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Suspense Fiction Sad

James grunted with pain as he sat up and carefully felt the back of his head. To his relief, there was no blood, not even a bump. The gentle touch of his fingertips though was enough to make him grit his teeth and wince. He turned around as he recognized the subtle hum behind him. Lucky break, he thought as he watched the sharp teeth of the escalator slowly descending toward him. Had he fallen higher up those protruding edges may have been less forgiving on his body. As it was, he considered it fortunate to fall without so much as a scrape.

He gingerly got to his feet, his head throbbing alongside his heartbeat with the sudden movement. Looking around as he straightened his clothes, he noticed a few people on the second floor balcony above him looking down with concern. 

James waved. “No worries, just a tumble! I’m okay.” 

The people in the balcony continued to watch him silently. One looked down and shook his head. Another, a small child, waved back. James was embarrassed but grateful that only a few people had noticed him fall, especially considering how busy this section of the mall was earlier. Looking around, he saw his shopping bags and gifts strewn everywhere. He realized that he must have thrown them as he fell because one bag in particular seemed at least fifteen feet away. As he collected them, James tried to remember where he was going before he fell but could not recall, and the splitting pain in the back of his head made it difficult to concentrate on the issue. Hoping a pain reliever would help soothe his injury, James walked to the directory and found a convenience store located just down from where he was. 

The convenience store was empty except for a young woman working behind the counter. The woman seemed disinterested in James’s arrival, barely looking up as he walked in the store. He located a bottle of aspirin and approached the counter, where he noticed the young woman drinking a bottle of beer and watching a TV mounted on the wall. 

“Are you old enough to drink?” James asked, slightly concerned. 

The clerk looked up at James with a confused look on her face. “Are you new or something? Everyone here drinks.” 

James did not know what to do. He was confident that the clerk was too young to be drinking, but she seemed unconcerned. No other staff or management seemed to be working so James decided that he would swing by the security office before he left the mall to report what he had seen. He put the aspirin on the counter and retrieved his wallet. The clerk smiled, clearly amused.

“Man, you really are new.” 

James tried explaining, “I don’t work here. I’m just here for this.” 

The clerk laughed dryly, “Just take it. None of this stuff matters anyway.”

James hesitated, but, wanting relief for his headache, he nodded to the clerk and left with the pain relievers. He made his way to the directory, where he popped a couple of the pills into his mouth and chewed. He hoped that by crushing the pills they would work more quickly than if swallowed whole. His face pinched at the bitter taste as he reflected on his interaction with the convenience store clerk. James himself was no stranger to underage drinking. He and his buddies pregamed some of their high school football games, but, James thought, they hadn’t been nearly as conspicuous about it. Drinking at that age meant clandestine sips through a soda bottle spiked with alcohol, not brazenly downing a bottle of beer in public. James shook his head with confusion as he scanned the directory, hoping to remember the store he needed to visit before he left. As he looked over the alphabetized list he suddenly remembered: Anthropologie. When he fell down the escalator, he was on his way to Anthropologie to buy a gift for his wife. James smiled at the sudden realization and headed that direction. 

When he entered the store, James was pleasantly surprised to find it empty except for an older woman quietly perusing the candles. He was well familiar with the enormous crowds at the mall this time of year full of people that were, like him, doing their Christmas shopping at the last minute. In fact, James realized, the mall itself seemed quiet today compared to years past. He had only seen a couple of other people on his way to Anthropologie. He thought he recalled the mall being more crowded when he initially arrived that day, but, thinking about it now, he couldn’t remember for certain. He reached up and touched his head, grateful that the pain seemed to be subsiding.

After several minutes spent hopping between the glassware and loungewear, James finally decided on a comfortable looking set of pajamas to get his wife. She had mentioned recently that she needed a new set, and James was thankful he remembered the conversation. He approached the checkout counter, but there was no clerk in sight. A door behind the counter was slightly ajar so James assumed someone was momentarily working in the back. After waiting about five minutes and occasionally coughing in a vain attempt to be noticed by the unseen staff, James tried to make contact. 

“Hello, anyone there?” The room behind the counter was quiet. “Helloooo, anyone back there?”

The door remained cracked, and James could hear no footsteps or voices on the other end. He turned around, hoping to locate the elderly woman he had noticed earlier when he walked in. Maybe she knew where the staff was. Maybe she was the staff. James looked around the store, but it appeared that the woman had left.

Not wanting to leave without a gift for his wife, James reluctantly walked behind the counter and approached the slightly open door. 

“Hello,” James asked as he carefully pushed open the door, “anyone here?”

He leaned inside and peered around but was surprised to find the room empty except for a couple of TVs showing surveillance footage of the store. On the videos, James could see dozens and dozens of people crowded in front of the store’s counter, some visibly angry, most slightly irritated. Parents were desperately trying to reign in physically hyper children. The clerks behind the counter worked in a frenzy attempting to service all of the customers packed into the tight space. Interesting, James mused, the staff must have been reviewing a shoplifting incident. 

He exited the room and went back to the counter. He didn’t want to steal the pajamas, but he didn’t want to make a second trip back to the mall either. Curious, James fished out his wallet and found that he had enough cash to cover the pajamas. After laying the cash on the counter, he located a block of Post-Its and left a note indicating his name, contact information, and what he purchased. If they really needed to determine whether he shoplifted, James figured, they could contact him or review the security footage. He looked down at his phone. It was 5:00 pm now, and his wife would be expecting him home shortly so he made for the parking garage. 

As he approached the double doors to exit the mall, James noticed a custodian worker off to the side silently watching him with a mop in his hand and soap bucket to his side. James nodded to the elderly looking man, who nodded back in return. At the exit now, James reached out his hands but the doors wouldn’t budge. He pushed on one set of doors and then the other set immediately to the left, but both sets seemed to be locked. Weird, he could have sworn that he entered through these doors earlier in the day. No matter, he thought, he would just go up and try the double doors on the second floor.  As he walked from the doors, he again noticed the older man looking at him. Embarrassed, James gave a slight wave as he walked away.

Now on the second floor, James again made for the double doors leading to the garage. To his frustration though, he found that these doors too were locked. Third time’s the charm, he joked, and headed for the third and final floor. Again though, he found the doors to be locked. Feeling a bit frustrated, James returned to the first floor to see if he could find the custodian worker he had seen a few minutes earlier. If he didn’t have a key himself, then surely he would know who to ask. 

Back on the first floor, James found the older man where he last saw him, slowly mopping the floor. 

“Excuse me,” James asked, “Are you able to unlock these doors? It seems they’re locked on every floor.” 

The older man stopped mopping and looked up at James. “Believe me,” he said with a chuckle, “If I could open these doors, I would.” 

James looked at the man absently, tired and unsure what to say. 

“Sorry, you must be new here,” the older man apologized, now seemingly embarrassed by his previous remark. 

“Oh, I don’t work here. I’m just doing some last minute Christmas shopping.”

The older man looked down and seemed uncomfortable. “Uh, hey…I think you should go to the security office. You’ll want to ask for a woman named Dawn. She can help you out.” 

James remembered passing by the security office earlier that afternoon so he thanked the older man and headed in that direction.

Arriving at the security office, James found a locked metal door with a button to press for assistance located off to the left. He pressed the button and heard a buzzing sound on the other side. As he waited, he began hearing footsteps inside the office shuffling closer to his direction, and the door opened. A woman, perhaps in her mid-forties or so, stood in the doorway and stretched out her hand. 

“Hi there, I’m Dawn. I was wondering when you would be stopping by.”

Art shook her hand and replied inquisitively, “I’m James. Why were you expecting me?” 

Dawn didn’t answer the question. “How’s your head feeling, James?”

James lifted his hand to the back of his head and winced in anticipation but found that it now felt completely normal. “Well, great now, I guess. How did you know that I fell?” 

Dawn stepped aside from the doorway and gestured for James to come in. “I’m afraid I need to show you something.”

James passed through the threshold and found the security office to be small, about the size of a one-car garage, with one wall completely made of glass that looked out over the courtyard in the middle of the mall and another wall completely covered in TVs showing various surveillance footage of the mall. As he walked over to the TVs, he noticed two screens in particular that were showing different angles of the same area. On them, James saw the escalator that he had fallen down earlier but surrounded by what must have been fifty or more people, all watching from vantage points on the ground and on the balconies above. Many were taking pictures or recording the scene. As James looked closer, he noticed an open area at the base of the escalator. It appeared police officers had created a barrier to keep the crowd away. Paramedics seemed to have just arrived and were attempting to push a stretcher through the throng of onlookers surrounding the barrier. James squinted, his eyes nearly touching the screen now as he peered at the man laying at the bottom of the escalator. The man seemed to be wearing exactly what James was wearing, and he even looked like James. As he stared at the scene, James heard Dawn from behind his shoulder.

“James, I’m afraid I have some bad news. You took a real nasty fall down that escalator earlier. Unfortunately, I was watching as it happened because I was monitoring the shoplifter that tripped you. You had just gotten on at the top there,” she said, pointing at the top of the escalator on the screen, “and you were riding the stairs down. It looked like you were looking at your phone, not paying much attention. A man was caught shoplifting a few stores down and was running away from security. He went for the escalator and tried to run down, but, as he reached you, he couldn’t squeeze past. He bumped into you going quickly and sent you tumbling down the stairs. You weren’t far from the top when you fell, and your head kept hitting those teeth on the stairs on the way down. I don’t think anyone could have survived a fall like that.”

James’s heart began beating quickly, his vision narrowed, and he felt his chest tighten. 

“What,...what are you talking about? I stood up. I’m completely fine!” 

He looked at Dawn, who now seemed to have pity in her eyes. 

“I’m sorry James. You died on those stairs.” 

James couldn’t believe it. “That’s impossible. Look at me! I’m standing right in front of you! I’m holding these bags, I’ve been talking to people, this can’t be true!” 

Dawn shook her head slowly. “It’s true. Did you wonder why the mall was so empty when you woke up at the bottom of the escalator? Did you wonder why the doors were locked? Everyone you’ve seen after your fall is also dead, James. Myself included. We all died here in some way, and now….well, now we’re all stuck here. No one knows why, but we can’t leave. We’ve all tried, and we’ve all failed. Some are still out there trying to find a way out, but it seems as though we’re damned here until who knows when.”

James collapsed to his knees in front of the TV bay. He watched as the paramedics reached him and draped a black blanket over his bloody body. He watched as they picked up him, lifeless and limp, and placed him on the gurney. He watched as they wheeled him away, weaving through the shopping bags he had thrown as he fell. He watched as he left the mall for the last time. 

“This…this can’t be true. This is impossible!” 

In a frenzy, James bolted from the security office. He knew the doors on the west side of the mall were locked so he made for the east side in a dead sprint. His chest heaving and his heart pounding, he tried all three floors in vain. No door would budge. Exasperated, he began yelling and throwing anything he could at the windows. Rocks from a nearby water fountain bounced off and skid across the floor noisily. Potted plants shattered and rained soil. Even a metal sign he found near the entryway bent under the window’s strength. 

James collapsed against a wall and slid to the ground. He began sobbing. This couldn’t be happening. His life, his beautiful life. What he would give to take the escalator even thirty seconds sooner or thirty seconds later. Everything could have been different. As he cried, he thought of his wife. His parents. His siblings. The children he would never have. The places he would never visit and the food he would never eat. His future was the mall. Three levels and a food court. 

As he cried, the clerk from the convenience store James had visited after his fall appeared from around a corner. 

“Hey, I thought that may have been you. I heard the yelling and stuff and, uh, thought I’d swing by. Listen, sorry about earlier. I understand how frustrating it is to find out. I had the same reaction as you. It’s tough knowing that you’re…you know, dead.”

James huffed, “Yeah, I suppose tough is a word for it.”

The young woman approached James and reached out her hand. “Come with me. I want to show you something.”

She helped James off the ground, and he followed her. They walked from the east side of the mall towards its center, passing all of the retailers and restaurants and novelty shops that James would be destined to spend eternity with. As they walked, the mall opened to reveal the vast courtyard in the middle. It was completely covered and climate controlled, but decorated with dense foliage and waterscapes to make for a more natural and relaxing environment. James began to hear voices. They rounded a corner, and James noticed a bar that was packed full of people. Everyone was drinking and laughing and watching whatever happened to be playing on TV at the time. James stood there a bit astonished. Weren’t these people dead and damned here? Why was everyone so jovial? Where was the scorn and the anger and the desperation that James had just felt?

The clerk stopped and looked at James. “We’re all stuck in here,” she said. “You get used to it. There’s nothing else to do so you drink and make friends. Occasionally we meet new people like yourself. It can be boring for sure, and there’s many days where I cry and envy the life I had before this place…but, there’s a good group of people here, and we’ve all been through what you’re going through right now. Trust me, it’s not all doom and gloom.”

James was hesitant. The clerk gestured for him to follow her, “Come on. Let me introduce you.”

December 01, 2021 14:42

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12 comments

21:24 Dec 09, 2021

Wow! This story was incredible! I was totally hooked and curious about this creepy, quiet mall. What a great twist. I really liked James too…just a normal guy who is kind of bewildered by the strange situation and trying to get a Christmas gift for his wife…I think that’s what made it so heart breaking to find out he died. This was mysterious, sad and uplifting (at the end) all at the same time. Looking forward to reading more of your stories!

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Jd Moore
22:13 Dec 12, 2021

Such kind words! Thank you so much for reading my story and sharing that!

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Kate Winchester
18:31 Dec 09, 2021

I loved your take on the prompt. I thought maybe he was dead, but I was hooked. I also liked the small glimpse of hope at the end.

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Jd Moore
22:13 Dec 12, 2021

Thank you! I was hoping to end it in a way that wasn't too depressing.

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Kate Winchester
22:23 Dec 12, 2021

You’re welcome ☺️

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Jexica Marcell
19:41 Dec 07, 2021

This reminded me of The Maze Runner, when Thomas got to the Glade. Newt greeted him there, and the ending when the Clerk was going to introduce James, was very familiar. Great writing!

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Jd Moore
04:26 Dec 09, 2021

Thank you!

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Jexica Marcell
14:30 Dec 09, 2021

No problem! This was a very creative story that I think was absolutely darling.

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Craig Westmore
12:02 Dec 07, 2021

Intriguing story. The subtle, odd details that something wasn't right kept me reading to the end. Good job!

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Jd Moore
04:26 Dec 09, 2021

I was hoping for exactly that, thank you for sharing.

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Yves. ♙
08:59 Dec 06, 2021

A classic-- trapped in a mall in death! Not many worse places to be... but hey, everybody drinks here; they must know how to have a good time when it matters. Thanks for sharing!

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Jd Moore
04:25 Dec 09, 2021

I suppose there are worse ways to pass the time. Thank you!

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