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 of 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.
“You lose something, Miss?” a voice asked.
Cassie opened her eyes to find a well-groomed young man in a little sailor outfit looking back at her as if she were just about the silliest thing he’d seen that day. And he stood in a small jungle boat tied to the pier upon which Cassie now stood. “What the Hell? Who are you?”
“I’m Bobert, the ferryman.”
“I’m sorry. Did you say ‘Bobert’?”
“Yes, I did.”
She considered this for a moment, trying her best not to laugh, and mostly succeeding. “Wait. Where did you come from? I’ve been walking forever, and I didn’t see you until now.”
Bobert chuckled at this. “You must be new here.”
“Yes,” she agreed, doing her absolute best to not move or say more than absolutely necessary, then immediately and utterly failing. “That is correct. I am new here, and not someone who simply ran in here after startling real mall employees, who also totally didn’t catch me peeing behind a vending machine.”
“Look. ‘Bobert,’ was it?”
“Uh-huh?” Bobert nodded.
“I’m gonna be totally honest here. I think I’m tripping balls right now.”
“Yeah. And I’m seeing and hearing and smelling all kinds of seriously weird shit.”
“Ya know, I thought I smelled a little tinkle.”
“What? No, not that.”
“Really? I’m pretty sure that’s–”
“Shut up, Bobert.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Bobert tried this. “Sorry. Still a smidge worried.”
“Ugh,” Cassie groaned. “Look. I just want to go home. So, how do I go about getting out of here?”
“Oh. That’s easy,” Bobert said, gesturing. “Just go right back out that door.”
Cassie turned to find the back-end of the Coffee-2-Go only several yards away from her place on the docks. “Of course.”
“You’ll need to scan your employee badge, though.”
“Sorry. New employee, remember? No badge.”
“Well, you can always pick up a new one at the employee center inside the temple.”
“Let me guess. You ferry people to the temple?”
“Now, ain’t you smarter than the average bear.”
“Yeah,” she said, stepping into the boat. “Somehow I doubt that.”
“And up on your left, you’ll see the Cosmic Salamander!” Bobert shouted over the sputtering putt-putt of the jungle boat’s engine.
As they ventured across and through the abyss towards a distant glow along the horizon, Bobert quite literally jumped at the opportunity to play tour guide. He quacked at the sighting of a large eye with wings perched atop a large shard of concentrated madness drifting in the nothingness that surrounded them. He clucked at a naughty little absurdapotamus that playfully rocked the boat in passing. And he twittered ceaselessly for several minutes about the majestic beauty of a three-necked, two-headed abyssal megacephalosaurus. But it wasn’t until his honking over the cosmic salamander that Cassie had bothered to listen to a word Bobert said. “Wait. You can see that thing?”
“Of course, silly.”
“I thought I was going crazy.”
“Oh. Well, that might still happen.”
“Yeah,” Bobert shrugged. “This place can be bit kooky. One time, I had to stop this guy from ripping off his bottom jaw. Poor guy thought his tongue was trying to kill him.”
“But you stopped him, right?”
“That’s not comforting.”
“Got pretty messy, too.”
“This job isn’t for everyone, I guess”
“You’re a real strange dude, Bobert.”
The entire trip technically took more than twenty minutes. However, due to the convenient way the abyss defies both the laws of physics and story structure, Cassie and Bobert arrived at the docks of an island bobbing about in the nothing there approximately thirteen minutes before they had even departed. For Bobert, this meant there was plenty of time to give Cassie a full tour. And unfortunately for Cassie, this also meant there was time for a full tour. So as they navigated this unholy union of consumerism and madness given form, they stopped at several booths along the dock, perusing cheap jewelry, impressively unimpressive paintings of local landscapes, and some fish-like nightmares caught by a man Cassie wasn’t quite sure was brave or stupid.
“Hey!” Cassie smiled, taking a big whiff of what a sign written in blood assured was freshly caught chrono-finned tuna. “These things smell like peppermint!”
“You didn’t just smell those, did you?” Bobert asked as if he had just witnessed someone seal their own fate.
“Nothing,” he eventually replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I’m sure it’s probably fine.”
They then wasted the next twenty minutes spending far too much money attempting (and failing) to win a stuffed Frankie the Insanity Flea on the midway. This was then followed up by wasting fifteen minutes to use the toilet in the food court after Cassie remembered she still hadn’t had a chance to properly tinkle. It ultimately turned out, much to Cassie’s annoyance–and the unsettling silence of several robed worshipers–the washrooms were temporarily out of service due to a leak in the impossivents. And then, somewhere between something called a nightcare center and the newly renovated pretzel place, Bobert uncharacteristically shut his yap for more than thirty seconds after Cassie had thought to ask about a boarded up shop with a sign promising something new coming soon two summers ago.
“You clocking out, Bobert?” asked a man handing out pamphlets to an all-male performance of the Vagina Monologues in the screaming fields Friday night.
“Nah,” Bobert replied. “Just giving the new girl a tour of the place on the way to get her a new badge.”
“Yeah. She also peed herself, so she’s going home early.”
“Dude!” Cassie exclaimed. “What the Hell?”
Bobert shrugged. “I thought that was worth mentioning. Sorry.”
The man shrugged, “We’ve all been there.” He held his hand out to Cassie and introduced himself as something she was sure had simply been frightened screaming.
“That short for something?” she asked, unsure why she said something so stupid.
Frightened Screaming looked at Cassie as if she had just farted, then turned back to Bobert. “Anyway. I’ve gotta get back to work before someone bites my head–”
And then to everyone’s relief, the clattering of a bell cut through the air.
“Oh, my god!” Bobert squealed.
“What? What the Hell’s next?”
“Must be your lucky day.”
“You don’t say?”
“Yup,” Bobert replied, gesturing to all the robed figures floating towards the amphitheater. “It’s time for an offering. We don’t get too many of these lately.”
If you were to remove the top portion of your typical professional hockey arena, replaced the chill, dry air with something similar to that of burning plastic–though, only inside out and with the lights off–and filled it to the nosebleeds with robed figures (in addition to colorful jerseys and painted, furry bellies of grown men), you’d have a fairly poor image that vaguely resembles what Cassie saw upon stepping through what she was sure was a bed sheet covering the entrance to the amphitheater. And as she made her way past the usher, she felt the walls tremble with the pulsing roar of a familiar sounding prayer playing on a loop over an admittedly impressive PA system. Though, it was more of a chant than prayer. A simple beck and call, really. But, haunting nonetheless.
Cassie looked on at this, doing her best not to say the loud-part quiet and the quiet-part loud. Yeah. I’m sure this doesn’t get annoying, she thought successfully.
Bobert, meanwhile, misinterpreted Cassie’s growing contempt of this increasingly silly scenario as her being enthralled by what he felt was a rather swell day at work.
“Aw,” Bobert squeaked. “I remember my first offering.”
The grating sound of Bobert’s voice ripped Cassie from her daze. “Sorry. What were you blabbing, Bobert?”
Bobert sighed. “Nothing.”
“Yeah, that’s great. Who’s that guy?” she said, pointing to the man dressed in a blue polo and tan corduroys phht-phht-ing his way across the stage.
“That’s the M’na M’na Manager.”
“Wow. That’s quite a M’na-outhful.”
“I know, right? Personally, I always thought he should be called the M’na-ger.”
“Good afternoon, everyone,” the M’na-ger said into the microphone, the dry, lifeless voice booming out of the PA system every bit as dry and lifeless as the man’s haircut.
“Good afternoon, Doug,” mostly everyone replied, though not quite as dry or lifeless.
“I know things haven’t been looking too good,” Doug the M’na-ger continued, “but I’m happy to announce that we have not one, but three sacrifices scheduled for this afternoon.”
There were two things Cassie immediately noticed about Doug’s announcement. The first was how Doug’s flat delivery had only a minor impact on everyone’s bloodlust. The other was the elaborate production value of it all. There were colorful lights, Freddy Mercury proclaiming his love for fat-bottomed girls through the PA system, and a one-hundred square foot, super-high resolution video screen providing everyone in attendance with a crystal clear image of three sacrificial lambs forced to skate to center ice. The first was a petite, middle-aged Hispanic man with great hair holding a pair of slacks. He was every bit as graceful on his feet as his hair was thick and firmly held in place. Next came a confused Polynesian woman in a lovely floral dress. And then a ham-faced potato rolled out onto the ice, squawking the same demand over and over. “I want to speak to the manager!”
“Hey!” Cassie exclaimed. “I know that potato!”
“You do?” Bobert asked, cocking his eyebrow.
“Yeah, it’s my sister. What’s she doing down there?”
Bobert puzzled this for a moment, then proceeded to say nothing at all.
Meanwhile, the Hispanic man with great hair (and a wholly newfound talent for ice skating) attempted to be heard over the squawking potato. “Excuse me,” he said, turning to Cassie’s sister. “Do you mind if I go first? I think I left my truck running.”
“I’m not even sure why I’m here,” the Polynesian woman added, fully aware nobody asked, nor cared.
But before Cassie’s potato of a sister could even begin to peck and claw at either of them for daring to have the gall to interrupt her mid-squawk, all three were suddenly and swiftly picked up by a large tendril made of nothing, gobbled up whole by teeth that were most certainly not there a moment before, and their bones spat back out onto the ice one at a time, like pulpy, bloody watermelon seeds.
to be continued…