By Christine Stake
© 2017 by the author
A sigh of sadness broke through a moment of silence between Riley and her mother as they approached the curbside of an abandoned store front. The SUV came to a halt and for a few moments they both sat in awe of the monolithic building, resembling more of an ancient ruin than a once sprawling mecca of consumerism. Riley could sense the despair in her mother’s sighs, as she watched the water build in her eyes, which deeply yearned for a distant time. As a visual arts major at a local college, Riley was familiar with the history of the local shopping mall. The mall was more than a variety of stores, it was the meeting place for teenagers in decades past and where memories were made in the midst of food courts, photo booths, and first jobs. Recalling the stories from her mother, Riley knew it was important to document the dilapidation of the old social hub. Riley was enthusiastic to photograph the physical degradation of the shopping mall in a photo essay on the long term effects of society succumbing to the online shopping era.
Before leaving the vehicle Riley conducted a few test shots with her digital camera, focusing on the large cracked windows of the abandoned store front, blackened with the buildup of mold and dust. Above the windows crows nested in the remains of a neon sign whose letters were barely visible after years of weathering and decay. Satisfied with the test shots she left the vehicle and headed toward the partial opening in the cracked sliding doors; the only visible entrance to the old mall. A gentle breeze blew through the tendrils of the once decorative, ornamental grasses, growing haphazardly through cracks in the pavement. Delicately she adjusted her camera strap around her midsection and pushed her way through the doors into the darkness, eager to capture the remnants of a bygone time.
The overwhelming smell of mold and stale pretzels greeted Riley as she entered the corridor of the old mall entrance. The darkness quickly transitioned to a gray haze that cloaked the few shards of light entering through the distant skylights, making the corridor appear to be immersed in ashes. Curls of beige paint and dirt hung from the walls, falling into strips that littered the ground, crunching under each step Riley took, interrupting the remarkable silence. Nearing the end of the corridor, obscure shapes morphed with the changing angles of light, becoming more discernible through the haze as she approached a large gallery, the food court.
Tables and chairs, once purposely placed for a casual atmosphere, were sprawled throughout the large area surrounded by vacant eateries, whose names and menus had since been forgotten. Decaying palm trees laid hunched over in piles of black mold and cobweb covered palm fronds, smelling of rotten eggs. The remains of a prominent water fountain could only be distinguished by the reddish-brown hue that stained its crater-like basin. Riley stood in disbelief, choking on the moldy stench, she carefully cradled her camera to her eye, adjusted the lens, and captured her first digital image.
Lowering her camera to chest level she observed the image and was not satisfied; a streak of black jagged lines clawed through the image’s midsection. The lines had the appearance of a black oil, angrily slicing through the air, tapering at each end into points. Frustrated, Riley let out a sigh, attributing the streaks to dirt gathering on the camera lens. Before she could refocus, a subtle but sinister growl vibrated through the air, echoing from all directions. Frozen in place, Riley clenched her camera and closed her eyes, allowing the overwhelming silence to once again take over. She stood still, listening intently on her breathing, trying to convince herself she was truly alone. Though tempted to look behind herself, she decided instead to walk to the adjacent corridor where rows of windows and desolate store fronts began to take shape.
Briskly, she trod through the food court, toeing through a slick sulfurous film that radiated from the rotting palms, blanketing the marble tiles. With a loud thud, Riley slid onto the floor, alarmed by the presence of two gray figures in a store window. Upon re-inspection she alleviated her rapid beating heart; two deteriorating mannequins loomed over her in the store window, almost gesturing a welcome. Catching her breath she recomposed herself, focused, and clicked the shutter button. The flash illuminated the darkness inside the store, creating a menagerie of dancing silhouettes in the distance. The camera kept refocusing on the strange movement, a kaleidoscope of black and gray shades that mingled. Sweat began to gather on Riley’s forehead validating the feeling of uneasiness she sensed peering into the store.
She continued her trek down the corridor, taking pictures of gated store fronts and old forgotten merchandise that littered the walkway. Most of the items appeared to be unrecognizable, torn into pieces, or smashed. The items became more prominent in number as she approached the remnants of a dollar store. Unlike most stores, the metal gate hung loosely from it hinges, bulging outward. Its rungs weaved into a heap of moldy cardboard and broken toys in a deliberate illustration of destruction.
Riley, finding the mangled pile disturbing, wiped the sweat off her brow, took a deep breath, and began capturing images. Though feeling overheated, an intense coolness emitted from the dark entrance creating a humid film on the lens. Turning her back to the pile she observed the ever-present gray haze becoming thicker in appearance, engulfing her previous path. The light from the distant skylights was dimming, becoming overtaken by a storm of particulates. Feeling pressed for time, she put her finger on the shutter button, capturing a burst of images of the immediate area. Nearly tripping into scattered junk, blinded by the haze, she collided with a broken china doll. The doll was a twisted mess of porcelain and cloth. Its shattered face looked up at Riley intently, as if it were pleading for help.
A masculine cry, suddenly, resonated from the direction of the food court. Fearfully, Riley gasped, clutching the camera with her sweaty palms as she peered into the distance. In the few streams of light poking through the haze, she could identify a black figure that was taking shape. The black figure, fluid in form, ebbed and waned in width, as it augmented toward the ceiling. Her heart began racing, as she stood frozen in uncertainty, feeling beads of sweat stream down her back, gazing upon the looming dark figure. The only movement she could gather the courage to continue was to push the shutter button. The bursts of clicks emitted from the camera were quickly overwhelmed by the grinding of metal on marble and the snapping of wood.
Terrified, Riley ran in the opposite direction, tripping over pieces of marble tile. Recognizing a shard of yellow light from a set of double doors, she swiftly pushed through finding an abandoned corridor with patches of daylight shining through its cracked walls. Riley rapidly fled, trying to distance herself from the violent echoes of destruction coming from the mall. She found herself running through a network of dark tunnels, like catacombs, snaking their way in an endless maze. Relieved that the turmoil was far behind her, Riley came to a stop to catch her breath. She activated her camera, whose light brightened the surrounding area, yielding a scene of stagnant puddles and dead roaches. Close behind, a cold breeze lingered. Riley glanced behind herself, shivering from the sudden overwhelming cold. On the digital screen the camera kept refocusing on a group of legless human-like figures in the distance. Their upper bodies, particularly their heads, bobbed in the sparse light of her previous path.
Riley, in a state of denial, watched as more and more figures gathered in her view. Seldom whispers, turned to woeful moans, resonating from within the maze of corridors. Without warning, Riley felt a pair of hands latching onto her shoulders, pulling her to the floor. She wrestled with the entity; its invisible fingernails piercing her skin like razor blades, dragging her back down the same path she came. Its sinister growl filled her ears as she screamed in pain and attempted to fight the beast-like presence that restrained her. With every growl its sharp fingernails dug deeper, yanking her across the wet floor. Pulling herself off the ground, she felt the grips of the presence loosen as she eagerly moved forward, breaking the camera strap off her shoulder, freeing herself. The camera crashed to the ground, breaking into pieces, resulting in instant darkness. Riley ran as fast as she could looking for any sign of an exit. Clumsily, bumping into walls, she confused cracks in the cement for doorways until she came across a revolving door leading to the rotunda of a department store.
The department store resembled a war zone rather than a previous shopping plaza. Metal racks and hangers were bent into sharp angles and randomly displaced down aisles. Glass display cases were smashed into pieces, with jagged shards of glass covering the floor as far as she could see. Old moldy boxes and paper bags, lay stacked on top of cash registers, yielding an earthy scent as they rotted away with time. Unlike the other parts of the mall, the walls of the department store sparkled as the trees outside swayed in the breeze, changing the flow of daylight entering from the upper level windows. Mirrors outlined most of the walls, some completed shattered, while others partially intact, bouncing the light off every surface.
Determined to find a way out, Riley quickly tip-toed through the debris focusing on the oscillating light that shined through. The reflections from the mirrors confounded her vision, making it difficult to judge a wall from an exit. Panicking, Riley stormed down the nearest aisle, focusing on any door that would lead out. In sight, she could see wooden sheets loosely hanging from the ceiling, in a shabby effort to secure windows. Ferociously, she grabbed the end of a loose board and began ripping the wooden sheets from the wall. She screamed in agony as the points of nails pierced her fingers and arms as she catapulted the boards across the room. Instantly, a soft yellow glow filled the room, giving way to a view of the parking lot. Riley smiled observing the sun beginning to set over the trees. With no other exit in sight, Riley kicked the large window, creating a thud that vibrated through the immediate area. Again, she kicked the glass harder, but it held firmly in place.
Adjacent to the window, a collection of metal clothing racks lay twisted together. Riley took hold of the closest rack and with fervor beat the window repeatedly. To her dismay, only scuffs remained where she intently tried breaking out. Screaming and crying, she took a larger metal rack and with all her strength swung at the glass. The metal snapped in half, ricocheting off the window’s surface. Screaming in disbelief, she grabbed her head in her hands and let out a bout of sobs. The blood from her bruised and cut hands covered her face as she wiped away her tears. Exhausted, she peered out the window, watching the day’s light begin to fade behind the trees.
The thunderous sound of metal grinding on floor tiles could be heard resonating down the empty aisles of the department store. Riley, terrified and desperate, grabbed a metal rod from the pile of racks, and crouched behind the closest counter. Hyperventilating, she sobbed while gasping for air, listening to the echoing snarls becoming more ominous and frequent, while seconds passed. Though horrified, she found the confidence to stand up, and with the last of her energy swung the metal rod in self-defense. Feeling drained and frustrated, she gazed into the darkness hoping the entity took a hit. All that she could see was a black fog gradually concealing the once glittering landscape into obscurity. Low moans mixed with sinister whispers began to encircle her hiding spot. The approaching sound of glass being crushed and metal scraped suffocated Riley in fear. She clutched her hands to her ears hoping the destruction would cease.
Feeling distressed, Riley ran down the perimeter of the store, hoping to find a way out. A few steps ahead, an exit sign, in pieces, was scattered on the floor before an aisle covered in dated apparel. Feeling grateful, Riley picked up her pace, while fumbling through piles of old shirts and pants. A sour moist odor became more intense as she approached the aisle’s end, causing her to gag. While toppling onto a heap of linens, Riley felt a sharp pain radiate up her leg. Falling to the floor, she clutched her leg noticing a metal pin protruding from her ankle. The rusty metal tore through tendons, grinding against the bone. Instinctively, she removed the object, bellowing in pain. Observing the rusty object more closely, she saw that a group of faded letters were scratched from its surface. The blood covered object wasn’t just a pin, it was a name tag.
Her blood covered legs were now covered in a foul gelatinous syrup. The smell of decay filled her nostrils making her cough dry heaves. Sickened by the smell, Riley placed an old shirt to her nose, and screamed. Startled, Riley jerked away from a glowing pair of red eyes staring back at her. The rat, encrusted in filth, hissed and chattered its teeth displaying its dominance. Its long dirt spotted tail slapped back and forth in a pool of decaying flesh, oozing from a decomposing body. Riley threw the shirt down, repulsed by its origin. The rat continued to rip flesh and bone from the corpse, loudly devouring the human remains. Riley, put her hands to her face in disbelief, crying loudly. The piles of apparel that covered the aisle were not just dated clothing, they were corpses. The corpses were haphazardly placed, mangled, like the other displays of destruction. Some corpses were decomposing, their flesh barely clinging to bone, festering away while rats leisurely feasted, while others seemed mummified. Sickened, she began vomiting as she limped through the piles of rotting flesh toward the last bits of daylight. In the distance, she could see the plethora of legless figures approaching at a rapid rate. Sinister growls seem to echo from the walls. Feeling helpless, she faltered through the bodies and the stench of death. With her last words she let out an agonizing shrill, horrified, as a black haze engulfed her in the darkness.
Months passed. The once photographer now had her own portrait dotting the sides of street lamps and traffic lights. Her bubbly smile, now weathered away on “missing flyers”, like the bygone time she sought to capture with her camera lens.