Thomas stood pensively for a second, shook his head and moved forward to a section of restaurants in the hall. To his right was a restaurant that opened into the corridor filling the hall with sounds of conversation and the smells of the kitchen. Thomas’ gaze caught a well-dressed large man sloppily eating by himself. Thomas could have sworn he heard the man snort as he gobbled his food. Ahead, a hunched-over older man with shabby clothes plodded toward Thomas. He slowly moved each foot forward with a thudding sound as though his shoes were made of weights. He appeared to be muttering something with each step. Thomas couldn’t help but slow down and stare at this spectacle though the man seemed oblivious to his gaze. He did not recognize the language the man was speaking though it sounded Eastern European. Then he heard “cuatro,” which he recognized as Spanish. He was saying similar words as he marched by a now standing Thomas: “quattour, quatre, quattro …”
As Thomas turned, he was startled by a succession of strange sights walking toward him: an unusually tall gaunt man with a pale elongated neck, a huddle of brown and black children in threadbare clothes and to his left a woman with a misshapen head. There was no adult with the children and one of them wore no shoes. As the women got closer Thomas could tell there was a cluster of boils on the left side of her head with a particularly large one in the middle. Thomas tried not to stare as she walked by but he heard a small pop and as he shifted a spray of puss hit his face. Thomas went to wipe his face but then his hand jerked back in revulsion at the viscous substance it felt. Thomas looked around fervently to see if any of the restaurants had napkins or towels readily available. He noticed an eatery a few meters ahead with a counter facing the mall walkway.
A young man behind the counter noticed Thomas’ consternation. “Mister, did you get something on you?” he pleasantly asked.
Without waiting for a response, he obligingly offered, “Well, let me let get you a wet towel.”
The restaurant appeared to be a nostalgic throwback to the eateries of the 50s. The lad behind the counter was dressed in white with an apron and a paper hat that fit like a canoe around his head. As Thomas turned around to look at the corridor, the ethnic smorgasbord of kids was walking the other direction in unison. The gaunt man and the sickly lady had disappeared. The helpfulness of the employee and the distance from the unpleasant mall denizens calmed Thomas’ nerves. He scanned the mall and could see no more unsightly shoppers. A well-dressed, older couple approached Thomas from the end of the corridor. He unleashed a sigh of relief as the soda jerk returned. “Here you go, mister,” the young man smiled as he proffered a moist towel.
“Thank you,” Thomas responded breathlessly.
“Well, God helps those who help themselves,” he rejoined matter-of-factly.
Thomas felt his nerves start to simmer as he backed away from the counter. “Why did you say that?” he asked suspiciously.
“Well, because …,” and before he uttered another word, he unleashed a chunky shower of vomit on Thomas’ face and chest. He backed away in an effort to avoid the spray, but to no avail. A new torrent of vomit erupted from the vendor’s mouth—now opened preternaturally wide—hitting Thomas squarely in the chest and splattering up into his face. The puke drenched his shirt to the point that it stuck to his skin, revealing the contours of his torso. An orangish fluid covered his closed eyes and percolated down Thomas’ face into his mouth. He spit desperately, futilely to expunge the taste from his mouth.
What was going on? The absurdity of the situation was now too much; it had become an assault against logic in need of an explanation. Was this a dream? The stench and the taste of the vomit were too vivid, too real. Was this a delusion, had he accidentally ingested something? He wiped the vomit from his eyes to see that the face of the male member of the older couple was inches from his. But his eyes were now pitch black circles that still seemed to be gazing at Thomas with a penetrating stare. The older man placed his hands on Thomas’ shoulders and Thomas instinctively grabbed the arms, which felt cold and gelatinous. As he pulled the arms off him, he could see they were grey-green in color and covered with maggots. A tingling sensation alerted Thomas that some of the maggots were on his palms. He frantically smacked his hands against his pants to rid himself of the infestation.
Thomas raised his eyes to see that the couple had vanished but several hunched figures approached to his left. The figures were draped by grubby netting that reached the floor. Under the netting, the moaning creatures had leprous lesions on their rough, thickened skin. Similar ghostly figures were to his right, except their net-like draperies were spotted with blood from hemorrhaging lesions. Thomas felt something touch his leg and he looked to see a hand reaching through a grate on the floor. The hand belonged to a man under the grate whose eyes were crudely sown shut. He cried for help but his pleas were quickly drowned out by a putrid rising fluid that overwhelmed the man and spilled out the grate, as if he were stuck in a clogged toilet. The fluid reached Thomas’ designer shoes and he quickly recoiled in disgust.
To his sides, he could see that rolling grille gates had been unfurled in the stores and there were people on all fours behind them. Their agonized expressions were pressed against the grilles; behind them in the darkness loomed figures that could have been human if not for their macabre, grotesque, distorted heads. Some of the heads seemed animalistic. They sneered cruelly or delightfully as they did heaven knows what to supine figures in front of them.
The draped figures continued their advance, and Thomas became aware of a buzzing noise of increasing volume and indeterminate origin. The buzzing and moaning combined to create a crushing cacophony. The shrill moaning evinced true unadulterated agony. The noise pulsated through his head and in his distracted state he bumped into the bloody cloth of one of the advancing ghouls. He instinctively retreated and slipped on the liquidy paste on the floor. He tried to get up but the floor was too slippery for traction, especially with his leather shoes. He pushed himself back until he rear-ended a trash can, which was filled with a fecal liquid that spilled unto him. The substance leaked into his mouth, combining with the aftertaste of the vomit. The figures had now reached him and they roughly grabbed at him, aimlessly. As one hand flayed some skin off of his right arm, he could see that figures had pure white, blind eyes that were not menacing but rather pained. They clawed at him not out of a desire to hurt him but due to their desperate need for help.
Thomas tried to call out to God for help, but the noise was so overwhelmingly loud that he could not even hear himself. He could not tell if he had only thought his plea for divine intervention. Thomas had a foreboding sense that no help was coming. He was at a point or a place where God was unwilling or incapable of helping. Here was where God shrugs.
Out of the corner of his eye, a sliver of white light appeared. The light grew larger and a pudgy, pasty hand emerged from it. The hand wrapped its arm around Thomas and pulled him toward the light. As Thomas was pulled, the dark corridor and the wretched figures faded from view, shrinking to just a dot in his vision before completely disappearing. The horrific noise was now gone and for a couple of seconds only the bright light existed. The light dimmed until a white table surrounded by swivel chairs came into view. TR and Madison were sitting at the table crying.
Low wheezing and coughing sounds gradually became louder until he realized they were coming from him. On a table was some spittle that appeared to contain a rather large chunk of chicken. Two arms still held Thomas in a bear hug. Thomas turned to see that the source of the arms was the portly caretaker of the woman in the wheelchair. The man gently put Thomas in a chair. Now came a loving, graceful embrace from his wife. “We thought we had lost you,” she cried.
Rachel’s trembling hand touched the arm of the caretaker. “Thank you, thank you,” she said between sobs.
Thomas looked again at the caretaker as he understood the magnanimity of the man’s actions. “How long was I out?” Thomas asked, between deep breaths.
“Perhaps a minute, sir,” the rotund rescuer replied.
A wave of relief came over Thomas that he had escaped that corridor of horror. But what had he really escaped? The vision was frighteningly vivid, but Thomas admonished himself for taking it seriously. It was just a delusion due to lack of oxygen; the monsters seemed like they were culled from his memories of Renaissance paintings. As that thought filtered through his head, someone gripped his arm tightly.
But when he glanced at his arm, no one was holding it. He wife’s arms were around his neck. A cold shiver creeped like tentacles from his spine. He reflexively peered through the crowd to the mall intersection and she was staring at him, smiling broadly with her wide eyes. On his arm, four pale circles slowly faded away.
Travis McGavin is a writer and educator living in Northern Virginia. He is using his writing to overcome tragedy, and to honor his late son's creative spirit. His work has previously appeared in CommNow and The Writers Newsletter.