Brad wrapped up the finishing touches on his last exam of the Fall Semester before turning it in to his Biology professor and exiting Chambliss Hall. It was the last day of final exams before Christmas break and the campus was already mostly empty of students. He shoved his hands into the deep pockets of his jacket and began walking back toward his dorm with a feeling of satisfaction about how his grades would be after his first semester at college. He was also looking forward to the break and going back home to spend some time with his family. He remembered back to his first day on campus and how excited he was to get away from home for the first time. Even he was a bit surprised at how much he missed the family, including his little sister.
The chill of winter hung in the crisp air as he quickly made his way back to the other side of campus to his dorm room. The sky was a dull grey and there was a hint of moisture hanging in the air, just enough to plant the thought of the possibility of another snowfall before he and his girlfriend, Jessica, drove home together for the holidays.
Just as he was walking into his dorm room his cell phone chirped from inside his jacket pocket. He had put it in the inner pocket during his exam and had forgotten that it was even there. For that matter, he considered himself lucky that it didn’t ring or beep from incoming texts while he was taking his exam. That was one pet peeve the professor had made clear on the first day of class. All cell phones were to either be off or on silent. If you felt the urgent desire to send a text when you were on her time then she expected you to leave class for the rest of the day.
“Hey sweetie,” he said cheerfully to Jessica. “Where are you?”
“I’m just tossing the last bag I’m taking home in the trunk and then I’ll be over to get you. Do you need any help carrying things out?”
“No, I have just one suitcase. I have enough at home to get me through the next three weeks before we have to come back. Are you still wanting to stop along the way to pick up some gifts?” he asked.
“Since I finished my exams two days ago I managed to get most of my Christmas shopping done except something for my dad. I thought you might help me pick something out. I’m sure we can find a mall somewhere along the way, as long as we don’t take too long to shop,” she said. “It’s a four hour drive back home, you know.”
“I know. I can help you with the driving and I shouldn’t take too long to pick up a few gifts. I’m sure we’ll pass a mall or two along the way.”
He and Jessica had decided to take an alternate route home for the holidays. If the interstate was anywhere near as crowded as it was when they went home for Thanksgiving, they knew that the traffic would be terrible and the trip longer and more dangerous than it had to be.
When Jessica pulled up in her Jeep Tracker Brad was already waiting outside with a small suitcase, his backpack, and his laptop computer. She popped the back and took the small suitcase from his hand. He smiled when he noticed the cleaned out corner where she left room for his bags and he smiled at her. It was the first time he remembered seeing her Tracker that clean since he father bought it for her during their junior year at high school.
He quickly put his other things in the back and closed it. Before he could walk around to the passenger side she forcefully grabbed his wrist and pulled him back to her and kissed him hard and deep.
“I missed you, too,” he said with a lopsided grin on his face.
“I’ve been dying to do that ever since I left your dorm room last night,” she said with a sinister smile. She had managed to sneak into his room since his roommate had already left for the holiday. She brought him dinner and they made love three times before she let him go to sleep. She knew he had a tendency to over study when he was nervous, and Biology was the one subject that he hated. She certainly took his mind off of the exam.
“How do you think you did?” she asked, actually hoping that she wasn’t too much of a distraction for him and caused him to fail. Brad had the habit of staring off into space and fantasizing of her from time to time, especially after nights like last night.
“I think did okay on it. Enough to at least squeeze out a C in the class. That subject is like my own personal cross to bear. I barely passed the two years of it in high school.”
“I remember,” she said laughing. “The only way I could get you to go through with the frog dissection was to tell you that I wasn’t wearing any panties and I’d prove it to you if you would make it through that test without throwing up!”
Of course she was wearing panties, but the distraction was enough to get him through the class and barely make a D. But that was part of her charm. Jessica knew the right buttons to push. And even more than that, he was thankful that her father was clueless about how much his little girl had grown up since they began dating. He probably knew but pushed it out of his mind. Besides, Brad had no intention of pissing him off since he was the Chief of Police in their home town.
It was only ten thirty in the morning when they drove away from the campus, but with traffic and stopping to finish their Christmas shopping they were hoping to make it home before six o’clock that evening.
They spent the first two hours of the drive catching each other up on what was going on with their families. They had been so busy their first semester getting used to their new surroundings, making new friends, and getting involved in school activities that they let the topic of their families go for the most part when they had time together. Brad was glad to finally have something not school related to talk about with the exception of their extra activities. Jessica had joined the school newspaper to learn more about her major of journalism and he had joined the college radio station and was learning how to be a disc jockey for a little extra fun on the side.
Jessica was glad that they decided to take an alternate way home even though they had never driven this way before. As the two lane road opened up into a four-lane highway, the towering pine trees on either side of the road went on as far as she could see. She had always heard that Forest Parkway was a beautiful drive that crossed into Jefferson National Forest at certain locations. The mountainous landscape was beautiful as they continued on their drive.
A couple hours into the drive Brad spotted a sign for an exit to the town of Strassburg followed by a road sign for the Strassburg Shopping Mall.
“Perfect!” he said. “We’ve made great time and the towns on this parkway don’t seem to be too big so hopefully the place won’t be too busy.”
“Well, no more busy than the Bristol Mall during this time of year,” she replied as she veered off the highway and down the exit ramp to Strassburg.
The small town was only fifteen minutes off of the parkway, but she and Brad were both surprised to see the parking lots around the mall nearly filled to capacity as they searched for a parking spot close to the main entrance at the center of the mall.
“For a small town they really know how to pack the mall,” she mused.
“Maybe it’s the biggest mall in the area and people come from several towns around. The Mercer Mall is always packed this year with cars from both sides of the state border. Maybe it’s the only game on the parkway if you want to shop?” Brad added.
Jessica drove around searching for a closer place to park, along with at least a dozen other cars in this section of the parking lot, before she gave up and pulled into one of the open spots at the end of the lot.
“Hope you don’t mind to walk,” she said sarcastically as they got out of the vehicle and walked hand in hand toward the mall entrance.
“I don’t mind it after sitting in the car for two hours. How about you?”
“Not at all, but I’m dying of thirst. Let’s grab a soda or a bottle of water first, okay.”
Brad couldn’t help but notice that the cars in the lot were all older models, almost as if no one ever bothered to buy a new car in at least the past five or ten years.
The main entrance was crowded with shoppers going in and out and the holiday mascots in full dress taking photos and handing out candy canes to the countless army of kids coming and going through the glass doors. Jessica thought for a moment about going over to the snowman on the sidewalk and getting a picture with her cell phone but thought better of it with so many shoppers nearly tripping over themselves.
“Hey, Jess,” Brad said as he tugged her hand and guided her into a different direction. “Too many people out here. Let’s go in the other door,” he said as he nodded toward a heavy looking grey metallic door that looked like a separate entrance into the mall, possibly used by the maintenance crew. “No sense tripping over so many feet when we can stroll in and get started with the shopping. Besides, I have a pretty good idea what I want to get so it shouldn’t take too long. We’ll probably spend more time standing in lines to pay for the gifts than we will actually picking them out.”
Brad swung the heavy door open as Jessica walked in ahead of him. She was glad that the first thing she saw was the sign to the ladies room.
“Wait here,” she said after planting a soft kiss on his cheek. I don’t want to lose you in the crowd. I’ll be right back,” she said and disappeared into the bathroom.
Brad leaned against the wall and took a deep breath. He hated that he waited so late to do his Christmas shopping this year. He hated the crowds during the shopping season and usually had his shopping finished before Thanksgiving. But this year with so many changes and staying busy at college it had slipped his mind. He hoped that he would get everything done during today’s trip. He really didn’t like the thought of having to go to another mall during his Christmas break.
He leaned his head back against the wall to listen to the bustling crowd inside. It was then that he realized what he should have noticed the moment they walked through the door. There wasn’t a sound coming from the main area at the end of the long hallway that led into the center of the mall.
“Are you ready, lover boy?” Jessica said as she exited the bathroom. She gave Brad a confused look when she noticed he was staring down the hall as if he were frozen.
“What are you looking at?” she asked.
“Nothing. And that’s just the problem.”
Jessica took his hand and they slowly walked down the unlit corridor into the main food court of the mall. The food court, as well as the other wings of the mall as far as they could see, were bathed in sunlight coming through the glass domes overhead.
“Where did everybody go?” she wondered aloud. It was like they had just stepped into an alternate dimension when they took the wrong door into the mall, she thought.
They looked in all directions but the shopping mecca was like a ghost town. They slowly walked toward the center of the food court and looked back down at the main entrance to the mall where only moments before the mall and the sidewalk outside was flooded with kids laughing and parents and grandparents lugging around bags full of gifts.
The tables and chairs situated in the mall opening where normally shoppers would be resting their tired feet and backs from walking all day, or having burger or hotdog with a soda, were now scattered about sporadically and covered with a thick layer of dust. It looked as if the mall had been abandoned for years.
“Tell me I’m not crazy, Jess. This place was packed like a can of sardines when we got out of the car, right?”
“I don’t know what’s going on. People don’t just disappear like that. Unless we’re both delusional, we walked into a crowded mall. I could hear people in here when we were walking toward the front doors. It was loud in here.”
“Well, whatever is going on here I don’t think I like it very much. Let’s just get out of here. I’ll just do my shopping when we get back home,” he said.
“I don’t blame you,” she said nervously as she grabbed his hand tightly.
Brad, not wasting any time, began jogging toward the main doors. When they got to the glass entrance they both shared the same confused look. The glass was lined with a thin layer of dust on the inside and a thick layer of muck on the outside. It was so thick that it was hard to see anything on the outside very clearly. However, they saw very clearly the large chains and the heavy padlock wrapped through the door handles to keep people out, and they noticed Jessica’s Tracker parked all alone at the end of the deserted parking lot.
Jessica suddenly began to feel claustrophobic and the look of panic creeping in was obvious to Brad. He put his arm around her to try and provide some comfort. He could feel Jess shaking in his arms. He was just as confused and a bit scared at the oddity of the situation but he had no intention of showing it.
“It will be alright. We’ll find a way out of here pretty quickly. Besides, we can always go out the same way we came in.”
It was like a light bulb came on over her head. In the confusion of the situation she had forgotten all about the side door. Only two minutes later the worry came back. It was back for both of them when they realized that they were locked in and the narrow glass window in the side door was also covered in a dirty film. Once again, they peered out the glass and noticed a thick chain and padlock on the outside of the door. How in the hell did they even get in the building, he wondered.
Brad pulled out his cell phone to dial 911 but he had no signal. Jessica checked her phone as well, but they found themselves in the middle of a dead zone.
Despite pulling hard on all the doors, they were locked solid and likely didn’t even need the chains and locks on the outside. So the next best idea Brad could come up with was to break the glass at the main entrance. He picked up one of the metal chairs from a table in the food court and had Jessica stand far back from him in case the chair bounced off the thick glass. Even with a heavy chair he wasn’t sure he would be able to break the glass.
With that in mind he attacked the doors first. The glass was thinner and perhaps weaker than the heavier glass on either side of the doors. Brad slammed the back of the chair against the door with all of his strength only to feel the painful vibrations shoot up his arm when the chair bounced violently back toward him narrowly missing his face. He cursed loudly as he shook his arms and watched the chair slide across the floor.
“Are you okay?” Jess asked.
“I’m fine. This stuff is Plexiglas. I can’t break this stuff. We’re going to have to find another way out.”
“I’m fine. This stuff is Plexiglas. I can’t break this stuff. We’re going to have to find another way out.”
Brad walked toward her, cursing as he did, until she held up her hand to signal him to be quiet. He stopped dead in his tracks and began to listen intently. He could tell that Jessica was hearing the same thing that he was. Voices. They were off in the distance but definitely coming from inside the mall. He breathed a deep sigh of relief at the thought that maybe they were not alone in here after all.
“They probably heard you banging that chair off the door,” she said.
They jogged back to the center of the mall and the voices were louder, still off in the distance.
“Hello!” Jessica shouted. Her voice echoed down the mall.
The voices in the distance became quiet. Jess and Brad shared a worried look when suddenly the silence was broken by the loud shriek of a woman screaming followed by the overpowering sound of a mob suddenly on the verge of panic. Only this time, the voices were much louder.
Brad and Jessica instinctively ran toward the shouting. It sounded like someone was hurt and both of them were certified in CPR. Jessica insisted upon the two of them taking a CPR class their last year of high school. If not for CPR performed by a stranger, her mother wouldn’t be alive today. And now she felt like it was her turn to return the favor to another stranger.
They rushed past a toy store, two women’s clothing chains and an American Eagle Outfitters before they were suddenly stopped in their tracks by the loud bang and echoing sound of a gunshot.
Brad grabbed Jess’s hand and pulled her down to the floor behind a wooden bench. It wasn’t much cover, but if another shot was fired and it was in their direction it was the only cover they had. He knew it was better than to having no cover at all. They needed to work their way back down the mall immediately and either find a place to hide or a quick way out.
“Do you remember if there were any windows in the bathroom?” he asked her in a whisper.
“You went in the bathroom when we first walked in. Were there any windows in there?”
He assumed it was a useless question but he had to ask. It was not a surprise when she told him there were none.
Four more shots were fired in rapid succession and they heard the blood curdling screech of a female before they heard someone stumbling over clothing racks and crashing to the ground with a grunt no more than two stores down from where they were crouched.
Screaming began to come from all around them. They could hear the sounds of heavy running footsteps rushing past them. Brad could have sworn to have felt the wind off the trampling crowd as they ran by, but as he looked on he saw no one. Then three more shots rang out. It sounded like they were being fired from right beside him. That was when he looked up and saw the man in the heavy brown jacket with ruffled red hair and loose fitting blue jeans walking by with a semi-automatic handgun in his hand. He was walking along as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
Jessica didn’t see the man walk by. She had buried her face in Brad’s chest when the last shots were fired. He could feel his shirt getting moist against his skin from her tears. Thankfully the gunman didn’t see them either when he strode by. Brad couldn’t help but wonder how many people were hurt.
Brad watched the man as he walked away. The screaming sounds ceased. He couldn’t believe his eyes, but the killer disappeared in front of him. He vanished into thin air. It hit him hard when he realized that he had just seen a ghost. His hands began to shake.
“Listen, Jess. We’re going to get out of here. I saw some pay phones back the way we came in. There were four of them in the middle of the food court. I think we’re alone now, so let’s go try the phones and see if we can get the cops to let us out of here,” he said.
“Oh no, I think we’re in hell,” Jessica cried as she wiped the tears from her cheeks.
None of the phones worked.
After everything seemed to settle down, Brad and Jess sat side by side in the food court until their momentary panic went away.
“Do you think anything in this mall works?” he asked.
“I don’t know, but I’m dying of thirst. I wonder if any of these restaurants have a spare bottle laying around?” she said.
“Tell you what, you try Orange Julius over there and I’ll jump behind the counter at Chick-Fil-A right across from you. Maybe one of them will have a spare bottle of water. Then we’ll see if we can find a way out of here.”
Jessica took a moment to calm down before hopping over the counter. Out of curiosity she pressed the levers for the fountain drinks. Nothing came out which wasn’t a surprise. She wondered how long this place had been deserted. Jess opened the small refrigerator under the counter but no luck finding a bottle of water in there.
“Hey lady, think you can refill my Slushie?” a tiny voice said from the other side of the counter.
Jessica spun around to find a little girl in a thick pink jacket staring up at her. Her left check was peppered with dark crimson freckles and her jacket had a small hole in the front. She looked up at her with an innocent smile that only a cute little girl about her age could give. Jess guessed she might have been five years old and adorable.
“I don’t think the machine works, sweetie. Where’s your mommy?”
“She’s shopping. Can you try the machine anyway?” she asked sweetly as she handed her empty cup to Jessica. Her reach exposed her blood soaked shirt under her jacket and Jessica pulled back sharply.
“Are you okay?” she whispered, almost afraid to ask.
“Oh it doesn’t hurt, ma’am. Does the Slushie machine work?”
Jessica pressed the cup to the lever and oddly, what was a broken down machine a moment ago, was spitting out the cherry flavored drink into the little girl’s cup.
“Here you go, honey,” she said as she handed the girl her cup back. She took it with both of her little hands trying to be careful not to spill the large treat.
A woman walked around the corner of the shop with a look of relief on her face. “There you are! I’ve been looking all over for you,” she said. The little girls’ face lit up. “Hi, mommy! I was wondering when you’d find me.”
The little girl looked up at Jessica with a smile. “Thanks for the Slurpie!” she said as she took her mother’s hand. As the two of them turned to walk away Jess saw the open wound on the back of the woman’s head. It looked as if she took a gunshot at close range from the side. Her hair was matted and full of congealed blood.
Brad passed the two of them as he walked into the Orange Julius.
“Any luck finding a bottle of water? I came up empty over there, unless you want to snack on a brownie that looks to be a few years old,” he joked.
“Didn’t you see the people that just left?” she asked.
“The little girl and her mom. You didn’t see them? You walked right past them!”
“I didn’t see anyone.”
Brad didn’t see a mother and daughter, but he had no doubt that Jessica did. He had never believed in ghosts but he was no longer a skeptic. He couldn’t explain anything that had happened since they got here.
Jessica climbed back over the counter and hugged him. After today they would never be the same again. She squeezed him tightly. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.
They walked back to the main entrance to look at the map of the mall to see if they could come up with a plan for getting out of this nightmare. It was then that they spotted the man in uniform standing at the front door and looking in. He knocked on the window when he saw the two teenagers in the main entrance.
A wave of relief swept over them and they rushed to the glass doors. “Can you get us out of here?” Brad shouted.
“Just stay where you are. We’ve called the maintenance guy that oversees the property. He’s on his way over here with the key. How did you kids get in there?” the cop shouted loud enough for them to hear through the thick glass.
“The side door,” Brad said pointing over toward where they first came in.
A few minutes later they made their way back outside with a feeling of euphoria.
“I thought we’d never get out there,” Jessica said with relief. “I’m glad you guys came by,” she said to the officer.
“We are, too. Who knows how long you would have been stuck in there. We seldom even come out this way on patrol. If we hadn’t have seen your car in the parking lot we wouldn’t have stopped.”
“What happened here? When we got here the place was packed. We had to park at the end of the lot and when we got inside it was like a ghost town. Well, except for maybe a few others we heard in there,” Brad said.
“What do you mean, the place was packed? And you mean to tell me there are others in there? I still don’t understand how you got in,” the officer said.
“The parking lot was full. There were people everywhere,” Jessica said. “This entrance was so packed that we went in the side door over there. When we walked down that corridor into the mall area there wasn’t a soul in sight. When we came back this way to get out we found that all the doors were locked and chained shut. We were stuck.”
“That just doesn’t figure,” the cop said. “This mall shut down seven years ago after the shooting.”
“What shooting?” Brad asked.
“Seven years to this day, actually. A guy came in here with a gun. Shot the place up. Wounded eight people. Killed a woman and her little girl. Then turned the gun on himself. Pretty sad, actually. Sort of ruined the holiday for a lot of people around here. All the stores decided to shut down and they moved the mall to the other side of the town out by the Interstate.”