The young people of Fort Mayhill were enjoying a lively snowball fight, cheering, chasing each other, and screaming, until they caught sight of the wayfarers wandering through their midst. The kids and young adults stopped and stared wordlessly at the visitors.
“Hello.” Enoa smiled at the kids. They did not reply, although two smaller children ran back toward the maze of buildings, where presumably parents were waiting. The rest halted their game and stared until she and Orson were well past them.
They encountered similar treatment for the rest of their brief trek across the former parking lot. A great mound of snow had been raised for the benefit of sledders and some disappointed-looking skiers. These townspeople also stopped at Orson and Enoa’s approach.
“Have you been here since the shutdown?” Enoa’s feeling of excited surrealism wavered somewhat, the further they walked from the Aesir. She didn’t know what was worse, the demeanor of the Mayhill residents or the thought of what had caused them to be so wary of strangers.
“Yeah, it’s not that long.” Orson shrugged. “Years, but probably only a couple? Maybe they’ll be nicer when we put a little cash in their economy.” They drew close to what had formerly been the Savings Spot department store, a warehouse-size building with all official signage removed. The regional store chain had either gone out of business or been replaced. A new sign sat beside the still-automatic doors to the sprawling building. Here the title ‘Mayhill Market’, as well as the names of most local businesses, had been painted.
“This is the place?” Enoa looked into the former department store. Most of the interior looked empty, but she could see it was divided into multiple sections with cinderblock walls.
“It is.” Orson tapped at the Moonlight Most Buffet’s name on the sign. “I guess we’ll see how much is still the same.”
“We will.” Enoa followed him through the automatic doors into the mostly empty building. Once inside, she could see each of the walled sections contained a local business, all housed under one roof.
“There it is.” Orson looked toward the far back wall of the former department store. Enoa followed his gaze and saw that entire corner of the building was walled off. This area was marked with a bright green electronic sign.
“Are you sure?” She asked. “How can you read it from this distance?”
“I can’t, but it looks like the same Hauler Supply sign from the old location. They had billboards for a hundred miles around, too, and they were all that same color green. Now we just need to find the food.” Orson led her deeper into the building. They passed half a dozen businesses. Enoa spotted a clothing store, a home goods retailer, a barber shop, a veterinarian/pet groomer, and more, further away, that she could not identify. Most of these were dark and closed down, metal barricades blocking their entrances. Other than a cluster of bored teens lounging outside the clothing store, they saw no other shoppers.
The subsidiary outlets, the outside businesses that once leased space in the old Savings Spot were occupied by local operations. They passed Judy’s Beauty Hair Salon, Mayhill Eye Center, Mayhill Bank, and Harold’s Hoagies.
“All the franchise businesses are closed,” Orson said. “Savings Spot had what, three thousand locations in the country? I wonder if they’re all like this now, just… gone.”
“My family never shopped at places like this,” Enoa said. “We always went to local stores, but it’s pretty eerie. This is the first time I felt how much everything’s changed.”
They found the Moonlight Most buffet in the space once occupied by the Savings Spot’s deli. The deli area’s seating and display cases had been repurposed for the new owner.
Orson and Enoa arrived at what was once an inventory cart, used by the Savings Spot employees to stock shelves. The cart now served as a small podium for the buffet’s hostess, a short woman in a bright pink sweater. A piece of three-hole punch copy paper was taped to the cart – ‘Moonlight Most Buffet! All You Can Eat for $11.99! Please pay in advance’.
“Two?” she asked them.
“That’s right,” Orson reached into an inner coat pocket and drew out his wallet. Enoa reached for her change purse, as well, but Orson noticed her motion and wordlessly shook his head in her direction. “I can’t head into the Heartland and not stop by the Moonlight Most.”
“That’s so nice to hear.” The woman beamed at him. “We don’t get too many returning customers, not counting our local regulars. We haven’t for quite a while.”
“Well, it’s been a while since I’ve come this way,” he said. “Actually, if you don’t mind my asking…” He lowered his voice. “What happened here? Greenwell was doing really well the last time I’d been through. Now, you’re doing the whole fort deal.”
“Oh, it’s not nearly safe enough, down in Greenwell.” She frowned. “We need to stay up here now. High ground is safer!” She gave him another chipper grin, but this one didn’t reach her eyes.
“I used to talk to the owner here, what was her name, Susan?” Orson rested his hand on the hostess cart. “Her husband was Jack?”
“Retired.” The hostess nodded. “Couple years ago, now.”
“If you see them,” Orson said, “please let them know that Orson Gregory from the Inn at the Evergreen Forest stopped by and said hello.”
“We don’t see them,” the hostess replied. “They aren’t… They’re not local anymore. Anyway, two adults for the buffet costs twenty-three ninety-eight.”
Orson drew the necessary coins and handed them to the hostess. “Keep the change.”
“Thank you.” She made an odd motion, like she considered curtseying, but thought better of it. “Feel free to seat and serve yourselves, and remember, we close at ten.”
“Sounds good.” Orson pocketed his wallet and walked around the cart and into the former deli.
“What is going on here?” Enoa walked extra quickly to keep up with Orson. “Seriously, this place is like an over-the-top campfire story.” She turned back to the hostess and found that the other woman was staring after them. Enoa tried to summon a quick, friendly smile, but was too surprised and instead looked more like she’d just bit into a lemon.
“Yeah I hear you,” he whispered. “The cook will walk in from the back and he’ll be wearing a hockey mask and have a hook for a hand.” He walked to the end of one of the first display cases and took a plate. “But honestly, I don’t care how odd it is, as long as they’ve still got those amazing pancakes.”
They did not. No amazing buttermilk pancakes. No vegan pancakes. No pancakes. No syrup either. The nationally notable collection of fifty syrup pitchers was nowhere to be found. The entire buffet took up only two of the former deli’s display cases and was mostly made up of standard truck stop fare, greasy pizza, overcooked pasta, burgers, fries, and a salad bar with greens that had seen better days.
Enoa never thought of Nimauk as an oasis of peace and normalcy, but she considered the idea that she should have. This town had inarguably fallen far from Orson’s earlier encounters. He looked truly miserable with his shoulders slumped and his eyes downcast.
One of the three pizzas was marked ‘vegan and gluten-free’. It was entirely untouched. Enoa took two slices and made a salad out of the wilted leaves, with onion. There were no tomatoes, but she did find a package of croutons. She didn’t have an easy time dishing her food while still clutching the metal staff, but she figured this was just something she’d need to get used to. She certainly wasn’t about to leave her one and only magical weapon sitting undefended at a table in some surrealist buffet.
Orson also constructed a salad, though he spent far more time picking through the old lettuce, as well as a cheeseburger and some of the less greasy french fries.
Drinks offered the same limited selection. A massive soda and juice dispenser lined the far end of the former deli counter. There were dozens of soda flavors, iced teas, lemonades, even sparkling water, an unbelievable selection. All but three flavors were marked out of order. Only grape soda, peach tea, and plain water remained. The icemaker was similarly broken.
Enoa filled a glass of water for herself. She eyed the available tables and saw one that faced both the entrance to the deli area and the kitchen door. Orson was still deciding between the iced tea and soda so she walked to the table without him.
Enoa was pleasantly surprised by the flavor of both the pizza and the salad’s vinaigrette dressing. The substitute cheese coated her teeth in ways that challenged her patience and her table manners, but for her first meal of the adventure, she had no real complaints. Orson looked just as crestfallen when he joined her.
“If these folks hit hard times,” he whispered. “I shouldn’t be rude about that. It’s tough, right now. Most people can’t fly off to greener pastures whenever trouble rolls through town.”
“I’m less worried about their food than I am the weird attitude.” Enoa looked for the hostess and couldn’t find the woman. “You asked what happened here, and she didn’t answer you. Something major had to convince them to relocate. You don’t just do that, set up all those trailers, the cinderblock walls. And the bit with the owners, ‘they’re not local’.” She shuddered. “Just so off.”
“I know.” He bit into his burger. “Let’s just eat, grab supplies and get out of here. I thought before about just paying them for overnight parking, if they’d have us.”
“No.” Enoa set her fork down. “I’ll learn to pilot the Aesir before we do that.”
“Don’t worry.” He laughed. “That’s not on the table. We’ll find a forested grove or some hillside outcropping. It’ll be somewhere you can’t reach by roads, and we’ll be safe there until we plan our next move.”
“The next move is to your financial manager person?” Enoa knew many banks no longer existed and felt both concerned and confused by the prospects of managing her own money in the current world.
“That’s right,” he said. “Pops Darlow. He’s an unusual guy too, but I think you’ll like him, well enough. He’ll be more normal than this, anyway. He owns a huge collection of old kitschy tourist traps, all over the country, and when we first met, he was based out of this giant ice palace in central Kansas.”
“An ice palace?” Enoa asked. “I’m guessing it was a cold winter, that year.”
“It wasn’t winter at all.” He laughed. “You’ve never seen a business blow through more money than they did. It was all to house the world’s largest snowman, and they were trying to make it a permanent tourist attraction, even in the middle of July…”
Orson launched into a long rambling explanation about the giant snowman. After how oversold Greenwell/Mayhill had been, Enoa wasn’t entirely sure how much of the story she took literally, but Orson was animated enough, that the odd, prolonged narrative got them through the rest of their meal, as well as most of the supply run.
There was a small health food section at the very back of the grocery store, where Enoa found ingredients for her own vegan pancakes, as well as enough other staples like tofu, potatoes, yeast, and soy milk. The soy milk and tofu were past their sell-by dates, but still usable. She felt more than prepared for the journey to New Mexico. Orson, for his part, managed to buy small bottles of some syrup flavors he’d missed from the buffet, blueberry, apricot, and pomegranate, all in hand-lettered jars, plus an entire tray of the local sticky buns.
The clerks at these stalls presented the same wary, paranoid demeanor as the buffet hostess, but she found them easier to ignore with their meal behind them and Orson animatedly telling his wacky adventure story.
“And so Doctor Lopez says to me,” Orson laughed. “But I wanted boysenberry.” He readjusted the bags that he carried. Enoa tried to do the same and again struggled with carrying the staff with her hands full. “You need a holster or something for that.”
“What, like you have with your…” She saw the ice cream cart worker watching them as they passed and decided against saying ‘sword’. “Yeah, that’d probably be useful. Something else to think about. What else do we need?”
“I need to head to Hauler Supply.” Orson held a tiny scrap of paper, loaded in his untidy handwriting. “I think then we’ll be good to go.”
“Great.” Enoa caught the ice cream cart clerk staring at them, and she hurried after Orson. “How much do you need to get?”
“Not too much that I absolutely need now.” He entered the Hauler Supply. “So it depends how much time we want to spend here.”
Enoa tried to resist the urge to turn back, but she couldn’t ignore the truth that they were being watched.
“I hate how they look at us,” she said.
“Maybe they just don’t have security cameras anymore.” Orson reached a display of various RV plumbing supplies. He leaned closer and began reading labels. “Or they’re super creepy and plan on abducting us.”
“That’s not funny.” She grimaced. “The way they’re acting, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“I have my blaster,” he reminded her. “And most of my nonlethal weapons are in this coat. We won’t be here long.”
“What nonlethal weapons do you have?” Enoa hadn’t seen him pack any sort of weapons into the coat. Did he keep it stocked all the time?
“I have a Colchean man trap,” he said. “And my zapper pins, my kazoo, and my mobile stink set.”
“I have no idea what any of that is.”
“Hopefully, it stays that way.” Orson selected one of the lengths of pipe. “Alright, got it. I’ll buy the rest of the stuff from Pops and his people. This should be enough for now.” He led her back to the Hauler Supply checkout counter, where they were greeted by a slim man wearing a vest the same green as the signage. This vest had a name embroidered on the left breast, ‘Chuck’.
“Good evening,” Chuck said. “Just this?” Orson set the pipe on the counter before him. Chuck pressed a few keys on the adding machine next to his cash register.
“Yeah, that’s all.” Orson adjusted the bags in his arms.
“That’ll be one hundred and seven, seventy-five.” Chuck pressed his hands on his side of the counter palms down, three of his fingers on top of the length of pipe.
“One-oh-seven?” Orson nodded and drew out his wallet. He removed the remainder of the coins and drew out two crumpled twenty-dollar bills, as well.
“Uh, what do you think you’re doing?” Chuck pointed to one of the bills in particular.
“Paying you?” Orson counted the money before arranging it on the counter beside the pipe.
“Not with these.” Chuck slid the two bills back toward Orson.
“They’re twenty dollar bills.” Orson did not pick up the bills. “It’s not like I’m trying to pay you in foreign currency.”
“We haven’t accepted old U.S. bills in three years,” Chuck said
“Do you have forty dollars in coins?” Orson turned to Enoa. “I’ll pay you back when I can get some of my paper money converted.”
“I can’t imagine who would convert paper money today,” Chuck commented. “Good luck with that.”
“Forty?” Enoa asked. “No. Although I guess I also need to find a way to convert my own paper money.” She felt another wave of paranoia. Whether malicious or not, she felt eyes on her. She looked around them and, other than the increasingly annoyed Hauler clerk, there was no one to be seen.
Enoa caught sight of a small vestibule, built into the old department store, where were restrooms and water fountains. She wasn’t drinking nearly enough water and had only that single glass since they’d flown off from Nimauk, now hours earlier.
“Where were you two that you still have paper money?” Chuck crossed his arms. “I find it really hard to believe that anybody, after all these years would have most of their money in U.S. paper.”
“I live in Nimauk, a few hours east of here,” Enoa said. “We just had our Wintertide Festival that drew people from all over the world, and we still accept U.S. paper money. I accept U.S. paper money at my shop.”
“We don’t sell five dollar tourist stuff here.” Chucked looked her up and down. His eyes lingered on her cloak and he snickered.
“Why would you assume I sell cheap garbage?” Enoa’s alarm at Mayhill’s attitude turned into a quick anger. The fire in her home was too recent to accept his thoughtless judgment. “I have a sixty-year-old antique shop. I…” Chuck laughed again.
“Don’t worry about Chucky, here.” Orson curled one side of his mouth into a smirk. He kept his eyes on the man. “Squatters in cinderblock forts aren’t known for their expertise in historical items.”
“Squatters…” Chuck tightened his grip on the replacement pipe. His eyes widened.
“How do you pay for things here?” Orson spoke just loudly enough to cut off any comment from the clerk. “Is everything done with silver and gold? Or do you have a new card system I don’t know about.”
“Old metal currency is still good,” Chuck answered after a deep breath. “We accept new paper bills from the Northeast Alliance and the Great Lakes Alliance and some localized currencies, too. We’re also part of the Midland Barter Network. You don’t have an account with them, do you?”
“My employer might.” Orson drummed his fingers on the counter. “You don’t happen to have a working landline phone do you? I might be able to get out a call…”
“And how do you intend to pay for that call?” Chuck interrupted.
“Excuse me.” Enoa couldn’t stand still for one more second. Her skin was almost crawling. A sudden claustrophobia settled over her. She felt short of breath. “Does your water fountain still work?”
“Uh.” Chuck looked at her and then back to the vestibule. “It does.”
“Does it cost anything?” she asked.
“No,” Chuck said. “But don’t go nuts with it.”
“I’ll be back in a minute,” she told Orson. He said something about making a call, but she’d already left. She resisted the urge to look left and right as she exited the cinder blocked archway that marked the Mayhill Hauler Supply exit. She didn’t want to see whether she was being watched. Her mind conjured images of whole crowds of the local fort-dwellers lurking out of sight, waiting for them to separate. She turned back and made sure Orson was still in sight. She could see him, and he would see her, if something should happen.
Enoa set down her bags and propped her staff against the wall. She angled herself so her back wasn’t exposed to either of the closed restroom doors. She needed the bathroom, herself, but that could wait until she was back aboard the Aesir. The fountain water was clear and cold, and for the brief seconds she drank, her worries left her.
Light hit her eyes from the adjacent window. These lights moved, headlights probably. She checked her watch and found that it was now almost 10:00 PM. Didn’t all of Mayhill Market close at ten? She doubted there would be many new shoppers; maybe an employee leaving? Were employees all Fort natives? Did locals bother driving to and from work?
There was a figure, standing in the snow in the small lot to the rear of the department store. The figure was small and wearing a bright pink sweater. There was a vehicle approaching the figure, a Humvee.
Enoa recognized the hostess from the buffet. The Humvee parked beside the woman. Two armed and armored shapes exited out onto the snowy hilltop. The two troopers wore Liberty Corps armor.