(The final — and longest — bit of fiction for the Unstable Future universe so far. Next month, I’ll move on to a different setting to get a feel for those characters. Here, we have that first date for Abernathy Jones and Jonathan Quinn (name subject to change later). What I wanted to do here was really work with dialogue to establish a good feel for the characters and use Abe’s POV to establish his semi anti-social personality. 1957 words.)
The Oleander Pool Hall was not anyone’s idea of a fancy restaurant, but it was about the closest thing the town had. The front of the huge building was divided into a bar, for those pool players who wanted a pint between games, and a large sit-down area for those people who wanted a big, sloppy plate of chili cheese fries. The actual pool hall dominated the back area; you could easily hear the trash-talk of the townies and college students, and you could see the haze of tobacco smoke rolling just underneath the ceiling like mist. Still, you weren’t going to find a special that featured a 16 oz. steak and three eggs for as low a price anywhere.
Abe walked into the entrance hesitantly. He almost never came here; it was too far out of the way, and he didn’t care for the constant stream of curses and smoke that came out from the back. He wasn’t quite sure what to wear for the occasion, so he opted for something slightly dressy yet safe — a red flannel shirt and a pair of jeans that he swore fit a little looser the last time he put them on a few months ago. The Rabbit scanned the room for Jonathan, but all he saw was an incredibly overbuilt giraffe squeezed into one of the booths along the wall and a sour-looking badger pushing around an egg floating in a sea of grease. Abe checked his pocket watch. He was right on time.
Without a hostess to guide him, Abe simply sat down at a two-seater table near the window. It was furthest from the back, and offered something else to look at beyond the faux-wood paneling or the peeling carpet. He glanced around the restaurant one more time; he spotted dark silhouettes moving through the haze of low lighting and tobacco smoke in the pool hall, but none of the shapes were ones he recognized. The giraffe caught his eye and did that annoying head-nod thing that young people did instead of speaking. “Sup,” he rumbled. Abe simply smiled and shrugged. What were you supposed to say to that?
He caught Jonathan slipping through the front door just as he turned to look out of the window. The big tiger briefly filled the door frame as he squeezed in, taking off his deputy’s hat as soon as he came in. Abe’s heart sank for a moment when he saw the Tiger was in full uniform. Maybe he had misread the situation; maybe Jonathan really didn’t want anything more than a statement.
The deputy briefly loomed over a Vixen who stopped to meet him, then followed him to the table that Abe was sitting at. The Rabbit stood up and stuck out his paw, which the Tiger swallowed and shook. They both sat down, and the Vixen placed menus in front of them before they even had a chance to say more than hello.
“Good evening y’all,” she said, giving them both a toothy smile. “The special’s the catfish and corn fritters, that’s just gonna be five Credits. We got pale ale on tap, and the house special is this little microbrew that George Hunter cooked up out behind his shed. It ain’t bad, actually, but it ain’t for everyone.” She wrinkled her muzzle, and Abe suddenly knew that she must get a lot of lonely truckers falling in love with her after that move. “Can I start y’all off with a pint or somethin’? Plate of chili cheese fries?”
Abe shook his head, but Jonathan said “I’ll have a pint of that microbrew. I’ve heard nothing but great things about Hunter’s special since I’ve gotten here.”
The Vixen wagged, and her hand reached out to touch Jonathan’s shoulder. “Sure thing, hon.” She turned to look at the Rabbit. “Should I make that two?”
Abe shook his head again. “No, just water for me, thank you.”
“OK, hon. And just so you know, any dish can be made with the herbivore’s substitution. You just gotta ask for it, OK?”
“I will.” The Rabbit forced himself to smile. “Thank you.”
Now it was his turn to get the paw on the shoulder. Abe smelled the subtle perfume she used to neutralize her natural vulpine scent. “You’re welcome, honey. I’ll go get that pint for ya.” With a flounce and a swish of her tail, she was off.
Jonathan grinned wide as Abe looked at him. “That has got to be the happiest waitress I’ve ever seen.”
Abe chuckled and perked an ear. “Why wouldn’t she be? College student working her way through school. She’s got her whole life ahead of her.”
Jonathan raised an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? I…forgot this was a small town. You probably know everybody’s story around here.”
“Oh no, quite the opposite. I live so far out of town I might as well be on my own. I’ve just seen her around on the days when I come in.” Abe shrugged.
“You’re a farmer, right? Where’s your property?” The Tiger, Abe noticed, produced a small notepad and put it on the table in front of him. It looked comically undersized in his paw.
“About 15 miles northeast of the Oleander border. Don’t get much in the way of services out there; we got phones when I was a little leveret, and we just got cable TV a few years back.” The Rabbit grinned. “Electricity and indoor plumbing’s always been there, though.”
Jonathan chuckled. “I didn’t think you were that bad off. I know that folks around here are used to a…rustic way of life. That’s part of the charm, though.”
The fur on the back of Abe’s neck stood up. Bad off? Rustic? He sounded like one of those Capital animals, so used to high technology they had no idea how to live without it any more.
The Tiger must have saw something in his expression. “I really do like it here. The people are awesome, and it’s…peaceful.” He took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders. His shirt looked like it might lose a couple of buttons. “There’s just something nice about being able to see trees and stuff.”
Abe grinned broadly. “Well sure. Cities are a human invention, I’ve always said. Let ’em stay there. We’ll keep the good stuff.”
The waitress came with a glass of beer and a glass of water, and they toasted to that. She took their orders with the same bubbly, friendly tone she always had and disappeared back into the smoky haze of the pool hall. Abe wondered how long it would take for them to see her again. This place wasn’t known for its speedy service.
“So….” Jonathan said, filling the gap in conversation. “…about that altercation in the market parking lot.”
Abe’s ears drooped automatically. “Oh right, we’re here for you to get a statement.”
The Tiger shook his head, then moved his notepad to the window’s ledge. “Oh, no, don’t worry about that. That was just an excuse to get you to come here.”
Abe blinked. “Really?”
Jonathan grinned. “Really. I just thought that we had a lot of similar interests, maybe.”
The Rabbit stiffened. This was not a community that tolerated much in the way of deviant behavior. Even with the college, Abe had gotten the impression that homosexuality was not looked upon favorably. He didn’t know what would happen if word had gotten out about his interests. He could be targeted by the Claw and Fang; businesses would stop taking his produce; he’d become a pariah in Oleander. As little as he cared for the town and its inhabitants, he had to admit he needed them. Keeping himself…hidden was a matter of livelihood. If some rumor had taken hold…
He tried to play it cool. “What makes you think that?”
Jonathan shrugged. “Well, it was just a feeling I had. To be honest, you just looked friendly and a new guy like me could always use some friends.”
Abe began to relax. “I don’t know what gave you that idea.” He grinned slightly. “I usually keep to myself. I don’t have much tolerance for people.”
The Tiger grinned. “I picked up on that, but I think you might just have a tolerance for ME. I’m a good judge of character about these things. It’s one of the reasons I’m in law enforcement.”
Abe caught himself laughing. “Oh really? Is another so you can walk around town popping out of your uniform?”
Jonathan’s ears flattened, and the sparse fur around his nose showed his blush. “It is a little small, isn’t it? But it was the biggest they had! They’re working on one that fits me at the tailor’s.”
Abe waved it off, “Don’t worry about it, I’m just yanking your chain. You look fine.”
“Are you sure? It doesn’t make me look…silly, like one of those cop-strippers?” Jonathan’s fang showed as he bit his lower lip.
Abe looked at him sideways. He just couldn’t resist a set-up like this. “You definitely look like a stripper. But you don’t look silly.”
Jonathan only looked partially mollified. “Well, as long as I look like a stripper with dignity, that’s all that matters.”
Abe nearly snorted into his water, and that sent Jonathan into a fit of laughter. The Vixen — Melody, if her nametag were to be believed — smiled at the both of them and dropped off the plates, then quickly disappeared. Abe could scarcely believe how quickly their order arrived.
They didn’t speak once about the altercation in the parking lot, but Jonathan did ask for more information about the Claw and Fang. Mostly, they talked about other things; what it was like for Jonathan growing up in the city, how Abe was raised to live and die on his farm, and that was what he planned to do. Jonathan talked about why he became a sheriff’s deputy in a one-light country town, and what he planned to do with his life. When Abe asked him if he had plans to find a Tiger and settle down with a family some day, he simply shrugged.
“I really haven’t found too many women that interest me, you know? I just can’t…connect with them. It’s much easier to understand guys, so that’s where a lot of my attention goes.” He looked at Abe pointedly. That was all the confirmation he needed.
Dinner couldn’t have gone much more smoothly. An hour passed, then two. Melody had come to clean their empty plates, refill Jonathan’s beer and Abe’s water several times, and at last came with the dessert menu. She flicked her ears as she looked from the Rabbit to the Tiger. “I know it’s late, y’all, but did you think you might want a little dessert?”
Abe looked behind him. The monster Giraffe, amazingly enough, was still there, talking to a Rabbit that was even smaller than him. There was a couple of elderly raccoons sipping coffee over cold liver and gravy. And the noise of the pool room had gotten markedly louder. The Rabbit could smell the stench of the smoke, could hear the curses striking like bombs in the air. The whole place reeked of grease and beer, of the scent of patrons and workers, and most of all tobacco. It looked cheap and depressing and run-down. There was no place he’d rather be.
“Actually, I think I’ll have the apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. And a pint of that microbrew.” Abe grinned at Jonathan, who grinned back. If he needed to go home, Crystal could practically walk herself to the farm. But he had a feeling he’d be sleeping someplace much closer.