The city of crumbling concrete, ruin built upon ruin.
Amos waited for the familiar whiff of rot, sewage, and ocean funk to hit him as he walked towards the shops by the shore. He rolled his shoulders back and prepared for the sensory onslaught of the city, mentally steeling himself for the abject poverty, the reek of desperation.
Instead, he only smelled a vaguely pleasant synthetic vanilla.
He pushed his way into the diner where he’d first met Burton so long ago. A line of patrons waiting to be seated huddled in the entrance, each vying to get the attention of the waitress.
Putting his broad shoulders to use, Amos shoved through the crowd and locked eyes with the waitress, giving her an intimidating stare. She’d know who he was, the unsavory crowd he’d rolled with. Across the restaurant, he spotted the table where Burton used to hold court. It lay empty, as if still waiting for him after all these years.
Amos strode over and seated himself. He heard indignant hisses from the people in line. He shrugged at them, thinking, so fight me. He wouldn’t mind slugging it out with anyone who needed to let off some steam. His knuckles itched for an old-fashioned Baltimore brawl. But nobody bothered, just muttering and going back to endlessly swiping through their hand terminals.
Truth be told, he had missed this place in a perverse way. He missed real, Earther food. And now that he finally had some scrip in his pocket and a few vacation days, he’d surprised even himself by announcing a short visit to Baltimore.
“You’re going where?” Naomi had shouted when he told the Roci crew. Alex looked at him like he was crazy, but Amos was used to that. Only Jim didn’t seem surprised. He just clapped Amos on the shoulder and glowered at him. “I’ve heard things have changed a lot there,” Jim had said. “Still, I just hope you’re prepared for whatever you might find.”
“Nothing ever changes in Baltimore,” Amos had growled with dark certainty.
But now, in the diner, he did notice some changes. Everything had been painted a pale, aesthetic pink color, and houseplants lined the windows. He realized it wasn’t the same waitress after all when she finally came over to his table, though she did look familiar.
“Sir, I’ve had some complaints… you know, you can’t just cut in line like that.”
“Have we met before?” he interrupted.
“I don’t think so… no, I’m afraid not,” she insisted, but seemed to be blushing.
“Where’s Edna? She used to work here.”
“Oh, Edna’s my mother!” the waitress exclaimed. “I took over for her when her back pain got too bad.”
Aha, that’s why she looked familiar. Amos tried to muster a crooked smile, since he appeared to have some ability to distract the waitress from scolding him. He was damn hungry, and this waitress was the only obstacle between him and his food.
“I’ll have the spaghetti, please,” he said in his most charming voice. “… darling,” he added unconvincingly, imitating Alex.
She looked like she was about to protest, but then acquiesced and typed his order into her hand terminal. “Anything else?”
“A slice of apple pie.”
“I’m sorry, we don’t have that anymore. Can I interest you in a cronut or cruffin instead?”
“Those are our most popular desserts. They always sell out before noon!”
“Oh, uh… I’ll try the crumbnut then.”
“Alright, but next time sir, at least download the Yep app to reserve your place in line.”
She had departed before he could ask what that was.
Still, some things never changed. He leaned back in his chair and enjoyed the view of all the people still waiting in line and envying his coveted seat.
That night, Amos headed to a bar in the district that had the highest concentration of brothels. That way, after he got a pleasant buzz going, he wouldn’t have to walk far.
“What can I get you, sir?” the heavily bearded bartender asked him.
“Yes, but what kind?”
Amos blinked. He’d been prepared for whatever piss-tasting standard issue beer they had that week. Nobody had ever indicated there were options.
“We have a few things on tap, like the Fayette Street red ale or our very own stout, made right here in our micro-brewery,” the bartender said proudly.
“Whatever has more alcohol.”
Amos nursed his beer, lost in thought about the old days. He remembered the way Star Helix had turned things over in this city last time, like flipping over a stone to expose all the creepy crawlies hiding from the light. Ugly as it might be, Baltimore had made him who he was. He remembered the first time he’d killed somebody, his surprise at how the man’s chest had exploded open before his finger even left the trigger.
“Heyyyyyyy.” A raspy feminine voice roused him from his stillness.
A woman slid into the seat next to him. She wore heavy makeup and a cropped t-shirt, and batted her eyelash extensions at him.
Well, this was convenient. Now he wouldn’t even have to leave the bar to find what he was looking for.
“Hello, gorgeous,” he responded.
“Come here often?” she asked.
“Used to. Before the churn.”
He looked up at her. She looked young, maybe too young to remember. He sighed. “The churn. You always know when it’s coming. It starts with a few bad things here and there, like those big raindrops before a storm. It’s inevitable, and it brings death, but also change…”
“OK cool, got it," she interrupted. "But like, what’s your sign?”
“Wait, wait, let me guess.” She toyed with her curly black hair, which was dyed bright blue at the ends. It reminded him of how Naomi sometimes put color in her hair. “Hmm… mysterious and handsome… a few battle scars…” She traced a finger along his arm. “Maybe prone to dwelling on the past?”
“That ain’t me,” he grunted.
“Mmhmm, stubborn then. Aha, I’ve got it. Capricorn?”
“Sure, whatever you want.”
“I’m a Cancer,” she declared.
“I’m sorry,” Amos said automatically.
“That means I’m creative and very in touch with my emotions,” she continued, not hearing him. “My spirit animal is the crab, which is perfect since I work in a fishing crew down by the docks.”
“Wait…” Amos was very confused now. “You’re not a hooker?”
“No, I’m Hannah,” she said, as if it were obvious. “Want to get out of here and head back to my place?”
Well, at least that was one thing he understood.