“All I Want For Christmas Is You” is a song so ubiquitous even a dead mall plays it.
Dead Woods Mall
People are fascinated by abandoned places. I can’t blame them, so am I. For me, my favourite type of abandoned place is dead malls.
Partly, this is because of the light. With a lot of skylight and just about no windows, a dead mall is bathed in a very top-down light and shadow. Partly, it’s because they’re such enormous spaces, built with crazy money to hold the bustle of huge numbers of people. It’s jarring to see them empty and derelict.
And partly, it’s because I have a dead mall a twenty minute walk from my house.
I’m the only high schooler in my house, but I don’t bring the drama. I live with a mom who is ceaselessly furious that her co-workers are all idiots, a dad who has big opinions, an uncle for whom the world is apparently just more against than most people, a fretful grandma, and a granddad with dementia. I escape the house a lot to get away from the drama.
So when there’s nowhere else to go, I head for Woods Mall.
I found it early this year, when I came out of the woods all of a sudden and found myself standing in front of a massive concrete building just mouldering away all on its own. I don’t know why it’s abandoned. When I googled it I just got articles about the other mall in town, which is booming. I’ve guessed it’s because it’s a bit out of the way, and stores chose the mall in town that’s more visible to shoppers.
To clarify, I don’t actually know the name of this dead mall. I call it Woods Mall because it’s right up against the woods. Whether deliberately or by vandals, the mall’s signage has all been cracked or spray-painted off. In fact, I didn’t actually know it was a mall until I went inside. I thought it’d been a factory or something stuck outside town to keep the noise and pollution away.
There’s three ways I know of to get into Woods Mall. The first is around near the front, where a street that’s more pothole and plants than tarmac feeds into a parking lot. A glass sliding door that used to lead into some huge department store has long been shattered. Its security grille is usually left at half mast, so you can sneak in under it through the broken glass. That grille still works though, and I have found it rolled down and locked before. Ergo: I don’t use that unreliable entrance often.
The second entrance is through a loading dock around the side. This one’s also a bit dubious. I’ve never seen this roller door closed, but the gap under it is only about a foot and it does whine ominously when you’re sliding under it, the weight of a steel roller door big enough for multiple trucks above you. That entrance leads to a heavy door that doesn’t lock, per se, but it can get inexplicably stuck and you have to yank or bang on it to get it to open.
My preferred entrance is the third, and that’s also because it’s the one nearest my house. I found it because of that: tramping around the outside of this concrete building, I noticed some cracked stairs down to a fire exit. There’s no parking lot on that side, it comes out right beside trees, and those trees have grown up since the mall was abandoned.
It probably gives an indication of how long ago that was: the fire exit is now propped open by a determined tree root that’s punched its way through those cracked concrete stairs and grown into the doorframe. I’ve guessed it was the root itself that broke the fire exit door, years of finding whatever nice nutrient-rich water is there shoved that door harder and harder until it cracked inwards.
That door was where I was headed on a day in early November that saw me running from my uncle’s need to complain to his nephew about his latest tragic dating experience. I hopped down off a defeated-looking retaining wall and skirted a shopping cart half-buried by dirt and fall leaves. An ancient My Little Pony toy has long been sat in the child seat of that cart, its plastic skin now looking cracked and scabbed and its hair a mouldering black around flirtatious doe eyes.
As I always did, I saw that pony toy as a sign to be quiet now. There’s something so tellingly abandoned about it that it always gives me the sense I shouldn’t really be here. My feet slowed into their instinctive creep, taking the broken concrete stairs softly. The fire exit door doesn’t like to be pushed inwards. I pressed my shoulder against it to make it creek those inches more and slipped in onto shattered tiles, stepping over the tree root.
This fire exit is at the end of a hallway, bathrooms off one side of it and a couple unusable elevators on the other. The bathrooms aren’t usable either, just as a side note. I’ve tried. For another reason don’t recommend trying to whip it out to pee amidst tumbled-down stalls: it’s near pitch black in there, shadows and cobwebs everywhere. Not a welcoming place to put yourself in a vulnerable stance.
It was the boring part of Woods Mall, by virtue of being the part I see over and over again. The only light is from the cracked open fire exit, so it gets pretty dark along it. I passed through the corridor quickly, coming out into a two-storey lobby centred around very dead potted trees and a couple of broken escalators. The one had lost most of its metal stairs, a pile of them around the foot like an open maw of serrated teeth. The other’s handrails had broken and wound off, one section of rubber dangling down to brush the floor in any slight wind. As that floor was coated in shattered glass from either the side of the escalator or the skylight above, every brush of the rubber handrail tinkled through shards.
Like I said, I don’t know when this place was abandoned, but my guess is it was before I was born. The faded shop signs look positively vintage to me, cartoonish and amateur. A candy store across the lobby had marketed itself with elephant and panda mascots done in some kind of sticker. They weren’t as faded as the rest, but they’d peeled and bubbled in a way that gave the toothy smiles a sinister look.
Probably part of that, though, was the graffiti right next to them that read “EVIL LIVES HERE”. It was one of the better-done bits of graffiti, surrounded by inane tagging and one idiot’s failed attempt to spray paint a swastika. I guessed it was the same decent graffiti artist who’d given the panda and elephant spooky black eyes. Those black eyes followed me through the mix of deep shadow and grey-blue daylight as I walked on.
There’s a freeway not too far from Woods Mall, but you can’t hear it inside. Inside it’s cold silence like some kind of forgotten sarcophagus, the only noises the whistle of wind and whatever it rustles. My shoes crunching over broken grass added to that as I got started following my whims of exploration.
I’ve found a couple of good things in here. My guess was the store owners left in a hurry, else I doubt I’d have come across the diamond and emerald necklace I’d noticed in a corner of an old jewellery store. That was one cool find. I’d sold it for enough to buy an Xbox. I’d gotten a scarf that wasn’t in too bad a state too, and a real leather satchel that I’d been able to wash clean of mould.
But I’d found all that on my first several forays into Woods Mall. Now my exploring wasn’t as fresh. My phone’s flashlight on, I traipsed into those stores I’d thought too boring to go through before and ones I wanted to see again. The creepiest store of all was a kid’s indoor playground upstairs and the toy store it’d been connected to. Down here, the most thrilling ones to peek through were those large stores with row after row of desolate, dark, and damaged shelving; the electronics stores that still boasted some pretty retro technology; and the lingerie store with its battered-looking mannequins, the odd mouldy sequined bra hung off just one shoulder.
The mall was definitely built for crowds. It had three separate skylit lobbies, and a fourth that served on both levels as the food court. The food court looks like a crowd fled it in a hurry – as though the mall had become abandoned when the zombie apocalypse arrived. Tables, chairs, garbage cans, and deceased potted plants were tumbled all over the pace, food trays scattered across the floor. How it’d really gotten like that, I don’t know, but it’s fun to imagine some kind of apocalypse movie being filmed there.
I was slowly heading in that direction, picking through old stores as this or that caught my interest. The largest lobby is between the other two, the food court branching off it. I passed a couple phone booths and stepped over a chunk of glass from the elevator on my way in. Always, the longer I’m in Woods Mall, the more I feel disconnected from reality. It’s not just the large forgotten space and the zombie-apocalypse look, it’s the dated amenities too, stuck in time.
I heard the squawk as I was passing under the unstable-looking escalator. It had me popping out quickly on the other side to look around. I heard it again, for a moment, like a weird electronic burst, but quieter.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard something weird in here. Last time I’d traced a strange whistling to a system of old pneumatic tubes – and then had to ask my grandfather what they were. He was the best to ask, the past being what he remembered, him having the time to talk to me about things other than his own problems, and because I could show him photos of an abandoned mall and not have him remember it to warn me off messing around in here.
This hadn’t sounded like that. I stood in the centre of the main lobby, somehow sure I wasn’t done hearing the noise, whatever it was. The wind, funnelled down through the broken skylight, rustled at abandoned plastic bags and knocked the dangling receiver of the payphone against its booth. That was it for sound, for a short time.
Then I heard a sort of metallic crackling that started to make a bit of sense. It sounded like a speaker warped by time – or, more than one, as I could hear the sound coming from a few directions. The sound caught a crackly melody, and then the volume turned up.
The tune wasn’t played at the same time by every speaker, a few of them seeming a beat behind the others. That was eerie, but it wasn’t fear I felt first. I recognised the song – literally everyone who has ever shopped around Christmas would recognise it. Jaunty, once popular, and therefore so overdone it actually annoyed me I was hearing it not only in November, but in Woods Mall. If there was one place that should be free from that damn song –
I don’t want a lot for Christmas
There is just one thing I need
I don’t care about the presents
Underneath the Christmas tree
Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You. So ubiquitous in the holiday season that even a dead mall was playing it.
And playing it on crappy speakers that shouldn’t be powered…
Thinking about that was what unnerved me about the tinny tune. That song in a busy mall decorated for Christmas was an annoyance. As the breeze through the skylight slipped chill across my face, the payphone receiver knocked, and everywhere around me was derelict shadow…
I gulped involuntarily. Woods Mall was a place I’d only ever visited alone. I’d thought I’d been alone today too. But if the speakers were playing, someone else was here.
Get out! screamed my gut. I didn’t know what kind of person would go to a dead mall to hook up the speaker system and play that song. I didn’t want to know. I turned heel, kept my eyes wide open for any movement, and started hustling for the fire exit door.
Instinct had me hurrying faster and faster, every speaker I passed cranking out the same tune making me care less and less about making noise. It was with a sense of real danger at my heels that I finally reached the dark hallway with the gap of light at the end and bolted along it.
Make my wish come true
All I want for Christmas is you…
The words followed me out as I squeezed past the broken door, and then I was hustling up the steps, staring around, and, determining I was alone, catching my breath bent over with my hands on my knees beside the My Little Pony’s shopping cart. That cart, with its creepy pony, felt like the place designated as “safe” in a game of tag.
I was out. I could still hear Mariah Carey’s voice, but it was distant now: contained within the concrete juggernaut behind me.
Still huffing a little, I stood straight and set my feet for home. I’d only taken a few steps when I thought suddenly to be quiet again. Why instinct had told me to do that was revealed when I heard it more clearly: another set of feet were walking somewhere off around the side of the building – on the cracked parking lot was my guess from the sound.
A corner of the mall blocked me from seeing whoever it was. My breath bated, feeling the danger once again, I waited, frozen in the fall leaves.
But the footsteps were going the other way – headed away from me. I waited until I couldn’t hear them anymore, then dashed into the forest, my sights set on the dramatic safety of my home.
In the days that followed that creepy adventure, I decided the footsteps probably just belonged to another urban explorer there to do precisely what I’d been doing. I couldn’t be the only one who visited Woods Mall. The place was filled with graffiti after all. The direction the feet had been going would take them to the loading bay entrance, or, if they overshot that, around the front to the shattered department store door.
And I told myself that was probably what the music had been too. Some curious person who, maybe, just wanted to see if they could get the speakers working again. Maybe it’d even been a Christmas prank of some sort – a bunch of kids finding it funny to make a dead mall play that overdone song on warped old speakers.
There could even be squatters in the mall. If you had nowhere else to go, it’d offer a roof over your head.
Still, it took a lot to make me want to head back there. Namely, it took the start of the Christmas-inspired household drama to get me out of the house and drifting through the trees in the direction of Woods Mall.
Maybe my mood was a little darker than usual. Christmas always brings out the worst in my family. But halfway through that walk toward the mall I started to want to be creeped out. Maybe I’d video it on my phone this time, and upload it on the internet. Whether or not the speakers were still playing that song, it’d make a good urban exploring video.
Videos like that tended to start with an explanation about the place before going in. I had my phone out and ready, but like it always did the My Little Pony in its cart had my feet defaulting to quiet creeping. The idea of speaking aloud to my phone right now felt wrong in the abandoned silence.
I’d just video the good bits inside this time, I decided. I could record the outside with some kind of monologue later.
I approached the fire exit door warily, but the silence stayed, no overdone Christmas song echoing out. I couldn’t hear any other footsteps either.
So I squeezed in and started my trek.
We’d had a light snowfall some days ago. Inside, that snow had melted into slippery slush and water. Patches of puddles reflected the skylight above and my boots quickly became slick.
It’d be better upstairs, I figured, and that’s where the creepy toy store was too. I found the first staircase I knew was sound, and climbed to the second storey.
That was where I started recording, showing the lobby around and below before directing my camera along the hallway ahead. There aren’t too many interesting stores along this stretch, but I recorded what was there, showing forgotten mannequins and a butcher’s where meat hooks still hung, empty in the dark and dusty space. My camera lingered on the chalk price list above the counter. Over the smudged prices of beef cuts, someone had done a drawing of a dark eye staring down at me. Beside it they’d written the same message that was spray painted downstairs: “EVIL LIVES HERE”.
It was good content, because it was unnerving. Passing the jewellery store where I’d found that necklace, I considered narrating my video for only a second. My desire to make a good internet video was a lot smaller than my instinct to stay quiet.
The main entrance to the kids’ indoor playground is through a glass doorway decorated with brightly coloured rainbows and animals. It looks perfectly dystopian against a backdrop of dark playground beyond, stained and hanging ceiling panels, broken light fixtures, and exposed wires. I caught all that on camera before trying the doorknob.
It was how I’d gotten in before, but this time the door didn’t open. The handle didn’t even depress. I showed on camera it was locked, then turned and headed on to the toy store beside it. There was another entrance through there.
What struck me first, passing under the broken roller grille of the toy store, was the smell. The place stank of bleach, so much so that it gave me an instant headache and stopped me in my tracks. I had my phone flashlight on to record in the dark. The first thing the light landed on was an umbrella propped against a very dusty plastic rocking horse that had lost both eyes. The broken spokes of the umbrella kept it hooked over the rocking horse’s neck. The umbrella’s handle missing, it was bare tubing that rested against grimy grout between tiles.
The smell was definitely new, but I couldn’t remember if the umbrella and rocking horse had been there before. My light caught the side of another umbrella, this one in Sailor Moon theme. It was missing its handle too, lying at the foot of the counter. My light followed the counter up and stopped.
On its surface, this part looking cleaned to perfection, were what looked like butcher’s hooks, five of them lying side by side. Beside them was a cleaver that shone in my phone light.
The creep factor was starting to get to me. Beyond the counter was the doorway into the playground, but my feet didn’t want to take me there. My camera hesitated on it, videoing the entrance and the hints of collapsed climbing gear beyond the dark glass.
My light wavered, and in the corner of my eye I caught sight of what I was sure was a face. Great shots of horror zinged along my limbs as I swung my camera that way.
A mannequin. I ran my light up and down it several times to make sure, then, freaked out, swung the light in a circle around me. Just a mannequin. But that mannequin had definitely been moved into the toy store. It hadn’t been there before.
I heard the metallic crackle from outside the shop, and my gut sank even lower. A tinny tune came to life on dying speakers. The same one as last time.
I just want you for my own
More than you could ever know
My feet moved now. I was out of the toy store and heading back along the hallway in seconds, my heart in my throat.
But outside the store the sound was different. Back in the direction I’d come the music was blaring. Behind me it was silent, as though the speakers that way weren’t playing this time. I registered that as I hustled toward the noise, making it back into the first lobby where I’d come up.
A burst of light from ahead – two lamps flickering on. It bathed the top of the stairs I was headed for in shuddering brightness and my legs jittered to a stop. Up ahead were all the signs someone else was there. Behind was dark and quiet – as it should be.
And then, from downstairs, a payphone rang.
I could see it over the balcony. I could see the receiver wasn’t just hanging off this payphone. It was gone entirely. How could it even ring?
But that wasn’t the most important question. How was I going to get out?
All the lights are shining
So brightly everywhere
And the sound of children’s
Laughter fills the air
The lights, the music, the phone ringing and ringing – that was all between me and the fire exit. I could turn around and head for the loading bay or the department store exits, but I didn’t trust those ones, and the idea of running there only to find them locked or stuck was terrifying. The fire exit, at least, always had that root propping it open.
But it was down a long dark hallway where anyone could be waiting for me, out of sight in the bathrooms or blocking my escape.
Santa won’t you bring me
The one I really need
But someone, I reasoned, was trying to make me head the other way. Someone was scaring me off running for the fire exit.
And that decided it for me. I sucked a breath into my constricted chest, and bolted for the stairs I’d come up.
The lights flickered down on me as I swung onto the stairs, my eyes wide and keeping a lookout for anything and everything. The payphone’s ringing was shrill and deafening, yet I saw nothing moving but a wet plastic bag caught in some drift of wind.
Hitting the glass-strewn floor running, I slipped. My arms flew out and I landed palm-down on glass, my knees cracking the wet ground. I didn’t stop to check my injuries. I scrabbled to my feet, my phone clutched in my fingers, and raced for the hallway.
I could see the gap of light at the end. No one was stood before it. I didn’t even try to look into the dark bathrooms. I just bolted, hit the fire exit, and shoved through it.
Outside, and I didn’t stop at the My Little Pony cart this time. I flung myself over that broken retaining wall and sprinted into the trees.
The fall had given me cuts on my hand and knees, one bad enough that I took myself to urgent care for stitches. I told them I’d fallen on some broken glass on the road.
My phone had a crack through it, but it thankfully still worked. It’d probably actually saved my other hand from more cuts. For the video on it, it was still there, but I hadn’t watched it, and I hadn’t shown it to anyone else.
I’d been kind of avoiding my phone as a result, so I hadn’t really noticed when a police alert came through asking people to look out for a missing man. I remembered it one Saturday morning when I was watching the news with my grandad. Inserted in beside the presenter was a photo of a young woman as the news gave us a rundown of how she’d been missing for a week. The request was, as ever, that if anyone in our area had seen her to contact the police. The presenter finished off the segment with note about how she was the second missing person in our part of the state.
‘This again,’ my grandad muttered. He shook his head a little. ‘Hope someone’s checking that mall.’
His words rang through my head, the suggestion too close to home. The problem was, though, my grandad had mumbled it. I thought I heard him right, but the doubt was there.
‘The mall?’ I said, trying not to sound anxious.
The presenter on the TV had moved on to local politics. My grandad was watching it with that lost sort of look in his eyes that made me think his dementia wasn’t so great today. He didn’t respond to me, so I said it again.
My grandad blinked and looked at me.
‘Someone should check the mall?’ I prompted.
His forehead wrinkling into a frown, my grandad’s eyes grew more lost. It made my heart sink. He’d been getting worse this year.
‘We’re going to the mall?’ my grandad asked. ‘Now?’
I’d been avoiding all malls, mostly to ensure I never heard that Mariah Carey song again. I shook my head.
‘You said it about the missing people.’
‘Missing people…’ my grandad repeated. I didn’t get the chance to prompt him further. He’d noticed the bandage on my hand. ‘Oh, son, what’d you do?’
I’d told him the same false story about falling on the road about every day since it’d happened. I told him the same story again then, deciding just to be glad he cared to ask. The only other person who’d asked about it had been my mom, and she hadn’t listened to my answer.
I didn’t really want to know what, if anything, my grandad had been getting at, but it played on my mind over the next couple days. The weird things I’d seen in that mall, and then these disappearances…
A fight between my parents five days before Christmas had my uncle storming out, my grandma fretting, and my poor grandad looking confused in his armchair before the TV. It’d been brewing for a few days, and that fight wasn’t the end of it. Snarky tensions stuck around as they always did even after the main event ended.
I found it toxic, and it didn’t take me long to be stomping out the back door and into the fresh snowfall. I didn’t want to get drawn into a question of whether I too was being grateful enough.
I really didn’t want to head to Woods Mall. But, like that Mariah Carey song, my grandad’s words about checking it were stuck in my head.
The people who should do that checking, I knew, were the cops. Maybe it was a thing in less-functional households, but my family culture was strong on never calling the police unless absolutely necessary. “It plays creepy music” and “my grandad said something cryptic” were not reasons to call the police that fit that criteria.
But maybe if I did find something there it’d be reason enough to do so. I had a very bad feeling about that mall, and that bad feeling made me think there was something to find there.
I reached the end of the woods and stared out at the concrete juggernaut forgotten to time. I could see the fire exit, propped open as usual by its tree root. My reluctant feet didn’t take me towards it just yet. Instead, they headed the other way, walking around the outside of the building.
The road out front was empty of cars. Any car would have a time trying to drive on it anyway, and it wasn’t just the cracks and potholes now. Snow hid those from view, as did, for the cracks and holes there, the snow blanketing the empty parking lot. I crunched through it, heading for the department store entry.
I’d avoided this door last time because I’d worried I might not be able to get out. Right now, it was proving me right. Behind the shattered glass of the sliding door, the security grille was shut. Approaching warily, I gave the grille a jiggle. It tugged against the frame, not budging. I couldn’t say for sure whether it’d been closed and locked the last time I was here, but it definitely was now.
I lingered for a moment beside the locked grille, turning my ear towards it. It was distant, but, a chill heading down my spine, I could hear a jaunty tune being played inside the dark mall. The same one as ever.
It took me a moment to collect my nerves. Then I headed on through the parking lot, making for the lane that lead to the loading bay.
Maybe it was my imagination – or the recent snowfall – but the gap under the huge steel roller door looked narrower than I remembered it. I eyed it with trepidation, my gaze trailing up the rusting metal to the roller mechanism at the top. It was a tough thing to trust.
It wasn’t as much the thought of needing to check the mall as my sense I was already here doing it, that made me swallow my unease, lie down, and slide past banked snow onto cold concrete. I did it as quickly as could still be considered quiet, hating every second I was directly beneath that massive door. A brush of my shoulder against it, me sitting up hastily in the dark on the other side, had it giving a foreboding clanging and creaking.
I shoved to my feet, staring through the dark of the empty loading bay. Somewhere high above, something else creaked. I hustled, my eyes wide open, for the door into the mall. It was hard not to feel there were things in the shadows I didn’t want to see.
The door that lead into a service hallway has only a single simple handle, below it a keyhole. I tugged it, and heard the grating in the top corner, where the door stuck in the jam. Another tug just got it more firmly wedged, so I shoved a shoulder against it, then yanked back hard. It didn’t work the first time, but it usually took a couple tries, so I geared up for a second.
There was a movement somewhere above me. My breath caught in my throat, my eyes straining to see through the dark as I stared up toward the high loading bay ceiling. It occurred to me if I was here to “check” the mall, I should probably do a bit more to look around the loading bay.
But that occurred to me a second before I heard what sounded like the clanking of chains.
My shoulder shoved the door hard, then I was yanking it with all my might. It crunched past the jam and, not looking back, I rushed through and made sure to pull the door back to stuck behind me. At least… that way it’d take someone else a noisy moment to come through after me.
I could hear the music even from the utilitarian service hallway. My phone out and flashlight on, it did give me a moment to rethink how stupid I was being here. I had a lot of instinct to go on that told me the mall was bad news, and next to nothing to tell me I needed to be here.
But I was already here. My feet moved on through the dark hallway. I’d gotten out okay every other time.
I felt the cold chill of a breeze before the hallway came out near the food court. It passed through me, making the dark hallway seem otherworldly and the jaunty music, playing on repeat, surreal. I could hear the music better as I stepped into a main thoroughfare of the mall. It was louder to my left, in the direction of trashed food court tables and chairs. Around me, everything seemed like unintelligible shapes where a shifting danger could be hidden anywhere. This time, I had the definite sense I was being watched.
I pulled up the camera on my phone and started recording. Maybe it would end up making a good internet video, but that wasn’t why I was doing it. I wanted a record of this – wanted the chance, when I got up my nerve later, to search through the video for anything I might have missed or, more comfortingly, use the videos to reassure myself there really had been nothing sinister here.
Before, I’d been sure the music was trying to send me toward the main lobby or, further, toward the blocked department store exit – away from the fire escape door. There were no lights flickering or payphones ringing this time, but the music seemed to be trying to do the same thing. I swallowed quietly, and turned my feet in the direction away from the blaring music, toward the main lobby.
Mariah Carey’s longing vocals started to sink away behind me, then, the main lobby coming up ahead, I started to hear it more and more from the side too. Just one side: like it had been before, the music was louder to my left, in the direction of the fire exit; quiet reigning to my right where a broad hallway led to the third lobby and the department store off it.
The recent snow dump had reached inside too, falling through the broken skylight to dress the broken escalators, benches, and dead potted plants with a blanket of white. I stepped up onto snow and felt that cold breeze again. It made me shiver.
I just want you for my own
More than you could ever know
Hanging from the derelict elevator was something that hadn’t been there before. What looked like a kid’s fairy wand toy was hanging, tied to an exposed beam of the elevator. It was oriented so the sparkly star at the tip was hanging down.
What was below the star was hidden by the side of an escalator. I stepped around it and froze in the snow, my breath bated.
The back of a man’s shoulder, his head covered in a shroud and his body clothed in a dirty dressing gown. For a long moment of panic, I stayed stock still, no idea what to do. It took that long for me to register that snow had collected on his head and shoulders – that he was standing stock still.
I registered more things then – noticed the mannequin stand going under his dressing gown to prop him up. Saw, leaning cautiously to the side for a better view around the escalator, that his hand was tied around a staff made out of a broom, the crook at the top crafted from the handle of an umbrella.
My eyes stuck on his hand, not quite comprehending it. My feet crept me further around the escalator.
It was a nativity scene. Three figures before a manger that had been packed with plastic bags in place of straw. The figure in the middle was sat on one side of a bench that had been pulled over, the other side empty. That figure was clean of snow and dressed in a pale blue robe that had a hood over her head. But it was the one stood behind her I stared hardest at, unbelieving. That figure was the only one facing me.
The breath blew out of my lungs in one gust. I blinked hard, then again and again. I moved in that bit closer, wanting to make sure – not believing my eyes.
My mind had decided they were mannequins. They did seem to be mounted on mannequins, but the cool face of a mannequin wasn’t what I was looking at. Stretched over the head was something that looked a lot like skin. The head had eyes, but they were googly eyes stuck where the real eyes should be, eyelids unable to close around them. And it had a mouth. A mouth that was held in a rictus of a grimace by meat hooks sunk cruelly into flesh.
Its hand, like the other male’s, was holding a staff made from a broom and umbrella handle. And that hand looked real too. I’d inched close enough to be just behind the shoulder of the first figure. Its hand, bound by wire to the makeshift shepherd’s crook, was just before me.
Horrified – barely breathing – I reached out and touched the back of its hand.
Instantly, I snatched my fingers back, bile raising in my throat. It felt like skin.
I’d forgotten I was filming. My phone hanging in my hand, I dashed forward, needing to check one thing –
Plastic shopping bags were stuffed all in around the manger, but there was something in the middle of them. Something skin-toned and small. The thought of it being a real baby had me yanking plastic bags aside –
The cutesy face of a doll, lips pursed like it was made to suck a toy bottle, met my gaze. I barely registered the relief. Looking up, I saw the face of the Mary figure up close below her hood. Her neck had been severed and then stuck onto the neck of a mannequin. Googly eyes were shoved in over her real ones. Meat hooks yanking at the corners of her mouth, her grin was wide. And she had real teeth.
Make my wish come true
Baby all I want for Christmas is you!
The music blared louder than before, making me jump. And then the shrill ringing of a payphone assaulted my ears.
I’d forgotten to look around, but I knew the sounds were coming from the direction of the fire exit door. Even more than I had last time, I was sure it was trying to drive me away from that exit – trying to send me, instead, down the other way. Where I was certain I’d get stuck.
The cleaver on the toy store counter, beside five meat hooks – that image came back to me in a blast of panic. There was no way I was running in the direction it wanted me to.
I bolted, instead, straight toward the noise. Lights that shouldn’t be powered flickering on didn’t slow my escape this time. I ran on past them, flat out for the first lobby and the hallway that led to my escape. There were no footsteps chasing after me – no one leaping out to catch me – but I definitely wasn’t alone – and I definitely, as my mad escape finally saw the crack of light ahead, wasn’t ever returning to Woods Mall.
Two seconds after I’d squeezed out past the fire exit door, I had my phone to my ear. Through huffed breaths, bent over and jumpy by the My Little Pony cart, I told the emergency call taker what I’d seen. Whether or not they believed me, I didn’t care, I just wanted them to stay on the line with me as I waited for the police to arrive.
It was the call taker who told me to go around to the street and wait for police there. I hadn’t thought to do that – hadn’t thought to do anything but get out and call the police. My mind was a whirl of white noise mush, my thoughts not working properly. I stumbled and slipped through the snow on shaking legs, the call taker’s calm instructions in my ear the only thing I trusted.
It was their instruction that kept me breathing in and out slowly, and looking around to ensure I was still alone. They told me when the police were five minutes out, then two.
Not blaring lights and sirens, but going slowly and carefully on the snowy and potholed road, three cop cars pulled up just beside me. The call taker saying they’d leave me in the police’s hands, I hung up and gulped.
I told them the story in a jittering outpour, gesturing again and again to the mall, as though I could see the lobby near the department store right before me through the concrete sarcophagus, the main lobby further behind it. Nonplussed frowns met my tale from most of the officers. One waited until I’d finished with his look on me a speculative side-eye.
His hands in his coat pockets, he glanced to an older officer when my story petered out and I tried to catch my breath.
‘Wasn’t this,’ he nodded to the mall, ‘the place they found those four bodies back in the ‘90s?’
The older officer was evaluating me. He made a small hum.
‘’92,’ he supplied, confirming it. ‘Right.’ He jerked his head at the building and lifted his flashlight. ‘We’ll go have a look. You said there’s an open fire exit around the back?’
‘Yes.’ I nodded hard. ‘And come out that way too,’ I warned him, insistent. ‘It – they – want you to go on past the main lobby. Don’t. Always come back through the fire exit.’
A wry twitch of the officer’s face made me think he didn’t really care for my warning. The other cops grabbing flashlights from their cars, he led the troupe around to the back. I was left with a single officer. Her face impassive, she nodded to my phone.
‘You said you had videos?’ she prompted.
When I’d stopped filming the second one, I didn’t know. I must have accidentally hit the stop button sometime at that gruesome nativity scene or in the run from it. But the video was still there, right beside the one I’d made last time. At the officer’s request, I started with the earlier one.
I didn’t really want to see it, but the officer didn’t take my phone from me. Unnerved and still breathing too quickly, I stood with my phone as she watched over my shoulder.
It was a small image on my cracked phone screen, but still it made me swallow, uneasy, as the video focused on one mannequin, then another. It was hard not to wonder whether those mannequins were the ones propping up the nativity display. I tried to keep face as the video went on, showing the butcher’s store with meat hooks still hanging…
‘That a friend of yours?’
Jittery as I was, I jumped at the cop’s question.
She pointed to the screen. On it was the chalk price list with the message “EVIL LIVES HERE”.
‘Go back,’ she said.
I scrolled back through the video and started again at her say so. This time, the video showing me stepping into the butcher’s, I saw it. In the corner, behind the counter, I caught the sight of a face. Pale and creepy, it was in the frame for only a second, and it didn’t look like a mannequin.
‘N-no…’ I breathed, my hand shaking harder. ‘I… never saw that before.’
‘You didn’t see him while you were making the video?’ the cop asked, her stare at me serious.
I shook my head.
‘I didn’t see anything,’ I uttered, staring back. I was sure, if it was possible, my face had gone even whiter. ‘I never even heard footsteps.’
It was somehow even freakier than being in the mall. My eyes wide and going cold in the winter air, I followed the cop’s gaze, returning mine to my phone.
It wasn’t only the one time the face would pop up in the video. The view was moving in toward the door before the kids’ playground. The glass behind the rainbows and cute animals was dark, but I didn’t need the police officer to point it out this time. Pressed to the glass on the far side was that face again, staring out.
I hadn’t seen that at the time either. The face stayed longer in the frame now, shadowed and not too clear behind the reflections on the glass, but visible as a middle-aged man. And he moved.
I just about chucked my phone when I saw his head turn – saw him retreat from the glass, while, just a couple weeks ago, I’d been standing right there, feet from him.
I shoved my phone at the cop and shook out my hands. They were going numb and tingly, my breathing coming in creeped out pants. I couldn’t touch my phone anymore – didn’t want know where else that man had been right there with me. When I hadn’t seen him – hadn’t heard him – at all.
The only footsteps, I thought in a horrified rush, I’d ever heard around the mall were the ones that had walked away through the parking lot that first time the music had played. Those ones, and my own. That was it. And those other footsteps could well have been a victim – been one of the people stuck on mannequin bodies to be propped up for a freaky nativity scene.
I could have been right there, by that My Little Pony cart, when one of them were coming to explore. On the day they were killed.
And I hadn’t warned them. I’d just run away.
But that wasn’t the only consideration that ran through my racing mind. If this spooky man been right there, feet from me, why had he tried to scare me into running toward the department store? Why crowd me that way with his scare tactics?
I didn’t know. I supposed I should just be grateful, else I’d be dead and mounted on a mannequin.
The police officer had paused the video on my phone. She got me to tell her which of my contacts was home, and called my family for me. I barely registered that, but I did hear it when, over the cop’s radio, one of the men inside the mall called for backup. A lot of backup.
The police officer got me sat down on a concrete bench, telling me to stay there as she started setting up a cordon. Then there were more cop cars coming, struggling over the tough road. Car after car – someone barking directions as I just sat, and stared at the snow covered forest before me.
I recognised my grandma’s car, and had regained just enough mental stability to have some gladness, in that moment, it was her who’d come rather than either of my parents. She’d brought my grandad with her, probably because no one else was home who’d watch him. She sat him down next to me and went off to fret and question any cop she could grab.
I met it all mutely, a growing sense of numbness taking over my body. Sitting on the bench beside me, his wrinkled face pinched into a frown, my grandad was looking around confusedly. His eyes met mine, and, despite it all, his face pulled into a genial smile. He put an arm around my shoulders and gave one a pat.
‘It’s okay son,’ he said reassuringly. ‘Whatever you’ve done, we’ll work out the best thing for it.’
He had no idea what was going on, but I appreciated the gesture all the same. Whether grandad currently knew if I was me or my dad, he did seem to know he cared for me. And I actually thought there was a bit more alertness in his eyes right then, as though the excitement had brought more awareness to him.
Twisting around, he looked again at the mall behind us. I did think he recognised it. And I did think he knew something.
‘What happened here?’ I asked him. ‘In the 90s? Four people found dead – do you know?’
My grandad started nodding. It was a slow nod – thoughtful.
‘Four dead…’ he repeated. ‘Four… Abandoned ever since.’
He was silent for a second, so I prompted him again, not wanting him to forget the question.
‘One fella – a security guard,’ he began. ‘He wanted a lady who worked in that big department store out front. She wanted another young man, or more than one. Just flirting, maybe, you know… Jealousy…’
I waited, but my grandad had trailed off and lost the story.
‘The security guard killed the lady?’ I said.
My grandad blinked and looked back at me.
‘In the mall,’ I pressed. ‘The security guard killed a woman and three men?’
‘Hid the bodies in a storage room near that big department store,’ my grandad said. ‘Three young fellas, and one girl. Where the mall stored the Christmas decorations. Did it over Christmas when that storage room was empty…’
My grandad trailed off again, losing focus.
‘Did they catch the man?’ I pushed. ‘Did they lock up the security guard that killed the four people?’
Again my grandad blinked, then a few more times. I had to repeat the question.
‘Locked up for life,’ he said, sounding certain about it. ‘Until he meets his maker to pass him judgement for all eternity.’
My grandad’s look grew lost again, him staring around, perplexed, at the cop cars. My face tight, I watched him, then glanced back at the ominous juggernaut of the mall. I didn’t know if that was the answer I’d wanted or not.
Four people, though. It was five days to Christmas, and there’d been only three people chopped up and attached to mannequins.
Police striding around us, my mind’s eye showed me the Mary figure sat on one side of the bench, the seat beside her empty and covered in snow. Had I been intended to play Joseph, or was the former security guard to take that role, my body stood up and my hand tied to a shepherd’s crook?