In which a woman attempts to return a gift, only to discover an ancient evil slumbering beneath the local mall.
Read this story as it unfolds on Twitter.
It never occurred to Cassie that an ancient evil slumbered beneath the local mall. So, imagine her surprise when she found exactly that sometime last Tuesday.
* * *
“What the shit is this?”
Cassie sat in the living room of the one-bedroom apartment her mother shared with Cassie’s younger sister, holding up over-sized lingerie. The lingerie looked like crushed velvet, but felt like a mistake.
Her mother and sister, meanwhile, looked on at this like two ham-faced potato people. One with a blank look of disinterest. The other slightly more sunken and dusty, with a blank look of confusion.
“You don’t like it,” the elder potato whined, turning to Cassie’s potato of a sister. “She doesn’t like it.”
“I told you she wouldn’t like it.”
“Well, Sweetie. Your sister and I know how down you’ve been ever since you broke up with what’s-his-face.”
“Jordan. And we didn’t break up. We’re just on a break.”
“Honey, you know I usually support you and your sister’s delusions. But maybe it’s time to accept that Jordan’s not coming back.”
“But, he might?”
“Was Jordan the one that moved to Oregon to grow pot?”
“No, Sweetie. Jordan’s the one who wandered off to smoke pot by the railroad tracks and be one with nature.”
“That was Duncan.”
“Wait. So, which one was Jordan?”
“He moved to Texas to start a gourmet hot dog food truck.”
“Cassie-Honey. It’s time for you to bait that hook and catch you another fish.”
“Yeah. That’s why we got you a few things to make you feel sexy again.”
“Oh, no. You mean there’s more?”
“Mother-Daughters Day at the spa!”
“Huh. That’s not a terrible gift, actually.”
“But, why is this lingerie so big? There’s no way it’d ever–” Cassie cut herself off, and turned to her potato-sister. “Wait. Was this yours?”
“Mom found it in our closet. She said it wouldn’t do me any good.”
“Sounds like Mom.”
“Look. If you don’t like it, you can exchange it at the Boulder Holders down at The Garden. I still have the receipt.”
“The Garden? I thought they closed that hellhole years ago.”
“Hellhole? You two used to love that mall.”
“What? No, we didn’t.”
“Both of you begged me to drop you off there every morning during the summer.”
“We didn’t have air conditioning.”
“Yeah. It was either this sweatbox, or middle-aged managers leering at us.”
“Life’s full of difficult choices.”
“You taught us that, mom.”
“Are you telling me you chose being grossly uncomfortable just so you wouldn’t be hot all day at home?”
“At least we weren’t hot.”
“Not until we got home.”
“Yeah, yeah. You want the receipt, or not?”
* * *
Twenty minutes later, Cassie navigated her husk of a car to a rolling stop in the mostly empty lot outside of a squatish, mall-shaped building. Her sister, meanwhile, looked out her window to the rickety sedan idling mere inches away, with nobody behind the wheel.
“Well, that’s weird.”
“That somebody would leave their car running while they go shopping?”
“No. It’s weird that you parked next to the only other car here.”
“It makes me feels safe.”
“What, are you afraid someone’s going to pop out from behind all this nothing?”
Cassie sat there for a moment, then killed the engine. “Less talking, more walking.”
* * *
For what little it’s worth, The Garden was the sort of place that should have gone out of business during the Clinton Administration, plowed, and turned into yet another lot of overpriced, low-quality condos and shops marketed towards Millennials who will never afford them. And yet, here it was. A four-screen, second-run movie theater dillydallying at one end, and a vacant, two-story nothing at the other. And somewhere in between this was a sparsely populated food court, a furniture store holding the world’s longest “going out of business” sale, and a fountain that had not been in active use for several years, yet hadn’t been cleaned in even longer. Fortunately, this unsightly mess of utter economic failure had the benefit of distracting Cassie and her sister from the faint, yet utterly haunting echoes of some foul and sinister prayer.
“Okay. Is it just me, or is this place a lot bigger on the inside?”
“I dunno. But it definitely smells like pee.”
“It always smelled like pee.”
“How is this place still open? Half the shops are closed.”
“Yeah. And the other half are just a bunch of kiosks selling phone cases and those little helicopters.
“Didn’t there used to be a carousel in here?”
“Yeah. But they had to get rid of it after some homeless guy hung himself on it.”
“Found Boulder Holders.”
* * *
The most fascinating thing about Boulder Holders isn’t the fact that it proudly confesses to have the biggest selection of crushed velvet sexual goods in the state of California. Nor is it the way the stores are designed to look like the cluttered, unkempt changing rooms of your local low-rent strip joint. Unfortunately, the most fascinating thing about a female-owned and -centric business like Boulder Holders is that it hired Peter Badabing–a grotesque schlub of a middle-aged man–to manage their location at The Garden. Because while Peter was never formally charged with any crime, his twenty-year habit of looking up girls’ skirts as they rode the mall’s only functioning escalator is, at the very least, a conflict of interest.
“I’m sorry,” Peter said from behind the register, holding up the oversized lingerie in his sweaty, fleshy hands. “But we can’t take this back.”
“Are you kidding me?” Cassie snapped.
“No, I am not.”
“But, I have a receipt.”
“Sorry. But we don’t accept returns once the product has been worn.”
“What? I never wore this.”
“Not you,” Peter said, shaking his head and gesturing to Cassie’s sister, who, for one reason or another, was more than a little preoccupied by a rather busty mannequin.
“Wait. How did you even know she wore it?”
“I just know.”
“Look. I’ll give you fifty bucks for it–”
“–if you agree to not ask anymore questions.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“Deal!” Cassie’s sister chirped.
“What? You’re fine with this?”
Cassie’s sister shrugged. “Fifty bucks is fifty bucks.”
Cassie sighed. “Ugh. Fine. Whatever.”
“Sweet. Fifty bucks.”
“But you deal with this guy,” Cassie said, storming off without another look. “I’ve gotta pee.”
“Fine by me,” she replied, turning to the manager. “So, Peter the Manager–”
“Key holder, technically. But, it’s functionally the same job.”
“Is that right?”
“More, or less.”
“Except for the fact that I don’t get any of the pay, or any of the benefits.”
“Well, Peter the Key-holder. You maybe wanna see more, or less?”
“Of me. More or less of me.”
“Oh, I get it.”
“I guess it depends.”
“Your place or mine?”
“I live with my mom.”
“Yeah. I was kinda hoping you’d say your place.”
* * *
As her sister made yet another poor life decision in a series of such things, Cassie found herself awkwardly, but quickly scuttling down a series of ever twisting, stretching, and, at times, she would have sworn, writhing hallways.
“Oh, that’s not good,” Cassie said to nobody in particular as the concrete beneath her feet pimpled and crawled.
Normally, the Earth moving in such a way that it felt as if it had briefly, but surely transformed into a caravan of mighty Amazonian army ants nipping at the soles of her flats might have been cause for alarm. But Cassie dismissed such things as tinkle madness, scuttled around yet another corner, then to a dead stop. “Oh, god-dammit.”
Just as the turn before this one–and the one before that–this hallway looked the same as all the others. A single fluorescent tube flickering and buzzing overhead. The air thick, heavy with the moisture of a thousand flushes left to fester in a concrete tube with no windows and no doors. In her thus far fruitless endeavor to find somewhere more appropriate to relieve her bladder of urine, Cassie had followed a sign through a door nestled between what used to be a discount Hawaiian jewelry shop and a gold-for-cash place. But rather than finding an actual toilet, she merely found a series of maintenance hallways that were most certainly used as toilets. Possibly by other desperate, lost souls who lacked the testicular fortitude and muscle-control to make it to the end of this pee-pee scented labyrinth. And then there was the issue of her turning left several times in a row, yet somehow failing to go in a circle.
“Okay,” Cassie said to a wholly disinterested universe. “You know what? Screw it. I’m just gonna go right here.”
But just as Cassie squatted down between a pair of vending machines, a group of mall employees piled out from the once super-secret door located behind the Coffee-2-Go. “I swear, it would’ve been way less creepy if he’d been touching himself,” said the girl from the corn dog place in the food court. “But by the time I caught him behind the escalator, all he was doing was crying.”
“That’s somehow more gross,” said the man from a used book store that buys more DVDs than it ever sells.
“Oh, my God. Is that woman peeing?”
With her leggings still wrapped around one ankle, Cassie pigeon-toed her way between the puzzled man and gawky teen, straight through the Coffee-2-Go, and beyond. “Please, don’t judge me!” she shouted, never looking back.
The Coffee-2-Go led to a well-worn dirt path cutting through a swerving, dipping, curving swath of nothingness that seemed to stretch forever in all directions. The path was lit every few feet by a dark, cold fire, housed in the leather-bound remains of a large creature’s skull. And the darkness hummed with the dull roar of distant praying.
Cassie fumbled with her leggings where the path met nothing, and stared into the deep and endless abyss. “Aw, shit.”
Fifteen minutes down the path, Cassie’s heart fluttered to the rhythm of the praying. A feeling of unease seized, knotted her stomach as familiar, yet wholly foreign sounds dug into her ears, crawling up and around the inner walls her skull like vines. The words were English in the same way someone choking might sound as if they’re asking, “Could you please do me a favor and remove this handful of peanuts I’ve crammed down my gullet?” And the air tasted the way an original vinyl pressing of Huey Lewis and the News’ Hip to Be Square looks when played on a burning Victrola. But it was ultimately the stench of time collapsing upon itself every time the cosmic salamander passed overhead that had Cassie doubled over, nose pinched, and eyes squeezed down to slits.
to be continued…