Al had been dreaming of working as a chef ever since he was a hatchling. One of the first things he saw after breaking out of his egg was the shiny neon lights of Al’s Chicken Shack, after which he’d named himself. The hot air from the restaurant’s ventilation duct brought with it smells of exotic spices, smoke and grease. The young Charmander wondered what created those magical fragrances as he took shelter from the rainy nights with his siblings.
After a few days of waiting for their mother, the pack of three brothers were hungry enough that they started to risk taking turns running out to find food. Typical pickings had been discarded pots with some residual sauce smears to lick, or the remains of dead birds.
Whenever it was his turn to go out, Al would sneak up to Al’s Chicken Shack’s windows to peer inside. He watched in awe as the people wearing little white clouds on their heads cooked. Pans flashed, salads tossed and water boiled. Rain pattered around Al, making the bricks of the alley thick and sooty. The longer he sat there, though, the less the real world seemed to matter. Sometimes he’d get caught up watching and smelling, and his stomach would gurgle painfully.
One night, Scarface (so named after a cool-looking poster that hung in the alley) carried in some strips of meat from the trash. Al and the third brother, Elvis (named after a little keychain they found that said “We ❤ Elvis”), ran over salivating. This wasn’t the usual pickings of stringy, fatty leftovers. This was prime cut.
Despite his aching belly, Al paused before gobbling it up, chittering at his siblings so they’d do the same. He took a deep breath to let the scent run deep into his snout. He’d first started doing this a few weeks ago, copying some diners at Al’s Chicken Shack. Doing it thrilled him. It made eating (which was pretty awesome anyway) into a real treat, and he had been practicing it at his window seat above the kitchens.
As he smelled, he expected the tang of onion or the smooth jazz of gravy. Meat that looked this good ought to smell of sizzling pan juices and a faint hint of char from the grill. But what hit him was none of that. It was in fact a stark contrast to what he was seeing. The scent was sharp and sickly. It rang in his nose like a loud bell. He pulled back his teeth and sneezed, backing away from the garlic-like chemical odour.
At Al’s reaction, Scarface’s flame intensified, reflecting angrily in his eyes. He flicked it from side to side, and his shoulders haunched as he let out a little growl. As Al continued to sneeze and shake his head to get rid of the smell, Scarface nipped at Elvis, who had been standing to the side with his head cocked. Scarface’s body language was speaking loud and clear: “How dare you turn your nose up at my catch?”.
Once he was done sneezing, Al puffed up in warning to make himself as big as possible. He wasn’t sure what, but something about that smell was just not right. He needed to take charge of this situation and quickly. A wiser Charmander may have taken a softer approach, chittered softly at his brother and convinced him to ignore his hunger and really consider the meat. But neither hatchling had gained their mother’s guidance, and both were just too young to not bicker.
Al eyed his eldest brother as he pushed passed Elvis and towards the meat. This forced Scarface to back off a little, but his tail flicked faster. The closer Al got to the food, the more his brother lowered his stance, tensed his muscles and intensified his growl. Defying all these warnings, Al continued on and disposed of the meat by flicking it into the gutter by the vent entrance. As the food dropped into the abyss, Scarface’s growls became a shrill hiss, “How dare you, how dare you? How DARE you?!” The sound echoed in the duct work, creating a deafening cacophony that finally triggered Scarface into action. He pounced, claws extended, right into Al’s belly.
The two tumbled together, swiping painfully at reach other’s faces. Al was pushed back, out of the drainpipe, and hit the curb hard in the back of his neck. Al brought his own claws round in a sweep, just missing Scarface, who jumped back a step. The two Charmander faced each other off once more. Al felt a white burning rise from the bleeding cut on his belly. His head felt woozy and he shook it. The water pooling on the alleyway turned red. He tried to muster the strength to puff himself up and show dominance, but both Charmander were stopped in their tracks as the alleyway flooded with light.
Camille tossed some garlic, onion and butter in a pan. She breathed in deeply, enjoying the well-known fragrances. The busy hum of the kitchen gave her a beat to move to. She used the rhythm in her cooking. Cha – a pinch of salt; Cha Cha – a dash of pepper; FWAAH – the fizzle of boiling water as it was poured into the pot. She lived for that music. If six months of working as a commis chef in Al’s Chicken Shack hadn’t killed her dreams, nothing would.
“Camille!”, came the bark of sous chef Louis, “Baguettes. Where?”
The dirty scent of charred hobs and built-up grease emerged again like dirt being kicked up in a wind.
“Store #2, chef”, Camille watched as Louis marched round the back, his pointy chin leading the way. He wasn’t gone two seconds before a great shriek came from the store room.
Despite being short and stubby, Louis could be intimidating when he wanted to be. When he was dragging you curtly by the arm to a messy store room was one of those times.
“Get this mess cleaned up at once!”
He thrust a mob and bucket into her arms, sloshing some leftover water laced with a thin film of chicken grease onto her shirt. Trying not to balk, she set down the bucket, topped it off with some fresh soapy water, and began to clean the room.
The bucket quickly turned black, the soap dancing delicately around a blanket of scum. Camille grimaced, trying desperately not to breathe through her nose, as she picked up the bucket and headed to the alley.
The door was usually stiff, so, with her hands planted firmly on the mop bucket, she barged it hard with her shoulder. Too hard, it turns out, as the door gave easily and she tripped over the step and tumbled mop bucket forward into the alley.
Al’s eyes and the cuts on his belly stung curtly as a torrent of soapy water washed over him. He yelled out in a series of pained yips, and he slipped on the sudsy pebbles as he tried to run away. Through the blur, he heard the patter of Scarface’s feet as he slipped back into the air duct and back to the nest. For a moment came Elvis’s panicked cries, but this was soon hushed by Scarface.
Camille dropped the bucket with a clang on the alley floor. She nearly tripped right over Al but managed to keep her balance.
“Oh my, you poor thing”.
He looked a sorry sight, he tried to stand back up but a mixture of the slick pebbles and his dwindling energy wouldn’t let him. Camille looked around for something to catch him with, and had to make do with a torn piece of tarp from the dumpster. She scooped him up, avoiding his weak attempts to bite her, and didn’t even take a glance behind her before running to find the nearest Pokémon centre.