jakebe: (Writing)

Today's post is a little bit late; sorry about that. It feels like I've been playing catch-up since the year started! I'll be working double-time for a little while to try and get ahead of things.

Anyway, in this installment of Br'er fiction, Gregg meets his boss for the first time in six months to have a conversation about returning to work. I'm still stumbling around a little bit with this setting, but I'm making slow but steady progress with getting the feel down.

"On behalf of everyone at GBI, I'd like to welcome you back to the fold." Horace Bolton smiled at Gregg across his shabby particle-board desk, leaning forward to indicate his sincerity. Underneath the smile, there was a distinct nervousness that Gregg had learned to detect by scent. His boss was doing a very good job of hiding it through body language, though.

The woman standing next to Horace was also nervous, but kept her emotions hidden under an impassive expression. Joyce was the office manager, and she kept the office managed to within an inch of its life. Once you understood her rules and followed them to the letter, you couldn't have a better friend at work. She was here to translate Gregg's sign language to the manager; he found it wholly unnecessary, but they had insisted on providing the accommodation for him to prove how dedicated they were to keeping him employed and comfortable.

Gregg signed at the expectant look Horace fixed him with, and Joyce turned to him with exacting precision. He found himself wondering if there was something about her Korean background that made her so detail-oriented, then banished the thought. "Thank you," she said.

"You've been a vital part of GBI's success, and I just want you to know that you have a place here as long as you want it. We're committed to providing a comfortable, friendly environment for everyone, no matter their race, religion or species. We're a family here." Horace slipped into his familiar pitch. Gregg had heard it countless times at meetings and functions. He was what you would call a "true believer".

And to be fair, Horace walked the walk. He worked hard (mostly through Joyce) to build a culture of informal, easy-going labor. GBI was a little internet service provider that gave dial-up and high-speed access to people who had never heard of cable -- or simply couldn't afford it. Despite the marketplace the company had done well enough to establish itself in the city. They didn't offer quite the same perks that a big corporation would, but the people were solid here. Gregg loved his job, and who he worked with.

He smiled, though he wasn't sure how that would translate. He signed, and Joyce said "Thank you."

"If there's anything I can do to help you transition back into your position after...well, considering your new situation, don't hesitate to come to me, OK? My door is always open."

Gregg signed. Joyce said, "Thank you."

Horace smiled, letting a silence creep into the conversation for just a beat. That was the end of the introduction, apparently. He put on his glasses; that was usually the sign that it was time to get down to business. "Now, as you're aware, I'm sure, there aren't any laws on the books offering legal protections against discrimination for you...uhm, what would you prefer to be called?"

Gregg detected a tightening in Joyce. He could hear the way her suit jacket shifted around heightened shoulders. He wasn't sure if she noticed his ear swiveling in her direction, but he signed. She relaxed when she spoke. "Br'ers is fine as a term."

Horace barked a surprised laugh. "Br'er? I hadn't heard that one, that's pretty cute."

Both of Gregg's ears swiveled forward as he signed. He wasn't sure if he was hoping to catch his boss in something inappropriate or if he was genuinely curious. Joyce hesitated before leaning in. "He wants to know what other terms you had heard."

Alarm flashed behind Horace's eyes. He shifted uncomfortably for just a second. "I...well, you know….never mind, it doesn't matter. What matters is what you prefer to call yourself. Br'ers it is."

Horace cleared his throat and began speaking immediately to bury the moment. "As I was saying, there aren't any laws protecting you, but I spoke with legal to make sure we added anti-discrimination clauses to the company conduct policy. I can guarantee you that you will not be paid less, looked over for a promotion or raise, or experience any hinderances to your career because of what you are. Anyone who uses slurs or engages in inappropriate behavior will be called in for a disciplinary review. If you hear or experience anything, I want you to come to me or Joyce first thing, OK?"

Gregg nodded. He wasn't sure what to say to that, but he was sure that Horace was serious about it. It warmed him to know that someone had his back, even after all this, and was dedicated to at least trying to make sure he could live a normal life. Or as normal as it could be, anyway.

"Good. Now...is there anything you need to do your job efficiently? Some accommodation that would make you more comfortable? I've given it some thought…"

Gregg's nose twitched a bit more rapidly now, and one of his ears flicked towards Joyce. Her nervousness was a lot more apparent now, the stone-faced mask slipping at last. He felt that sensation transfer to him, as if he should be readying himself for something bad. This was the other shoe, he realized, and his heart sank.

"...and maybe we can convert part of the storage room into a personal office. With those ears and that nose, I can only imagine how distracting sounds and smells must be for you." Horace leaned in, a look of grave concern on his face. "It's not too overwhelming in here, is it?"

Gregg looked bewildered. What did this dude think his senses were like? He simply shook his head.

Horace relaxed. "Ah, good. I can't imagine what it must be like, having those senses that you do. It must be kind of like being a superhero, right?" He chuckled.

Gregg looked at Joyce, who slumped. He signed to her, a longer response this time, and she repeated it back in halting and uncertain rhythm.

"He says that no, it's not like being a superhero. He has good hearing, and smell, but it's not like everything's louder or stinkier than before. It's just different."

"Oh really? That's interesting. Good to know!" Horace smiled with the pre-emptive satisfaction of being able to correct someone else later on down the line. "And, as far as...well...using the facilities…"

Here, Joyce's pale face drained of all color.

"...are you going to need space close to the bathroom? My niece has a rabbit, and that thing just goes wherever it wants. I remember hearing somewhere that rabbits can't hold it when they've got to go, so we want to make sure you can avoid any potential accidents."

Gregg was stunned. It took him a moment to understand what was being insinuated here, and when he did his ears swept back. He looked at Horace as if he was insane, but was pretty sure the man couldn't read his expression. Joyce frowned at him; he was sure it was a look of sympathy.

"I'm not a rabbit, though. I'm a man. Just different, like I said. I've never had an accident, and I don't plan to start now."

Horace laughed at that, long and loud. Gregg felt that initial flash of annoyance melting away, and allowed his ears to swing upright. Joyce even smiled, and just like that the moment passed.

"Well, good to know. Listen, Gregg, it's so good to have you back, I really mean that. If there's anything you need, just ask." Horace stood up and offered his hand. Reflexively, Gregg stood up and shook it. He allowed himself to relax. The meeting was over. It wasn't as bad as it could have been, and now he could go back to work.

He turned and walked out of the small office, flicking an ear back to hear Joyce hurrying after him. She reached up and touched his shoulder; when he stopped, she rose on her toes to whisper in his ear.

"I'm so sorry about that. Welcome back." She patted him once and rushed back into Horace's office.

Gregg grinned to himself. It took three steps for him to forget about the awkwardness of that exchange; he had to think about the mountains of email he would have to wade through in order to catch up.

jakebe: (Mythology)
This month for Fiction Friday, I'll be giving the Br'er scenario another try. I'm not sure what people thought of the couple fragments I posted last month, but I wasn't really happy with them -- I think they came across far too "woe is me, poor special snowflake" and less "these are some things that folks like me have to deal with". Not my best look, fam; sorry about that.

I'm writing a little about what I'd like to do with the idea here, not to prime you to read the upcoming bits of fiction in a certain way, but to hopefully solidify my intentions and use this as a guidepost to look back on at the end of the month when I want to know how I did with them. I know it's important to let the work speak for itself, right? But this is the first tentative step to more involved and more ambitious stories, and this writing desk here is going to be my workshop for now.


I'm writing Br'ers as a way to dig into my experience as a black man on the fringes of black society. In a lot of ways, my folks can tell there's something different about me just by looking -- either it's the clothes I wear, or the way I carry myself, or how I speak. There's this impression that I give off almost immediately that codes me as "other", and that feeling only deepens once I start talking.


At the same time, I am undeniably black and the rest of the world sees me that way. I'm lumped in with a community that has distanced me from itself by the dominant culture, and there's not much I can do about that. I occupy this border between the world of black America and the wider one, maybe not by choice, but by simply being who I am. And here, my options are somewhat limited; no one thing is going to be wholly satisfying.


I could forsake the black community entirely and step out into the wider world in search of an adopted people. That's what I've done for most of my life; in my senior year of high school I found Dungeons & Dragons, Changeling: the Dreaming and the furry fandom. I didn't look back for 15 years. These are the people who understood me, who've accepted me as one of their own, whose excitement I've shared. I've been a geek for about 20 years now; it's an enormous part of my identity.


But over the past couple of years I've felt a calling back "home". Maybe it's being in touch with my family again, learning about the first deaths that will signal many more for my older relatives, getting to talk to my nephews on the phone. Maybe it's knowing that I had an aunt who was a lesbian and never reaching out to her; now she's gone and it's too late. Maybe it's seeing this awful parade of abuse and death to our young black men and women and thinking that it could have been my sister's children on the news, or even my sister. Either way, something within me told me it was time to reassume this part of my identity, and I've been working out how ever since.


Learning about the black geek community has been a wonderful thing for that. These are people who've grown up in ways that I recognize, who have experiences that I share, who love the same things I do. What they haven't done is given up their racial and cultural identity the way I did; they've stayed on that border and made a settlement there. They're influenced by both worlds -- the black American culture that I've found so difficult to deal with and the bigger, whiter space of science-fiction and fantasy. Their space looks like nothing else, this fusion of a long, painful history combined with wild and unbridled imagination.


The concept of Br'er came to me as I was thinking about how to marry my furry identity with the larger world of black geekdom. I like the idea that someone waking up one day as markedly different forces them to the fringes anywhere they go; no matter where they are, chances are they're the only one of their kind in the room. A new species borne out of the antagonistic relationship we have with our planet is an idea I couldn't let go of. Br'ers, just by being who they are, remind us of the awful things we've done and force us to deal with that on some level.


I imagine that Br'ers were a sudden and immediate phenomenon. One day, one in twenty people -- mostly in the most blighted urban areas -- woke up to find themselves some weird combination of human and animal. Because the change seemed to be based on a type of environment, it disproportionately affected minorities and the poor. You know, the kind of people who tend to live in areas of urban blight. What these animal-human hybrids are called varies depending on the culture naming them; in black circles, they're named Br'ers.


Those who've undergone the change feel like strangers in their own skin, even after the six months to a year has passed where our story picks up. They have to rediscover their own bodies, wrestle with strange and different appetites, move through a world that simply has no idea what to make of them. Because of the vastly different shape of their faces, they have no idea how to speak up. They're voiceless, and any method of communication they can use as an alternative probably won't really capture what is they're feeling, what it is they want to say. It's a frustrating and lonely existence, even if they know that they're not alone, that there are other people out there like them.


Their families and neighbors are weirded out by them; this is something beyond their experience and they have no idea how to relate to them. The world at large might be more accepting, but there are trade-offs. Chances are they come from minority or low-income backgrounds, without a lot of social or political power; they're kind of exotic, but kind of dangerous, objects of fascination more than living breathing people. Folks will stop them on the street and ask to touch their fur, or wonder how they manage to do things with their claws, or -- only when they're drunk or feeling REALLY comfortable -- ask them if what they've heard about their sexual characteristics are true.


The world of the Br'er is one where there is almost no safe space; your neighborhood holds you at arm's length, anything beyond that might be well-meaning but ignorant at best and downright abusive at worst, and there's no guarantee even among your own kind that you'll find kinship for a whole host of reasons. On top of that, it's a long and arduous process to find peace about yourself and who you are. You may never truly fit in anywhere, and you have to be OK with that.


That's the experience I want to capture here. It'll take me a little while to get it right; I'm still a novice at writing fiction and working with subtext is something I'm going to have to learn. But it's an idea I believe in, and I'll keep trying to express it until I get it right.


So thanks in advance for being patient with me on this. Any feedback is welcome -- even if it's critical, even if you don't believe in the idea in the first place. I want to hear from you. I know the first passes are going to be rough, but I sacrifice my ego to the altar of story. I will crash and burn publicly, because I want to forge myself.
jakebe: (Fandom)

And here's the next little bit. Still figuring out the setting while trying to make connections between Greggory's experience and experiences I've had being a "black face in a white space". This one stems from SO MANY TIMES being the only black guy with the feeling of "you don't belong here" heavy in the air.

Oliver's Cafe had a strawberry and cheese danish that made Gregg salivate just thinking about it. In the long weeks and months that followed his transformation, it was one of the things on a small list that he brought to mind whenever he needed something to look forward to. Under quarantine, his diet was restricted to little more than hay and various vegetables -- he could eat them, but they weren't very appetizing.

The doctors and scientists discovered that it wasn't just the features that were a mixture of animal and man; his palate and nutritional needs had changed as well. He was technically still an omnivore, but his stomach frequently revolted a meat-rich meal and he found the smell of cooked flesh alarming, almost disgusting. Over time, once the shock of his new body had worn off, he found he preferred vegetables and fruits; a little bit of dairy here and there; and a powerful craving for sugar. Six months ago, Greggory had never been one for sweets. Now, he couldn't get enough of the stuff.

The cafe was on Calvert St., right on the way to work. Greggory would stop there every morning to pick up a large cup of coffee and a danish, and this was his first day back. As he squeezed out of his small coupe and made his way across the small parking lot towards the little row of shops Oliver's was nestled between, he felt himself tensing. This was supposed to be a small step towards normalcy, the first brick placed to put his life back in order. When he opened the door, he realized it simply wouldn't be that simple.

A sea of faces turned to stare at him. The room went quiet except for the folk-rock playing over tinny speakers. Greggory felt the burn of thirty pairs of eyes all centered on him; half the expressions were surprise, even shock -- the other half looked vaguely displeased. He had to imagine all of them were wondering what he was doing here.

Greggory smiled and lifted a hand. He waved clawed fingers at the gathered, and made his way in. He had no idea how he looked, but he wished more than anything people would stop staring at him. He was used to being the only man of his kind in one of these spaces, or so he thought; here, the difference burned at him, seeped into his skin in a way that made him feel acutely self-conscious. He felt like a foreign element contaminating the purity of a scene.

The tightness in his chest didn't ease when the barista smiled at him and asked, "Hey, what can I get started for you?"

He pulled out the tablet tucked under an arm and opened his writing app. His pointer claw acted as a natural stylus, but it still felt strange dragging the point of it over his screen. It wasn't something he thought he could ever get used to, even though his doctor swore he would. At least, until he relearned how to speak.

<<It's Gregg.>> He wrote, then showed it to the barista.

Her eyes flashed with recognition, surprise, and sympathy in the span of a second. "Oh! Greggory, hey!! It's so good to see you!" Other workers behind the counter glanced in his direction when they heard the name. Some smiled weakly and nodded, some went quickly back to work, their expressions unreadable. "I'm so sorry about…" Her voice trailed off, suddenly unsure.

<<It's OK. I'm fine. Hope you're fine too.>>

"Oh yeah, I'm good! It's gotten a lot busier here since they finally finished the construction." The barista glanced behind him, and her smile faded. "What can I get you?"

Greggory flicked an ear behind him and heard one...three...four people shuffling in line. He couldn't see their expressions, but he didn't need to. His chest felt tighter. He wiped his app and started writing quickly.

"What's that floating in the air?"

"I think that's fur."

"OK, that's gross."

He tried to ignore that as he wrote, flattening his ears against his head to keep from hearing any more. <<I'd like a large coffee, two sugar, three cream. And a strawberry danish.>>

The barista -- her name was Karen, according to her name tag, and Greggory felt a small pang of shame for not remembering -- smiled at him, glanced at the line, and nodded. "I got you. Is that for here or to go?"

"I hope it's to go," someone said behind him, a little louder.

Greggory's ear flicked up of its own accord, and his nervousness soured into anger. He was tempted to tell her that it would be for here, damned being late for work, and then sit in the middle of the cafe. He'd pour his coffee into a saucer and lick it up like a God-damned animal, lift up his shirt to scratch his furry belly, pluck out loose hairs and let them flow in the air…

<<To go.>>

Karen gave him a friendly and sympathetic smile, and it lightened his mood a little. "OK. Just hang on and your order will be waiting for you at the end of the bar."

Greggory stepped out of line and waited near the condiments. He could feel the eyes of people in line on him, saw people look up from where they were seated as he passed by. He did his best to ignore them, kept his ears folded, but he couldn't help but hear the conversation of the next person in line.

"So you're serving those animals in here now, huh?" The man was tall and white, with grey hair and blue eyes that looked down a strong, proud nose. Greggory imagined himself punching it.

"He's a paying customer here, just like you are." Karen's voice had a hard edge that he had never heard before. "What do you want?"

"Nothing, with that attitude. I'll get my coffee somewhere else." The man turned to leave. "Your manager will be getting a call from me."

The man glared at Greggory as he left. Greggory did his best to look anywhere else but at him.

"Here's your coffee dude." Another barista slipped a cup towards him, along with his pastry. "I gave you two pastries because...you know. Welcome back."

Something in Greggory's heart broke open. He perked his ears, stared at the young, skinny Indian man across the counter, and nodded. He couldn't say how much he appreciated it, but he hoped the other man knew it just the same.

He walked briskly to his car, opened the door and tossed his pastries into the passenger seat. He barely managed to fumble the keys into the ignition before tears started to flow. It took him ten minutes before his vision cleared enough that he trusted himself leaving the parking lot.

jakebe: (Default)
This weekend was largely productive! I spent a great deal of time working through emails we've received in our New Fables account and making sure we started sending out responses to people; we're not quite out of the woods yet, but a great deal of the thicket has been cleared. It's been really interesting reading through the submissions we've received. (I'm a slush-pile reader for New Fables, by the way). It's a great window into what tends to get thrown our way with poems and short stories, and there's a tremendous spread of talent out there. As I read more and more submissions, I find that my senses on what makes a good story (or poem!) are fine-tuning. There's a certain 'je ne s'ais quoi' that's usually apparent within three paragraphs or so that tells me if I'm intrigued enough to continue. That sense isn't developed enough where I feel I can safely reject a story by that point, so I usually end up reading the whole thing if I can. But often, my first instinct serves me well.

My writing work hasn't been going quite as well. I wanted to write a short story for this year's "Heat," and while it's proven to be more difficult than I thought it would be I haven't given up on it just yet. I've just given up on it being written in time for this year's "Heat". :)

There's been a great conversation over the past several months about diversity in sci-fi/fantasy. People have talked a lot about how novels and short stories don't serve women or people of color very well, and I'm really glad that people are having this discussion now. As a black man, I haven't really noticed a dearth in people like me in sci-fi novels, but I can't lie -- if someone wrote a modern fantasy that featured characters from say, inner-city Baltimore, I'd read the hell out of it! I think there's an opportunity for folks like me to tell stories that are influenced by their background; it makes them unique in flavor and perspective, but if the story's good enough it can be relatable to just about anyone. If I can put myself in the shoes of the young white male protagonist, for example, there's no reason why someone else couldn't imagine themselves as a young black guy.

I feel like I have a fairly unique background and perspective. I'm a gay, black Buddhist who grew up in inner-city Baltimore and consciously made the decision to distance myself from my family and my culture. To a large extent, my sexuality catalyzed that distance, but I'm sure I could reach out and reconnect with certain members of my family at this point. But to be honest, I don't want to. The reasons for that are complicated, messy and (if I'm really honest) shameful and wince-inducing -- all ripe material for stories, as it turns out! I want to use my life experiences to fuel my writing in some significant way. I would really like to emerge as an off-center voice in the chorus of furry/sci-fi/fantasy literature.

But in order to do that, I have to write. My story idea for "Heat" involved a zebra taking her rabbit boyfriend to a family function for the first time. I wanted to make a conscious choice with the species for each character, to use them as a sort of shorthand/analog for societal, racial and background types. The zebra "coming home" to a world that she remembers and struggles to reconcile with is a theme that resonates with me; I wanted to explore the tension I feel between the life I have now and the one I've left behind. How has the zebra changed in her many years away from her family? How will she be seen by the people she left behind? What traits have she kept, which ones has she buried only to have re-emerge in proximity to her family? Will this contact to her old world help her synthesize these two parts of herself?

I often wonder about this sort of thing. I'm a minority that comes from a distinct culture, making a go at joining the majority culture (sort of). I know I could be seen by a lot of people as an Uncle Tom, an Oreo, a race-traitor. Someone could say easily that I've forgotten where I've come from. But you know what? It's not true. I remember where I came from all the time, and it's a big reason why I'm here instead.

It turns out the themes I want to explore in this story aren't quite easily done in a 5,000 word piece of erotica. I need more time with the idea, to see how it relates to the characters whose story I'm telling, to see how I can juggle this kind of subject matter in a short story. It turns out you can't really pick at old wounds on a lark.

So, in order to get my writing mojo back for now, I'll fall back to something that's a bit easier for me to bang out: macro stories! I have a fun little piece that I'm working on for Megamorphics, and I'll try to use a few writing.com interactives as a sort of 'stretching exercise'. I'll be using these little story bits to focus on the skills I feel I'll need to tell the zebra's story -- a clear sense of character and history, the ability to use setting to set a mood, how to pack in complicated detail in simple-sounding paragraphs. Meanwhile, Leticia and Dale will have to wait for next year's "Heat".
jakebe: (Fandom)
(The Clarion Write-A-Thon fundraiser was...unsuccessful, to put it mildly. I wasn't able to drum up any donations for the workshop and subsequently my will to follow through on writing Unstable Future plummeted. I didn't actually write much of it at all during the write-a-thon, and to date have raised no money for Clarion.

I'm still planning to write it though -- it's an exciting world and I'm really excited about the serialized concept. Right now I'm learning Scrivener so that I can take advantage of its organizational capabilities to keep me together through the project, and once I feel I have a good handle on it Unstable Future will be the very first thing I work on there. For now, though, here's a small bit of Chapter 1. We're introduced to the setting and the main character here, and I wanted to make it something that folks outside of the furry fandom could pick up reasonably quickly.)

Waterford Avenue in Oleander City was named after the town's founder, a Human named Samuel Waterford. He and a dozen-other shell-shocked families stumbled through the wilderness of Farellia after the war that had threatened to end their civilization until he arrived at a large valley nestled between ranges of hills. The land was good, the weather was temperate, and the wood was plentiful. Here is where we will settle, he decided. So he spent a fortnight sketching out plans for a small farming community and together the settlers built Oleander from their bare hands over the course of several years. The city was named after Waterford's favorite plant, the nerium oleander. For all he knew, it was extinct, one of those things that was lost with the conflict that had consumed the known world. It was the only way he had to remember it, and it was a fitting name for the 83 survivors who now lived there. They were hardy and pretty in their own way, but each one of them were deadly poisonous if they had to be.

Over 150 years had passed since Oleander was founded, but Waterford Avenue had kept much of its ancient charm. Buildings of wood and brick lined the streets, fitted with raised porches that protected people from the dirt of the road. Each building housed one or two shops, many of which had been there since the town's inception. Roland's General Store, The Rose's Thorn Restaurant, Bambarella Hardware. There were other shops that were newer, of course, but each was owned by a member of the community that was known by most of the town's 200 residents. Oleander hadn't grown much in the past century and a half, but many changes were evident.

The road had been paved very recently with smooth asphalt, blacker than the night sky in October. A few of the stores had replaced their old signs with ones of neon, and Shackleman's Dive, the most popular bar in town, even fitted their storefront with a hologram. In the center of town, where Oleander's clock tower had stood for over a century, a floating observation deck was being built on the rubble of the old structure. It was nominally a gift from the technological college that had risen to prominence in the last twenty years, but several of the long-time residents saw it as a clear message: progress is coming, and we will build it upon the bones of the past.

Many symbols of the past were still around, however, rolling slowly down the newly-paved road. A Rabbit drove a large cart down the right side of Waterford Avenue, pulled by a large workhorse. The Mare was solidly built in the manner of her wild cousins, her thick fur and tough hide revealing tremendous strength rolling underneath it as she easily brought the Rabbit and his cart behind her. The Animal sitting in the cart's high seat was bipedal, like a Human, but looked like a leporidae in every other way. He had white fur, brown eyes, long ears and a short, spaded tail that currently flicked in annoyance as he spotted the line stretching out the front door of Roland's General Store.

"Goddamnit," said Abernathy Jones. He tugged on the reins of the cart in front of the nearest hitch (there weren't that many any more; most of them had been pulled up and replaced with parking spots) and sighed as Krystal slowed quickly to a stop.

"Watch your fucking language," the Horse said, turning her long head on her thick neck to look at him over her shoulder. "You shouldn't be so crude in front of a lady."

Abe quirked an ear and smiled. "I'm very sorry," he said. "I forgot my company, and it shan't happen again."

"It fucking well better not." Krystal turned to investigate the trough of water in front of her. She took one sniff at it and snorted; Abe would have guessed that it wasn't fresh, and wouldn't be surprised if it had algae growing in it. Gerald Port, the current owner of Roland's General Store, couldn't be bothered with paying attention to the 'small' details that were easy to take for granted. Abe would surely have to badger him into filling a fresh bucket for her when he got in.

"Just stay there, and I'll make sure you get some fresh water and some nice oats. If I ever get to the front of the line." Abe hopped down off of the cart, right onto the raised platform that served as a walkway between shops. A few of the Animals in line glanced his way, then turned right back to their conversations.

"I'm not going anywhere," Krystal replied. She took a long, lazy look at the line, then stared at Abe. "It doesn't look like you'll be, either."

Abe grinned at her in a way that let her know how much he hated her in that moment. She responded by snorting before finding something very interesting on the road in front of her. He walked back a ways to join the back of the line, ignoring the chatter of the Animals along the way.
jakebe: (Default)

(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.

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