Mungo waited outside the restaurant, checking his phone and dabbing his head with a washcloth soaked in blood, as was tradition. Why hadn’t they messaged yet? It was nearing seven thirty, and Mungo wasn’t eager to pay the restaurant’s reservation forfeit of a keening, minute-long caterwaul directed at an unsuspecting passerby. He would go in, he thought, but it would be too embarrassing to show up for a romantic dinner for two alone. Better to start warming up his vocal cords.
With a sigh, Mungo began humming and smacking his lips, attracting the stares of several pedestrians obviously unfamiliar with the reservation policy of the Unwilling Flesh, Spasming Hill’s most expensive eatery. But Mungo didn’t mind them too much - far worse were the knowing smirks offered by the more well-heeled of the town’s citizenry, who knew only too well what his burbling exercises signified.
The chump got stood up, they seemed to say. I bet it’s not even his own blood on that washcloth.
Unfortunately, they were right. Mungo had borrowed the blood from the eatery’s maitre d’, who’d appeared faintly embarrassed as he sliced his thumb and let a few drops of crimson splash out. This was an upmarket establishment: patrons expecting to wait usually brought their own. The washcloth was Mundo’s, though. He had at least that much pride.
Where are they? he wondered, desperately. Seven thirty was growing dangerously near and the blood had almost totally dried. Perhaps he should - but no, it was too late. The clock on his phone ticked over to the half hour and his heart sank. No two ways about it. Mungo raised his face to an unsuspecting passerby and… froze.
Verity Skillion looked back.
“Hey, lover,” they said. “Been waiting long?”
“Oh, n-n-no, I… only just arrived.” Mungo struggled to contain his nerves as Verity slapped a mosquito crawling down their muscled arm without even glancing at it.
“Sure you did. You don’t need to lie to me, Mungo, really.”
“I - is it that obvious?”
“Your forehead is covered in blood.” Verity smiled apologetically like a gastropod whose friend has just been caught shelless in public.
“Eh…” Verity laughed, leaning in for a kiss.
“Don’t worry, I think it’s cute,” they said. Their lips came away red with the maitre d’s blood. It complemented the smooth black velvet of their dress and the bright orange necktie that dangled to their waist. Mungo couldn’t believe how good they still looked, though it had been years since they’d last seen each other. Verity gazed at the stars, calculating the time from their cold, ordered march through a universe that cared for no one.
“We’d better head inside, or they might start wondering why you’re not screeching at unwary passers-by. These classy joints have a reputation to maintain, after all.” They entered through the double doors and into the nearly deserted lobby. Dinnertime at the Unwilling Flesh was usually seven o’clock on the dot, though of course the restaurant offered the seven-thirty slot for the fashionably late. Mungo was often late, but very rarely fashionable.
At the desk, the maitre d’ flashed Verity a brilliant smile and Mungo a tight-lipped frown, tapping his wrist where a watch would normally sit. He was not wearing a watch. The skin on his wrist was red and raw from tapping it hundreds of times without wearing a watch. Even as he tapped, the maitre’d winced in pain.
“The Hesperus table for sir and distinguished other,” groaned the maitre’d, flicking a tear briskly from his eye. “If you will just follow me.” He executed a neat about-turn, leading them through into the main dining area. As they entered, the hushed murmur of conversation swelled to a roar, the already-seated patrons doing their best to avoid acknowledging Mungo and Verity’s arrival. It was terribly unrefined to acknowledge the fashionably late - how else would they learn?
“This way!” bellowed the maitre d’ over the ruckus.
“What?” screamed Verity.
“Over here, please!” he yelled back, pointing desperately to an empty table at the far end of the room. They made their way across, passing diners who stared doggedly at their plates or each other rather than the newcomers. One man accidentally glanced up as they passed, eliciting a gasp from his dining companion. The man immediately upended his steaming bowl of soup over his head, excusing himself. Taking a seat at the behest of the grumpy maitre d’, Mungo saw the dining companion rise shakily with a pale face and stumble out of the restaurant. Poor fellow.
Now that they were seated, the roar of the room subsided once more to a hushed murmur. The maitre d’ bowed, floating back outside to continue his duties. Mungo stared across the table at Verity, drinking in their short, matted hair and sweat-glistening skin.
“So… how have you been?” he asked.
“Good, more or less,” Verity replied. “Practice today. Coach Monterey’s trying to get the team ready for the State Megaquake Cup next month.” Verity was a recent draft to the Indigo Foundation Funkytown Flagrunners, Spasming Hill’s premier Thudball team. Mungo struggled to think of something witty and insightful to say.
“Oh yeah? Er… Dudley Grundel doing okay, with you leaving and all?”
“Dudley? I should think so. That man has no room in his heart for anything but the game. I think he yearns for the day a thudball plasters him against the arena wall so he can cement his position as the all-time top-average Runner.”
“And are you fitting into the Flagrunners alright? None of them bitter over you being a…” Mungo paused, biting off the thought before he could finish it. What he had been about to say was not the type of word one uttered over a romantic dinner. What he had been about to say was not the type of word one uttered in general. As usual, Verity finished the thought for him anyway.
“A traitor?” They laughed scornfully. “Sure, there’re one or two who are a bit miffed, but most of them understand that in this business you’ve got to go where the game takes you. The Raiders of the Woodland Realm had too many big egos for me. Too many bad memories. Besides, I like it better here in Spasming Hill.” They reached across the table and slyly laid a gigantic but well-manicured hand over Mungo’s own. He gulped, quickly extricating his hand and picking up a menu instead. Verity raised an eyebrow, but followed suit.
Conversation lapsed as they inspected the neatly ordered lists of fine food, some with jaunty little chef hats next to them indicating the number of chefs whose lives had been claimed in their preparation. An upmarket eatery, the Unwilling Flesh had prices to match. They ranged from a soul rendered broken and yielding by years of hardship for an entree to a tiny chunk of solemnite for some of the fancier mains.
Solemnite, as scientists knew, was only found in deposits near self-important people doing really serious work, and was therefore extremely rare.
Mungo looked up from the wine list - a mud casket of cabernet sauvignon from the Cretaceous Era for a minor limb - into Verity’s pale violet eyes.
“I feel like we’ve talked so much already, and you haven’t said a word about yourself. How are you, really?”
“Ah, you know, it’s been a bit rough lately but I can’t complain too much. Well, I could, but I won’t.” He forced out an unconvincing laugh, a second too late.
“I hope you can understand my concern,” Verity said, brow furrowed into a miniature Hudson Valley. “I heard about your shop.” Worry lines radiated out from the valley floor in glacial action, wrinkling the surrounding skin.
“The juice bar? Bit of a shock.” He fiddled with the menu, reliving the day just a year ago when Mungo’s Collect Call Juice Bar was devoured by the heaving earth. “We get earthquakes all the time - didn’t really listen to that fellow from the Seismology Bureau squawking on about how they were going to be extra catastrophic this time round. More fool me, I suppose.”
“It’s funny,” Verity said, the glaciers subsiding and leaving their forehead smooth once more. “No one really remembers much about that day besides Vermillion Bandersnatch, and she’s not telling. I know that I must have been there when the earthquake struck, but all I remember is a vague sense of panic and then… nothing. The next moment, I was standing in the middle of the fountain plaza with - well, with Jacky at my side. We were dancing.” Verity paused, studying Mungo’s expression.
“Go ahead,” they said, softly. “You can ask.” Mungo toyed with his fork, lining it up flush with the tiny gas-powered chainsaw for meat courses.
“And what are sir and beautiful other having tonight?” crooned a waiter who had sidled up beside them. She pulled out a notebook covered in the arcane symbols readable only by waiters, hotel clerks and those possessed by ancient Numidian spirits. Mungo had taken a course on the symbols in college, but hadn’t kept up the mystical pagan moon-rituals required to maintain fluency.
“Mmm, I’ll have the armadillo steak with a side of sedimentary rock, please,” said Verity.
“But of course!” beamed the waiter, hand moving in an unnatural fashion as she noted it down. “Which rock would you prefer? We have limestone, sandstone, and I’m assured by our chef that the shale is from a particularly good stratum this evening.”
“I’ll have the shale then.”
“Wonderful! And for sir?”
“I’ll have the balsa wood ragout,” Mungo said. “And could we get a bottle of helium water? I’m trying to watch my weight,” he explained to no one in particular.
“Great! If you need anything else, my name is May and I’ll be your server. Just make the signal and I’ll know to come. I’ll know,” she giggled, backing away. There was a loud crash as May knocked over a nearby table, collapsing to the ground with it. She picked herself up and continued to back away, still giggling and covered in salad.
“What a nice girl,” said Verity, looking back at Mungo. “Now, where were we…?”
“Do you know where Mayor Hyde is?” Mungo surprised himself with his own directness, but he had to know. Verity was unruffled, their pale violet eyes gleaming with a strange intensity.
“I don’t,” they said, leaning forward. “But I have my suspicions.” Mungo waved a hand. Go on.
“Jacky always was a mystery, even though we have - had - been dating for months. She would often disappear for hours, days at a time, and no one would be able to find her. Obviously, that didn’t matter too much for the business of governance - after all, our friendly police state more or less runs itself - but it hurt that she didn’t feel like she could confide in me.” Mungo nodded. The only person who’d ever confided in him was Lex Flypaper, the amateur sleuth and aspirant playwright who’d spend afternoons on his scripts at Mungo’s juice bar before it got swallowed by the earth. And even then, all Lex would talk about were the fictional characters in his plays.
“So when she vanished a month ago, I didn’t think too much of it. Except, except.” They leaned forward even more, hands clutching the white tablecloth like claws. “Before she went,” they whispered, “she kept mentioning the Undecided Portal, muttering about it in her sleep. And whenever she did, Daisy would get suuuper uncomfortable.” Daisy was Mayor Jacqueline Hyde’s monstrous doppelganger, a sweet, good-natured behemoth who only devoured the very occasional voter. Daisy had vanished around the same time as Mayor Hyde, leaving the ever-enigmatic Mr. Quiz - runner-up in the mayoral race - in charge of the town.
“You don’t think…” Mungo breathed, eyes wide. “Through the Undecided Portal?”
“I do, Mungo. And what’s more, I think Daisy went with her.”
“But why?” Verity leaned back, dragging the tablecloth with them.
“Now that,” they said, raising an eyebrow, “is the real question. Why, indeed? I guess we have to hope she’ll come back and explain it to us, someday.”
Their food arrived carried by the silently giggling May, who strode through the wreck of the Hesperus’ neighboring table with two steaming trays held aloft. She deposited them on the rumpled tablecloth and backed away towards the kitchen, nearly breaking her ankle on a shattered fragment of chair. They started in on their fancy fare, laboring in a silence broken only by the whirring of Verity’s tiny chainsaw as they sawed at their armadillo steak.
“She’s never been scared of it, you know.”
“Jacky. When the Portal first opened - and I didn’t see this, I heard about it from my dear friend Rebus at the Researchatorium - people were too terrified to go through it. They were worried they’d get stranded on an alien plane, being devoured by mutant molemen from the Kingdom of Dirt.” Verity crunched down on a chunk of shale with the sound of breaking teeth.
“But Jacky? No way! She led the first expedition through, disappearing into a parallel dimension for weeks before emerging bloody and nearly dead. And who was carrying her? Daisy. Her doppelganger, never seen before in Spasming Hill.”
“Daisy’s from a Portal realm?”
“You bet. And even stranger, the Portal didn’t seem to notice. It kept flicking through dimensions after Daisy emerged, which it isn’t meant to do if someone’s in the wrong dimension.” Mungo tried and failed to grasp the significance, felt like he was drowning in the stuffy room. The ruminative grinding of his teeth formed a nice counterpoint to Verity’s crunching: a symphony of enamel and stone. All around, the seven o’clock diners began to file from the room, murmuring vague appreciations of their meals and thanking the giggling May for her service.
“Do you still love her?” The question spilled out and Verity froze, a half-eaten piece of shale clattering to their plate.
“I… I don’t know.”
“What does Mayor Hyde mean to you, Verity? I need to know.”
“Nothing! Something. A drop of water to a dying man. I don’t know!”
“If you knew where she was, right now, for certain - would you go?” Those pale eyes burned with violet fire, lips yet red with the maitre d’s blood trembling slightly. For a moment, Mungo felt their indecision crashing down on him. In the corner, May giggled quietly, salad leaves flaking from her long, dark hair.
And then Verity looked away.
“Yes,” they said, softly. “It’s complicated. Yes.” Mungo pushed back his chair and stood up, dropping a half-chunk of solemnite onto the table.
“I have to go, Verity. It was good to see you, really.”
He walked through the empty room, wending his way past deserted tables and half-finished repasts. The kitchen of the Unwilling Flesh was dark and silent, its door coated with cobwebs that looked like they’d lain undisturbed for years. Somewhere, a door slammed, tires screeching away into the night.
Mungo looked back, once, and saw Verity gazing down, balling the white tablecloth up into a tiny wad. Then he left, pushing through the double doors.
And still May giggled, with amusement or with fear.