Written by Deft Beck
Illustration by Janiko
Tito waited at the front of the family property for Otto. As usual, it seemed like his father operated on a clock that ran five to ten minutes slower than the rest of the universe. At least his tardiness was predictable.
Tito leaned against the restaurant grate. It was a heavy metal grate designed to protect the front of the business from burglars and the occasional sandstorm. That was one of the perks of living inside a major canyon; you may not have money, but you have the privilege of a beautiful view with shining sand that gets everywhere you don’t want it. Tito smoothed his hair out, trying to get rid of his bed-head and whatever grains of sand had settled in there. His green scales reflected the sun a little too much, making him have to squint in the light of the rising sun.
He looked across the street to see an unoccupied piece of property. A year ago, it was a smoke shop, owned by a gomben whose proboscis always looked stained with some sort of powder. The business did well for a little while, but the latest round of excise taxes and import restrictions choked the business more than the perpetual muggy clouds that surrounded its patrons. The smell from the smoked-out shop still lingered around the property, which made Tito hold his breath whenever he walked by. While the place was long-gone, its closure was a boon for the local dealers, whose raised prices caused Tito and his Dad’s personal smoke stash to diminish over time. Tito wondered what would happen to the property now that it was empty. A for-sale sign was posted on the inside of the main window.
Tito stretched out his arms and continued to ponder. Perhaps his mother would buy the property. She would see that the building was available, then she would dial up the number and negotiate a price. She’d find someone looking to open their own business, and within a few weeks, the shop would be open. Together with the lessee, as well as help from Tito’s fraternal twin, Kate, the business would be nurtured to prosperity. As of recent years, trying to do that afresh was like trying to give a dry desert plant some water. The problem was in its soil, not in its caretaker. And the caretakers of this city cared not for its soil nor for any of the plants outside of its walled garden.
Otto approached Tito, his hands in his pockets and his back slouched. Otto looked like Tito had been left out in the sun too long, his skin wrinkled around the eyes and his hairline creeping a bit up his scalp. He scratched his trim stomach, his lean arms betraying the usual signs of aging. As much as Uncle Keet got on his case, his dojo kept Otto’s body at least looking somewhat young. Still, Otto looked like he wanted to curl up on a stoop and go back to sleep. Everyone nowadays seemed to be falling asleep right where they stood. In Otto’s case, as long as he could make it to the coffee maker inside and wait ten minutes, he’d be back to himself before long. As he reached the grate, Otto dug into his pockets to get the restaurant key. Tito put his hands in his pockets as his father checked all four of his pockets four times each. Tito pulled out his own key. Otto grinned and snapped his fingers.
“Always prepared,” he said. Even when half-asleep, his father’s charm shone right through. Tito just wished his father would remember his key ring for once. Tito unlocked the grate and the two of them bent down to begin hoisting it upwards.
Nicor Noodles. The neon sign out front covered up the remains of the old sign, which was decommissioned a couple of years ago. When you went to Nicor Noodles for lunch or dinner, you could order and receive their noodles at the front counter, offering a direct view of the kitchen from the street. If you wanted to sit down, you could make your way to one of the sturdy stools that lined the front bar. And if you wanted something more cozy, you could walk past the bar and grab a seat at the small tables that dotted the rest of the floor space. The place was big enough to fit a crowd of reptons or a battalion full of blassnaughts. Otto boasted of how his chairs could seat both his lithe figure and his husband’s huge frame at the same time, but if you were a boozed-up blassnaught with an appetite for a brothy bowl, you were better off standing up. Though the restaurant was empty during the morning, when lunchtime came around, the place would be filled with people tapping their foot in line, their eyes cast up towards the chalkboard where the day’s specials were listed.
On the specials board, the light green chalk was nearest to the edge of the chalk holder, meaning it was Tito’s turn to figure out the day’s specials. Visions of spicy keffla flakes and aromatic goosha broth appeared in Tito’s mind, making him salivate. Tito and his father had a competition going to make the spiciest noodle dish. The way to see who was in the lead was to see which of their specials made Ray’s tail bristle more. The specials were one way to make the day extra-special. Although, with food supplies becoming sparser and harder to procure for a decent price, they seemed to be getting less and less special. Tito licked his lips as he wrote down the “Firestorm”, which he declared in big letters to be a noodle bowl that would make you feel like your tongue was caught in a fiery tornado. He drew a little chalk whirlwind around the letters. The other specials included milder, more aromatic dishes, for sensitive tongues. There was really something for everyone. No matter how much of a pain in the butt it was to work at this restaurant, making and eating the food was one of the best parts about working there.
With the specials decided, Tito went to the back to prepare the coffee. He glanced at his father, who had his head down as he dusted off the tables. As soon as Otto was done with his current chores, he’d grab a cup of coffee and then go behind the bar in the dinner hall, where he’d spike his cup with a nip of something that’d make his scales tingle. It might not have helped his speed, but whatever helped him get through the day was his choice. Tito sighed as he scooped in enough beans to keep three people awake until noon, when their undivided attention would be needed for the lunch rush. Coffee was the best out of all the Imperial staples. Sure, the beans were tiny and got everywhere, and the end beverage was a bit grainy and almost too bitter for its own good, but that kind of shock to your taste buds was just the thing you needed to wake up in the morning and do your work. It was, Tito thought, one of the best parts of waking up.
As the coffee began bubbling, Tito began setting up the tables and their old, wooden chairs. He peeked outside to see a bushy tail attached to a busy, busy furnesean sweeping the front of the restaurant. Even before putting on his uniform, Ray made sure that every single speck of dust and sand was as far away as possible from the front of their establishment, to show to any passers-by that this was the prime place to park yourself, hide from the sand and enjoy some delicious noodles. Ray paused and sniffed the air.
“You’ve got the coffee on, Tito?” Tito nodded. Ray smiled and gave a thumbs up. Nothing escaped his nose. No matter if it was wafting up from his full bowl of noodles or sneaking up from the corner of his nose, it caught his attention. His nose for food was to blame for his big belly; even if some of the Bannos ran big, Ray pushed it. While Brudon stood like a wall, uncompromising, Ray was round, sweet and soft. It made him easy to approach, but almost a little sad.
Ray continued to sweep, pushing all of the dirt into the street. With proper funding, the streets would sweep themselves, with a fleet of artifici, automated metal boxes that would whir along the streets early in the morning. At least, they used to, before recent municipal cuts. So, alongside Ray, you would see all manner of small businesspeople sweeping the front of their establishment. And if anyone could not, for whatever reason, then you could trust that their neighbor would do theirs, too. It was just like what Tito learned in school — trust the kingdom, trust your neighbors, trust yourself that you will be taken care of. That was the idea, at least.
Ray finished sweeping as Tito was laying down the last of the utensils and napkins. He put his hands on his hips and surveyed the restaurant floor.
“This place has never looked nicer, Tito.”
Ray began to scratch the side of his head.
“I hope people don’t call out of their shifts today.”
“I dunno, the weather’s getting nice, and it’s almost the weekend. I wouldn’t blame them if they wanted to go to the lake.”
Otto arrived out of the break room, holding a coffee cup. He looked wired already.
“If they wanna go to Lake Ragna, I’ll go there and push them in.”
“You wouldn’t do that…” Ray said. Otto shrugged.
“Why not? They get to cool off and I get my revenge!”
“Everyone wins!” Tito said, laughing a little. Ray shuddered.
“What if it’s one of those blassnaughts?” Though Ray was tall for the Nicor-Banno clan, he wasn’t nearly as big as the average blassnaught. One punch and Ray would end up on his furry behind.
“So what?” Otto said. “I can take ‘em.” He made a fist and shook it. In Otto’s mind, he was seven feet tall, and tough enough to take on any blassnaught that threatened his husband.
“You’re such a tough guy,” Ray said, giving Otto a smooch.
“And you’re my big furry buddy.” Otto held his nose close to Ray’s cheek, enjoying the warmth. Otto pulled back and shook his cup.
Soon, everyone had a cup of fresh-brewed coffee. Otto sat at one of the stools nearest to the specials board, which he pointed at with his cup.
“Four credits for the Firestorm bowl? I dunno if the construction people are gonna swallow that one.”
Ray rubbed his chin as he leaned against the counter.
“Hm…Well, what’s the minimum wage right now?”
Tito peeked into the break room and saw the electric sign displaying the current minimum wage.
“Eight credits an hour,” Tito said. Although, with any luck, that was going to change, thanks to an inevitable radio signal from the Imperial Work Committee.
“That seems like a reasonable price,” Ray said. “After all, it’s basically half an hour of work.”
“What about taxes?” Otto said, setting his cup down. “After all the little nibbles that the IWC takes out, it’s closer to an hour of work.”
“Yeah, an hour of work for a construction worker,” Ray said, sipping his coffee. “For any of the sand counters in the canyon, it’s a little under an hour’s worth of work.”
“And it takes them an hour to get to the broth!” Otto grumbled to himself.
“So what? They might order more while they’re sitting there,” Tito said. “Have you seen how those go through the mamon beans?”
“Yeah,” Ray said. “I’m happy as long as people are in here and enjoying themselves.”
Otto squeezed his fingers together like he was squeezing a mamon bean out of its fleshy shell.
“I want people in and out of here as soon as they can,” Otto said.
Ray’s smile drooped a little.
“I guess that makes sense for the lunch hour.”
“Of course. We’ve only got so many seats in this place for the lunch rush.”
“If they wanna come in here and hang around, they can come and drink after their shifts are over,” Tito said, ribbing Otto. Otto tried to hide it, but he couldn’t help but smile at his son.
“As long as we have enough people to work the kitchen area and the floor, I guess we can handle anything.”
“That’s right,” Otto said. He went up to Ray and held his hand. “I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the cooks…” He gave Ray a kiss on the cheek. “Let’s make lots of money.” Ray blushed and kissed him back. Otto might have had a mouth, but he knew how to use it.
With their coffee finished, the family members continued to set up the restaurant floor. Tito worked at a normal pace, buffing out black marks from the wooden floors and making sure the dust was out of the way of the kitchen or anywhere it could settle into food. If a customer got dust carried on their skin or fur into their meals, it was their fault, but if they tasted sand in their broth, Tito would have an unhappy customer on his hands. Ray weaved from room to room, taking care of a couple of new chores every time he noticed something out of order or otherwise unaddressed. He was meticulous, even checking the sound of the chairs as he moved them against each table, to make sure they weren’t making new scuffs. All the while, Otto went at his own pace, slow enough to stare at random people or things and meditate on them. If Tito knew any better, Otto was on the strong stuff. No wonder, with everything that they had been going through as of late. Even if he wasn’t acting normal by any regular person’s standards, it was his normal, and his prerogative. The work still got done, and that’s what mattered.
Soon, the restaurant floor was ready for the afternoon shift. Otto put his hands on his hips.
“That was quick,” he said.
“Quick for you, maybe,” Tito barbed. Otto narrowed his eyes at him.
“It gets done, doesn’t it?”
Tito nodded, bobbing his head to the side, in a way that humored and jabbed at his dad’s lack of care. Ray grinned.
“Whatever we need to keep this place clean for the lunch rush!”
Otto’s eyes lidded and he rubbed his forehead. He walked over to Ray and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Mind if we chat for a second?”
Ray’s ears lowered and his face grew heavy with concern. Otto put his hand on his shoulder to reassure him before the two of them went towards the back hallways.
Tito was left alone to do the last spot check of the restaurant floor. Ray’s attention to detail was visible in Tito’s work. As Tito worked, people from the street turned their heads or poked their heads inside, to get a whiff of their eventual lunch, or to just annoy Tito. All manner of local species were present — reptons with tattered shirts, or even no shirts at all, furneseans with shorter hair than either Ray or his son, and the occasional, lumbering blassnaught, whose full, huge figure was not visible from inside the restaurant. It was the usual mix of people, all people who walked by this place and would later be crowding inside, trapping Tito in a prison full of noodles.
Until Tito caught a glimpse of someone, no, something he had never seen before. It had tanned, almost sunburnt skin, and it wore oversized clothes, stolen, maybe. It peeked inside for a second before catching Tito’s eyes. As soon as the encounter had started, it was over, and all Tito heard was the sound of running feet down the sidewalk. Tito went toward the sound and peered down the sidewalk, seeing nothing. He just stared out at the dusty air for a moment.
If he wasn’t seeing things, Tito had just seen a human.
Tito heard a ringing sound. He looked up from his sudden spell to see that someone rang the bell sitting in the middle of the front bar.
It was his sister, Kate, sitting on one of the bar stools. She was dressed in her desert-ready wear, ready for the day’s deliveries.
“Good morning, Tito,” she said.