Growing up in my rural Ohio town, the mall was our refuge. It could also be dangerous.
By Stacy Jane Grover
The mall was built in 1987, two years before the girl started working there. Mirrored trim ran the length of ceilings punctuated by pyramid skylights. Neon lights framed mirrored accents on the walls. Raised boxes of foliage dotted the checkered floors that led to the twin water fountains at the center of the mall. JCPenney, Elder Beerman, Lazarus, Sears, and Hills Department Store anchored four connecting corridors where stores such as RadioShack, Deb Shop, Spencer Gifts, KB Toys, and Waldenbooks stood. A sprawling arcade sat across from the Regal Cinemas, its neon lights casting the purple and white food court in a hazy red glow.
Despite the newness and excitement surrounding the mall, the girl’s parents didn’t like that she worked part-time inside at the Deb Shop. Even though the mall sat only a couple of miles from her home in a small Appalachian town. Even though the girl was seventeen and had her own car. The mall gave them worry. Malls were bustling with bodies, with teenage boys, with men; a girl who works in public is never a stranger to the men around her.
The physical layout of the mall only amplified her parents’ worries. The mall sits in a flat valley beside the main road through town, surrounded by cornfields, a river, railroad tracks, and a large farm. But the roads leading to the mall bordered dark wooded areas on quiet side streets that were easy to drive in and out of unnoticed. The employee parking lot––the one the girl walked out into alone after work—lay beyond the double doors of the loading dock. The department stores framing the lot were still under construction, so the parking lot lights often didn’t work after sunset.
On the night of February 2, 1989, the girl clocked out of work and walked out the double doors into the dark mall parking lot. At home, her parents and brother waited up for her watching television. The mall closed at 9 p.m., and normally she returned home by 9:30, but on that night she didn’t. Her mother called the store and the manager told them the girl left early, around 8:45 p.m. After a while, the girl’s father drove around looking for her, fearing she had been in a car accident. Her car wasn’t parked in the mall parking lot.
Around two in the morning, the family called the police. The police told the girl’s mother so many things: that it was too early to be worried, that teens took off all the time, that she’d probably return in the morning or show up at school the next day. But her best friend hadn’t seen her, and no car accidents had been reported that evening. Her parents knew that she got paid the next morning, so she wouldn’t get anywhere without money. The police thought she ran off with her boyfriend, though her boyfriend lived on an army base in Kentucky, six and a half hours away, and her family knew she wouldn’t go on a trip without telling them, not this late at night. She wouldn’t be allowed onto the army base to visit him anyway.
The police offered no answers, no help. They told the family to wait, that missing kids in the town always turned up. The family went to bed and waited to hear from her, her friends, her boyfriend, the police, anyone to tell them they’d found her. The valley slept quiet in the cold.
I grew up in the mall, playing in the back room of Shoe Sensation behind towers of boxes stacked to the ceiling, waiting for my mother to finish work. While she closed, I sat in the darkness staring at the neon rings on the back wall of the store as they cast the tile floors and dark wire racks in pastel hues. The nights my mother worked, my family had dinner together in the food court. We came to the mall occasionally for movies when we didn’t go to the dollar theater, but rarely to shop. My siblings and my clothes came from older cousins or church donations boxes. Mostly I went to the mall to dream.
I lived in the countryside of a small village seven miles from the mall. I had one close friend, Sonny, who lived a few miles away, but otherwise I only saw my many cousins who lived nearby. I walked the winding creek or through fields to their houses, or waited for them to ride over on quads, tractors, or lawnmowers. But their houses only led to other fields, other hills.
Growing up, there were doorways I feared more than others. The doorway to the loading area of the mall was one of them. Behind it lay a dark parking lot, tall grass, quiet railroad tracks. Beyond still lay the darker, hazy valley of the Hocking River. The doorway was a warning to stay in well-lit areas, always in groups, and to never go outside after dark. Outside those doors waited the tragedies so many parents imagined could happen to us, alone and unsupervised all day—drugs, kidnapping, assault, murder. In the parking lot, the local version of the urban legend went, a man lay beneath cars slashing ankles. I learned to walk around the car, looking underneath and in the backseat to ensure the faceless ankle slasher didn’t catch me.
The doorway was a cruel mirror, reflecting the door to my bedroom that let all manner of monsters through, the one to the small room in the church basement where the mean deacon’s son waited with his pants down, to so many bedrooms I didn’t want to know.
But the doorway was above all a fantasy, one I hoped would transport me away from home, from school, to other lives so unlike the one I was stuck in. The mall was an easy escape from the suffocating expanse of my rural world. When I looked up at my reflection in the mirrored ceiling trim and watched my face shift from the glow of the neon, distort around corners, disappear into skylights, I knew other worlds were possible, other selves. A space beyond the swaths of maple, sycamore, and alder that slink in waves towards the sky before falling into flat creek valleys. I saw that there was more than family, or that family can be more than abuse, more than secrecy, more than damp ground, dusty barn, and the scratch of rusty pickup bed on my back, the smell of cigarette, beer, and sweat that filled the bathwater. I could exist outside a confusing body I failed to grasp, a clumsy body that found admonishment when it stumbled over the boundaries of a failing boyhood. More than the dread of that rustic mundanity.
That fantasy kept me going back through the mall doorway week after week. Even though I knew what lay behind it. Even though I knew what happened to that girl so many years ago—the girl in the mall who walked out that doorway and was left to die alone, wet and cold in the half-frozen river just beyond the tall grass at the edge of the dark parking lot.
The morning after the girl didn’t return home from her shift at the mall, a man found a burned-out car along the railroad tracks while walking his dog. The flames had burned so hot the color and interior had disintegrated completely. The police found footprints leading down to the water, trampled weeds. From a barely visible license plate, they determined the car belonged to the missing girl. The police finally agreed that she disappeared under suspicious circumstances and called the FBI. They carried out the largest ground and air search in the county’s history.
The police wondered if the girl had been kidnapped for ransom, because her father worked as the Vice President of a local bank. The police and FBI camped in her house, tapped the phones, and waited. They interviewed the girl’s family and her close friends, and through these interviews they came to suspect the boyfriend they could not reach. While waiting for the ransom call, the boyfriend showed up to the house. He had weekend leave from the Army base and wanted to take her out. He did not know the girl had disappeared. He said that, on the night of her disappearance, he was on the army base in Kentucky with his friends playing cards. The police viewed him as the main suspect. No ransom calls ever came.
Two days after the girl went missing, on a cold Sunday evening, just after dark, FBI agents found her body among some debris in the half-frozen banks of the Hocking River, not far from her burned out car, in the area they had already searched. The family planned the funeral. Hoping to capture a confession, the police put a tape recorder in the girl’s casket. It recorded only sorrow.
In the weeks following the girl’s death, the police drove the six and a half hours to the army base in Kentucky to investigate the boyfriend’s story. The police verified he signed in for attendance that morning and the other men confirmed he never left the base. The army tested his DNA and cleared him as a suspect.
Reports came in from across the county of a cross-dressing man in the mall doing nefarious deeds. Men camped out in the mall to protect children from evil men. People from town reported their neighbors, random strangers, people who seemed odd. A mystery ankle slasher waited under cars in the parking lot of the mall. A psychic called in to tell the police what she had seen. An occult specialist reported his findings. The information led nowhere.
As teens, my best friend Sonny and I found rides to the mall from neighbors or older teens whenever we could. We spent money we gathered at the arcade and on food and cheap used video games. We snuck into movies and went to Waldenbooks to read entire book chapters until the employees caught on and scolded us. When we tired of the mall, we walked up the hill to the comic shop. We spent whole afternoons this way, a change of routine to our home life.
We lived two miles apart and we spent our time walking the creek bed of the steep hillside behind my house, or over the little wooden bridge to the thick woods behind his. We made shelters out of branches and tarps and leaves and left out locked coolers of snacks, candles, and flashlights in the woods. Our classmates saw us as odd, and our constant togetherness only compounded this view. But at the mall we didn’t wear that label.
The mall got us out of damp basements, stuffy small bedrooms, the swampy summer heat and scratch of forest. We met new friends in the arcade and the video game store, friends who lived in town and walked to the mall, who seemed to know everything we wanted to and taught us. The mall provided comfort and relative safety. The mall regulars—the bingo players, the mall walkers, the church groups—watched out for us. They slipped us money for food or drinks if we sat with them and listened to their stories.
Sonny and I spent most Friday and Saturday nights at the mall with our new group, a family so unlike the ones we were born into. We met them at the trailer park at the end of the five-mile stretch of the road I lived on. The trailer park bordered a farm that bordered the mall. The old man who lived there let us walk across his field. He left his light on, and when he could he sat on his porch at night to ensure everyone crossed safely. At the mall we sat in the food court or stood outside of the movie theater where groups of teens piled on the sidewalk and filled the parking lot, talking, smoking, passing around booze.
The mall made a place for our power, our transformation, a salve for our loneliness. Together we formed a coven of powerful beings in a world where the real bodies we inhabited were so often stripped of power. We were witches and vampires, amorphous beings without names. Our real bodies held scars, injuries, so much mental weight, but the magic we performed together rejuvenated us.
My friends brought me dresses to wear that I changed into in the bathrooms. They helped me with my hair and makeup. I said I was a girl and they treated me as one. Sonny’s infectious smile attracted boys he kissed without shame behind the trees outside. We knew the truth of our histories and homes and what they did to us, but we didn’t have to say what so many teachers and counselors wanted us to—that we had abusive parents, abusive family members, drunken family members, families that neglected us. The silent acknowledgement sufficed. We bonded over the music and art which spoke our hurt into existence. During our evenings at the mall, we practiced an imaginative present we hoped to enact in a future that felt ever out of reach.
The fatalism of the goth subculture we shared, the death fascination and ideation, sometimes manifested in the very real wish to die, but mostly in a psychic dread. A decade of our lives had been shaped by the constant discourse around kidnappers, killers, satanic panic, stranger danger, endless wars, crime in cities, the rural way of life decaying, factory jobs dying, our old downtown blighted, farms and land lost, houses foreclosed on, the Gulf coast underwater, flooded with oil, wildfires out West. All that our parents had, what so many in town clung to, crumbled. Catastrophe lurked beyond the hills and rolled into our bucolic valley. The death talk, the decay, the darkness, the bleakness, were manifestations of all we felt but only vaguely had language for.
We found a fleeting comfort and safety in the mall. We weren’t safe there, not really—and not alone, just as we weren’t at home. Our stories hung over us. The girl’s story hung over us, whispered from mall security, parents, mall walkers, and bingo players, those the mall took care of because the city didn’t. They told us: stay in pairs, don’t go outside alone, don’t talk to strangers, keep change for pay phones, stay on the main roads if you do walk, don’t take the railroad tracks by the river. But we took the railroad tracks, we walked through fields and through yards and in all sorts of unlit places. The rides we found home led nowhere but field and hill and hollow. Surrounded by the unlikelihood of our escape, the mall made a home for the hurt we hid under so much black.
On a quiet evening in March, 2006, a hooded man attacked a woman working at a tanning salon just a mile from the mall. The woman escaped to safety. The hooded man fled into the woods behind the store, but left blood and fingerprints behind. His DNA matched that recovered from the girl’s body seventeen years earlier.
That year I turned sixteen and moved in with my girlfriend, whom I met at the mall. I worked at Spencer Gifts, one of the original stores, just across the hall from the Deb shop where the girl worked, and at the ice cream shop and a seasonal kiosk. I wanted to escape my home, to save up enough money to travel with Sonny—our shared dream, to see major cities, to stay with his family in Gallup, New Mexico, and to travel abroad to France. I thought I could work myself out of feeling stuck, that moving into a house in town would be a step in the direction of moving out of the region altogether.
The mall took on the stress of work, staining the time our group spent together. The rules for employees, the unspoken taboo of visiting off the clock, the fear of seeing our bosses outside of work all made the mall feel constrained. At the same time, our home lives seeped in. A girl from our group got pregnant at sixteen. Her boyfriend found multiple jobs away from town to support her and the coming baby. Eventually, they disappeared from the mall altogether.
The future closed in around us. The safety and comfort of the mall faded. At night, we were surrounded by customers who often disliked us, who saw us on predictable schedules, who came to know our routines. I stopped wearing dresses and telling people I was a girl. And night after night, at 9:30 p.m., I walked outside to my car in that dark parking lot, listened to the silence, the rush of the river punctuated by the occasional passing car, the train running over the tracks. I looked around, saw no one, and wondered if history would repeat itself, if someone wouldn’t make it home on time, if the town would trap another future between its sandstone cliffs.
Later that year, the hooded man broke into a metal shop near the mall. The police arrested him, and the next spring the court sentenced him to jail for six months. That fall, the day he was released from prison, the FBI informed the local police that his DNA matched that found at the tanning salon and on the murdered girl. The faceless ankle slasher, the cross-dressing monster, the man who killed the girl who had a clown collection and a cat named Mittens, gained a face.
The police arrested the man in his home, asleep with his family, on the street where someone found the girl’s wallet, a street not far from the mall. He lived and worked in town. His children attended the city school. He had a drug and alcohol addiction. He was a father like so many I knew. The police jailed him for the tanning salon attack, and, the day after my eighteenth birthday, the police charged him with the murder of the girl in 1989.
I graduated high school as the recession forced so many out of their homes. Jobs in town disappeared rapidly. Businesses closed. Factories shut down. The old farmer who left his light on and waved as we walked through his field sold his land to Walmart, which built a giant complex with strip malls and restaurants on the land. The corporation put up a fence and a man-made pond, cutting off access to the trailer park.
Our social world shrunk with our physical one. The police arrested a boy in our group for assault while dealing drugs. The court sent him to a detention center until he turned twenty-one. The distance between us and them—the them in the town we didn’t want to turn into—shrunk.
We stayed stuck, stayed working. We learned why so many people stayed there, unable to pass on what they once had, and how the town and so many families fractured, Our year of freedom turns into a year of hurting. Another summer of working turned to autumn, to driving an hour each morning to a rural technical college in the mornings for a degree that wouldn’t take me anywhere but deeper into the swallowing hills.
January, 2009, my nineteenth birthday and the day of a solar eclipse, the court sentenced the man who murdered the girl. To avoid going through a lengthy trial and being subjected to testimony and crime scene photos, the girl’s family asked if the man could pled to a lesser charge under the condition that he told the family what happened that night in 1989. He said he took drugs and assaulted her but that he didn’t intend to kill her.
That fall, my girlfriend moved to a different state so she could attend college, and, looking for a fresh start, I moved with her. I’d lived with her for three years, trapped with her drug and alcohol addiction, her physical outbursts, her mental abuse. But I found no change, only separation from my friends and family and anything I once clung to. I sat alone, embarrassed, knowing that we had become of the couples we saw fighting at the mall, the ones we swore we’d never become. After a year, I lost my job, and I didn’t try to find another one. I moved back to that town and to my job at the mall.
The town changed. I changed. I worked at the mall into my twenties, through that toxic relationship. The recession wore on year after year, and more business and factories closed. The mall corporation renovated it, hoping to recover, but it only closed more businesses. I watched the groups of teens lessen. Mall security regularly threw them out and broke up the dwindling crowds outside the movie theater. We kicked them out, too, not letting them wander our stores like we once did. They became a source of resentment because they didn’t shop, or because they were the only people we’d see regularly. I took on my role as an antagonizing adult, like the ones I despised as a teen. I wanted them to have what I had, but I wanted to protect my job more—my little slice of small-town cutthroat neighborliness.
Sonny’s roommate, K, one of our mall friends, died in a car accident. Sonny moved to the trailer park on the edge of town, just off the highway next to the mall, in a plot next to his two sisters. He worked at the gas station across the street, caring for his nieces and nephews. His grandmother moved in. I saw him occasionally when I can got off work to help him watch the children. We planned K’s funeral, and while we were sitting in the front row by her casket, we vowed one last time to leave the town, with its stupid mountains and valleys that trapped everyone and everything within them.
We changed our lives. I left my abusive girlfriend after seven years together. Sonny enrolled in college, took fewer shifts at work, and stopped watching the kids as often. I began college in the big city thirty-five miles away. I met a woman at work and we moved to the city together. I told her I was a girl and she treated me like one. We started building a future together.
Then, a week after my twenty-fourth birthday, Sonny died of a heart attack, alone in the trailer park bordering the Walmart. That summer, after eight years, I get fired from my job at the mall. I took hormones and changed my name. I graduated college. I found and lost jobs for being transgender. I got harassed and assaulted. Eventually, I holed up at home and hid from a world too full of the power to erase me and everyone I know. I watched the stigma of my home, body, and region grow over everything I did.
Not long ago, I revisited the mall on a quiet evening. The squeak and rattle of cleaning carts moving about echoed through the half-shuttered food court. The doorway to the loading area opened occasionally to reveal faded white lines on crumbling pavement, overgrown grass. The evening air flooded in, filling the dim fluorescence of the empty corridors. All that remained were memories of people I could only reanimate through stories: Sonny, our friends, the girl in the mall.
Telling stories of crime and trauma supposedly serves a purpose. If I study the details and the patterns of crime, I can better protect myself from it. I can share this information with others so they can protect themselves, too. If we share our traumatic experiences, we can bond over them and begin to heal. Engaging with the story may offer relief from the dread of knowing that chance and circumstance are often all that separate me from becoming the victim of the story. In a world where I lack control, I can gain a sense of safety from surviving the terrible events of the story when the subject might not—a crude exposure therapy.
But the truth is that chance and circumstance are also often all that separate those who engage with these stories from becoming the perpetrators of them. Many of my friends dealt and used drugs. Some of them went to jail. I loved a woman who drank and used drugs, who claimed to not remember the violence she inflicted on me. We all had bad childhoods filled with loneliness, rage, and hurt. Many of us lashed out in violence towards ourselves and others, while many of us did not. Some of us never got the chance.
I don’t find comfort or safety after telling any of our stories, especially when the people I shared the experiences with were taken from me. I’m angry and hurt that I’m left here to remember, to sit with the darker truth of stories of crime and trauma, one that isn’t comforting to talk about because it shatters the illusion of safety. We weren’t the products of evil, drugs, small-town myopia, or even poverty, but of a system that marks some people and places as erasable, a system that needs victims so it can have perpetrators to sustain and justify itself. Knowing the details of our stories doesn’t make what lies behind this doorway safe. It never did.
The gates of empty stores closed, and I left the mall, the river’s edge, the town. Where do the teens gather now? Do they still walk alone through the woods and along the railroad tracks searching for escape? I wish they could have been teens with me, that they could’ve had a space like the mall to hold their hurt. But I also wish that the town and the people in it will hold them so they don’t need a reprieve from their daily lives. I hope they never have to visit a mall. I wish none of us ever had. ■
Stacy Jane Grover is the author of Tar Hollow Trans: Reflections on Identity and Culture in Appalachia, forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky. Her essays appear in Bitch Media, Entropy Magazine, and in book anthologies from Belt Publishing. Find her at www.stacyjanegrover.com and @stacyjanegrover on Twitter.
Cover photo by Dan Keck (public domain).
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