I visited the cafe again yesterday. It looked exactly how I remembered. The windows were perfectly clean. The door hinges were loose and oiled. Even the food was preserved, sitting inside the glass display cases, as appetizing as it was 100 years ago. Laptops still sat on tables, powerless but otherwise fine. Backpacks were slumped against chairs. I picked up a book up from the table, flipped through it, and put it down. I had read it 60 years ago, and it wasn't very good. I rummaged through some of the backpacks, found nothing useful.
Outside the cafe was just as preserved as in. The grass was manicured, the sidewalk clear of trash or rubble, the road recently paved. It was as if it was still a thriving mountain town, which was impossible. Outside of a few passing travelers, no one could have been here to keep the town like this for a hundred and seven years. At the very least one of the buildings should have been dilapidated, but they all stood as tall as they did the day I had left. There was only one explanation.
“Hello Jack,” said a voice behind me. I spun around. There was nothing there.
“It's been a long time.” Again it came from behind me. Again I looked to see nothing. But the voice was familiar.
“Who's that?” I said. My hand went into my pocket and felt for the knife there. “Where are you?”
“I'm everywhere.” The voice came from in front of me this time. As far as I could tell, there was no source. “Come on back to the cafe and we'll talk a while.”
That was when I placed the voice. “Tom?”
“Hello Jack,” it repeated.
The voice laughed. It was a laugh I knew well, one I hadn't heard for more than a hundred years. “Come in, please. It's nice to see you again.”
I hesitated. There was a good chance this was a trick. Tom was, as far as I knew, dead. But I had confidence I could fight off any attacker, and to just run away would be inexcusable cowardice. I opened the door and stepped back inside.
Someone was standing at the counter. Someone not quite human. He looked human, sort of. He had the right shape and all the proper features, but he clearly wasn't one. His skin wasn't skin. It was tile, the same white with blue linoleum that made up the cafe floor, molded into the shape of a tall, well-muscled man. He had no hair or clothes. In his hands was a chipped white mug, which he offered to me. “Coffee?” he asked.
“You're not Tom,” I said.
The not-man laughed. “Is it that hard to believe? There are much stranger things outside the town, if what I've been told is true. Please, take the drink and have a seat.”
I didn't take the coffee, but I pulled a chair to me and sat down. He started walking around the counter to me. His feet, I saw, were fused to the ground, and it was hard to tell where the tile ended and his body began. He didn't quite walk. He slid, forcing his legs forward in a stiff, cheap imitation of human movement.
“Tom disappeared. I saw him.”
The not-man nodded. “I did. But not in the same way everyone else did.”
“Yeah. My body disappeared, true. But my mind…” he gestured around him, at the cafe. “It was like going to sleep. When I woke up, I could see everything in the city. Feel everything in the city. It was as if I had a million eyes and tongues and fingers and ears and they were all going at once. I almost went insane from the sensory overload before I figured out how to manage it. Eventually, I learned how to do more than that.” He tapped a hand against his chest. “Do you understand?”
I nodded. “You're a Survivor. And your Compensation was that you became Stetsonburg.”
Tom smiled. “Yes.”
“That's not much of a Compensation.”
He laughed. “Nope. If anything it's an additional punishment. However, I've come to live with it.”
“That's one of many ways you could describe it.”
I leaned back and stared at the mug on the counter. Coffee was beginning to sound appetizing, though I wouldn't have objected to something stronger. “What's it like?”
“Most of the time it's just boring. There's nothing to do when you're a city, nothing interesting. I can rearrange stuff, control how everything's built, that kind of thing, which is sort of interesting. But really there's a limit to how much fun I can have changing myself to look like various British cities.” A chair from across the room slid over and he sat down. “It's lonely as all hell too. Do you know how many people want visit a place like Stetsonburg? Shit, I would bet most of the people who visit didn't even know I existed and just got lucky. I've seen fifteen people in the past hundred years. And you know how many stayed longer than a week? One.”
“Hm,” I said. It was all I could come up with. Tom continued talking.
“They don't stay. None of them. I just want someone to talk to. Someone who won't leave after a few days, you know? It's hell living like this.”
“I would imagine.” I got up and took the mug from the counter. It was empty. “No coffee?”
“Oh, fuck, of course. Sorry.” He waved a hand, and the cup filled itself with a thick, black liquid. I sipped it cautiously. It was coffee, for sure, but it wasn't quite right. Too viscous, and there was a sour taste, like someone had put in a dab of vinegar. I quietly spat it back into the cup.
“You don't want to stay do you?”
I sighed. “No. I'm sorry.”
“It's alright. I wasn't really expecting you to say yes anyway.” He sat up and started pacing. “Well, how long do you think you'll be staying?”
“Not long.” I put the mug on the counter. “I'm meeting someone in Black Stone a few days from now. I'll only be able to stay the night.”
Tom slumped down. He looked like a child whose puppy had just died. “Oh.”
“I'll be there for a week, then come back here for a bit. I promise.”
“That would be nice of you.”
“I'm sorry Tom.” I patted his shoulder. “Just wait a little longer alright?”
We sat in the cafe for the rest of the day and talked. I told him about the outside world, my travels through the world in these past hundred years, and managed to force down the coffee and a bitter cookie. He told me about the few people who had come in and what it was like to be a city. We stayed up the whole night. In the morning I gathered my things, said goodbye, and set off.
It was nice to see him again.