Early Wednesday morning, they went to have breakfast at a local diner called Friq’s Food Farm. The place was empty except for a middle-aged Yapul man who sat at the front bar reading a newspaper. He had the reddish skin, thick black hair, and short stature that were the hallmarks of the race that had originated in the volcanic Meriatos Islands. Above his clothes he wore a crisp and clean white apron. When he saw Mike and Callie, he put aside the paper and walked around to the business side of the bar.
“Welcome to the Triple-F! I’m Jahu Friq at your service, and you two are my first customers of the day!” he said with a smile.
He took out two faded menus from a shelf under the bar and placed them in front of the Longstreets.
“Whoa! What happened to your face, honey?” he asked Callie.
There was no malice in his question, only curiosity; but before Callie could answer, he clapped his hand to his forehead.
“Damn, that was rude!” he said, “That must’ve sounded awful. I meant about the cut on your face.”
“That’s okay,” Callie said, “It was just---“
“Hey, you don’t have to tell me, and I should know better than to pry.” he said, “So, what would you two like to order?”
He took out a memo pad from his apron pocket and a stubby pencil from behind his ear.
“I’ll have the bacon and eggs.” Mike said, glancing at the menu.
“Pancakes for me.” said Callie.
“And to drink?” Friq asked.
“Jandra, for both of us.” said Mike.
“Is it possible to order some burgers this early?” Callie asked.
“You kids that hungry?” Friq asked.
Mike raised a questioning eyebrow at her as well.
“For the trip.” she said, “It’ll be lunchtime by the time we’re on the other side of the Rough Country.”
“Oh, right.” Mike said, “I see your point.”
“You kids crossing the ‘Country’?” Friq asked.
Mike and Callie nodded.
“Most people just go around. That’s a lot of wide empty nothing to have to cross.”
“We know.” said Callie.
“Well I don’t usually do this, but I’ll cook you up some burgers after I get your breakfasts done. My kitchen staff is late as usual, and my regular clientele won’t begin to show up for another ten minutes or so. Your order will be ready before then. Find yourselves a table.”
“The bar will do fine.” said Callie.
“I assume you’ll want some sodas with those burgers.”
“Sure.” Mike said, “Why not?”
“Okay then, all that remains is to work out the vulgar matter of payment.” Friq said, as he sidled over to a big old-fashioned cash register. He keyed in the items on his pad, and the register rang up the total.
“That’s a lot less than I thought it would be.” Mike said, taking out his father’s wallet.
“At these prices, I’m practically giving food away.” Friq said with a friendly wink, “Breakfast will be ready in a jiffy.”
When Friq returned from the kitchen, it was with Callie’s pancakes. He went back to fetch two glasses of Jandra, a common fruit juice, then Mike’s bacon and eggs.
“Please enjoy your food while I go whup up those burgers.” he said, and once again departed their presence.
Mike found the bacon to be superb and gone too soon. The eggs, not so much; he plowed through them just to finish them off. Callie, on the other hand, ate her pancakes with exaggerated delight.
“Mmmmm! You shoulda ordered the pancakes, Mike.” she said, “They’re delish!”
“Now she tells me.” Mike said. He washed down the eggs with the last of his Jandra.
He looked over at Callie. “Almost done?” he asked.
“I’m gonna enjoy these pancakes at my own pace, dammit. Why don’t you go do something useful with yourself and stop bugging me?”
“Well, I could go gas up the wagon---“
“Yes, yes, go gas up the wagon,” Callie said, waving him away, “I’ll be finished by the time you get back.”
“Not the way you eat.” Mike snickered.
He turned, got up, and walked out of the diner. As he did so, Friq called out to Callie from the kitchen.
“Where’d your brother go?”
“He’s gonna go gas up the wagon.” she said.
“I hope old Gus don’t scare him.” Friq said, “He’s a harmless old gent, been pumping gas since there’s been gas to pump; but he can get eccentric at times.”
“Hey, what can you tell me about the Rough Country?” Callie asked.
Mike drove down to Kraddock’s only gas station, which was called GAS GUS’S (“Last gas for miles” a rusted sign on the office window read). It had only two antique-looking pumps, but the place was full service. The station’s owner, an antique himself, pumped Mike’s gas, washed and squeegeed his windows, and checked his oil. He was efficient, if slow.
While Mike paid him, Gas Gus asked, “Ain’t you a liddle young to be driving?”
“I look young for my age.” Mike replied; his stock answer to such questions.
Gas Gus shrugged. He took out a grubby coin purse made of worn down leather, and counted out Mike’s change. Mike stuck his hand out the window to receive it.
“So where you headed, younger?” Gas Gus asked; out of ingrained habit than any actual curiosity.
“Metromax City.” Mike replied.
“You going ‘round the ‘Country’?”
Gas Gus shook his old head.
“I would suggest you rethink about that.” he said.
“Well, yes, I know it’s long, and there are wild animals, but---“
“They’s more dangerous things in the Rough Country than wile animals.” Gas Gus said, “It’s a curse place. I know because I was here when it become what it became, and I’ll never forget seeing that arful light descenting over Oboul County; or the arful screaming. Everything there was dead an dust after then.”
“Uhhh, okay.” Mike said, wondering how to extricate himself from this conversation without seeming rude.
Accustomed to being patronized, Gas Gus took this as a prelude to a snide remark.
“But you youngers know everything, don’tcha?!” Gas Gus said with a huff, “So you just go an get youself gone!”
He turned and shuffled back to his plastic chair.
What a weirdo, Mike thought. He started the wagon and drove out of Gas Gus’s little corner of senility.
When Mike got back to the Triple-F, the place was alive with the first of Friq’s regular customers.
Callie was ready to go.
They said their goodbyes, exited the Triple-F, then packed themselves and their lunches into the wagon.
They departed Kraddock, and headed off towards the Rough Country.
Friq watched them leave from a window across from the kitchen, where he and his just-arrived staff were busy making breakfasts. He uttered a snippet of an old Yapul prayer poem:
“Vari nani valla na, fir ando anan da san dos va.”
Which in Thrist, the language of Marriak, roughly translates into:
“Gods be with them, on the dark roads they must travel.”