(first appeared in Psychopomp volume #7 7/29/14)
Few people knew that there was a lower level to the department store. As the anchor of the mall it sat at the end lording over all the shoe stores and candle stores and pretzel vendors and not only was it two stories but it had a lower level as well. That wasn’t the lower level that most people didn’t know about. There was a level underneath that one. A lower lower level. That was the one that few people were aware of.
Fewer still were aware of the one under that one.
All told, the store went hundreds of feet beneath the earth. Most of the levels below the lower lower level and the one beneath that weren’t so much polished floors, colorfully-dressed mannequins and attractive lighting as caverns. They got progressively danker the further you went down.
People who ended up exploring these twisting tunnels in the hopes of finding additional discounts usually ended up extremely disappointed.
The man who was currently moving through the darkness had originally set out to find a restroom while his wife shopped. One thing led to another… and here he was.
Had it been the narrow passage with the restricted sign and little chain across it or was it the hidden trap door he’d found on the lower lower level? It was of no consequence. Now he was here he wanted to find the bottom. One thought kept repeating itself again and again in his head “There are good bargains to be had in the deep places of the world.”
He could feel things moving around in the darkness. He was only twenty minutes removed from the glare of the mirrored sales counters and his eyes struggled to adapt. In the distance, how far away he couldn’t tell, something dripped.
He switched the bag in his hand from the left to the right, the weight of the waffle cone maker beginning to make itself felt, and crouched down to stay balanced as the floor sloped down more steeply. Finally it opened into a large space, he could feel it more than see it, and in the middle of the darkness there were unseen hands packing blackness into black boxes. Tearing away the shadows and loading them into nothingness.
He went to take a step forward when he heard a voice and felt an arm blocking his path.
“Don’t go in there.”
He turned and his eyes strained to follow the arm to its source. His nostrils filled with the smell of stale sweat.
“Who are you?” the man whispered to the other end of the arm.
“I’m Gabe. From menswear.”
The words seemed to shake loose gloomy specters from the walls and they flew crazily around the man’s head for a few moments before buggering off. After he was done ducking and weaving he saw that Gabe had moved closer to him. He looked like every homeless man looks, a mixture of mountain man and bad luck. His clothing was covered in grime and he wore a battered tie around his head. There was no way of knowing that color the tie had originally been. His eyes carried a wild gleam and they darted back and forth as they peered into the darkness behind the man.
They grew wide and the man felt a burst of panic.
“Don’t turn around.”
The man did not turn around.
“It’s my boss. I’ve been down here for three weeks now … I figured she’d come looking.”
“What is this place Gabe?”
“Not now. Just go back the way you came. There’s nothing for you down here.”
The man moved the waffle cone maker back into his left hand.
“I’m gonna trust you on this one Gabe,” and with that the man headed back to find his wife.