The service plaza was a largely abandoned stretch of buildings running parallel to a curve on the turnpike. Boards criss-crossed over the gas-station windows, and most of the pumps were smashed. Bryce eased the car past former restaurants and shops with broken windows, their lights all out. The haunted stillness of the place cast a gloom over them all. Kai was the first to disturb the quiet. "Birds!" she cried.
Eddie turned and followed her gaze. Above them, a cloud of huge bats soared, darting back and forth, chittering in a wild chorus. Kai laughed and raised her arms, her hands pumping into little fists. "Birds!"
"No, they're not birds, they're..." Eddie fumbled for the right word in Kai's language. He settled for the English word. "Bats."
To his alarm, one bat zigzagged down from its colony, swooped once and landed on the back of the seat behind the drink cooler.
"Oh, shit," Bryce exclaimed, slamming on the brakes. He spun around.
The bat was the size of a dog with a face to match—long muzzle like a fruit bat, big eyes, but with pointed bat ears. Kai squealed with delight. "Dog-bird," she cheered. Vatta-swahn. She reached for the creature, which leaned forward to gaze down at the little girl.
"No," Bryce shouted. He lunged back and swatted at the creature. The bat reared back and chittered at him, then leapt and flapped away.
Kai looked crestfallen. She turned to Bryce. "Vatta-swahn."
"Yeah, that vatta-swahn was about to carry you off, little girl."
"It might have been dangerous," Eddie added, speaking the girl's language.
Kai pouted. She sat back in her seat and folded her arms.
They continued down the side passage, surveying the abandoned buildings. The only light came from the one on the end. As they neared, they could hear music playing within.
It appeared to have once been a chain restaurant, the generic layout of an Applebee's or a Chili's, but with most of the windows boarded over. A sheet of plywood hung over the original sign, painted in ornate letters: Sefoni's Tavern.
"Potty," Kai whispered.
"We'll get you a potty here," Eddie assured her.
As they neared, they found the parking lot filled with a variety of vehicles and creatures. "Holy—" Bryce began, staring shocked at a fuzzy centipede with a saddle on its back that grazed on mushrooms poking up through cracks in the asphalt. A few horse-sized anteaters sat lazing beside a pole. A dune buggy, a go-cart, a mope with a rope around its neck.
Laughter erupted from inside. The music was honky tonk. The entrance was a pair of swinging saloon doors.
"Looks like fun," Bryce said.
"You think so?" asked Eddie.
"This may seem weird to us, but it's normal to the locals. Just act casual."
Bryce stepped out and approached the building. To one side, a toad man leaned against a beam, smoking a cigarette.
"Hey, buddy. You speak English?"
The toad blinked up at him. "I don't know, chief," he replied. "I've never tried."
"Funny. Is there a restroom around here?"
"Outhouse. Out back."
"Is it clean?"
The toad flicked his ash aside. "Clean is relative."
"Well, would you crap there?"
The toad grinned, the sides of his mouth reaching back so far it nearly bisected his head. "Crap there? Hell, I'd live there, compadre."
The outhouse was clean if a little dim. They gathered in front of the tavern when they finished.
"We've got no more money," Eddie reminded Bryce.
Bryce shrugged and pushed through the swinging saloon doors. "Maybe we can use Mt. Sunrise again. It worked with the toll taker."
"I'm sure they've got plenty of drinks already," Eddie muttered as he followed, Kai huddled close to him, gripping his hand.
A haze of cigarette smoke hung like clouds above dim hanging lights. The place was full of a variety of revelers that looked like characters in a Mad Max movie: Men and women in dusty clothes pieced together from scraps of leather, coarse wool and old car parts. More toad people sat intermixed with the crowd, along with a pair of skinny red-faced boys with narrow horns protruding from their forehead. Standing before the entrance, another one of the little fish-faced men stared up at them, its wide eyes unblinking and expressionless.
"Uh," Bryce said. "Do you take plastic?"
The fish faced man gestured for them to follow and led them to a table by the dance floor where a huge walrus-sized woman danced with a tall toad-faced person of indeterminate gender. Once seated, the little fish-faced man left them, returning a moment later with glasses of yellowish water.
"I'm not drinking that," Eddie said as Kai downed half her water in one draw. She slammed the glass down on the table and grunted with satisfaction.
"This isn't so bad," Bryce said, looking around. "I've gone to restaurants in bad neighborhoods before the mishmash event that were scarier than this."
"The 'mishmash event'?" Eddie repeated.
"That's what I'm going to start calling it. The thing that happened to the world, whatever it was. First the world was normal, then everything changed and now the world seems to be a mishmash of a lot of other worlds. No one's come up with a name for it, so I'm the guy that named it. The 'Mishmash Event.' Or even better, 'The Great Mishmash'."
As Eddie considered this, his eyes roamed the crowd, then stopped on one pair. A young man in a baseball cap leaned across a table whispering to a woman that looked half robot with a mechanical right arm, two mechanical legs, and half her head covered in a metallic shell of blinking lights. As they spoke, they cast furtive glances at Eddie and his friends. When they caught Eddie looking, the young man put up a hand to shield his face. They continued speaking.
Eddie was about to mention it when a waiter appeared. He was a skinny little man with a malicious face and slick hair. If he hadn't been wearing an apron, Eddie could have pictured him with a bandana over his face, robbing a stagecoach.
"You boys ain't from around this part o' the turnpike, is ya," he said, poised as if ready for a fight.
"No, we ain't," Bryce said. "That a problem?"
"If you ain't got coin it is," the waiter said. "'Cause you got no credit here, and you ain't getting any without a rep."
"Do you take credit cards?"
The waiter's fighting stance faltered. He looked uncertain. "Fact is, we do, ever since things changed."
"Changed?" Bryce asked. "You mean the mishmash event?"
The waiter nodded, grinning. "Yeah, that thing. The mishmash whatchacallit. We hain't had no connection to the outside of the tunnel for generations since it got all nukular and poisoned up top, but then the big mishmash happened and all kinds of things changed. We gots our internet connected to the outside, not to mention all the new caverns that been popping up all up and down the turnpike, and—"
The waiter turned. A woman in a barmaid's dress stood with fists on hips. "Get their money, get their order and get back to work."
The waiter stumbled backwards under the woman's piercing gaze. "Yes'm," he said. He waited for her to walk on before turning back to his customers.
He held out his hand. "Your card?"
"We haven't gotten our food yet," Eddie said.
"Gotta check the card's good before we feed'ja."
"Give the man your card," Bryce said, nodding at Eddie.
"I paid most of the toll."
Eddie grumbled and retrieved his wallet. He pushed the card into the man's calloused hand. The waiter retreated. A moment later, another fish-faced man came by and dropped a basket of breadsticks on their table.
Eddie glanced around the room. The young man and the cyborg woman had left. Eddie pulled out his phone and fumbled with the screen. "Hey, they got wi-fi here," he said around a mouthful of bread.
"Cool. Can you Google up Graden and see how far it is?"
Eddie fiddled with the browser. "There is no Google."
"Damn, I figured they would have survived the mishmash."
"Uh..." Eddie said. "Nearest thing I can find is something called Gimme. It looks like the search engine of choice."
"So Gimme info on Graden."
"Who knows if anything I find is accurate, ever since the... the, um..."
Bryce grinned, his mouth full of bread. "Say it."
"Ever since the mishmash event."
"Thank you." Bryce swallowed. "So what does it say."
"Let's see. I've got an article on Encyclopodia. Graden, second most populous city in the Midwest, capital of the state of Hancock."
"It's a technology Mecca, lots of micro-technology research and manufacturing there. Birthplace of Yolando Drysdale."
"It's what it says here."
"How far is it from—"
The waiter stomped back, flanked by two gorilla-faced thugs in chef's hats. He stopped before their table and folded his arms. "You got some explaining to do."
"Is my credit bad?"
The waiter smirked. "Nah, your credit's fine, seems-like. But when I ran your card, this got printed." He slapped a strip of paper on the table.
Eddie drew it closer, glancing around as he did, feeling the weight of everyone's eyes.
Wanted fugitive for grand larceny.
Alert law enforcement authorities at once.
Use extreme caution. This is a dangerous criminal.