“This calls for booze!” Kevin said happily. “Is Blue Moon ok?”
We sat around Kevin’s desk in the manager's office. He and I had locked and barricaded the bathroom doors, then we’d left the food court to the elves. Spencer’s was spotless the morning after the troll attack. Before that, Noor had found everything the clown doll destroyed - including shattered figurines - put back together and in their designated places within hours. So we assumed the elf dolls would have the food court in its pre-Bagiennik state by the time we finished out beers.
“I don’t drink,” Noor said matter-of-factly.
Kevin opened his mini-fridge, sighed, and closed the door.
“I left my beer at home,” he said. “I’ll grab some from Blaze Pizza. I know the manager.”
As he walked off in search of alcohol, I turned to Noor sheepishly.
“Sorry about your necklace."
She shrugged. “Don’t apologize. I’m glad the thing did me some good after all.”
I listened for Kevin’s receding footsteps, then lowered my voice.
“Do you trust him?”
Noor cocked her head. “Kevin?”
I nodded. She narrowed her eyes.
“Yeah,” she said. “I mean, he saved our lives.”
“I guess, but…” I paused. “But you gotta admit, there’s a fog of weird that hovers around the guy. How do we know he’s really on our side? I told you about the security tape.”
“He explained that. He thought if he fired you, everything would stop.”
“Then why not admit he made it all up?” I said excitedly. “Why is he still insisting he saw a guy who looked like me busting into Daniel’s Jewelers? And that doesn’t explain the cell phone thing! Kevin, black eyes…”
“I though we agreed that was The Old One messing with you.”
“I know, I know, we did. But… what if?”
Noor considered it. She reached across the desk for the stack of scrawled, dirty notes she and Kevin had uncovered.
“Did you see these?”
I hadn’t. I paged through them.
Note 1: NO EYES, ALWAYS WATCHING.
Note 2: a crudely-drawn man holding a smaller humanoid figure, I guessed a doll. The doll was covered in wavelike pen strokes. Fire?
Note 3: another crudely-drawn man, but completely colored in, like a silhouette. It reminded me of the pitch-black entity in the parking structure, as Minnie’s voice accused me of surrender. Above the man was jagged text. I AM WHAT YOU FEAR MOST. I quickly shuffled that one to the back of the pile.
Note 4: a solitary door with a round knob.
Note 5: WE WAIT ON THE OTHER SIDE. The same words, repeated again and again, covering the entire page.
I turned the pile over as footsteps approached. Kevin was back, and he was no longer smiling.
“There’s vomit on the floor,” he said. “It’s black and it smells like death. I’m not gonna clean it up alone.”
We followed him to the food court. What the elves had done was impressive. There was neither an out-of-place table nor a sticky footprint to be seen. Everything was spotless, except for a good-sized, mucosy black puddle exuding the stench of cat piss mixed with rotting fish. Half-digested white chunks of Tall-flesh floated in the goo, like tofu in broth.
I gagged. Noor covered her mouth and nose.
We decided to add water to the gunk until it could be mopped up and the floor bleached, then bleached again, then bleached again. The water thinned the oily, mucus-like sick into charcoal-colored liquid, but only exacerbated the smell. I was too busy cementing my gag reflex to notice the object, besides the tentacle nuggets, floating in the putrid stew.
“What’s that?” Noor asked.
Plugging her nose with one hand, she knelt and gingerly plucked something out of the mess, then immediately submerged it in the bucket of soapy water. After a vigorous dunking session, she pulled it out and held it away from her with two fingers.
It was a long, thick stalk covered in black hair. For a horrible minute, I thought Noor held, in her bare hands, waterlogged Bagiennik pubes.
“It’s a piece of an animal,” she said. “Something else that Banny… the salamander thing ate. It looks like a tail.”
“Shit, it’s a tail!”
And I knew the exact harbinger of childhood nightmares who would be looking for that tail.
My plans for a full 24 hours of sleep were thwarted, at 10:30 the next morning, by my iPhone. It rang. Then rang again. Then, there was the buzz…buzz… buzz of text after text landing. Then it started ringing again.
I finally picked up on what I thought was the sixth ring, but my Missed Calls bubble told me was actually the thirteenth. Thirteen missed calls, all from Kevin, and ten texts.
10:21 - Dude, something attacked a lady
10:22 - Ok, it didn't attack her but it scared her. she was in the JC Penneys bathroomm and a voice asked do you want red paper or blue paper
10:24 - She said why is there a man in the women’s bathroom, and it asked her again red paper or blue paper She told him fuck off. Then she said she saw a decaying face peeping under the stall
10:25 - She started screaming and ran out with her pants down
10:26 - I told her it was some kids playing a joke and i think she believed me
10:35 - Dude, please call me
10:38 - The melon heads are screaming
10:41 - And the scape ore lizard man almost broke down the door! they’re getting rowdier.
10:49 - D, please pick up the phone
10: 52 - Dude, please call me
I called Kevin. He sounded better than I’d expected. I’d expected him to have been eaten by something, and he sounded decidedly un-eaten.
“Please, man,” he begged. “Come in. I’ll pay you. But I really need help keeping all these things in line.”
From his end, I heard a piercing shriek.
“Just come,” he said, then hung up.
Outside the food court, a dramatic rescue was in process. A massive fire truck, lights flashing, blocked the sliding glass doors, flanked by an ambulance. I parked and wandered through the assembled shoppers, making a big show of minding my own business, in time to see an elderly Hispanic woman wheeled out on a gurney with an oxygen mask.
I found Kevin standing, impotently, in front of Best Buy as the paramedics finished up. There were reddish stains on his pants and his jacket was torn.
“The bathroom zombie strikes again?”
He shook his head. “She was with her family in the food court. Out of nowhere she stood up, pointed, and started screaming ‘La Mala Hora!’”
They’d been acting up, Kevin re-iterated. The 'Scape Ore Lizard Man' - the cryptid locked in Tsukaya Grill - had thrown itself at him, teeth bared. He’d barely managed to distract it with chicken nuggets and slam the door. Foot Locker was closed now; a melon head bit his ankle. And he’d seen a loose dog digging around the trash compactors with “the face of a man.”
I agreed to help him.
My first task was to quiet the ghostly Claire’s twins. Kevin said it was an easy one. He gave me instructions, and then a warning.
“They’ll try and mess with you,” he said. “They say things to piss you off. Don’t respond. Just do what you need to and get out of there.”
As I approached Claire’s, bagful of salt packets in hand, I heard young voices singing a mournful, wordless tune. I opened the door with my skeleton key and stepped over the line of salt on the door frame. There were boards over the glass windows; the store was dark. I hurried to the nearest corner. I opened a salt packet and emptied its contents over my shoulder.
The singing stopped. Something giggled.
“Hi, Little Ricky! Do you want to play with us?”
It was a child’s voice, sweet and inviting. A chill trickled down my spine. Don't respond, I reminded myself.
I threw salt over my shoulder into the second corner.
As I rounded the third, the light from my cell phone caught a small figure. Two small figures.
Two little girls, standing between carousels of earrings. I jumped. I’d expected stereotypical adorable children. Instead, I was looking at a pair of rotting corpses.
Their skin was gray, sloughing off their faces. Their eyes were empty holes; their identical blue dresses stained, torn, and moldy; their blonde pigtails caked in dirt. A centipede looped around an exposed jawbone. In each festering forehead was a gaping, infected flesh wound, hosting spores of greenish mildew, leaking pus.
Don’t respond, don’t respond. I threw salt into the third corner.
“We can be your friends, Little Ricky,” they said in unison. “We know you’re lonely.”
I needed to get to the fourth corner. They were in my way. Distract them with a toy, Kevin had told me.
I spotted a beanie baby display. I grabbed the closest one - an otter - and threw it at the zombie girls.
If they’d had eyes, they would have sparkled. They snatched up the otter at the same time, realized there was only one, and started a round of tug-o-war. I hurried past them, deposited salt in the remaining corner, dumped three packets over the door frame, and noped the fuck out of there.
I leaned against the second-floor railing, nerves still tingling. The twins had been disgusting. But that wasn’t what bothered me. What bothered me was what they’d said.
Hi, Little Ricky. Only one person had ever called me Little Ricky. My mom.
It started as a dumb inside joke. Before I was born, my California grandma told all her friends that my mom was pregnant with a Cuban guy’s baby. “Just like Lucy and Ricky,” she’d said. I guess that was easier than telling everyone her twenty-year-old daughter had been knocked up by the drummer of a Metallica cover band behind a biker bar in Bakersfield.
My mom ran with it. She and my grandma started calling my dad Ricky Ricardo. Like, “Ricky Ricardo called.” Or “Ricky Ricardo’s going to be in town next week, can he take Damien to the beach?” Which made me Little Ricky.
I was over my mom’s death. I’d made peace with it. Until I’d returned to the Baldwin Mall. Until The Old One branded me, forced me to play his bullshit game, and took to re-opening my mental scars with a hacksaw.
Around two, I got another text from Kevin.
1:54 - Heads up police are here. If they ask about the redhead or Axel or the black girl tell them you haven’t seen them
My nerves were set oscillating anew. Had Adam done what he’d threatened to do? Would the police want to see the security tapes? Were Kevin and Noor and I suspects yet?
I worried as I unlocked the door to Sephora. It opened inward, and I had to force it. Kevin had piled more cinderblocks to keep what was inside from getting out again. There were overturned shelves, gnawed-on make-up brushes, broken and trampled eyeshadow palettes. Lipstick was smeared across the floor. My cell phone light caught canine footprints in the red and pink skidmarks.
I stepped on something soft and mushy. I told myself it was more lipstick.
“Um, I have something you want,” I announced to the air.
There was a crash, then the sound of claws on tile, and then a dog-sized creature with big pointy ears and thick black fur hopped onto an overturned vanity and into my light. It cocked its head and regarded me with distrusting yellow eyes. Then it spoke.
“Tailypo!” it droned. “Tailypo! Who took my tailypo?”
Its voice was chilling. High and childlike, deliberately melancholy, like a kid voicing a ghost while telling stories around a campfire.
Calmly, I set down my backpack and pulled out the detached tail the Banniegek had puked up. I dangled it in front of me.
“I have your tailypo,” I said.
Tailypo sniffed the air. With a single swift leap, it landed three feet in front of me. It leaned back on its haunches, exposing sharp teeth like a threatened dog.
I pulled the stinking tail back and shook my head. Tailypo growled.
“If I give you this,” I said calmly, “you owe me one. Understand?”
Tailypo stared me right in the eye, as though weighing its options. I stared right back, maintaining eye contact, trying not to blink. It relented. It let its canine lips droop over its teeth, loosened its tense muscles, and rested on its forelegs in a bow of submission.
I smiled and, slowly and deliberately, placed the tail on the ground.
Tailypo scampered forward and scooped up its severed appendage. It looked at me again. This time, though, its eyes were softer. Grateful. And, tailypo in mouth, it dashed off into the darkness.
Next, I went to Kevin's office. The cops had departed, but a slacker-looking guy in his twenties hung outside the door. He had a camera bag over his shoulder, an Infowars t-shirt, and an unfriendly scowl on his face.
This couldn't be good. I heard Kevin’s annoyed voice from behind the cracked door.
“Sorry, man, Corporate doesn’t want anyone filming here. Besides, you’re wasting your time. We haven’t gotten any reports of… suspicious activity.”
“Dude, we spoke to a former employee,” another voice replied. “The gig’s up. She saw two Chinese businessmen flashing each other The Sign.”
“What sign?” Kevin demanded. “You’re arguing with the wrong guy here. I did my undergrad thesis on Chinese mysticism. And I’ve never heard of The Cult of the Five Dragons.”
“Then let me educate you,” the second voice droned condescendingly. “They’re wealthy Chinese immigrants who practice dark magic. They perform a ritual called Gu, which involves the sacrifice of a virgin girl.”
“You’re wrong on so many levels,” Kevin seethed.
“We’ve got witnesses. They say blonde, blue-eyed girls are disappearing from this mall. And we’re going public with the information, whether you like it or not. You hear me?”
“Do you hear yourself?” Kevin snapped. “You can’t film here. Get out of my office.”
The door opened. Another slacker-looking white guy slinked out, gave me a snarl, and shook his head at his buddy. They eyed me menacingly as I moved past them and into the office. I made sure they were gone before I opened my mouth.
“I think I found the origin point of those chain e-mails my uncle keeps sending me,” I said to Kevin.
He sighed and ran a hand over his face. “YouTube morons. They’re not the first. Apparently there’s been a few additions to the 4Chan chain, and all the kooks know we’re the Creepy Mall.”
“What did the cops say?” I asked.
“Nothing much. Axel’s ex-wife reported him missing, they didn’t take it seriously. They got a few tales from hysterical customers - disembodied screams, moving mannequins, ghostly apparitions - but they didn’t take those seriously either. Then today, an employee called. He told them all about Evie and Saskia, and I guess that was the tipping point.”
“So what’s going to happen?”
Kevin shook his head. “Corporate’s gonna have my ass. And it’s a moot point anyways, because you know what tomorrow is.”
Best Buy had gone nuclear - you couldn’t take three steps without seeing one of their advertisements; 2 MORE DAYS, the “2” in extra-large font. Two days until the Black Friday sale. The sale that was supposed to save the mall. Except, I had to save the mall first. And I had two days to do it.
I left Kevin’s office and looked for Noor. She’d called me. On my way to Grandma’s, my phone rang again. I didn’t recognize the number.
“Are you Saskia’s friend?” a male voice barked.
“Um… I know her,” I said cautiously. “I haven't seen her in awhile.”
“Well, she gave me this number,” the man said. “I’ve got your video.”
“What video?” I asked, my stomach dropping.
The man sighed. “The mall security video. The one she wanted me to mess with.”
Clarity. It was the video Saskia had stolen from the security office. The one that showed a blurry figure sneaking into Jackie’s Dogs and planting stolen jewelry in my backpack. The man on the phone was Saskia’s buddy, the editor cleaning it up for us.
“I’ve been calling her for days,” the editor continued. “She won’t pick up. Can I send the footage to you, instead?”
I agreed and gave him my e-mail address. Five minutes later, the video file appeared in my inbox. I found a bench, sat down, and played it on my phone.
The quality wasn’t great, but it was better. I could clearly see Lina, fidgeting uncomfortably. She looked both ways, locked the register, and waddled as fast as she could out of the frame. Seconds later, another figure entered the stand.
At first, I could only see the back of its head. Of her head. It was a woman. A woman wearing a headscarf.
I held my breath. No.
My extremities lost all sensation as I watched the scarfed woman efficiently kneel, reach into her bag, pull out handfuls of glittering strands, and shove them into my backpack. I saw her zip my bag, shoulder her own, and stand up. Then, as though posing, she stared directly into the camera. My worst fears were confirmed.
It was Noor. And her eyes were pitch-black.*****
Written by NickyXX