It was Nightmare cuisine, but not cuisine from a nightmare. The black furred centaurs with their gloomy veils had a predilection for mostly vegetarian affairs with meat shuffled covertly onto the sides of dishes smushed into the bottom bits of the menu, outside of the view of the tenacious. The restaurant, which for the sake of pride and dignity Milo did not attempt to pronounce the curvy and twisty letters and hyphens that manifested it over the entry arch, was built into a stretch of prairie and grassland that stretched out for some many miles. It wasn’t at the edge of Greencrest but it did eventually worm its way out, a handful of dirt pathways carved for cars, but it was primarily made for the monsters of the city that needed either larger transportation or no transportation at all.
Milo had ordered a salad, which he found waiting for him past the seafoam entry way and through the large trenches that separated tables and made way for the many hoofed waitresses and the odd human running frantically to cover the distance the centaurs covered in half their time in a trot. It was a restaurant mainly for the monsters who the human style of city life did not fully complement, and of course those who were smaller but rich and bougy enough to treat it like exotic cuisine.
Hilda was at a table near the back, which Milo imagined might have bruised her ego if it were a more orthodox eatery that catered to the leg impaired. She had her hands crossed and around her waist, scanning the barn sized restaurant with a patient gaze. She locked onto Milo as she shuffle walked over, and there was a hint of frigid vengeance to rival his own mother’s that made him pick up his pace.
His salad was not even green as much as it was a mutant strain of vomit. The leaves tasted bitter in his mouth long before he risked a bite, and it was strung about with the mutilated remains of kale and almonds like the slushy remains of some plant based deer. There were vanity vegetables sprinkled over it, there for appearance but not for help in providing even an earthy tang to the leaves and the strings. He would have a glass of water to work with and he noted the singular slice of bread on a small plate next to his dish as Hilda pulled out his chair.
Across from him, she was eating a fucking steak. He saw the slab of meat like it was the braised leg of god, a light beam of sunlight coming in through the massive windows, accompanied with a red liquid in, a wine glass?
“Uh, beet juice?” Milo asked, as he was being tucked into his seat. Hilda stifled a chuckle, walked back to her seat with a type of bounce in her step like she was leading a charge of goose steppers, but was the one at the front who didn’t have to work as hard.
“No.” She answered him with the thin smile that kept her teeth carefully restrained behind her bottom lip. “Is that a problem? Did you want some?”
This was some kind of trap question, Milo knew. Monsters, or most monsters, could drink around eighteen. Something about their physiology, but it varied from type to type. Jean had been flaunting it for years, and the other two followed in short succession. Humans couldn’t drink until at least twenty, depending on the state.
So he was supposed to say no. That felt wrong though, and that wasn’t some misplaced sense of pride directing his thoughts. Or it wasn’t only just pride. If someone gives you a question and they already know the answer, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for them to ask and it makes even less sense for him to give them that answer.
“What is it?” Milo settled on. There had been a pause, and it was notable if not severe. He could still say he was hanging in there, scrapping for space in whatever kind of verbal tug of war he was pretty sure this was.
“Red wine. That’s why it’s in a wine glass.” She smiled sweetly, the bitch.
“I don’t think I can drink that.” Milo said, still dodging saying no outright.
“I don’t think you can either.” Hilda agreed, sharp tooth poking out of the smile now. “That’s because there are things I can do that you can’t do. Why do you think that is?”
“Well.” Because he was a human. Instead of that he said, “Your body isn’t like mine.”
“Right. I’m bigger. And I’m stronger.” Hilda cut through the thick flank of steak like parting a sheet of paper. The knives for them were bigger than human cutting instruments, as well as sharper and not typically made of plastic.
“And I’m not being mean by saying that. That’s the way the world works.” Hilda continued, which didn’t seem that great of a rationale to Milo. It’s a fact that the sun might explode one day, but it’s still a little ill-spirited to bring it up whenever you feel like it. “And when you’re….not above someone but in a position of privilege over them, you have to think about how what you do affects them and how to provide for them.”
“Okay.” Milo said. His mother had more money than Hilda’s mother was what he wanted to say, but his teeth clenched autonomously onto his tongue before he could. He was still swirling the dark green amalgamation on his plate, sometimes taking miniscule scoops to snake some of the greens into his mouth and snake them down his throat around his taste buds. Even with this maneuvering, little trails of bitterness lingered in his mouth and would not be washed down even with the water.
“And you agree with that, right?” Hilda looked up from her steak to ask him the question, a smile immobile on her face. There was not even a smear of steak juice on her lip and her napkin lay perfectly folded out of sight. She was some kind of affectation of a pristine and shiny office jinko, fake and lethal like the ones who smiled too wide and bowed their heads too low when Milo’s mother walked by.
“People who have more than others should do more for others.” Milo chanted. He did believe it, but the exact saying and the slant of sing-song that haunted it was a holdover from his mother’s childhood teaching, and he was annoyed he defaulted to it when placed under this pressure.
“Exactly.” Hilda smiled. Some trap had been sprung and he had fallen into it, but the beast of the conversation took its head back into its shell and the table was washed back in Hilda’s droning description of her last week of school and her probing questions. Soon she had forcibly drawn him into more than one word answers and had pestered him about his salad enough that he had to finally take bites of it instead of sideways slurping.
It returned after a while like it did last weekend: The feeling. A rhythm of conversation and response was no longer being developed but was in full force. The one word “Yes” and “No” answers weren’t sufficient anymore for Hilda and she would dig into his words and stretch and thin them out in the space between them until he was forced to speak and make points and listen to her dissect them. His own opinions were quietly dismantled and supplanted with Hilda’s own, as he could not think to argue back and could not find words to enter her own stream of thought and argue.
In the moments of that lunch Milo felt it stretch further into time, into some point that could be five or fifty years from this moment or anything in-between those points, where he would be sat down at another table across from Hilda, both of them older and with little white jinkos that might charitably have a mop head of black hair to show their relation to him. He would not be like his father who, even as comfortable as he could be letting his mother be in charge, could fit comfortably in the domestic role and still find time to argue and banter back with his mother, someone who could find that kind of respect with someone without fears of who was greater.
No, with Hilda things would surely be different. Milo might stutter up some complaint from the far end of the table and she would giggle and the daughters would follow, no boys among them surely. She wouldn’t allow a surrogate to have a son; even Milo’s own had been almost a rogue effort by his father, as his sisters had told it. The daughters would look at him with pity and the affection you would give dogs and the elderly, pat his hand lovingly as Hilda explained his mistake with a loving correction. There would be many of these nights and they would stretch into decades, with the moments in-between the dull work of keeping the house clean and being violated by her.
By this uptight, pole up her ass, snooty cat. This one who probably kept a signed copy of his mother’s headshot in her purse, next to an article about her net-worth.
A flare up began. The stuttering puddle that Milo was reduced to began to twitch and he felt a clarity overcome him as the heat of his grip around his fork reached his brain. No more, he decided. Whatever the hell came next he would march into on his own, not by wheeled into limply.
But then Hilda politely excused herself to the bathroom, and Milo’s train of thought faltered. He acknowledged her limply, and when he was left alone at the table he suddenly felt like a child, fork clutched too tightly and feeling small again.
He’d call her a bitch when she gets back, then what? Mom would skin him, and if she didn’t Jean would still be making him meet with her friends. Which wall did he want his back to be against? Couldn’t he at least choose what put the pin in his future instead of waiting for someone to dictate it? He willed the anger back into himself, and though it was a lower and duller flame he still could feel the words gathering in his throat.
The slight stir and murmur of the restaurant he missed from his anger meditation, as did the sound of a chair being plopped at the table. All his mind registered was what it was priming itself to listen for, either the sound of Hilda’s voice or the sound of butt on the squeaky leather chair. When he heard the latter, he yelped out, “Fuckoffidontwannadateyou”.
“Damn,” Isha responded. “You’re really doing this in public?”
The wolf ripped apart a juicy bit of the steak that Hilda had left unguarded, greedily tearing it apart and discarding the flank for the juicier innards. “You’re breaking my heart, Milo.” She said with glee, shortly before a fat slab of steak disappeared from her fork tip, her jaws snapping wide and happy.
Isha had an effect on Milo that he was only now starting to realize. He didn’t notice it as much in the den when he was in the midst of her cronies and Nicky, but Milo’s brain seemed to restart at every fresh sighting of her. Every day of that doomed week he had spent waiting on those stupid test results he had stomped up to the door of the Den and then tiptoed in with something on his tongue, some cutting insult or calculated jab or taunt that he was waiting to deploy.
But he would see Isha sitting there, always there before him, reading through a textbook or her phone and she would just smile without even glancing up at him. The smile that he had seen from her the first day they met, right after he had punched her and she had pinned him against that wall and looked so hungry and eager, that wasn’t the smile she had then or now. That was her hungry smile, the victorious one that she had only resurfaced to reveal the tests to him and, he realized, that had played at the tips of her lips when he first made the damn bet.
The smile she had now, it was almost whimsical. Isha didn’t seem to think anything could touch her when she smiled, or at least she didn’t care if something tried. She was sitting there, at someone else’s table, at a restaurant she had almost certainly barged into, eating someone else’s food and she looked happy and content. She was joking with him even, and he wasn’t scared of her now.
Maybe later, but not now.
“How’d you get here?” Milo asked. He felt like he should be panicking or screaming, but he felt almost relaxed for some reason. He was just curious more than anything.
“Smelt ya.” Isha shrugged. “Was getting a burger and I smelled a bitch. Apparently they’re in heat too.” Isha snickered. She was swirling the wine in the glass around curiously, then took a sip, then a gulp.
“Nah, not even. This is that girl. I’m gonna tell her I don’t want to date her when she gets back.”
“Are you?” Isha asked, a challenge. She was slowly shifting her interest from the pilfered steak to Milo, downwind as she was from the impending blowout. A confused and probably terrified waiter began to wander over towards Isha, and then skittered off with a firm shake of Isha’s head. She was eating well, after all and was expecting company. It’d be rude to take the check and run off now.
“Well, something’s gonna happen I guess.” Milo said. Why wasn’t he panicking? Or stuttering or begging? Shouldn’t he be offering his firstborn to Isha and shouldn’t she be looking down at him all smug and clicking her tongue? Instead they were here together talking like people who knew each other, like friends but he didn’t think that was what they were or what they could be likened to.
Then he saw Hilda, tracing the path back to their table with the smile that kept her dental strip white fangs just under lips and the tips that curved upwards like it was all over and done with and she was waiting for the wedding. She had to turn the corner around the bathroom to make her way to the table, and from her path she could see her empty chair and Milo looking straight at her, Isha out of view slurping down the wine Hilda hadn’t noticed was missing and he wasn’t scared.
He was too excited to be scared.
“Miss me?” Hilda asked, the first semblance of levity she had offered him for all of the meal. Of course she only extended it so he could give the right answer.
“Not at all.” Milo answered. He heard his voice for the first time in front of Hilda, not the muted mumblings that he had had thrusted upon him. Hilda was in the process of responding to what she imagined he would say before he had even said it as she was pulling her chair back out, and she stopped both to freeze and frown at him. She wasn’t angry, but she was annoyed that what was supposed to happen had not happened, staring at him like a child not saying the right line on stage.
“Try again.” She crossed her arms and looked down at him, Isha still not noticed in her field of view. Isha turned to Milo with a smile at the same time, and he had to try his hardest not to look at her. He wanted to preserve this moment. Whatever happened next, Milo was pretty sure this would be the only hit he’d ever be able to get in with his own merit.
“I don’t like you.” Milo tried again. “You’re a stuck up brat and I’m not your trophy.”
“That’s disappointing, Milo.” Hilda huffed. She was standing up straight and smoothing her already flawless blouse. She still didn’t see Isha, the moron. “I thought you were making such great progress with this little deviant phase.”
“Mmm.” She was trying not to let it show, but Hilda was floundering for an impressive enough gesture to be making towards him. She was prepared for pouting and whiny from the human, not a full on rejection and she settled for extending her claw and inspecting it. On the side opposite of Isha, naturally, as the wolf was trying her hardest not to let out a cackle. “I’d like to tell your mother myself then, if that’s how you feel. I’m worried she’ll be…disappointed.”
Hilda drew out the pause before that “disappointed” and the cheap attempt at intimidation was so blatant Milo almost laughed. It was like looking into a funhouse mirror of his mother, a snotty highschooler trying to imitate what she wasn’t. Milo might have been scared of his mother, but he wasn’t scared of her.
So what did he say to someone like this? Someone who was such a pain in his ass for so long and had been for no good reason? This sad little almost rich girl who he couldn’t stand looking at?
“Your mom couldn’t even rent the house my mom owns.” He said. A part of him had wanted to say something simple. To call her a bitch or something curt, to say her haircut made her look like a silver pencil shaving, to talk about how stupid she looked in a blue-black blazer and how Jean wouldn’t think she was one of her friends just because she dressed like someone at her office.
But it was the things that were undeniable that hurt the worst, even if that truth was just juvenile dick-measuring, and Hilda all but spun out in place whipping her at him to gawp at the little human. There was the dawning of anger in her eyes, fangs finally poking out past her lips to be bared only for her to go utterly rigid as the words fizzled out in her throat. She must have realized then, same as him, that she couldn’t do anything more than go to his mother. No matter how much of a favored star she was in his mother’s eye, throttling her son would be enough to get even her kicked out of the inheritance or whatever she was gunning for.
“Ooooh.” Isha echoed and finally Hilda turned to her. As best Milo could tell she did not like the wolf at all from the start, but maybe she was just surprised. Her jaw dropped rigid and her eyes followed the backwards snapping of her own head like she was exhaling a mighty gasp that did not actually materialize from her throat. She looked to Isha, then to Milo and then repeated.
Isha just smiled, and snapped off the last bit of steak with a grin and a pat of her belly. “Thanks for lunch,” Isha said, then leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms, eager for whatever was about to happen.
“Who the fuck is she?” Hilda slapped her paw down on the table and leaned in towards Milo, still sadly halfway across the table and lacking in presence from the centaur sized sitting space. Milo could actually get throttled here, he realized. This had shifted from a fight over his marital status to a fight over pride, and who knew if Isha would bother to stop Hilda if she went wild.
And then he had one of those thoughts. The ones that weren’t rash, but were in fact delicately turned and inspected in his brain over and over in the seconds before he answered, as Hilda’s face was washing with red heat and Isha couldn’t stop snickering. It was a bad idea, and the fact that even his brain was registering that meant that it was an extraordinarily bad idea. Milo’s brain was dusting off the unused notches in his head that evaluated risk and reward and they were all blazing red with zero green.
“She’s my girlfriend.”
And just like that it was worth it. Seconds, minutes, days, weeks, a lifetime of hell could sprout from this and it would all be worth it for this beautiful moment. Milo would remember it all for the rest of his life, the look on her face like a fish recoiling from a punch as she reeled back with her mouth agape and her hands slack at her sides. Her eyes traced a horrified curve along the rims of her eyes to the werewolf who had almost fallen out of her seat from laughter, overcoming a hoarse cough and bits of chewed up steak to grip the rim of the table and laugh even harder. The restaurant was far from full, but the scattered diners were glancing over with angry looks that dissolved into anxiety when they saw the wolf laughing. The waiter, the lone human who had been left on this side of the restaurant, was taking looping gestures in between the problem table and the far away kitchen as he desperately hoped a larger waitress would materialize to help him.
“Yeah, yeah. Why not?” Isha snickered, putting a paw over her stomach and righting herself to a slump in her seat. “Yeah, we’re dating.”
“Yeah.” Milo agreed. “Sorry you had to find out like this.”
She wanted to kill him so bad. Or maybe maim him or maybe call his mom and make him listen to her rat him out. But she wasn’t going to do any of that, because calling his mother meant admitting she was losing. He knew the bluff before she had even finished it.
Well, what could she do? Her social credit, real or more damningly not real, had to be in some kind of mortal peril from all of this. Or maybe she knew that it really didn’t matter what happened next, that whatever trash fire Milo had piled up on himself in his immediate future, she wouldn’t be around to watch it burn regardless. And the restaurant was already gawking and it was already all so mortifying for her, Milo had to think.
So the swing made sense. It was a Milo-level idea and even he could have told her how it was going to wind up, but then it wouldn’t be a Milo type of idea if it included an escape plan or incorporated some kind of self-preservation.
Isha was smaller by a head or two, in fact Milo was realizing how short she was compared to other monsters, but she was Isha. Hilda hadn’t really had a good angle for her punch, and it was awkward and had to fly over her chair and be transported by a hoppy lunge. Isha found the angle back to her and flew under and to her side and her fist went into the square of Hilda’s face and the jinko went limp. To Milo’s surprise, or it would have been if he could have actually tracked what had just happened amidst the blur of limbs, Isha caught the slumping rich girl to plop her down in her own seat, then lowered her head to let it rest where her plate had been.
The onlookers jumped a little when there was motion, but, in the corner of the restaurant as they were, they seemed more confused by anything by the sudden hug. Isha had even patted her on the back a bit, and helped her back into her seat before going back to her own spot to finish her wine; “Her wine” being interpretive at this point.
The side-eyes lingered, but at the emergence of a middle-aged centaur glaring at the lone waiter who had dragged her over, mostly some kind of order came back as the yuppies and the rich elderly returned to overpriced steak and wine of their own. The waiter and waitress vanished, leaving the problem to deal with after the materializing lunch rush.
“Good punch.” Milo said. It was mostly speculation on his part.
“You didn’t see it. “Isha sneered. She looked at his plate in a short-lived curiosity. “Fuck are those green things?”
Milo thought for a second. He regarded the groaning jinko. He considered this might be the last day of his life, if in fact Hilda’s pride was not so large as to call his mother when she roused herself from her fight stupor.
“You want a burger?” Milo asked Isha. She was poking the top of Hilda’s head and making it roll around the table ever so slightly, snickering as she did so. She stopped to look at him, curious, leaning back in her chair. She had just eaten a stolen steak and drowned it with pilfered wine, but she didn’t even look bloated.
“You’re not actually asking me on a date, are you?” Isha had that look, that in-between the vicious and sincere joy look that was her smug and toothy grin.
“No, but I’m hungry and she drove me.” Milo gestured at the unconscious remnants of a jinko. “And I’ll pay.”
“You were always gonna pay.” Isha said, hopping up. “Did you pay for this?”
“Excellent.” And with that she strode contentedly towards the front, her monkey jogging to catch up to her faster walk speed. True to her word Isha’s clunker lay waiting like a horse grazing in the concrete. Here, like the school parking lot, other cars seemed to gravitate away from it even with the precious lack of nearby parking spots.
Unlike at school, this might have been because it was parked across two and a half parking spots.
Milo listed off a burger place, and Isha responded with a different one, firmly. Milo listed off another one and Isha explained what it sounds like when a monkey hits highway concrete at 60 miles per hour, and Milo was just trying to say that he thought this other place had bigger burgers, and they were like that for a few more hours and argued and talked without thinking altogether too much for a few hours. She left him near sunset at the spot she’d dropped him off the other day and he went home, wondering and worrying about so much.
But the fear never quite followed the worry.