A short story about two roommates who didn't exactly intend to be together
|Part 4: The Grand Tour|
When the doors opened again on the main floor, the two made their way down the hall towards the lobby. Just as soon as they rounded the corner, Michael saw a sight that made him want to double back as quickly as possible. The panther girl named Stella was standing near the entryway, no doubt waiting to greet any mammals that walked by her and help them in her exceedingly friendly, albeit impatient, manner. He didn’t exactly feel that he had gotten off on the right foot with her, and he loathed interacting with her again if it was just going to cause trouble. He would have much preferred to slink past her without a word; a feat which may well have been possible, if not for his loudmouthed companion.
“HEYYYYY STEEELLLLLAAA! How’s my favorite gatekeeper doing this fine day?!”
Michael froze in his tracks when she turned to face them. Panic sent his heart racing and filled his head with a string of curses and contingency plans. He would have screamed at Louie for his bone-headed move if he weren’t so aware of the panther's critical eyes fixed upon them both.
Though much to his surprise, her face became suddenly aglow, a toothy smile stretching from ear to ear as she bounded towards them. When she got within a few paces, she held her arms out. Louie skipped straight into them, wrapping in his own around her as she embraced him.
Seeing something so genuine come from the seemingly tight-laced and apathetic girl threw Michael off his guard. He blinked a few times to help regain his composure as they let go of one another. Much like with Mchumba, quick-witted remarks were exchanged between the pair, but this time, some of them sent Stella into fits of laughter. Her cheery demeanor looked so strange that Michael had to wonder if she was really the same girl he had met no more than an hour prior.
After the laughter had died down a bit, the young arctic fox’s heart skipped a beat at the mention of his name.
Louie said, “Oh, where ARE my manners? Stella, I’d like you to meet Mickey. He just moved into my little neck of the woods upstairs.”
Stella looked past Louie and almost seemed startled to see someone standing there. It occurred to Michael that she may not have even noticed him approach, and was just now recognizing him as the same timid timewaster from before. He saw her jaw tighten, just as she raised her chin and stood just a little bit straighter. Though the smile never left her face, he could tell that it had hollowed. It was no more than a mask she wore on her face to try and disguise the annoyance that almost certainly burned inside of her.
Her mouth moved only slightly, the movements of her jaw barely perceivable. Though the words she spoke came out crystal clear, it looked as if she was speaking them through gritted teeth.
“He and I have met before. Pleasure to meet you again, SIR.”
Michel began to sweat under her gaze. The two daggers that were her eyes seemed to pierce through him and take away his voice. He felt his legs begin to quake as he quickly tried to think up a response, but luckily his roommate piped up, taking the attention off of him.
“Well look at you two, already the best of friends right out the gate. My, my, you certainly do have a way with people, doncha Mick?”
A light elbow to the ribs broke Michael out of his awkwardness, even being enough to elicit a slight, nervous giggle from him. Stella looked back and forth between the two canines with suspicion but finally settled back into her cheerier attitude as she ignored the newcomer and addressed her friend.
“So, what are you doing today? Prowling the streets for some tail like you usually do?”
With a sneer, Louie replied, “Nah, the one I got here is fine.”
His tail wrapped around his body and into his hands, resting on his chest as if giving him a hug.
“Heh heh, SURRREE. I figured you’d want to take advantage of the fact that you have a wingman now.”
She glanced at Michael again. He could tell that an insult was just waiting to roll off her tongue, but she dared not speak it while on duty. Instead, she let the look do the talking for her.
“Oh, I’m not all that worried. I mean, just look at us: I doubt the chicks out there will be able to leave us alone once we walk through those doors. You’re gonna have to beat them off with a stick once we get back.”
“Mmmmm hmmm. I’ll make sure I have it ready.”
They both exchanged smirks before saying their goodbyes. They embraced one last time, and when they had parted, Louie darted ahead towards the doors. Before catching up, Michael gave a short little wave and mumbled a goodbye of his own. The panther girl met this with yet another hollow smile, accompanied by soulless farewell. He turned away from her and flushed with embarrassment as he hurried towards Louie, who was holding the door open for him.
When they both made it out into the oppressive heat, Micheal grunted absentmindedly. Being inside the relatively mild apartment building for as long as he had caused him to forget the brutality of the weather outside. He wanted to just turn around and head back inside, but the fact that he had nowhere to go prevented him from doing so. Not to mention that turning around would have meant that he would have had to walk past Stella once again, a prospect he was NOT interested in doing alone. Facing the heat may have been brutal, but it was a far better alternative to being mercilessly judged.
Through the sweltering rays, he noticed his guide wipe his brow in an exaggerated fashion. He let out a loud sigh and said, “Man, is it hot out here, or is it just me? And ladies, don’t answer that, I know you’ll be biased.”
He tugged on Michael’s shirt and gestured him to follow. Together, the pair made their way down the street, blazing a trail across the scorching sidewalk back along the route by which Michael had been driven in on.
It took them about twenty minutes to reach the towering climate wall that maintained the blistering temperatures in this part of the city. The young arctic fox felt microscopic next to the monolithic divider. Huge support towers loomed on either side of them. As they walked past them towards the tunnel to the next district, he got a good look at the insides of the apparatus. Heating elements as a wide as three elephants shoulder-to-shoulder glowed red hot amidst a web-like network of pipes and wires. Fans that seemed large enough to propel an airplane into orbit circulated the burning air out onto the sand, and by extension, the city beyond.
Even at this distance away from the heating towers, it felt like he was walking further and further into an oven. When the pair of them finally made it into the cool darkness of the tunnel, Michael let out a deep sigh of relief. His skin felt like it was still burning, but a cool wind coming from the opposite entrance of the tunnel made it tingle pleasantly.
He realized that his eyes were closed. When he opened them, he was treated to the sight of his companion folding his arms and grinning.
Louie said, “You cold weather folks are priceless. Ya get a little bit of strong sun and you swear you’re gonna melt like a pawpsicle.”
Somehow, Michael found himself able to speak his mind. Perhaps it was the relief from the blazing heat, or the solitude offered by the dim tunnel. Or, maybe the events of the day had finally taken their toll and he had just felt the need to vent. Either way, his mouth worked far better than it had all day.
“Well, it’s not like I came here dressed like this on PURPOSE. If I’d known where I’d be going today, don’t you think I would have been more prepared?”
As soon as he had said it, Michael instantly regretted it. He prepared an apology as he waited for the sharp rebuttal to come, but it never did. Instead, Louie just shrugged his shoulders, his eyebrows rising as his mouth contorted into a pout.
He said, “Eh, I dunno. Probably. I know I wasn’t ready for it either when I moved in. Got used to it pretty quick, though. I bet you will too.” He turned around and started moving on, leaving Michael standing in place, bewildered by the response.
Louie said over his shoulder, “I guess it doesn’t matter much anyway. Where we’re going, you’re probably gonna be thankful you’re dressed like that.”
He continued on at a steady rate, his footsteps echoing through the tunnel until the odd car roared through and interrupted them. Intrigue allowed Michael to push aside his mixed bitter feelings and follow his guide deeper into the tunnel.
Seeing as he had come in through this very passage, he knew what awaited them once they reached the other side. But even with this knowledge, Michael still couldn’t help but feel a little twang of excitement reverberate through his chest. He hadn’t gotten a proper look at Tundratown thanks to his cabbie’s terrifying driving. In a sense, this would be his first time really seeing the place.
He daydreamed fondly about what he would see when they got to the other side. A smile crept its way across his face, but it quickly dissipated when the red furred canine in front of him spoke again.
“So, where exactly are ya from? Ya know, I was kinda kidding about you ACTUALLY being from some really cold place or something. You could have moved in from anywhere for all I know.”
Louie had turned and started walking backward again, a happy look on his face that Michael was quickly beginning to find annoying. All the arctic fox wanted to do was daydream in peace, but this guy couldn’t help but try and get into his business.
Michael kept walking for a short while in silence, trying to avoid Louie’s gaze by appearing distracted by the floor and walls. When the insistent mammal still didn’t turn around, he broke down and gave him something that he hoped would satisfy him enough to leave him alone.
“Well, you were right. I AM from up north. It’s cold and snows all the time and all that crap. It’s nothing special.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Louie smirk a little.
He said, “Hey, that sounds pretty special to me. Personally, I like the cold a lot more than the heat. That’s why I LOVE taking a walk over to Tee tee every so often. There ain’t much to do over there, but I just like the atmosphere, ya know? And the people too.”
Michael gave a short series of quick nods to acknowledge what was said, and relaxed slightly when he noticed Louie turn around again. He cautiously looked ahead and sighed with satisfaction when the only thing he saw was the back of Louie’s shirt.
As they made their way further in, Michael noticed a severe temperature drop. An intense white light in the distance momentarily blinded him when he and his companion rounded a short bend. His eyes adjusted just in time for an icy wind to sweep into the tunnel and wash over him. The fur on his body bristled in an all-too-familiar way as they made their way ever closer. Soon enough, they had stepped into the light, and what Michael saw took his foggy breath away.
It felt as if he were looking at the inside of some enormous ice cave, with the ceiling ripped off to expose the floor to the glittering rays of the sun. Clear crystal seemed to dominate the aesthetic of the buildings here: be it by exposed glass or generous layers of sheet ice, everything in this part of town seemed to sparkle whenever Michael looked at it. The parts that WEREN’T covered in a shimmering glaze appeared to be thickly caked with layer after layer of sticky snow. The stuff softened any hard edges on the structures and gave each one a puffiness that reminded him of thick clouds floating majestically through the sky.
The tops of each building were adorned with decorative baubles and spires, which looked like they’d be right at home decorating an evergreen tree. Each one swirled with matte white and a gorgeous electric blue. It was in sharp contrast to the warm colors orange tones seen inside almost every window. He could almost feel the comforting toasty feeling flow through his body as he looked towards the upper floors of a nearby department store.
While the place did seem quite homey to the little arctic fox, it was clear from the moment he stepped out of the tunnel that there was something exotic about this place. It was familiar, but altogether different from the place he had once called home. Back up north, the whiteness covered up EVERYTHING. There was no variety in any of it; just a single shade of pure, glaring white that seemed to suck the very life out of everything it touched.
But that wasn’t the case here. Though white still dominated, it didn’t consume like it had back home. Rich colors poked through the white here and there, giving the place a liveliness that he had never encountered before. Never did he think that someplace so cold could ever be so welcoming.
Michael and Louie walked a few more blocks before stopping to take a rest. They appeared to be in some kind of square in the center of the district; like a clearing in a thick evergreen forest, the buildings stopped budding from the ground for about three blocks square. In the center of this open space, a snowflake-shaped fountain sprayed steaming water high into the air. Michael suspected that the water was heated in some way to keep it liquid, though he supposed that wasn’t the ONLY reason. He noticed a plethora of mammals gathered around the structure, warming themselves with the residual heat. He picked out of the crowd a few who filled bags or highly reflective bladders with the balmy liquid before pocketing them and going about their separate ways, sighing in relief as they backed away with their own personal sources of warmth.
Nearer where they stayed was a small, flowing waterway. Large ice flows gently drifted down the winding pathway that led further into the district. The chunks of ice were SO massive that Michael even caught sight of some mammals hitching a ride on them as they lazily sailed past. What amazed him most about this was that none of them batted so much as an eyelash at it: many of them absentmindedly stepped on as they stared at their phones or some other distraction around them. One flow even held an elephant and her two small children, the little ones acting no differently than if they were all in a car zipping down the street. Michael knew that if HE had seen anything like that when he was a kid, he would have been hopping from one flow to the next, zigzagging from one shore to the next and back again.
Granted, his parents would probably have KILLED him before they let him do something so dangerous.
After spinning in circles for a couple of minutes, taking in the atmosphere of the wonderland like a sponge taking on water, he planted himself on the bench next to Louie. He couldn’t stop staring upward, but when he sat down and relaxed for a second, he realized that his mouth had been in a big open smile for the entire time that they had been in the district. As such, his jaw was amazingly stiff, but he didn’t have a care in the world about that.
A voice brought his attention back down to ground level. “I take it this isn’t the same as what you got back home, huh?”
Michael looked over at Louie for what felt like the first time in a long while. He had been so distracted by everything around him that he had almost forgot his new roommate was still accompanying him. But now that he was looking at him, Michael had become conscious of a gentle shaking through his legs and up his back.
Louie was hunched over his legs, hands pressed over his muzzle. His smoky breath leaked out in small, rolling clouds from between his furry fingers. It came on in a few puffs before he pulled his paws away and rubbed them together vigorously. His ears were pressed hard into the top of his head in an attempt to keep the warmth to himself, but it was clear that it wasn’t doing much for him. Just as Michael had come to Myrtle Crown woefully ill prepared for the weather there, Louie had come out to Tundratown in nothing but a pair of shorts and a tee shirt.
The only difference was that he had come here by choice.
Michael looked away from him for a second, in an attempt to not seem like he was too attune to what Louie was doing. He didn’t want to appear creepy gawking at the other mammal while he decided what he wanted to do. Finally, when the buzzing of the bench became far too much for his heart to take, Michael reached for the collar of his sweatshirt. He peeled it off of himself and, after straightening out the tee-shirt he’d had underneath, reached out and handed it off to his shivering companion.
“He….here…take this. I don’t really need it out here anyway.”
He kept his head turned away from the other mammal, and thus felt the garment being taken more than he saw it. Only after he heard the sound of rustling next to him did he dare to turn his head slightly and glance over at Louie. He saw the red-furred canine putting his arms through the sleeves first, before pulling his head through the collar. When it popped out the other side, he pulled the rest of it down and over his body. It was clearly not his size, but that didn’t stop him from giving Michael the biggest smile he had yet.
He said, “Thanks man. I’m feelin toasty already. Now all we need is the butter and cinnamon and maybe I’ll turn French.”
Michael rolled his eyes, but a chuckle still managed to leave his lips unintentionally. He pressed his lips together and rubbed the tops of his thighs with his hands before saying, “Don’t mention it.”
Louie hopped to his feet at once, causing the sweatshirt’s waist to drop nearer his crotch and the sleeves to cover up significant portions of his paws.
He put them to his hips and said, “Well, ya know what will REALLY warm us up? MOVEMENT! Come on, I still got a lot more to show you. The deluxe tour ain’t over yet!”
Michael hesitated a moment before standing up. Though this spot was hectic and full of people, there was a kind of serenity here that he hadn’t felt since he got off the boat. After the day he had been having, he wanted to desperately cling onto this one feeling of safety and never let it go for the rest of the day. But before he could even protest the decision, his guide had strolled a few paces away. He wouldn’t be able to bring it up without shouting, so he was forced to get to his feet and tag along, an action he did whilst mumbling all the way.
The rest of the day was the most hectic thing Michael had ever experienced. For some strange reason, Louie felt the compulsive need to try and cram EVERY SINGLE sight he could possibly think of into one single afternoon. They moved without stopping, taking winding paths through each section of the city in order to see as much of it as possible before moving onto the next. After Tundratown was the Rainforest District, a cornucopia of lush green vegetation and near-constant inclement weather. By the time they had crisscrossed the many elevated roadways and rickety rope bridges that connected clumps of tree houses and businesses, Michael felt as if he had just taken a nosedive into the river he’d seen in Tundratown.
Of course, that did noting to deter the ball of energy that was Louie Joel. He just kept on bounding forward, turning back every so often to explain some trivial factoid or crack another of his witty remarks. The novelty of his mannerisms had worn off long before the first droplet of rain touched their bodies, and being soaked to the bone really hadn’t done anything to improve matters. For the most part Michael just ignored him, instead focusing on taking in all the sights and sounds of every new district. It amazed him how they were not only different in climates, but in very feeling of as well. Sahara Square was a desolate place, nearly devoid of life outside of the oasis of the main district center. Tundratown, meanwhile, was an arctic wonderland that was both serene and lively, as comforting as a cup of hot cocoa on a bitter day.
The Rainforest district, meanwhile, was a cavalcade of confusion. As many mammals thronged the narrow passageways as water droplets that fell from the sky. Chaos was ever-present, made even more hectic by the constant cacophony within the tree layers. Between the incessant roaring of the torrential downpours and the yelling of the mammals in the streets to try and be OVERHEARD amongst it, Michael’s ears were rebelling against him and causing him a headache of unprecedented proportions. Even though he wanted nothing more than to take a seat and give his aching foot paws a break, he simply couldn’t leave the loud city sector fast enough.
When they both finally DID escape the throngs of wet mammals, they were met with a mess of confusion of a different sort. Immediately after leaving the Rainforest District, Louie had guided them through yet another tunnel towards the heart of the city-proper: Savannah Central. Immediately upon entering, Michael was amazed by sheer diversity the sector had to offer.
Nothing here had any sort of overt theme like any of the other sectors, but there was no question that the place had a personality all its own. Down every single street, enormous skyscrapers grew from the ground and endlessly stretched up into the sky. All of the pictures he had seen couldn’t dream of wholly capturing the majesty of what he was experiencing. He was so enthralled that he didn’t even look at Louie when he spoke.
“Guess they don’t make em like this back home, huh?”
Michael shook his head instead of speaking his reply. Words failed him as his mind grappled with the immensity of everything. He kept his head craned upwards while they made their way, block by block, towards the city’s center. The sun was quickly fading over the horizon, and by the time they had reached the glowing hub of downtown, the day was almost completely over.
Before leaving, the duo stopped at one of the many tofu-dog food carts that dotted every sidewalk down seemingly every street. Louie ordered for the both of them, thankfully allowing Michael to avoid talking to the scary looking elephant that ran the cart. He couldn’t help but notice how easily thoughts and actions came to Louie: ordering the food, chatting up the owner of the cart, and even paying. They were all done with a casual ease that mousey arctic fox found remarkable. He knew he would never be capable of such ease, and instantly he felt a pang of pity for himself.
How would he be able to fare if he didn’t have Louie with him today? More than likely he’d get himself lost somewhere in the immensity of this grand place. He couldn’t hail a cab to get him back to the apartment, given how DISASTEROUSLY that went the first time. He also probably couldn’t ask for directions either, as he figured that anyone he tired to ask would be pushy and rude and unhelpful.
Michael would have sunk further into self-doubt if Louie hadn’t turned around and handed him his food. The smile he gave while extending his hand out was surprisingly disarming. It helped focus the arctic fox on the present a bit more easily, and so when he took his meal, he felt far more at ease. The two continued walking, until they came across a beautifully landscaped park.
Even in the dimming daylight, Michel could see how wonderfully green the park was. The finely cut grass felt like carpet when he took a step on it. The trees were very well manicured, their tops puffing out like green clouds atop strong, thick trunks. In the center of the park, a large pond glowed thanks to lights set in its bottom. Across the waters surface were small, broiling spouts that shone in every color of the rainbow. Every so often, water would jettison out of the spouts, looking like laser bolts as they carried the light of the spouts. A central ring of jets fired in rhythm with the ones running tangentially to it, creating a light and water show that was as mystifying as the flames of a campfire.
The two crossed the vast expanse of green along a long, winding dirt trail. They stopped walking when they arrived at a picnic table, located near a small playground where younger mammals of every shape and sized played on the equipment. A semi-circle of parents around the perimeter of the playground mumbled amongst themselves, chatting about this and that while their little ones played. Michael didn’t see any more than that before he sat down, turning his back towards them. Louie sat across, while behind him, Michael saw the fountain spray elegantly into the darkening sky.
Louie took a bite of his food before saying, “So, whaddya think of the new habitat? Not too shabby I think, huh? There’s plenty to do and see no matter where ya go: honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re a little spoiled for choice.”
As Michael took a bite himself, he found that he didn’t mind the taste as much as he thought he would. He chewed thoughtfully before finally giving his reply.
“Yeah…I guess I am. Everything’s so big here; I don’t know how everyone isn’t looking up all the time.”
“Mm hmm, but I bet that’d cause a LOT of accidents. Then again, the driver’s here aren’t exactly winning any awards, either.”
Michael’s mind flashed with the image of his cab driver from earlier that same day. He shivered and then quickly pushed the thought from his head.
“Anyway,” Louie continued, “so, you got work lined up for ya down here? What did you have planned for a job?”
“Ahh, well…actually, I was kinda going to play that part by ear. I got a bunch of money saved up from a part time job back home, so I really don’t need to rush into anything for some time. In the meanwhile, I’d like to…”
Louie pounded his fist on the table, causing the whole thing to rattle. “Hey, that’s my kinda attitude! Trust me man; hold off on working for as long as you can. You’re brand new here, so its good to get acclimatized to your surroundings before you sell your soul to some company for the sake of a paycheck.”
He smiled widely, “Besides, ya got me lookin’ out for ya. I’ll help you out in any way I can. Scout’s honor.”
As friendly as the sentiment was, Michael couldn’t help but think that it was a little bit pushy. Sure, it’s great to meet someone who isn’t a total jerk, but it’s not exactly a good thing if they lean too far in the opposite direction, either. The two of them had just met, and while Michael would certainly offer some small gestures of kindness whenever it was appropriate, he wouldn’t exactly offer financial support. It was too much too soon, and it gave Michael the same feeling he had when he was living with his parents: constricted and placed in a tiny box because he couldn’t handle things on his own.
Not really knowing what else to do, he kept silent and continued eating. He looked past Louie at the water fountains behind him, and looked on silently as the light and water show played out. It was getting darker by the minute, making the lights shine all the more vibrantly and giving the jets of water that much more of a mystical glow. He focused in on that until he finished his food, upon which Louie stood up and blocked the view with is body.
He said, “Welp, it’s getting pretty late. You gotta be exhausted. OH YEAH, you gotta unpack too, don’tcha? Heh heh, well I guess it’s a little late for that now, huh?”
The realization sunk in Michael just as Louie said it, and he bit his lower lip in disgust. He DID still have to unpack, something that would already have been done if he weren’t dragged on this little tour. It was true that it was probably something he was going to do anyway, but he would have wanted to do it on HIS terms. As the two started walking towards the street again, Michael fumed at the fact that he wasn’t even on his own a full day and he was already being dictated to by someone else.
When they got to the sidewalk, Michael watched as Louie looked up and down the streets for something. Just before he was about to ask what he was doing, he waved his arms at an approaching cab.
Michael shot the other mammal a look, to which he replied, “Heh, what? You wanna WALK all the way back home? No thank you, I got my exercise for the week. Come on though, you’re gonna have to learn how to properly hail a cab anyway, might as well start now.”
The yellow taxi pulled up in front of them, incredibly massive to their tiny frames. With a casual ease, Louie hopped up onto the rear wheel well and popped the door open with one hand. When the door opened enough for him to fit, he fell forward into his seat, rolling to a stop on the opposite side. Michael used the interior of the door panel to hoist himself up, clawing and grunting all the way until he finally had his butt planted on the cushions. When he did, he set to work in closing the massive door behind him. Due to its weight, it was something that took most of Michael’s focus, but in the background he heard Louie chatting with the cab driver in a jovial voice.
When the door finally closed, Michael sunk back into his seat and turned to see what all the commotion was about. His heart stopped beating when he saw an unfortunately familiar face sitting behind the driver’s seat of the taxicab. The driver that had barely gotten him to the Myrtle Crown in one piece earlier that day was turned around in his seat, eyeballing the other passenger of his vehicle. Louie was just in the process of finishing a story when he turned and saw Michael staring.
“Oh hey, I haven’t introduced you! Ricky, I want you to meet my new pal Mickey. Mickey, meet Ricky.”
When the hulking titan of the driver turned and looked at Michael, the little arctic fox was absolutely petrified. He had no idea what the massive driver would say, but he was absolutely certain he would recognize him from earlier. If Michael’s muscles hadn’t seized with a debilitating amount of anxiety, he would have flung the door open and ran for the nearest rock so that he could crawl underneath it.
But much to his surprise, the cabbie actually gave a warm, friendly smile. As he did, he held out a thick, wrinkled hand. Michael hesitated at first, but then cautiously reached out and took it for a handshake.
In a guttural, deeply baritone voice, he said, “It’s a pleasure to meet ya. Any frienda Blue over ‘ere is a frienda mine.”
Michael couldn’t quite find the words to say in the moment. All he could manage to do is stare in stunned silence and nod his head quickly to acknowledge what was said. That appeared to be enough for the driver, as he turned back towards Louie and said,
“Alright ya little fur ball, where we goin?”
“Heading home, my good man. And do try to be quick about it, my companion here is about ready to pass out.”
The car started to roll, and for the briefest fraction of time, Michael actually thought that they may make it home safely in this deathtrap of a vehicle. However, it didn’t take long before sudden acceleration slammed him into his seat and kept him pinned there. Wild jerking right and left sent him flying towards the door and center of the seat, respectively. He felt his dinner start to broil in his stomach, threatening to show itself once again if he didn’t stop this insane ride as soon as possible.
When they got on a long straightaway, he dared to turn his head and look over at his new roommate. Amazingly, the canine was sitting in his seat as cool as a cucumber, legs crossed and checking the claws on his hands. He must have noticed Michael staring out of the corner of his eye, because he suddenly turned his head towards him and gave a carefree smile.
What in the nine frozen hells was wrong with everybody in this town? Michael stifled a scream as he felt the car lurch forward, sending his head whipping forward before snapping back hard into the padding behind him. He thanked his maker that he was too small for these seats: if he were any taller, his neck would have probably snapped on the headrest from such an impact. Either that, or the damned thing would break off.
After what seemed like a hellishly long eternity, the car finally screeched to a halt, the first one since they had started, the young arctic fox noticed. After peeling himself off the grimy interior that he had been glued to for the past twenty minutes, he put his hands on his knees to brace himself. He was breathing heavily, his heart punching his ribcage as if it were trying to make an escape. After all it had gone through, Michael admitted that he couldn’t blame it for trying.
Between gasps, he heard the door open on the other side. He blinked a few times to try and get a grip before finally lifting his head. Louie was already halfway out the door, chatting to the cab driver. He hopped out and circled around to continue the conversation through the driver’s side window.
The terrified arctic fox seized the initiative and scrambled out of the car as fast as his quaking limbs would allow. When finally outside, he slammed the door shut, the adrenaline coursing through his system giving him enough strength to do so with gusto. The loud noise sounded final to Michael’s ears, as if he had just closed the door to Hell itself. In a way, he felt like he kind of did.
He caught Louie and the driver at the tail end of their conversation. Louie said, “Anyway, thinks for the ride Ricky. Just put the fare on my tab, alright?”
The rhino shook his massive head, cutting the air in two with his enormous horn. “Nahhh, tonight’s free. Consider it a little ‘welcome to da neighborhood’ gift for your friend ovah dere. And ‘ey, snow cone, you make sure you treat mah boy ‘ere wit respect. Othawise we’re gonna take another ride like the one this mornin’ the next time you get in my cab. Conprendo?”
He marked his question with a sly wink, but Michael was far too focused on the sinister implications to pay much notice. The realization that this driver DID remember him made his entire body numb with embarrassment, and the fact that he was being spoken to directly without expecting it made him seize up. Once again, he did the only thing he could do, and nodded profusely.
Ricky turned towards Louie. “Not much of a talker, this one, huh?”
“Oh please, you should have heard him on our walk. The guy wouldn’t shut up! I had to gag him halfway through just to get some peace and quiet.”
A guttural laugh ensued that shook Michael to the core. “Nevah took you for the kinky type, Blue boy.”
“Oh I’m just a little fur ball full of surprises. Just ask your wife.”
“Eh he he he. As if I’d put it past that lyin sack of… ”
“Hey now, she loves you Ricky, don’t be like that. Ya just gotta be more spontaneous is all. Like me!”
“Heh, yeah, okay fuzz ball. When I get home I’ll give her the Blue treatment. See if THAT turns her from the wicked witch o’ tha west to a freaking twinklin’ fairy.”
“Stranger things have happened, Rick, stranger things have happened.”
There was a huff that sounded like a gust of wind blowing through an alleyway, right before Ricky gave a curt salutation and sped off. Louie, all smiles, turned around and walk past Michael, who was looking on dumbfounded the entire time. As he passed, he gave the arctic fox a tap on the shoulders. Michael took it as a cue to turn around and try to forget the trauma as soon as he could.
They walked through an empty lobby. It must have been far later than Michael had anticipated, since not a sound could be heard in the entrance besides the constant dull roar of the fountain in the center of the space. The two made their way towards the elevator, up to their floor and all the way to their room without saying a single word. With the adrenaline quickly wearing off, Michael was struck by a sudden, intense fatigue. He only realized now what an enormously busy day he’d had today, and every muscle and bone screamed at him to find something comfortable to lie on and pass out.
No sooner had the pair gotten into their room that Michael made a beeline for the couch. He fell face first into it over one of the arms, sprawling his entire body across its length. The downy white cushions cradled his body like a cloud, and all at once he felt his muscles relax. His mind was completely blank, flooded with a comforting fuzziness that made it all the easier for him to close his eyes. He didn’t even notice the moment when his conscious mind shut down and he drifted off into a peaceful slumber.
Nor did he hear the sound of his roommate shuffling around him, smiling to himself and wishing the already sleeping fox a sincere goodnight.