My mom and I are walking to KB Toys. We pass a kiosk selling hair products and jewelry. I let go of my mom’s hand and run to it, touching all the pretty, shiny things.
“I’m gonna buy this for you for Christmas,” I say, holding up an alligator clip studded with green rhinestones.
Mom laughs. “Buddy, I don’t have any hair.”
“That’s because it’s for when you get better!”
Mom’s smile fades. When I’m older I’ll wonder what was running through her mind then; all the impossible choices she was facing, her internal war. She could break my little heart and shatter my innocence, or she could bask in my doe-eyed, tragically unsustainable child optimism.
“God’s gonna make you better soon!” I insist. “Grandma says that God answers the prayers of the little children. I’ve been praying really, really hard every night!”
Mom opens her mouth. Then she sighs.
“I’m glad you learned something over Thanksgiving break. Now, what else did your Florida Grandma tell you?”
“Trolls are scared of lightning,” Axel informed Saskia and me. “You guys have those fake lightning-machines at Spencer’s, right?”
“We do,” Saskia said. “But seriously, a troll? That’s so overdone. Like, every fantasy has trolls. If the Old One sends a troll after us, I’m going to be disappointed. Especially after the… what were those salamander things?”
“Bagienniks,” I said. “Hungarian water spirits that hang around lakes and bathhouses. They resemble salamanders. Their snot burns, but it also has healing properties. Sharp teeth, sharp claws, usually harmless to humans, but they get pissed off when presented with religious iconography.”
“So, that cross you were wearing…”
I nodded. “Yep. That’s why they attacked me. The big crucifix necklace. I’m leaving it at home from now on.”
The three of us lounged in my room. Axel paged through Dark Faeries, I studied the chapter on banshees in Irish Myths and Monsters, and Saskia had done a Google search for “Tall Man Scary Story” on her phone and fallen down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. The DVD of Axel’s film played in a loop on my laptop. A spiral notebook sat between us. We were making a reference list of every creature we saw in the film, and what items we would need to ward them off.
“Dressed like a nobleman in all black…” Saskia mumbled to herself.
“Your mom was really into this stuff,” Axel said. It was weird, seeing him outside work, wearing jeans and a Dodgers t-shirt instead of his security uniform. “Like, I’ve never seen this many books about monsters anywhere.”
“She wrote horror. This was pretty much her thing.”
Two and a half hours of research later, our list was complete. Except the tall, pale, cookie-hating humanoid in the black robe. Saskia had jumped from Der Grobmann to The Clutchbone to pre-Colombian cave paintings to Something Awful, and found absolutely nothing online that even hinted at a weakness attributed to the creature she called The Tall Man.
All we could do was hope The Tall Man stayed away.
Next, we went out to scrounge for supplies. This part was relatively easy. Folkloric creatures are scared of a lot of mundane, everyday stuff.
“So, tell me honestly,” Saskia asked Axel, as we perused Ralphs for rock salt. “Do you like Kevin?”
Axel frowned. “He’s a bit of a tool. But I feel for him. I mean, the guy’s got a Ph.D, and he’s stuck negotiating with teeny-bopper accessory stores and taking complaints all day.”
“Seriously? He has a Ph.D?” I asked. “That must be why they gave him the mall manager job. I mean, he seems a little young for it.”
Axel gave us a look, like he was about to share a juicy bit of gossip.
“Oh, they don’t give a crap about his Ph.D.”
“I heard they need a patsy,” Saskia said. “Because The Promenade went over budget and sales haven’t improved.”
Axel smiled evasively. As we loaded bags into Saskia’s Civic, he gave us the details.
“They do need a patsy,” he said. “And Kevin’s the specific patsy they want. The General Manager gig at the Baldwin Mall wasn’t a promotion, it was a punishment.”
Kevin, Axel explained, had been employed as an HR representative for the Culver City mall The GM there had quite the reputation amongst the female employees for making frequent, shameless sexual passes. He’d cornered female cashiers when he knew they’d be working alone, made graphic references to the size of his penis, and suggested teen-aged employees “show more skin.”
These were just a few of the creepy instances that Kevin, as the HR guy, was made privy to. He believed there were many more women who’d stayed silent. But when he brought all of this to the attention of his superiors at Corporate, he was repeatedly waved off with assertions of “we’ll talk to him.”
Then the pervert manager fired a marketing rep after she’d refused to go down on him. Dozens of current and former female employees came forward with allegations of sexual harassment, and the company found itself on the business end of a multi-million dollar class-action lawsuit.
Kevin was served summons, his reports were seized, and Corporate - faced with the certainty of Kevin’s testimony - settled for an undisclosed amount and buried the whole thing. This left them with a conundrum. They had to make an example out of Kevin, so all the other HR Reps at all their other malls would learn the consequences for not properly disposing of complaints against superiors. But they couldn't fire him outright, less he get the idea to sue for wrongful termination.
This was all over the summer; meanwhile, at the Baldwin Mall, construction of The Promenade had run six weeks over schedule and nearly two million over budget. Quarterly sales were abysmal, multiple storefronts had been on the rental market for months, and the former general manager quit, abruptly, halfway through August.
“They gave Kevin the job,” Axel explained, “so they could blame him. When - inevitably - The Promenade was a failure and Christmas sales underwhelmed, Corporate would be perfectly within reason to fire Kevin for incompetence.”
“Shit,” Saskia said. “And now he’s got demon salamanders and La Llorona on top of all that. No wonder he’s being so skittish.”
At 5:05, I pulled into the parking lot of the Baldwin Mall. Saskia was at Spencer’s, and Axel had taken our bags of monster repellent to keep in the security office.
I’d spoken to Saskia, alone, when Axel had gone to the bathroom. I didn’t want to explain to him why we’d really been at the Baldwin Mall the night before - Saskia had played it off like we’d seen a late movie, and I had no desire to reveal that, in fact, we’d been snooping and stealing from the security office.
“We got the guy, definitely,” she told me. “I saw someone - the pregnant manager, I guess - lock the register and leave Jackie’s Dogs unattended.”
“She probably had to pee,” I said. “I was gone for awhile.”
“Yeah, well, she left, and then you can see another figure sneak in with a big bag, stuff something into your backpack, and run off. But the video’s super grainy. I think the camera’s busted. I couldn’t tell who it was.”
“Did it resemble Kevin at all?”
Saskia shrugged. “It looked like a blob with a head. But I’ve got a buddy who's an editor. I’ll give him a call, see if he can clean it up for us.”
We saw of Axel returning from the Target bathroom. Saskia nudged me.
“You trust him?”
I didn't know. Axel was helping us, but I couldn't forget all the times he’d implied I had a head injury or was on drugs. Or that, as I was being body-slammed by Rent-a-Cop Rambo and Kevin was gloating about how he’d seen me on video robbing Daniel’s Jewelers, Axel went along with it, even though he had to have known Kevin was lying. And when I’d tried to bring it up, he brushed me off without apologizing. For the time being, though, Saskia and I had no choice.
I parked outside Macy’s and went straight to Grandma’s Attic, where Noor was working alone. When she saw me, she smiled sarcastically, then pulled my phone from below the register.
“Did you find it on the ground?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “No, actually. It was on the counter at Abercrombie when I came in to open. I think one of the custodians found it. How’d it go with the giant salamanders?”
She was mocking me. I smiled back.
“So Abercrombie and Fitch? How’d you manage to get hired there? Did you tell them you went to Harvard?”
“They’re trying to change their image,” she said. “Have you seen their advertisements? They’re using minorities as models now. All I had to do was talk about how horrible it is to be judged based on other people’s misconceptions.”
“You’re a natural bullshitter,” I told her. “You ever consider a career in American politics?”
She gave me a look, then waved forward the customer behind me. I slipped my phone in my pocket and started for the door. My eyes wandered to the porcelain girl figurines with puffy dresses and numbers. The numbers were the ones you’d expect - two for the smallest girl, eighteen for the largest. I ignored the display of Furbies.
I walked past the window, noticed something was off, walked back, and nearly jumped. There was a new life-sized doll on display, behind the Snow Princesses.
A life-sized clown doll.
It wore a bright yellow jumpsuit with red polka dots and a dramatic green-and-white ruffle. It had bright orange hair, an oversized blue smile, a big red nose, and a gaudy pink flower attached to its suit.
It was a good minute before the full disturbing effect sunk in. I couldn’t fathom anybody actually wanting that thing in their house. It was monstrous and, in light of recent news, kind of insensitive.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and was roughly turned around. It was Kevin.
“I thought I made myself clear,” he said nastily. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
Crap. Axel hadn’t set me up, had he? I was not in the mood to be diplomatic.
“Listen, man, if you don’t want me here, call the cops. Report me for trespassing. Show them that video you keep on saying you have. What’s stopping you?"
He let go of me. He got the same look in his eyes he’d had the day before - the look of a scared rookie cop on his first shift. Then he rearranged his face into an unconvincing Clint Eastwood impression.
“Get out!” he yelled in my face. “Or I’ll call security!”
I turned around and started towards Macy’s, throwing up a middle finger as I went. His radio beeped as I strode away, probably him ratting me out to Axel.
I hid out in the Macy’s men’s formal section. I found a bench by the changing rooms, sat, pulled out my phone, and called Axel myself. He didn’t answer, so I left a message.
“Hey, man. Not sure if you know this, but Asshole Kevin’s still wandering around. Can you give me a call when he’s left? I’m not in the mood to deal with that clown chewing me out. Call me back. Thanks, bro.”
I hung up and opened Google. For three hours I sat there, fielding weird looks from the employees and customers who filtered in and out of the changing rooms, typing “boogeyman,” “red cap” and “skinwalker” into the search bar. I found out there’s an entire subreddit dedicated to stories about skinwalkers. I lurked there for awhile, getting increasingly frustrated with my phone, which was running extremely slowly.
I checked the settings. I saw the problem immediately - my phone was clogged, I had no memory left. Which was weird. Because I’d had plenty the day before.
No new apps had been downloaded. I remembered what Noor had said - the phone had been waiting for her on the counter at Abercrombie & Fitch. Maybe the custodians, or whoever had found it, had taken pictures.
Someone had. I found a new collection of photos - 2,536 of them - all from the night before. What the fuck.
I skimmed the thumbnails. The first few hundred were all the same - interior shots of the mall, seemingly taken from the atrium facing Macy’s, late at night. Just the empty hallway. After Axel’s DVD, this seemed laughably tame.
I scrolled down further. Something jumped out at me. I clicked on photo #549 to make it larger and noticed that, way in the background, a solitary figure stood in frame. I swiped to the next picture. The figure was in that one as well.
I swiped faster. In each sequential shot, the figure was a tiny bit closer to the camera. By photo #902, I could tell it was a man. And, around photo #1500, I recognized him.
Kevin. Kevin, his eyes pitch black.
My stomach turned, but I kept swiping. Kevin got closer and closer. By the final photo, Kevin’s pale face took up the entire screen, black eyes empty, grinning evilly. Then I was struck with a thought that turned my blood to ice.
Who took the pictures?
I found Saskia behind the register of Spencer’s, which was fortunately empty.
“Look at this,” I demanded, forcing my phone into her hands. “Now.”
She scrolled. I explained the loss of my phone, and its reappearance on the counter of Abercrombie and Fitch.
“That’s Kevin! What the fuck is this?”
I thought about what Axel had told us earlier. My brain felt like a blender - bits of information tossed around, chopped into pieces, and swirled together.
“Saskia,” I asked, “what did Axel say Kevin’s Ph.D. was in?”
She looked up, eyes wide. “Anthropology. So…”
“So all those books we looked at earlier - he’s probably seen them, too!” I said excitedly. “Maybe he knows about ancient rituals, magic… he would have had access to all of that! He probably learned how to cast spells!”
We stared at each other. We were thinking the same thing.
“Kevin doesn’t want to keep customers from finding out about the monster attacks,” I said. “He’s behind the monster attacks.”
Saskia nodded, eyes wild. “He’s pissed at corporate. He did his job at Culver City, they fucked up, and now they’re punishing him for it. This is revenge.”
“That’s why he framed me!” I said, bits fitting together like the word problems I’d loved as a kid. “He wanted me to storm out. He wanted me to forfeit. He’s The Old One. And I’m the man he chose, because he thought I would be easy to intimidate!”
At that, my wrist began to burn. Hot pain seared my skin, and my arrow-shaped brand glowed blood-red. I clutched my arm, sunk to the floor, and rocked until the pain subsided into a throbbing burn. My brain was still on fire. No. Not now. I’m not ready.
“Damien!” Saskia cried from above me. “Damien, you’ve got to see this!”
I stood up. I grabbed my phone out of her hand and stared at the photo she’d been examining. It was one of the later ones, a close-up of Kevin’s face. I saw what she’d seen. It nearly stopped my heart.
There was an image reflected in Kevin’s wide black eyes. An image of the mysterious photographer.
And I knew exactly where that photographer had ended up.
Saskia and I ran out of Spencer's and into the empty mall.
“Go get Axel,” I told her. “Grab our stuff. Meet me at Grandma’s Attic.”
She hesitated. “You sure? Last time we split up…”
“Just go!” I insisted, and sprinted off.
The door was closed but the lights were still on. I looked through the window, made unfortunate eye contact with the creepy clown doll, and saw Noor, counting the register alone. I pulled the door open and let it swing shut behind me.
“Noor!” I yelled to her. “You’ve got to get out of here. Now. You can’t ask me why.”
She looked up haughtily. “Are the giant salamanders back?”
“Just come with me!”
I barreled towards the register. She reached down and I stopped, recalling her quickness with the pepper spray. I heard tapping on the glass behind us.
Through the glass door, I saw Axel fiddling with the handle, our bag of supplies hoisted over his shoulder. It must have locked. He stepped back, and my insides did a flip. Kevin - minus the black eyes, but sporting a murderous scowl - was behind him, clutching Saskia by her wrist.
“Am I on a reality show I don’t know about?” Noor asked sarcastically. “Or are you guys all trying to creep me out?”
“This isn’t a joke!” I snapped at her. “Noor, that clown doll in the window… it’s…”
Someone was violently shaking the door. Noor was giving me a confused look.
“We don’t have a clown doll."
So, how much did 2016 suck? Read the next chapter here.
Written by NickyXX