Inside, the mall is surprisingly well-lit. The early-morning sun creeps in through well-place skylights, and the large central atrium allows this light to suffuse all but the most remote corners. Inside the shops themselves, it’s probably another story, but for right now I’m pleased at how not-creepy this place is. I squint my eyes, trying to picture it in the dark, and come to the conclusion that I was absolutely right to wait until daylight.
“Keep moving forward, Dan,” says Simmons behind me, and I guiltily step ahead a few more paces so she can enter, too. The doc clicks on her flashlight and starts scanning the floor.
“I think it’s pretty sound,” I say, jumping up and down experimentally.
Simmons looks at me like I’m an idiot. “I’m looking for footprints, or any sign that Brian came this way. I’m not worried about the structural integrity of the ground floor.”
“What happened over here?” asks Regina, and we turn to see her shining her light on the wall next to the entrance. From about waist-height down, irregular patches are missing from the drywall, and the metal studs revealed behind it have been eaten away, too. The damage reaches to the floor, which is also pitted reaching nearly to where we entered. The same pattern of damage is on the opposite wall, too.
“Something to do with the power,” I say.
“Clearly,” says Doc Simmons. “Is this something you can do?”
“Not as far as I know. This looks like a really wide spread of buckshot or something. Acid buckshot. I tried using it at range, but never got anywhere with it.”
“Well. Keep your eyes peeled, and your layers loose, I suppose,” says the doc.
Since everyone else has their flashlight out, I turn mine on, too, and check the floor ahead of me. I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking for; a clear set of footprints in the dust like you see in movies, I suppose. But while this floor is definitely dirty, it turns out that when you walk on dirt, you mainly just get dirt left in place, only slightly flatter. Looking behind us, I can’t even see our own footprints. Maybe I’m just a really bad tracker.
Whatever that spray was about at the door, I don’t see it repeated anywhere else as we make our way through the mall. I let the doc take the lead, since she seems to have some idea of what she’s doing. While she studies the floor and Regina watches the hallway ahead of us, I let my light play along the walls as I take a look at the empty shops around us.
I take back what I said earlier about this place not being creepy. It is, but its creepiness is so big that I missed it at first. It’s a gigantic tombstone, a monument to the death of civilization. The shops are all shuttered, the ceiling is cracked and peeling, the floors are unwashed and slowly being subsumed by dirt. In two thousand years, they might find the ruins of this place and study it, marveling at ancient American culture. This Cinnabon sign might still be there, its plastic and metal tarnished but still present. Will they know what that was? Will they understand why this kiosk was labeled a Sunglass Hut?
Brian’s right. Urban exploration is just modern archaeology.
We move slowly past an empty food court, the chairs still sitting at the tables like they’re waiting for the crowds to come back. People have been in here. The walls are covered with graffiti. Some of it’s just scrawled tags, but a lot of it is impressive art. There are fields, rivers, pyramids, and jungles painted on the walls. Misshapen people lean in at the angles, and odd little monsters crouch along the floor. Someone’s gone around to every one of the cutouts in the wall where the fast-food restaurants used to be and painted a gaping mouth around each one, so each empty blackness appears to be stretching down some strange creature’s gullet.
For whatever reason, the graffiti seems to be limited to the food court. Is it a gallery of some sort? Are there rules about where you do and don’t spraypaint? How come no one’s broken any of the tables or chairs, or even the windows? This is a piece of the world I know nothing about.
We’re approaching a grimy escalator when the doc says quietly, “Brian’s been here.”
Her near-whisper echoes sibilantly in the cavernous space. I start to look for what’s caught her attention, and she adds, “Don’t shine your light around. If he doesn’t know we’re here, that’ll alert him. Just look, both sides.”
At first, I don’t see what she’s talking about. The shops on each side look perfectly normal: large empty entryways, barren shelves and racks disappearing quickly into the darkness inside, just like all of the others we’ve passed. Finally it hits me — the security gates are missing. Completely gone, as if they’d never existed. And straining my eyes, I now can see the white dust piled on the white tile at the shop entrances.
“Which one do you think he’s in?” whispers Regina.
“Either’s equally possible. Or neither. Could be a trap,” Simmons whispers back.
“Hey, stupid question,” I say quietly. “Why are we whispering?”
No one answers, so after a beat I continue, “I mean, we want him to know we’re here, right? Half of the point of waiting for day was so that we didn’t accidentally startle him into doing something stupid. So, if we think he’s here, isn’t it time to, like, shout for him?”
There’s another moment of silence, and then the doc says in a normal tone, “All right. Regina? He’ll probably be happiest to hear you.”
Regina sticks her flashlight under one arm and cups her hands to her mouth. “Brian?” she calls out, her voice ringing throughout the mall. “Baby? We came to find you, Bri.”
We wait expectantly, but nothing moves in the silence following her announcement. Regina looks quizzically at me, but I just shrug. Half a minute passes before I say, “So — left or right?”
“You want to go beard the creature in its den, Dan?” asks Simmons with a small smirk. “You sure you wouldn’t like to split up first, too?”
“Har har. Do you have a better option? If he’s not coming out, we’ve got to go in.”
“He’s not a creature,” Regina says, frowning at Doc Simmons.
“It’s just a joke. I’m sorry,” I tell her.
“Why are you apologizing? She’s the one who said it.”
“Well, I’m sorry that she said it, then.”
“Left it is,” says the doc, training her flashlight into the store and walking in. Regina frowns again at Doc Simmons’s retreating back and I just shrug, but we both fall into step behind her.
The sunlight quickly fades as we enter the abandoned store, and by ten feet in we’re totally dependent on our flashlights. Regina’s still calling out for Brian as we go, talking to him the same way you’d try to soothe a panicked animal.
“Are you in here, Bri? We’re here to help you. You’ve done good so far, you’ve done great. Let us help you get this under control. We’re gonna get through this, Brian.”
Regina keeps the monologue going as we progress, pausing her words after each sentence to invite a reply. No response is forthcoming, though, and so we continue forward, our lights scanning the naked aisles of the store.
Toward the back, I spot a ragged hole in the wall, a vaguely circular shape taller than a man. The floor near it is dissolved in erratic pits, just like at the entrance to the mall. I still can’t make sense of the pattern. There’s a clear path to walk into the hole in the wall at the center, but then the pits start about two feet out from that on each side and continue just past the edge of the circle. It really does look like someone fired a wide burst of shot on each side of the central path before passing through.
Stepping carefully past the eaten-away section of floor, Regina leans into the makeshift tunnel. “It opens up into another store,” she reports, shining her flashlight in. “Looks basically the same as this one — Brian? Are you in there, baby?”
From the hole issues a sound that at first I think is rushing wind, before it deepens into a feral growl. I tighten my grip on my flashlight, wishing I had a better weapon. Beside me, Doc Simmons digs through her messenger bag.
Regina takes a single step backwards, but calls out again, “Brian?”
“You could all learn to take a hint,” comes Brian’s voice, thick with rage. “Did you even find the doctor? Or did you just ignore my extremely simple request and come barging in here, certain that you knew what was best? Like always?”
“Hey, man, we’re looki–” I begin, but Brian cuts me off.
“Don’t even talk to me! It’s bad enough that you’re here. Your tainted breath is poisoning the air. I could smell you from outside. You’re like a wound in the air, a parasite moving under a scab.”
I open my mouth to protest, but Doc Simmons puts a hand on my arm and shakes her head at me. I motion to her, asking: should I leave? She shakes her head again, and I grimace. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here.
Regina’s pushing ahead with her plan to talk Brian down from his nano-induced rage, though. “Baby, we’re looking for the doctor. We’re going to find him. But we didn’t want to leave you out here alone. We were worried about you. I was worried about you. I still am.”
“You think I don’t know that?” snarls Brian, anger and frustration dripping from his voice. “I wanted to tell you! This was the only way I could handle it! And it was fine until HE started getting closer! I was FINE out here, and then he brought in his filth and the whole thing decayed around me like I was drowning in year-old dumpster garbage!”
Without thinking, I respond. “Dude, I was j–“
“SHUT! UP!” roars Brian, and twenty feet to my left a hand bursts through a section of the store wall.