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The Ghost Mall



Michael Massee


Unless you live on the Sahara desert or in Antarctica you are within driving distance of a shopping mall.  Yes, I know, there are some of you, who are reading this, who are off in a remote area with not only no malls but no commercial venues of any kind, but I’m not talking about you smart asses.  I’m addressing those of you who are familiar with at least one of the thousands of enclosed shopping malls that stand like brick battleships in the suburbs and cities of every one of the fifty-one United States of America.  And they are all descendants of the first fully enclosed shopping mall.

             The Southdale Mall in Edina Minnesota started construction in 1954 and opened in 1956.  It is still going strong and is now known as the Southdale Center.  You can look up its history on the web, as I did, and learn how this Austrian architect dude, named Victor Gruen, immigrated to America and designed the first ever all enclosed mall.  Now, there have always been outdoor markets and shops built side by side but nothing was completely enclosed under one big roof and protected from the weather until this mall came along.  I could go on and on with a lot of fascinating facts, such as malls were still being built in the mid 90’s to the tune of 140 per year, but my story is more about the decline of the malls, specifically one tired old mall, the Foxfire. It had opened in 1965, here in Bloomington, Indiana.

             I had retired early, after twenty five years as a police officer, and found myself needing additional income to beef up my pension.  I was in my early fifties, divorced, knocking around in a big empty house, my kids were out in the world living their lives and I knew I had to pull myself out of my La-Z-Boy recliner before I lost the use of my legs.  My local mall, the Foxfire, one of three within a ten mile radius, was advertising for a security officer.  The usual procedure for hiring mall guards is for management to work with a private security firm but, for reasons I was to find out later, the Foxfire Mall was doing it the old-fashioned way through ads on line and in the local shopper’s newspaper.
             The Foxfire was built in the late 60’s on a field that had once been an airport.  In the management office there were these big blowups of fashionable men and women boarding luxurious airliners as well as dashing young airmen posing in front of their bi-planes.  I dropped off my resume with the receptionist and was called in for an interview the next day.
             My interview was a farce.  I mean they hired me on the spot, no questions asked.  While I could have been flattered, I knew better.  They were desperate to fill a low paying, no benefits, no perks position and I filled the bill.  I was given the night shift, which was from six PM to two AM, and I was ordered to start working two nights later.   This was to give me time to shop for a generic mall-cop uniform and comfortable shoes.  Luckily, there was a uniform outlet in the mall and, surprisingly, the mall management reimbursed me for my purchases.  So, on the evening I was to begin my rounds, I arrived dressed in my spiffy blue-gray shirt, jacket and pants with a round red badge attached to the upper arm of my jacket.  It read ‘Security.’  No hat and, more importantly, no gun.  If I ever had to deal with a real honest-to-god bad guy, lord help me.

             In the beginning there were three of us; Arnie, who was on the day shift, from ten in the morning until six at night, when I took over, and then Yusuf who replaced me in the dead of night at two AM and finished up at ten in the morning.
             Arnold Stuhr was a short stout Germanic-like pixie of an advanced age who had been patrolling the mall for many years.  He was a cheery guy, much adored by both the merchants and the shoppers, the perfect Foxfire ambassador of good will as well as a keeper of the peace.
             Yusuf Hasnawi was originally from Algeria and was rather taciturn and morose.  He was married with a large family and, when his night shift was over, he started his day job driving a taxi.  He was probably only in his forties but with what must have been, so far, a very hard life, he looked much older.

             I enjoyed the early hours of my night shift when the mall was still buzzing with activity.  There were the serious shoppers, the window shoppers and the non-shoppers, the food court diners and the teens just looking for a good time.   I didn’t mind being stopped by a harried customer looking for the shop he just happened to be standing in front of and I got very good at giving directions.  “Yes ma’am, the multiplex is located next to the food court.” “You’ll find Zale Jewelry on the second floor between the management office and Urban Outfitters.” “Rest rooms are in the middle of the north wing. You’re welcome.”
             By my third year at Foxfire I was a whiz at time management; nighttime=work, morning=sleep, afternoon=free time.  Monday was my day off (I learned later that Yusuf did a double shift on Mondays to cover for me.  Imagine, he spent sixteen hours at the mall and then he left to drive a taxi.  I guess he was able to operate a cab while he was asleep.)
             Arnold, having seniority, had his day off covered by a rent-a-cop, hired by the Foxfire management, but Yusuf never took a day off.  Too many mouths to feed, I suppose.

             Anyway, it wasn’t until the beginning of my fifth year that things began to change and not for the better.  Arnie asked me one day if I had noticed a decrease in the number of visitors to the mall.  I replied that maybe that was true during the day but in the evening the size of the crowd seemed about the same.  But I told him I had noticed that people seemed to be spending most of their time looking but not necessarily buying.  I sighted fewer shopping bags and I saw many of the retail sales persons standing around with nothing to do.  Eventually, we began to hear a lot of grumbling from the managers and owners of the various stores about the lack of customers.
             Then came the sales:  Fall, Winter, Spring, 40% off, 70% off, Buy Two Get One Free, Buy One, Second One Half Off--- Fire Sale, Moving Sale, Going Out Of Business Sale.
             The first real shake up was when Macy’s closed its doors.  It was like a giant monster had, overnight, bitten off a huge chunk of the mall.  Three floors of merchandise and counters and racks and shelves, all gone, along with hundreds of employees.  Arnie and I, after the last moving truck pulled away from the loading dock, took a tour of the empty store.  It was like walking into an enormous gray cave with broken floor tiles and torn carpeting under our feet and with the only illumination coming from the light radiating through the glass of the exit doors.  We turned on our flashlights as we climbed the dead escalators to the second floor.  I spied a sign resting upside down on the floor at the top of the non-moving stairs.  I reached down and turned it over.  In red letters it spelled out ALL SALES FINAL.
             “This is not good, William,” Arnie whispered, as if he was afraid his voice would echo in the dark emptiness.  “Macy’s was the starship of this mall, it gave it a solidity, security.  It was the anchor.”
             “Yeah,” I replied, “but at least we’ve got good ole Sears anchoring the other end of the mall.”  A year later, of course, that all ended when Sears started going under and, what had once been the top retailer in the United States, with 3,500 stores, was now a bankrupted cripple with only 22 retail outlets still open.  Our store was not one of them.

             So now we had black holes at both ends of our mall.

             Trixie’s Togs was the first small business to throw in the towel.  Trixie had been with Foxfire since it first opened.  She was a talented queen who created one-of-kind garments for large sized women (and other queens, I imagine) and stocked unusual shoes and accessories.  I enjoyed dropping by her workroom, which was tucked into the back of her store, and watching her cut fabric and stitch together her latest designs.  She was a work of art herself and she left a third black hole in the mall and in our hearts when she took her Singer industrial sewing machine and left.
             Then it was Radio Shack’s turn.  Orville, the manager, said it was online shopping that was killing the retail business.  A new kid on the block, named Amazon, was beginning to make inroads into the shop-on-line world and, as we all know, would eventually take over the universe.
It was such a shame to lose Orville and the Shack.  It was one thing to buy a cable online that you might be needing but it was so much more helpful to have Orville make sure you got the right one.  Having a problem with a new electronic device you purchased?  Orville could show you how to remedy that with a hands-on demonstration, free of charge.

             And so on it went, one by one, many of the forty or so Foxfire businesses shut down: Hallmark Cards, Century 21, Champion Sports, Aéropostale and Bath and Body Works, being some of them.  At first the food court seemed to be holding on and didn’t suffer similar losses.  It was still doing a roaring business.  People have to eat, after all.
             But then Covid 19 hit and everything shut down.

             Foxfire Mall was closed for three months.  Arnold, Yusuf and I joined the billions of people from around the world who were voluntarily imprisoned in their living quarters, Arnie with his sweet spouse Sophie, Yusuf with his wife and, I don’t know how many, kids---and me all by myself.
It was masks and handwashing and visits to only two destinations, the super market and the drug store.  A lot of reading and watching TV, bread baking and knitting and, for some, the new technology of Zoom.
             Eventually, Foxfire contacted Arnie, Yusuf and me and said they were reopening the mall but on a limited schedule, noon to six, Tuesday through Sunday and closed on Monday.  In the beginning, because there was expected to be very few visitors at the mall, the Foxfire management saw no need for around-the-clock security.  This meant they wanted to rehire only one of us to act as a night watchman after the mall closed at six pm.  They offered the position to Arnie, since he had seniority, but he declined saying he didn’t want to be away from his Sophie during the night. 
             “It’s a good time for me to retire, William.  I don’t want to be travelling around with this plague thing going on, masked up like the Lone Ranger.”
    So the job went to me.  I don’t know why the powers-that-be didn’t consider Yusef.  Maybe it was his prickly personality, whatever, who knows, but there I was walking the silent halls of the Foxfire mall until two in the morning.
             Almost no one braved the mall in the beginning.  A few masked shopping addicts would show up for their daily fix but there was very little to be had as most of the shops had pulled up stakes and disappeared.  Things only got worse as the first year of the pandemic ended and a new year of enforced isolation rumbled in slowly.  I believe the mall would have closed down permanently by then if it hadn’t been for the cleverness of the mayor and the city council.
             The township moved all its offices into the East Wing of the mall.  It also offered space, at a low rent, in the same wing, to doctors and dentists and before you knew it the grim gray eastern hall was alive with masked citizens going about the business of taxation and traffic violation payments and teeth cleaning and eye exams.  The restrooms were open during the day as were all the entrances and exits so, now and then, homeless individuals ambled in to use the facilities.  The nightly clean-up crew would find evidence of sitz baths in the sinks and unidentifiable objects in the toilets.  But, at least, these unfortunates had access to hot water, TP and paper towels.
             I would begin locking down the mall at six and by seven the place would be empty except for maybe a city employee or two finishing up some legal nonsense.  By ten it was only me and five hundred thousand square feet of empty retail space.  I can’t imagine what it was costing the Foxfire management to keep the electricity and the water running day and night, heat in the winter to keep the pipes from freezing, air conditioning in the summer to keep me and the East Wing habitués from roasting.  But it was none of my concern.  My job was to check every door and every hall and report in, on my phone app, every hour.  After ten PM, me, my phone and my trusty flash light were the only inhabitants in this once busy hub of commerce.
             My nightly routine was always the same.  I had a passkey that allowed me access to all the back entrances leading to the different stores. Most of the public doesn’t know about the warren of tunnels that wrap around each store or the loading ramps in the back that allow for the delivery of merchandise. These are hidden behind hundreds of unmarked doors that run along the corridor walls in between the flashy store fronts.  I didn’t often open any of these main entrances to the venues, which was done by raising the electronic gates, because it was all too time consuming and I had to use one of the special keys issued to Foxfire by each of the retailers.  That key ring, containing keys to the front doors of every establishment, weighed in at about five pounds.  I did check the various loading docks every few weeks but not regularly.

             There is no way to convey to you how weird and depressing my nightly journey was as I wandered from one failed business to the next.  I am still shocked by all that was left behind.  In many cases it’s like the store manager just locked the door and walked away.  For example, there was Petites Plus, which was a popular clothing shop.  Naked manikins stood in line against the wall like they were waiting for a bus, that will never come.  There were baskets of coat hangers and a couple of cash registers (minus any cash.)  Empty glass counters were spotted here and there like Snow White’s and Sleeping Beauty’s crystal coffins and in the middle of all this was a soggy pile of ceiling tiles.  Somehow water had leaked from somewhere overhead and caused a section of the ceiling to fall in.  I reported it to management at least once every week but---
             One of the most startling finds early on was to discover that the owners of CoffeeBrake had defaulted on their lease and had just fled into the night leaving everything.  I mean everything; tables, chairs, lighting fixtures, art on the walls, China cups and plates, expresso machines, bags of coffee beans, coffee grinder with ground coffee still in it, cloth napkins, tea bags and a Roomba Vacuum cleaner, among other valuable items.

             However, most of the former residents of the mall left nothing but dust bunnies and trash bags.  When I first started my new duties as Night Watchman, every time I unlocked a door and walked down a narrow musty hall, toward the inner door of an abandoned store, I never knew what to expect.  Sometimes it was like coming upon a trove of useless treasures; a rolled-up carpet, a framed print of a haircut being offered by Mr. Andre, one scuffed-up New Balance sneaker (left foot) or a sign reading BARGAIN! TODAY ONLY!  Most of the time, however, the door opened to nothing, just gray silence.

             After a week or so I had my routine all worked out.  It was just a variation on what I had been doing all along.  It was the same old window-door-check, window-door-check, and on and on.
             You have no idea how soul-destroying it was for me.  It was one thing to patrol, as I had in the past, a vibrant edifice that housed the creativity and imagination of living, breathing, human beings.  Now, I was the lonely caretaker in a giant mausoleum.

             To maintain my sanity I did change the direction of my nightly walks once in a while and to spice it up I would often eat my midnight lunch in the food court.  I could sit at one of the red and white tables and munch on my homemade tuna salad sandwich and drink coffee from my thermos.  I would augment my appetite by reading the menus hanging over the no-longer-operating eateries.
             With a half hour for lunch and a couple of fifteen minute breaks, to rest my feet, I could make three or four full rounds of the mall before my shift was over.  I sometimes liked to take my break in one of the empty multiplex theatres.  I’d sit in the middle of the first row of seats and stare up at the big white screen, lit only by an emergency light, and imagine the flashing colors and loud sound effects that used to rock the space.  Will we ever “go” to the movies again?
             So, with the danger, due to Covid, of anyone going anywhere and with no more shops left to visit in the mall there was really no reason, as I saw it, to keep it open.  But the management couldn’t close it down because it had become the town center.  In fact they put up a sign that read “Towne Centre” and the East Wing buzzed with activity which only made the other dim halls grow even more forbidding.  At first, I worried about these empty corridors being open daily to the public with no daytime security but then I remembered that there was a police presence in the East Wing and I’m sure they had their eyes on the feed from the CCTV cameras that were nestled in the mall’s dark corners like vigilant owls.

             And that’s how it went for several months.  By this time I had been with Foxfire for a total of seven years and to finally end up wandering these dark lifeless halls like some restless wraith was getting to me.  I found myself fantasizing about all the thousands of shoes that had trod the white tile floors of this once thriving institution, all the fast food that was consumed by hungry diners in the food court, Santa sitting on his throne in front of Macy’s and the vendor booths running up and down the center of the corridors selling everything from baseball caps to Timex watches.  And the piped-in music, that strange syrupy sound of songs that you couldn’t always identify.  As I stood in the center of the mall, where the four wings met, I imagined I could hear one of those innocuous melodies wafting its way towards me from the distant past.  But, after a while, it seemed like I could really hear it.

             Now, here’s where it got all wild and creepy.  The faint sound of music was coming from somewhere in the mall and it wasn’t a tune playing in my head or coming out of the now defunct loud speakers concealed in the corridor ceilings.  I couldn’t pin point where it was originating from and it faded before I even had a chance to follow it.  I thought maybe it could be someone still working in the East Wing but it was close to one in the morning and I had let the last person out, and locked up behind them, hours ago.  The cleaning crew sometimes used an old boom box but, for the most part, they listened to music with their earbuds. Besides, they had finished up and left the premises by ten that evening.
             I finally decided that the brief whiff of music I heard probably came from a lone car in the parking lot, one of those annoying autos with giant speakers, booming loud enough to be heard in the next county.  But, in all honesty, the song I heard in the hall was more ethereal and not your typical heavy metal tune.  Then what the hell was it and where did it come from?

             A few nights later a second strange thing happened, I smelled Cinnamon. It was just a hint of the scent but strong enough for me to identify it.  Once again, I couldn’t tell where it was coming from.  Cinnamon?  The only contact I ever remember having with that spice was when I would treat my kids to Cinnabon, at one of the malls.  In fact there was once a Cinnabon kitchen here in the food court but it had closed when Covid hit.

             When I began to hear whispers, always coming from a different wing of the mall, I found myself frightened for two reasons; that something or someone was playing a scary game with me or I was actually going insane.  It was entirely possible that my overactive imagination combined with my deadly nighttime routine was causing me to hallucinate.  Up until then I had always been a no-nonsense sort of a guy, practical, feet-on-the-ground, regular Joe.  But now? 
             I decided that I needed to talk to somebody and maybe that would help me pull out of what could possibly be, a psychotic episode.  I called Ginny.

             “What’s up, Billy Boy, and don’t tell me you’re sick!”

             That was Virginia Trulia responding to my phone call.  Ginny was---is--a sweet, attractive, middle-aged leftover hippy.  Well, not exactly leftover.  She was too young to have been around during those flowerchild days but she loved the history, the movies, the photographs, the music and the myths surrounding the age of Aquarius.  Therefore, she had adopted the hippy look and philosophy, way back in her early twenties.  We actually met at a peace rally protesting the USA’s invasion of Afghanistan. She was there marching for peace and I was there trying to keep the peace and the rest is history.
I caught her eye and she caught mine and we’ve been in a non-serious relationship ever since then.  Now, I mean it, when I say it’s not serious, so don’t get your hopes up.  I had done the marriage journey and once was enough.  As for Ginny, she loves her independence and says she doesn’t need a man around to tell her what to do.  So, that’s where we we’re at—for now. 

             “I’m fine, knock on wood, but there’s something going on at work that I want to run by you.  You want to come over for lunch?  I’ll cook.”
             “Sure.  I’ll walk over.  Public transportation is too full of the virus and I can use the fresh air.”
             Lunch was my homemade chili, with cornbread, and Ginny had brought a six pack of Corona.  I had heard some people weren’t buying Corona beer because it caused Covid. Oh, please!  Ginny and I had just recently started to get together again due to the government beginning to relax the Covid restrictions. We had received all the anti-viral inoculations and been good citizens about wearing masks and standing six feet away from our fellow human beings.  In the beginning we should have moved in with each other so that we could have gone through the long lonely months of Covid isolation together but, since I was spending my nights working in the scary plague-infested outside world, I had felt, at the time, that it was healthier for both of us to keep the status quo.  Had I known how long this pandemic was going to last maybe I would have changed my mind.

             “So what’s happening out at the old Foxfire?” queried Ginny, as she brushed cornbread crumbs off her chin.
             “Nothing much, really.  It’s just that I think the emptiness and uselessness of the place is getting to me,” I replied, and then I filled her in about hearing strange sounds and the smelling of Cinnamon.
             “Cinnamon?  That’s interesting.  It’s often used as a substitution for a witch’s wand.”
             Now, you need to know an important thing about Ginny and that’s her obsession with the occult.  She is like a walking encyclopedia of facts about any and everything from a seance to a succubus.
             “Cinnamon has been used for centuries to promote wealth and good health.  I’d say that your smelling it was a good sign.  As to the music and the whispering maybe you’ve got a poor spirit wandering the halls who’s lost---"
             “Oh, come on,” I interrupted, “I’m looking for a rational explanation for this stuff, not some—I need to know that it’s not my stupid imagination!”
             “I’m pretty sure it’s not your mind playing fancy tricks.  Just try and be open to the possibility that this could be something supernatural.  I mean, what better environment could there be, for the visit of---”
             “What? A ghost?”
             “Maybe.  Here is an abandoned old building with a long history of thousands of visitors, maybe millions, and now it’s empty and along comes this dead soul who is searching for something or someone---maybe it’s a lost little kid looking for his mama.”
             Over coffee, Ginny kept talking to me about ectoplasm and poltergeists and telekinesis until I finally had to tune her out.  I so wanted her to come up with a feasible real-world answer which was, of course, impossible.  If I couldn’t figure it out, and I was personally experiencing the phenomenon while working on the premises, how could I hope that Ginny would find some answers when she hadn’t even been there.

             As it was Friday, when I got to work that evening, the East Wing had emptied out very quickly.  The cleaning crew was gone by nine and an oppressive silence flooded the halls.   It was so quiet I could hear the water gurgling in the pipes that ran overhead in the narrow passageways leading to the back entrances of the stores.  I could sense the movement of air as it whispered out of the air vent.  Maybe that was the whispers I had heard earlier.
             The next two nights of that weekend passed without a repetition of the smell and sounds. Monday, being my day off, I used the time to catch up on grocery shopping and laundry.  I noticed that a few customers in the supermarket weren’t wearing masks as well as some of the folks in the laundry.  It seemed to me to be a bit too soon to be so brave, with people still dying from the virus, but we lived in a democracy and that meant freedom of choice.
             Tuesday evening came around again too soon and I was back at prowling the gloomy halls of the Foxfire mall.  I had begun thinking about giving management my notice and I had even called Ginny to discuss it.

             “It’s up to you Billy Boy.  If you need money you could look for another job, one that uses that brain of yours instead of your legs.  You’ve got smarts you haven’t even tapped.”
             “I could survive on my pension if I just quit.  Getting another job, however, would be difficult.  Not much call for an ex-cop in his late fifties with no education beyond high school.  It’d just be more security gigs.”
             “Oh, shut up!  It’s time you walked out of that gruesome mall.  You’ve been there long enough.  What’s it been?  Ten years?”
             “Seven, going on eight.”
             “Well, it seems like a hundred to me.  Get the fuck out of there!”

             Wednesday night started out the same, as every other night, with me walking up and down, checking every door and window.   Around ten thirty, as I turned the corner leading into the West Wing, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of white.  It was like a puff of smoke and by the time I turned around it had evaporated.  I wish I could say that it was just a sputtering safety light but I knew it was something else and it startled me.
             And then there was the smell of coffee.

             This time the aroma was not a faint wisp of an odor but a full blast of a very rich brew.  It was strong enough that I found myself checking my thermos to see if it was leaking, which it wasn’t.  I couldn’t pinpoint the direction from where the smell was emanating as it seemed to be coming from everywhere.  I finally concluded that there had to be somebody lurking in the mall, someone who liked strong coffee.  It was as simple as that.  No phantom smells and ghostly sounds coming from a spirit world (sorry Ginny.)  Someone made of flesh and blood was hiding here and it was my job to find him or her.

             The CCTV room was located at the back of the management office on the second floor of the East Wing.  It was here that, during the day, the police had taken over surveillance of the mall, while it was open to the public.  Using my passkey, I entered the darkened office and made my way to the security room entrance which I found unlocked.  Opening the door I faced a wall of monitors that were, for the moment, dark as a midnight sky.  I figured they were turned off to save electricity, so I had to reboot all of them.  One by one they blinked back on and images of the shadowy gray halls of Foxfire appeared on the screens.  I sat in one of the swivel chairs and glanced from monitor to monitor. I figured it was more important for me to be there, looking for a possible trespasser, than uselessly wandering the halls.
             I don’t see how it is that someone assigned to watching twenty TV screens for eight hours a day doesn’t go bananas.  An hour or so into my vigil and I was ready to either fall asleep or run screaming out into the empty parking lot.  I would have given up at that moment but, as I arose from my chair, I saw a flutter of movement on one of the monitors.   Like what I had experienced earlier, it was just a flash of white and then it receded into the darkness.  I recognized the Formica-covered object that remained on the screen as the information counter, which sits at the center of where the four corridors converge.  I quickly scanned the other monitors, hoping to catch a glance of the elusive white whatever, and eventually I saw it near the end of one of the halls.  Checking which camera was on, and in which tunnel, I figured out that the ‘white whatever’ was sailing down the first floor of the South Wing towards the abandoned Sears store.  Just as I turned to go, and try to chase it down, I saw that it had stopped its journey and was spinning around in circles.  It looked, in the feeble light, like a fuzzy gray cyclone whirling back and forth.  Then, seemingly from out of nowhere, a large black silhouette stepped in front of it and I felt a jolt of recognition.  It was a person, a human being, not a specter, not a ghost!  It looked like it was struggling with the ‘white whatever’ in an attempt to subdue it.  I leapt up from the chair and rushed out of the offices and headed down the stairs to the first floor.  I ran as fast as my out-of-condition legs could move but it was too far a distance and when I arrived, wheezing like a leaking tire, there was no one there.
             I looked at the floor for footprints and found, in the dust, evidence of a scuffle and then one set of large shoeprints fading off into the dark.  I followed them with my flashlight until they began to disappear due to no dust being on the shiny white tiles leading away from Sears.  It was then that I realized that there had been only one set of prints.  Where was the ‘white whatever’s’ foot prints?  And, If it had no feet what the hell was it?
             The rest of the night was spent opening and entering every store in the hopes of finding any sign of occupation.  There had, in the past, been a couple of incidences of a homeless person holing up in the rest rooms but he was quickly escorted out of the mall.  I felt bad about having to do that knowing that he was just one of hundreds having to sleep in the cold and damp of the outside world.
             I checked the kitchens behind all the counters in the food court except for those that were boarded up.  It was no surprise that I caught the odor of coffee when I passed the CoffeeBrake establishment but that faded as I moved on.  I thought that maybe that was the scent that could have travelled into the other halls, but, admittedly, that was a long shot.
             I also checked the freight elevator that was located behind the food court.  It had been used to bring up restaurant supplies and foodstuffs from the first-floor loading dock but it had been shut down, due to Covid, and the double doors had been closed tight.  I pushed the DOWN button, just for the hell of it, and, unsurprising, the scratched doors with chipped orange paint didn’t slide open.

             Two o’clock arrived and I gave up the search in order to lock up and leave.  I shut down the CCTV monitors and let myself out of the mall.  Someone from the police would open it again at noon.  I planned on talking to them at that time and relating my discovery.
             When I woke up around noon, and called management, they informed me that the police weren’t happy that I had gained access to the CCTV room.  I explained that I used the monitors to tract down a possible trespasser and that I would meet with the police at five that afternoon to resolve any confusion.

             The cops treated me as if I was a serial killer when I showed up and attempted to explain my encounter with the ‘white whatever’ and its shadowy friend.
             “How did you get into the CCTV room?”
             “I have a pass key to the management office and the monitor room was unlocked.”
             “It shouldn’t have been!”
             “Well, it was.”
             “Are you sure?  And these so called ghosts or invaders or whatever, are you sure you saw them or were you just waking up from napping on the job?”
             At this point I had had it.  I told them to check the tapes or DVDs, or whatever they use to record activity in the halls, and they’d see what I was talking about.  The sergeant in charge replied, with a smirk, that, being the dumb mall-guard that I was, I had neglected to engage the button that activates the recording software.
             “So, I’m afraid,” continued Sergeant Sarcastic, “that all the footage you shot for your little supernatural documentary is rather incomplete.  So please stay out of the monitor room from now on.  Okay?”
             I reluctantly agreed to his demand as I knew, from my prior experience as a former officer in a police department, that some cops really got off on being power-hungry assholes and you didn’t want to mess with them.  I turned away and went to work.

             “The next week was mostly uneventful but the thought that there was someone lurking around in the mall made me very edgy.  Every dark corner seemed to contain the shadow of an uninvited guest.  That management wasn’t concerned and was ignoring my reports was one more example of the sloppy and uncaring way they had been taking care of the mall.  It was as if they couldn’t wait to get rid of it.

             “It was around 11:30 on a Friday night when everything blew sideways.  I had just walked into the food court and was about to sit down with my sandwich and my thermos when I heard a noise coming from the direction of the Kiddie Patch.  This was a small section of the seating area that had been set aside as a mini-playground for young children.  It had a plastic slide, a hobby horse that bounced on a large spring and a pint-sized fire engine equipped with an annoying bell, that had had its clapper removed years ago after hundreds of noise complaints were received from food court diners.  The sound I had heard was not the ringing of a chime but of something hard hitting the metal of the silenced bell.  It was a brief ding and then nothing.  I glanced quickly over at the playground but I didn’t see anything except the slide, the pony and the fire truck.
             “I clicked on my flashlight and walked the thirty feet or so over to the playground.  Suddenly, like a mouse fleeing a cat, a small figure leapt up from behind the yellow plastic slide and dashed towards the kitchen.  I followed it with the beam of my flashlight and yelled out, as I ran after it;
             ““Stop!  Wait! I won’t hurt you!”
             “I could tell it from its size that it was a child and it seemed to be a little boy and he was fast, very fast.  He was through the door at the rear of what had been Chick-fil-A and gone.  I crashed my way into the back hall that contained empty trash cans, fire extinguishers and---the elevator.  It was just shutting its doors but I stuck my big foot out and stopped them from closing completely.  They then did what all elevator doors do when someone is only halfway in as they are closing, they reopened.
             “I stood, holding the doors open, staring at the interior of a large freight elevator.  It was set up like someone’s living quarters with a couple of folding chairs, a table constructed of two plastic milk crates topped with a plank on which sat a little propane stove and a Coleman lamp. On the floor, were two sleeping bags.  One of them was wiggling and shaking and I figured it was the little boy trying to make himself disappear.  As I moved my flashlight over to the other side of the elevator I was confronted with the outline of a bearded man attempting to extricate himself from the tangles of his sleeping bag.  I aimed the light at his face and gasped.
             “Mr. William?”
             “What the hell is going on here?”

             After he calmed the boy down, who was crying until his nose ran, Yusuf began to tell me why they were hanging out in the elevator.
             “This my son,” he started, ‘Malik.  He is six years old.  After I lose my mall job—”
             “I’m sorry that happened---”
             “No matter.  I hate the work.  Boring.  But then Uber fire me---”
             “Why? What happened?”
             “Something about wrong papers and complaints.”
             “From riders.  Then Jamila take my girls and go back to Annaba.”
             “In Algiers?”
             “Oui.  So now I become unemployed and Malik and I are homeless.”
             “Am so sorry. Can’t you find another job?”

             Yusuf gave me a look containing enough distain to level half of Bloomington.

             “I have master’s degree in electronics from Universite’ Badji Mokhtar De Annaba.  But is not worth a pile of dung here in ‘land of opportunity.’  Texas Instruments, Zenith, Dell, all say no,
need to be licensed in USA.  Maybe I should make appointment with Mr. Otis.  You see what I’ve done to his elevator.”
             “I noticed.  I thought it had been shut down. The other night I tried to make it work but when I pushed the button nothing happened.”
             “That is because I bypassed the circuits that make it go up and down and I just left those that let the doors open and close and the lights go on and off.”
             “But how did you get into the elevator in the first place?  In fact, how the devil did you get into the mall?”
             Yusuf smiled a wicked grin.  “I had keys.  I had copy of passkey and key for fire department to open elevator in emergency made before I was let go.
             “You had copies made?  But that’s illegal!  Locksmiths are not supposed to make copies of those kinds of keys!”
             “My cousin did, as a favor.  Also, I pay him.  He is a professional locksmith.”

             He went on to explain how he had moved Malik and himself into the mall about three months ago after he saw me leave at two thirty in the morning.  He worked out a routine, for the two of them, which was that they would spend the afternoon outside, panhandling, begging (Malik was good at getting sympathy donations) and looking for work, then at six o’clock they would let themselves in with the illegal key and head to the food court and the elevator.  Yusuf knew I usually started my rounds on the first floor and rarely got to the food court until much later.  They would then shut themselves up in the elevator and remain quiet by reading, taking naps and playing games.  At two thirty in the morning they would open the elevator and they could carefully roam the halls since, with me having gone home, there was no one left in the mall.  With the dawn they would return to the elevator to sleep until noon and then start the cycle all over again. After a while, however, Malik grew tired of being locked up and, watching his father opening and closing the elevator, he learned how to sneak out on his own while Yusuf napped.
             “I imagine that was when you saw him running in the hall dressed in his white blanket.  It reminds him of his mother.”  Malik looked up at me and smiled a sad smile.
             “May I get you something?” Yusuf asked, after he finished tucking his son back into the sleeping bag.  I hadn’t noticed before but it had Pokémon figures printed on it.                          
             I was startled by the sudden change of subject.  “Er---No thank you.  We’ve got to figure out what to do about this situation.”
             “I am going to make coffee and fix Malik something to eat,” Yusuf continued and that’s when I noticed the pan of coffee grounds in water sitting on the camp stove.  My eye then moved to a take-out carton resting by the Coleman lamp.  “Let me give you coffee.  I will just heat it up while I serve Malik some rice.”
             He turned on the flame under the pan and then, pulling a bowl out from beneath the improvised table, he filled it with some cooked rice out of the container.
             “Come, sit up, my son.  Eat.  It will make you feel better,” he advised, as he sprinkled what looked like sugar and some sort of brown powder on the white rice.  I caught a whiff of spice and began to chuckle---Cinnamon.

             “Okay, now you understand you can’t continue to stay here.  Legally, it’s my job to turn you over to the police for trespassing but I can’t see me making your lives any more miserable than they already are.  So, I figure there are two ways we can go here:  you pack up all your stuff and get the hell out of here now and you find somewhere else to squat.  Or, and I’ll probably really regret this, you’ll move in with me, temporarily---”
             “Move into your home?” Yusuf asked looking both confused and stunned.
             “Temporarily! You understand the definition, right?  Now, I have enough room, it’s a big old house and, at least, you’ll be safe and legal.  (And able to take a much needed shower.) And it’ll give you time to find a job and a place of your own.”


             It’s human nature to want most stories to have a happy ending.  I’ve found that seventy-five percent of time this is not true.  To end means it’s over, fini, kaput.  I prefer to use the phrase ‘a happy beginning.’  And thus it was with this story.

             As the pandemic moved on and Covid 19 became more like that annual unwelcome visitor the flu, which, by the way, is no mere sniffle since it kills an estimated 52,000 people every year, things began to improve.  Kids were back in school, theatres and restaurants reopened, less masks were seen in public and more shoppers were back in the stores.  But not at the Foxfire mall.  Dark and grim, it sat there like an orphaned whale.  And then a miracle happened.
             The mall officially closed and it was announced that our local community college was relocating, after major renovations, to the old Foxfire mall.  Dorms would be situated on the second floor, a cafeteria would sit where the food court had been, classrooms and offices would populate the first floor and the multiplex would become one large auditorium.  The abandoned Chuck E. Cheese restaurant, which was down the road about a quarter mile, would eventually become the college gymnasium. The East Wing would remain the Towne Centre and that’s where you will find me as the new head of campus security.  Don’t ask.  Ginny just says it was in the cards.
             As for Yusuf and Malik, things are moving  but rather slowly.  Yusuf got a position at a new start-up company, Dreamon, which deals with something about software for artists.  I don’t understand anything about it.  Malik is in the first grade and struggling but he’s a smart kid and I’m sure he’ll get there eventually.  His English is improving from watching a lot of TV.
             As for finding their own place, the cost of real estate around here is, at the moment, beyond Yusuf’s housing budget so they’re still living temporarily with me.  It isn’t easy due to how different our cultures are.  My Arabic sucks big time but in all honesty, I’m getting used to thick black coffee and the strong scent of cinnamon.

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