A/N: This takes place in my established story world of Motley. I haven't posted very much of that on YWS before, but trust me, the world has a lot in it. This barely covers any of it. I've got a lot more worldbuilding than this will ever touch on.
For feedback, I'd mostly like to know if the story flows okay, if I used the past tense properly and consistently throughout, and if my character is behaving consistently. The first portion of the story is more in his head, so he may appear more confident and whatnot there. It's not until the second portion that his truer character comes out, I think.
Anyway, enjoy part one!
I flooded my lungs with the smoke of a half-dead cigarette as I leaned against a streetlamp, focusing on a cute dame across the way. She was wearing a bright yellow dress and glancing up and down the street, her-- friend? sister? whoever-- by her side. A light drizzle had started a few minutes before, and the second girl was already holding up an umbrella. She was cute too, but not cute enough to have to worry about a bit of water screwing up her dress or makeup. I scoffed, pulling the cigarette from my mouth and exhaling a long, putrid tempest of smoke.
The stuff tasted nasty to me, but that nicotine always got my gears going, so I ignored the flavor. Not like there was much bother in trying to find any tastier cigarettes. Shops only offered 'half-a-century-old' or 'drenched in sewage'. No sir, no fresh smokes for any gents in the city of Motley.
The dame hadn't noticed me yet, but her friend had seemed to, and I smirked, tipping the front of my bowler cap to her. She scoffed, her face contorting into a swirling mess of contempt. I chuckled and took another drag on my cigarette. She poked the dame's arm, whispered something in her ear, and soon both were glaring across the road at me. I was considering walking over and trying my luck before they slipped away when a vile howl suddenly ripped the night in two.
The three of us jumped, nearly out of our skins, and all spun our heads around erratically. Three heads swiveling in every direction, searching for the source, we probably looked like a group of panicked chickens. The dame and her friend-- sister-- whoever-- knotted arms and bolted up the brickwork sidewalk, towards the heart of the city. Then the rain began to pick up.
My body was raring to run as well, but I held my ground, pretending to be brave. Wind whipped me in the face, growing increasingly stronger, and blew the light out of my cigarette. I let it fall out of my mouth and roll down the street gutter, exhaling the last of the smoke from my lungs. I stepped into the middle of the street, spinning around to make sure nothing was sneaking up on me. There were few cars in Motley, and none came by this way, so I had no fears of being run over. Pausing in the middle of the road and staring up at the sky, I expected to see a thick blanket of clouds, dark and billowing and ominous. But instead I saw the stars. Twinkling lights, burning several eternities away, and not a cloud in sight. Yet the rain poured. I glanced down the road, in the direction that trailed straight to the ocean, and saw lightning arch across the sky above the waves. There were no clouds out there either.
Thunder crashed, but before it did I could have sworn I heard the howl begin again. I retreated to the sidewalk again and gave the surrounding buildings a wary glance. I bounced in place for a moment, trying to figure out what the howl could have been, then sprinted up the street, the same direction the two girls had.
“I'm telling ya, Charlie, there's some kind of wild dog on the loose! I heard it growling up along the waterfront just the other night!” Earl was saying.
“Shut up, Er, you didn't hear nothin',” Charlie said, raising a dishtowel-clutching fist to whack Earl in the ear with.
“But Charlie--!” Earl began to protest.
Charlie glowered at him, fist still ready to make contact, and Earl immediately dropped any comment he had thought up, deciding instead to dip his nose in another pint.
“That's a good man, Er.” Charlie said, sticking the dishtowel in a dirty mug and rubbing the inside clean. “How's it going, there, Alder?” he called to me as he hung the mug on a hook above the bar.
I glanced up from my table in the corner, where I'd had my nose buried in the menu.
“You ready to order?” he asked. “You ne'er come in here taking that long.”
“Oh, leave him alone, Charlie,” another patron – Karl – interjected. “Alder's probably got a lady-friend joining him tonight.” He stumbled between laughing and whistling, then tapered off as I simply stared him down blankly.
“Yeah right!” Earl hiccuped from the mouth of his pint. “Like Alder could ever get a lady to say yes to a meal! He tell you about that one gal that hit him with her purse? Nearly knocked his cigarette right down his throat--!”
“Alright, alright,” Charlie said. “That's enough, now! Alder, order when you're ready.”
He returned to cleaning the mugs and I hid my face behind the menu again, smirking at Earl's story. Everyone knew it was him who'd been whacked with the purse, but he liked to spin the story on being about anyone else. It had become an inside joke to the rest of us, when Earl wasn't around. When he was, we just let him tell it about whoever he decided to that day.
As for the menu, I wasn't having trouble ordering. I was just using it as an excuse to sit in silence and think. It had been two days since the night I saw the dame; since the howl that spooked us two and her friend. In those two days, I'd caught sight of her again, four times. Twice entering the old hatter shop just down the street, and twice exiting it. The odd thing about all that, was that the hatter's shop had been abandoned since who-knew-when. Everyone on the street, even people on the neighboring streets, knew you couldn't get in there. The windows were boarded, the chimney was too narrow to climb down if you were that eager on entering, and the door was always locked. Yet she went and came through the door, multiple times without fail. Something was definitely up, and while I wasn't a detective, I was curious. I also wouldn't mind getting to talk to her sometime. So I decided I'd figure out what was going on.
My mind had been stuck on this topic for most of my waking hours since I first saw her enter the building, so now I sat in Charlie's bar, staring blankly at the menu I'd been ordering from for nearly five years. Charlie tried to talk to me a couple more times but I barely heard him, and as the clock ticked along, patron after patron up and left. A few other visitors for the night entered, some regulars, some new faces wandering the streets. And the whole while, my eyes were locked on either 'sloppy butcher sandwich' or 'two ales and a steak', reading neither, thinking over and over about the dame and hatter's shop.
Eventually, when only two other customers were left, sat on the far side of the bar, Charlie came and plopped himself in the seat across from me. He set a steaming plate of chicken and potatoes on the table, lying his thick, hairy arms on either side of it.
“What's wrong with you, Alder?” he asked, his voice stern but caring, as he pinned a chunk of chicken down with a fork and dug his knife into it.
Charlie was an old friend, and as I shook myself from my reverie and glanced at the clock, I realized why he would be concerned.
“Oh, wow,” I mumble, reading the time.
“You've been sitting here for six hours. Haven't ordered a thing. We both know you've got that menu memorized from front to back. Even know the specials that I switch up at random barely a few times a year. So what's wrong, Alder? Why you sitting here looking like a corpse?” He popped the chicken in his mouth, and a couple bits of potato right after it, chewing leisurely.
“Sorry, Charlie. Just thinkin',” I said, setting the menu down and rubbing an eye with the palm of my hand. I suddenly felt incredibly tired.
“You? Thinkin'?” Charlie chuckled. “About what, then?”
“Eh, this and that,” I began, ready to lie, but as Charlie looked at me, I figured I had no reason to. “I saw this dame the other night. Was thinkin' of talking to her--”
“And you still thinking about that? Haha!”
“No-- No, didn't get a chance to, but that's not what I'm thinkin' about.”
Charlie nodded, smirking as he cut another piece of chicken.
“I saw her enter the old hatter's shop,” I said, unconsciously leaning closer to him over the table and lowering my voice.
He paused mid-bite of his chicken and cast me an incredulous look as I did so. I straightened in my seat.
“Yeah,” he said, continuing with his meal. “That is pretty strange, innit? But so what? You're not one to snoop in others' business. Even if she is attractive-- Yeah, I know you. Talk a big game to your buddies, but can barely work up the nerve to talk to a gal when you see one,” he added the last bit as I opened my mouth to retort. He chuckled again.
“Yeah, well, I don't have much else to do--”
“What d'you mean?” he rose a caterpillar of an eyebrow in a high arch. “You haven't been skipping out on that job I got you into, have you?”
I stuttered, trying to think of an excuse. I had been skipping out, but Charlie had put a lot of faith in me for that job, and had stuck his neck out on more than just this occasion. It would be beyond disrespectful to--
“Ah, dammit, Alder,” he said, tiredly, propping his elbows on the table and dropping his face into his hands. “I gave those guys my word that you'd work hard. Be a good investment. But you don't even bother showing up?”
“I do show up!” I said. “I just don't really hang around.”
Charlie sighed, burying his face even deeper into his palms, which should have been impossible, but he managed it somehow.
“I know, Charlie. I'm sorry. You don't have to stick your neck out for me anymore, I'll figure things out on my own--”
“No, hell no. You're going tomorrow and you're working, if they even take you.” He stabbed his fork right through a potato, the spud splitting and falling away from the prongs. He turned the fork on a bit of chicken and jammed it in his mouth instead. “I'd tell you to drop this girl and hatter shop stuff, and focus on your work, but I'm not your father, Alder. I'm just trying to help you out. If you really don't want my help, don't bother with the job, but at least let me know first.”
I nodded my head, cheeks flushing abashedly. Charlie wasn't my father, it was true, but he was the closest thing I had to one. He looked out for me, and had done so for quite a while. I felt terrible for taking his help for granted.
“I'll clock in tomorrow, Charlie. Don't you worry.”
Charlie nodded and I let him finish his meal in silence. When he was done, he stood, swept the dish and utensils away with him, and vanished beyond the swinging kitchen door behind the bar.
As the door swung shut, I realized that I hadn't told Charlie about the howl I heard, or how all the clouds vanished while the sky kept raining. He probably wouldn't want to hear it right then, anyway.
I stood from the booth, nodded to the last couple patrons as I made for the door, and left Charlie's bar for the night.
I spent the night in my usual spot: an abandoned apartment building, third floor, room with the fluffy crimson mattress. There were a lot of abandoned, boarded-up buildings scattered around Motley. Sometimes entire towns, especially in the slums. And unless you owned a shop or cafe or place like Charlie's, you'd be squatting in any one of these places.
Most were “claimed” by earlier squatters, and occasionally fights would break out when one person tried to squat in another person's “claimed” room, but a simple mention of City Patrols usually made 'em scatter like rats. Of course, squatting wasn't necessarily illegal or anything. There was little regulation of property in Motley, and The Council rarely showed their ugly mugs anyway, so squatters didn't have much to worry about. Yet they were still so easy to spook.
I hadn't “claimed” my spot, necessarily, but that part of town had so few squatters that there was little concern over it being taken. Even if it was, practically every other room in the building was empty.
Awaking the next morning, my immediate thought was to visit the hatter shop and see if that dame had arrived yet, as the previous two times hadn't been along the same schedule. But then I remembered my conversation with Charlie, and how it had ended. Looking in the filthy, grime-coated mirror of my room, I gulped down a breath and decided to go to work.
As I was exiting the building, through one of the massive, shattered windows on the rear wall of the base floor, a jaunty voice called out to me.
I started violently, nearly tripping over the window pane and into a sea of dirty glass shards. I barely caught my balance when a heavy weight crashed into my back and tossed me to the ground anyway. Frantically twisting around to see what was on top of me, I came face to face with the dame from across the way. She was no longer in a bright yellow dress. Instead, she was clad in dark pants and a dark shirt, and wore a cowl over her head. But I knew it was her.
“I've noticed you watching me,” she said, jovially. “And I don't appreciate it, sweetie.”
She raised a gloved fist, then brought it down hard, and all I saw was black.