The Bargains Below (2022) Short Fiction Dennis Lowery

A little horror humor….

Nahanni, Maine

Laurie Pace had followed the roadside signs: FALL SALES FOR NEWCOMERS. Maybe targeted for the Leaf-Watchers, she thought. She had read about visitors that traveled through the state end of September through the end of October to witness the autumnal turn of color before November’s winds stripped the trees bare as they braced for winter.   

The savings are worth the crowds, Laurie rationalized as she entered the mall from the second parking garage level. Hundreds of shoppers moved about, some solo, some with friends, wives with husbands carrying bags, and some displaying frowns and ‘I don’t wanna be here’ expressions. Laurie looked forward to shopping, checking out the sales, grabbing some new books to read, and returning to their new apartment to unload the rest of the U-Haul with Sam. They both needed real winter clothes, and she needed her decorations to prepare for the holidays.

A big-city Southern girl, new to the town—new to New England—she was surprised at finding a mall in such a rural setting. Located just the other side of an extensive memorial park called Winding Grove or something, she thought, that formed an arched northern border for the small town. Maybe the Native American casino, located the next county over, had something to do with it. As Laurie neared making an entire circuit of the second floor—her recon Sam called it—she came to a Down escalator. Floating on two red balloons—tied at the upper corners—rising from the well of the escalator was a sign with bold lettering that stated: The Newcomer Bargains are Below.

Laurie studied the other shoppers, moving past her or onto the Up escalator a few steps beyond the Down. She glanced below, where the balloons were tethered, at a swirl of colors. Somewhere down there, close enough to reach this high, must be some carousel-mounted Kaleidoscope projector to shower the space with a rainbow spectrum. The noise below was distinct enough to announce someone having a great time. The newcomers, she wondered.

That feeling came over her. The pleasant prospect of finding something on sale she wanted. A dopamine-fueled tingle that power shopping always gave her. “Let’s check this out,” Laurie murmured. As the escalator went down and down, her surroundings grew darker. An eddying drift of chilled air penetrated her too-light jacket and prickled the flesh on her arms. She gripped the rails.

Gray light showed below. Finally, coming to the first floor, Laurie thought. She saw someone near the foot of the escalator as she passed from the darkness into a pale light. The slender figure in an ankle-length, stained-ivory-color dress and long black hair that shrouded the lighter oval of a face proved to be a young lady, maybe in her late teens or early 20s.

The girl—Frida, stated on her askew nametag—smiled glossily. Red lipstick prominent against pallid flesh, so different from Laurie’s dusky skin. As the girl’s smile broadened, the lights behind her bloomed, revealing a bright corridor leading to an open, festive area filled with the sound of bustling consumers. “Welcome to the Super Shoppers area; This is where you’ll find the best bargains,” the girl greeted her. Frida’s bright eyes gleamed at Laurie through a drape of dark hair.

She has a kind of goth thing going on, Laurie thought. But then some people got into Halloween—a few days away—and never moved on, like those who leave their Christmas tree up well into January. “What kind of markdowns?” Laurie asked, relaxing a little but also perking up in anticipation of the sales.

“Oh,” Frida’s lambent orbs widened beneath lank locks, “very deep… everything is slashed.” Her white arm raised, beckoning, “Please, follow me.”

Halfway down the connecting passageway, Laurie glanced back to see the darkness—a bank of lights shut down in series, marching into total black—had closed in behind them. Gesturing over her shoulder, “Something’s wrong with your lights.” The girl kept a few steps ahead, not replying or slowing, walking into the now-dying light ahead of her. The chill’s bite deepened as Laurie paused, seeing her breath cloud as she called out, “I think I’ll come back later,” she half-turned and stopped when the girl spoke.

“But we have things,” Frida walked back to her, “to die for!” She grabbed Laurie’s arm.

“Hey… let go!” Laurie tried to yank free.

The girl squeezed harder; her fingernails sharpened and dug in.

“I said let go….” Laurie repeated, twisted, and staggered as the girl jerked her forward, low heels sliding on the smooth concrete.

“We all chop down here!” Frida’s screech cleaved like a butcher’s blade through bone. Behind her, the once joyful noises had soured into a gluttonous cacophony.

“Let…,” Laurie managed with one hand to reach into her purse for anything sharp, “me go, bitch!” She found a solid rectangle with an edge. Clutching the plastic in her fist, she swiped it at the girl’s forearm, slicing into flesh that blackened with a whiff—a coil of smoke rising—from burning skin. The girl’s shriek echoed, and her grip loosened and re-clenched, sinking deep.

The herd sound of a horde surging—as if after the last 4K 85-inch flat-screen for $800 off—filled the hallway. People, a lot of them, were coming their way. The odor of rancid milk, loose bowels, and putrid flesh filled Laurie’s nostrils. So strong that a puke thermometer-climbed inside her throat, a mouthful she choked back down. She swiped again. The girl—garish, white-faced with champing fangs on blood-frothed lips that framed a gaping maw—released her with a ghoul’s cry. The taloned hand arced up to rake Laurie’s cheek, gouging bloody furrows.

Laurie turned and ran into the dark, hands and shoulders scraping the rough walls as she ricocheted back the way she had come. The stench and skin-crawl sensation that claws and jagged teeth were only a foot from her made the bile rise again in her throat. She spat it out. The shopping tingle turned to tinkle that leaked down her legs as she ran. Her heavy mascara ran from tears she hadn’t realized she had shed. She lost one shoe, and the other came loose… clop-clopping on the concrete, its beat matching the thud of her heart until it kicked off and spun into the darkness ahead of her.

She squinted up. Ahead and above was a lighted opening. Laurie could barely see the steps of the Down escalator she had just ridden, moving—moving—moving but carrying no one. To the left were concrete steps. As she scrambled up them, a hand grabbed the back of her jacket, long nails piercing it, and her sleeveless black t-shirt to find soft flesh. With a tearing and pinch-rip of skin, Laurie pulled free—leaving the jacket behind—and shot ahead of what shambled behind her. Unable to see anything, she climbed, reaching a barrier that sealed off the stairs. Looking back at how close they were, Laurie slammed into the metal sheet covering that capped off the stairs. It did not shift; she wasn’t moving it from her way.

Laurie turned to face downward. Below her, halfway up the stairs, was a cluster of Morlock eyes and pale, ravenous faces. Instead of a deal, she found the undead. The group stopped just short of the opening to the Down escalator. Beneath them, on the steps, the concrete showed hardened crimson blotches. She had nowhere to go.

Panting, Laurie knew she had only one choice. Back down the stairs, over the rail, onto the Down escalator, and run up as it descended. She stared at the thin piece of plastic in her hand. The girl—Frida’s—flesh had burned and blackened at its touch. Holding it before her, a Lady Van Helsing brandishing her religious icon, she went down the steps. Lips writhed on the dozen creatures below her as they emitted guttural growls. But they didn’t back away until she was two steps above them and almost even with the opening.

Laurie thrust the fist-held plastic at them, and as they flinched, she stepped down and drove-pushed off her left leg to sprawl over the separating rail and fall onto the escalator. Facing downward, on knees and hands, it carried her back into the darkness below. And there, the gleam of eyes and teeth had grown. They waited for her. She pivoted to face up, got to her feet, and sprinted. Legs pumping and heaving—fighting—up the descending steps.

She stagger-crawled, gasping onto the second floor with a bloodied head, makeup-smeared face, shredded t-shirt, peed-in pants torn at the knees, and the remains of her breakfast on her chin and chest. None of the shoppers walking by stopped. “What kind of crazy Stephen-fucking-King town is this?” she screamed. No one looked at her. Turning from them, she spotted the Parking Level II sign with the arrow pointing the way. Laurie followed it, wiping her face with her hands. The phone buzzed in her pocket a half second before the ringtone. Smearing what had come from her nose and mouth on her pants, she pulled it out. “Sam!”

“Hi, Honey, I’m ready to unload the U-Haul.”

“Don’t!” she cried. Looking at the black rectangle she still carried in her other hand, coated with some greenish-red viscid mucus already drying on the plastic, covering the lower part of the Costco Executive Member Card. She’d need to get a new one.

“What is it, Honey!”

“I’m not living in this town,” she ran toward her car, “and God, as my witness, I’ll never go to a mall again.”

Minutes later, tires squealing, she sped out of the garage on the access road to merge onto the highway. A bitter North wind had picked up strength, and the trees—even the thick old-timers—lining the road bent and swayed. The gnarled limbs of the ancient oak shifted in the gusts, revealing and then obscuring the lettering of the sign Laurie had seen earlier:

W I N D I G O   G R O V E.

# # #

A Note from Dennis:

The Wendigo (or Windigo; it has several spellings) is a *First Nations legend of a cannibalistic monster purportedly created by the greed and selfishness of Man. The creature—usually the oldest in a region—can also possess humans, turning them into monsters.

This brief story is not an admonition against shopping. It’s a cautionary tale—one to keep in mind—if you’re somewhere new, unfamiliar, and someone or some sign says you’ll find what you want… below. Shoppers always looking for a better deal; be careful, very careful. It’s dangerous out there.

*First Nations are indigenous peoples—ethnic groups—who are the earliest known inhabitants of an area.