Max smiled as Doug opened the door, “Hey, are you all set to go?”
“Yeah, sure. Where are we going?”
“That depends, how are you feeling now?”
“Much better. I had a nap and a shower, I don’t feel all that sick or anything.”
“Good, I was hoping as much, in that case I think we’ll give Rosie’s a try, if it’s too much for you we can leave, but I think you’ll enjoy it, besides there’s someone I want you to meet.”
“I thought I’d introduce you to Maggie.”
“Didn’t you say she was dangerous?”
“Well, yes and no. She’s powerful, like, crazy powerful, also, don’t take any gifts from her, rarely is anything from her free. Don’t make any deals or agreements either. I don’t expect her to be like that tonight, but I just wanted to give a warning. She promised me she wouldn’t hurt you when you met, but that’s not much use. She wouldn’t agree to anything more.”
“This just sounds better and better.”
“She really isn’t all that scary. I’m just trying to prepare you. Just in case. It’ll be fine though, it really will.”
They left the apartment building, “so, who were you, before?”
“Me? I was no one. Really, I mean that. I had no family, no friends, worked in a crappy job I hated.”
“Then how did you get to be a part of the council?”
“Well, when the wall came down people panicked, I mean freaked the fuck out, understandably of course, but it was mayhem, absolute and complete. Riots, robbery, attacks. I helped calm things down, saved a few people here and there. Talked some other people down. It wasn’t any kind of power grab or anything, things just seemed to fall into my lap, people liked me, trusted me to help them, keep them safe. Some of the people I fought against now are my closest friends. I don’t really hold how people behaved back then against them.”
“But surely you should, I mean, when something like that happens you get to see what people are really like, don’t you?”
“I don’t believe that. I believe I got to see what people were like when they were terrified, when they were afraid that they, or their family were going to die. I mean, we didn’t know what was going on, lots of people thought it was some kind of terrorist attack and with all the new powers floating around that didn’t seem implausible, I mean it made more sense than magic wall. No one knew who they could or should trust. It took a lot for people to come back from that and I respect them for it. We’ve come a long way in three years. When those walls came down it was anarchy, and now we’ve a society, we’re functioning, we have law and order. People are happy to walk through the streets, nobody starves or freezes to death. That is what people are really like. They care, but they have to fight through a thousand instincts screaming self preservation in order to show it and that takes a lot of guts. It’s easy to stab someone in the back and steal their food, it’s harder to share it knowing it might be the last food you hold in your hands for a long, long time.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes. As they walked, Doug looked around the street, at the working streetlights, at the few cars that were parked up. It looked like a regular city, if not one with much less traffic. He could see lights in the windows the buildings, occasionally glimpsing an occupant as they walked by. The streets were not deserted, but there were only a few people out, rather than feeling creepy, it felt safe. There were well maintained trees planted regularly along the sidewalk, it all added up to make it a pretty nice place, even if it was a kind of prison for the people inside.
After a little while, Max broke the silence.
“They probably told you that they came in, sorted us out and we went back to being civilised. It was six months before they came in, eight before they offered any aid whatsoever. We already had the council at that point, it was new and a little shaky, sure, but we had it. They came in, thinking we were already dead or under attack by aliens or something. They didn’t expect to find us alive, functioning and recovering. If we hadn’t pulled together, they’d have been right. We fixed the problems ourselves, sure the government helped, but we did most of it.”
“I thought the government came in immediately, sent in teams for observation, brought food and aid, they said there were all sorts of diseases going around.”
Max smiled slightly, “yeah, I’ll bet. They sent in a group for observation. They lasted an hour before they fled. There was no aid, no help. Sure some of us were sick, but not that bad. There was no epidemic. They probably said that as a cover, could claim that we all just died out if they had to kill us all. Of course now they’ll say differently, say they thought the change was a sickness. That’s bull. The change isn’t pleasant, it lasts a few days, but it wasn’t communicable, we figured that out pretty quick. It would have been obvious to any outside source looking in.”
“You sound bitter.”
Max smiled again, this time wider. “It’s all in the past. No point in dwelling on it now. You’ll find some bitter people in here, no doubt about it, they think that the government failed them. I don’t think that, I think they made a pisspoor effort with what they had, but at least they tried. I think some of them are just still angry that people they knew and loved died. I mean we didn’t lose nearly as many as we could, or should have, but we still lost a lot. I don’t hold anything against your government. I don’t particularly trust them all that much, but I don’t blame them for what we went through. I think it was necessary. A kind of chrysalis. We could throw away what we didn’t need, keep what we did. We try to run things with the best intentions, but it doesn’t always work out. That’s something we learned pretty quick. Intentions count for shit when it comes down to it all.”
Rosie’s was bristling with people, Doug felt slightly off when he scanned the crowd, but nothing was close to how he felt before. The place was dotted with tables, most were completely filled, staff weaved their way through carrying trays of food and drinks, the walls were lined with booths and in the centre was a square bar lined with stools. The bartenders in the centre of the room were a bit more sedate than the rest of the servers, but were still moving quickly. Max led Doug through the crowd to the back, where there was an empty table.
“I didn’t expect it to be so busy. I would have chosen somewhere a bit quieter if I’d have known.”
They sat and a second later a waiter appeared, hanging them both menus before pulling a small pad from his pocket, he flipped to a new page, “Hi guys, welcome to Rosie’s, would you like a drink while you peruse the menu?”
The waiter was of average height, but it looked like he had been made out of gold, his skin shone faintly, as did his hair, his eyes were a bright, almost impossible, sky blue. Doug tried not to stare.
“Could I have a coke?”
“Make it two.”
The waiter jotted it down, nodded then disappeared. They looked at the menus in silence, it was pretty standard restaurant fare. The waiter appeared again with their drinks, “are you ready to order or do you need a minute?”
“No, I’m ready, you?”
Doug nodded. They placed their orders, the waiter scribbled it down, then taking the menus, left them again. They sat in comfortable silence while Doug surveyed the room, he felt a little bad staring at people, but no one seemed to notice all that much. After a moment, his head started to feel a bit swimmy, he redirected his gaze to the table, “are you feeling ok?”
“Yeah, little head rush.”
“Have a drink, the sugar will help.”
Doug picked up his coke and took a sip without looking up. When he started to feel better he looked at Max again.
“Was it like this in the beginning? When people started to change?”
“Yes and no, we didn’t get it nearly as bad as you or the army guys, though good news, once you go through it all that’s it, you’re set for life. I think because there were less of us at the time we got used to it a lot more easily. It lasted about the same amount of time for us, probably a bit longer as we were all feeling shitty anyway. Then when the change happened, if you were still feeling it, it went away completely.”
Doug scanned the room again. “it’s pretty intense. I’d never thought I’d see something like this. I mean, even knowing it’s real, it’s hard not to think some of them are just wearing make up or costumes.”
“There’s some people out there that are still a bit hard to look at, unless their your own kind, makes your head hurt a little. It can be a bit hard to understand them too, the words sound all garbled. Takes a while to get used to it.”
“Are there many like that?”
“A couple, we’re not sure how many, they all keep to themselves really. They’ve a few representatives we meet with every few weeks or so depending on any issues they have and the severity of them. Mostly they’re able to look after themselves.”
“Would it be possible for me to meet one of them too?”
Max frowned, “I’m honestly not sure. I don’t think I’ve seen a pure human meet them before, I don’t know what’ll happen. We could give it a shot if you like, though it might be a little dangerous. If you’re comfortable with it we could set it up so you can’t see them, just hear. I don’t know, I’ll ask the others, they might be able to come up with an easy solution to it.”
Doug looked around once more, wondering what it would be like to meet something that screwed with these people. It was almost like a normal restaurant, he could see friends chatting, couples holding hands, but everyone looked, simply put, wrong. Sure, a few looked human, but Doug was sure that none of them were. Some had simple things, like strange and brightly coloured skin or hair, others were tall, towering at high tables and chairs at the back. Others were large, unbelievably so, taking up the space where three or four people could easily sit. Despite the size of some of the patrons, the place didn’t seem overly full. Whoever had changed everything around had done a good job, making sure that there was enough space for everyone.
The food arrived a moment later, the waiter placed their food down and with a smile asked if there was anything else. Assuring him they were fine, he left to check on another table.
Doug took a bite of his food, lasagne. It was perfect. Just the right balance of meat, sauce, pasta and cheese.
“Oh my god. This is the best lasagne I’ve ever eaten.”
“Rosie’ll be delighted when she hears that. She makes it herself.” Max was steadily cutting off pieces of steak and popping them into his mouth, occasionally pausing to eat a chip or take a sip of coke.
After the plates had been cleared, the waiter returned again, bearing two plates of cheesecake, “Rosie sends this with her compliments and she wanted me to thank you for what you said, it meant a lot to her,” the waiter grinned, “She said it wasn’t like you had to lie about it so she’d keep feeding you.”
“How did she know?”
Max looked amused, “don’t worry about it. Tell her thanks.”
The waiter nodded and left them. Doug looked around, the ambient noise meant no one was close enough to have been eavesdropping. He frowned at the cheesecake, then picked up a fork, it, like the lasagne, was perfect. light and creamy. Doug ate slowly, savouring each bite. When he was finished, he found himself absolutely stuffed and wishing he had room for more.
“This is one of the more popular places, I’m sure you see why. In a bit they’ll stop serving food, sometimes they have bands in too. Everyone is pretty friendly. C’mon, we’ll go say hi to Maggie now. She’s over there at the back.”
Doug looked to where Max was pointing but couldn’t see who he was talking about, there was an empty booth against the back wall. Doug stood and followed Max around the tables, Max would occasionally wave or call out to someone, but he never slowed too much.