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Mundementia One Interludes: Black Friday
Thanks to Feech for invaluable assistance in the creative process for this one.
"'Burgers Cooked The Way You Like Them,'" reads Feeb, sweetly. "'In Hell.'"
I blink placidly at the blazing red neon sign, festooned with tortured demon-faces and accentuated with naked gas flames which spit, crackle, and roar into the partly-cloudy November sky.
"Burgers... cooked... in Hell."
"Sure." Says Feeb, turning to me. "Some people prefer them to the fried kind. Matter of personal preference, as far as I'm concerned, but, hey."
"Burgers..." I repeat, "Cooked..."
"In Hell." I conclude.
"Cooks them pretty fast, too." Continues Feeb, blithely. "Marvel of modern technology, really, and a wonderful demonstration of Science pulling a bootlegger reverse and turning an admittedly dubious situation into a new venue for profit in the culinary industry!"
"Admittedly... dubious... situation?"
"Yes." Says Feeb, adjusting her Holiday Shopping parcels on her narrow shoulders. "You don't understand, do you." She says, cocking her head at me.
"If the past has taught you anything, Feeb, it should have been that the answer to that question will almost invariably be, 'no.'"
"Actually, if the past has taught me anything, it _should_ have been 'never put laboratory gerbils into a microwave oven.'"
She waves a hand dismissively. "Complicated." She says, viciously severing another topic in favor of the main conversational thread. "Yes. Admittedly dubious situation. During the early days of Matter Transit Technology, you couldn't open a new wormhole between two points in space without accidentally tearing a portal into Hell. We almost lost an entire research facility on Phobos to miscellaneous hellspawn before our Boys in Green discovered the 'God Mode' Cheat Keys."
She waves a hand dismissively. "Complicated." She says. "Anyway, after the smoke had cleared and the corpses had been dragged away, the challenge that Science faced was, how can we take this mistake and put it to good use?"
"Ergo," I say, indicating the sign, "'Beelze-BOB's Burger Hell.'"
"Exactly. It seemed clear to us that any attempt to transmit matter from Point A to Point B would invariably result in at least a temporary layover in Hell. Bit of a disappointment to us all, frankly. So, we consecrated all the exit portals, sealed them up with runes and sigils, and, well, there they sat."
"This is where the brilliant entrepreneur comes in."
"Bob Pywacket, Founder and still General Manager of the entire Burger Hell chain. Ol' Bob was the first person to come up with the idea of rigging up sturdy conveyor belts across the portal apertures and placing uncooked burgers on one end. Then, just turn the accursed thing on, and, Presto! Overnight millions. Hot, fresh, and only mildly tainted with some unidentifiable form of cyan-hued ichor. Made just the way you like it."
"But say I don't _WANT_ my burgers to be cooked in Hell!" I ask/protest. "What then?"
"Well," says Feeb, tartly, "I imagine that they'd rightfully wonder why it is you came there in the first place."
I glance at the sky for a moment, my sternoclidomastoid muscle twitching slightly. When it has calmed down, I return my gaze to Feeb.
"Do they have chicken?" I ask.
"Sure." She says. "That was a bit trickier, and it took them a while to get it right. Finally, after a number of unsuccessful attempts, they managed to locate the specific spot in Hell where they keep the gargantuan house-sized black-iron cauldrons of boiling oil, and once they started using _those_ for their deep-frying needs, well. You can imagine."
"Yes." I admit. "But I rather wish that I couldn't."
"FrrrIIIiiink..." Whines Luke.
"Rawr!" Says Buddy, looking wistfully at the Barbie Toy Surprise included this week with any purchase of a Kid's Meal.
"Look," says Feeb, arms akimbo, glaring pointedly at me, "Luke and Buddy are getting really antsy. Are we going here or not?"
"Can't we find some other restaurant?" I ask, close to some form of desperation.
"That's _exactly_ what you said after we had carted your sorry ass all the way over to 'Luigi's Sicilian Ristorante.'"
"At least he was grateful for it."
"And apologetic, as noted." She looks deeply at me. "Charles, he really was far too heavy. Even for Buddy."
"Presumably they have good hay there."
"I've heard nice things about it. Look, I understand the natural human instinct to help out ungulates in trouble, okay? God knows I've felt it myself. But the least you could have done is made some concessions and just let us eat _there_ once we had trotted all the way over, huh?"
"I felt a little intimidated by it. They offered to treat me like one of The Family."
"That's just the Italian way of being Hospitable, Charles."
"All the waiters carried baseball bats."
"They were _cudgels_, Charles. Any waiter of class knows that the discerning palate prefers to eat Shrimp Alfredo freshly cudgeled At The Table."
"Whatever." I say. "I just had a bad feeling."
"Damn!" Swears Phoebe, then. "This all would have been so much easier if our traditional Mexican place hadn't been overrun by banditos."
"Or if the downtown weren't so packed." I look around once more at the jostle-thick crowds that swarm past us, even here at the very gates of Burger Hell. CORVID had the right idea, I tell myself. Stay behind and do the housework. Little Miss/Mister ::No, I'll Be All Right, You Go Off And Have A Good Time Shopping, I'll Just Stay Here And Wash The Thanksgiving Dishes.:: Damn us for fools anyway, what are we doing here? This _is_ Black Friday after all. And Black Friday was bad even back when I was Mundane.
Black Friday. The Friday immediately following the American Thanksgiving Holiday. Perhaps the worst single shopping day of the entire year. Thousands upon thousands of people, all finished up with their Duties to Family, and possessed of that one magickal construction, the "You Might As Well Take Friday Off Too" Anti-Sabbath. Like children with shiny nickels loose in the firework emporium, all destined with bright hopes to Start In On the Christmas Shopping.
When, in the depths of space, you find ten thousand miles worth of atomic helium collapsing inward upon one central point, you call it a Black Hole. When, in the hearts of cities, you find a forty-mile radius of hopeful consumers collapsing inward upon one central shopping district... well, you call it Black Friday.
There have already been two casualties. There will be more.
"Charles! I'm getting damn sick of this!" Shrieks Phoebe, her patience running redline. "We wouldn't even _be_ here if you had put the coffeemaker on layaway like I had specifically told you to."
"We could find your mom something else for a change." I suggest.
"Pish tosh." Says Feeb. "It's the perfect gift, and you know it. But it seems we shan't find it at Capitol Centre."
"Well..." I begin.
"Oh hush." Says Feeb. "I'm _sure_ Small Household Appliance Hut would have one, but buggered if I'll be able to find it in this mess."
"If only the fabric of space hadn't been distorted by the sheer mass of human flesh crowding the downtown area." I say, in my best expository tone.
"Right. We need an updated map." Feeb peers into the Stygian darkness of the Burger Hell restaurant. "Tell you what, I bet one of the Burger Youths manning the counters would be inexplicably willing to prepare a detailed map for me. Let's go here. Buddy can get his Barbie Doll kid's meal, then, too."
"Frink?" Says Luke, putting away his yo-yo, sensing that we're about to finally go somewhere.
"Yes, I bet they have Hot Wheels too."
"Frink!" Says Luke, leaping up onto the door handles.
My resistance can only hold out for so long. "Oh, all right." I cede, finally. "How bad can it be?"
A faint worm of doubt creeps into my gut.
"Thanks, Charles." Says Feeb, kissing me on the cheek, temporarily dispelling my ill feelings. "I know it's not probably the best place to eat at, but... we're in a hurry..."
"I know, I know." I say, smiling in what I hope is a sincere-yet-gently-lopsided expression.
"Let's go." She says, and we push our way through the black glass doors, which close behind us with an echoing noise that can only be represented in print by the word "TOOMB," shedding new light upon a possible onomatopoeiac etymology of the word.
Stenciled upon the portals in huge, shimmering letters of fire:
"Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here."
And, below it, in slightly smaller print:
"No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service."
* * *
The Burger Clerk smiles brightly at us from beneath his cute little franchise-standard cardboard-horn-bedecked cap. "Hi, welcome to Hell! Can I take your order, please?"
"We're still deciding." I say, automatically.
"No problem!" Says the Burger Youth. "There's plenty of registers open."
And he's right. For all the neck-deep crowds without, there is surprisingly little bottlenecking going on here. Oh, sure, lots of people are being processed through the lines, here, but there always seems to be one more clerk standing behind the gargoyle-encrusted fluorescent-lit counter than there are persons in line, giving an air of eerie efficiency to the whole process. Some witty advertising executive somewhere high up in the franchise seems to have ordered the clay-black hexagonal tiles that make up the floor inscribed with a number of clever word bites such as, "No, I'll Change, Really I Will" and, "This Will Be The Year That I Clean The Garage."
"Good Intentions." I say, with a faint, polite smirk at the Burger Youth, pointing halfheartedly downwards in a manner that suggests that I don't really want to commit to my gesture.
"Yep!" He says, grinning. "It's funny, isn't it?"
"I've seen it before." I murmur.
"Okay." Says Feeb, coming back from a quick tete-a-tete with Buddy and Luke, who have gone off to find a table, the click of Buddy's foot-claws echoing coldly from the blasphemous black cathedral ceilings of this certifiably unnerving place. "We want... er... two Kid's Meals, one Matchbox and one Barbie. The Matchbox one we want with the... er... Junior Smokey Burger, and the Barbie one with the... kiddie hot dog."
"The Hell Puppy." Fills in the Clerk, with the dutiful ease of one unquestionably loyal to the whims of the franchise.
"Yes, the Hell Puppy. And could you put onion rings in instead of fries with the Matchbox one? Luke really seems to enjoy them..."
The clerk punches away at his little keypad with a businesslike ease, seemingly unaware or uncaring of the sepulchral chimes that sound with each stroke of his fingers. "Ooh... Kay. Got it! An' for You, Ma'am?"
"I'll have a Ninth Circle Deluxe Futility Meal, extra sauce."
"Cheese?" (BONG... BONG... BONG...)
"No. And can I substitute some milk for the soda?"
"Sure." Says the clerk, smoothly, with the easy confidence born of having just learned from his supervisors which buttons to press to code this. "And for sir?"
Feeb turns to me. "Charles?"
There is a pause.
The Burger Youth looks expectantly at me. "Sir?"
"Gah..." I say, at last.
"Charles," she murmurs from one corner of her mouth, "the man is _waiting_ on us, here..."
"No, that's perfectly fine." Says the youth, cheerfully. "Take as much time as you need."
"Fish!" I say at last. "Do you have a fish sandwich?"
"Yeswedo, sir. Number Eight, the Dago--"
"NO!" I say, a bit too quickly. "Not that, then. Um..."
Feeb taps her foot.
Suddenly, there is a hideous screech from somewhere in the indistinct and nether darkness located behind the young clerk's station. Flickers and tongues of red-black fire make themselves manifest in the umbrage, and just as quickly gutter out. From the newly steadied dark, there comes yet another soul-rent howl. And another. And another. And another.
"Ummm..." I say, my eyes focusing and refocusing.
"Just a second." Says the clerk. He turns his head over his shoulder for a moment. "FRIES ARE UP!" He says.
With a faint sizzling noise, the screeching subsides.
"...um..." I say, losing my capital letter.
"Oh, for crying audibly." Says Feeb, turning to the youth. "He wants the sixth-pound triple cheeseburger and a Coke."
"Fine." I say, jitteringly.
"Righty.... Oh!" Finishes the youth, with one last intricate series of keystrokes. "Total is sixteen oh three, and your order number is eighty-eight."
Feeb begins fishing through her pocketbook. "Say." She says, in what she seems to believe is a casual and parenthetical manner. "We've been swarming around out there like cockerels with severed necks looking for Small Household Appliance Hut, but because of today's space distortion, we're having a hard time. Do you have any Black Friday maps around anywhere?"
"Sure don't." Says the clerk, shrugging. "Tell you what, though," he continues, with new inspiration, seizing a paper napkin and a register pen, "I'll design you one right here."
"Lovely!" Says Feeb. "Charles." She continues, and then, louder, "Charles!"
"Huh?" I say, wresting my eyes away from a reproduction Sodomite icon, irresistible and compelling in its sheer awfulness.
"Make yourself useful and start getting drinks." She says, thrusting wax-coated paper cups into my hands.
"Sure." I say, distractedly, again wresting my gaze away and fixing it on the self-serve soft-drink dispensary. At my back, Feeb and the Burger Youth resume conversing.
"I haven't really been working in Hoderund for very long," he says, jauntily, his voice reflecting some external focus which is probably the map he's constructing. "I was transferred here by the franchise a month or two ago, and frankly, I kinda preferred the Burger Hell I used to work at in Corbomite. Haven't really hung out much in the city. Now _here_'s us..."
Casually, I wander over to the dispensary and begin filling cups, disposing of the straw wrappers in a nearby brazier of hot coals. The funny thing is, I can vaguely recall having eaten here back in my Freshman year. I hadn't liked it much, and it is only now in my state of lucidity that I begin to grasp precisely why that might have been...
"...Now you gotta skirt the edges here until you come to an intersection with three lamps on the corner, and then you go one street _past_ them, and turn to the right... most people turn right right at the intersection, which is a mistake, because _that_'ll take you to..."
The position at the soda machine gives me a new perspective on the back counter, and for the first time, I am able to catch a glimpse of the Mephistophelean cooker previously mentioned by Feeb outside of this place of Outer Darkness. It is a squat, malevolent, almost toad-like cube of rough, black steel through which a Gigerian biomechanical monstrosity of a conveyance belt has been passed. A lone chef potters nervously around its bulk, placing frozen disks of beef on the intake belt which are then drawn inexorably towards the gibbering maw of the cooker. More flames, dark and red as infected sores, billow out from the mouth as each new beef patty passes the Gate.
The output belt is hidden to me, and frankly, I am somewhat glad of this fact.
The chef notices my transfixed gaze and wanders over. "Awful, ain't it?"
I nod, with perfect honesty. "Oh, yes." I clear my throat, attempting for a casual tone. "So. That's a, uh, Nice Gate to Hell you got there."
"Naw." Says the Chef, wiping his hands on his apron.
"T'ain't what it is, 'zactly. Not in the Judeo-Christian sense. You wanna know a secret?"
"Sure." I say, uneasily, not at all certain that I do.
"T'ain't Hell. It's Tartarus."
"Isn't that the same thing?" I ask, blinking.
"Naw." He says, spitting somewhere that I don't want to know. "One's Greek, T'other isn't."
"Mister Pywacket, 'e just decided that the place w'd have larger appeal to the masses if he didn't make it look too Ethnic." He lays one grimy finger against his pock-marked nose and winks knowingly at me.
"I see." I say, still trying not to think about that spit. "Hell or Tartarus aside, though, looks like the end result is about the same..."
I trail off, horrifiedly fascinated at the grinding progress of the conveyor belt, and the inevitable condemnation of the pink little pucks of beef.
"How do you stand it?" I say, suddenly. "Looking at _that_ all the time, day in and out? Doesn't it get unnerving?"
"Ah." Says the chef. "T'used to bother me too. But then I did some research into our supplier's, an' I learned that all we're doing is givin' 'em 'eir just desserts."
"Come again?" I say.
"You know the cows we make 'ese patties from?"
He narrows his eyes and leans in close to me, his voice hissing like a steamer. "They's the _sinful_ ones, they is." He nods once to back up his point, then spits, and nods again. "We don' use virtuous cows 'ere. Jes' the sinners."
"The cows." I say.
"'Awp." He says.
"I see." I say, backing away.
"So, Eat in Good Conscience! An' remember, 'Eternal Damnation can't be all bad if it pr'duces Beelze-BOB's Burgers!'"
"Yes!" I say, backing away more quickly.
"'njoy yer meal, sar!"
"I'll sure try!" I say, stumbling backwards to the relative safety of the soft drink counter and away from the horrible cooker and its runner-up tender.
By the time I get back, someone has filched the soft-drink cups. Bugger all, Feeb is going to be pissed, whenever it is she gets done chatting with the clerk.
"...Now you'll want to watch out, because the carpeting they've got laid down on the second aisle from the left, it's a bit loose in spots. There was this big rainstorm a couple months ago, and the roof started leaking, caused a little bit of puckering in the fabric. Shouldn't be too much of a problem, of course, if you're watching your step so's you don't stumble over it..."
I'm not looking forward to asking for replacement cups. I'm not looking forward to much of anything. It's been a tiring day, and it's only half over already.
I gotta go to the bathroom.
Sighing for the billionth time at the State Of The World At Large, and praying for a windfall in the form of a relatively normal and useable Men's room despite the Faustian decor of the remainder of the restaurant, I trudge away from the soft drink counter, in quest of the first single, clear, and perfectly definable goal that I've had all morning.
I just hope there's a sign.