“You’ll be waiting tables tonight, Corey.”
I stiffened at Kurosawa’s words. He’d come up to me in a rush, pulling me away from cleaning a room on the upper floors. Walking quickly, I almost had to trot to keep up with his longer stride.
“But, sir,” I said, unsure of how I would end that sentence. I wasn’t the type of person to back down from a challenge, and yet the thought of having to deal with so many people and conversations made my head spin.
Kurosawa looked back at me, a strand of his usually pristine black hair sticking to his forehead. If that wasn’t an indication of how serious the situation was, I didn’t know what would be. “I know you’re not great at waiting, but one of our waiters didn’t show up and another called in at the last minute. It’s a Saturday night and customers are rotating in and out quickly. You just need to take orders for a while until things calm down. Then you’ll be on dish duty.”
I nodded along at the quick instructions, stepping out behind Kurosawa as he left the elevator in a rush. He turned to me suddenly as we approached the hotel restaurant. He nodded in approval. “Good, your outfit should be fine for this. Go to Marcus to get a pad for orders. Leana can step in quickly if you have any serious trouble.”
“Yes, sir,” I said out of habit, stepping into the chaotic restaurant.
Well, it didn’t look chaotic from the outset. It looked about as normal as you would expect, with almost every table full of people who were laughing and smiling in the presence of good friends, food, and conversation. But from the way the wait staff was moving around, I could tell a few of my coworkers were feeling a little frazzled.
I stepped into the fray, going to Marcus for an order pad before getting my tables to cover. I’d done waitressing here a few times, but it wasn’t a skill I was confident in. There was no time to stop, and I wasn’t the type of person who thought well on my feet. At least after a while everything became routine.
I’d step up to a table with a smile and hope I didn’t stammer too much when I welcomed the guests. Then I’d get drink orders, grab those, and start on a new table while other tables were deciding on their meals. Over the course of the night, I’d end up circling around to every table again and again. There was so much constant movement that I had a hard time keeping track of everything. It wasn’t long before people’s faces blended together, spinning in time with my head.
I had only a second to wonder how in the world Marcus could do this every night as I picked up a few dirty dishes to clear them. I wasn’t supposed to be clearing plates tonight, but with me waiting tables, we were down a dishwasher. I sighed. Normally Kurosawa kept this place running like a well-oiled machine, but even he couldn’t account for everything.
Stepping out of the kitchen with my hands clear, Marcus sidled up to me. “How’re you holding up, Corey?”
I looked up at him, cursing his height for straining my neck. “How do you smile when you’re surrounded by people all day on this job?” I complained.
He chuckled, patting my back. “Aw, it’s not that bad. Just smile, nod politely, and act like you’re definitely interested in all their orders.”
I gave him a suspicious look. “You say that, and yet you’re like a super waiter.”
Marcus put his hands on his hips like a superhero would. “I’ll need my cape, if you don’t mind.”
I rolled my eyes at his antics. “I’ll get one for you in the gift shop. Dana can add the glitter.” Another waiter who was walking by, Harrison I think, laughed at our conversation. “Capes and glitter: sounds like a party. I want invites to that.”
“Only if you wear the cape and glitter while you dance on a table,” Marcus joked back. I smiled at the easy friendship Marcus had with everyone, even if I felt a little jealous. Marcus was friends with everyone; I wasn’t anything special.
He turned me around and directed me to my next table. “Things are winding down, so you should only have a few more to go. Table 14 by the window is yours.”
I figured this table would be like any other, but there was one thing that was different: I recognized someone there. It took me a second since she was wearing a nice black dress to match the black hair that tumbled over her shoulder. There was even some slight makeup on her face, but that was definitely Nikki.
I raised my eyebrows at her appearance, feeling suddenly nervous and sweaty. My heart picked up as I got closer, entranced by her for a moment. But there were three guys that garnered my attention. They were with Nikki, squished into the booth too. I didn’t recognize them.
One was tall with darker skin. I guessed he was Hispanic. His short black hair was spiked, matching his leather jacket. He was laughing as I approached; he looked like the type to have a big personality.
The second man had a droopy sort of look about him, with hair that almost covered an eye and a hunched way of sitting. I might have thought he was shy if the sass wasn’t obvious in how he was listening and gesturing to the first guy.
Finally, the third guy looked, well, average. Button-up shirt, nice slacks, and a tie. Maybe he was the one out of the three of them with a boring job.
With Nikki next to them though, it was hard to pay too much attention. To be honest, even with her simple dress and makeup, something about Nikki blew them out of the water. Maybe I was biased though.
I took a deep breath. It was my job to wait their table for the night. Being even more nervous would practically guarantee that I tripped and dropped a few plates, which would not only come out of my paycheck, but would make me look like an idiot too.
I put on a small smile as I walked up next to the table. Before I even spoke, Nikki perked up with a sweet smile of her own that she sent in my direction. “Corey! You work in this part of the hotel too?”
I kept smiling, aware of the three sets of eyes looking on and listening in. “I work almost everywhere. I’m not usually in here waiting though; I’ll probably go back to dishes soon.” I pulled out my order pad, and as a segue way, said, “But while I’m here, I’ll be your server tonight. What’ll you guys have to drink?”
I noticed the Hispanic guy barely containing his laughter as I took everyone’s drink order, but no one else at the table seemed bothered. Even if I wasn’t attracted to guys, I could at least admit that he had a nice smile. He leaned forward before I could leave.
“Sorry, sorry, I know you’re busy, but you know Nikki?” There was something teasing in his tone, but I didn’t think it was directed at me based on how Nikki elbowed him in the chest.
“Oh, uh, we’ve run into one another a few times,” I said by way of answer, nodding politely to him and letting him know that I would be back in a few minutes. Marcus passed by me as I walked, holding a tray over his head as I ducked down to avoid getting smacked suddenly.
“Nice moves, Corey,” he said good-naturedly. “Next time, add some theatrics.” He demonstrated with a little twirl, narrowly avoiding Leana.
I rolled my eyes with a smile, glad I hadn’t been holding anything. I stepped over to our drink station to fill four glasses, setting them on my tray with a huff. Holding the tray on my shoulder to keep it steady, I prayed silently that no one would intercept me. There would be a whole mess of soda and water if they did.
Reaching Nikki’s table unscathed, I lowered the tray and began passing out drinks. The Hispanic man picked up the conversation as if I had never left. “You see her at work?”
“Ray!” Nikki scolded in a warning tone, glaring at him.
“Sometimes,” I said evasively. “Nikki’s a really nice person,” I tried, feeling awkward as I set the last drink down in front of the well-dressed man.
The well-dressed one raised his eyebrows, but the sulky one smiled. “Yes, she is. You know, underneath all of her idiosyncrasies.”
“Hey!” Nikki exclaimed. “Don’t you start too, Dom. And all of you stop bothering her. She’s working.”
I smiled at her obvious embarrassment, noticing the blush on her pale cheeks. It was cute. Feeling braver, I said, “I think I’m the one with the idiosyncrasies anyway. Nikki knows how particular I am with my pastries.” I chuckled like I always did when I was being awkward, but Nikki’s eyes lit up as she laughed too.
“Now that you’ve said that, these guys are going to want you to eat a muffin in front of them,” she joked.
I smiled back. “I think it’s best if it’s just the two of us in the café then,” I said, only realizing how that could be understood. It sounded almost like I was asking her on a date or something. Backtracking, I cleared my throat and said, “B-but I’m sure you guys want a few minutes to decide on your orders, right? I’ll be right back to get those in a moment.”
Fleeing much too quickly to be casual, I stepped away from the table with my face red. It had been impossible to miss Nikki’s surprised expression, or the mischievous expression of the Hispanic guy, Ray I assumed, when we were speaking.
Looking back over to them, I could see Nikki crossing her arms with an expression that clearly said she was not amused directed at the guys. The four of them seemed really close. I wondered what it would be like to have friends like that.
I snapped out of my thoughts as a particularly rude customer waved me over to complain about his order again. “Of course, sir,” I said obligingly. “I’ll check to see if your order is up. It should only be a few more minutes.”
It had only been about ten minutes since he’d ordered, but I didn’t point that out. His order probably wouldn’t be ready for another ten to fifteen minutes at least. Sadly, that would be reflected in my tip. Far too many people who got their food in a nice place like this were a little entitled, since many of them were guests of the hotel. It made me wonder again how Marcus handled all this every day.
I sighed when I turned away, straightening my shoulders in preparation for the next table. I didn’t remember many of my specific interactions that night, except for the ones I had when I went back to Nikki’s table. They always seemed especially happy to see me even compared to most customers and legitimately wanted to include me in conversation.
After a while, I got the sense that the well-dressed one, who Nikki called Mikey, was sort of the dad of the group. He kept making stupid jokes that the other two, Dom and Ray, groaned at. I gave him pity laughs, but I thought it was nice to have someone to lighten the mood.
When I came back to check on them during their meal, Nikki gave me a curious look. “Do you get a break to eat, Corey?”
“I’m sure I will some time,” I said to her. “But on busy nights, it’s hard to sit down.” That wasn’t entirely a lie. Usually I just chose not to eat at all until I got home.
Nikki looked like she was going to say something when Marcus stepped up behind me. “Kurosawa wants you to finish up your tables, but you can go back to dishes once you’re done,” he said so quietly that only I could hear.
I nodded to him and looked back at Nikki. “Duty calls. You guys need anything else?”
Nikki was giving me an interesting look, but she shook her head. The black-haired Ray spoke up though. “Actually, Nikki was wondering when you get off work.”
I raised my eyebrows. Nikki kicked him under the table and he whimpered. My heart was beating quickly. Was she… was she asking me out?
Nikki cleared her throat awkwardly. “Actually, I uh, I was just curious if you had a ride back. It’s cold out and dark and stuff…” She frowned, messing with an earring.
I didn’t know what to say. It seemed like she was just being nice, but I’d never had anyone who was so nice to me before. It sparked a warm feeling in my heart. I don’t know if I would have gone with her or not since I only said, “I actually walk, but I have another few hours here. You don’t want to hang around that long for me.” I gave her a bashful smile. “But, um… thank you. For being so nice to me.”
I said those same words to my mom tons of times, but it felt odd to suddenly use them with someone else. A good odd though.
Nikki gave me a look I couldn’t decipher. “You don’t have to thank me for that,” she said kindly. “You should be hating me for letting these three bother you all night.” She rolled her eyes at them, pointedly looking at Ray.
I just smiled. “To be honest, you guys were my best customers,” I said in a voice close to a whisper. “And no, that’s not a ploy to get a good tip.”
The guys chuckled, but I hunched my shoulders when I heard the rude customer from earlier calling to get my attention. I sighed.
The sulky-looking one, Dom, gave me a sympathetic look. “I doubt that guy’s going to tip well.”
“It happens,” I said with a shrug. “Give me a second, and I’ll be back with your check.”
I extricated myself from their conversation and went over to my rude customer. He was giving me a disapproving stare, the woman across from him looking down her nose at me angrily. I knew whatever they were angry about wasn’t my fault, but I couldn’t help but to feel guilty.
“Your service has been deplorable tonight,” the man said right to my face.
I could feel my shoulders hunch, like I was trying to make myself as small as possible. “My sincerest apologies, sir,” I said to him, my heart sinking in my chest.
I really didn’t think I had done that bad of a job, but it always happened like this: whenever someone blamed me for something, instead of fighting back, I had a bad habit of immediately acquiescing to them. I’d end up telling myself how stupid I was later, how I should have known better or acted better, or that of course it was my fault. Anxiety was annoying.
“Your apologies don’t make up for your service,” he snarked back. “I’d like to speak with your manager.”
Some customers had done this even to Marcus. They thought that by complaining, they could get some of their meal or room comped. That didn’t make me feel any better about having to get Kurosawa over here to deal with this. I didn’t know what to do. I could feel myself shaking nervously, my heart beating much too quickly in my chest. All I could say was, “I’ll go get him, sir.”
I walked away on shaky legs, frowning as Leana met me with a frown of her own. “What an asshole,” she commented, holding me up with a hand on my forearm. “Don’t worry about him, Corey. I already got Kurosawa over here to handle it.” She gave me an understanding smile.
I let out a breath. “I’m so sorry, Leana.”
“No need for that,” Leana said, pushing some of her brown hair behind her ear. My eyes followed the action. “We get jerks like that all the time. Sadly, we have to keep bothering Kurosawa for them or it’ll get worse.” She shrugged as Kurosawa stepped up beside her.
I stiffened, thinking that I might get reprimanded. I couldn’t decipher anything beneath his usually stoic expression. But Kurosawa gave me a look that seemed softer than usual somehow. “You’re not in trouble, Corey. Please, return to your remaining tables.”
I nodded to him, watching as he went to address the customers at that table. I heard him say, “Please forgive us for our service for tonight,” but I didn’t stay to listen to the whole thing. He would have to blame me for the sake of the restaurant’s reputation, and that wasn’t something I needed to hear.
Leana grabbed my arm before I could get too far. “Wait a second.” She nodded towards where Kurosawa was standing. His expression hadn’t changed, but his body seemed tenser.
“I assure you that our wait staff is trained very well, but some nights are busier than others. Corey is a valuable member of our staff,” Kurosawa spoke firmly. I could see the customers lean back at his strong tone. I had to give them at least a little credit for not backing down immediately. Most people did when it came to Kurosawa.
I looked on in amazement. Leana was smiling at me. “Come on, Corey, you know Kurosawa will always have our backs. Granted, he’ll probably have to comp the meal.” She made a face, but looked back at me. “It’s alright. He’s got it from here.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. Suddenly, it felt like too much to even keep breathing, but I made my legs move. I had to finish my job before I curled up on my bed and tried to forget how badly I felt for making everyone stand up for me. Sometimes, I wish I was a stronger person, even if it felt nice to have people who were willing to come to my rescue.
I ignored the sinking feeling in my heart and grabbed the checks I needed for each table. Checking I had the right ones, I dropped two on a few tables before heading back to Nikki’s table. When I approached, she gave me a concerned look. “Are you okay, Corey?” Her table was too far for her to have heard what was going on, but it was probably obvious considering Kurosawa’s appearance.
“I’m fine,” I lied, knowing my smile didn’t reach my eyes. “Just… stressed.” It was a poor description of what I felt, but it was better than nothing.
Nikki didn’t say anything as I set the check down on the table, which Mikey the well-dressed one reached for. Dom snatched it from him to see the final price. Ray was watching Nikki surreptitiously.
I was about to turn away when I felt Nikki tap my arm. She held out a little slip of paper. “This probably sounds weird, but if you ever get too stressed, you can always message me. Honestly, I don’t mind coming back here to give you a ride home tonight either. I go to bed late anyway.”
I took the paper to see her phone number on it. It seemed like it was only a friendly gesture, and yet after everything I’d been through tonight, it made my heart beat faster. Before, I’d turned Nikki down. Maybe I was feeling a little reckless now. I didn’t want to walk home alone to face my anxiety in the cold. Even if it wasn’t a smart idea, I looked left to right and pulled out my phone from my apron.
“I’m not supposed to use my phone at work, so put your number in for me. I’ll forget if it’s on a sheet of paper,” I said, placing my phone down on the table. “Uh, don’t creep too much while I’m gone, either.” I gave her a smile to let her know I was only partially joking about the snooping. I already had fanart of my favorite characters as my wallpaper; you can only imagine all the other stuff I had on my browser and in my pictures.
Nikki picked up the phone like it would explode. “There’s no passcode?”
“No, just click in,” I said, stepping away to finish up with my other tables.
My heart was beating quickly at the thought of doing something so out of character, but I almost felt proud of myself. I found myself giving Nikki a little smile when I stepped back to the table to bring their check back.
“You had some really interesting pictures on there,” Ray said when I stepped up.
“What?” I said in a panic, wondering what he possibly could have seen. I don’t even know why I was so unnerved; my pictures were mostly of me, my mom’s cat, or fanart. I guess some of the fanart was somewhat suggestive perhaps.
Nikki smacked Ray on the arm. “We didn’t look at anything,” she admonished him. Holding at my phone, she turned back to me. “But I’m in there under Nikki Song.”
I quickly sent her a smiley face with my full name. Nikki checked her phone. “Corey Mitchell,” she said, repeating my name in a tone that sounded fond. “Do you want me to come to get you later? I don’t mind.”
I swallowed, taking a chance and nodding. I didn’t often accept help from people, but I had a feeling Nikki would be a lot more disappointed if I said no. “I get off at nine if you’re sure it’s okay. My university isn’t too far from here.”
Nikki nodded with a bright smile on her face. “I’ll be here at nine then. Although I definitely won’t look this good still,” she joked.
“Nikki never looks this good,” Dom taunted. He earned himself a kick underneath the table.
Without thinking, I said, “I don’t know, I think she always look great.” I stiffened when I realized what I said as Nikki’s eyes widened in surprise. I cleared my throat as I straightened out, “B-But anyway, you guys have a nice night. And uh, I’ll see you in a few hours, Nikki.”
I stepped away quickly, heading into the kitchen to do the rest of the dishes now that the restaurant had calmed down. I was very aware of the weight of my phone in my apron as I mindlessly completed my task, wondering if Nikki and her friends had left yet. I only realized how much time had passed when I ran out of dishes to wash.
I blinked in surprise, jumping when Marcus tapped me on the shoulder. His eyebrows were raised. “Are you okay? You seem kind of out of it.”
My face reddened, wondering if Marcus somehow knew about Nikki. But then he said, “I heard about that table Kurosawa had to take for you. Don’t worry about it too much; there are jerks like that everywhere.”
I’d almost managed to forget about that incident, but now that Marcus had said something, I felt the embarrassment crushing me with force. I frowned. “I know. But I… I feel so bad that Kurosawa had to handle that for me.”
Marcus shrugged casually. “It happens to all of us. Some people really are rude.” He made a face and shook his head like he felt personally victimized. Patting me on the shoulder, he said, “But it’s almost nine. You could probably leave after you check in with Kurosawa.”
I offered him a little smile. It wasn’t working, but Marcus was trying to make me feel better and I wasn’t the type to keep complaining. “I’ll do that then.”
Marcus touched my arm softly before I walked away. He had a sympathetic look on his face. “Hey, if you ever need to talk, Dana and I are always around. Well, when we’re not working,” he finished with a shrug and a smile.
My heart swelled at his kind words, but all I could do was nod. I already knew that, even if I never texted them. I couldn’t help it if it felt like I was bothering them. Marcus didn’t need to know that though. I waved goodbye to him and set off to find Kurosawa waiting by the front desk. He was looking over something, but he looked up when he heard me approach. As usual, Kurosawa’s expression didn’t change, although he did stand straight to give me his full attention.
“Good work tonight, Corey. I know I sprung this job on you, but you performed excellently.”
I frowned. “Um… are you sure?”
He might have smiled a little, but I couldn’t really tell. “Of course. There were many different ways you could have handled that and you chose one of the better options. You’re a good employee, Corey, regardless of what one pair of customers say.”
I started, aware that my face reddened from the praise. But I smiled too, looking away from him shyly. “Thank you, sir,” I said quietly to him. “I’ll keep working hard.”
“Very good, Corey. Off you go, then. Enjoy the rest of your evening.” Kurosawa returned to his work, dismissing me.
I was still smiling as I changed and stepped out of the building. Suddenly my anxiety and all those stupid little thoughts on my mind didn’t seem so bad.