Flash fiction by Gillian Church
She felt fuzzy as she retraced her earlier steps in her head. She had come in through the mall entrance, by Menswear. Right? She tried to think of the mall stores near the entrance. A coffee shop, maybe? A game shop? Why can’t I remember? I’ve been here a thousand times!
A small hand reached out from the circular clothes rack and tugged Christy’s skirt. She smiled down at the little boy hiding among the 60% off winter coats.
“Hi there!” She crouched down so they were face to face. He gave her a tiny smile, but his eyes shone with tears. “Are you lost, honey?”
He nodded his head.
There were only the two of them as far as Christy could see. She had passed one employee at a register back in Menswear, but that was on the far end of the department store, by the entrance to the mall.
“Where’s your mom?”
“Did you come here with someone?”
He shrugged again, shrinking back into the cave of winter coats. She took a step back, but stopped short. He looked about six years old at the most, and Christy couldn’t just leave him all alone.
“Do you need some help?”
This time he nodded and gave her a hopeful smile.
Christy held her hand out, and he climbed out of the coat display to grab it. “Let’s go see if we can find someone who works here,” she said. His hand was warm and the slightest bit sticky, and he held onto hers tightly. She led him down the aisle, beneath flickering fluorescent lights, back towards Menswear.
The walk took longer than she remembered. They had left Outerwear, passed through Activewear, and were in Sleepwear before Christy noticed how dark the store had gotten. All lights other than those directly overhead had gone out.
When did that happen? She thought. Are they closing early? She picked up the pace, the child trailing along behind her, but something else seemed…off.
There were an awful lot of pajama displays. They must have walked past twenty tables piled high with neatly-folded pajama tops and bottoms. In front of them and behind, she could see a few rows in either direction. Beyond that, darkness. She shivered.
Christy stopped and looked at the boy. “This is weird, right?”
The boy nodded, his forehead crinkled in concern. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but seemed to change his mind. Instead, he tugged her sleeve and pointed towards a store directory.
“Good idea,” she said, and scanned for Menswear. She hadn’t remembered passing any of this on her earlier walk to the coats department. “I must have gotten turned around. Let’s see…”
According to the directory, Menswear and Outerwear were on the second floor, just as she remembered. A golden star indicated their current location in the Sleepwear department, which was, according to the directory, in the basement.
That makes no sense! Christy hadn’t gone to a different floor from where she entered…she thought. She felt fuzzy as she retraced her earlier steps in her head. She had come in through the mall entrance, by Menswear. Right? She tried to think of the mall stores near the entrance. A coffee shop, maybe? A game shop? Why can’t I remember? I’ve been here a thousand times!
“Let’s find the escalator,” she told the boy. He nodded eagerly. Something about this space seemed to make him uncomfortable as well. It was right around the corner, though cloaked in shadow. The lights didn’t reach this far, but it didn’t matter. Orange webbing stretched across its opening with a double strand of CAUTION tape to emphasize the obvious fact that it was out of order. She wasn’t sure she would want to ascend into the pitch blackness above anyway, but there was no way out from the building’s basement. Not even a way into the mall.
Her head was no longer just foggy now, but throbbing. “I think I need to call someone,” she told the boy, who nodded in response. The only problem was that her purse was gone. She patted her shoulders, her hips, her thighs—useless actions. There was nothing hanging off her and nothing in her pockets. Fuck, she thought. Maybe there’s a store phone somewhere? At one of the counters?
“Hmm. Maybe we can find someone who works here or one of the registers so we can try and call someone.” She tried to sound upbeat, making it sound more like a game or adventure than what felt like her losing her mind. No reason to scare the little kid even more.
They kept walking further through the Sleepwear section. There was usually a register in every department, right? She hadn’t seen one yet. But the tables upon tables of pajamas seemed to have no end. It was impossible.
“Are we walking in circles?” She had to ask, even though she couldn’t see how that was possible. The boy shook his head. “We just need to find some way out of here, or someone who works here. Or anyone, really.” He nodded, and they continued.
After what felt like an hour of walking—Christy recognized that she must be imagining how much time had passed—the scenery changed a bit. The light extended further back into the tables and racks of clothes to illuminate a doorway. FITTING ROOMS.
“Should we go look?” she asked the boy. He shrugged as if to say Sure, why not? If nothing else, maybe there was a phone or radio in there left by a worker.
The fitting rooms were a typical row of wooden stalls, each of which was hidden behind a thick, dark green velvet curtain. There was a small counter at the front of the row, but a quick search only turned up hangers and number tags.
A rustling came from one of the stalls at the far end of the row, and one of the curtains swayed a bit.
“Hello?” Christy called down to whoever it was. “Is someone in here?” The answer was a longer rustling sound. “Let’s go look,” she whispered to the child, gently tugging his hand, but he kept his feet planted and shook his head, No.
“Come on, we need to find some help,” she said, but he responded by pulling his hand away and crossing his arms. “Okay then…will you at least wait here for me?” His face seemed to crumple a little bit, but he nodded. Christy headed to the source of the noise.
She knocked on the wooden edge of the stall, trying not to disturb the curtain.
“Hello?” she called. “Is someone in here?”
She pinched the curtain enough to give it a little shake, hoping to make it clear to anyone inside that she was talking to them.
“Okay, I’m going to open this curtain now…”
She pulled it aside to reveal an empty box. To either side were the wooden walls, one with a row of clothes hooks and the other with a full length mirror. The rear, however, was another curtain. It swayed slightly.
“Hello?” Christy pulled the rear curtain aside to reveal an additional fitting room and an additional curtain. It probably goes through to an open aisle on the other side, she thought, but pulled it aside to reveal more of the same. “Hello? Hello?”
She heard the rustling. She kept moving forward, through one fitting room to another, unaware at first that the light grew dimmer as the rustling grew louder.
“Hello?” Christy lost track of how many curtains she had passed through. Her voice grew weaker and hoarser until it was barely a whisper.
It was so dark now. The rustling had become much louder, and a metallic scraping sound now accompanied it. Christy’s voice was completely gone.
Scrape. Rustle. Rustle. She pulled another curtain aside.
Scrrrrrape. Swish. The noise was so loud now. So close.
She pulled open another, this time revealing a wedge of light. A swath of patterned cotton swayed in front of her face, just on the other side of the last curtain, and she reached out and grabbed it.
“Oh!” A young woman jumped a bit as Christy’s small, childlike hand reached out from the circular clothing rack to grab the hem of her dress. “Hi sweetie,” said the woman, crouching down to look at Christy’s tear-streaked face. “Are you lost?”
Christy nodded. She couldn’t remember how she had come to hide inside this rack of blouses.
“Can I help you find your mom or whoever you came here with?” The woman reached her hand out.
Christy took it.
“Let’s find someone who works here, okay?” Christy nodded and obediently followed.