Shades sat at a table in the corner, waiting. Not only did the man agree to meet him when he finished up with the next couple customers, but something in his manner he had found reassuring. As if, not only did he sense what Shades wanted to talk about, but that he had also been invited into this kind of conversation before. Just the term “Boss DJ” felt comforting, somehow. Still, after all he had been through, he couldn’t help but worry that he had made a mistake.
When DJ returned a couple minutes later, alone, it did much to allay Shades’ fears.
“Now tell me,” he asked, taking a seat across from the stranger who had asked to speak with him, “what is dis all about?”
“I… I don’t know exactly how to put this…” Shades told him, just as earnestly. In spite of everything he had seen, he could still think of no sane- or rational-sounding way to ask what he wanted to know. Yet, with every passing second, he felt more certain that this guy knew what he was talking about. Fresh out of bright ideas, he went for the direct approach. “Do you know anything about a curse around here?”
“Dere are rumors. Who wants to know?”
“I do,” Shades replied, taken aback by the question. Then he realized that he hadn’t even introduced himself yet. “Shades MacLean.”
“DJ Rashid,” he said, “but around here I’m da Boss DJ.” He looked around for a moment, as if, Shades got the impression, making sure they weren’t being overheard. “If you know as much as you already do, den you know you’re in big trouble.”
“So it’s true, isn’t it.”
“Yeah,” DJ replied. With a look of sorrow, as if he already had some idea what might have happened, he asked, “So, how did you find out?”
“A repairman told me…” was as far as Shades got as he hung his head, sighing and shuddering.
“I see.” DJ paused for a moment, then said, “And you’ve already tried to escape.”
Not a question.
“Yeah,” Shades confirmed.
“Den you’re really in trouble,” DJ told him, “because I know no way out.”
“But… there was a way in…”
“I don’t undastand, either,” DJ admitted, shrugging shoulders that seemed to bear the weight of the world in that moment, “and I’ve been here for years.”
Again, Shades tried to crunch those numbers, but it just wouldn’t compute, it was still just so unreal to him.
“I’ve seen people come and go,” DJ continued, “but only dose who break da three taboos get trapped here. Most of dem end up working for da Management, and I don’t know what happens to all of dem.”
“I’m guessing it would be a bad idea to complain to the Management, then.”
“Like I said, I don’t know where dey go, but I neva see dem again. I don’t know what de Management does with dem, but dey don’t like people talking about it. Bad for business, ya know.”
“What did I do, DJ?”
“Da reason why some can come and go, and why some get trapped in dis nightmare, it took me a long time to figure it out,” DJ explained. “Dere are three things you have to do to get trapped in here, da three taboos: Don’t eat da food. Don’t drink da water. Don’t buy anything. You can get away with doing one or two of dese things, but do all three, and you’re done. Dere might also be a time limit, but I can’t be sure about dat. All I know for sure is dose three things.”
“Then why are you telling me this?”
“I’m not with de establishment,” DJ told him. “I don’t know any more about what dis place is dan anyone else I’ve met, but I can give you some advice, mon. Take dis to heart:
“Don’t sign anything!
“Don’t take money from dem no matter what!
“Don’t let Security get you! No one dey’ve taken has ever been seen again.”
Shades sat there for a long moment, just thinking about how close he had come to falling into that last trap earlier. Finally, he asked, “Where the hell am I? How did I get here? One minute, I’m on my way home from work, being chased by hitchhikers… then that black van… then something happened, and suddenly there’s this weird mall out in the woods…”
DJ sat there for an equally long moment, then answered, “Dis could take a while.”
“In that case,” Shades said, realizing belatedly one possibility of his current setting; chilled, hungry, thirsty, and getting drowsier by the minute, “have you got anything to eat around here?”
“We have sandwiches.”
“Ah. Then I’d like a chicken sandwich, please. Plain.” Blinking away at the bleariness in his eyes, he added, “Do you guys have Jolt here? Double or Triple, by any chance?”
DJ cocked his head at Shades for a moment, then said, “Never heard of it. Besides, de Management doesn’t allow anyone to sell alcohol at de mall.”
“Oh, no, it’s an energy drink…” That one threw him off. “Um… do you have anything with lots of caffeine? Besides coffee, anyway?”
“Well, we have Cam’s Cola Jammers.”
“Yeah,” having no idea what the hell Cam’s Cola was, “that’ll work. Thanks, Deej.”
After DJ left, Shades sat there, trying not to slouch or let his eyes droop shut. In spite of his perilous situation, sitting down had nearly put him to sleep. He knew he would need some rest soon if his mind was going to function, but for now he needed to remain as awake and alert as possible.
He was starting to doze off in spite of himself by the time DJ returned. The thought of food, though, after some twelve hours without a meal, was enough to wake him up again as he tore into his sandwich. He wasn’t sure about this Jammers business, but it turned out to be the best-tasting cola he’d ever had. Either that, or perhaps thirst really was the best flavor.
Whichever was the case, the Jammer kept him awake while DJ gave an explanation of other dimensions not unlike the one a young man in another dimension would soon be receiving from a certain librarian. Some of it was surprisingly similar to ideas he had once read about that were largely passed off as mere conjecture. All those books he had read about the Unknown, and now he felt as if he had wandered into one of those tales.
I just took a wrong turn on the way home from work last night…
Though the mysterious drink had sugar and caffeine to spare, eating was perhaps a bad idea. He was able to take in most of DJ’s theories, as well as his repeated warnings about letting any of the servants of the Management get him, but later he would barely remember anything of the directions his host had scrawled on a napkin, directing him to a safe place to close his eyes.
Tomorrow’s gonna be a long day…