As she walked away, my shoulders slumped. The noise had quieted, meaning the manager had probably offered all kinds of apologies and gift cards to the poor assaulted woman. I tried not to imagine the look on chicken lady’s face when she learned the crazy server had been canned.
“Aw, man,” Neil said glumly, joining me beside the dishwasher. “Sorry, Tori. Sucks that she fired you.”
“Well,” I said heavily, “I’m not really surprised.”
I untied my apron, then fished the half-melted ice cube out of my blouse and flicked it into the sink.
“Uh, Tori? Your, um, bra … is showing.”
“Yeah, that happens. Ever hear of a wet t-shirt contest?” I scowled. “That wasn’t an invitation to stare.”
He jerked his eyes up. “Aren’t you supposed to wear white bras with white shirts?”
“Are you a fashion expert now?” I didn’t admit he was right, or explain that my white-shirt-friendly undergarments were in the laundry. Neither did I glance down to see how visible my pink bra with little black hearts was. I didn’t want to know.
After digging my tips out of my apron—a measly twenty-two bucks since I’d only been an hour into my shift—I handed the drenched fabric to Neil. “Well … guess I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah. Stop by and visit, ’kay?”
“Will do,” I lied. Like I could ever come back here after clobbering a woman with a drink tray.
With a half-hearted wave, I stopped in the breakroom to grab my purse and umbrella, then exited through the back door, as instructed. Rain pattered the asphalt, making the muddy puddles dance. Skirting the reeking dumpster, I followed a narrow alley to the main street.
Chipper music rolled out of the café as a couple entered. The brightly lit windows were warm and inviting, and everything looked back to normal as a server stopped at a table to unload steaming plates for eager customers.
The cool rain peppered my face and diluted the ugly brownish splotch on my chest, but I didn’t open my umbrella. If my pink bra was on display, then I was committing to the show, damn it. Wet shirt all the way.
Turning on my heel, I marched down the sidewalk. It was a long walk home, but at least it would delay the inevitable moment when I’d have to inform my landlord I’d lost my job … again.
Unlocking the apartment door, I poked my head inside. “Justin?”
No answer. Heaving a sigh of relief, I locked the bolt, shoved my purse into the closet, and kicked my sandals onto the mat to dry. My bare feet squeaked on the linoleum as I walked down the short hall into the main room, a cramped kitchen overlooking it. The drooping blue sofa had seen better days, and carefully folded bedsheets and a blanket sat on one end.
Piled in front of the window were four battered cardboard boxes that contained all my worldly possessions. Grabbing the overflowing laundry basket off the top of the pile, I carried it to the narrow closet where the stacked washer and dryer hid. As I loaded my laundry in, I mentally reviewed my bank account. Would my last paycheck cover the rent? Maybe … if I didn’t eat for the rest of the month.
Washer loaded, I stripped off my work clothes and tossed them in, then started it up. Returning to the boxes, I selected my last clean bra—hot red with lacy embellishments, normally reserved for special occasions—then dragged out a pair of yoga pants and pulled them on.
As I lifted out a top, the clack of the bolt echoed down the hall. Yelping, I yanked the shirt down, barely getting it in place before a male head poked out from the hall, eyebrows high in surprise.
“Tori! You’re home early.”
“Hi, Justin.” I managed a smile. “How was work?”
He was still in uniform—dark blue slacks and a button-down shirt emblazoned with the police emblem on the shoulder. Normally I loved a man in uniform, but I could only appreciate it so much on Justin. Not that he wasn’t handsome with his hazel eyes and close-cropped brown hair. It’s just, you know, he’s my roommate. And my landlord. And my older brother.
“Tiring,” he admitted. “I hate the early morning shift, but I have my fingers crossed for that promotion.”
“I’m sure you’ll get it.”
He unbuttoned his uniform, stripping down to the plain black t-shirt he wore underneath. “What happened at work? Your top is on backward, by the way.”
I looked down. Crap, it was.
“How come you’re home so early? Are you sick?”
“No …” I muttered, tugging at my ponytail.
“Tori,” he groaned. “Not again. You got fired, didn’t you?”
He puffed out a breath. “What happened this time?”
I told him the story through his bedroom door as he changed clothes. While talking, I pulled my arms into the baggy striped t-shirt and turned it the right way around. Justin reappeared, his scowl made more severe by the short beard he’d grown at my suggestion. It had been a great call. He looked way more policeman-tough now.
“She shoved you and spilled all your drinks? They should have thrown her out!”
“They might have … if I hadn’t whacked her upside the head.”
He sat on a tall stool in front of the kitchen counter that acted as our dining table. “How do you do it, Tori? If there’s a crazy customer within ten miles, they always end up in your section.”
“Maybe I bring out the crazy in people.” I flopped onto the sofa. “Maybe it’s magic.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Or aliens,” I suggested. “Or … magic aliens!”
He snorted but didn’t argue with me. No matter how often he refused to engage in the topic, I would keep ragging on him until he got his head on straight. I couldn’t believe my own brother had become a magic conspiracy theorist. I’d believe in aliens first.
“I’m sorry, Justin,” I said more seriously. “I’ll get another job ASAP so I don’t miss any rent payments.”
“I’ve told you every month since you moved in that you don’t need to pay rent. I’m happy to have the company.”
“Living downtown is expensive as hell.” I didn’t add that my presence here over the last eight months was preventing his steady girlfriend from moving in with him. Plus, he was putting up with all my crap cluttering his one-bedroom suite.
“Cheer up, Tori. You’ve found a new job after each …” He trailed off, maybe realizing that pointing out how I’d blown six jobs in eight months wasn’t encouraging. “You’ll find another one in no time.”
“Yeah,” I agreed listlessly.
He glanced into the spotless kitchen—my small contribution to the household that I held to like a Lysol-worshipping nun—then threw me a grin. “Let’s order in tonight.”
“I should save my money since—”
“My treat.” He grabbed his phone off the counter. “The usual?”
“Sure,” I agreed guiltily. I would extra-clean the bathroom tomorrow to make up for it. He’d be able to eat out of the sink if he wanted.
While he called in the order, I unearthed my laptop from beneath a stack of socks waiting to be folded. Settling onto the sofa, I flipped it open and fired up my browser. Unsurprisingly, I had the job posting website bookmarked.
I’d lost my job, but I’d have another one within a week even if I had to sell my soul to get it.
Pausing in front of the display window, I took a deep breath and smiled at my reflection. Smile, relax. Smile, relax. I needed to appear perky and confident, not bedraggled and exhausted. My hazel eyes, identical to Justin’s, looked dark as coal, but the dusty glass couldn’t dull the vibrant red of my hair. I scrunched my ponytail with one hand to revive the curls, but it was hopeless.
I stepped back from the window and squinted at the sky. Bright sunlight sparkled merrily, and the breeze carried the salty tang of the ocean, only a few blocks north. People strolled up and down the charming redbrick sidewalks, passing old-fashioned streetlamps and storefronts nestled in tall Victorian-style buildings. Gastown was the oldest neighborhood in the city, a popular tourist destination full of cafés and restaurants.
Across the redbrick intersection was one such café. The yellow patio umbrellas resembled a garden of monster-sized flowers, and servers in cute periwinkle blouses bustled among the tables. The place was packed even though it was only four o’clock—too early for the dinner rush, but no one had told this café that.
Busy was good. Busy meant lots of staff.
I practiced my smile one more time, then crossed the street and entered the air-conditioned interior.
“Hi,” I greeted the hostess brightly. “Is your hiring manager in today?”
“Yeah,” the girl replied in a bored drone. “I already called her. You can wait there with the others.”
She pointed. Two girls my age, dressed in chic business casual attire, stood off to the side, holding folders just like mine. Their résumés probably weren’t full of one- and two-month server stints, with no references to show for any of them. Goddamn it.
I joined the girls anyway, and when the stocky, middle-aged manager finally appeared, looking overheated and unfriendly, I patiently waited my turn.
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