The smell of greasy, fried food hangs in the air like a delicious fog. It's both familiar and not if that's even possible -- like home cooking, if home was an alien planet. My 'kind' doesn't come to the Bug Burga often -- not that we're not welcome, it's just that we're not exactly the target audience.
Well, more like most guys like me aren't the target audience. Me personally, I'm real interested in what these folks are selling.
Licking my lips hungrily, I eye the menu board overhead. Gotta finalize my order in my head as I wait my turn in the line. This cheetah in front of me is ordering food like he hasn't eaten in weeks, but you know what? It doesn't bother me one bit. He's giving me time to work my nerves up to place my order, and more importantly he's running interference for me. I've gotten plenty of funny looks just in the time I've been standing in line.
Don't let my enthusiasm for a good burga fool you. Like I said before, it's not common for a guy like me to be seen in a place like this. I'm used to the stares and I'm pretty thick-skinned, but thick skin doesn't change the fact that sheep just don't eat meat.
Even if it's bug meat. Sweet, juicy bug meat.
"Next in line, please?"
Cheetah guy waddles out the door with six bags of food. Finally, it's my turn.
The cashier's a badger -- short, wiry little guy. Wouldn't say he's more than three feet tall. He's propped up on a milk crate just to see over the counter. (Hey, I'm not judging -- I'm short for my species too.) He looks like he hasn't slept in three days or bathed in a week, if the slouch in his gait and the oil in his fur are anything to go by. His name tag says "Rex", his cherry tomato eyeballs say "gimme a 'teenth".
Delightful. Exactly the guy I want preparing and serving me my food.
"Hi, welcome to Bug Burga. Home of the Roach Deluxe Burga," Rex drawls. "Would you like to try our new and improved Cricket Dippers for only $2.49?"
Ah, geez. I've seen snails that are more energetic than this dude. "They sound pretty good, but nah," I reply. "Double roach deluxe to go. Please. And, uh, firefly sauce."
Rex gives me a sleepy grin as he slowly keys my order into the computer. "Three eighty-five. Oh, and you don't have to lie, man."
I cock an eyebrow at him as he takes my money. "What?"
"About the cricket dippers 'sounding good'. Girlfriend send you in here? Lose a bet?"
"Hah. No. It's for me," I answer. That catches his attention.
I'm fully expecting him to bust out laughing, maybe call some of his co-workers over to grill me (no pun intended). Instead his face splits into a lazy grin as he leans against the counter to hand me my change.
"Hey, man, good for you. Not a lotta prey come in here. When they do, they're usually buyin' for someone else, or it's a prank, hazing, y'know. Like eating meat's a big joke, right?" I'm too stunned to reply. "If anything, I say eating grass is a joke. Not sure why we even keep hay fries on the menu."
I laugh uncomfortably.
Catching himself quickly, Rex pauses. "Uh, no offense. It's just, last time a sheep was in here was to protest." He stands up straight, gesturing like he's waving a picket sign. "'Bug Meat is Murder!' You know the type."
"Loonies," I mutter, shaking my head sympathetically.
"I know, right?" he smiles as he idly scratches his chin with a flat spatula from the counter. No telling how many health codes he's violating. "Anyway, thanks for being all cool about it. It's awesome to see prey givin' something like this a shot."
"Uh, yeah. Well, hey, thank you too. Most folks aren't as open-minded about it so I like to keep it to myself."
He points at the black shopping bag hanging from my belt that I brought to conceal my dinner. "Ah. Explains that then." I blink a few times, impressed and also alarmed he noticed. If a guy who acts like he was raised by sloths could notice it, I might be in trouble.
"Uh, the bag said it was scent-resistant on the wrapper," I reply, squirming a little.
Rex shrugs, tearing my receipt off the register. "Hey man, all the power to you. Your order number's 44. Next in line, please?"
I grab a chair at one of the empty tables in the dining room, brushing aside some straw wrappers and leftover hay fries from the last customer. Looks like most of this store's business is focused on the drive-thru. It's an interesting change from the Bug Burga that was near my hometown -- ours didn't have a drive-thru at all, so everyone typically just ate inside.
Not that it really makes much difference to me since I always took my order to go there, too.
As I sit at the table waiting for my double to finish cooking, a tall and very well-built tigress swings a little too close as she walks past me to dump her tray in the trash, her right hip brushing against my thick wool.
"Oh, sorry!" she exclaims as if she didn't notice. The dining room's more than half-empty so she really has no excuse for invading my personal space. Then again, she's a tigress and I'm a sheep so I'm not about to argue the fact.
"It's fine," I insist, tapping my hooves against the table impatiently. It's one sandwich -- what's the hold-up? "Don't worry about it."
She leans down, grinning widely. Way, way too many teeth for comfort. "I just gotta say, it's real brave of you to stop in here. Who's the lucky lady?" I frown just enough that she obviously notices it, causing her to change her tune swiftly. "Uhhh, or guy? Guy's fine too, there's nothing wrong with--"
"It's for me."
She stifles a smirk, clearly not buying it. "Riiiight. Lost a bet, did you?"
"Order 44?" Rex calls out, setting a plastic tray with my burga box down. I don't even bother saying goodbye. I just squeeze past her in a hurry, through the gap between her hips and the table. I can hear her snickering. I need to get out of here. Overstay my welcome and questions pile up. They never stay "friendly" for very long. I learned that one a long time ago.
Recently, circumstances I'd rather not go into detail about right now forced me to find a new place. The good news is, after a solid week of digging through internet listings and browsing newspaper classifieds, I found an apartment that fits my budget. The bad news is that it's on Pack Street.
Why's that bad news? Two reasons: first, Pack Street's a lower-income part of town. That doesn't mean everything looks like shit and that we're throwing molotov cocktails at each other while fighting tooth-and-claw over the ghetto's only bag of bread -- it just means that buildings are older, roads are a little rougher. Older model coupes with dented fenders instead of top-of-the-line sportscars. It's not a slum, it's just not where all of the "pretty" people live.
Uh, but that doesn't mean there aren't some lookers here. (Not that I'd know anything about that.)
Anyway, the second reason is that Pack Street, if you haven't gathered from the name, has a real heavy predator population. Mostly canids. Dogs, wolves, foxes, maybe the odd coyote or two. Probably other species I've never even heard of.
I heard once that predators only make up 10% of Zootopia's population. Other 90% is prey. Well, here on Pack Street, it's pretty much the opposite. Maybe even moreso. I haven't met many of my new neighbors yet, but so far, not one sheep among them. Hell, not even one other prey, now that I think about it. I think I saw an otter yesterday. Are otters predators? I thought they ate kelp or something.
Or, wait, kelp is in the ocean. Are there ocean otters? I'm pretty sure they eat fish.
Anyway, it's sharp-toothed smiles as far as the eye can see.
Let's be clear: I'm no racist. What I am is the type of guy that locks his doors at night whether it's a two-story home in a nice suburb or a dingy apartment in the rough part of town. It doesn't bother me that I'm living in a building teeming with meat-eaters. I mean, I'm one, too, technically. But with this whole thing going on in the news right now? Predators going savage and attacking prey? Let's just say my timing couldn't have been worse on moving in.
After all, not only do sheep not eat meat, there's another thing you should know: we don't move into predator neighborhoods, either.
So I guess it's no surprise I haven't been feeling too welcome since I go there. There's this tension in the air, like a spark of static electricity in my coat, and I'm not sure about it yet. The atmosphere of the whole city sure isn't helping me here. There's protests downtown almost every day now. As bad as it might be walking into a wolf den normally it's way worse now, with all this shit going down. So I don't make waves, I try not to stand out. I've been learning to keep my head down for a while now.
But living here makes it hard, especially since I don't have a car. No car means I have to hoof it everywhere. Hoofing it in a neighborhood like this means I stand out. And for a guy like me, in my situation, in this environment? You can see why that's not a great idea.
Lucky for me it's not far now, maybe half a block to the apartment building. I'm in the home stretch and I can smell this double roach calling my name. Today was a good day -- I'm golden as soon as I get to the lobby.
"Hey there, yarn ball."
I look around for the source of the voice, not slowing as I do. There's a black wolf girl sitting on the edge of a set of cement stairs that lead to the building next door to my apartment tower, just up ahead. She's got a smoke hanging from her muzzle and she's staring at me with squinted eyes and a hard expression. I don't give her a response. I know better than to even try. Just keep walking. I keep my head down and my eyes on the sidewalk.
"Nice sweater!" she calls out as I pass in front of her, "You knit that yourself?"
I keep walking. A little faster now.
"Yeah, run!" I don't see it, but I can hear her snap her jaws at me, and I jump instinctively.
I can hear her laughing while I hustle up the steps, yanking the building's front door open and hurriedly ducking into the lobby.
Once I'm in, I let out the breath I've been holding. I'm relieved to be back home, but it turns out to be short-lived when I catch sight of Al on the couch in the downstairs sitting area. While I haven't met many of my neighbors yet, I have become familiar with Al. You're familiar with him too, if you ever went to high school.
Al's an alpha wolf, and by alpha wolf what I really mean is Al's every jackoff jock that made the school football team look good but wasn't quite ZFL material. Most of his muscle's turned to fat and he's traded in his uniform for a band tee and give-up-on-life pants, but he's clearly the same shithead today that he was when he was the homecoming king. Al seems to be under the delusion this is still senior year and he's the big dog on campus (rather than an unemployed idiot lounging around an apartment all day). I'm not joking when I say if there was a locker nearby, he's actually the type that might try to stuff me in it.
One thing I've noticed about Al is that he doesn't go anywhere without a flunky. Today's no exception; there's a stoat I don't know sitting on top of the couch next to him. They're glued to some game on the shaky little TV someone's set up down here, so I use my opportunity to make my way upstairs. Head down, keep moving, no problems.
I'm five steps up when Al shuts the TV off. I freeze on the stairs, suck air through my teeth, and tense my shoulders. Because now I have a problem.
"Where you goin' in such a hurry, grasseater?"
I sigh, but hold it back enough not to seem disrespectful. "C'mon, man," I offer as inoffensively as possible, "I'm just going up to my room. That's all."
Al doesn't even get up, still seated with his enormous arms confidently spread over the back of the couch. "Don't go sneakin' around behind my back. That's disrespecting a man in his own territory."
I don't like the edge to that tone, and maybe what he deserves isn't respect, but if I can get this over with and eat my dinner in peace I'll do what he asks. Wrapping the bag a little tighter around my wrist, I walk back down the stairs, circling in front of the bench he's treating like a throne, but still keeping my distance.
"Look, I wasn't trying to disrespect you or anything. It's just been a long day and I'm just trying to get home."
He stares at me for a second with the only expression I've ever seen him wear: a steely glare and a tight-lipped frown that seems like it could turn to a snarl real fast.
Finally, he nods. "Arright. But you keep acting suspicious, you're gonna leave a pretty bad impression on some people."
The stoat laughs, and while I fight a scowl, I suddenly notice Al's nose twitching, sniffing the air.
I turn back to the stairs, hoping it's not too late.
I didn't make it one step.
"What's in the bag, sheep?"
"Heh, uh, yeah -- what is that?" the stoat echoes, shimmying down the back of the couch and snaking over to to me, uncomfortably close. "Smells like, like, uh --"
Al snaps his fingers in a "shut up, I'm thinking" kind of way, cutting the stoat off mid-thought. He sticks his paw out towards me.
"Smells like dinner. Let me see that bag." The look on his face says he's not joking.
"What, are you mugging me?" I blurt out, instantly regretting it.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" He laughs, a deep, practiced, insincere laugh. I can see the stoat's eyes kind of gleam as Al leans forward, a huge hand braced on his knee. It's hard not to notice the claws. "Mugging? Calm down, grazer. This ain't no mugging," he fires back, muzzle twitching. "Now c'mon, I just wanna see it. Don't make me ask you again."
I glance at the stoat, whose face is fighting to hide a shit-eating grin. As if he's defying me to screw this up. I know if I pass it over it's as good as gone, and I'm stuck eating whatever I can scrape together from my mini-fridge while I watch him eat my burga. On the other hand, if I don't pass it over, I'll still be watching him eat my burga, but probably through a black eye.
It pisses me off, but I make the smart decision. Better to endure shame than pain. I reluctantly hand the stoat the black shopping bag, and he obediently darts to couch, handing it to Al. The wolf pokes his muzzle inside, taking a deep whiff of its contents, and looks up with an expression of genuine surprise.
"Bug Burga? Who the fuck had you pick this up?" Al asks, completing the fuckin' hat trick.
I'm starting to develop a migraine from holding back this scowl. "Look, man, I paid for that. You aren't seriously going to eat it, are you?"
"Well, hey, since you're offering," Al snorts, elbowing the stoat with a toothy smile. "Hear that, Marty? Nice of him to pick up dinner, right?"
His name's Marty. Of course it is. I knew a Marty in High School and he was a toadie, too.
"Yeah, real nice, Al," Marty replies. "Real neighborly of him."
Poking his snout to the box, Al takes another sniff. He pauses, frozen, with his broad nose stuffed in past the plastic, for a long moment. Now I don't know what to think.
"Firefly sauce. The fuck?"
"Made with fresh-ground serrano peppers and real firefly extract. Lights up your tongue," Marty chimes in with a wave of his tiny paw, mimicking the new ad. Yeah, I saw the commercial too, asshole. Why do you think I ordered it?
Closing the box, Al squints at me. "I'm gonna ask you again: Who'd you get this for? And don't you fuckin' lie to me."
I bite my bottom lip, bracing for his reaction. "...It's for me. I got it for me."
"You got this," he deadpans, glancing into the bag, then back to me. "I don't -- you got this."
I twist uncomfortably, a pit forming in my stomach. "Yes."
Al sets the bag down and Marty reaches into it, taking out the paper box and flipping the lid open to examine the burga in disbelief. It's bigger than his head -- he'd probably fill up on half a slider, so I know there's no way he could finish it off. Al on the other hand could eat it in two bites.
"Holy shit," Marty mumbles to himself.
"You're gonna eat a roach burga," Al continues. "With firefly sauce."
"Double Roach Deluxe," I clarify.
Al just sits there for a long time, staring at me. He's back to that same expression again. I can see why he wears it now. I'm starting to sweat under my coat, when suddenly Al glances down and notice Marty starting to peel back the bun on my Double Roach Deluxe. He smacks Marty's shoulder with a noise that echoes through the lobby, and Marty almost drops my dinner on the ground.
"Give it back to him," Al nods.
"What?" Marty asks, jaw agape. "Give him -- give it back? You serious?"
"You heard me," Al says, flatly. "Give the carnivore his burga back."
Marty wastes no time in obeying, clapping the box shut around it, wrapping the box back in the bag, and passing it back to me. I look down at it, not entirely sure what just happened, but thankful for the pass. The two of them watch me ascend the steps all the way to my room, and I waste no time in getting inside.
This sauce better be worth it.