It was weird. Hiding in the Spencer’s Gifts storage room, waiting patiently until the mall was empty, the theater was closed. There'd be no one around to catch us breaking into the security office to steal footage from the camera outside Daniel’s Jewelers.
I’m a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. I’d spent my twenty years of life doing the bare minimum, and nothing more. And stealing a security tape in order to prove my innocence, a day before, would have been way outside my give-a-shit margin.
I’d slipped on my wooden crucifix necklace. I felt it against my skin under my shirt; the weight was somewhat soothing.
“It’s child’s play,” Saskia assured me. “I used to date a security guard, before he got fired for lighting up in a dressing room. They never lock the office. And their VCR system is idiot-proof. So we just wait until Evie gives us the go-ahead, sneak in, grab the tape, and make a run for it.”
I forced a smile, then stared straight ahead. She and I were sitting on empty milk crates, across from a shelf stocked with cheap lightning machines and moronic t-shirts. ‘10 Types of Blow Jobs.’ ‘10 Ways to Know You’re a Pothead.’ , and so on. Evie was hiding in the food court, waiting for Axel to leave the security office to perform his hourly walk around the premises.
“I got a friend who works at the Culver City Mall,” Saskia said.
I looked at her.
“Kevin used to work there,” she continued. “You know, Asshole GM Kevin? Well, my friend works for corporate, and he says they aren’t very happy with this mall. Not since the Promenade construction went way over-budget.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” I said, not really paying attention.
“All the other malls in the county bounced back after the recession, the Baldwin Mall didn’t. The Promenade was supposed to siphon some of the Old Town Pasadena crowd, but it really hasn’t. For most of the stores here, rent is a percentage of sales, so that’s a big deal. Now, they’re pinning their hopes on Best Buy bringing in business on Black Friday. If Christmas sales aren’t phenomenally good, they take a huge loss for the year, and Kevin gets blamed.”
I smiled. The thought of Kevin the Tool getting in trouble with corporate brought me some joy.
“And I think…”, Saskia continued, “I think he knows about some of this. About the monsters in the photographs. He knows something bad is going on here. But he can’t let it get out. Because if customers are scared to shop at the Baldwin Mall, then Christmas is a bust, and he looks like an idiot. I think that’s why he’s going after you. Why he’s trying to frame you for the robbery. You keep on making noise about it.”
Saskia’s phone chirped. She read the message and put on her best bitch face.
“Let’s do this.”
We quietly made our way to the security office, where Evie was waiting.
“We’ve got, like, ten minutes,” Saskia whispered urgently. “I’ll go in and find the tape. Damien, go to the atrium. When you see Axel, text us both. Eves, you stay in the food court. If Axel comes back and I’m still in the office, distract him.”
“Distract him how?” Evie asked.
“However you want. Tell him you saw Damien hanging around.”
“So I’m your human shield?”
“You sure you know what you’re doing?” Evie asked.
“Come on, guys,” Saskia snapped. “We do this right, or we go home. Which is it?”
We chose option one. Saskia slipped into the security office, leaving Evie and I to our respective assignments. Evie leaned in towards me with a wry smile.
“Just so you know, we’re splitting up,” she said. “I think that means the monster’s gonna take one of us out.”
She bit her bottom lip. I wondered, later, if she’d wanted me to kiss her.
If she did, I blew it. Instead, I rolled my eyes playfully and started for the atrium.
Most of the Baldwin Mall is lit by series of skylights in the roof. As it was cloudy that night, little moonlight filtered through and, as soon as I was a distance away from the dim house lights of the food court, I was enveloped in near darkness.
I sat on one of the benches in the atrium and watched for Axel’s flashlight. It was disconcerting, how quiet everything was. I’d never experienced the Baldwin Mall without the low rumble of footsteps and a thousand indeterminate conversations.
My eyes adjusted to the dark. I really hoped Saskia knew what she was doing. It struck me, then, exactly how much we were risking. Probably jail time. Then, I though about those photographs on 4Chan. Children, posing on the sleigh just feet in front of me, creeping nightmares right at their shoulders, invisible to the naked eye.
What was hanging at my shoulder?
Struck with panic at the thought, I quickly looked behind me. There was nothing. I reached into my shirt, pulled out my crucifix, and let it hang over my chest.
Suddenly, I felt an intense pain in my left wrist - the same biting, burning sensation I’d experienced in the storage hallway. I clutched my arm. I bit my lip to keep from crying out. The pain kept on for, maybe, thirty agonizing seconds before abating to a heavy warmth. I moved my fingers. My wrist was puffy and red. The bizarre symbol my bruise had warped into seemed darker.
Then I heard something. A creak. Footsteps.
I jumped to my feet. Quietly, I peered down the hallway towards Macy’s. There was something moving. Something coming fast. Axel?
No. Axel had a flashlight. The figure was smaller than Axel. Darker. Pitch black.
I pulled out my cell phone. The pitch-black figure was close now, maybe fifteen feet in front of me. I stepped into its path. I pressed the “home” button on my phone, catching the figure in its blue-green glow.
“HEY!” I said firmly.
There was quick movement, a hiss, and then my eyes were burning.
This time, I cried out. I collapsed to the ground, writhing in pain and terror, hot stickiness running down my cheeks. Black and red danced behind my clenched eyelids. Panic.
Above me, I heard a woman’s voice.
“Seriously? Why is it always you?”
I recognized that voice. I recognized that accent. I rolled into a sitting position. Blinking, tears leaking down my face, I forced open my eyes.
It was Noor, the girl from Grandma’s Attic. She was dressed in all black, except for the white headphone bud dangling from one ear. Something tubular and shiny hung from her hand.
“What the…?” I snapped at her. “Did you just pepper-spray me?”
“Yeah,” she said nastily. “Why are you hanging around jumping at people? Are you on drugs or something?”
“No! I’m not! People need to stop asking me that!”
Her stern expression softened. She offered me a hand up.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she said. “It’s just…”
“Why are you here so late?” I demanded. “Grandma’s closed hours ago.”
“I got a second job,” she said. “Abercrombie. I said I’d stay late and set up the new display. I was going to storage.”
In spite of the situation, I snorted a laugh. “Abercrombie and Fitch? No offense, but you don’t seem like their type.”
Noor frowned. “That’s not your business. How about you? What are you doing here in the middle of the night?”
“I work in the food court,” I said.
A beam of light fell on us. We both whirled.
It was Axel.
“What’s going on?” I heard him say. “The mall’s closed!”
I froze, caught in Axel’s spotlight. Through the dim grayness, I could see he wasn’t smiling. This was it. We were screwed. I realized my phone was gone; I’d dropped it when Noor pepper-sprayed me, and now I had no way to alert Evie and Saskia.
“Damien? You’re not supposed to be here.”
I rapidly twisted together a lie in my head. I briefly considered running in the opposite direction. Then, I heard a woman scream.
I forgot everything. I just ran. I ran back to the food court, paying attention to neither the heavy footfall nor the swaying flashlight beam behind me.
The smell was like an exploded septic tank - thick, putrid, rotting human waste. Evie and Saskia stood near the hallway to the bathrooms, their backs to us. In front of them was a horror beyond imagination.
There were at least twelve of them. Huge, turd-brown, salamander-like creatures, the height of a man, dripping dark sludge onto the tile floor. Some crawled, others stood up on fat, amphibious hind legs attached to webbed, clawed feet. Their bodies were long and slimy; another small set of smooth, wet legs and webbed appendages stuck out of their freckled bellies and a third, sickeningly human-like pair were attached to their anthropomorphic shoulders, which were attached to anthropomorphic necks.
Their heads were long and smooth; I was reminded of the creatures from the Alien movies. An eye was placed on either side of their oblong heads; large, protuberant, amber. A black dorsal fin ran from the top of their heads, down their amphibian backs, to the tips of their fat, flopping tails. Below the second sets of legs were pulpy gills. Between the amber eyes were fleshy, wrinkled lumps with two holes, dripping a black, oily substance. Noses.
I stood helpless as the shit-smelling salamanders crept, like a pack of wolves, towards the two girls. Evie bent over and retched.
I had nothing. Well, I had my crucifix and my voice, and I decided that would have to be enough. With little thought as to how I would confront the slimy nightmares, I ran to Evie and Saskia, waving my arms and screaming at the top of my lungs.
The salamanders stopped crawling. The ones still on all fours - all sixes - stood upright.
Every jaw dropped open, exposing rows of sharp, gleaming grey teeth. Every wide, toothy mouth emitted a shriek to split glass. And then, every putrid, sludge-soaked webbed foot was pounding the tile, as every single salamander monster ran right at me.
“Run!” I screamed to the girls. Then I ran. I ran to the left, through the tables of the food court, towards the glass sliding doors that led to the parking lot.
They bound after me, hopping over booths, scattering chairs, crawling over kiosks like demented, oversized cockroaches. I heard their motor-like groans behind me, the sickening squelch of their soggy appendages. My foot caught on something. I fell headlong, and ended up flat on my face under a table.
There was someone else under the table with me. Noor. She was curled into a ball against the foot of a booth, face buried in her arms and knees, resembling a pile of black fabric. She was sobbing.
I saw dozens of brown webbed feet, smelled their suffocating fecal stench. Then, the table was ripped from the ground and tossed.
We were surrounded. They loomed over us in a tight row, teeth bared, amber eyes burning and predatory. I felt something warm and gooey drip on the top of my head. Their sewage-like excretions formed a reeking puddle, seeping into my pants and shoes.
Noor looked up and whimpered. The salamander-demon closest to us reared its cone-shaped head.
Then, for the second time that night, my eyes burned.
It was like the pepper spray again, except thicker, and all over me. I was soaked, and I was burning. I howled. I flopped like a fish on the ground, rolling and flailing as hot, chunky mucus encased me.
The smell was unbearable. I heard their rumbling roars above me, in cacophony with the human screams of Axel, Evie, Noor, and Saskia. I developed the impression of being covered in diarrhetic feces. And I puked all over myself, eyes still clenched shut and stinging, adding my own bodily fluids to the reeking mix.
Then - suddenly - silence. I forced my eyes open and, for an earth-shattering moment, thought I had been blinded. The mall was pitch-black.
The lights flickered, and came on.
I saw the mob of salamander creatures, circling Noor and me. Every single one was crouched on its six legs, big eyes closed, head at the floor. Above them, I saw elf dolls.
They were everywhere, as they had been in the parking garage. Red and green, upright and motionless, sitting on every single chair and table, lined up on counters, hanging from lights and signs. And every single lumpy plastic face was pointed towards me.
The lights all went out again. Then they came back on.
The elf dolls were gone. So was Noor.
Eyes still aching, I looked myself over. I was soaked in what looked and felt like brown mud.
I struggled to my feet and surveyed the apocalyptic wasteland the food court had been reduced to. Tables were broken, glass was shattered, the menu sign of Boba Time had been knocked over, and everything was glossed with a healthy coat of stinking brown sludge.
I looked towards the bathrooms to see the last of the oversized salamander creatures creep back into the hallway from which they’d come, fleshy tails dragging on the ground.
Saskia ran to me. A distance away, Axel climbed out from under another table.
“Damien, Evie’s gone!” Saskia stammered as we came together.
“Yeah, so’s Noor!” I said.
I watched Axel run to the bathrooms after the salamanders, then heard the sound of something heavy being dragged. I ignored him and focused on Saskia.
“She was right next to me!” she exclaimed. “We were right there, and all those… things were clustering around this one table.”
“Clustering around me and Noor,” I said.
“She was right there!” Saskia repeated. “Then the lights went off. Then they came back on, and there were those fucking possessed gnomes everywhere, then the lights went off again. And when they came back on, Evie was just… gone!”
“Maybe she ran off,” I said, noting an un-masculine squeak in my voice. “Let’s look for her.”
We started outside JC Penny’s and made our way through the atrium, guided by the blue glow of Saskia’s phone, calling Evie’s name. I was cold and sticky, an unmentionable substance dripped from my hair, and I knew the nursing-home-dumpster stink was coming from me.
“Evie!”, I screamed. “Noor!”
“Who’s Noor?” Saskia asked, clearly frustrated.
“The Muslim girl!” I said. “She was hiding under a table with me. Then she disappeared.”
“There wasn’t another girl there, man,” Saskia stammered, frustration giving way to panic. “EVIE!”
A door opened. Saskia aimed her cell phone at the sound - it was the door to Abercrombie & Fitch. A dark figure stepped out and looked at us, annoyed.
“What’s going on?” Noor asked, pulling a headphone bud out of her ear.
“Holy shit!” I ran to her. “You’re okay! How did you get back here so fast?”
Saskia joined us. Noor cocked her head and looked at me like I was speaking gibberish.
“What are you talking about? I went back as soon as the security guard showed up.”
I blinked a couple times, not quite processing her words.
“But…”, I stammered, “I saw you. You were hiding under a table when the giant salamander monsters attacked me!”
Noor scowled at Saskia. “Is he seriously on drugs?”
“So, you didn’t hear us screaming?” Saskia asked her. “You didn’t hear any of it?”
Noor raised one of her earbuds. “I was listening to music.” She sniffed the air. “Did you take a bath in the septic tank?”
I remembered something. “I thought you were going to storage.”
Noor shrugged. “I decided to go back to the store, instead. I didn’t want to deal with whatever issue you were having with the security guard. Now, do you guys need something, or are you just wasting my time?”
Saskia groaned, turned around, and started towards the stairs. I was left alone with Noor, whose scowl had softened into something resembling sympathy.
“Are you guys okay?” she asked, attempting kindness. “Do you want me to call an ambulance or the police?”
I still couldn’t process her words or her face. I had seen her there, crouched beside me, under the table. I'd heard her sobbing. I opened my mouth, realized nothing I could say would elicit anything from her but pity or scorn, and closed it.
“I’m going back to work,” she said, replacing her earbud. “If you need help, come knock.”
She closed the door. I went to find Saskia. It wasn’t difficult. Because right then, she screamed.
I ran up the stairs, towards Macy’s, towards the mural entrance, towards the glowing orb of Saskia’s cell phone. She stood at the mural - the eerie, turnip-faced old man in front of the indistinct, silhouetted audience - her phone aimed right at the image. I saw what she saw, and nausea bubbled in my throat.
There was now a distinct figure in the audience. A cartoon profile of a red-haired girl with blue eyes, staring at the old man with a forlorn expression. And I could swear the man’s smile had grown wider.
I heard footsteps, then a flashlight beam fell on me. Axel had caught up to us. He looked at me, then at the mural, then back to me, then at the mural again.
“No way,” I heard him say. “The cute little white girl went first.”
Written by NickyXX