Ascension

“Mall’s closed, kid,” Rob said, pur­pose­ly tow­er­ing over the pre­teen in the most men­ac­ing way he could. The girl’s eyes trav­eled from the scuffed black shoes up his skin­ny legs and tor­so, swim­ming in the dark secu­ri­ty uni­form, then to his waxy face and fore­bod­ing, deeply set eyes.

“I’m wait­in’ for my broth­er to get me,” she said, attempt­ing to sound immov­able, but there was an audi­ble qua­ver, and her eyes were already tear­ing up.

“Well, you need to wait out­side. Mall’s closed.” Rob point­ed to the trio of glass dou­ble doors that led to the vast, emp­ty park­ing lot, the reds and oranges of the sun­set already fad­ing into the gray of ear­ly night.

“Fine.” The girl stomped out, throw­ing open the door with as much force as she could, but its weight pre­vent­ed the dra­mat­ic exit she’d envi­sioned. Rob chuck­led as it closed behind her. The night air sealed out with a click. Part of him knew he should prob­a­bly watch to make sure her broth­er picked her up and not some creep, but on sec­ond thought, he waved it away as Jeremiah’s job. He was on duty out­side, cruis­ing the park­ing lot, which was always the best shift because he got to stay in his car and relax. She was his prob­lem now.

One head­phone in, lis­ten­ing to a true crime pod­cast, Rob began the usu­al bor­ing patrol of the shop­ping mall. He loved and hat­ed the night shift. It was eas­i­er, with no shoplifters, com­plain­ing lit­tle old ladies, or teenage fist fights to break up. There was usu­al­ly noth­ing to do at all his whole shift. The only inci­dents he’d ever expe­ri­enced were a cou­ple ama­teur attempt­ed break-ins, toss­ing out a cou­ple peo­ple who’d hid­den in bath­rooms or dress­ing rooms until they thought the coast was clear, and occa­sion­al­ly the group of local teen skate­board­ers who snuck in through the back stairs and prac­ticed along the rail­ings and fresh­ly buffed floors after the jan­i­tors fin­ished. Not much excite­ment at all. That was the down­side. It got bor­ing as hell, night after night of noth­ing hap­pen­ing. Some­times he wished for just a bit of action, but being unarmed except for an extra-large, heavy flash­light he could use as a club in a pinch, he knew he couldn’t han­dle much, so he tried to make the best of the dark, qui­et expanse and catch up on his favorite pod­casts while get­ting a lit­tle exer­cise in.

After check­ing out the first of three big anchor depart­ment stores, he made his way into the atri­um with its small stage for mid­dle school choral per­for­mances and the sky stretched above the glass ceil­ing, already shift­ing from gray to black spot­ted with the cou­ple bright stars that could be seen through the light pol­lu­tion of the city. Off to the side, one of the night jan­i­tors was emp­ty­ing the trash­can and replac­ing the plas­tic bag.

“Hola!” Rob shout­ed too loud­ly, the sound of his harsh mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion bounc­ing off the walls around them.

The jan­i­tor smiled sheep­ish­ly, lift­ing his hand in a stilt­ed wave. Rob smiled, chuck­ling to break the awk­ward silence between them.

“Ready for anoth­er night togeth­er? You always work on Tues­days, right?” he asked, but the jan­i­tor just smiled small and polite. “I’m pret­ty sure you’re the guy I always see Tues­days and Thurs­days.” After a pause, wait­ing for an answer that didn’t come, a tremor of annoy­ance bub­bled in his gut and he asked, still shout­ing across the room, “Do you speak English?”

The jan­i­tor con­tin­ued to smile and the anger in Rob’s stom­ach gur­gling up his throat in a rush of acid reflux.

“Habla Eng-lish?” Stretch­ing out the word, over­ly loud while hit­ting all the wrong syl­la­bles and accents, he watched the man’s smile fall into a hard stare. “God dammit, nev­er mind,” he snort­ed, storm­ing out of the open area into the next clus­ter of stores on his patrol.

A cur­so­ry glance into the open-design small­er stores was plen­ty, but he had to thor­ough­ly search the larg­er stores. Check­ing around the cir­cu­lar racks of dress­es and shelves of care­ful­ly fold­ed jeans, his phone buzzed inces­sant­ly in his pock­et, the chime in his ear­bud inter­rupt­ing the pod­cast every few min­utes. He knew it was Lau­ra, but he didn’t want to deal with her. She’d been angry at him over every lit­tle thing recent­ly and she knew he was at work, so he switched the phone to “do not dis­turb” mode, not­ing with a smile that it was already almost dead any­way. Sure, he wouldn’t be able to lis­ten to his pod­cast any­more after that, but at least he’d have a valid excuse for ignor­ing Lau­ra. She couldn’t argue with a dead phone at work. It’s not like he had time to sit around, wait­ing for it to charge.

Man­nequins watched him with their uncan­ny eye­less faces as he shined his flash­light into the dark cor­ners and half-lis­tened to the host gig­gle her way through a retelling of some ser­i­al killer’s ram­page. By the third anchor store, he was starv­ing, so he opened a choco­late bar and swal­lowed it near­ly whole, toss­ing the wrap­per on the floor. The trash can was full, so the jan­i­tor hadn’t made it there yet anyway.

When he got near the atri­um again, he lurked in the shad­ows for a moment, mak­ing sure the jan­i­tor was gone before con­tin­u­ing his lack­lus­ter perime­ter check. With the first lap of the down­stairs done, it was time to head to the sec­ond floor, where the lin­ger­ing scents of the food court always made his stom­ach growl and yearn for his snack break.

A yel­low plas­tic plac­ard stood in his way, declar­ing in bold let­ters that the esca­la­tor was out of order, but Rob pushed it out of the way. He’d seen a tech­ni­cian work­ing on the con­trol pan­el when he start­ed his shift, and see­ing the small light indi­cat­ing the pow­er was on, he frowned. Obvi­ous­ly, he had assumed some­one else would put away the sign for him, some­one who made less mon­ey. Some­one like Rob. Well, he wasn’t going to be both­ered with the task. Instead, he stepped onto the ridged stair­way, and it sensed his pres­ence, its engine spring­ing to life. He scowled hard­er as the mechan­i­cal stair­way slow­ly ascend­ed. He’d been right, and this annoyed him more than it would’ve to have had to trudge up a bro­ken esca­la­tor turned reg­u­lar staircase.

He looked around the dim­ly lit sights of the mall at night as he crept up to the sec­ond floor. Besides him­self, Jere­mi­ah out­side, and one or two jan­i­tors, there was nobody else around. He remem­bered a time when there was a whole fleet of night clean­ers, pick­ing up trash and scrub­bing until the sun rose, and a pla­toon of night guards. That wasn’t need­ed any­more. The place rarely got the kind of foot traf­fic he remem­bered as a child. Nowa­days, the mall only bus­tled with crowds of eager shop­pers in the lead up to the win­ter hol­i­days. The rest of the year, there was just the elder­ly mall walk­ers in the morn­ing, the dead mid­day, near­ly as dead after­noons, and the gangs of teenage idiots who con­sti­tut­ed most of the week­end traf­fic, always primp­ing, laugh­ing too loud, try­ing to impress each oth­er, and often shoplift­ing. He shud­dered to think of his last day shift. No, the night was much bet­ter. A lit­tle lone­ly, but better.

Deep in thought, with eyes unfo­cused as they gazed into noth­ing­ness, he stepped mind­less­ly onto the top plate of the esca­la­tor, but the loose met­al slipped under his foot. Fear instant­ly brought him back into the moment as his stom­ach leaped up his throat. Before he could com­pre­hend what was hap­pen­ing, the exposed gears caught his foot and began to drag him into their grind­ing maw.

Rob’s shrill shrieks echoed through the cav­ernous build­ing. Blood oiled the machin­ery as every bone in his foot broke under the cogs, the flesh from his foot and then ankle rapid­ly smashed into a pink and red mass resem­bling raw ground beef. His vision was struck stark white with agony. His calf was now halfway con­sumed, and his hands scrab­bled blind­ly at his belt. His hands found the flash­light, acci­den­tal­ly knock­ing the radio free, and it clat­tered down sev­er­al steps below him. A pri­mal scream tore through his throat as he rammed the heavy-duty flash­light into the turn­ing cogs, and to his supreme shock, it sput­tered and stopped. Not com­plete­ly, the wheels of machin­ery pushed at the block­age as they fought to con­tin­ue their assigned pur­pose, but they couldn’t budge the black met­al rod.

With a deep, shud­der­ing breath, Rob allowed him­self to think again. His eyes glanced at the mess that was his leg just moments ear­li­er. The gore was too much to com­pre­hend, nau­sea envelop­ing him as his vision threat­ened itself to a pin­prick of light, on the verge of faint­ing until his closed eye, deep breath­ing and con­cen­tra­tion allowed it to pass. Fight­ing through the shock and pain, he took sur­vey of him­self. Trapped in a kneel­ing posi­tion, as if he were tying his shoe, he was par­tial­ly obscured by the rail­ings of the esca­la­tor. He felt for his radio and cursed when he saw it on the stair far out of reach.

That’s okay, he told him­self, I still have my phone. The val­ley girl voice of the pod­cast host was dron­ing on about how dreamy the killer of the week was, if he wasn’t a blood­thirsty mon­ster, of course. He yanked out his phone and paused the pod­cast, but as his shak­ing thumbs began to select the emer­gency call but­ton, the red bat­tery icon in the cor­ner caught his atten­tion for a split sec­ond and then the screen flashed a white logo before going black.

“Fuck!” he shout­ed. Tear­ing out the ear­bud and toss­ing it past the blood-spat­tered plat­form, the gears still fight­ing the flash­light, he swiveled his head fran­ti­cal­ly, search­ing for any per­son in the dark, emp­ty mall.

“Help! Please help!” he shout­ed as loud as he could. “Call 9–1‑1! Please some­body! Any­body! Help!”

His cries echoed back to him, but no one answered.

After allow­ing him­self to wal­low in a minute or two of gut­tur­al sob­bing, Rob slapped his own face, cher­ish­ing how the sting dis­tract­ed just slight­ly from the pain from his man­gled leg. Get it togeth­er. Some­one will come, he thought and forced his periph­er­al vision to take in the sight of the blood­bath once again below his thigh. Shock was work­ing its mag­ic and numb­ing the pain enough that he could focus.

Think­ing back on the first aid train­ing he’d been forced to attend as part of his train­ing, he remem­bered the impor­tance of stop­ping bleed­ing in an injury like this. Pat­ting him­self down, he found noth­ing of use, but then he looked at the long navy sleeve of his uni­form. That could work. His teeth and fin­gers worked togeth­er to tear the seam apart, then pried the frayed edges until a jagged strip of fab­ric was freed. With his head turned, using as lit­tle of his visu­al field as pos­si­ble, shak­ing fin­gers wrapped the fab­ric just under his knee, tying it as tight­ly as pos­si­ble in a makeshift tourniquet.

The grip of the fab­ric caused a pound­ing, heavy sen­sa­tion in his knee, but Rob felt a lit­tle bet­ter about the sit­u­a­tion hav­ing accom­plished the life­sav­ing task. Maybe he could make it through this after all. Just as that thought rose through his brain­stem with a bub­ble of hope, he heard the sweet­est sound. Above the grind­ing of the gears against met­al, still work­ing to free the lodged flash­light and con­tin­ue their grue­some job, the loud hum of the com­mer­cial ride-on floor scrub­ber. Past two kiosks and an open­ing down to the atri­um below, the same jan­i­tor was on the machine, slow­ly mov­ing across the food court floor. This was it. He was saved!

“Hey! Over here! Help!” Rob waved his arms, the torn sleeve flap­ping around like a flag, but the jan­i­tor didn’t seem to notice. When he looked clos­er, he saw the over-ear head­phones and the man’s lips mov­ing as if singing along to some unheard music. Fuck. He doesn’t hear me.Again, Rob waved his arms and shout­ed. “Look over here, fuck­er! I need help! Auu­u­ugh!” His shouts devolved into screams and then final­ly pathet­ic snivel­ing whim­pers. The jan­i­tor still had not noticed him, and he could do noth­ing but watch with teary eyes as the machine pol­ished the floor far­ther and far­ther away until it round­ed the cor­ner and was gone.

Okay, okay. I need to stay pos­i­tive. Some­one will come along. The pep-talk didn’t assuage his fears though as he skimmed over the mem­o­ries of the dozens upon dozens of lone­ly nights patrolling the mall, his mind touch­ing each briefly like fin­gers flick­ing through end­less files.

With a held breath, he allowed him­self to exam­ine his trapped leg, but instant­ly a rush of bile tor­pe­doed up his throat and filled his cheeks. He tried to swal­low it, but anoth­er rush of acid pushed his lips to brim­ming, a trick­le of vom­it slith­er­ing down his chin. Strips of skin and flesh hung from the wound, and sharp points of bone jut­ted from the gore in spike like a bro­ken tree branch. The sour taste in his full cheeks was too much and he turned as far as he could, sput­ter­ing and cough­ing as the choco­late bar and his pre-work din­ner of chili slipped down the ridged esca­la­tor stairs.

Turn­ing back, he rest­ed his weight on his bent knee and breathed through anoth­er wave of nau­sea. Then anoth­er sound rang out through the mall and his heart skipped with an excite­ment greater than any he’d ever pre­vi­ous­ly expe­ri­enced. It was the sound of talk­ing, laugh­ing, small plas­tic wheels against the fresh­ly buffed floor. Those fuck­ing teenagers are going to save my life. His throat filled with a sob and his eyes watered with relief. He just had to get their attention.

Below the esca­la­tor, Rob could just see past a lin­gerie shop, a cook­ie cake bak­ery, and next to where the now defunct movie the­atre stood, the small gag­gle of teens pushed through the staff only door and into the main floor of the mall. Despite the pain and knowl­edge that the rebel­lious youths were his best and pos­si­bly only chance at res­cue, Rob couldn’t help but scowl to see that a new lock wasn’t installed on that door even after his many com­plaints about it being a secu­ri­ty issue. How­ev­er, he let that go with a quick exhale and then filled his lungs, ready to shout and make sure his voice car­ried to the group.

“Hey! Over here! I’m stuck!” Rob shout­ed, watch­ing the five teens freeze, the mis­chie­vous laugh­ter instant­ly gone, leav­ing an eerie qui­et between them. Rob let him­self smile as he waved the flag of a bat­tered sleeve at the teens, but the smile slipped off his face as they turned and ran. One jumped on his skate­board, the squeak of the wheels on the slick floor lead­ing the oth­ers back to the door, their hushed voic­es float­ing up to him in snip­pets of “oh shit” and “not him again” and “quick,” all punc­tu­at­ed by the sharp, ner­vous laugh­ter of the girl with pur­ple hair, the last to slip back through the unse­cured door they’d entered through.

Rob called after them, but his pleas for help caught in his choked throat, full of phlegm and a new tor­rent of not yet spilled tears. The moment the door clicked behind them, he let out a wail that rose to an ani­mal­is­tic howl, then he was qui­et. He looked back at the tourni­quet band­ed around his man­gled leg, the globs of blood already begin­ning to solid­i­fy from liq­uid to a thin-skinned gel, and crum­pled as far into the deep kneel as he could, cry­ing into his hands.

“Please Jesus, I need a mir­a­cle! Like the ones they talk about on tv. Come on, why not me?” His pleas were bare­ly intel­li­gi­ble blub­ber­ing, but it didn’t mat­ter because he knew no one was lis­ten­ing. The unin­jured leg was grow­ing sore from the long kneel and the shock from the inci­dent had begun to wear off, leav­ing him reel­ing from the jagged pain rip­ping through the torn fibers of his low­er leg.

“God dammit! Fuck every­one! I hope you all rot!” Rob shout­ed and slammed his fist down against his thigh, but as it made con­tact, he lost his bal­ance and top­pled for­ward. An elec­tric jolt of fear burst down his spine as he felt the flash­light dis­lodge under his weight and the gears wound for­ward, pulling his knee into their clutch­es with a sick­en­ing crack of splin­ter­ing bone.

In an instant, his thigh was wrenched in, blood gush­ing in puls­ing tor­rents over the unfeel­ing machin­ery. On instinct, he thrust his hands for­ward, try­ing to free his leg by force, but instead, they too were caught and pulled between the whirring cogs. A cur­dled scream left his mouth as his tor­so entered the met­al jaws and his life was vio­lent­ly torn from his body. With the last sec­ond of his con­scious­ness, he looked up at the few flu­o­res­cent lights that dim­ly lit the emp­ty shop­ping mall, and in that moment, he was thank­ful for every­one he’d ever spo­ken to his whole life. He wished he could go back and tell them, maybe apol­o­gize. His heart ached to apol­o­gize to Lau­ra most of all. But it was too late.

When the jan­i­tor, Hor­a­tio, dis­cov­ered Rob, his life­less eyes were still open and star­ing at the buzzing light above, and he was haunt­ed by guilt that his imme­di­ate reac­tion was not to get help or pray for the man’s soul, but a dis­grun­tled sigh over the mas­sive mess he’d left, know­ing he would be the one to clean it.

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Emma E. Mur­ray’s (she/her) sto­ries have appeared in antholo­gies like What One Wouldn’t Do, Obso­les­cence, and Ooze: Lit­tle Bursts of Body Hor­ror, as well as mag­a­zines such as CHM and Pyre. Her chap­book, Exquis­ite Hunger, is avail­able from Medusa Haus, and her nov­el­ette, When the Dev­il, as well as her debut nov­el, Crush­ing Snails, will be com­ing out Sum­mer 2024. To read more, you can vis­it her web­site EmmaEMurray.com

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