They got to the garden stage with no serious difficulties – someone measured them for costumes twice, and someone else pinned down one of the Livs – ‘Via – and gave her an interesting make-up job that made her look like a supermodel. A starving supermodel.
“All right.” Abby took a breath. “We’re going to assume that this whole backstage thing is sort of what it looks like and sort of not. I.e., it’s part of the Mall and it leads to other malls. Like this.” She gestured at the door. “Because any other assumption is going to make me go stark, raving mad.” Like the thought that this was all some really fucked up show and there was an exit somewhere. “Ready?”
She got three affirmative replies and — she thought she might do this every time now — still checked to be sure she had the three that she’d come in with. ‘Via still looked far too strange; even her smile seemed strained and wrong. Liv looked excited; Olly looked scared.
She opened the door and stepped in, making sure all three of them were with her again before she closed the door. They were standing in what looked like a hedge maze, a very elaborate and well-maintained one.
“All right….” She looked around slowly.
“Left hand rule.” Olly put her left hand flat about an inch from the privet hedge. “You keep your left hand on the wall and go forward. We’re looking for things that might be stores, right?”
“Right.” She steeled herself. Olly was in charge for this part. Okay. She could do that. “Left-hand rule sounds good.”
The hedge was twice as tall as they were and the turns were never that long, so you couldn’t get a good feel for how big the maze was. It took seven turns before they found the first store — seven turns, two statues, one of which looked terrified and made them all mutter about the White Witch and one of them which was pretty much pornographic and made them question the whole “Victorian Garden” theme, and two pit traps which were so blatantly obvious they had to be there just for show.
The maze then suddenly had a store on the left side, or, rather, a doorway set into the hedge very nicely with a very discrete sign above it indicating it was a 5-7-9. They peeked inside; the store, aside from having what Abby thought might be what they thought would be… available in a Victorian 5-7-9 ?… in a front section, had normal stuff and a normalish clerk.
“So this… this is an active mall,” she murmured to her friends. “Or at least it looks that way. But I don’t see anyone –” A family came into sight going the other way, muttering about the lack of mall maps and not knowing where the food court was. “… I take it back.”
“A real mall,” Liv muttered. “With real people. Doesn’t it kinda make you want to run screaming for the entrance?”
“Kinda,” Abby admitted.
“Seriously,” ‘Via agreed. She, however, didn’t move away from the group. Neither did Liv — or Olly. “So.” ‘Via cleared her throat. “Bed, Bath, and Beyond?”
The stores seemed far too far apart for a mall, but they, after a few more turns, came upon first one grouping and then another. Abby was starting to be worried – she hadn’t seen a single non-store doorway – until she realized that there were tidy little gaps in the hedge that were hidden by some clever landscaping, potted plant placement, and statuary.
The people that wandered by seemed more or less normal – some in costume, like this was a Victorian version of a Renaissance Faire, but most of them just in street clothes. Abby felt both grubby, even though they were clean and showered and fed, and a sense of ache. This was the closest they’d come to home since they’d first started in the malls, wasn’t it?
“There we go!” Liv – no, Olly – grabbed her hand. “Here’s the Bed, Bath, and Beyond – oh, there, up there.” They’d come into a wider clearing in the maze, and from there they could see a central tower sticking out of the hedges. “Think that’s the security office?”
Abby’s heart sank. There was no going home, not out of this mall. They had a job to do, too.Want more?