No one expected there to be red pandas in the Sussex Arms. Which was, of course, why they were there. Dan peered over his half-moon readers at them, his gray fringed head gleaming under the new LED lights everyone hated in the ancient pub.
There were two of them, and they were Shelby’s fault. She stared up at the innkeeper. “I promise, it’s only until…”
“Look, lass.” He didn’t have a thick accent, but when he wanted he laid it on thick, and this was one of those times. “T’world’s gone mad. Of all the things, these two may be the least mad in it.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I knew you’d understand. That’s why I brought them here.”
“Take them in the cellar, lass.” He shook his head and picked up the polishing cloth he’d dropped a moment earlier. “They don’t look like they can harm a barrel.”
“Oh, I’ll leave them in the carrier.” Shelby promised. She knew what kind of mischief they could get into. Her summer job as keeper in their habitat had been eye-opening. She’d known, of course, that they were procyonid rather than ursine like a proper panda was. What she hadn’t thought through was how much like a raccoon her small and adorable charges would be. She’d learned, though, and painfully when they managed to escape twice, with a threat of sacking if it happened a third time.
They hadn’t escaped this time. She’d taken them with her. Walked right out the back, and the guard had turned his head and even moved a little to be between her and the CC camera. He’d done that a lot, during the day. Zookeepers don’t take kindly to threats on their charges, it turned out… Shelby patted the top of the carrier and crouched to look into it. Two pairs of eyes glittered in the deep shadows of the pub cellar. Dan, or possibly his predecessor, had installed a light down here. Near the door. Past that? It got gothic, fast. Shelby didn’t mind the shadowy recesses tonight, though.
“All right, boys. Nobody’s going to eat you if I can help it.” She straightened again. “And hopefully no-one is going to eat me, either.”
She went back up the stairs, carrying the dusty bottle Dan had asked for ‘since you’ll be down…” He rarely did the stairs any longer, with his knees. He’d send her, or the barback. Shelby couldn’t remember the English word for that position. She was still trying to adjust, and now, the world was changing again. It was a lot.
“Big mood.” She murmured to the barback, who was crouched behind the bar, pulling out a bin of silverware.
“Eh? What?” He looked up, his mop of dirty blond hair falling in his eyes. “Was that American slang?”
“Yeah.” Shelby didn’t explain. Dan was at the far end of the bar, looking at them.
He reached for the bottle. “Dunno what custom will be tonight.”
She shrugged. “I’m still trying to figure out what to do about… about everything.”
“Aye.” He held the bottle out, reading the label. “I won’t say it’s your age…”
“You’d better not.” She put her hands on her hips. “You can’t tell me you’ve lived through an apocalypse already. You aren’t that old!”
She surprised him into a laugh. “No, I’m not.”
“So, what’s the plan? Sean,” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder, “of the Dead back there and I, we’re looking to you for guidance.”
He drew his bushy eyebrows together. “I’m a barkeep, not some wise sage.” He put the bottle down on the back shelf, tenderly. “We open.”
“Seriously?” Shelby headed for the door to unlock it, her muscle memory ahead of her logic center. “Tonight?”
“Well, people need to relax.” Dan shrugged and pulled a glass up from under the bar. “Tonight, more than most nights, I think.”
Shelby peered around the door, looking up and down the street. “It looks… normal.”
Behind her, Dan snorted loudly. “What did you expect? Screaming in the streets?”
Shelby sidled away from the door, unwilling to admit just how much she didn’t want to turn her back to it, not now when who knows what could barge in. “Kinda.”
“This is England.” He braced himself on the bar and looked hard at her. “We. Do. Not. Panic.”
Unlike America, Shelby filled in mentally. She also noted that Dan hadn’t turned on the tellies. There were three of them, angled so anyone in the public room could easily see them. Tonight, they were black voids in the upper corners. Behind her, the door jangled as someone pushed it open and past the bell that hung just over it.
“Evenin’ Dan. Pint?”
Later, Shelby was to remember this moment with awed incomprehension. It was an exchange she’d heard dozens of times, but in light of what came after, it was surreally… normal.
My prompt this week came from AC Young with “In the Sussex Arms…”
I prompted Leigh Kimmel with “The self-cleaning house sounded like a good idea…”
You can read all of the prompt responses, or play along with us, over at More Odds Than Ends. Just email a prompt in to oddprompts at gmail dot com, and you’ll be randomly assigned a prompt on Wednesday! Come on, you know you want to!