Henke walked down the craggy sidewalk to his second day of work at Nicor Noodles. The sun shone right onto Henke’s bare arms, making them feel like they were being cooked. He wore a Red Rock Records hat to keep out the sun, though he wished that he had brought sunglasses, too.
Henke felt he had done well at his first day at Nicor Noodles, though there were a few areas where he could have done better. All day, he had been waiting tables and interacting with many different kinds of customers. He had stammered when he talked, he got some of the orders wrong, and everybody seemed to be staring at him, whether he could see them do it or not. But, over time, he slowed himself down, took his time, and tried to ignore people as much as he wanted them to ignore him. Despite his best efforts, the fact that he was almost seven feet tall, working in a restaurant full of people who barely made it past five and a half feet tall, made it so that there was almost nothing else people could focus on.
Yesterday, Henke had come through the front door and he had mostly shadowed Tito and followed his instructions. This time, he would enter through the back, like the other employees. He hoped that soon he’d be considered an ordinary employee, not an eyesore. Henke took a deep breath as he rounded the corner to the restaurant.
Henke saw Tito knocking his fist on a couple of large water tanks. Though, they were large for Tito, not so much Henke. Tito barely made it halfway up the height of the tanks while Henke could easily reach the top. As Tito knocked, he winced; he drew his hand back, waving the heat away from his hand. He knocked a little lower, and the clanging sounded fuller.
“Hey,” Henke greeted Tito.
“Good morning,” Tito said, trying to look casual. “Nice hat.” His eyes looked baggy, but he forced them open as best as he could.
“Thanks,” Henke said, taking off the hat. “What are those big tanks?” Henke said, putting his hand on the water tank.
“Water tanks,” Tito replied. “We’re running a bit low.”
“That’s a lot of water to keep around a place like this,” Henke remarked, keeping his hand on the tank’s surface. The heat didn’t bother him much at all. “Hope you don’t pay too much for it.”
“Eh…” Tito trailed off. “We’ve got an…arrangement.”
“What kind of…arrangement?”
“Let’s just say that hope springs more than the aqueduct usually does around here,” Tito said, brushing the back of his neck. “You’re here kinda early, y’know.”
“It takes me long enough to get here,” Henke said. “If I show up early, I can help you guys out more.”
“Don’t worry about us,” Tito said. “Relax.”
“That’s what Trem said before he handed me the brick,” Henke said with a sigh.
“It’s what it is,” Tito said. “C’mon, let’s get the place ready.”
Henke followed Tito inside, hanging his cap up inside of the break room wall hanger where his oversized apron was hanging.
Henke’s early arrival meant that he was able to help move a heavy stove that had shifted over a couple of inches over the years. As Henke lifted up the stove, Tito marveled at his strength.
“Sure beats having a couple of Gaur from the barbershop over,” Tito said, gesturing toward where the stove ought to be moved. “They stink like hair gel.”
“That’s nothing,” Henke said, lowering the stove. “Once in regionals I got my head shoved in a gaur’s armpit…had to flush my nose out after the match.”
“Did you at least win?”
Henke just smirked at Tito, who perked his eyebrows up at Henke.
“That’s what I thought,” Tito said with a smile. “Remember that smell when you’re cleaning toilets later.”
Henke felt himself gag.
The rest of the staff slowly clocked in and helped prepare the restaurant for the new day. The kitchen began to emanate all kinds of unfamiliar smells to Henke. There There were spices, sweet smells, and ones that made his eyes water and his nose wrinkle; Henke was tempted to go in and see what they were cooking.
“The kitchen’s got a great aroma” Henke said, closing his eyes.
“You’ve gotta show me back there.”
“Maybe when it’s a little less crowded,” Tito said, sweeping toward the corner. “Then I’ll give you a tour.”
Henke smiled, tapping his foot on the floor to the radio being played over the speakers. It was a breezy, summery song, sung in a language that Henke didn’t quite understand; still, the gentle tambourines and the strong guitars played well together, making Henke sway as he worked.
His smile faded when he saw Ray pass by. Ray’s fur was matted and he was breathing heavily.
“Hey…everybody,” Ray said, almost in a wheeze.
“You alright, sir?” Henke said to Ray.
“I’m okay, don’t worry…about it,” Ray said. “Days like this…are hard on…furneseans.” He continued to shuffle forward. “I’ll be…in the back, working on some figures.”
“AC’s on high in the break room,” Tito said to Ray, who nodded and gave a thumbs-up as he continued to move forward. He didn’t appear to be sweating at all.
“You’re not too hot, are you?” Henke asked Tito.
“Nah,” Tito said. “I don’t sweat, either. I actually don’t mind when it’s really hot like today.”
“Lucky,” Henke said with a sigh.
“Repton’s luck,” Tito said, grasping the chalk for the specials board. “Hot day? No problem. Tall cupboards? Hope there’s a stool around.”
Tito began to write the day’s special bowl up on the board. The other day, the special was a “starter bowl”; it was basic, but probably appealing to most people. Henke wondered if he should put something more hearty up on the board, to appeal more to their new employee, and to especially hungry patrons. If it was good enough for a blassnaught, it’d be plenty good for their regulars.
“What’s the special today?” Henke asked Tito.
Tito looked over and tilted his head.
“I was thinkin’…maybe something spicer than the other day.”
“Well…not too spicy, if you can manage.”
“Oy, if you want authentic mallowmarg-style noodles…go to their home planet. Here, we’re all about playing it by the feel of the day. And today’s gonna be a spicy day.”
“Heh, if you say so.”
Tito winked at Henke.
‘You’re gonna love it,” Tito said.
Tito drew a big bowl with broth splashing out of it and a tiny, familiar-looking chalk lizard riding on the biggest wave. Henke tilted his head as he started at the drawing.
“Is that…your dad?” Henke asked.
“Yeah! But a kid version of him. Back when he was like 12, he was photographed for the first promo image for the place, during the first expansion. A big picture of him used to be on the wall just behind where you were standing, but–”
“Hey, leave the dirt for the entrance carpet, never mind the trainee!” Otto exclaimed, catching Henke off guard. “Sorry for spookin’ ya, dude.”
“It’s alright,” Henke said, relaxing his posture.
“Day two out of…huh, how much was that window worth, again…anyway, do what you’ve been doing, but do it better. Every day.”
“Yes, sir,” Henke said, giving a salute.
“Ahahaha,” Otto said, shaking his head, “I ain’t your squad leader, kid! Call me Otto!”
“How about Mr. Nicor?” Henke said. “It’s only polite.”
Otto rolled his eyes before he stepped out into the middle of the restaurant floor.
“Alright,” he said in a loud voice. “I need all-hands today. No checkin’ your mobile when the steam puffs up from the pots, no fooling around with your stupid knife juggling tricks, no loungin’ around when all your table’s’re in. And quit usin’ so much water!”
Otto stood there for a few more seconds, rolling his neck, before he headed to his office and shut the door. Henke looked over at Tito, but Tito just rolled his eyes.
“Goofball,” Tito said. “Be glad you’ve been catching him when he’s just a bit tipsy.”
“He’s been drinking?” Henke said, scratching his head.
“He nips on whatever’s in his pocket flask. I tried watering it down so he’d be a little more predictable, but he noticed right away. So, you’ve just gotta be careful.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Henke said, his eyes widening.
“Whatever it takes…” Tito said, brushing back his hair and getting back to wiping down tables.
By the early afternoon, the lunch crowd had begun to form again. The crowd was excited to see their favorite blassnaught through the window, taking pictures with their mobiles and making flexing gestures towards him whenever he accidentally glanced over. Henke wasn’t sure if it was meant to be encouraging or mocking.
“The crowd’s loving you, Henke!” Tito said.
“I’m not sure if I’m loving them back,” Henke muttered to himself.
“Waiter!” a customer shouted to Henke. “We need some more water.”
Henke’s eyes widened and he glanced over at Tito.
“Uh…” Henke stammered.
“Coming up,” Tito said, ferrying Henke over to the side.
“Didn’t your dad say–”
“He’s not wrong,” Tito interrupted. “But customers’re first. Use the tap.”
Henke nodded, taking the empty pitcher toward the back to fill it up.
Henke used the sink in the back to refill the pitcher with tap water. There was a red mark on the side of the pitcher, but Henke wasn’t sure if it was there on purpose or not.
“Hey,” Henke said to the staff toward the sink. “What’s the mark on the pitcher mean?”
Henke looked back to the pitcher and then back at the kitchen staff. Finally, he felt a tap on his back.
“Fill it up to the mark,” a voice said.
Henke turned toward the voice; it was a short furnesean whose name Henke had forgotten.
“Uh…thanks,” Henke said to the furnesean. “What’s your name again?”
“Rocky,” he said with a blank face, putting a clean dish to the side.
“Sorry, I’m just learning everyone’s names.”
“It’s like that for all the new guys. You’ll be fine.”
Henke smiled at Rocky, who just nodded at him.
Henke arrived back at the table with the half-full pitcher of water and refilled everybody’s glasses. The customers Henke was serving were fanning themselves with their menus. Other customers had wrapped their heads up like they were desert travellers. Everybody was trying to cool themselves off somehow, except for the reptons. They barely asked for water, and their tables were full of laughing and lively conversations.
The gaur at the end of the table Henke was serving raised her glass.
“Hope you’re not thirsty for tips, blassie!” she chuckled.
Henke put his hand on his hip and wiped off his forehead. His shirt was beginning to soak through the back.
“Need a towel?” Tito asked Henke.
“I’m…fine,” Henke said. “Really.”
“Alright,” Tito said, leaning against the wall. “Like I said before, if you need to cool off, the AC is blasting in the break room.”
“Got it…” Henke said.
Henke wondered if he would even have time to take a break, with this crowd. The customers were hanging around for longer, some only coming in to take up space and drink tap water. The waitstaff had been using their aprons as sweat towels. And the air wasn’t circulating well, making the room smell like a gym.
Meanwhile, Henke could see reptons standing out on the sidewalk, basking in the sun. Many male reptons had their shirts off, slung over their shoulders, passing by those who peeked their heads in the restaurant before frowning and going back to the sun-drenched streets.
“Hey, Tito,” Henke said, taking a deep breath. “It’s getting a little muggy in here. Could we…take a break?”
Tito glanced up at Henke. Even if he enjoyed the heat, he seemed to be a bit detached from his work.
“We’ve got, dunno, ten minutes,” Tito said.
“Works for me,” Henke replied.
Tito and Henke put down their water pitchers and Henke followed Tito toward the break room. Though, judging by how many people were back there, it seemed like many others had the same idea. There was so little room back there that some had to resort to sit on the floor, flapping their aprons in their faces to cool themselves down.
“Room for two more?” Tito asked.
“If you get in here, it’ll be warmer than out there,” Pross growled.
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’,” Tito replied, brushing Henke’s shoulder. “C’mon, there’s some shade outside.”
“Outside?” Henke marveled. “Today?”
“Sure,” Tito said, shrugging. “At least there’s no sandstorm going on.”
Tito and Henke went outside, stopping to rest at a bench in the alleyway next to the restaurant. The wide awning above cast a long shade onto the bench. The bench seat felt cool as Henke sat down next to Tito. Though, the dry heat of the outdoors was still persistent.
“That’s a little better,” Tito said. “Nice and dry out here.”
“Nice?” Henke said, his elbows on his kneecaps.
“Yeah,” Tito replied, stretching his limbs. “I guess I like the space a bit better. It’s too cramped in there.”
Henke nodded, glancing back at the water storage units. He wondered if he could steal even a cupful of water from there. Would it even be cold at this point in the day?
Henke looked back and saw that Tito was removing his shirt.
“Really?” Henke asked, rubbing his forehead.
“I could spend all day out here,” Tito said, his shirt removed. His body was lean and muscled for his short figure.
“I could never do that on a day like this,” Henke said. “You’re crazy.”
Tito leaned back, basking in the dry heat of the summer afternoon.
“Crazy to work at a water-hungry place like this,” Tito said.
Henke nodded, wiping off his forehead with his apron and shirt, revealing his muscled stomach. As he lowered his shirt, he couldn’t help but see Tito stealing a glance at Henke. “You’re pretty stacked, dude,” Tito remarked.
“It’s nothing,” Henke said. “You should see my dad.”
“Kinda. It’s a long story.”
“Reminds me of my uncle Kit,” Tito said, closing his eyes. “He used to be pretty ripped. Now he’s just a skinny shmoe.”
The two of them sat in silence, enjoying or bearing the summer heat for a few minutes.
Henke heard a motor scooter rev up next to them. Another repton pulled into the alleyway, kicking at Tito’s shoe.
“Sleeping on the job?” the female repton asked.
“Not working at all?” Tito retorted. “Get off my ass, Kate.”
Kate sneered at Tito before turning to Henke.
“You’re the new guy, right? I’m Kate.”
“Henke,” Henke replied. They grasped forearms; Kate’s grip was fleeting, and she returned her arm to her side quickly.
“I’m surprised a blassnaught’s out here in the sun,” Kate said, fidgeting with her helmet. “You’re not gonna drink all their water, are you?”
“I’m not really that thirsty,” Henke said, scratching his neck. “It’s just…exhausting.”
“Just like Kate,” Tito retorted.
“Yeah, whatever,” she said. “Sorry for not showing up this morning, I had stuff to do.”
“More powder to push?”
“Surprisingly, no,” she said with a frown. “I met somebody at the transfer depot that you might want to talk to later.”
“Some guy who says he’s from the Federation, wants to try out the restaurants around here. I told him to come to Nicor Noodles if he had the time.”
“That’s the best referral I think you’ve ever given us,” Tito said, rolling his shoulders.
“You’re welcome,” Kate said, rolling her eyes. “I gotta get back on the road, though. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“See ya,” Tito said, not looking at her.
Kate put her helmet on again and headed back toward her bike. Before she got on, she paused next to Henke.
“Look out for him, will you?” she whispered.
“…Got it,” Henke said, unsure how to respond otherwise.
She nodded at him before mounting her motor scooter, revving it up, and backing onto the sidewalk again. She took off with a vroom and was gone as soon as she arrived.
Henke glanced back at Tito, who was getting his shirt back on.
“C’mon,” Tito said. “Let’s get back in there. I think it’s been more like fifteen minutes by now.”
“Okay,” Henke said, standing up again. “Hey, just a question…Am I doing alright in there?”
“Eh…you’re doing fine,” Tito said, getting up from the bench. “Everybody starts out a little awkward, and soon they’re a valuable part of the place.”
“Even someone like me?”
Tito stared up at Henke before silently nodding.
“You’ll see,” Tito replied.
“Could we get some more water?” a gomben in a head-wrap said as Henke re-entered the restaurant.
“More water over here,” a hauke in fatigues said.
“Just take their pitcher,” a grey said, reaching over from his table to one sitting on the end of the front bar.
“I’ve got it,” the repton employee in the bandana said, taking the pitcher over to them.
“Easy on the water, Tekna,” Tito said. “We ain’t watering plants.”
“We ain’t getting tips, either,” Tekna said.
“I’m not getting any tips,” Henke said in reply.
“Surprised? Shouldn’t be.”
“Tekna, c’mon,” Tito said.
“Not sayin’ anything about you, blassie,” Tekna said, folding their arms. “It’s just that people’s credit chips stick to the inside of their cargo shorts on days like this. Was like this back at my old gig, too.”
“What was that?”
“Let’s say that I kept my hands behind others’ backs aside from my own. Reptons were fine, but furneseans, yeesh. Had to get a whole separate fan for them.”
“Why’d you leave a job like that for waiting tables?” Tito asked.
“Tekna tells nothing to people he doesn’t know,” Tekna said, re-knotting his bandana. “Now, looks like your dad’s on the way outside.”
Tito looked to the back, where Otto was leaving quickly.
“I’ll be right back,” Tito said to Henke and Tekna.
As Tito followed Otto, he almost knocked over the fat furnesean female employee who was wiping off her head with a towel in the middle of the room.
“Ah, sorry, Maggie,” Tito said.
“It’s fine,” Mag said. “I guess this place is turning back into a watering hole, huh?”
“Good one. Take a seat if you’re overheated.”
“Thanks,” she said. “You, too.”
Tito quickened his pace, rushing through the back to catch up with Otto.
Henke was left alone with Tekna and the rest of the waitstaff. He started to field customer inquiries on his own. Without Tito there to mentor him, Henke started to get nervous.
He took down the order of a late afternoon group lunch outing populated by a couple of gaur, possibly the ones from the barbershop down the street. Henke’s handwriting was becoming less legible than before.
“S-so, a kyoza starter, with…”
“More water, big guy!”
Henke glanced over at the party who had shouted at him; he then peeked at his empty pitcher, and then at the group of kitchen staffers lingering at the doorway, near the fan, blocking the way to the kitchen.
He looked back at his notepad. He held his small pencil tighter than before.
“Ain’t you listening, lunkhead?”
Henke’s pencil snapped in his grip.
“Kyoza, side of hot firra sauce, four monchatta bowls, one special. Right?”
Henke looked over to see Tekna with his hands on his hips, fielding the order without a notepad.
“You got it,” the gaur at the end of the table said with an affirmative hand gesture that Henke didn’t recognize.
Tekna nodded before he gestured over at Henke to refill the pitcher.
Henke gently pushed his way back to the kitchen; the kitchen staffers collectively tisked when they saw him again.
“Thirsty, huh, blassie?” one of them said.
Henke nodded, trying not to get too miffed. He looked over at Rocky, who just rolled his eyes.
Henke refilled the pitcher of the ever-thirty hauke party who went right back to ignoring him.
“Having a good time, blass?” Tekna asked Henke.
“Just trying to keep up,” Henke replied, wiping off his forehead.
“This kinda pace is great. Everyone’s problems can be solved in a couple of seconds. Y’meet someone new in every moment. Not like in your part of town, I bet.”
“I bet all you see are jerks in combat gear, pensioners, and whoever works for ‘em.”
“You’re…not too far off, actually.”
“I should be, that’s where I worked for a while.”
“I’ve never seen you around there.”
Tekna folded his arms.
“Let’s say that I was everywhere I wasn’t supposed to be.”
Henke stared at Tekna, his half-lidded eyes implying that Henke ought not to ask more questions.
The two of them felt a thump. It sounded like it came from the break room hallway. Henke looked toward Tekna, who just raised his eyebrows, otherwise remaining unaffected.
Henke headed toward the break room. As he headed down the hallway, he ran into Tito, who appeared to have arrived from the back entrance. They looked at each other for a split second before looking toward the break room entrance.
Ray had collapsed to the break room floor.