Tile floors. Darkened skylight ceilings. The building had seen better days. Fluorescent lighting flickered in the shops, humming to life after their prolonged time off. The woman on the bench didn’t hear or see the lights around her turn on. It wasn’t until moments later that she woke up from her seated position on the bench. She stretched, feeling her muscles groan and hearing her bones pop. She must’ve been on the bench for a long time.
As she rubbed her eyes, her surroundings appeared clearer. She stood up and began to recognize a familiar landscape. In front of her was a large decorative fountain, spurting a small stream of water which made a light tinkling noise, the only noise that she could hear in the vast emptiness surrounding her. The woman turned around, noticing fake shrubbery, benches scattered about, and lit glass storefronts displaying mannequins outfitted with a variety of clothing. She recognized that she was in some sort of concourse, with many different paths going in different directions. After a couple of minutes, an idea of the location dawned upon her. It appeared she was in some sort of massive shopping mall.
Have I been here before?
An unsettling sense of déjà vu crept in, making her feel suddenly dizzy. Her footsteps were heavy as she approached the nearest store, glancing inside through the storefront. Although the interior was lit and the doors were open, there didn’t appear to be anyone inside. Not even behind the register. The woman debated stepping inside when a sudden motion in the glass made her stop. Mistaking the movement to be another person, she was disappointed to realize that it was just her reflection in the glass, shifting as she was about to enter the clothing store. The woman studied her appearance; she had forgotten what she had looked like. She knew that the face belonged to her, but she couldn’t help feeling like it belonged to someone else entirely.
After examining her reflection in the storefront, the woman turned around and began walking past the large water fountain, eager to find others in the mall. Surely there must be someone here who could answer her questions. She took a path at random, walking briskly. As she continued walking down the large hallway, her hope of finding another person began to shrink. Even though she was passing many lit storefronts, there weren’t any customers or employees to be found anywhere. A shudder crept up the woman’s spine. The mall must be closed and she was accidentally left here overnight. Yes, that was the only possible answer. She probably just fell asleep on the bench and had simply forgotten how she had gotten to the mall in the first place. Short-term memory loss. The woman instinctively reached for her phone in her back pocket to see what time it was but realized there was nothing there. She glanced over her shoulder, believing that she must have left it on the bench in the original concourse.
She began walking ahead to another open area in front of her, away from the storefronts. This area featured a colorful playset in the middle of the large room, filled with an assortment of random toys. The children’s play area was separated from the room by a plastic fence and was surrounded by more benches. This area must be where parents could release their children to play during a long shopping spree. The woman only stopped to look at the play area for a moment, moving on to the rest of the enormous room. On the outside of the concourse, there looked to be many glass doors leading to an exit. After an exhale of relief, it seemed like she had finally found a way out.
The woman promptly ran to the doors. With no hesitation, she pulled upon the handles of the closest one, discovering immediately that it was locked. She tried all of the doors. No matter how hard she pushed or pulled, none of them would budge. With a dejected sigh, she realized that she would have to find another exit in the mall, with the hopes that one would be unlocked. The woman peered outside through the doors, expecting to find an empty parking lot. To her horror, she realized she couldn’t see anything. A couple of feet away from the glass door, the world was shrouded in a dark fog. No matter how hard she tried to focus, the outside seemed nothing more than a cloudy blur. The weather didn’t help the woman’s uneasiness and she wrapped her arms together tightly.
She turned away from the doors, set on finding another exit, and found herself in front of the play area once again. An unsettling silence emanated from the room. The woman found it difficult to imagine that this area was once full of laughter and children squealing when the mall wasn’t so empty. She studied the playset, imagining what the scene must have looked like.
Suddenly, noises broke through the silence. In a blink of an eye, the woman saw many people around her. Parents sitting on benches, children climbing up the playset, shoppers passing through the area to their next destination. In a state of confusion, the woman ran to the nearest shopper and began to say something, but the shopper continued chattering away on his cell phone and didn’t stop. The woman began to shake her head as she took in the scene around her, recognizing this to be a sort of hallucination. She must’ve experienced shock at being alone in the mall so she began imagining scenes around her. The woman looked on at the people around her and was only broken out of her stupor when she heard a familiar name.
“Tiffany! Daddy said it’s time to go!”
A child on the top of the playset turns excitedly towards the beckoning, swinging down on to the slide for a quick exit. She runs to the side of the play area, searching for the woman who called for her amidst the crowd of hurried shoppers and hyperactive children. The child finds her target, pouting at her mother. “Do we have to go? We just got here!” Tiffany whined. The mother waved on, distracted by her buzzing cell-phone. She balanced multiple bags in her arms with designer labels, clearly expensive and important. She spareed a glance back at the child, breaking her gaze from her phone, “Hurry up! We can’t make Daddy late for his meeting.” Tiffany looked back over at her father, also on his cell-phone, sticking close to the glass doors that led outside. He was always busy and always had important places to be, which became evident as to why he was wearing a full suit ensemble in a shopping mall. Tiffany looked back towards the play area and with a final hesitation, began to run out of the play area towards her parents. Before she made it to the little exit, her world turned upside down as she tripped over a spare toy car left behind on the ground. She tumbled, scratching up her knees and her elbows as she attempted to stop herself. With tears filling her eyes, she sat pathetically on the ground. Tiffany let out a loud wail, crying on the floor of the play area, trying to ignore the throbbing sting from her scratches. “Mommy! Daddy!” she sobs, blubbering on the ground. The other parents shot judgmental looks toward her, mummering about play area manners. Tiffany’s mom reviewed her new manicure, chattering away on her phone, oblivious to the scene in front of her. Her father ducked through the doors to answer an emergency conference call, pretending he didn’t witness the event. The little girl curled her knees to her chest as she continued to loudly sob in the play area, waiting for help. The woman witnesses all of this, watching the little girl even as the scene around her begins to fade away. The families and children soon become replaced with emptiness. The woman can’t help but stare at the place the child was. The face seemed very familiar to her. After minutes crept by, she understood where she knew that child. That kid messing around on the playground was her.
She wasn’t that small anymore though. She was taller, larger, and older than what she had looked at. Tiffany looked down at her hands, utterly confused at what was happening to her. At first she believed she was going through some sort of shock at being left alone in a closed shopping mall, yet now it was evident she definitely had some form of amnesia. Why had she not been able to remember her name before? Or remembered any past memories? Tiffany decided she needed medical attention. Once the mall reopened in the morning, she would have to check herself into the nearest hospital so that they may examine her. For now, all she could do was try and find an unlocked exit. Tiffany was contemplating where to move next from the play area when she first heard the noise. From far behind her, the sound of a cheery children’s tune resounded down the long hallway. Tiffany turned around suddenly, fearing another hallucination. Her heart dropped when she finally took in the sight.
All aboard the choo-choo train, all aboard the choo-choo train, all aboard the choo-choo train, all aboard, all aboard.
Slowly but surely, a child-size train holding many miniature cars began chugging its way toward Tiffany. The bright lights on the train cast an almost sickly yet colorful glow, the light bouncing off of the glass storefronts as it moved. Tiffany recognized this locomotive immediately as a kiddy mall train that normally would carry children around a shopping mall for a small price. Yet at the front, where an adult conductor would normally sit, there was no one. It seemed to Tiffany that no one was even aboard the train, and with a terrifying thought, Tiffany realized that this meant the train was apparently moving by itself. The music continued its short refrain as it still slowly approached her. With a start, Tiffany backed away and began running down the main aisle, continuing her path through the mall from the play area she was in. It was as if her body moved before her mind could fully interpret the scene it was being presented with. She could still hear the music and see the lights behind her, but she was too scared to look back while running. The self-driving mall train terrified her as it followed, even if it was just another figment of her imagination. She sprinted through several more concourses, dodging fake plants and benches, then promptly began running towards an abandoned store to hide from the train. Once inside, she struggled to catch her breath, finally taking in the scene around her.
The store looked to be a young teenager’s clothing store. Bright pops of color and shiny material were outfitted on all of the mannequins. The store had plenty of posters littered around advertising a “Too Cool 4 School” sale. Tiffany was fascinated by her new surroundings. As she moved to investigate further, she almost bumped into a display next to her holding glitter lip glosses and sequined coin purses. She caught herself before she ruined the display case, and when she turned to make sure nothing had accidentally fallen, she realized that there were suddenly people in the store with her. A clerk was showing off the trendiest look for the fall and groups of teenage girls were circulating throughout the store. The sales floor was busy with plenty of teenagers and a lack of parents, creating the perfect place for a bunch of teens to hang out. “Do you think this color compliments my eyes, Tiff?” a shrill voice giggled.
Tiffany saw where the source of the voice came from and approached the group. She knew she must be experiencing another hallucination caused from her amnesia or shock, or a mix of both. Even though she knew what was happening around her was fiction, she was still interested in seeing how this memory played out. “Yeah, totally Jess!” replied a small voice. Tiffany finally recognized herself, watching her younger self grouped up with three other girls. The girls all laughed at teen Tiffany’s reply, but she didn’t mind much. She knew how they could get if they wanted to be mean. She gladly would take laughter on her part.
“Look who just walked in! I can’t believe she would shop here. What a fraud, do they even make sizes large enough for her?” The attention in the group was immediately drawn to another teen girl who just entered the store. The new girl was clearly out of her comfort zone and wandered alone looking at outfits as she avoided conversation with the retail workers.
“Hey! Mammoth Maddie! What are you doing here outside of school?” called Jess. The gang surrounded Maddie, with teen Tiffany taking up the rear.
“S-Shopping, J-J-Jess.” Maddie stammered, darting looks between all of the girls. “Shopping? Mammoths don’t shop! You’re a liar, Mammoth Maddie. Tell us the truth, what are you doing here? Spying on us?” Jess leered at Maddie, prodding her index finger into her chest. “You don’t have anything better to do?”
“She wants to be us so bad!” chimed the other girls, all laughing at Maddie as her face became red. Teen Tiffany shifted her weight on either foot and looked around for help, visibly uncomfortable.
“I-I’m shopping! I swear!” Maddie took a gulp and faced Jess. “D-Don’t call m-me mammoth.” Maddie’s eyes bulged and her face became even more red as she realized what she did. Involuntarily, she flinched, waiting for the sting from Jess’ words.
Jess cackled loudly and glared at Maddie. Even the catchy pop song blaring from the speakers overhead couldn’t hide the cruelty in Jess’ tone. “Oh yeah? Does wittle Mammoth Maddie want us to stop? Does she cry because she’s so large, the store doesn’t even carry sizes for her?” Jess taunted. She faked a gasp and raised a hand to her face. “Ooo! Ooo! I have an idea! Let’s do a vote. Majority wins. Should we or should we not continue to call Mammoth Maddie a mammoth?” Maddie desperately looked for support at each of the girls, shaking and red as a beet. “Raise your hand if we should stop.” Maddie, cowering, slowly raised a trembling hand. Jess threw her head back and cackled once more. “Now raise your hand if we should continue.” Jess shot a hand toward the ceiling, the two other girls following promptly. They all giggled together but stopped when they turned to Tiffany. Teen Tiffany wrung her hands together as she looked between Jess and Maddie, taking a step back.
“Tiff? What are you doing?” Jess narrowed her eyes as she noted Tiffany’s hesitancy. “It’s her or me, Tiff. Do you remember where you were before we became friends? Do you seriously want to go back to that?” The two other girls giggled at Jess’ line, eager for the drama. Tiffany took a final look between the taunting Jess and the pleading Maddie. With a shaky gulp, she raised her hand up. “AHA! Majority wins, Mammoth.” The scene slowly started to vanish as older Tiffany stood alone in the empty store.
Tiffany stood in the doorway of the teen clothing store, wondering what the importance of her latest vision meant. Even though she couldn’t remember the memories, she felt very ashamed that she would have ever been complacent in such an incident. A sick feeling laid at the base of her stomach. Now wasn’t the time to reflect on teenage ethics. At the moment, she only really wanted to leave. She was tired of re-watching past memories in such a creepy building. Tiffany looked both ways when exiting the store to make certain that the train wasn’t still following her. When she decided the coast was clear, she continued her path forward down the central aisle of the mall. While the absence of the self-driving train was mildly relieving, it was also unsettling. After viewing that last hallucination, Tiffany felt as if the train’s disappearance was a message from her psyche. She decided to not ponder the issue. She really didn’t know much about psychology or hidden meanings anyway. As she steadily paced forward, her path brought her to yet another open concourse, splitting away into more aisles of the mall.
One of those paths led to a very large open area, littered with tables, trashcans, and even more fake plants. It looked to be just a normal abandoned food court, but when Tiffany focused her eyes, she saw the true meaning behind the various fronts surrounding the court. While the well-known mall pretzel shop looked the same at the counter, the sign advertising the name had changed shape immediately, now displaying the word “Regrets.” Tiffany quickly looked at the other vendors, the names all changed from well-known food court stops to similar vague terms such as “Dreams,” “Values,” “Traits.” The neon lights from the transformed signs continued to buzz as if nothing had happened. Tiffany slowly backed away from the open area, shaking her head in disbelief. She couldn’t possibly understand what was happening to her and was too terrified to enter any of the different establishments. After that last memory, she didn’t want to learn more about herself. As Tiffany reentered the concourse from the food court, she heard the upbeat tune that she strongly feared start up again. It echoed down the empty aisles of the mall, reverberating throughout the food court, making the sound more dissonant and unnerving.
A-A-All aboard the choo-choo t-t-train, a-a-all aboard the choo-choo t-t-train, a-a-all aboard the choo-choo t-t-train, all a-a-aboard, all a-a-aboard.
Tiffany began to shake as she became overwhelmed with the thought that the train would catch up to her. She firmly believed that she couldn’t let that happen. Even though she had only heard the music and not yet seen the train, she sprinted down the main path again, desperate to outrun it. Without any visible clocks around her, she had lost the concept of time, her only markers being benches and kiosks. As fast as she ran, the music never seemed to fade, which only encouraged Tiffany to continue moving forward. It wasn’t until after she felt as if she had ran for hours that she began to notice the changes around her. The lit glass storefronts remained, yet many of them now had metal bars pulled shut across the entrances. Some were even boarded up with large sale signs plastered across the glass. Tiffany didn’t have time to investigate as the music still followed her, so she continued forward. What had ultimately stopped her was when she had finally arrived at an unassuming kiosk in the middle of an aisle. She had almost passed it when she realized the music had stopped.
Tiffany felt strangely drawn to the kiosk, tempted to understand why the music had stopped at this specific area. The kiosk wasn’t unique. Advertisements for a variety of special cosmetics surrounded the small shop, showcasing ointments for hair loss, lotions for insomnia, and creams for joint pain. It was as if there was a solution for any common day problem kept within this stand. Tiffany leaned in closer to the kiosk, shocked at the steep price tags. It was obvious to Tiffany that the products were clearly just expensive scams. Even worse, some of the products were missing, meaning shoppers had actually purchased some. While Tiffany continued investigating the kiosk, the sound of shoppers filled the air once more. She looked around, realizing she was once again experiencing a memory. It didn’t take her long to find her target, for standing right next to her was another Tiffany, this time wearing an apron with the same brand name as the cosmetics. This Tiffany was only a little older than the last one. Standing next to her was a guy not much older than her, leaning casually against the kiosk. Vendor Tiffany looked clearly bored as the man beside her prattled on about business.
“Why did you hire me if you won’t even let me do my job?” Tiffany suddenly asked, interrupting him. The man straightened up, bothered. Tiffany couldn’t help but notice that his skin was very oily, it made him shiny and hard to look at.
“All I’m saying is you’re selling the balms all wrong. Yes, they’re spelled B-O-U-D-A-Y, but you need to pronounce them as Bue-dai-ee. Remember the long ‘U’ there. Customers go crazy if they think it’s french.” At this, Tiffany flashed him an exasperated look and he raised his hands as if to shrug it off. “Beats me why, but y’know your purpose here. We’re looking to top our goal for last week which means more sales. That’s where you come in. Believe it or not, having an attractive woman sell these rip-offs only makes these products more in demand.” The man guffawed at his own joke while Tiffany looked back towards the cosmetics. It really was a wonder why these were even legally allowed to be sold at all, they clearly had not been approved by any regulations department. At least, she didn’t think an ointment that could get rid of blackheads and cure vision problems had ever been approved to be sold to the public.
The man tilted his head, searching Tiffany for a reaction. “Speaking of, why did you even accept this job? When I saw you walk into the interview I was certain that you had the wrong room. Thought you were gonna ask me where the nearest boutique was.” He again laughed loudly, oil and spittle flying everywhere.
Tiffany cringed and crossed her arms. After a few seconds, she finally responded. “Just graduated with a Bachelor’s and no current career prospects. The usual.” she answered flatly.
“HA! Ol’ Sallie Mae coming for you? That makes a lot more sense now.” He continued chuckling to himself and after an awkward silence, he checked his watch. “Welp, gotta get back to Kiosk D. I’m expecting plenty of sales today, so no slacking off!” The man brushed off his apron and left, soon disappearing out of sight as he turned a corner.
Tiffany was left alone among the customers, and after a few minutes, began to scan the crowd for any potential victims. She spotted her target and swiftly moved towards a middle-aged woman alone on a bench, clutching a very expensive handbag. “Good evening, Miss,” Tiffany started, with a friendly tone. “I couldn’t help but come over and compliment your hair. It’s such a beautiful tone! What did you tell your hairstylist? I’ve been looking for something similar for months now.”
The woman on the bench smiled, flattered. “Ask for a long bob with curtain bangs and layering. Don’t forget to style it! It adds a lot more volume,” she responded.
Tiffany nodded her head, attentive. “Of course! That makes a lot more sense now. I’ll have to make sure to remember that. It’s just a shame that the stylist messed up on those highlights. Everything else compliments your look so nicely!”
The woman ran a hand through her hair and frowned. “My highlights?” she responded slowly.
“Yes, unfortunately those look much too chunky. Just not in season much anymore, I’m afraid.” Tiffany looked on at the dejected woman, now examining her hair in a compact mirror. “I have just the right solution though! Chunky highlights are always easy to fix. Has anyone introduced you to the Bouday hair balms? Those always work magnificently!”
The vision faded as Vendor Tiffany led the woman to her kiosk, guaranteed to make another sale.
The present Tiffany stared at the kiosk even as the silence became stifling. She once again felt a great deal of shame within her, looking on at the scene where she had scammed many people. She shuddered, thinking about how many insecurities she must’ve caused people just to sell some fake lotions. Had she ever really enjoyed her job though? Surely she must’ve only done what she did so she could get by after graduation. Tiffany wasn’t surprised when she heard the music again. However, she was surprised when she turned around to find the children’s mall train hurtling toward her. Where once it had been slow, it had picked up speed very rapidly. The once cheery tune felt very dark as it skipped around, struggling to keep up with the train’s fast speed.
A-a-all aboard, a-a-all aboard, a-a-all aboard the choo-choo train, all aboard, all aboard
Even though Tiffany was still recovering from the last memory, she sprinted past the kiosk to avoid the train. She rounded the next concourse, continuing on the main path, until she stopped suddenly. The aisle led to a dead end. In front of her loomed a ginormous department store with a metal gate and boards blocking the entrance. She looked over her shoulder and spotted the train still moving at full speed. If she didn’t move, the self-driving miniature train would crash into her. Tiffany searched desperately around her for another way out, spotting a gap in the metal bars close to the ground. It was the perfect size for her to slip through and she pushed herself into the store. After sliding into the store, Tiffany couldn’t shake the idea that the gap looked as if it had been clawed open, almost as if something had tried to escape before she entered. Tiffany could no longer hear the music of the train or see any shadows from the colorful lights. She relaxed, only for a second, as she finally looked around her. Unlike the other stores, the lights were off and dust settled on the floors. There were no mannequins or merchandise, everything seemed to have been cleared out a very long time ago. It was clear that the store had once been very glamorous as it had two floors and was enormous, but time wore off most of the mystique. Instead, Tiffany only felt goosebumps as she sat in the dark empty void.
She sat in the department store for a very long time, until she felt as if she too had collected dust. Tiffany rested her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. When she opened them, the tears almost managed to obscure the last memory she now saw. The department store was flourishing with huddles of customers going from one section to another. The sound of registers beeping and polite chatter felt like home. Tiffany recognized the large double glass doors at the far end of the store as the doors she would use to get in and out of work. Even though she worked at the kiosk in the aisle, she had always preferred parking outside the department store as it was closest. Those glass doors are what Tiffany remembered most about the store. She remembered that one day she entered those doors and had never left through them.
She couldn’t have possibly known what was going to happen to her. It was a freak accident. Tiffany showed up ten minutes late to work again, dismissing her manager’s complaints. She couldn’t find a parking spot, she had argued. He had left and she got prepared to start a long shift. If a customer hadn’t bumped into the kiosk, spilling lotions onto the floor, maybe things would have been different. Tiffany had reached down to pick them up, grumbling to herself.
She didn’t hear the ruckus from the concourse closest to her kiosk as she attempted to collect the cosmetics. There was a fancy car being given away as a part of a raffle by the big department store. It had a large bow on the hood and shone brightly under the fluorescent lights of the mall. Seemingly out of nowhere, a person had made their way into the car and wired it before security could even realize what was happening. When they took off, they had no actual plan besides driving it towards the department store to try and break through the other side. They didn’t know that a cosmetics kiosk worker was crouched onto the ground, still trying to collect the loose creams and balms. It had all happened too fast. Once Tiffany had finally turned around, she only had enough time to see a blur of metal and rubber.
Tiffany stood in the department store as she watched them wheel her body out. They didn’t take the usual glass doors, going instead through a smaller exit to avoid crowds. Pitiful. She felt as if she should have been grieving and yet she wanted to sob with relief. The empty mall, once full of fear and loneliness, felt comforting.
With a steady breath, Tiffany collected herself and opened the metal gate of the department store, entering back into the mall. The kiddy train patiently waited there for her only a few feet away from the entrance, the lights dazzling and the music cheery. While the train had previously been empty, there now sat a single figure hunched over in the conductor’s booth. The mysterious figure was wrapped in a large dark cloak, a stark contrast to the colorful train. It turned its head slowly toward Tiffany and beckoned a skeletal hand towards her. She knew it was time for her to make a choice. “Are you ready?” asked the figure in a low voice.
Tiffany made her way onto one of the small train cars, hugging her knees to her chest as she sat down to make sure she fit. With surety, she nodded. “Yes, I believe I am”.
All aboard the choo-choo train, all aboard the choo-choo train, all aboard the choo-choo train, all aboard, all aboard.