Folklore

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Chapter 1
Maria was glad when they had finally installed new elevators.

Most of the stores in Grand Views Shopping Center were on a single level, except for Reikman’s and Dollartown. She didn’t often need new clothing these days, but the escalator up to Reikman’s second floor made the trip a little easier. The elevator made a world of difference to those with movement-related disabilities.

Dollartown was worse. It was built into the basement of the mall -- a complete floor below the rest of the shopping center. If you wanted to get to Dollartown you used to have to take a steep concrete stairway built right off of a busy indoor avenue. If it wasn’t for the bright green sign hanging over the stairs you would probably miss it while walking by. There were no automated options until recently, and the stairs were a bit hard on her knees these days. Old joints that had already seen a lifetime’s worth of travel. It made visiting the store more trouble than it was worth.

The elevator was a small comfort. That was something Maria learned the older she grew. You need to make time to appreciate the small comforts. Most of her friends were well enough to be independent, and she counted her blessings that she could still make trips to the mall without an aide.

Well, normally. Today was the exception.

Her hip surgery had come and gone without any complications. Thomas, her son, had arrived from out of town with her grandchildren to help with her recovery. He was a good man. Against her protests he had taken time from work to make sure she could get to and from the hospital. Since she had only been held a couple of days after the operation the entire event had turned into an almost mini vacation as she got to enjoy some quality time with her family. With crutches she could move around the house freely, and her surgeon had even told her told that it would only be a few weeks before life would be mostly back to normal.

Maria knew she should have probably just stayed home, but with Thomas leaving tomorrow morning she wanted to make sure they went away with a gift. What was the point of even having grandchildren if you couldn’t spoil them?

And so it was with her family as motivation that for today, just today, she would swallow her pride. All of the automated chairs were taken, but the mall’s senior services would help her around the few stores she needed to go. Maria swore she wouldn’t waste their time lollygagging through every aisle. Her route was meticulously plotted out.

First, some candy for their trip. A few bags of sweets she knew her son liked to help get through the plane ride back. With any luck the kids would devour a bag on the ride to the airport then crash hard in their seats just before takeoff.

After the candy, one of those Japanese toys they were always messing around with. Lord knows she couldn’t pronounce it to save her life, but she wrote it on some paper so she wouldn’t forget. Hopefully it wasn’t too expensive.

Finally, her son’s gloves looked absolutely disgusting. The years had taken a toll on them and fall was just around the corner. She knew a store that sold a nice leather pair. Comfortable and warm. Something that would last.

And so she sat, waiting for the elevator. The mall wheelchair seat looked cheap but she had dressed comfortably for the occasion. The weather was still nice enough for her to wear a sundress, but she kept a light jacket on just in case. Malls often kept the temperature frigid to make up for even the slightest bit of warmth. She always found it strange that people would rather freeze than be made uncomfortable from a little sweat.

Maria watched as a family of four passed by, taking the cement stairway down to the store below. Firmly gripping the wheelchair’s handles behind her was her assigned mall attendant, Anita. Anita couldn’t have been more than her late teens, judging by the girl’s disinterest in the job and the vacant expression kids get when they’re thinking about something more important than what they’re doing.

With a cheerful ding the elevator arrived. Anita pushed her inside where they bristled both with impatience, waiting for the machine to do its work. Doors closed. The lift dropped. Doors opened. Anita pushed her out.

It was a tremendous amount of fanfare just to descend a double flight of stairs. Maria tried not to think about it. The moment she entered Dollartown she had only a single mission, and no amount of personal embarrassment would distract her.

“It’s alright sweetie. I can take it from here.” Maria craned her head back at the teenager, who simply shrugged and took out her cell phone.

“Yeah? I’ll be here when you’re done.”

Wheeling herself forward into the store, Maria did her best to navigate around shoppers and decor alike. Most were happy to step out of the way or help clear a path. One even offered to help her, but she politely declined. The chair’s thick wheels made it easy to move forward. Not as easy as one of the fancier electric chairs, but she was happy to work with what she had. She still valued her freedom.

Maria liked Dollartown because it was simple and to the point. An aisle for seasonal decorations. One for cheap utensils and kitchen supplies. Another for fake flowers, and for tupperware, and for cheap bathroom toiletries. Candy was located on the far side -- an entire wall of low-priced budget snacks that tasted just as good as the name brand stuff.

The store was branded in an obnoxious neon green that Maria thought they could do without. It was like a leprechaun’s closet vomited all over the store, which was only made worse the closer it actually got to Saint Patrick’s day. Or any holiday with green in it, really.

She loathed the effort it took to get down here, but now that she had arrived she let herself enjoy the process. Like any good grandmother she had memorized all their favorite treats. It was just a matter of locating their off-brand equivalent. Crunch-o bars, Stretch Stix, and Boba Pop were clear favorites, but she also threw in some jelly beans and peanut butter cups for good measure.

A small gathering of candy bags sat in her lap. Not a terrible bounty, and Maria was just debating if she wanted to pick up something her son would enjoy when the rattling of metal made her pause. She had thought it must have been a pair of teens rough housing on the other side of the isle. A ringing noise that she couldn’t quite make out, until flakes of dust began to flutter down from the ceiling tiles above.

Bags of candy set out on display began to shake free as the tremor began to build momentum. Maria felt the collection in her lap begin to slip away. Her chair did little to absorb the vibration. One of her wheels bumped into a nearby support beam that rattled as metal struck metal. The building seemed to groan in pain. Dust flung itself from every corner of the basement shopping center, saturating the air. Maria watched employees rush to try and keep a display from falling over before disappearing out of sight. A powerful boom echoed through the store, heralding a crack in the cement foundation.

Maria looked around, desperate for a sign of order. She made eye contact with a store clerk before everything went black. A panic set into her heart as she thought something had struck her blind. There were screams. A rumble. The shrill crack of something metal snapping under immense pressure. She gripped her chair, grasping the rattling arm handles as tightly as she could.

Her eyes had just begun to adjust to the dark when something knocked into her wheelchair, tipping her over and spilling her onto the cement floor. Pain rocked her body. Her hip felt like fire shooting down her side. She thought she could hear more heavy footsteps approach, but the roar of trembling earth made it hard to tell. Unable to hold back a groan of pain she pushed against the bottom of the store display rack.

It was hard to keep still. The trembling cement floor was like an unending jab into her hip. Breathing became difficult as the air thickened with dust. Small things fell on her from the shelving above, and it was a struggle to keep herself pressed against the shelf for safety. Minutes seemed to pass before there was any sign the earthquake would cease.

But then it all stopped. Maria noticed the silence before she realized the ground had stopped moving. Slowly, carefully, she tried to stand. The air tasted like dirt, and there was little she could do to keep from coughing.

Emergency lights began to sound off with a loud thoom, activating pairs of small floodlights across the walls. Clouds of dust made it impossible to see further than a few feet ahead. Eyes watering, Maria tried to hold her breath while she used the nearby shelf to pull herself up. She felt bruised, but not broken. Cupping her jacket sleeve to her mouth she peered at her surroundings, breaking the silence.

“Anita?”

Just trying to speak made her cough. Even worse, every cough made her side jolt in pain. She pulled her wheelchair upright, mindful of the bags of candy and other goods that now littered the ground. Sinking into the chair Maria pressed her sleeve to her mouth in a futile attempt to not breathe in any more dust. It was settling, slowly, but she didn’t want to wait. She called out again.

“Hello? Anita!”

Maria sucked in as much air as she could, feeling the tingle of another cough at the back of her throat. Carefully she navigated her way down the aisle. Bags and hooks from metal racks littered the ground, and it took her several minutes just to push her way to the front of the store. Each time she would pause for any signs of fellow survivors.

The store was empty. She knew that some had run for the exit, but it seemed so unlikely that everyone had just left. Where were those emergency helper people? Where were the cops, or sirens, car alarms that must have been rattled by an earthquake of this magnitude?

Wheeling herself toward the elevator Maria glanced up the stairs, hoping to spot someone. A part of her wanted to call out again. It seemed like the logical thing to do, but the eerie silence made her feel uncomfortable. Instead she pushed herself toward the elevator doors, pushing the ‘up’ button with a resolve not to let her imagination get the best of her.

At first she thought she made a mistake. She pushed the button again, making sure she gave a firm press with a satisfying click. She waited, hopeful, but there was no hum of a motor or gentle creak of a pulley to be heard.

Without any backup power the mall was left only with its battery-supplied floodlights. At the bottom of the stairs, Maria felt she had been imprisoned. Only two flights separated her from the rest of the mall, but her hip ached terribly and she was afraid her fall had caused something to be undone.

She could wait. With an earthquake of this magnitude, someone needed to come and clear out the building and make sure everyone had escaped. At the first sign of a rescue worker all she needed to do was hollar.

Parked at the bottom of the stairway, resting quietly in her wheelchair, Maria sat in the dark.

Chapter 2 - 23/08/2018
Hours passed. Although designed for sitting, the mall’s rental wheelchairs weren’t exactly comfortable. Maria struggled to stay still. She tried everything to keep pressure off her hip. In the end, complaining seemed to help the most, and it came with the added benefit of making plenty of noise should anyone pass by.

Help never came.

Several times she tried her cell phone, but could get no service in the dark surrounded by thick concrete and steel. Realizing it may be some time still before aid arrived she quickly wheeled herself away from the entrance to do the only thing that seemed sensible.

It took several trips back and forth to gather the things she needed. A face mask to help with the dust, matches, a small pot, plastic utensils, and some portable campfire burners. Three cheap comforters from the bedding section, and a shaped wood stick that she knew was meant to be decorative but could likely hold her weight if she needed to stand. A flashlight, batteries, bottles of water, instant ramen, a bag of granola, and a pillow she was sure must have been stuffed with lint.

Maria knew she was gathering things for survival, but she couldn’t help but feel as though she were looting. It was a fun little fantasy that helped pass the time. Were she not in so much pain it would have been more exciting.

With her supplies gathered she went about the slow task of setting things up. All three comforters together made for a decent bedding, and she sighed with relief when finally stepping out from the wheelchair to lay herself out. Her bones were old, but good. The more she moved the more she was certain the hip would heal quickly.

She lit two of the burners, poured water into the pot, and waited patiently for it to boil. It had grown dark and she didn’t want her mind to wander too much. Whatever else had happened, she was alive. For that she was thankful. Carefully pouring her water into the styrofoam bowl Maria was reminded of her days in college.

Were she twenty years younger this would have felt like quite the adventure. Maria loved a good challenge, though she was certain that a small flight of stairs wouldn’t pose much of one to her younger self. Still, surviving such a huge ordeal like this had a certain thrill. She wished Daniel were still alive. He would have had such a laugh at the thought of her, laying down at the bottom of the stairs like a squatter, waiting to be rescued. He was always laughing at her expense.

She hoped Thomas and her grandchildren were ok. She hoped rescue would come soon.

In the dark of the mall’s lowest basement store Maria fell asleep. Flickering light from her burners danced wild shadows on drab grey walls. Only once did anything shine brighter. A single flash of red luminescence that moved past the stairway at a lazy, slow crawl.



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She woke the next morning to a blended mix of disappointment and back pain. With only a collection of cheaply made comforters as protection from the concrete floor, she was surprised it didn’t hurt more.

Some daylight filtered down to her from above the stairway. A hole in the mall’s skylight. The earthquake must have shattered the glass roof. Maria hoped no one had been caught underneath, but she was glad to have the light. It was easier to get a view of her surroundings from the night before.

The stairs were completely clear, but garbage and debris still littered the ground from the night before. Emergency floodlights still kept the interior of Dollartown well lit and Maria took full advantage of the good fortune. With some great assistance from the walking stick she pulled herself to her feet and into the wheelchair. Her mind wracked slowly over the list of things she’d need. Who knew how long the floodlights would last.

Dust had largely settled throughout the store and every movement she made kicked up small trails in her wake. The first of her essentials was to help with that.

A portable first aid kit. Another bottle of water. Granola bars. Some kind of fruit snack. A small backpack with a cartoon eggplant on it. Probably intended for a child, but it suited her needs fine and she’d rather have the eggplant than the one with a robot.

She wheeled back to the entrance to entertain the idea that someone may still be looking. Breakfast was a hearty bag of trail mix and assorted gummies. Beyond the occasional crunch of granola or roasted peanuts she ate in silence, looking up at the entrance to Dollartown.

It seemed darker than normal at the top of the stairs. Perhaps it was just the time of day, or the way the mall let in natural light. Knowing she had no reception she had turned off her phone rather than waste battery. She regretted not bringing a watch, but her son had made fun of her for wearing one when she always carried a cell phone nearby. She made a mental note to slap him when she got home.

Wheeling herself back into the store for a second time, Maria took a little more care in browsing through the shelves. A flashlight and some batteries. One of those electric campfire lanterns. A roll of duct tape. A pair of scissors. A ball of thick string.

She brought it all back to the store entrance and carefully sorted her bounty. Stuffing the backpack with her food and small collection of supplies she tied the string firmly around its straps. The lantern clipped onto the bag neatly, and she laid the entire collection of goods at the bottom of the stairs. Only the burners, pot, and comforters remained behind. Too big or heavy to carry, she was certain she wouldn’t need them anyway.

Two flights of stairs. Her hip still ached from her fall and terrible improvised bedding, but she was certain now it was more bruised than anything else. All she needed to do was make it up one flight. If she could do that then she could rest after a short break to gather her strength.

Making sure she kept the ball of string close, leaving plenty of slack between her and the backpack, Maria took her first step up the stairs.

It hurt, but it went shockingly well. She had been so afraid something had broken yesterday that she half-expected to fall over after her first step up. Instead Maria gripped the railing, using it for balance as she worked her way to the first flight’s landing one step at a time. Pain flared in her hips, but it was something she could manage.

Once she reached the first landing Maria paused to catch her breath. The second would be no problem. She could do it. Just a moment to rest, and then she’d be home free. Taking a seat on the ground she turned her attention to the ball of string she walked up with.

She tried hard to pull the bag up the stairs in a way that wouldn’t bang around the attached lantern. It was a fairly durable lantern, but she hated the noise it made as it clattered against each step. The silence of the mall had almost become sacred, and she wanted to protect that as best she could.

With her supply bag in hand she took a seat on the floor. Looking down at the Dollartown it seemed like a prison. Dark and sinister. The world above was warm, inviting. Freedom, tinged with a tone of red.

Maria paused, then squinted. There was nothing but sunlight in the mall earlier, but a flood of red light had begun to coarse through the mall. A brilliant, vibrant crimson. She couldn’t see the main floor from where she sat, but could tell the light must have been coming from outside. Wild shadows were being cast as it passed over the skylights above. It was traveling slowly. Maybe minutes away from reaching her.

It felt wrong. It didn’t seem like a searchlight. There was no noise. Maria furrowed her brow to listen for the sound of footsteps. Of a vehicle, maybe a helicopter or crane.

There was nothing, but the light continued to approach.

Pain in her hip still throbbed terribly, but she grit her teeth through it. The light was getting closer, only a minute away now, and she needed to make herself as flat as possible. Whatever it was, whatever its purpose, Maria didn’t want to be caught in its beam. She would never make it down the stairs in time. Pressed as still as she could against the cement steps, Maria stifled a sob as her hip flared again.

The air filled with pressure. Maria felt her ears pop. She resisted the urge to cover them with her hands. The sensation only grew worse the closer the light approached, but she forced herself to lay flat. If her hands clasped over her ears then her arms would be too high. The red light grew steadily closer. She needed to keep as low as possible.

Maria tried to watch as it approached, but the red light was brighter than she could have ever thought possible. At a distance she could watch it comfortably, without even so much as squinting. Now, up close, it shone with such ferocity that she expected to be hit with a wave of heat.

A sudden anxiety filled her. She wasn’t hidden well enough. If she ran now, stumbled her way down the stairs, there may be just enough time to make it around the corner. Or better, into the darkness of the store. It seemed so inviting now.

Despite her instinct Maria kept herself on the floor, pressed against the bottom step of the second flight. She closed her eyes as the light made its way down her section of the mall. It was like being a child again, pretending to be asleep when her parents checked in. If she was caught something terrible would happen. She knew that, deep down in her heart.

If it had noticed her the light seemed indifferent. Eventually the intensity of its beam passed by slowly, though she stayed still for a while after it had gone. Something about its presence here felt undeniably wrong. It moved so lazily, and left such an uneasy feeling in its wake.

Too slow and too imprecise to be described as searching. There was no urgency in it. The red light was performing a casual scan more than anything else. For what, Maria didn’t want to know.

The light was gone. She needed to move.

Chapter 3 - 30/08/2018
It took more time get to the top of the second flight of stairs than she expected. Laying so flat and so tense against the concrete stair had caused the pain in her hip flare up terribly. Standing hurt, as did every step she took to reach the top.

Maria didn’t notice how much had changed right away. Pulling up her backpack of supplies wasted precious moments. Resting against a nearby wall she spotted an electric wheelchair sitting quietly in the center of the hallway. She wasted no time taking a seat. Despite its almost tarp-like fabric she found the chair comfortable, and it’s very slight recline made her sigh in relief.

She checked the small navigational stick on the arm rest. A slight tap forward jolted it to life. Still some power, but for how long?

The mall was in complete disarray. She was so worried about the chair that she never realized how bad it all looked. The floor was a carpet of shattered glass, and a cloudy grey sunlight filtered in from above. With no protection from the elements dust and dirt had already begun to settle. Without power and illuminated by only natural light the mall looked as though it had aged several years in just a day.

With her bag of supplies resting safely in her lap Maria guided the motorized chair down the hall. Driving over the broken glass created an uncomfortable crunching noise, and she did her best to stay close to the walls to avoid as much debris as possible. Her goal was the front parking lot, where she could find her car and hopefully some sign of what had left her stranded underground.

Along the way she took note of clues. Hints of what may have happened, with no definitive explanation.

Stores were empty and completely unlooted. There were signs of distress everywhere that made her think of a mass panic. Signs and tables overturned, doors broken, bags and various items thrown about. It was difficult to tell what direction everyone may have ran toward. The earthquake had lasted quite a while. It was easy to imagine everyone scrambling for safety.

A left turn brought her through the food court. A right turn, past a collection of clothing stores. Another left would bring her to the Mall’s entrance where she remembered parking. With power disabled she would need to get up and manually open the main doors, but that was just fine. She would do whatever it took to leave this place.

She turned her motorized chair around the last corner, only to find there was no mall left to travel. Several steps ahead the smooth tiled floor of the mall cracked away into empty air. The stores, the front steps, the parking lot, all of it had crumbled down into some kind of sinkhole.

Maria put her chair in reverse while she tried to comprehend what she was seeing. It was no sinkhole. It was a crater. Miles long, and miles deep. Tremendous devastation where a city once stood. Sewers and underground pipes along the outer rim of the crater trickled water into down toward the center. There were no jutting beams of metal. No massive asteroid or fallen meteor at the center of the pit. Despite the tremendous, unmistakable damage to the city the entire event seemed so precisely crafted. Almost surgical.

So taken in by the size of the catastrophe that Maria had to rub at her eyes to make sure she hadn’t been hallucinating. Hovering over the crater, high above the epicenter, was a black sphere. At least, she thought it was a sphere. It seemed impossibly dark. A void that allowed no light pass to through it, several stories in diameter, hanging in the air.

The longer she observed the orb, the more she realized was wrong. There was a silence hanging in the air. No noise. No blaring downtown traffic or buzz of surrounding conversations. At its most quiet moments a city was still a place of noise. Electricity pulsing through thousands of homes. Construction blaring in the distance. People. With a disaster like this she expected to see relief aid or Federation soldiers assisting evacuation efforts. A single helicopter at the minimum.

There was nothing but the pulse of silence. She wondered if it was the void’s work. She wanted to make a noise, to call out and break the silence, but instincts warned her otherwise.

Without knowing how much of the earth beneath the mall had been compromised she was afraid of getting any closer. It was a lost cause anyway. With the front parking lot completely vanished into the crater Maria imagined her car’s odds of survival were very slim. She couldn’t help but smile while wondering if her insurance would cover the ‘damage’.

Her cell phone was low on power, and offering few solutions. Still no service. Perhaps a side effect of the void in the sky? There were only a few more hours of solid daylight. Who knew what the darkness would bring.

She needed to think. She needed a plan.

There were no answers to be found at the edge of the crater, and with some reluctance Maria turned her chair away from the void and back into the depths of the mall. Her chair wheeled over shards of broken glass with a loud crunch. There was no need to hide anymore.

Maria wandered the mall aimlessly for a time, pondering the empty displays and broken racks. I could leave through the other lot. Take the handicap ramp to the indoor parking. One of the mall’s kiosks had been completely overturned to spill a rack of watches across the floor. I could find a car. Drive home. A toy store gripped by a moment of panic had aisles littered with colorful boxes. Or I could find a radio. See if maybe there’s been an emergency broadcast. Everyone could have been evacuated while some kind of special emergency unit moved in.

It wasn’t long before she found herself in the food court for a second time. The skylights above all led to this place, a central hub for any good mallgoer. Normally it just let in a fair amount of natural light. Now, devoid of anyone else, it gave the room a haunted feeling. Like an empty cathedral. A place of worship, vacated.

Maria shook the notion from her head, instead exploring her meal options. The goal was to find anything but granola that could still be safely eaten after a day. It became a game. Most places froze their food beforehand, so burger and chicken joints were quickly ruled out. She found some fruit at a ‘smoothie bar’, and with a bit of effort discovered a half-burned pepperoni pizza in the oven of a phoney italian place.

Bringing her scavenged findings to the center of the court, Maria stepped out of her chair to stretch. She made herself a comfortable dining area on the center of a square table. After cutting herself a slice of pizza she ate standing. It was burned, but she’d eaten worse. Her hip still ached. Standing was tiring -- likely just a side effect from the tumble she had taken yesterday, but she didn’t want to grow too accustomed to sitting down. She would be resting plenty soon enough.

Another bite into her slice brought her too close to a charred lump of bread crust, and she tossed the piece aside to get another. Stretching herself out she moved to cut a new slice when the light caught her eye. Bright red, glinting off the reflection of her tool.

It moved so slowly she never noticed it. The beam of red light. It had just reached the edge of the food court. Close. Too close, but it wasn’t fast. The pain at her hip reminded her she could never outrun it. She wouldn’t need to.

Maria scrambled into her chair, clicking the arm rest’s joystick into a frantic turn. The motorized seat rotated with a labored whurrrrrrr in reply. The turn was slow. Too slow for her liking, and she clicked the controls into place once more only to receive a small burst of movement. Again, and it hardly moved at all.

There was no time to play with it any further. Stepping out of the chair she frantically looked for a place to hide. Deep in her heart she knew the light couldn’t touch her. It was responsible for whatever happened here. It and the void were connected somehow.

It was too far get behind one of the food court eateries. Between the tables, potted plants and scattered garbage she had no doubt that race was a lost cause. Even if she could run, where would she hide? Every store had a glass front. There was no bathroom in sight, and even if she wanted to throw herself back down the stairs to Dollartown the light would soon block off that path to freedom.

Even still, she tried to run. Flashes of pain in her side quickly forced her stride into an uneven hobble. Her hands grasped at nearby tables in an attempt to row herself forward. Each time they wobbled unevenly, threatening to tip under her unsteady weight. The entire room was painted in its crimson glow. It was impossible to tell how close it was. Maybe only a few dozen feet away.

Ten meters. Use proper measurements. Her husband’s voice corrected her with a laugh. One last chiding remark. She wanted to punch him.

Pain snapped her thoughts back to reality. She had placed her hand on the thin space between two tables and felt it pinch her fingers. Maria paused. There wasn’t much time left.

She grabbed a nearby table, dragging over to the two beside her. Pulling another into place she formed a larger square. Her hip screamed with pain, and she used each table for balance and leverage as much as she forced them into position. Even with the tables as closely touching as possible there was no way the seams could ever be perfect -- so she grabbed a stack of colorful serving trays and spread them out along the top.

It was impossible to know if her patchwork cover would be good enough. The light was seconds from reaching her. She scrambled underneath the barrier of tables and food trays on her hands and knees. There was just enough room for her to stay on all fours underneath, but it was a tight fit.

Her heart sank as she felt her foot slip against one of the table legs. There was a creak. Only a slight push out of alignment. She closed her eyes and prayed the trays were still in place.

The red light passed overhead and Maria’s entire world was bathed in a crimson glow. Hiding in the stairwell she had found it hard to see, but now that she was directly in its path the red light impossible to ignore. Even through her closed eyelids it was absolutely blinding. There were no other colors. It was like diving underwater. An oppressive pressure surrounded her world. It sought to crush her.

There was no way to tell how much more she had to endure. Eyes closed, struggling to stay on all fours under the tables, Maria waited until the blinding red light began to fade from her sight. Tears streamed down her face from the pain. Her arms were shaking but she swore at them to hold. She just needed to hold until the next moment.

Slowly the red light began to fade. Maria waited until she could only see the black darkness of her eyelids. When there was no trace of red left in her sight, she opened her eyes.

The mall food court seemed no different than before. Ahead of her, the red light was working through the hallway. She knew it was attached to some kind of maligned intelligence. The way it scanned through the mall, the way the light seemed to move. It had to be more than just a strange beacon.

Climbing up from under the food court tables Maria heaved a sigh of relief. She survived again, but how long was it till red light made its next pass? How much time did she have to scavenge here?

She made a mental list of the things she needed. Supplies that would see her through till the end. Using the tables for leverage she pushed herself as quick as possible away from the food court. Once she located a second working powered wheelchair her final lap around the mall was decisive.

A proper backpack and a change of clothing. More bottled water, fruit, some bags of chips and the leftovers from her Dollartown belongings. A durable wrist watch she knew would last. A sturdy black walking stick she noticed in the display of some wilderness store. A pair of men’s leather gloves. A couple of those Japanese toys she found so difficult to understand, let alone pronounce. A bag of candy.

The mall’s security office was left wide open, and she had no trouble gathering the last of her most precious supplies. Batteries, a proper heavy duty flashlight, and keys to the mall’s official on-site vehicle.

Mercifully, the car was parked nearby in its designated spot. After traveling down the short ramp into the indoor parking she left her wheelchair behind. It would be the last time she needed to sit in one of those damn things if she could ever help it again. Loading up the car with her scavenged belongings she felt confident this was the right choice.

Placing her walking stick in the passenger side she took a moment to adjust the seat to her liking. The parking lot was just as empty as the inside of the mall. A few cars were left sitting in center lanes. One had clearly drifted into a wall without a driver, but it was nothing she couldn’t navigate around.

It felt ridiculous using her turn signal when pulling out of the lot. Maria contemplated driving on the other side of the road in defiance, but then realized she couldn’t bring herself to. There were still laws in this world. Others had survived here. Her family was still out there. She needed to know they were safe.

The city streets were devoid of life. Empty cars sat parked in the middle of the road. Local businesses kept their doors open to darkened storefronts. In the rearview mirror she saw the mall rapidly shrink away from her sight. Somewhere beyond it all was the crater. A massive hole in the heart of the city.

Looming above was the void, a dominating sphere of influence hanging over the empty city. Somewhere at its peak a red light shimmered like a beacon. A searchlight, for those lost in the urban silence.