(Did you miss part one?)
The "cafe" had left us barely caffeinated and wildly dehydrated, but we looked forward to re-entering reality⏤one that didn't include an overly-friendly waitress.
Unfortunately, it became quickly apparent that things would not be returning to normal.
We stopped by Starbucks to fix the caffeine and water deficit the restaurant had left us with. I chose to drive since Ryan had more than earned it by driving the whole way to Greenville the day before.
"Good afternoon, what can I get for you?" A younger guy asked over the speaker.
"I'm not quite sure yet," I said. I was still collecting my thoughts after the recent shenanigans.
"No problem," He said. His voice had the same ultra-friendliness I was becoming all too accustomed to. Things appeared ordinary until he followed up with, "Whenever you're ready, just say 'Hey, Darryl… I'm ready.'"
I recoiled. His tone was about two notches away from a seductive, "Whenever you're ready, just say, 'Hey Daddy, I'm ready.'" (Later on I made sure Ryan was aware of this distinction and practically created a tight five comedy routine around it).
My lips tightened. I turned to Ryan, hoping for an escape or a tether to reality. He shrugged. It was clear I was on my own.
Once I knew what I wanted, I was in a predicament.
Do I really have to say this? I thought. No, surely he doesn't really mean that. Why would I need to say it word for word?
I compromised, "Ok! I'm ready."
I whispered to Ryan, "Do I really have to say that?"
Ryan smirked, "You have to. Obviously." He seemed thrilled to see someone else in the hot seat.
I cleared my throat and mustered the courage.
"Hey, Darryl…" It felt so wrong. "We're ready."
"Ok great, what can I get you?" Darryl didn't miss a beat, after all, I gave the secret password.
I tried to contain my laughter at the absurdity and placed my order. When I asked for ice water, Darryl's response was, "For sure, I got you. Gotta hydrate before you die-drate!"
The line moved, and our laughter could no longer be contained.
"Is everyone in this town thirsty?!" I exclaimed.
Based on the day's previous events, I imagined Darryl crawling through the drive-through window and getting in the car with us. To say I was relieved that someone else gave us our drinks would be an understatement.
After that, our day did normalize a bit. We found our starting point for the next day's hunt and gathered all the supplies we would need. We were certain we would dodge any future curveballs.
Night-time arrived, and Greenville had other things in mind.
For dinner, we stopped at the local Burger King. I'm ashamed to say I will always break a healthy diet for a Whopper. Admitting that doesn't feel great, and I wonder if this is how Anthony Bourdain felt when he confessed his love for KFC.
Anyways, I was dead set on a Whopper.
The menu glowed with Burger King's latest crime - The Spiderman Burger. It looked like a regular Whopper, but with an iridescent red bun and sesame seeds you'd swear were painted with Vantablack.
Sticking to the motto of opting for weird, Ryan was ready to test his digestive system against a pint of Red 40 and requested the Spiderman abomination.
"Hello," A nervous voice said over the speaker, "Just want to let you know our credit card machine is down. We can only take cash. It will probably be back up in 15 to 20 minutes, though, if you want to come back."
"Ok. We don't have cash. Thanks."
"Sorry about that. It should be back soon."
Cashless and confused, I drove around the building to park, facing the vast paved wilderness of chain stores, anchored by Walmart. We started to check Google Maps for our options⏤new places to eat, or ATMs.
That's when the world went black.
The headlights of my car shone into the darkness like flashlights in a haunted house as an eerie silence filled the air around us.
"What was that?!" I said, scanning my surroundings. It was so abrupt I was even checking the sky⏤ for what, I'm not sure. Maybe an alien invasion? It would have fit the vibe.
"I don't know," Ryan said. He seemed calm compared to me.
The entire block had lost power.
Within seconds, Burger King employees burst out of the building as if they had been waiting for this moment their entire lives. One guy, dressed in red, still wearing his black apron confidently emerged, announcing his plans to capitalize on the situation.
"Naw bro, Walmart's blacked out. Look! It's blacked out. I'm going in. I'm gonna get a TV. I'll see you guys later."
The other employees scattered to their cars as he meandered towards Walmart, announcing his plot along the way, "I'm getting a TV, bro."
At this point, I was invested. I was rooting for the Burger King guy. I wanted to see his success. Could he really just stroll into a blacked-out Walmart and take what he wanted?
With Ryan held hostage in the passenger seat, I cruised over to the Walmart parking lot to take a peek. Two guys rode electric carts through the doors and into pitch black as multiple families exited, empty-handed, and confused.
It wasn't long before we heard the Burger King guy's booming, unmistakable voice. He was chatting with Walmart employees outside, wanting the scoop and treating this whole thing the same as I was - pure entertainment.
Once the fun had worn off and it was clear nothing new or entertaining was going to happen, it was as if my subconscious used my mouth to warn me. "I hope our hotel's okay," I said. I hadn't processed the thought until I said it.
Ryan looked at me as though he hadn't considered that. "Could it be out of power?"
"Surely it's fine. I'm pretty sure it's on the other side of town."
Unconfident, I checked Google Maps.
"Uhhhh…" My lack of confidence had not been unfounded, "We're actually really close to our hotel right now."
We looked at each other as though to say "Uh oh" or something less appropriate.
We followed the access road, nearing our landmark Home Depot. Cinderblocks and bags of soil were well-lit behind the home improvement store. Just as I started to breathe a sigh of relief, Ryan dropped the most random, defeating knowledge ever.
"I think Home Depot has generators."
I must have made some kind of face, because he added, "I don't know why I know that."
Sure enough, as we rounded the curve, there sat our hotel⏤ blacked out, and apocalyptic. Groups of people stood in the parking lot chatting around their cars. The murmur of seriousness sounded almost loud against the quiet nothing.
A couple of good Samaritans were taking turns holding the door open so people could freely move in and out. Accepting their offer, we went inside.
Walking down the hall was eerie. It was completely dark aside from a few people with flashlights and the green glows of the card key locks. I approached each step as though I was in a Stephen King novel. Anything could happen at any moment.
I nearly jumped out of my skin. My eyes frantically scanned for the source of the noise. Was that a backfire? Fireworks? A GUN?
After the initial startle, my brain finally processed the sound.
Oh… Balloons… Thank God.
The full relief swept over me once we passed the event rooms to see disappointed, bored kids in party hats lit by cell phone flashlights. I suppose when there's nothing else to do, why not pop balloons?
Even knowing what the noise was, I couldn't adjust to it. Something about darkened silence punctuated by random balloon popping creates a permanent apprehension.
We tried to open our room door to no avail, then made our way to the front desk.
To my relief, the person at the front desk was familiar. He and I were becoming friends.
"Heyyyyyyy," I said, greeting him with a humorous uneasiness. Before I could add 'Soooo… how are things?' he was already playing along.
"We thought we'd try a new thing with our guests," He said convincingly, "We like to call it blackout night."
The people in party hats aimlessly wandering helped to sell the joke.
He shifted to a more serious tone, "I guess the whole block lost power. There's no estimate of when it should be back on, unfortunately. I'm sorry I don't have more information."
"Your key cards should still work though."
Was he psychic? I was just about to ask him about that.
"The door locks are battery operated," He added.
"We just tried to get in, and it didn't work."
"It's probably your card. Unfortunately, I don't have the means to make a new card right now, with… you know." He gestured at everything.
We laughed in agreement. "Makes sense," I said. "We'll try his card." I gestured to Ryan.
Thankfully Ryan's card worked. We opened the windows to let the cool night-time air fill the stuffy space and made use of the running water (with some phone flashlight assistance).
I'm adding flashlights to my wishlist now. Along with water filters and all things apocalyptic. It's going to look like a straight-up doomsday prep checklist at this rate.
Thankfully, the power was out for less than an hour after that. The electric company employees must have really hustled to relieve everyone of the darkness.
To my surprise, the next day was actually normal and we were finally able to look for fossils and enjoy nature. I might have even found a Mosasaur vertebra! I'm hoping this means all of the chaos was worth it, but I'll have to see when I get it identified. Fingers crossed!