lj Idol prize fight | week 18 | 1200 words
Keep It Safe
Behind the bus depot in the heart of the old city, Lucky Jack's Diner boasted the meanest cook in the county. Grelz Janek was cantankerous and ill-made, but he was as much a fixture as the diner itself.
By some mysterious stroke of fortune, his cooking bore no resemblance to the rest of him. Grelz was brilliant behind a skillet, an artist whose omelets were so light they could nearly float right off the plate. His home fries were legendary, and waffles made men weep.
He crafted a club sandwich so crisp and tempting that even the city's biggest food-snobs were powerless to resist it.
Being an inherent grouch, Grelz and happiness were destined to exist in universes that would never meet. But the closest Grelz got was in Lucky Jack's kitchen, surrounded by piles of pots and pans and griddles. He sliced, he chopped, he seared and fried and flipped. He tossed things around and made a resounding racket mere words could never penetrate.
He was a horrific hurricane of glaring eyes and wordless grunts, pausing only to yank new tickets off the order wheel or smack the bell that announced when food was ready.
No one knew where he'd come from or where he lived, but everyone agreed that was probably for the best. Grelz would slip out into the alley when his shift was over, gone before anyone noticed. He disappeared into the darkness, or trudged down the sidewalk with a cloud of irritability whirling around him that kept other people from talking to him or even looking too close.
The manager and waitresses wondered what Grelz did in his spare time, but none of them knew. Did he run with gangsters and scare old ladies out of their rent money? Did he train guard dogs, or maybe moonlight as a bounty hunter? They were sure it had to be something mean.
Their speculations never quite reached the truth, but they weren't far wrong. Grelz's hobbies were decidedly unpleasant.
Grelz sought out parks and playgrounds with vicious, nasty children. He prowled the murky alleys that were popular with thugs. Summoning his loudest, ugliest self, he then terrorized everyone in the vicinity—including those who ordinarily would have called the police.
He heckled politicians, and set off stink bombs in government buildings. He blew up Internet message boards with ad hominem arguments.
Grelz was more than just ill-tempered and obnoxious.
He was an ogre, cursed to live in the human world, and he'd never quite learned to cope with modern society.
His banishment from the fairytale realm had been so long ago, Grelz was no longer certain he remembered why. His memories were scattered—a castle here, a dragon there. He suspected his love of cooking came from his mother, though her recipes rarely involved things that humans thought of as food. That gift belonged to Grelz alone.
Sometimes, it was the only thing that kept him from eating a customer, or randomly scaring the hair off of everyone within a half-mile radius.
Grelz had tried other livelihoods at first. He'd worked in construction, where demolitions were utter joy but his meager talents at building things proved problematic. He'd been a lumberjack, in love with sawing and hacking but frustrated that the human form he was bound to was so hopelessly incapable of rampaging through the trees and just knocking everything down, the way ogres were designed to.
He'd been a garbage man, tossing around trash cans and running the crusher, until the trucks became automated and took all the fun out of it.
Only cooking seemed to suit him, and not just any cooking. The high-speed near-chaos of the diner's breakfast and lunch rushes brought out something in Grelz that was halfway to magic.
For years, Grelz followed his routine. He roared through his kitchen shifts like a spatula-wielding tornado, and grumbled around the streets or his basement apartment during the hours he was forced to take off from work. He slept, he snored, he terrorized bullies and criminals, and then he went back to work all over again. It wasn't the 'optimal life' people went on about, but it wasn't bad. It wasn't like he had a lot of other options.
Then one night, something happened. Grelz was tromping down a side street on the way back to his apartment for an evening of stewing and scheming, when he heard a tiny voice near his elbow.
"Hey," the voice said.
'Hey?' Grelz thought. 'Hey' what? Nobody talks to me, who the hell—
He stopped and turned.
A small pointy-eared creature stood next to him, its face cracked in a crooked smile. "I like your style!" it said.
Oh. "My cooking. Everyone likes that."
"No, no!" The creature waved its arms and hopped. "The ruckus. The mischief! You're a boss!"
"Uh…" Grelz said.
"The name's Shizbik." It held out its knobby hand.
Grelz eyed it. "You're what, a tree troll?"
"I'm an imp!" Shizbik spun in circles like a lopsided top.
Huh. There had never been any imps in the fairytale forest. Grelz had no idea what imps were about.
"We deal in pranks and pestering. A piece of bad luck here, some chaos there. You know."
Grelz did know.
"I've been watching you for a while," Shizbik said. "I'm a big fan of your work."
His other work. Grelz's face slowly worked itself into a grin. He looked down at Shizbik, and reconsidered his plans for the evening.
"You wanta go break up a parking lot?"
"Do I?" Shizbik flailed his arms and bounced sideways on one foot. "Yessiree, you bet!"
Grelz turned and started walking in the direction of the railyard. "Come on, then."
Grelz and Shizbik spent a gleeful hour destroying lamppost lights and parking meters. Then they went out for ice cream.
"This was great," Shizbik said when it was time to part ways.
It sure was, Grelz thought. "Wanta meet up on Thursday night?"
The two of them made a terrific team. Shizbik was creative at inventing new high jinks, and he was small enough to fit places Grelz couldn't reach. Grelz had the brawn, the roar, and the fury to wreak havoc on humans and property alike.
For the first time since his banishment so long ago, Grelz had stopped keeping everyone too far away to actually see him. The core of who he was, unlovable and unworthy, had finally been breached.
Grelz had found himself a friend.
He was still as unknowable as ever in his everyday life. His behavior was memorable, along with a vague notion of his appearance, but no one had any concrete sense of what he really looked like. They could have picked his home fries or clam chowder out of a lineup, but never Grelz himself.
This was exceedingly helpful in keeping him from ever being arrested. Shizbik was similarly protected—as far as Grelz could tell, humans were unable to see Shizbik at all.
But now life was more than just cooking, tormenting, and demolishing. Grelz cooked for the imp, trying out recipes too fancy for the diner. Shizbik made magic and told stories from the world Grelz no longer knew.
Grelz stopped dreading his hours away from the diner, and even smiled a few times by accident.
When the imp encouraged him to take a vacation for the first time ever, Grelz agreed. He packed a knapsack with food and a bedroll of blankets. Together, they took a train out of the city and stopped at a distant station near a leafy forest.
With Spiznik by his side, Grelz ran through the woods, raging and roaring like the ogre he was meant to be.
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