what were we supposed to do?” Axel protested. “Call the cops? Tell Corporate? They’d think we were nuts. And whatever those things are, Kevin’s pretty good at keeping them quiet and in one place. The customers haven’t noticed.”
“Really? You think that?” Saskia scoffed. “Have you been on 4Chan lately?”
“I have,” Axel said, matching her nastiness. “And those geeks don't know the half of it.”
Axel led us to the security office. He pulled out a DVD and slid it into a laptop I assumed was his. He had been on /x/, and it had gotten him thinking. None of the monsters he’d seen had been caught by the security cameras. And hundreds of parents took pictures of their kids on Santa’s sleigh, but only the 4Chan pair had found disturbing figures hiding in the background.
He figured it out by paying attention to a comment I’d ignored. Those two parents had been using film.
So, he borrowed an old Super 8 camera and color film from an uncle. With the help of the maintenance guys and Kevin’s permission, he’d hidden the camera in the atrium tree and let it run through a full roll of film. Then, he’d retrieved the camera, taken the film to a buddy who did Telecine, and transferred the footage onto the DVD.
The video played. We saw the atrium. We saw people - parents with kids, groups of teen-agers, elderly couples - talking and fighting and shopping and eating. And, mingled amongst them, though seemingly invisible to them, was the cast of a horror film.
The scraggly-haired woman in a white dress was back, lurking by Godiva, black tresses obscuring her face. A man-shaped monstrosity - sporting course brown fur, a flattened face, animal’s eyes, and a rather impressive pair of horns - peeked out from behind Santa’s sleigh. Another humanoid abomination, this one resembling a hairless coyote with horrifically long arms, crouched at the window of H&M.
Three tiny, furry figures all in red darted into frame, then ducked under the sleigh. They reminded me of Ewoks from Star Wars, but with an evil glint in their overlarge black eyes. What I’d taken for a lonely old woman on a bench suddenly turned around and faced the camera. Her face was wrinkled, hideous, and tinged blue.
There was movement from the doorway of American Eagle. I flinched. A bony, black arm reached out to claw at the ankle of a passing child. I looked closer, and saw the distinct outline of an emaciated figure with glowing yellow eyes, crouching in a shadow. Nearby, a young woman stood alone. She’d looked normal at first - then the back of her head opened and closed. It had teeth and a red tongue. She had a mouth on the back of her head.
A giant reptilian creature with giant wings and puke-green tentacles fluttered into the frame, and landed on the floor outside of Mrs. Fields. A fat, blood-red snake, sectioned like a worm, featureless except for a black, toothed mouth, slithered around a group of pre-teens.
Saskia gasped. She pointed at a tall, pale man - skeletally thin, dressed in a black robe, his back to the camera.
The man extended a long, white arm and beckoned to a small girl, happily munching a Mrs. Fields cookie as her mother talked on her cell phone. The child, unlike the rest, looked right at the creature. She saw him.
She broke into a smile and trotted right up to the ghoul. She held out her cookie. Presented with the treat, he snapped upright as though disgusted, then disappeared.
There were too many to keep track of. As soon as one nightmare vanished, another popped up somewhere else. My skin crawled. I walked through the atrium every single day. How many monsters had I walked past, blissfully oblivious? All those people. All easy prey.
Saskia and I locked eyes. I knew she was thinking the same thing as me. We were way out of our league.
“They haven’t actually hurt anyone,” Axel said sheepishly.
“Except me,” I added.
“And the little girl!” Saskia said harshly. “The kid who turned up in the Forever 21 dressing rooms. Some monster grabbed her.”
“But it didn’t hurt her,” Axel said, sounding unsure of himself.
I listened to them bicker. We’d watched the entire DVD three times. Pieces were fitting together in my head, like the Legos I’d once played with at KB Toys.
“The elves saved the little girl!” I told them. “And the monster that took her… the other monsters killed it. I saw three Black-Eyed Kids eating it on the loading dock. That was punishment, I guess. It wasn’t supposed to be going around grabbing kids. I don’t think the monsters are supposed to hurt customers.”
Saskia looked at me, blinking.
“Winner takes all,” she said. “None of the monsters can hurt customers…”
“Unless I lose three challenges!” I finished. “I have to defeat the… The Old One. If I win, he leaves us alone. If he wins, he and his creepy buddies get to eat everyone in the mall. Or worse.”
“That’s actually a common theme,” Saskia said, with something resembling her old excitement. “Monsters play by rules. Freddy Kruger can only hurt you in your dreams. Rumpelstiltskin has power over you until you learn his name.”
“Well, we’re down one.” I showed Saskia my wrist.
She frowned, somber again. “That’s why it took Evie,” she said. “The monsters won the first round. So the Big Boss - The Old One - got to take a hostage.”
“Well, what about the elf toys?” Axel cut in.
“I was thinking about that,” Saskia said. “I think they’re the refs. Elves are supposed to be spies for Santa. They watch kids, and tell Santa whether they’ve been naughty or nice.”
“So Santa’s behind all this?” I asked, only half-joking.
Saskia rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t be surprised. But my point is, there’s rules that The Old One has to abide by, and the elves are hanging around to enforce them.”
She turned to Axel. “Dude, Kevin has to talk to Corporate. You have to shut down the mall.”
“We’ve tried!” Axel said.
“That won’t work, anyways,” I said. “Remember what happened to Evie and me when I tried to walk out of here earlier?”
“That would be considered a surrender,” Saskia concluded.
“Okay,” Axel said, “so you have to beat three of these things. How long do you have?”
I was about to insist I had no idea. The only warning I’d been given was the burning pain in my wrist, not ten minutes before shit-smelling salamanders descended on the food court. But then I fit two more pieces together. I remembered the shirts in the Spencer’s storage room.
“We’ve got nine days,” I said. I explained the numbers to them.
Axel counted on his fingers. “So, if today’s ten, then one would be Thanksgiving. Which means you have until…”
I figured it out at exactly the same moment. It was nausea-inducingly terrifying. And it was annoying as fuck.
It was six in the morning when Saskia and I left the mall. Axel promised he'd locked all of the salamander monsters in the bathrooms and re-barricaded the door with cinderblocks.
We’d made a couple decisions.
The next day - well, later that day - I would come to the mall at 5:00, when Kevin was off and Axel started his shift. I’d hang around until 9 or 10. If my wrist hadn’t started burning - alerting me to Round Two - I’d go home. And I’d do that every single day until Black Friday.
We didn’t think The Old One expected me to live at the mall. I’d had days off before, and that hadn’t been taken as a sign of surrender. I was allowed to leave; the elf dolls just needed to know I was committed to coming back.
Also, we assumed the remaining four challenges would happen when I was already, physically at the Baldwin Mall. We didn’t think my wrist would start burning in the middle of the night as I slept, because that would be lousy sportsmanship. The elf dolls were a lot of things, but bad sports didn’t seem to be one of them.
As for what the second challenge entailed - what would be challenging me, and what I would need to do to win - we were still completely in the dark. Though Axel’s film had, at least, given me an idea of what I could possibly expect.
As we walked out of mall, Saskia pulled a mini DV tape out of her pocket. I remembered why we’d been there so late in the first place.
“Did you… is that…”
“I couldn’t find the tape from the camera outside Daniel’s Jewelers,” she said. “But I got something better. You know there’s another security camera that points right at Jackie’s Dogs, right?”
I did. I’d made faces into it.
“Well, this is it. I’ll watch it when I get home. It’ll show us who walked into Jackie’s Dogs and planted the jewelry in your backpack.”
I thanked her and tried to rally up some feeling of accomplishment - like my failure hadn’t been in vain. It was difficult.
“About Evie,” I said, trying to be sensitive. “We’ll get her back. I promise. But, until we do, is there anybody who’s going to come looking for her?”
Saskia shook her head. “She’s got a deadbeat mom back in Lancaster who drunk-dials her once a month. Other than that… no one who won’t back off if I tell them she’s sick. I’ll say she’s got Mono.”
As screwed up as it was, this was a relief. If the cops got involved, if they came around looking for a missing girl, the three of us - Saskia, Axel, and I - would likely be suspects. And I couldn’t see any good outcome if that happened.
We said good-bye at my car. I drove home, showered, and fell asleep as soon as my head hit my pillow.
Kelly shook me awake at noon.
“D, I just got a call from your phone,” she told me. “Some girl named Noor has it. She said you left it at the mall last night.”
I had a moment of blissful confusion, then the memories of the previous day hit me like a train. I’d been so caught up in it all, I hadn’t realized I’d lost my phone. Noor must have picked it up after she pepper-sprayed me.
“I’m going to work,” Kelly said. “If you’re off today, can you please start going through these boxes?”
Kelly’s frustration was justified. After all, she had asked me to go through the boxes about a thousand times. She and Aunt Fiona had found a buyer, and escrow closed in less than a month. Which meant that I had less than a month to sort through my mom’s old stuff, decide what I wanted to keep, get rid of the rest, and take it all somewhere else - ideally, my new apartment. Which I hadn’t started looking for yet.
I wasn’t looking forward to the task. But, until our agreed-upon five o’clock, I didn’t have anything to do but obsess over my next battle with the minions of The Old One. And I could do that and unpack boxes at the same time.
I finally found the troll dolls, all conveniently piled in the same box, which I unceremoniously tossed in my “donate” pile. Another box was full of Legos. And, as I’d expected, there were a lot of books.
The Big Book of Fairy Tales. I remembered that book. My mom read it to me every night. She was adamant I would grow up to love the written word as much as she did, even though I couldn’t focus on anything for more than five minutes, and was so behind in reading I nearly got held back in school twice.
I put it aside. There were more books in the same box. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces. The Encyclopedia of Slavic Folklore. Irish Myths and Monsters. Mythology of Mezzo-America.
I vividly remembered The Encyclopedia of Slavic folklore - I’d paged through it as a child; the illustrations were excessively, unnecessarily horrifying. My mom finally hid it after too many nights of me running into her bedroom, tears streaming down my face, fresh off a nightmare.
That wasn’t what caught my attention, though. I was more interested in Mythology of Mezzo-America. I thought about the scribbles that had appeared on my receipts at Jackie’s Dogs, days before. Mayan, Jose had said. I looked at my arm, at the methodically-placed lines and the mocking X.
I opened the book. I got bored two paragraphs into Chapter 1: Archeological Pursuits, and resorted to flipping through pages for interesting pictures. I settled on a chart showing the Mayan written language. I found the wavy fish tail - Jose was right, it was a logogram for “fire”. But nothing matched the symbol on my wrist. I threw the books back in the box, picked up the box, and went to drop the whole thing with the trolls.
What happened next, I don’t know if I should attribute to God, or my guardian angel, or Fate.
I stepped on a Lego.
I stumbled and let go of the box. The books went flying. When I’d finished jumping around in torturous pain while cursing my life, I collected them. The Encyclopedia of Slavic Folklore had fallen open. A black-and-white Illustration from Uncanny Valley stared up at me.
It depicted a fat, brown salamander-like creature with six legs; a smooth, long head; anthropomorphic forelegs and shoulders; and a fleshy, wrinkled nose dripping black sludge.
I rushed to my laptop and logged into Facebook. I messaged Saskia and Axel with my address, and begged them to come over. Then I tore through the rest of the boxes, collecting every single book of mythology, legends, folklore, and fairy tales.
Written by NickyXX