The world spun. My thoughts, slapped into incoherence by this bombshell, fluttered uselessly about my head.
Noor. My ally. The only person at the mall I’d truly trusted. Had set me up.
Blinders gone, I replayed the events of the preceding weeks. I’d seen Noor for the first time the day after Halloween, not an hour before I was cornered and assaulted by a Black-Eyed Kid.
Then, there was the first challenge - when I’d first come face-to-face with the Bagienniks. Noor was there. I saw her, crouched under that table. Then she’d disappeared, only to reappear minutes later, claiming to have been nowhere near the food court.
I remembered something Kevin had said: the person who robbed Daniel’s Jewelers wore a hoodie. Maybe he’d actually seen a woman with a hijab, but mistook it for a hoodie.
Spirits attach to things. Kevin said that, too. Objects, houses, people. Had The Old One - freed from its subterranean prison, freed from the doll that was its previous host - attached itself to Noor? Was Noor possessed? Noor was always there. She was always hanging around. She was always at the mall.
I’d never seen her outside the mall.
The realization sent me spinning anew. Maybe Noor wasn’t even a real girl, but another monster sent to haunt the mall, a more cunning version of the creatures hidden behind blacked-out storefronts. Her initial distain for me, her reluctant assistance, her ballsy declaration of loyalty, her sad story about her murdered family and desperate little refugee cousins - had it all been cold, calculated deception?
My phone rang. I almost cried out.
It was Noor.
Finally, my thoughts were flowing in the same direction. Maybe the video tape was my third clue. No, that didn’t make sense. I hadn’t had it when Minnie confronted me, and Minnie said I “already had” my clues. Maybe Noor, herself, was the clue. If so, what did she mean?
I declined the call and ran to Kevin’s office.
He watched the video with wide, horrified eyes. He set the phone down, reclined in his chair, buried his face in his hands. His mind, like mine, had been blasted into little pieces, and those pieces were oscillating like a garbage bag in a hurricane.
I couldn’t wait for him to find his way back to earth.
“Do you still have that 8mm camera I gave you?”
He sat up. “The one Noor got from her roommate? Yeah.”
“The friend of Axel’s who develops film… do you know who he is? Could you ask him to do a rush job?”
Kevin nodded. He was thinking what I was thinking.
“I’m sick of the guessing game. Let’s find out what’s waiting on the other side. And I’m over the mano-a-mano bullshit.”
I thought about Emerson Yen and Parker Jimenez, about their dumb argument at my register the day before. They had’t been scared; they were two convention tickets away from fanboy-hood.
“Listen, bro, you think you’re being sneaky but you’re not. The other employees know what’s going on. And the ones who’ve stayed around are staying because they want to see something happen. So let’s give them what they want.”
“I say we round up a posse.”
By the time Kevin and I finished the film, it was nearly ten and my wrist hadn’t so much as tickled. So, I assumed, The Old One was saving our tie-breaker round for the eve of Black Friday If I won, he’d go away.
If I lost, my friends and co-workers and every single Black Friday bargain hunter - at least a hundred were expected to camp outside the food court doors - would be at the mercy of The Old One and his nightmarish sycophants.
It could’ve been my last night on earth.
What did I want to do with my last night on earth?
For starters, I read every single comment on the 4Chan thread, skimmed my mom’s dog-eared books, and memorized the notes Axel, Saskia, and I had taken.
Noor called six more times, then started texting.
7:01 Damien, please call me.
7:15 I know you’re getting these, Damien
8:31 WHY ARE YOU AVOIDING ME???
9:02 Please call me. There’s something you really need to hear.
I ignored it all. If she was one of The Old One’s toys, I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of playing along. The way she’d looked into the camera with those empty black eyes - she’d wanted to be seen.
I started thinking about my clues again. I got up and took a walk around the house. My house, my mother’s house, the house that - come December 1st - would no longer be ours.
I thought about the necklace, about the meaning of the letters KB. I only associated KB Toys with my mom. My mom, picking me up so I could touch the die-cast cars displayed above a child’s grabbing range. My mom, cross-legged on the floor, stroking my hair as I fit Legos together.
I was struck with sudden, unexpected inspiration. I knew what I wanted to do with my last night on earth.
I returned to my room. I plugged in the old desktop computer.
It took some digging. I found notes, articles she’d saved, bits of unused prose. In one folder there were pictures. Disney World with my dad. My sixth birthday party - where I sat, barely holding back tears, on the lap of a clown in a yellow polka-dotted jumpsuit. Kelly and me at the beach. My mom, holding me as a baby. She was so young, not even a year older than I am now, auburn-haired and smiling.
Then, there it was. My mom’ s unfinished, untitled second novel. Ricky versus the monsters.
At first it was a sweet little book, middle-school reading level. But, as I read further - as my mother had grown sicker - the tone darkened. The scares became more intense, the descriptions bloodier. Lovecraftian terrors biding their time behind antique furniture and below cellar doors, just out of sight but never out of reach.
Ricky, alone in the living room, hugging his Pomeranian, heart beating like a jackhammer, face soaked with tears. His parents are gone on yet another business trip. The baby-sitter has been dead for hours; pieces of her are littered across the hallway and down the stairs like garbage after a windstorm, the walls painted red with her blood. Behind him, a beautifully-decorated Christmas tree, candy canes hung with care, multicolored lights refracting off the droplets trickling from his chin.
It’s Christmas Eve. But it’s not Santa Claus who’s looking for him. It’s something with murderous red eyes and long, decaying appendages and breath like burning flesh. And it’s getting closer. His only defense is a feeble circle of salt. The air is thick with the smell of rot. His eyes widen…
And that’s where it stopped.
I scoured the computer, but I couldn’t find the rest. The ending was buried with my mother. The tumor grew, crowding her brain, choking it. She was tired, so tired. Four months before the end, she started slurring her words. A month after that, she lost the ability to speak. Then the seizures began, then her eyesight dimmed.
I saw her for the last time a week before she died, as her skeletal, waxy, hairless form was carried out by the EMTs. My grandmother didn't want me to watch her die. She never took me to the hospice. Later, she said my mother had strained to speak, again and again, always murmuring something that sounded like my name.
I woke at noon. It was Thanksgiving, and I was alone. Kelly and Fiona were in Portland; my other aunt, Kate, was hosting dinner that year. She’d wanted me to come. I’d told her I had to work.
I showered, dressed, and spent hours on the phone with my dad, stepmother, and three-year-old half-sister, then my grandmother, then a couple friends in Florida. I called Kelly, spoke to Fiona and Kate and my little cousins. I memorized their voices. I told them I loved them.
I picked up my wooden cross necklace, which I’d dropped unceremoniously on the desk and forgotten about. I looked at it for a minute, considering, then placed it in my backpack. At the very least, I could strangle something with the cord.
Then, I threw on my red shirt and set out to meet my destiny.
Kevin had the film developed. He’d been up all night, watching and researching and e-mailing. We were to meet at 6:00 in The Promenade - me, Kevin, the Best Buy crew, and the thirty-odd miscellaneous mall employees who’d agreed to work Thanksgiving.
The Baldwin Mall was closed for the holiday, but there was plenty of stocking and baking and mannequin dressing to be done in preparation for the category-5 consumer hurricane set to blow through as soon as Best Buy was picked clean. The department stores would open at 5am; the food court, an hour after that.
As to the actual purpose of this “team meeting”, Kevin's e-mail was intentionally vague. He simply stated that he was aware of both the bizarre occurrences of the previous month and the rumors flying around. As I made my way through Macy’s my steps felt heavier; my body pulsed with nervous energy. How would the other employees react? Would they run? Would they laugh at us?
The sky had been dark for nearly an hour when we convened under The Promenade’s cheesy fluorescent lights. It didn’t look like thirty people assembled.
I saw Lina and Jose; Avni Ali giggling with Karen Naguro, Yesi Alvarez, and a quiet Chinese girl who worked at Boba Time; Emerson Yen and Parker Jimenez. Eugene Wu and Joe Tapia lounged on the astroturf, sharing awkward glances. A distance from the others, Adam Raines stood alone. I locked eyes with him. He quickly looked down.
Noor was calling again. We’d conveniently forgotten to tell her about the meeting, but I knew she was somewhere in the mall. I silenced my phone.
Finally, Kevin showed up, balancing a pile of folders and a hefty black duffel bag. Despite his lack of sleep, he looked better than he had in awhile. There was a glimmer in his eyes I hadn’t seen before. Focus. Passion.
“Thank you all for coming.”
His voice was that of a football coach in a TV movie. The others stopped their whispering.
“As you all know,” he continued, “Word on the street - and the internet - is the mall’s haunted. You’ve seen the cracks. Many of you have asked me where the freaky elf-on-a-shelf dolls came from. And I sincerely hope no one’s gone anywhere near those doors. The ones that appear and disappear.”
The Promenade was dead quiet.
“I claimed that McDonalds and Tsukaya Grill were closed because a pipe burst, Claire’s and Sephora are remodeling, and Foot Locker has a termite problem. And I’m sure you’ve all figured out that was a steaming pile of bullshit.”
“And the food court bathrooms,” someone added. “Speaking of steaming piles.”
“The point is,” Kevin continued, louder, “the truth’s much more dangerous than plumbing problems. Show of hands - who’s come across pale-skinned children with pitch-black eyes?”
There was a murmur of agreement. Hands - six, eight, at least - shot into the air.
“Some of you may have seen, or smelled, a crawling corpse under the seats at the AMC. Or a man lurking about Nordstrom with a hook for a hand.”
A teen-aged Nordstroms employee put a hand to her mouth.
“Or a girl wearing a surgical mask. Or a hairy humanoid that moves like a dog. Or a living hunk of flesh covered in eyes. Or a beautiful woman whose feet face backwards.”
There were gasps, more murmurs.
“There was a homeless woman in the bathroom,” a Best Buy employee interjected. “She was washing clothes. I think she was washing out blood.”
“Dude, those elf dolls move,” said Bryce Chou from Hot Topic. “And I saw this long, slimy hand reach out from behind the Pop! figurines.”
“I saw a guy in a bunny suit outside Wetzel’s Pretzels!”
“How about the weird kid with no eyelids and a Joker mouth? He keeps saying ‘go to sleep.’”
“And what is that thing in the abandoned Disney store?”
Kevin held up his hand for silence. When silence was restored, he kept on talking.
“The mall is under attack by a powerful spirit. He calls himself The Old One. And the kids with black eyes, and the stink lizards in the bathroom, and the tailless mutt squatting in Sephora - they're all his servants.”
He handed his pile of folders to the nearest employee - a confused young guy I recognized from Old Navy.
“Take one, and pass them down. The monster in the folder is your monster. There’s paperwork stating what the monster is, where it’s been sighted, and how you defeat it - or at least distract it.”
The Old Navy employee gingerly took the top folder and opened it.
“I got a Kappa."
“Great!” Kevin replied. “The Kappa’s been hiding in the upstairs bathrooms.”
The rest were efficiently passed around. There were cries, groans, and even giggles. When everyone had received their very own monster, Kevin unzipped the duffel bag. It was full of radios. Then he beckoned to a curly-haired guy with a manicured mustache.
“Aiden, did you bring what I asked?”
Aiden set a large green Pirandello’s bag on a table. From the bag he procured a small cylindrical bottle with a rustic-chic cork stopper, filled with pink-and-orange gems.
“Rock salt,” Kevin said. “Everyone gets a bottle. I’m not saying it’s gonna stop whatever comes at you, but it’ll slow it down. 90% of the time, at least.”
As we filed into the mall and towards our respective battle stations, we felt it. The air was different. The smell was different. It’s funny, I hadn’t ever noticed the distinct smell that permeated the Baldwin Mall until it curdled into something much like the scent of rotting egg salad.
“It smells like sulfur,” Karen Naguro said to another girl.
Sulfur. How original.
Every single light was on, yet the mall radiated an aura of darkness and mystery, an effect magnified by the absence of the omnipresent hum of conversation and clatter of footfall. Not because the mall was quiet. It wasn’t. Without customer sounds, we could hear all the other sounds. The sounds we, for weeks, had pretended didn’t exist.
A howl. Repetitive whistling. The wail of a baby, with an eerie undercurrent of evil laughter. A singsongy voice gleefully intoning “ring around the rosie.” Drip, drip, drip. An out-of-tune music box tinkling the melody of Für Elise.
Jagged cracks spiderwebbed across every flat surface. Elf dolls stared from every window. Their little plastic faces were stoic, calm, impartial.
I looked cautiously through the door of Abercrombie & Fitch. A blonde lacrosse-team type - Tyler, I’d learned - was alone, tying scarves into a rope. Grandma’s Attic was dark, and the door was closed.
I made it to the food court. Through the sheet-glass wall, I could see that word of Best Buy’s Black Friday sale had gotten around. A number of customers already milled about outside. A few of them had pitched tents. The sliding doors were tightly locked.
All around me, mall trades were being negotiated. That day, though, it wasn’t chili fries swapped for cookies.
It was sharp silver earrings for cucumbers. Fishnet stockings for disposable gloves. Lina handed bags of anchovy chips to Becca Wei, who ran the general store kiosk, in exchange for bottles of Nyquil. The pudgy guy at the wooden toy kiosk handed out sling shots and prop guns.
Kevin sat in the security office, which would function as our command post. From there, he could see most of the mall through the system of security cameras, and would communicate with everyone else via the radios he’d handed out.
I watched it all unfold. My job was simple - wait until my arm started burning, then do whatever I had to do to survive. But it wasn't burning just yet.
At some point I ran into Adam. He was carrying boxes of condensed, freeze-dried nacho cheese from the theatre. He flagged me down.
“Did Evie…” he started, as though dreading the answer.
“Evie’s not dead."
I don’t know why I said it. I had no idea where Evie physically was at that point, nor what condition she was in. But my response seemed to calm Adam. So I went with it.
“She helped me,” I explained. “The monster - The Old One - is holding her hostage. I can show you, if you want.”
Adam nodded. He, like me, was trying to keep his head above water in a perfect storm of weird. He followed me upstairs. I showed him the mural. He dropped his armfuls of plastic cheese with a yelp.
“So…” he stammered, “can... can we save her?”
“I don’t know, man," I said. "But there's only one way to find out.”
Adam, with a galvanized sense of purpose, collected his cheese and dashed off. I lagged behind and stared into Pirandello’s - where mustached Aiden dutifully handed out colored substances in little corked vials - puzzling over the significance of KB.
There was a scream. Then a crash.
Then my arm started to burn.
It might have been the adrenaline, but I barely noticed the pain. I pressed a button on my headset.
“Kevin, this is Damien. It’s happening.”
My radio coughed static, then Kevin’s voice came through.
“What is it? What do you need?”
Before I could respond, I saw my fifth challenge, reflected in the cracked glass window.
Noor. Her eyes, completely black. She was looking at me. Her mouth curled upwards into an evil smile, one that stretched too far into her cheeks. She raised an ashen hand. She beckoned.
A white, gold-knobbed door had appeared just outside Macy’s, in the exact spot where I’d seen the first. Noor turned the knob and pulled it open. Beyond, I could see nothing but darkness.
She gave me one last, coaxing glance. Then she stepped through the door and closed it behind her.
“Damien!” Kevin yelped. “I saw Noor on the CCTV! Don’t go near that door!”
But I had no choice. I briefly thought about my cross necklace, stuffed in my backpack behind the counter of Jackie’s Dogs. Too far. I squeezed the bottle of rock salt in my pocket, clutched the serrated knife I’d commandeered, and followed Noor.
He is what you fear most. Read the next chapter here.*****
Written by NickyXX