Ballad of Pemberton Mall #03

Episode 3: The Basement

Tags: #pemberton #comedy #shortstory

The Pembrooke Mall was an odd place. Its reputation, nestled in the middle of nowhere and shaped like a double H, had become legendary among the few who dared to enter. It was home to a motley crew of store owners, each weirder than the last. And, as the new manager, Alex Taylor’s days were a peculiar blend of bureaucracy and bizarre encounters. Today, his mission was to locate the elusive supply closet in the basement, as dictated by the faded notes left by his predecessor. It was supposed to be a well-lit room stocked with the mall’s most expensive supplies, a sanctuary of sorts for the beleaguered manager. The problem was the notes also mentioned the basement was a labyrinthine maze that he never really explored.

It was one of the few things that he had not had a chance to do yet. The old manager had told him that this mall had been built on a failed project. An underground parking garage of all things and that the first two basement floors were used by the mall. The manager was also clear that they were only to use the first-floor basement and avoid the second floor as much as possible. She never did explain why.

Alex, armed with his flashlight, descended the cement stairs to the first-floor basement. The air was cool and a lot nicer than he had anticipated. The floors were cement, but they were well kept and clean. It almost felt like an office space with the rooms down each corridor. One would have thought he was in a skyscraper if it hadn’t been descending into the bowels of the Earth. The fluorescent lights flickered intermittently though, casting eerie shadows that danced along the walls.

‘I don’t want to spend too much time here,’ Alex thought to himself as he pocketed his flashlight. There was enough light down here.

As Alex reached the bottom of the stairs, he sighed and choose a hallway to go down. There were a lot of rooms and there weren’t any instructions on which held the expensive fluorescent lights he needed. He fumbled with his keys, trying each one, and was met with varying degrees of success. Some doors opened to reveal nothing more than forgotten inventory – old boxes of vinyl records, discarded mannequins, and a collection of broken shopping carts. Others, however, yielded more peculiar sights: a room full of vintage bowling trophies, another with a collection of porcelain cats, and one particularly unsettling space filled with nothing but taxidermied animals dressed in tiny, ill-fitting clothing.

“Why does this place have so many weird rooms?” Alex muttered to himself, his eyes skimming over a particular rabbit in a bowler hat. The silence was deafening, broken only by the distant hum of the basement lights. Every step he took seemed to echo through the hollow basement. It was just plain weird down here.

A flicker of movement caught Alex's eye. He froze, his heart pounding. Why had the basement gone to feeling creepy and that someone was out to get him? It was bright down here but the entire place had taken on an eerie feeling. ‘Why did I ever agree to this job? I should have taken that desk job at the insurance company.’ He thought to himself.

It was at the end of the corridor Alex noticed that the lights were not working and out of it a figure emerged. Alex squinted, his breath catching in his throat. The figure stepped into the light; its identity became clear. Relief washed over Alex, but it was quickly replaced by bewilderment. What on earth is Jean-Luc doing down here?

Jean-Luc Dubois was known for his outlandish taste in fashion – the kind that made him look like he had raided a circus wardrobe and then vomited on a thrift store. Today was no exception. Neon green blazer, check. Polka dot trousers, check. Mismatched socks – one orange, the other purple – double check. His ensemble was a visual assault that made Alex's eyes hurt just to look at.

‘Seriously, does he dress in the dark?’

“Jean-Luc?” Alex managed to get out. “What are you doing down here?”

Jean-Luc smiled at Alex, his face breaking into a wide grin. “Ah, mon cher Alex! What a delightful surprise to see you down here in the bowels of Pembrooke Mall!”

‘Great, even in the basement, he can't dial down the drama.’ “I... I could ask you the same thing,” Alex replied, trying to steady his voice and regain some semblance of composure. “Why are you here?”

Jean-Luc chuckled, a high-pitched sound that echoed eerily off the basement walls. Of course he laughs like a supervillain. If anyone else didn’t know who he was, they would have thought he was an escaped serial killer. Jean-Luc was the sweetest man anyone could have met in this life. “Ah, my dear Alex, the basement is a treasure trove of forgotten wonders! I come here to seek out the peculiar and the bizarre, the things that others have abandoned but which still hold a certain... charm.”

Alex's mind was still reeling from the sight of Jean-Luc's outfit, but he couldn't deny a growing curiosity about what other oddities this basement might hold. “I see. Well, I'm looking for the supply closet. The one with the expensive stuff. Have you seen it?”

Jean-Luc’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Ah, the elusive supply closet! But, my dear Alex, you must tread carefully down here. There are rules, you know. Very important rules.”

Alex raised an eyebrow, his curiosity piqued. “Rules? What kind of rules?”

Jean-Luc leaned in, lowering his voice to a dramatic whisper. The neon green of his blazer still blinding. “First, always bring a flashlight. The darkness down there can be quite deceptive.”

“Down there. You mean the second-floor basement,” Alex asked. “The one the previous manager told me to avoid at all costs?”

“Oh! You heard of it! Excellent!”

That was not comforting.

“Second,” Jean-Luc continued, his eyes wide with exaggerated seriousness, “never speak above a whisper. The echoes down here have a way of attracting... unwanted attention.”

“What are you—-” Alex replied with a raised eyebrow. For the firs ttime, Alex was reconsidering Jean-Luc of being harmless. Maybe it was good he had the flashlight.

“And finally,” Jean-Luc’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial murmur, “ignore the female voice asking you questions.”

Who knew what this guy was smoking in his store that was only open Tuesday and Thursday at weird times.

“Just trust me, Alex. It’s best not to engage. The basement has its quirks, and some are best left undisturbed.”

“Right. I guess I’ll take your word for it.”

Yeah. Jean-Luc also missed the sarcasm.

“Good, good!” Jean-Luc said, clapping his hands together. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some fashion reconstructions to complete.”

With that, Jean-Luc strutted off down a corridor, his mismatched outfit a beacon of bizarre fashion. Alex watched him go, still trying to process the surreal encounter. Alex watched him go and make the turn for the stairs and then glanced back down at the paper in his hand.

He did need these expensive neon bulbs to fix up one of the arcade store lights the blew up. He wouldn’t have done it, if Hana Mizuki and Aiko Tanaka, the local magical girl cosplayers, hadn’t batted their pretty eyes at him.

‘You’re a sucker for a pretty face, Alex Taylor.’

He decided to explore the second level, despite the warnings. With a final glance down the hallway to make sure Jean-Luc wasn’t sneaking up on him for a prank, Alex searched for the door to the second level basement.

The building manager found it and it was not welcoming. It was an old, rusted steel door that looked like it had been installed haphazardly and there was a large padlock on it. It took him a few minutes to find which key opened it on the keyring.

Descending to the second basement, the air grew noticeably colder as he went further into the depths of the mall basement.

The second basement was a different beast altogether. The lights here were dimmer, casting long, shadows that seemed to move of their own accord. Alex’s flashlight flickered, and he tightened his grip, feeling the weight of the darkness pressing in on him. The first thing he noticed was a door, its frame adorned with cobwebs and dust. It was slightly ajar, and a faint light spilled from within, a tantalizing glimpse of what lay beyond.

Swallowing his fear, Alex pushed the door open and stepped inside. The room was small, with a single light bulb swinging from the ceiling. Shelves lined the walls, stacked with supplies – expensive paper, top-of-the-line cleaning products, and even a few high-end snacks, their packaging pristine. Alex’s eyes widened in relief. He had found the supply closet quite easily.

Just as he was about to relax, a chilling breeze swept through the room, and the light bulb above him flickered violently. The silence was suddenly broken by a soft, echoing voice, like a whisper carried on the wind.

“Who’s there?” it giggled.

Alex froze. He spun around looking for the voice but could not pin it down. Was Jean-luc messing wit him again? It didn’t quite sound like the fashion designer.

“Uh…just me. Getting supplies.”

“Whose me?”

“Um…” What the hell was going on? He shifted on his feet and slowly turned around completely but saw nobody. There was no place in this walk-in closet to hide.

“I’m Alex.” The voice responded, softer this time, the humor still in its voice. It sounded closer. “Why are you here, Alex? What do you seek in the darkness?”

Alex’s skin crawled. He had to fight the urge to run. “Our supplies. Like I said. And if this is you Jean-Luc, I’m going to have a long talk with you.”

“Oh, I’m not him. I’m someone else entirely.”

“Who?” Alex demanded, the anger overriding his fear.

There was no answer. The light bulb above him flickered one last time before it popped, plunging the room into darkness. Alex stood there, his flashlight beam the only source of light in the encroaching gloom. He quickly gathered the supplies he needed, his mind racing with the eerie encounter.

As he made his way back to the stairs, the basement seemed even more stranger as if the shadows were slowly reaching out to him. He hurried up, every step on the stairs echoing in the stillness. When he finally reached the main floor, he felt a sense of relief wash over him. Alex’s first thought was to wait for Jean-Luc to come up so he got beat him for giving him a scare like that. After a few minutes when the strange man did not show up, the manager gave up and made his way back to his office.

Back in his office, Alex sat down, his heart still pounding. He took a deep breath, trying to shake off the unsettling experience. He had the lights he needed to replace him and he also survived what was down there.

Wait. Didn’t he break the rules about talking? The manager shook his head. It didn’t matter since it was Jean Luc messing with him. Right?

Yeah. He was going to have an extra beer tonight.

— © Jonathan J. Snyder, All rights Reserved Like what you read and want to buy me a cup of coffee?