A letter writer reminisces about his strange childhood pet. Conway explores the guts of an abandoned mall and finds someone he wasn't looking for. Wren gets chewed out for something they can't control. (CWs: body horror, brief mention of violence and...
A letter writer reminisces about his strange childhood pet. Conway explores the guts of an abandoned mall and finds someone he wasn't looking for. Wren gets chewed out for something they can't control.
(CWs: body horror, brief mention of violence and death, alcohol, dead animal, whispering, some strong language)
Hello, this is Wren, claims adjuster for the Dead Letter Office of *******, Ohio. The following audio recording will serve as evidence for Conway’s case. Public release of this or any other evidence is strictly prohibited. Some names and facts have been censored for the protection of the office.
As we’ve previously established, forward and backward are not necessarily stable concepts. So let’s begin today by looking at the next letter in Conway’s backlog, which may give me insight into what happened to him.
Dead letter 14417, a long note written on several folded pieces of printer paper, sent by a Stephen ***** to his mother in late 2016. The letter reads as follows.
NARRATOR STEPHEN: Hey mom.
Did I ever have a pet growing up? I know dad never wanted one and then Dave was allergic. It’s getting harder to remember if this actually happened or if it’s a vivid dream that’s stuck with me through the years.
Before high school hit me like a semi truck, you’d let me bike up to the arcade at the Deerland Mall on the weekends.
LOUDSPEAKER: “WELCOME TO THE DEERLAND MALL, YOU’LL GO BUCK WILD FOR THESE DEALS! Our store hours are: 9am to 7pm” *slowly fades out*
NARRATOR: I remember the huge globe of stale gumballs loitering in the foyer. I’d chew on them even though I knew they were rock hard and would probably cut my gums up. Sorry about the quarters missing from your purse. Then I’d stop by the candy store and get a big bag of sweaty gummies that had been sitting in the foggy display case for god knows how long and a tall cherry coke from the concession stand.
The light gun shooters and fighting game cabinets there were cool enough, but my favorite was the racing game. It had a whole mock driver’s seat that moved side to side as you steered. It was also more expensive to play than the others, so I’m sorry about the missing dollar bills. Whatever change I had leftover after a few laps of hairpin turns went into the vending machine full of capsule toys. Since I couldn’t get a dog, I was desperate for one of those new Tamagotchi toys. But where was I gonna get a whole twenty dollars? Coincidentally, the top prize advertised on the machine was a bright blue Tamagotchi. I was old enough to know there was probably only one in there, if any at all. I knew I’d probably end up spending more than twenty dollars trying to get it, yet here I was pouring money down the slot anyway instead of saving it up to buy one.
On a particular lazy afternoon, the arcade was empty: not too uncommon for a summer weekday. I put two quarters in the slot on the capsule machine, twisted the tough old crank, and out dropped a peculiar toy. The capsule itself was identical to the others: a translucent plastic casing, a bubble with a colorful top that popped off. Almost like an acorn fallen from a petroleum tree. But what was inside the case gave me pause then, and still makes me uneasy today.
I cracked it open under the flickering lights of the arcade. Inside wasn’t a Tamagotchi, but rather an egg: bigger than a robin’s egg but about the same color with a few white spots, and surprisingly heavy for a toy its size. What’s a thirteen-year-old boy want with a plastic egg? Waste of 50 cents, I thought. I put it in its case and set it on top of the claw machine so I could go play a game about shooting aliens in area 51. I was winding down a blocky corridor when I heard something behind me. I had thought I was the only one in there. I froze, and a bead of prickly sweat rolled down my neck. I turned my head to the entrance of the arcade. Nobody there. I scanned the stained carpet for anything out of place. Spilled on the ground near the rusty change machine was the capsule I’d just won, split up as a cracked egg. The toy that was inside sat upright among the wreckage. I took a step closer, still gripping the orange gun tethered to the cabinet. The egg on the ground shook. A tiny wobble. I shut my eyes hard for a few seconds, inducing those familiar mental fireworks, then looked again. Another teeter.
I pointed the light gun at it and fired. Kid logic would state that if this toy came to life, it could similarly be brought down by a toy gun. By then my connection to kid logic was hanging on by a single synapse, constantly threatening to disappear from my thought patterns forever, on the precipice of the bigger, darker realizations that the adult world foists upon the unsuspecting teen.
Well, sometimes kid logic doesn’t hold up to real world testing anyway. But now this blue egg had my interest: it was a curiosity, an oddity, and nothing sparks the young imagination quite like oddity. I picked it up gingerly and put it under my baseball cap. Under the blinding sun outside I hopped on my bike and rode home.
Back at the house, I breezed past you and Dave without a word and stomped up the stairs. Looking at my prize in the familiar light of my room, it didn’t seem to be moving at all. Once again in the mundane, away from the caffeine surges and sugar crashes and flashing numbers, it was just a plastic egg. Maybe it had actually moved, or maybe I just really hoped it would. I set it on my bedside table and forgot about it for the rest of the day.
I woke up in the middle of the night to something scurrying around my room. I didn’t see it at first. Too dark, too small, too quick. I only heard the chattering and scuffling. I stood up on the bed and surveyed my room. There was something moving in the pile of dirty laundry in the corner. I crept over to the clothes and peered into the moving sleeve of my sweater.
Inside was a tiny, fleshy thing. No bigger than the palm of my hand, barely more than a tan blob with black eyes and a wide mouth. It had glommed onto a green army man I used to play with all the time, some years ago forgotten in the halting dust of my adolescent closet. It was gnawing on the soldier’s helmet, content with its prey. I reached in to gently pull the toy away, but it was hanging on with thin, fingerless limbs. Under its round body were small nubs planted firmly to the floor. When I managed to wrestle the toy away, it let out an odd chirp, like a strained baby bird.
The little guy was probably hungry. If it sounded like a bird and came from an egg like a bird, maybe it would eat like a bird. So I gathered some seeds and nuts from the pantry and scattered them in front of it. The thing poked around a bit with its probing mouth, but it didn’t seem that interested. Then it hit me: momma birds chew up the food for them when they’re young. I mashed a handful of peanuts around in my mouth and leaned over the blob to spit.
I’ll tell you it didn’t go well. I tiptoed to the darkened kitchen for some paper towels to clean the thing off.
When I returned to the pile of dirty laundry, the creature had found another favorite childhood possession: a blue gameboy game. I’d spent dozens of hours playing it to collect all the monsters, but I hadn’t touched in a while. The creature had the corner of the plastic cartridge in its mouth. I figured it probably couldn’t do much to damage the game, seeing as it didn’t have any teeth, so I let it gum on for while. Big mistake. It closed its mouth around the cartridge, and I heard a muffled snap. It set down the game, the corner roughly broken off and missing. The creature swallowed the chunk and chittered with joy. Arcade bird eats arcade games. Made sense at the time.
I brought it another game, a game I wouldn’t mind losing. The tiny blob ignored it and wandered over to my binder full of baseball cards. It ducked its head under the cover and started nibbling on the corner of my Ken Griffey Jr rookie card. I rushed over and pulled it away. Never have I been more thankful for a thin plastic sleeve.
So what did this thing want if not games? Well, after an hour or so of testing its palette, I had some promising results. My favorite gameboy game? Yes. My pillowcase? No. Baseball card? Yes. The small tv in my room? No. My lucky hat? Yes.
I slowly put together over that early morning that this creature only wanted to eat things I had an attachment to. It could sense my emotional connection to certain objects, and sought those out. I let it finish the game cartridge it had started eating since it was functionally useless now anyway. It seemed satisfied, and passed out in the laundry basket.
A few days went by. The creature wasn’t just a blob anymore: it had a bigger torso, longer front limbs, and extended legs. It looked more animal now and less like a ball of skin. I started calling it Creech, short for creature. Real original, right? Hey, I was thirteen, cut me some slack.
You remember the “imaginary friend” I would hang out with? That was Creech. We grew together for a time, though it much faster than me. It got taller, longer. Its head rounded out. Creech started standing mostly upright and used its fingerless arms to manipulate objects and simple tools. It would respond to my calls, and chatter back in a manner a parrot newly learning to speak might.
As its body grew, so did its hunger. There were only so many old toys and games around my room that it would eat, and only a few left that I was willing to part with. I couldn’t buy it food or sneak scraps from the kitchen, it wouldn’t touch them.
Lucky for us, late summer is garage sale season around here. So every muggy August morning, Creech and I hopped on my bike, the little guy barely concealed under my yellowing cap, and rode the neighborhoods searching for pieces of other people’s pasts. Yeah, you guessed it: sorry for the missing 20s.
A faded picture of a deceased husband. A ratty teddy bear from a relationship gone stale. Worn kid’s shoes. These things seemed to have an aura, some weight to them that Creech could sense, and it pointed me to the most potent objects: dated comics, grimy games, scratched records, vessels for fond memories ready to be consumed again.
We played together in the park, had pizza in the mall food court, won rigged games at the county fair. Creech was my secret pet, my friend. We spent the whole hot summer together, enjoying my last long days before high school started.
While Creech consumed these bittersweet artifacts that boiling summer, it started looking distinctly more humanoid. It grew rudimentary fingers, long toes. Creech stayed pretty hairless, and its eyes still stared endlessly, round and black. Its long mouth hung open, and took up the lower half of its face, sans nose. It was cute, in the way a pug’s cute. As the last days of August crawled sweatily on, Creech needed more to feed on, stronger emotions, objects loaded with more joy, or more pain. And it was almost up to my knee by then.
I felt the scratching of a bad idea at the back of my mind. An echo deep within a cave, or a fuzzy radio signal you can almost make out if you tune it right. A violent movie you can nearly see through the garbled static of a channel you’re not supposed to get. I looked at that screen for a moment, anxious but deeply curious. Could it feed on more than old toys and trinkets people used to love? Could it feed on a connection a little more...potent? Something a little more...living? But that signal was too garbled, too big for my mind at the time.
As the season’s credits started to roll, I reflected on my own past, on the people and things I used to care about so deeply. Why did I shove my stuffed animals in the closet? Why couldn’t I feel the same way watching Power Rangers that I used to? Somewhere deep inside, I felt my first blustery wave of nostalgia. I was about to transition to high school, another unskippable cutscene, another click up the rollercoaster, leading to the inevitable drop into adulthood. Into game over. I wanted to get off, to stop for a minute and really take in what I had--what I was--before then, but I was already past the platform. No getting off now, no slowing down. When you’re young, every moment is always ahead of you: the myriad loves, disappointments, triumphs, and failures are further up the track. It’s not until something’s behind you that you can anticipate how sweet it was, and how sweet it must stay.
Or maybe that’s how I see it now that I’m old, my perception of time stretching out and compressing. So many things I’ll never get back. How sweet it all seems now.
Mom, if I told you about Creech, I knew I’d be grounded, but I couldn’t keep feeding it alone. I didn’t see my teachers during summer break, and I thought the cops might kill it, or take it in for military study if I showed them. I couldn’t keep hiding it and hoping no one would get suspicious of a 13 year old boy constantly rifling through antique shops. It wasn’t fair to either of us. It was time to let go.
So Creech happily climbed into my backpack that simmering day like any other, one leg at a time, hungry and eager. It barely fit in there by then, even curled up, and it was getting heavy to carry around. We peddled out of town for a while, way out past where the asphalt veins break down into gravel arteries that wind around brutalist cornstalk ribs. Into the limitless moony analog heartland. Past where Old Lady Carruthers fed the stray cats that howled at her window every morning. Where the Baldridge brothers--who grew up good christian boys like their small town bigshot daddy--beat a guy half to death on Cottonwood Road cause he looked a bit funny. They ended up at Case Western. Where the adults turned to stone and the kids either left or drank and drank until their guts fell out and they fossilized too, because what else is there to do when the horizon ahead of you is so damn flat. Where I’d learned how to swim when I was 6, had my first real crush at 12, crashed my car into a pole at 17, left for a better life at 24 and came back at 30. Out where Creech had no clue that after today, we wouldn’t see each other again for 16 years.
We crossed Holcomb road and slowed beside the gray picket trees. I figured it’d be safe out here, no predators and plenty of space to roam and get big. I opened the backpack and let Creech out in the tall grass. It looked at me, then around at the rising branches and leaves. It hadn’t been this far out of town before, probably had no idea that trees got this tall or this plenty.
I pointed into the still gloamy woods, streaks of bloody sunset banding across our faces.
“Go on, bud. I can’t take care of you anymore.”
Creech simply stared at me. It saw the tears welling in my eyes, but didn’t know what they meant.
It winced, and said what was almost name, in the best way that its toothless mouth could. Sparse clouds painted contusions overhead in thick pink blocks. I wanted to stay here with it forever, to remember this for all time. I wanted to carve my initials into the support beam. But if I stayed much longer, I’d never leave, and we might get spotted. I pulled my hat low against the burning punctured yolk of sun dripping yellow across the field. I straddled my bike and sped off in a cloud of dusty stone, leaving Creech alone and unmoored in Holcomb Woods.
Mom, I have to confess something. I’m not just writing to check up on you or jaw on endlessly about my childhood. See Creech came back today. I saw it out behind the Green’s house, eyeing their precious terrier through the screen door. Then it saw me. Creech got big. Real big. It looks different from before, too. When it was treated well and eating our stuff, it started looking like us: human. But its eyes are harder, its posture more hunched and bestial.
I had hoped that writing this out would imbue the letter with enough feeling to pack a real punch for it. But Creech isn’t buying it. Creech wants something more. Now that I’m done, I’m actually having a hard time remembering what I wrote. Guess I wore myself out getting flowery near the end, huh. Seeing Creech brought up so many memories, but it’s hard to think. What was I saying?
Well anyway, I’ve got a last ditch, hail mary idea. Something that might have enough ambient nostalgia to sate it: the Deerland Mall. With its shuttered storefronts, empty theaters, and abandoned junk, there ought to be enough memory impressions and lingering ghosts of the past for it to stay full for years.
Now it’s hungry, mom. Real hungry. I don’t think it’ll hurt me, it remembers me. But I’m not sure it’ll have the same courtesy for others. That reminds me...
Wait. What was I thinking of? Keeps happening today. Brain zaps. I’m remembering something then Creech is there and it’s gone. Ah, nevermind.
All my love,
WREN: While I can’t intuit a direct line from the content of this letter to Conway’s disappearance, I have to wonder if the theme of this story is relevant here. A thing once fondly recalled has been twisted and offered for consumption. Something dark within revealed. I believe I have some insight into Conway’s headspace the day he left. He was remembering something. But memory can be treacherous. If you bring the wrong thing back from the past, you can alter your life forever.
I suppose we’ll keep this letter in our vault for the time be--
*old phone rings*
*Wren answers the phone*
*Static on the other line*
WREN: Is anyone there? *whispered* Conway?
*phone hangs up*
WREN: I guess it was a wrong number.
I arrived at the dilapidated shopping center thirsty and weary. Lettering on the facade indicated that this was the Deerland Mall, though most of the letters in Deerland had been busted or stolen by wayward youth, leaving only “the D E A D Mall.” The glass doors were rusty at the hinges, covered in reaching fingers of ivy. The signs plastered to the glass had been bleached almost white by the sun. About as good a natural “do not enter here” signal as it gets.
The doors weren’t locked but they did take a bit of doing to open. The place wasn’t in much better shape on the inside either. Most of the lights overhead were burnt out. The foyer--or is it foy-ay?--was gently illuminated by some waning daylight peeking in through the glass ceiling. Something crackled over the speakers.
*Mall greeting from earlier plays, but glitched out*
CONWAY: A huge gumball machine sat in the center of the open area, still half full of candy. The treats had lost a lot of their luster, but to their credit they still looked edible. Lord knows what chemicals made that possible. In front of the machine was a coin operated carousel of shabby horses. The steed in front had an anguished look on its face, you know the kind of wild expression horses get sometimes, where their lips curl up in a grimace. It’s gaze was aimed backward, desperately trying to look behind it. As if it was being...pursued. I poked my head around and looked at the other horses on the ride; all of them were similarly horrified by something behind them. But they went in a circle. So. Huh.
A sign on the coin repository read: “Money changer in the game room.” Below that someone had crudely written in sharpie “game changer in the money room.” Okay, Banksy, calm down.
Beyond this pale circle of light near the entrance, the abandoned corridors were pitch black besides an occasional flicker from whatever animating force remained in the few viable bulbs.
I fished out my phone. No reception, but I could at least use its flashlight and maybe see where I was going. I pulled the map out of my back pocket and shone my phone’s light on its faded surface. Down the central strut, past an arcade and a shuttered JC Penny was the mall security office. I hoped there’d be some tools there to get this briefcase off my wrist, and if nothing else it was a decent place to hole up for the night. I led with the LED light and crept down the dark, damp corridor. The tiles overhead were blackened in large circles with water damage and mold. No doubt loaded with enough asbestos to shred my lungs just by looking at ‘em. You’ll go buck wild for these deals, indeed.
I walked by a play place on my left that blinked with dim light. “Come play in Bucky’s World” the dingy sign said in three different fonts. A reeking odor from the place gut punched me and halted my breath. Fetid water stood covering the cheap linoleum flooring, and grime oozed up the legs of kid’s chairs and slides. The stars and stripes dangled limply in the stillness of the scene. Salty choking stench spilled from the playroom as flies buzzed around a deer’s head decomposing in the middle of the puddle. Come play.
Being in this place called to mind my own, very different experiences of my local mall. Went almost every weekend to see movies with friends once I was old enough to drive. But unless you were looking for dated clothes or illegal firearms and shady sports memorabilia, there wasn’t much there anymore. I can still remember the smell, though. The way voices echoed off the high ceilings. The scratchy fabric of the theater seats. The gaudy carpeting, somehow always sticky with something. My first kiss in the parking lot after a matinee. It was all flooding back at once, stronger than usual, one image, one scent connecting to another. Packs of japanese pokemon cards, uncomfortable slacks, greasy pepperoni pizza. These vivid memories here cracked open and rotting like a black tooth.
And that’s when I heard something moving in a vacant storefront. A weird slapping and squeaking, close to bare skin dragging on tile. I had hoped maybe it was an old couple on their usual morning mall walk, I guess barefoot, amazing what the mind will conceive to paper over reality. I turned the direction of the noise and shone the flashlight into the room.
It was an old arcade. Most of the machines missing, leaving a brighter spot on the wall where they stood. A claw machine sat crumpled near the entrance. Through the cracked glass case, I could see a few mildew-covered plushes laying face-down like waterlogged corpses in a lake. The floor was littered with these empty plastic capsules. In the rear was a storage room. The door was hanging open. I pointed the light that way and saw a broken face. It was yellow, missing a rounded ear, with cracks up its face and under its black eyes. It was reaching into a jar of something. Was it...honey? This was a busted winnie the pooh ride that must have been shoved into storage before the mall closed. Something else was on the edge. A long fleshy hand gripping onto the plastic exterior. From inside the ride rose a thin, reedy thing. Half-human, with spindly limbs, a bulbous head. Its toothless mouth was dangling impossibly low. It stood probably twice my height, and stretched a leg over the rim. I didn’t stay long enough to see the rest of it. A guttural screech echoed through the mall. It almost sounded like language, but I couldn’t understand it. I turned tail and ran.
Something boomed over the loudspeaker.
MAN OVER THE LOUDSPEAKER: “When the twilight is gone, and no songbirds are singing, God comes through the lines and sits in the streetlights. He waves but you can’t see it. Should we all be so lucky as to be touched by the waving man in the light.”
CONWAY: The fluorescent bulbs in the play place across the hall flashed. Now the deer head rose from the rancid pool, hanging skin and nylon flag draped like vestments across the bone, exposed teeth stark dealership white. In its wake were shadowy figments, jittering out of the bulbs overhead in bursts of sickening light. Their forms were sketchy, vibrating lines. One reached a palm my way and buzzed like a guitar plugged in wrong. Come play in Bucky’s World. I could feel my chest aching as it drew closer, a lightning bolt salvation. Come play.
I was sprinting now, holding tight to the damn empty briefcase as it flopped and bounced at my side with each step. I was heading straight for the security office. Are mall cops allowed to have guns? For the first time in my life I hoped they did.
I wound down a narrow side path, avoiding the public restrooms and pay phone covered in stickers, the buzzing and wheezing following close behind. At the end was an office. I struggled with the sweaty doorknob for a minute, then slammed my shoulder into the door and stumbled into the room.
Gone was the miasma of mildew and lucid nightmare. The gentle two-tone mint and white walls invited me in. The door shut behind me with a click, and the commotion outside ceased. The office was small and tidy. In the center was a wooden desk accompanied by a lacquered chair. A pristine rotary phone sat atop the table, warping the spacetime around and drawing menacing attention like a gravity well. A corkboard sat centered behind the desk, with a couple old flyers and a key ring pinned to it. I moved to the desk and slid open the side drawers. No guns, but I did find a lockpick and got to work on the cuffs. Not 5 minutes and they were off, and the briefcase dropped to the carpet.
I rubbed my sore wrist and looked around the office again. That damn phone, inescapable, ringing in my head. A barn on fire on a moonless night. I kicked around a thought. Maybe if a phone got me into this, another could get me out. I picked up the sleek mint receiver and dialed the number I had called before, my old phone number, with a trembling hand. I waited and waited and listened. Nothing. Hm. Maybe in a better story it would have worked.
What about my office number? Maybe someone was filling in for me today. I gave it a shot, but all I heard was some static. Then the line cut out.
While this little office seemed relatively safe, I couldn’t just hang out in here forever. Especially if those things were still outside. I pored over the old map again and planned out my best route to the exit from here. It was going to be a close one.
I crept out through the door and toward the end of this narrow hallway. Didn’t see any sign of the things that were pursuing me earlier. Of course that’s always what they say right before they get got, huh.
A screech rang out from the stinking guts of the gangrenous mall. More volleys of low droning from the other way, the dissonant warning bell of place already dead, that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. An air raid siren from a collapsed empire.
I took off in the direction of my planned route. But you know what they say about god and plans. The sinewy flesh giant was already nearly on me by the time I crossed the peeling wildlife mural in the kid’s food court. In a desperate attempt at distraction, I threw the old magazine I’d been navigating by into what used to be a pretzel store, if the tattered twisty signage was anything to go by. The creature suddenly turned and leapt over the high counter with its long limbs to gnaw on the coupons and photos inside.
I still had yet to contend with the shaking shadows and the offal deerhead priest. I was puffing and winded. I rounded the last corner on my route and felt my stomach sink. Rather than a door out of there, I found a closed gate. They must have built an addition to the mall since that magazine came out. Nothing can ever just stay the same here, can it? Gotta always be growing, always making more, and more than more. Or maybe the mall did this itself, continued to slink and slither through the clogged arteries of the midwest even after everyone left.
The hairs on my neck stood cornstalk straight and goosebumps sprouted across my arms. My chest tightened from the electric pull of the visions behind me. There was a sharp hot pain in my core, as if my heart was about to catch fire and burn hollow. A barn ablaze deep in the indigo dusk.
The decaying godhead wreathed in stars stretched its exposed tendons as if to speak.
That’s when the gate in front of me rose, with the clanking, grinding brash of machinery that’s sat dormant too long. I was baptized by a deluge of corporate light. Blue and yellow franchise lettering plastered the walls, below which hung shelves lined with black tapes. A man sat behind a counter, surrounded by rows of rainbow candy boxes and expired popcorn on sale. A video store. He motioned for me with a fishing rod in hand.
“Come on in, Conway, and come quick. I’ve got something that might interest you.”
WREN: Now that I’m done cataloguing my findings for the day, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the people who make all this possible. Thank you to our brave carrier Flo, and to our wonderful receiving clerks Jessica and Gadz. For the Dead Letter Office of ******* Ohio, this is claims adjuster Wren signing off.
WREN: Oh, hi. I didn’t see you come in.
*static from The Boss*
WREN: No, I’m done.
WREN: No, look, it’s fine, the light’s off. Hey, I got a call earlier that might--
WREN: Did I do something wrong? I get the feeling that you--
WREN: Right. Well if anything like that happens again, I’ll--I’ll report it to you right away. Okay. I’ll just...keep reading the old mail then.
WREN: See you then.
WREN: Might as well not even have me here if this is all I’m allowed to do. How am I supposed to do my job if I just sit here and read all day and get yelled at for answering a phone? I could use a drink. Maybe I’ll head to the Song B--
Oh shit. The mic’s still h--.