Mom and I are still sitting on the same bench. She gives Santa’s growing line one last frustrated look, then stands up.
“Come on, buddy,” she says. “Let’s go and buy your grandmother her present.”
She leads me to Takano Toys. I make a face. Takano Toys is a girl’s store, and the middle-aged Asian woman who runs the shop always follows me around like I’m an animal on the loose, ready to break something the minute she looks away.
My mom notices my aversion. “It’ll just be a minute, kiddo. Then we can go to the toy store you like!”
Inside Takano Toys, I stare at a large photograph on the wall. Three kids standing on a beach. My mom is looking at picture frames when the middle-aged Asian woman approaches her.
“I need a present for my kid’s grandmother,” my mom says. “Do you have anything with whitewashed Christian imagery?”
The Asian woman shows my mom the special dolls behind the register. She says she made those dolls herself, on commission. Then she catches my eye.
“Do you like the picture?” she asks. She stands right behind me and points to the children. “That’s my aunt, my uncle, and my father. My grandfather took the photo. He started this store. Then my uncle owned it, and now me.”
That Friday, a child was taken.
We never learned her real name, so I’ll call her Juanita.
Four-year-old Juanita was shopping with her mom at Macy’s. The mother let go of her daughter’s hand for a split second to admire a beaded neckline and, when she reached for it again, the girl was gone. She freaked out and, assisted by the Macy’s staff, turned the whole section upside down. Not a trace of Juanita was found. Per protocol, after fifteen minutes, the manager called in an emergency.
The mall went into lockdown. Apparently, every door leading in and out could be locked by flipping a master switch in the security office. Guards were stationed at each exits. An announcement was made over the speakers - missing girl, curly brown hair, blue Doc McStuffins shirt.
Twenty minutes after that, Juanita was recovered. She’d been found, frightened but unharmed, in the Forever 21 dressing rooms.
The doors were re-opened, customers and employees were reassured over the speakers, and everything went back to normal, if a bit paranoid. We hadn't been given any details. For all we knew, there was a pervert psycho hiding under some rack of clothes.
“It’s an urban legend, you know.”
I hadn’t noticed Saskia standing at my register. Today she was rocking the nose ring, the combat boots, and a choker with little black hearts. Her t-shirt had a picture of Johnny Depp from Edward Scissorhands.
“What urban legend?” I asked.
“It’s a famous one. A little girl goes missing from the mall. Or the market. A public place. Everybody freaks out, and they close off all the exits. They find the kid in a bathroom, with her hair cut and dyed and her clothes changed.”
“Did that actually happen?”
Saskia shrugged. “It looks like it just happened. But do you want to know the part that weirds me out?”
“I heard she was with her mom in the women’s casual section of Macy’s. Women’s casual is the section right by the parking lot. So, whoever took the kid, why did they go to Forever 21? Why didn’t they just run out the door?”
I didn’t have an answer. So I gave her her chili dog, and she left.
Early afternoon was slow. I watched a cabal of pre-teens take selfies with Minnie, the disproportioned Daniel’s Jewelers hologram-girl. The first-floor bathrooms were still being repaired, and Tsukaya Grill was no longer the only food court stand cordoned off by black walls. McDonalds, next door, was closed as well.
I stared upwards at the security camera mounted on a support post, which looked right into Jackie’s Dogs. I stuck out my tongue and made a face.
I thought about the Furby I’d destroyed at Grandma’s Attic. I tried to come up with some logical explanation for how the thing could talk without batteries, and came up short. I decided to stop questioning things that happened at the mall.
Business picked up around four. Soon after, Lina asked me to take an overflowing trash bag out to the trash compactor.
I did what I was told. On the way, I noticed the bathrooms weren’t just closed - they were chained and barricaded with cinderblocks. When I was nine, my grandmother volunteered to look after the bedridden husband of a church friend, who’d contacted C-Diff. I’d tagged along, once. The sickly old man smelled just like that hallway did.
Minutes later, I ran back to Jackie’s Dogs, shaking like a leaf. What I’d seen out there I couldn’t put into words.
We finished closing around nine. Between the possessed Furby, the noxious bathrooms, the possibility of a creeping pedophile, and the thing I’d seen by the trash compactor, there was little inspiring me to hang around. Then I saw Evie at a table, make-up running down her face, sitting across from Saskia.
I walked over to them. Evie’s eyes were red and she was sniffling. It was discombobulating to see her in tears - she was always so funny and chill. I was debating the appropriateness of slipping an arm around her when Saskia noticed me.
“She’s the one who found the little girl,” she said.
“Shit, seriously?” I sat next to Evie, but kept my hands to myself. “So you’re a hero.”
Evie hiccupped. “The manager’s a fucking asshole.”
“What happened? Did he accuse you of taking the kid?”
Evie shook her head. “No! I just… the kid said some things to me, and I think he thought I was lying.”
“What did the kid say?” I asked.
Evie narrowed her eyes. She looked around to ensure no mall-goers were within earshot, leaned in, and lowered her voice.
“When we went into emergency mode, it was my job to check the changing rooms. And she was just… there. This tiny Hispanic girl, curled up on a bench, crying. So I told my manager, and my manager went to call security while I stayed with the kid.
“I asked her who took her. I thought if it was me asking, another girl, she’d talk more. She said… she said a fuzzy white bear-man grabbed her. He took her through a door with a gold knob and into a grey room with lots of cracks. Then, the elves saved her.”
“Elves?” I interrupted. “Like, creepy doll elves?”
“I don’t know, maybe,” Evie stammered, pinching the bridge of her nose. “She was holding one of those dolls when I found her.”
I must have looked every bit as underwear-staining scared as I felt, because Evie started crying again. Saskia was concentrating intensely on her phone.
“It just… I don’t get it,” Evie murmured through her tears. “There’s one entrance to Forever 21. There’s no secret back route. And I was standing right at the register, looking right at the door, since we opened. I would have noticed someone dragging in a kid.”
“Well, how did she say she got to Forever 21?” I asked.
“That’s the thing,” Evie stammered. “She said the elves cut a hole in the wall of the grey room, and the hole led into the dressing room.”
This was all frightening. Haunting, even.
The door the little girl described was exactly like the doors that had been appearing and disappearing all over the mall. And the presence of the creepy elf dolls in her narrative was disconcerting, even if they were the good guys.
But what bothered me most was her description of her abductor. The fuzzy white bear man.
Because, when I went out to the trash compactor, I saw three children kneeling on the ground below the loading dock. Three pale-skinned, black-eyed children - two girls in black lacy dresses, and one boy with a red hoodie - looking up at me, wide-eyed, like raccoons caught digging through the trash. Their flawless mannequin-cheeks were smeared with blood and viscera. A chunk of dripping tissue hung from the boy’s perfect red lips.
In front of them lay what I initially thought was a discarded rug but quickly realized, with a rush of cold sweat, was a large dead animal. It had a humanoid shape and an apelike head, and was completely covered in shaggy white fur dyed red with its own blood. It’s abdomen was torn open, its intestines spilling onto the asphalt.
The children must have recognized me. Because they simultaneously smiled, blood dripping from the corners of their mouths. Then, they bent over and continued their meal.
The weekend was quiet.
I couldn’t go into any of the stores. All I’d see were the cracks. Cracks in the walls, the windows, the dressing room doors and display cases and menu boards. On Saturday, there was a shallow but noticeable crack across the length of the counter at Jackie’s Dogs. I ran my finger along it. It didn’t feel like anything special - just an unfortunate scratch. When I arrived for my Sunday shift, the crack had disappeared.
And the elf dolls. There were more each day. Explanations for their presence ran the gamut from relatively plausible to ridiculous. My favorites were that they were transmissions devices planted by aliens, and that they were part of a guerrilla advertising campaign, snuck in by marketing agents using the secret tunnels in the walls.
But if anyone really knew what the elf dolls were or why they were there, they weren’t talking. The eerie things remained shrouded in mystery.
So I walked to work with my eyes straight ahead. I didn’t look through windows. I blocked everything out - except when some annoying kid (or annoying adult) started banging on the Lady Grace Candles bell. That would jolt me right out of my hyperfocus.
On Saturday, a girl celebrated her thirteenth birthday at the mall. She and her friends went to a movie, then cut a cake in the food court. On Sunday, Godiva was advertising a deal on boxes of a dozen chocolates. An employee came right up to me as I trudged to Jackie’s Dogs. He gave me a coupon.
Halfway through my Sunday shift, I felt eyes on me. I breathed in. Mixed with the stench of burned meat and sauerkraut was something sweet.
Sitting atop the soda machine were two elf dolls.
I reached up and grabbed them, walked out of the stand, and threw them in the food court trash.
As I re-entered Jackie’s Dogs, I kicked something. I looked down. It was a little chain-link necklace with letters spelling a word, the cheap type they sold at Claire’s. I picked it up. Some of the letters had broken off.
BA Y CA ES.
Baby Cakes. I shoved it in my pocket, intending to ask Lina if she’d dropped it.
Later, while digging through the fridge under the prep table, Lina yelled for me. She demanded I explain why there was a stupid elf-on-a-shelf stuffed between blocks of cheese.
Monday I was off. Tuesday, the food court was a crime scene.
Someone had broken into Daniel’s Jewelers. Employees and customers lingered at a respectful distance. Kevin the manager was speaking to Axel and yet another new, young security guard.
I got as close as I could to survey the damage. An entire floor-to-ceiling glass panel had been shattered; little chunks of glass were scattered across the ground. Minnie the creepy hologram girl was missing. The store was trashed - displays knocked over, merchandise tossed about, black graffiti on the walls.
Black graffiti on the walls. Symbols of some sort. I stepped closer.
“Hey, can you back off?”
Manager Kevin was talking to me.
“Yeah, you,” he continued. “This isn’t a tourist attraction. Move along.”
I raised my hands and backed away. Kevin was younger than I’d initially thought. Early thirties, at most. And, apparently, he was type of guy who got off on petty power trips, like a freshman frat pledge put in charge of the keg.
Thirty minutes later, Lina asked me to grab a pack of hot dogs from storage. I wasn’t thrilled for… well, pick a reason. Then I saw another employee heading the same direction. Evie.
“Hey,” I called out, catching up to her.
She looked at me, frowned, looked away, and walked faster. She’d been given the weekend off to recover from the ordeal of the missing child. She didn’t look any happier.
I caught up to her again, in front of Tutti Frutti. She turned to me, seemingly annoyed at my presence.
“You okay?” I asked. “You were really upset the other day.”
“Yeah, I was,” she said, not in a friendly way. “And you didn’t exactly make me feel any better.”
“So you’re mad at me?”
“I’m not,” she said, unconvincingly. “It’s just… I was pretty freaked out, and you pulled a vanishing act.”
She was right, I realized. Caught up in my own horrific memories, I’d left without even saying goodbye to her and Saskia.
“I was freaked out, too,” I said weakly.
“So that’s what you do when things get hard?” she asked, angrily pushing open the door to the hallway of storage closets. “You run away?”
“Well, what did you want me to do? Explain, in detail, how a child transcended the laws of space and time and ended up in the dressing room of Forever 21?”
“No.” Evie stopped walking, letting the door swing shut behind us. She looked at me sadly. “Listen, Damien. I know you like me. I like you, too. But you don’t give a shit. About anything.”
I was about to argue with her, but something further down the hall caught my attention. Something grey, leaning against the wall. I stepped past Evie to check it out.
It was Minnie the hologram girl. Well, the girl-shaped holographic screen that Minnie was projected against. They must have moved her there for safekeeping. I’d actually never seen her… off before. She was made of a hard, shiny, grey material.
“What is that?” Evie asked, behind me.
Then the lights all went out.
Evie yelped. There was a flicker, then grey. One light bulb further down the hallway had come back on, but with half its previous brightness.
Minnie turned on.
And by that, yes, I mean she turned on. Where there had been only a grey, girl-shaped screen, there was now the two-dimensional, poorly-proportioned, moving girl-image that was projected onto the screen from open to close at the entrance of Daniel’s Jewelers.
Except the hologram projector was still outside by Daniel’s Jewelers. I looked around. There was nothing that could have possibly been responsible for the presence of her image.
And she wasn’t smiling jauntily, as she always was outside Daniel’s, chirping enthusiastically about wholesale prices and custom engagement rings, her voice emitted from speakers cleverly placed behind the door.
She was staring straight ahead. Her mouth hung open. Her eyes were cold, deep, hateful. Her two-dimensional chest moved up and down.
“Damien,” Evie whimpered, “what the…”
Minnie’s eyes shifted. She stared right at Evie, with a look to melt glaciers. Evie froze. Then Minnie turned her gaze on me.
“Do you accept the challenge?”
Her lips moved. She was talking to me. Except that was impossible. The cleverly-hidden speakers were outside with the hologram projector. I looked at Evie. Her mouth was hanging open.
“Damien. Do you accept the challenge?”
Minnie’s voice echoed through the hallway, dripping malice.
“What… what challenge?” I stammered.
I realized I was speaking to an inanimate object. For some reason, this didn’t seem as preposterous to me as it should have. Her voice was the same as it always was outside Daniel’s, but mechanical, distorted, and skipping like a scratched CD.
“You are The Man The Old One has chosen. Clues. Best three of five. Winner takes all.”
“Axel?” I heard Evie shout. “This isn’t funny, man!”
Minnie got louder. “Winner takes all out of five. Three clues. Damien. Do you accept? Old One.”
“Who is The Old One?” I demanded.
“Come on!” Evie yelled at the air. “The game’s up! We know this is a joke!”
“Three clues!” Minnie boomed. “You are The Man The Old One has chosen. Damien. Do you accept?”
The last light flickered. Minnie stared. Her eyes, which I could swear had been brown, were emitting a red glow.
“Seriously!” Evie yelped, her voice cracking. “Who’s doing this?”
I looked right at Minnie. “What three clues?”
Minnie smiled - a twisted, evil smirk. And when she spoke again, her voice was crystal-clear. Mocking. Reveling in knowledge she had and I didn’t.
“You already have them,” she said.
And at that moment, I knew it was all real. This was no middle-school prank. This was no head injury. We weren’t dealing with jewelry thieves or vandals. There was something in the mall completely removed from humanity. Something malicious and predatory.
Something that had just challenged me to a fight.
Minnie’s smile stretched wider into her cheeks. Her red eyes bulged until she didn’t resemble a human any more, but some deformed mutant hybrid. I breathed heavily, sucking in the oxygen that seemed suddenly scarce. Evie reached out and grabbed my arm. I tried to move, but my feet were too heavy.
“Fine!” I screamed. “I accept the challenge!”
I was overcome with blinding pain.
I keeled over. I think I screamed. It felt as though someone had pressed a hot iron against my left wrist, the wrist still bruised. My eyes clenched shut, I saw nothing but red.
Arm still searing, I forced myself to coherence. Evie was shaking me. I consciously slowed my breathing. The lights had come back on.
I examined my left arm. The skin on my wrist was red and tender, but the bruise was gone. In its place was a black design. Three straight lines, the middle one lower than the others. Two shorter lines perpendicular to the three. Then two more lines at the bottom, slanted and meeting a midpoint. All together, the lines formed the shape of an arrow, pointing down.
Desperately, I looked towards Minnie the demon hologram girl. She was nothing but a blank, grey, girl-shaped screen.
Only the Worthy May Pass. Read the next chapter here.
Written by NickyXX