One Missed Step

Clark closed his eyes as he took his first step onto the escalator. The shopping mall flooded him with overwhelming sensations, attacking him from all sides. The loud chatter of other patrons almost drowned out the distant melody of the food court carousel. Pizza and pretzels and chicken and cookies wafted into his nostrils. And now, beneath his feet, the world gently rumbled. 

Clark groaned. He hated escalators. 

Opening his eyes, he looked around, realizing that he’d only descended the first five of about fifty steps. It was going so, so slow, an eternal march that left him frozen between moments. Ahead, at the end of this ride, waited his mother and her new boyfriend. As much as he hated standing on escalators, the thought of meeting this new person made him even more anxious. Regardless, he worried about being late, and checked the watch on his wrist. 

“Eleven-eleven,” he muttered. “Almost time.” 

Lowering his head, he saw that he’d descended maybe only five more steps, and that he seemed to be alone on his journey. He glanced over his shoulder and confirmed his suspicion. It was odd, considering how busy the mall seemed to be today, that he’d have such a stretch of emptiness between himself and other people. 

He hummed a little tune to himself, not sure where it came from at first. Then he realized it was the chorus to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” a song he’d picked up from his mother’s obsession with the musician. 

I’m starting with the man in the mirror; I’m asking him to change his ways . . . 

The steps below shuddered, and so did Clark. What was wrong with this contraption? 

He placed his elbow on the moving handrail to steady himself. Shifting his feet, he felt a gentle pull, and glanced down to see one of his shoes was untied. His eyes drifted to the escalator’s exodus. Only a dozen steps away from the bottom, now. He’d wait until he was on stable ground before tying his shoe. 

Movement caught the corner of his eye, and he turned to see two older women traveling up the parallel escalator, rising above him. He followed them with his eyes for a few seconds, but they seemed to ignore him, engaged in their own conversation. 

The stairs curved a little now, announcing that Clark had reached the bottom. Turning away from the two women, he took a step forward, but something halted his progress. He tried moving again, but his foot caught against something, pulling him back toward the escalator. Looking down, he realized the problem: The crack where the escalator steps slipped underground had caught his loose shoelace, and was actively swallowing it. 

Panic ignited in Clark’s chest, and he struggled, trying to free the shoelace. A low, green light ignited from within the crack, flickering hungrily. He tried to pull his foot from the captured shoe, but before he could, he felt his toes slip into the tight space. 

“No!” he cried. “Oh God, oh God, someone, please help!” 

Above him, he saw the two older women turn around, startled, their tight grey curls bouncing atop their heads. Eyes widening, they hurried down the up-escalator, hindered by its oppositional steps. As they moved, Clark felt the green-lit crack swallow the rest of his foot, pulling him to the ground. 

On the ground floor, he saw a security guard rush toward him, muttering something into his walkie-talkie. He reached Clark at the same time as the two women, and six hands grabbed at his arms and torso. By the time they began pulling, Clark was up to his knee inside the escalator crack, his free leg curled up onto the ground to provide better leverage against the machine. 

Surprisingly, though, through the panic and fear, Clark felt no pain. Inch by inch, as his body was ingested by the green light, it went tingling and numb, as if it had simply fallen asleep. Similarly, he felt very little pressure, and saw no blood or sign of injury. 

Still, he couldn’t pull away. 

“It’s okay, kid,” the guard gasped as he struggled against the escalator. “You’ll be okay. Johnson, where is the emergency off switch?” 

“It’s . . . it’s not working,” a voice crackled through his walkie-talkie. “It isn’t shutting off.” 

The green light grew brighter as it finished consuming Clark’s leg, turning his body sideways and nibbling at his rib cage. His elbow caught in the crack, and now his arm became trapped, swallowing him width-wise at a slight angle. He squealed, the pitch of his voice piercing his own ears, as the light overtook his face and his body went numb. 

________________ 

The ground rumbled beneath Clark’s feet, and he opened his eyes. Somehow, he found himself standing again, his feet balanced on the step of a slowly-rising escalator. Over his shoulder, he saw rows of storefronts on the first floor. Storefronts that he could swear had previously been located on the second floor. 

In the distance, windows leading outside flickered, the yellow sunlight tinged green for a moment. 

Clark continued rising, trying to clear his head. Wasn’t he going down before? Actually, wasn’t he in trouble? Did he imagine the entire moment? 

Closely examining his arms and legs, Clark saw no scrapes, bruises, or other injuries that would indicate the occurrence of such an incident. Below him, he saw no sign of the security guard, or even any damage to the escalator itself. In fact, his shoe was still tied. 

Just his imagination, then. 

But why was he going up, now? 

The escalator parallel to his own announced the arrival of two older, grey-haired women. They paused in their conversation to glance at Clark, tilting their heads, before returning their attention to each other. He rubbed his temples, trying to figure out where he was supposed to go. At this point, he was maybe ten steps into a fifty-step journey. 

Ahead, he began to smell food, and the tinkling music of the carousel drifted into his ears. This time, though, the sound was different. The song was familiar. 

I’m starting with the man in the mirror; I’m asking him to change his ways . . . 

The two older women were closer now, and Clark peeked at them again, frowning. 

Their faces were . . . different. 

Rather than the round, wrinkled faces Clark remembered, the two women’s features were sharper; almost unnaturally so, as if their faces contained more bones than they were supposed to. The once-leathery skin seemed almost bleached white, and their noses were flatter against their face. Their new appearances could almost be described as skeletal, if it weren’t for their wide mouths and thin, bright-red lips.  

Rubbing his eyes, Clark shifted nervously to the other side of the escalator stairwell. The women passed him at about the halfway point, and as they did, they both turned to him simultaneously, glaring at him with beady, black eyes. 

“You shouldn’t be here,” one of them hissed. 

The sunlit windows flickered green again. 

“Where?” Clark squeaked. “The mall? Where am I?” 

The other woman smiled widely. “You’re in The Underneath now.” 

Then they passed out of earshot, drifting down to the bottom of their escalator.  

Shuddering, Clark wrapped his arms around his chest, surveying the mall as he inched closer to the top of the escalator. The patrons continued on their regular shopping journeys, but every few seconds, some of them would glance up at him, quickly looking away as they saw him staring at them.  

“What is this?” Clark muttered to himself. 

His head breached the escalator’s line of sight, and he quickly scanned the second floor. As he suspected, the food court and shops that were previously on the first floor had migrated to this one. Shoppers and diner looked up from their tasks, peering at him, before returning to their food or merchandise.  

All the while, “Man in the Mirror” trickled from the carousel. 

In the corner of this eye, Clark saw the security guard from before – no, not quite the same as before – rush toward him from the right, speaking into a bizarre device he’d never seen. On the left, he saw a more familiar face approaching. 

“Mom?” he asked. 

His mother grimaced, her face pale and bony and red-lipped. “Grab him. He’s not supposed to see this.” 

Clark’s heart pounded in his chest, and he spun on his heels, stumbling down the up-escalator. The inverse steps pulled at his feet, but he resolved to move faster, to escape the Underneath People. One foot crossed in front of the other as he struggled to descend, and then he was falling, tumbling down the oppositional staircase. 

Above him, too close for comfort, resounded two pairs of footsteps. He struggled to his knees, gasping for air, and crawled toward the first floor of the mall, the ascending escalator beneath his body cramping his muscles. As he saw the windows outside flickered green a third time, strong hands grabbed him by his shoulders.  

“What do we do?” Clark heard the security guard ask the Underneath version of his mother. 

“We return him,” she replied. 

They dragged him up the escalator steps, his body thudding against the aluminum. He struggled, lashing out, but they were strong, too strong. Stronger than anyone he’d ever met. 

As they approached the top, the two Underneath People slammed him onto his back, the security guard grabbing the palms of his hands. 

“Hold him down until he begins to cross back over,” The Underneath Mother said. 

Realization dawning on him, Clark looked up, where the green-lit crack stared back, continuously swallowing the ground in front of it. “No! Don’t put me back in that!” 

He felt his fingers slip into the crack, but this time, it pinched him, the industrial motors squeezing the digits. Before he could react, he felt skin break, and bones ground beneath metal. Shrill cries left his mouth, but he was hardly aware of them, enveloped in pain and panic.  

The escalator began to grumble and screech as it sucked up Clark’s flesh, and warm blood sprayed down his wrists. As the steps continued to move, they fed his arms into the crack, bending them back until the bones in his forearms snapped in half. A crowd of Underneath People gathered around him now, passively watching. 

“He isn’t going back the same way,” one of the older ladies commented. 

The security guard shook his head. “No, it doesn’t always work the same way. That’s why we’re usually safe from his kind.” 

As they chatted, Clark felt the crack of the escalator nibble at his hair, jerking his head back. He didn’t care anymore, though; with this much pain, blackness was already fringing around the edges of his vision, and he knew he’d be unconscious soon . . . and much less, shortly after. 

Strangely, as metal touched his scalp and he felt the first crack in his skull, the last thing he thought about was his mother, and her new boyfriend. Coming back out the other side, like this? Why, that’ll be an awful first impression. 

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