A suspenseful survival story and modern day Lord of the Flies set in a mall that looks just like yours.
A biological bomb has just been discovered in the air ducts of a busy suburban mall. At first nobody knows if it's even life threatening, but then the entire complex is quarantined, people start getting sick, supplies start running low, and there's no way out. Among the hundreds of trapped shoppers are four teens.
These four different narrators, each with their own stories, must cope in unique, surprising manners, changing in ways they wouldn't have predicted, trying to find solace, safety, and escape at a time when the adults are behaving badly. This is a gripping look at people and how they can—and must—change under the most dire of circumstances.
And not always for the better.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
DAY TWO: SUNDAY
Lexi hunted around in her messenger bag for her phone. Its battery was low; it had been buzzing all night with texts. All from Darren. She opened the first message:You still at CommerceDome? On news. The second: Mall lockdown? What’s happening? The next twenty were all in the same vein.Is it the zombie apocalypse? Anyone resorting to cannibalism?
Strangely, Darren’s texts made her feel worse. Not one of them expressed interest in whether she herself was okay. These could have been texts sent to anyone. And for a moment, a vast emptiness opened inside Lexi, a sucking need so strong she felt she might disappear inside it.
No. She would not fall apart in this rainbow-unicorn cave. Darren was just being his funny self. If he weren’t worried, he wouldn’t have texted in the first place.
She tried to call him and got an all-circuits-are-busy message. So she sent a text that could go through as soon as some bandwidth opened up.Still here, trapped. But had full access to computer and new BXE Fillion card so was all gud. Will find out whazzup.
Lexi heard tromping footsteps and turned to see the Senator barrel in from the hall. The sight of her converted all Lexi’s sadness to rage. This entire situation was the Senator’s fault.
Dad stood, his head and shoulders rising above the shelf he’d been hidden behind, and hugged the Senator. She practically fell into his arms. She looked bad, wiped out. And not from the usual committee politics.
“If I kill the mall manager,” Dotty said, “will you support my insanity defense?”
“The man’s a troll,” Arthur said. “No one would even question you.”
For a moment, Lexi felt some sympathy for her mother. But then she recalled her mission—Darren (her real friend; her only friend) needed to know what was going on. Lexi could stand talking to her mother to help Darren.
Dad caught Lexi staring and waved her over. “Maybe now we can finally catch some of that quality family time?” he said. “Anyone as hungry for pancakes as I am?”
He smiled at the Senator, who reached a hand out to wipe something from Lexi’s cheek. Lexi flinched away from her touch.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to pass,” the Senator said, frowning. “But you guys have fun.”
Dad grimaced. “You have to eat,” he said.
“I will,” the Senator answered.
Lexi had never known the Senator to miss breakfast. The woman was a breakfast nut—“Most important meal of the day!” was a favorite tagline.
“What’s going on in the parking garage?” Lexi asked. “And don’t say nothing because I have never heard you neg a pancake invitation before.”
The Senator dropped her hand onto Lexi’s shoulder. “Nothing you need to worry about,” she said. “Have fun at breakfast.” She kissed Lexi’s head and made for the door.
“HAVE FUN”??? A kiss on the head? I’m not a freaking child!
Dad watched the Senator as she wove her way into the herd in the hall. “Guess it’s just you and me, kiddo.”
Lexi glared at her mother—the Senator was lying through her perfectly whitened teeth. She had to find out what was really going on.
“Sorry, but Ginger asked me to meet her at Abercrombie,” she said, her tongue tripping over the lie.
Her dad’s eyes lit up. “The girl from Irvington? From last night?”
Arthur was way too excited. Like it was so unusual for Lexi to meet a friend somewhere. Like Ginger was so great.
“Have fun,” he said, too quickly. “If you need me, I’ll be in line at the Pancake Palace along with the rest of the mall.” He waved at the crowd forming in front of the restaurant down the hall.
Lexi exited the store and followed where the Senator had gone. It didn’t take long to locate her. She moved with purpose while everyone else in the crowd rambled aimlessly across the carpet. Lexi guessed her mother was the only person who had anywhere to be.
There were huge lines outside all of the restaurants, each monitored by a security guard. If the security situation was so serious, where were the real police? Why leave crowd control to the hack mall brigade?
The Senator turned down a corridor toward the exits. Lexi hid behind a mall directory and watched where her mother went. Temporary walls had been erected around a store near the end of the hall, blocking it from view. Lexi checked the map and saw that it was a PaperClips. Or had been a PaperClips. She dashed down the hallway.
There were few people in this area of the mall. Between the blocked exits and walled-off PaperClips, there was little else down this corridor but a Domestic Decor, and the only people in there were a couple of boys shooting zombies on the Xbox display. Lexi had beaten every level of that game—she could have pwned them right and proper. But she had other things on her mind.
There were no guards at the flimsy wall erected around the PaperClips. It was made from sheets of thin pressboard, the stuff Lexi had seen kids make ramps out of for their bikes, covered in white paper with the words “Guess what’s coming to Stonecliff?” printed in a stylish blue font. A door had been cut into the boards, and Lexi peered through the doorknob hole drilled into it.
The PaperClips entrance was covered over with sheets of clear plastic. When the sheets flapped, she could see her mother near the cash registers. She was talking to a short guy in a bad suit—the mall manager? Other people in uniforms (mall security and what had to be maintenance guys) moved crates of paper and boxes of pens away from the center of the room. Why were they messing with the PaperClips?I thought the security problem was in the garage . . .
Lexi pulled on the door hole. To her surprise, the door opened—there was no lock. Her mother was trying to make this overnight transformation look as inconspicuous as possible.Nothing to see here, folks! Just a complete redesign of a PaperClips in the middle of a mall crisis. Not strange at all.
Lexi slipped through the door and pulled it closed behind her. No one seemed to notice. She crept to the store entrance. When the plastic flapped, she ducked inside and hid behind a display of markers and crayons.
“So they’re sure it’s not a dirty bomb, but that’s about it?” the mall manager asked.
Lexi’s heart skipped a beat. Did he just say BOMB?!?!?!?! She held her breath so she wouldn’t miss a word.
“That’s what they’re telling me,” the Senator said. Her phone rang; she answered, then whispered to the manager, “They’re here.”
The manager followed her to the back wall of the store and through the stockroom doors.
Lexi could not get to the stockroom doors without being seen. The guards were still clearing the main floor, pushing the displays against the permanent shelving along the interior walls. She’d have to make a run for it across the open floor.
But then the doors opened and a person in a space suit—not space suit, but some creepy blue plastic hazmat suit with a giant enclosed hood—pushed a cart loaded with machines and boxes into the room. Behind him, Lexi saw that the loading dock’s door had been covered over with overlapping thick plastic strips, and beyond that was a giant tunnel of plastic. Several more hazmat-suited people walked up the tunnel and pushed through the plastic with other carts piled with machines and boxes.
Lexi ducked back behind her display. This was like some bad science fiction movie. Or the opening of that video game where you knew you were facing the zombie apocalypse when the evil government scientists showed up to quarantine the city.
“We’ll place the triage area over here,” a muffled voice said. Must be the hazmat person. Lexi froze. The voice sounded far too close for her comfort. “We’ll need another wall across there to hide the observation and diagnostic units.”
“The PaperClips representative said their insurance required someone at FEMA to sign off on all the paperwork.”Nasal whine—has to be the mall troll.
“I think we should curtain the windows.” Lexi recognized her mother’s voice. “To keep the people from panicking.”
The muffled voice laughed—at least, Lexi thought it laughed. “If you think curtains will help, we’ll bring them in.”
This was worse than the zombie apocalypse. This was actually happening.
It took Ryan an hour and a half to get through the line to go to the bathroom. By the time he reached the stall, he had composed his apology to Shay for being such a coward yesterday afternoon. All night, he had replayed their good-bye through his mind, run through various heroic scenarios in which he tackled the one cop while toppling the vending machine onto the other cop, creating an opening for her to bust out of the mall. Or he took her hand and dashed with her up the escalator and she kissed him and said he was awesome. Anything but him pretending she didn’t exist and shuffling, head down, into the PaperClips.
While constructing these scenarios, he flipped through the book Shay had given him—normally, if he read anything, he read magazines, and then mostly just the tags under the pictures, but last night was far from normal. Shay’s book was full of weird, long poems, a bunch of them love poems. Some of the love stuff was kind of, well, how else could he put it, sexy. He kept looking over his shoulder at the other people camped out in the PaperClips like he was afraid of being caught reading it, like old-timey poetry from India was the equivalent of one of Thad’s porno mags. But he couldn’t put it down.
In reading it, he felt like he was seeing a part of Shay that maybe he shouldn’t. He didn’t know her well enough to know that she had also read these poems. He wondered if she found them sexy. He wondered if she knew what Tagore was talking about when he said, “I offered you my youth’s foaming wine,” and did it mean what Ryan thought it meant?
Ryan needed to know the answers to these questions. He had to find Shay. And the first thing he needed to do when he found her was apologize for being such a loser. This Tagore guy would never have left her standing in the hallway to fend for herself. The man who had the guts to write to some girl, “I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times, in life after life, in age after age, forever” (Like you’d ever tell a girl something like that! Like she wouldn’t laugh in your face!) was not a man who’d have run away from a couple of mall cops.
Ryan decided he would check out the food court first. That was where Shay had been headed and she might not have left yet.
It was close to ten in the morning and the mall seemed strangely calm. The people who weren’t waiting to get into one of the restaurants were window-shopping or actually going into the stores to buy stuff, maybe with their gift certificates. Families were camped out in the open spaces on the first floor, and children screamed and laughed and chased each other around the benches. Ryan could almost pretend that there wasn’t some vague security situation holding them all hostage.
Figuring he should check in with his mom to let her know he’d survived the night, Ryan felt around for his phone and realized he’d left it in his jacket—which he’d left in the PaperClips. He bolted back down the corridor, turned the corner, and saw that the PaperClips was gone. It was now a plywood wall. What the hell? He’d only been gone an hour and a half.
He walked up to the wall and found that there was a door cut into it with a small hole for a doorknob. Ryan peered through the hole. The whole place was covered with plastic tarps and blue curtains. And then a woman in a hazmat suit stepped through the swinging doors from the stockroom.
“We’re going to need air samples from the affected areas.” The woman’s voice was raspy like a machine’s.
Ryan stumbled backward and landed on his butt. Why was a lady in a hazmat suit in the PaperClips? His heart raced, the ceiling pressed down—he had to get away. He loped down the hall, forgetting about his jacket, his phone, desperate to find Shay.
“Whoa!” shouted a familiar voice. “Where you running to, Jumbo Shrimp?”
The walls retreated; his pulse slowed. Ryan turned and saw two guys from the team, Mike Richter and Drew Bonner, strolling down the main hall toward him. They’d dubbed him Jumbo Shrimp when he was a frosh for being bigger than half the JV team and younger than most of them by a year. It wasn’t the greatest nickname, but Ryan was just happy to get one. Thad said that not every guy did.
Ryan held out his hand for a shoulder bump, which was how these guys said hello. “Where’d you guys get stuck last night?” he asked. He was a regular guy on the football team, not some freaked-out kid who just saw something out of a sci-fi nightmare.
Richter punched Bonner’s arm. “Bright Light here wanted to check out the chicks in Abercrombie and so we had to sleep on a pile of winter coats.”
“With a bunch of hot chicks.” Bonner mimed smacking an ass and humping it. He snatched the book from Ryan’s back pocket. “What fine reading material do we have here?”
Ryan’s pulse sped up a notch. These were not the kind of guys you discussed your lyrical soul with. “Just something I found in PaperClips,” he said, covering. “I got stuck sleeping on a stack of printer paper.”
Drew flipped through the pages. “Dude, this book looks lame.” He shoved it back at Ryan. “You might want to upgrade to something that isn’t falling apart.”
“Right,” Ryan said, shoving the book back into his pocket, saying a small prayer.
Mike threw an arm around Ryan’s shoulders. “Thad’s like a brother to me, J. Shrimp,” he said. “He would kill me if I didn’t watch your back in this place.” Mike ran his fist over Ryan’s skull. “So stick with us!”
Ryan ducked out of Mike’s attack, laughing. “All right!” he cried. “I’m sure my brother will be grateful.”
“You bet your ass he’ll be grateful.” Mike began walking again; Drew and Ryan followed.
They headed up to the Chop House on the third floor, where they got on line to grab some breakfast. Ryan fingered the two bills in his wallet: a twenty, which was for his zombie makeup, and the gift certificate, which he figured he should save for dinner. But he was hungry, and breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Then again, he’d be hungrier later. He kept going back and forth as they snaked through the line. When they finally reached the registers, Ryan didn’t order anything.
Mike gave him a stern look. “Lose any weight and I’m downgrading you to plain Shrimp,” he said.
“I’m short on cash,” Ryan mumbled, hoping he didn’t sound as lame as he felt.
Mike shoved one of his burgers at Ryan. “Thad’s going to owe me huge, I can tell.”
After the three devoured their meals, Mike and Drew leaned against the railing in the corridor.
“There’s nothing to do,” Drew grumbled. He hacked up some phlegm and spat it at the nearest trash can, missing by a foot.
“Gross, dude,” Mike said.
Drew burped. “No, that was gross,” he said. “Burger is so foul coming up.”
“We should be at practice,” Ryan said, noticing the time. It was now half past ten.
Mike kicked the glass wall. “Coach is going to go ballistic.” He stared out at the mall, then swept his hair from his face and squinted his eyes. “You guys feel like a game of touch?”
“Two on Shrimp?” Drew asked, punching Ryan in the shoulder.
“No,” Mike said, a snarky smile twisting his lips. “Three on Tarrytown’s offensive linemen.” He pointed to the first-floor fountain, where there sat four guys from the Tarrytown varsity team. Tarrytown had defeated West Nyack in a squeaker Friday night—part of the reason Ryan had come to the mall was to avoid his brother; Thad was no fun to be around after a loss.
Drew punched his fists on the metal tube of the railing. “Yes!” He lurched down the walkway toward the escalator. “Time for Jumbo Shrimp to man up.”
Ryan could not wait to man up with these two.
It took twenty minutes round trip to get to the PhreshPharm and back, and in that time, the mood had grown worse in the food court. Shay found Nani at her table—still on the same Sudoku puzzle as before lunch—and showed her the meager ration of supplies she’d gotten. For ten bucks, she’d been given a bag containing a toothbrush, tiny tube of toothpaste, travel-sized deodorant, and a bar of soap. For two dollars more, they added the “contact package”—a small bottle of contact solution and case—and told her to use it sparingly. Shay felt lucky she’d gotten there before everything was gone.
“Nani?” Shay asked.
Nani touched her hand to her neck. “My throat feels like paper,” she said, her voice gravelly. “Would you be so sweet as to get me some water?”
If Nani was asking for help, she must have felt truly terrible. Shay ran to the nearest water fountain and filled one of the cups the mall had provided. She brought it to her grandmother, who drank slowly.
“Thank you, sweet girl,” Nani said, handing her back the cup.
“I’ll get more,” Shay said. The cup trembled in her hand.
“No more,” Nani said. “I’ll have to move into the bathroom!” She smiled a weak smile, then returned to staring at the puzzle.
Shay needed to take Nani someplace more comfortable. She slipped her toiletries into her bag and began calculating what was closest. Her first problem, though, was to round up Preeti, who had left Shay’s side when they reached the edge of the food court. She’d run into the crowd of kids as if being away from her precious friends for even twenty minutes was the equivalent of a lifetime. Shay hadn’t seen her friends in months.
As Shay glanced around, she noticed a mall cop speaking to some people at a table. He had a pad of paper in his hands. The people spoke to him, then pointed toward Shay.
Shay’s blood ran cold. Why were they pointing at her?
She looked around and saw another cop at the other end of the food court also talking to some people at a table. They too pointed at Shay. No, not at Shay. At Nani.
The cops began weaving their way through the tables toward Shay. She froze—there was no way to escape them. The whole cafeteria space was open except for a few potted plants. Why were they coming toward her?
But then the guard stopped at another table and began talking to the people sitting there. Shay strained her ears. She heard the wordsickness. She heard the words acting funny. She didn’t wait to see where these next people would point.
“Nani,” Shay said, grabbing her grandmother’s arm. “We have to go.”
“Why, dear?” Nani said. But when she saw Shay’s face, she nodded and picked up her bag. She closed the Sudoku book and slipped it inside. “Where’s Preeti?”
“Let’s just move away from here.”
When Shay was sure all eyes were elsewhere, she ducked with Nani behind the planter, then wound as casually as she could manage through the tables toward the crowds of children at the Ferris wheel. Shay said a quick prayer of thanks for how short her grandmother was—she was barely taller than the kids and thus blended right in.
Shay spotted Preeti near a vending machine kiosk talking to some girls.
“We’re leaving,” Shay said.
Preeti scrunched up her face like she was going to argue, but then saw Nani and went to grab her purse. Shay scanned the mall directory. Harry’s was at the end of the hall, and there was a Domestic Decor on the first floor. Then she ran her finger over the word Grill’n’Shake.
The Grill’n’Shake was just above them and near the elevator. It had padded booths. And if they were changing locations, why not move to a place where she would have someone to talk to about all this?
Preeti trotted over to the kiosk, still struggling to get the strap of her bag over her head.
“Let’s move,” Shay said, striding into the hallway with one arm linked through Nani’s. She walked as fast as she could without dragging her grandmother outright down the tiles.
“Where are we going?” Preeti asked as she shuffled along behind Shay.
“Fine,” Preeti said, hugging her arms across her chest. “But I want to sleep in Hollister. And I get my own shake.”
After Mike the Moron left, Marco went back to his stakeout. The government must have thought everyone in the mall was an idiot—of course, they’d been right. No one except Marco seemed to have noticed the plywood walls erected overnight around the former PaperClips. Then again, no one else except the girl from the police cruiser knew about the bomb.
Marco had started his hunt for information as soon as he got a break from the breakfast rush. The plywood wall was a dead giveaway; the only question was how to spy on the place without getting caught. He employed a tried and true method he’d used as a kid to eavesdrop on his sisters. He bought a cheap baby monitor and installed the baby end under a discarded bag at the edge of the plywood wall, mic facing the crack. So far, back in the restaurant, he’d heard very little, but what little he’d heard was fascinating.
“. . . air samples within the ducts have yielded no information . . .”
“. . . if there’s anthrax, I want the cops in gloves . . .” The senator.
From this, he gleaned that (a) the government had no idea what they were dealing with and (b) they assumed it was a deadly biotoxin. Meaning everyone located where the contaminated air duct let out was royally screwed.
What People are Saying About This
"Think of the heart-racing chase of The Hunger Games, but a giant mall is your arena."Seventeen.com
"[An] engrossing . . . thriller."Kirkus Reviews
"This tense trilogy opener . . . build[s] a sense of claustrophobia and desperation."Publishers Weekly