Thursday, December 9, 2010

deep down tasty

“In the afternoon, the sun often heats the city up into the triple digits, especially in the early afternoon before the rain comes,” Carolyn read from the guide book.

“Great,” her husband huffed beside her.  “I already feel like I’m drowning just from breathing the air.  How can it get any hotter?”

“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” she said.  “Look at all the people going about their business like nothing is strange.”

“Yeah, but they live here,” Tyler said, taking another deep breath and grimacing.  His hair, carefully styled to impress as they left the hotel this morning, was matted down onto his forehead with sweat.  He continually pulled it back, trying to wring the moisture out of it, but there was no way to escape what it was doing to him.  He felt deflated. 

"Well, we don’t want to stand out, do we?”  She seemed to be holding up to the heat a lot better.  Her hair was naturally thin and pulled back in a pony-tail that hadn’t moved since she tied it back.  The heat just gave her skin a beautiful glow.  Tyler was envious, even as he realized how stupid that was.

“Come on,” he said, “let’s keep moving.  Maybe one of these huts has an AC.”

Carolyn rolled her eyes.  “They’re huts!  Most of them don’t look like they have electricity. But I’ll tell you what, you humor me while I find something crazy at one of these stalls, and we’ll head over to the restaurant street and get some lunch. Or at least some water.  They all looked like proper buildings.  At least they’d be inside.” 

“It’s your day to pick,” Tyler said.  Yesterday he had picked a hike up to the mountains that loomed above them to the north. It had been fun, to see this dense jungle give way to the kinds of trees he recognized. It had been refreshing to feel the air get cooler.  In fact, their hike had taken them high up to where there were still lingering patches of snow.

The memory of snow made him suddenly feel wrung out and dehydrated.  What he wouldn’t give for a sno-cone right about now. 

Carolyn lead the way to a variety of stalls, looking for souvenirs to take back.  This was their big shopping day, the one he had agreed to, so he couldn’t complain too loudly. That didn’t stop Carolyn from doing the same, however.  Many of the stalls sold the same cheap trinkets they had seen and refused to buy on the cruise ship.

“I don’t understand how hard it is to find a good shop,” she said.  “I just want something interesting.  A piece of art, a small statue or something, maybe a homemade fabric.”

“It doesn’t look like anyone here is wearing homemade fabric,” Tyler said.  “They’re wearing the same stuff anyone does. I think I saw an Ed Hardy shirt on that guy who was selling the beaded necklaces.” 

“Ugh,” Carolyn, totally disgusted, stormed down to the end of the street, checking every stall with a glance.  Then she marched back up to Tyler and grabbed him by the arm.  “There’s nothing here.  Come on, let’s go get something to eat.  We’ll ask one of the locals while we’re eating.  Maybe they can point us in the right direction.”

“No arguments here,” Tyler said, taking the lead and making their way up the street towards the road that lead to all of the town’s restaurants.  They were all clustered together, a menagerie of signs, people drifting in an out at a steady pace.  It was shortly past the lunch rush, more people leaving than were coming. 

“Where do you want to eat?” Tyler asked her. 

Carolyn looked around.  There were multiple restaurants that seemed to be themed, colorful decorations of pirates or voodoo or whatever else they thought people wanted to see. Tyler could practically hear her sneer beside him as she looked at those. 

Beside those were the ones catering to the unadventurous, places that offered ‘down home American food’.  Tyler was baffled by that. Why come all this way to get a cheeseburger?  He could stay on the boat and get that garbage.  This did not bode well for finding a nice, quiet, authentic place to eat. 

“What about that one?”  Carolyn pointed, and Tyler looked down the street to a small little place near the far end of the street.  It looked incredibly small, tucked between two of the larger establishments.  And the front of the restaurant was incredibly modest, the window a large painted sign that said On Shoals: the edibles is deep down tasty. 

“They can’t even use proper English on the sign,” Tyler said with a sigh. 

“Exactly.  Obviously they’re not concerned with marketing themselves.  They must be a bunch of locals.  Probably generations of people who worked there.  Come on, let’s go.”

“I guess,” Tyler said.  “I don’t know if I’d trust seafood from a place that can’t even write a sign.”

“Oh, stop being so stuck up.  You wanted an adventure, this’ll be one.  Think of it as gastronomical hiking.”

“Right,” Tyler said, but decided to play along.  The two of them went into the small restaurant, blinded by the darkness of the interior compared to the bright sunshine outside. It was, at least, mercifully cool inside.  It felt almost like a cellar, a vaguely damp sort of darkness that Tyler remembered from the basement of the house he grew up in.

“Can I help you?” A voice called out from the darkness. It was heavy with the accent of the island, but Tyler had a hard time locating it at first.  Carolyn, who was obviously adjusting to the dark better than him, took the initiative. 

“Yes, we’d like a table for two, please.”

“Of course,” the figure said, and Tyler felt he could make out the flash of white teeth in a broad smile, but that was all he could see.  Carolyn pulled him along as they made their way further into the restaurant, where there were dim lamps illuminating each of the alcoves where a booth was.  In the darkness, it was impossible to tell which booths were full and which were empty.  There was no natural light, the one window of the building painted over for that unfortunate sign. 

They sat down and Tyler could now make out the face of their server, a strikingly tall, thin woman.  She had much darker skin than most of the people on the island, which made her broad smile stand out all the more.  It was nearly dazzling.  Tyler wondered, for a second, whether or not he had some sort of heatstroke. The cool air made him feel completely detached from what was going on.

“What can I get you two to drink?” she asked, her voice lyrical.  Tyler blinked, and hesitated. 

“Iced tea for the two of us,” Carolyn said. The woman nodded and disappeared into the darkness again. 

“See?” she said once the woman had left.  “This is nice,” she said.  “Quiet, romantic, perfect.”

Tyler looked around, his eyes starting to adjust.  The restaurant was certainly dark, though not nearly as much as he had thought upon first walking in.  The booths were very isolated, lined up along one side of the narrow building, the other side taken up by a large, ornate bar. 

“Yeah, it’s nice,” he said. 

The girl quickly came back with their drinks and handed them menus.  Carolyn spoke up, though.  “What do you suggest we get?” she asked the woman.  “We’re feeling adventurous.”

The woman smiled again, all teeth and grinning eyes.  “Of course, ma’am. I might suggest the house soup.  The chef makes it himself, it’s an old family recipe. Fills you up, but doesn’t make you feel sleepy or too heavy to go back out into the sun. And, we just cooked up a new batch, completely fresh.”

“Perfect,” Carolyn said.  “We’ll have two.”

“Escellent choice,” she said, taking the menus and disappearing quickly once again.  Tyler watched her go, and then took a long drink of his tea. 

“You know…” he started.  “Maybe I didn’t want the soup, did you ever think that?”

“Oh, c’mon,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’ve ordered for you before.” 

“Mhm, right,” Tyler said, but with an obvious grin.  Carolyn lightly kicked him under the table, and the two of them broke out in quiet laughter. 

Their soup was brought out to them pretty quickly, two large bowls.  The ingredients weren’t immediately apparent but the soup smelled incredible.  Tyler suddenly felt his stomach, which had been fine, growl impatiently.  His hunger was immediate and vast.  “Oh man, this looks great,” he said aloud as he reached for his spoon. 

“Glad you think so,” the woman said.  “Go ahead, take a taste, see how it suits you.” 

They both lowered their spoons and took a taste of the soup, some sort of meat and vegetable stew.  It was rich and spicy but refreshing in ways that Tyler couldn’t immediately identify.  He eagerly scooped up another spoonful, downing it even quicker than the first. 

Carolyn talked around the spoon in her mouth, “This is good,” she said.  She quickly followed with her second spoonful.  “No, scratch that, this is fantastic.”

“I’m glad you think so,” their smiling server said to them.  “I’ll be happy to tell the cook.”  She then turned and disappeared into the back room once again, leaving them to their meal. 

The next ten minutes were spent in relative silence, punctuated only by the quiet scrape of spoons against bowls and the slurping of soup being happily eaten.  Neither of them seemed to get enough of their meal, one spoonful after another, until they were both drinking the last of the broth out of the bowls.  They both leaned back, almost in unison, and groaned their satisfaction. 

“That was … oh man,” Tyler said. 

“Tell me about it.”  Carolyn took a deep breath, adjusting on her bench.  “I hope I didn’t overdo it.” 

“We can always go take a nap if that’s the case,” he said.  He turned to look for their server, who didn’t seem to be out in the main dining room.  “I have to talk to the chef, find out what’s in that soup.”

“If it’s a family recipe, he probably won’t tell you,” she said.  “You know, cooks guarding their secrets and all.”

“Doesn’t hurt to ask,” he said, standing up.  He stretched and sighed happily.  “That was super satisfying.  Come on, let’s find the cook. I at least have to let him know that he deserves the huge tip he’s getting.”

“All right,” Carolyn said, climbing out of her side of the booth.  The two of them looked down the rest of the restaurant, where there were two doors, one swinging door that seemed to lead to the kitchen and another, proper door with a handle. 

“Probably that one,” Carolyn said, gesturing to the swinging door. 

As they walked towards it, Tyler took a look around the room.  It was surprisingly quiet, and Tyler noticed that all the booths but theirs seemed to be empty.  He had a moment of disquiet, but shrugged it off as it being the down time and this being kind of an out of the way place.  He headed towards the kitchen door and began pushing it open.

“NO DON’T YOU DARE DO THAT!”

The voice behind him was startling, but it was too late.  Tyler pushed the swinging door to the kitchen open even as he looked behind him to see their server come out of the other room, her face contorting with horror, her mouth a silent O of outrage, her teeth still large and bright.  He also felt Carolyn freeze up next to him, a kind of sudden rigid jolt that was so sudden it pulled his attention towards her. 

“What’s wrong?”he said, addressing both their server and Carolyn at the same time.  The server was running up to them, but when Tyler turned to look at Carolyn, he noticed her looking ahead, stock still, her skin suddenly incredibly pale, her hand which had reached out for the door trembling in the air, frozen. 

“What’s going on?”  Tyler turned, even as he saw their server rushing towards him, her teeth bright, her mouth wide, her features distorted in the darkness and how quickly he looked into the kitchen.  When he saw what was in the kitchen, his concerns about their server were forgotten compared to what he saw in here.

In the middle of the room was a spit, a long slab of meat roasting over a heating element, turning automatically.  It made Tyler think about rotisserie chicken, but it was obvious whatever the meat came from was much larger than a chicken.  Then he spotted the bones, the long white bones and the rounded skull, as familiar as any anatomy textbook or police procedural on TV, sitting on the table, haphazardly scraped of all meat. 

And then he saw the thing that Carolyn had seen, the thing that caused her to go completely rigid.  The large pot of soup, more of a barrel than a pot, and the monstrous thing stirring the pot.  It was large, with a blue-black shell that reminded Tyler of a beetle, but it moved more like a squid, long black tentacles spreading throughout the kitchen, mixing sauces and grabbing spices, bringing it all to the cauldron where the stew was simmering. 

The creature seemed to look up at the noise and intrusion, its face a mass of white jellied things that must have been eyes, though they were unlike anything Tyler had ever seen.  It had a long mouth, a snout of sorts that was almost like another tentacle, though on it was a thick beak like that of the parrots he had seen just this morning perched on the island. 

The beak opened, squawking at him in sounds that made his teeth ache.  He tried to move, but found he couldn’t, watching this thing’s many arms set down the various tools it was using and reach out towards him, a mass of tentacles that slowly slithered along the floors and walls, up the door, reaching for him and Carolyn’s extended limbs. 

As the first one touched his skin, cold and wet and exuding some viscous slime he couldn’t begin to name, he turned and saw their server push between them.  No, not push.  She was slithering, her slender body distended, her neck seemingly as long as his arm, her wide mouth now permanently an O, the white teeth a ring of teeth around that gaping maw as it clamped down on his arm.  He felt the teeth moving, seemingly hundreds of them, and felt a searing pain even as the first tentacle pulled him forward.

He didn’t even have time to properly scream.

Nighttime.  The lights strung up all over town were lit up, fires burning on torches, the whole city awash with a bright glow.  An older couple, silver-haired asians, walked into the small restaurant.  They were shown a table, talking cheerfully between themselves. 

“What is best?” the husband asked in broken English. 

“The soup,” the server said, a tall, slender girl with bright eyes and an even brighter smile.  She intimidated the man, but he said nothing.  He did not see people who looked like her very often, and he was old and unused to the wider world.  But his wife had been so happy to finally go on this trip now that he had retired. 

“What kind soup?” 

The woman’s smile widened, if that was possible.  “Chef’s secret recipe.  But it’s very good. Been passed down for generations.  And just special this evening, we have a fresh batch of it. New ingredients passed through that very same door you did not four hours ago.”

His wife smiled enthusiastically, her eyes wide.  They had been eating at Pirate Pete’s the past two days, and their food had been stale and terrible and overpriced.  This, at least, seemed like the real thing.  He nodded his agreement. 

“Two fresh soups.” 

“Gladly, sir.”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Piece of Cake

“And don’t forget to pick up my cake!”

Helen’s voice was shrill even from a floor away. Renold sighed and walked out to his truck, trying to keep the list of things he had to get in his head. Not only did he have to stop and pick up a variety of parts to fix the leaking sink, he also had to pick up some groceries and medicine.

And now she wanted her cake on top of it?

Renold gingerly climbed into the truck. At nearing eighty years on this earth, he found going out and running errands took more and more effort each time. His hips ached and feet and hands were cold no matter how many layers he seemed to wear.

Renold drove through the snowy streets down to the hardware store in town to pick up some drain cleaner, a few lengths of pipe, some washers and bolts. Next door was the grocers, where he picked up the fixings for a big pot of ham bone soup and his next batch of insulin.

Then was the long trek to the bakery to pick up Helen’s blasted cake. She wouldn’t settle for just any cake, store bought or made at home. No, he had to go to a small, ornate bakery twenty minutes away on the other side of town. He wasn’t sure who was the bigger fool: her for thinking the trip was worth it or him for making it despite knowing better.

Ah, the joys of marriage.

He pulled up to the bakery and entered. Just like they did every week, the young girls on staff welcomed him in. He had been coming here like clockwork for over a decade now.

“Good morning, Mr. Irving,” the girl at the register said as he came in. He couldn’t remember if her name was Naomi or Kelly, his glasses too fogged up from coming in from the cold to fake it and make out her nametag.

“It’s certainly been a morning. Nobody knows how to drive in this weather.”

“Well me about it,” she said. “I had someone take off my mirror the other day trying to change lanes into me.”

Renold did a good job feigning alarm. “I hope you’re okay.”

“Yeah, thankfully they were quick about getting back into their own lane, and I was quick about noting their license plate. But once there’s snow on the streets you better believe everyone’s going to lose their minds.”

“Anyway, can I get a piece of your cheesecake, to go?”

“Certainly,” she said, heading over to the glass display case and pulling out the cake. “You sure you don’t want anything for yourself?’

“I can’t,” Renold said. “With the diabetus and all.” He pronounced it with all the Brimley-esque nobility he could, mostly because he knew the young girls here thought it was funny when he did so. He was rewarded with a smile and a small laugh for his trouble.”

“We have sugar free stuff, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” he said. “But you wouldn’t sit a starving man in front of a banquet and tell him he can have a saltine, would you?”

“Of course not, but … oh,” she said, his comparison dawning on her. She shook her head. “I can only imagine. Why come in here, then?”

“The missus insists this is the best in town, and heaven knows that after fifty years I’m pretty sure it’s just the liberal application of baked goods that really keeps a marriage together.”

The girl cut off a slice and boxed it up like they did every week. “Well, your wife at least has good taste,” she said, giving him a big grin. He had the good taste to look a little embarrassed.

“Thanks,” he said, paying for the slice of cake. “Have a good day.”

“You too,” she called after him. “See you next week.”

* * *

Renold sat all the bags he had brought on the kitchen table. From the floor above him, Helen’s voice called down. “You got my cake?”

“Of course,” Renold said loudly, trying not to let the frown on his face show in his voice.

“Bring it up!”

“I will,” he said, looking at the bags before him. “Give me a second. I have to put this stuff away.”

“Don’t take too long,” she said, her voice drifting off. Renold got to work putting all the tools out for when he’d need them later. Then he got out his syringe and gave himself his scheduled dose of insulin. Once he was done, however, he didn’t immediately pack up his stuff. Instead, he looked at the things spread out on the table. And he popped open the lid to the drain cleaner and dipped the needle into the liquid, pulling up the plunger and with it some of the noxious looking blue liquid.

He turned and opened up the box with the cake. The needle slid in, so tiny it wouldn’t leave a mark. Renold depressed the plunger in a few spots, little drops of the cleaner that quickly diffused into the cake. He had been doing this long enough that he knew just which type to buy that it didn’t taste funny. She certainly hadn’t noticed by now, and he expected she was far too gone to at this point.

That done, he tossed the needle in his hazard bin and washed the syringe well. It wouldn’t do to have traces of that cleaner in the syringe when he used it. That stuff was dangerous!

His medical supplies safely put away, he grabbed a fork and took the box containing the cake up to Helen’s bedroom. Soon she would be happily eating her weekly treat, then she’d lay back down feeling ill and he could have piece for a few hours longer.

Cake really was the glue that held a marriage together.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Departure

The final convoy was ready.  A thousand souls in a number of trucks and busses, all set to begin their trek to the East.  The previous convoy had left several days ago and with it a sense of accomplishment had fallen over this group.  They had done it.  The hard part, in many ways, was over. 

“Governor,” the driver of the main bus spoke up, “we’re ready to depart at your word.” 

Ramirez nodded.  He had a hard time thinking of himself as the governor who had been sworn in years before, back when his biggest worry had been providing jobs for the booming population of his state.  That seemed like a trivial concern, now.  There wasn’t a state left, his population dead or fled or worse.  But everyone still insisted on calling him governor.  If that’s what they needed to feel better, who was he to dissuade them? 

“Give me a second,” Ramirez said.  “I’d like to say a final word to the Major and his men.” 

The driver nodded and Ramirez climbed down from the bus.  He looked at the convoy stretching behind them, a wide fairground that was jammed full of every variety of passenger and cargo vehicles. It could have been a state fair or big music festival.  Ramirez wondered if people would ever have something like that again. Instead the razor-wire fences and sentry scaffolds gave it the grim look of a prison camp. 

Major Hayes stepped forward as Ramirez approached.  “Governor. Is anything wrong?”

“No, no, nothing wrong,” he said with a thin smile.  “We’re just about ready to go.  I just wanted to take a moment and talk to you and your men before we leave, if you don’t mind.” 

“Sure thing,” Hayes said.  He turned to the speaker system panel and pressed a button.  The PA system they had set up all over the compound crackled to life.  “Hayes here.  I have the Governor here on the line, he wants to say a few words before the last train pulls out of the station.”

Several of the other soldiers who were nearby gathered around Ramirez.  They had been here for weeks now, gathering resources and preparing the convoys. Each departure had been painful for this young circumstantial family, but this one had affected both sides most of all. 

“I just wanted to say a small piece,” Ramirez began, “since nobody knows if any of us will ever meet again in this world. In the past few weeks we’ve all been through hell and back, seeing the worst nightmares of our society come true.  It is enough to try a man’s soul.

“We all grew up watching movies about these exact situations, every time following the same tired clich├ęs.  People turning to madness.  Paranoia.  Scientists being evil or lynched by panicked mobs. And a military that can’t be trusted. Soldiers turning on citizens.”

The soldiers all shifted uncomfortably.  The integration of thousands of civilians and a bunch of on-edge soldiers had initially been rough. Ramirez knew it, the soldiers knew it. But it had been an unspoken tension until now.

“But we all know, despite the events of the past few weeks, that real life isn’t fiction.  We’ve been organized and efficient.  We’ve acted like people, not animals.  And despite all of the trouble the remnants of California have caused all of you, each and every one of you has acted in the most honorable way.

“When we leave, you’ll have nothing left but your own self-reliance. But I don’t doubt that it will carry you.  You have been a shining example of the best we have to offer, of the power of humanity in the face of these monsters. 

“You are all heroes. You are all the good guys.  Never forget that.  Without you, none of us would be here right now.  There are no words for the gratitude I feel. In many ways, you all have become the saviors of humanity, or at least this small sliver of it.

“There’s no telling what’s out there. But hopefully, someday, we’ll meet up again.  Good luck, and godspeed.” 

The soldiers nearby all snapped off a salute as Ramirez turned off the PA.  Major Hayes turned to face Ramirez, extending his hand.  “Good luck to you and yours, Governor.  Remember what I told you about firing a weapon.”

“I hope it won’t come to that.”

“So do I,” Hayes said. “Let’s hope your road is clear.”

“If it isn’t, we’ll find a way.  That’s all we have left to do,” Ramirez said.  He motioned towards the lead bus, the heavy plow that had been welded to the front of it.  With a smile, he nodded to the saluting soldiers, turned on his heel, and went back to the bus.  With a blast of the horn, the motor started up, and soon the entire convoy was the deep rumble of dozens of engines. 

Major Hayes watched as the convoy slowly began to roll out, though the whole thing would take hours.  He instead turned and headed back into the main compound.  Even left alone, there were still the mass of things coming out of the woods. There was still the pile of bodies they had to burn, thousands of mangled human forms, each with a gruesome rifle shot in the head. 

There was no time to be nostalgic for the people who had gone.  Even during the end of the world, there was plenty of work to be done.