“Sweet child, don’t you have a man at home to get back to? This is your second graveyard shift this week.”
I looked up at Cookie and smiled politely. I was exhausted, but that wasn’t any excuse to forget my manners. I giggled half-heartedly. “I’m covering for Kayla.”
Cookie rolled his eyes and made a show of putting his hands on his hips. “You’re too nice to that girl, child. She needs to learn a little responsibility. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she’s trying to work you to death.”
I shook my head and grinned. “You’re just saying that because you don’t like her.”
He snapped his fingers with a flamboyant head shift from side to side. “Damn straight, girl. She’s one nasty bi–”
Wilma, our fry cook, smashed the little silver bell sitting on the service counter. She looked as tired as I was, with heavy circles beneath her eyes. Her brow was shiny with sweat, and the few stray hairs that weren’t contained within her hair net stuck to her temples and cheeks. “Your orders up, Alice,” she informed me, flat and to the point. She glared at Cookie and sighed, “For fuck’s sake, stop distracting my only waitress. She’s got tables to take care of.”
I picked up the two sizzling plates of food –the Jessy’s Diner combo platter full of lightly salted fries, fried pepperoni, savory onion rings, and juicy breaded mozzarella sticks– and brought it over to the massive table of ten sitting in the corner. The group consisted of seven men and three women, all of whom were dressed in light brown turnout pants with yellow reflective bars sewn around the ankles. They weren’t wearing their matching firefighter jackets, and were instead in matching navy blue shirts with Sacramento Fire Department badges printed in gold over their chests.
“Here we are,” I said chipperly as I placed their appetizers down. I quickly rake my eye over the table and notice the majority of them are already finished with their drinks. “Can I get you some more beer?”
The pair of men sitting at the very end of the table caught my eye. They were younger than their colleagues, maybe in their mid-to-late twenties. One of them, the one with short black hair and deep brown eyes, raised a finger at me. He smiled wide, wearing his boyish smirk like a badge of honor. He had incredibly broad shoulders, and it looked as though the fabric of his shirt could barely contain the hard muscles of his arms and chest. His face was bright and charming, capable of making anyone smile just by looking at him. From where I was, I managed to glimpse at the tattoo that snaked its way around his right bicep, burying itself beneath his shirt sleeve.
“We’ll take two more here, miss,” he said. He nudged the guy beside him with the point of his elbow. “Right, Max?”
The man sitting next to him, Max, was built just as sturdy. They almost seemed like brothers, though he didn’t seem as outgoing. I studied his face, drawn to the dark green of his eyes and the soft appearance of his cropped brown hair. He wasn’t exactly scowling, but his relaxed expression seemed generally standoffish. Even still, it was impossible to deny how handsome he was in a rugged, don’t-mess-with-me kind of way. Looking at the two of them together, they reminded me of an excited puppy and a bitter old cat who’d found an unlikely friendship with one another.
“We shouldn’t go overboard, Jeremy,” said Max. His voice took me by surprise. It was a lot lower than I thought it would be, devastatingly deep and commanding. His words filled my ears, bounced around in my brain. I thought he could have made a killing as one of those movie trailer voiceover actors if he ever decided he wanted a change of pace.
Jeremy rolled his eyes and groaned. There wasn’t any heat behind the gesture, more of a dry sarcasm shared between two good friends. “Oh, come on. We’ve got tomorrow off. Live a little, would you?” He turned to me and threw me a casual wink. “What do you think, miss? Can you help me convince him?”
A little giggle bubbled past my lips. It wasn’t one of those fake waitress-laughs I had to throw on from time to time in order to guarantee a bigger tip at the end of the meal. This was something genuine, something light and playful. Jeremy seemed like a really fun kind of guy, but I also felt sympathetic for his friend. I wasn’t much of a drinker, either, so I said in his defense, “I think you should do whatever makes you happy.”
For a second, I thought I saw a ghost of smile flickered across Max’s lips. It faded away too quickly for me to truly be sure. He simply let out a small grunt. I couldn’t tell if it was a sound of approval or not.