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"Where's that salad?"
"Table three is still waiting for their soup!"
The kitchen was a roiling soup unto itself, a whirl of noise and heat. Servers scurried between each station, checking orders, looking for anything they could do to help. The line cook in charge of the ovens studied his workload. Three plates of lasagna, two manicotti, and five calzones, two of which were still on the counter behind him. Another morning keeping people fed and happy. He couldn't claim to be either of those things, however, as he hadn't eaten since before his shift, and he was pretty certain he had just handled a scorching hot dish with his bare hands.
He glanced around him as casually as possible, gray eyes scanning the room while straightening his white restaurant uniform. The nervous urge struck him to run his hand through his short black hair, seasoned with just a few strands of gray. The color was an odd contrast to his youthfulness, even when considering his Hispanic heritage. His skin was light brown and smooth; a small patch of hair adorned his chin, something he was hoping came off as stylish and not silly.
"Ash, more breadsticks," came a voice from behind. Whoever had deposited the tray of soft dough on the counter was gone before he could acknowledge them, so he just picked it up and turned back around. Ash was reasonably sure no one was staring, no one was in awe of what they'd just seen and demanding an explanation. Relaxing with a prayer of thanks, he swapped the tray of raw breadsticks with a finished one. Both of his thick oven gloves were on his hands this time.
The timer on oven three screeched, he quickly slapped it off. A full tray of cannelloni was out and plated.
"Order for fifty-four!" he called to the nearest runner. He warned them that the plate was hot.
Another dozen tickets came and went. Ash focused on each one, making sure cheeses were melted, crusts and breads the correct shade of brown or gold. He also ensured he didn't touch anything above a plausible temperature without protection again. Just a minor hiccup, that was all.
He pulled a stoneware dish of lasagna out of oven number six, and after cutting a section off to be plated, he remembered lasagna should never go in that one. He swore he had put up a note about the faulty element, but it was nowhere to be seen. One side of the portion definitely didn't look as scrumptious as it should.
Ash grabbed the infrared thermometer from his apron pocket for deniability. Twenty degrees under spec. He turned back to the ovens; placing that portion in by itself meant the cheese would burn. By the time an entire tray was done, he would have a server glaring at him. There weren't any others that were even close. Decision time.
Ash put the larger dish back in a better oven. He picked up the smaller plate and turned his back to the kitchen to make it look like he was still debating. Cupping his hand around the food, he warmed it up as gently as possible, rotating the plate slowly until it was evenly broiled on all sides. Unless the customer was some kind of food critic, it would be just fine.
He set the plate down and called for the order, then ducked under the counter for the ice pack he kept there. His palm might have scalded anything he touched, but the cloth-covered pack brought it down to a much more manageable level. He would have to get another one from the freezer later.
"Hey, Ash," a voice called from above. He straightened up to find a youngish blond kid holding his own set of oven gloves. "Jack wants to see you, he's in the office. I'll take over here."
"Huh." Ash glanced at the large digital clock on the wall, then frowned. "Alright, here you go." He relayed a quick snapshot of the status at that station.
His coworker nodded along. "Oh, and I saw your girlfriend out front too."
Ash's concerned eyes softened. "Got it. Thanks Chuck."
Chuck pulled on his gloves. "How many times… It's Charlie, man."
"Well, since you keep calling her my girlfriend, I'm gonna keep calling you Chuck." Ash left his gloves under the counter, casually pocketing the ice pack. "We're just friends."
"Fine, Chuck it is." Ash smiled and turned toward the office, but Charlie wasn't done yet. "That's how it always starts out, you know."
Ash wanted to yell back something smug, but nothing came to mind. Chuck had no idea what he was talking about.
Framed newspaper clippings lined the walls of the business office, alongside a few autographed menus by local celebrities. The man sitting at the crowded desk was nearly bald, all the hair on his head having migrated to his long mustache. He looked up from a sheet of paper as Ash knocked on the door frame.
"You wanted to see me?" Ash forced his voice to stay steady.
"Yes, Ash, come in." Jack gestured to the large leather chair on the other side of the desk, leaning back in his own cloth swiveling chair. "So…" He took one last look at the sheet before setting it down. "I'm not really sure how to say this."
Ash gripped the wooden arms of the chair to keep his inner fire under control. He'd been seen, now came the questions, or if he was lucky, he would just get fired and he could move on quietly—
"Your shift will have to end a little early," Jack said. "I just don't have enough hours to let you work the rest of the day."
"Oh, okay," Ash said automatically.
"But please," Jack continued, twisting in the chair's seat as he spoke. "Don't get me wrong. This isn't a reflection of your ability. You're one of the best employees I've got, so I need to have you working at the best possible time."
Ash nodded. He could tell Jack was trying to minimize the blow by assuaging his ego, but he was so relieved he let him continue. The rest of the conversation was just pleasantries and assurances, and Ash was on his way before he knew it.
Walking back through the kitchen, he saw Chuck arguing about a rejected dish with a server, and remembered something else he had to look forward to.
Shrugging off his white outer uniform, he dropped it in the bin to get laundered. By the next shift, it would have joined its brethren in the men's large size box, neatly folded and ready for action. Without it, night fell on his outfit: black shirt, slacks, and shoes, even his socks, although hardly anyone noticed. He clocked out using the fancy new computer time system, the one that always acted up and required them to fill out a card anyway. That day, it decided to be merciful.
Although she was definitely not his girlfriend, 'girl' was not the right word to describe the young woman seated at a table by the large front window. With her back to him, the long braid of coppery hair stood out against her blue hooded sweatshirt. She had set out a book of crossword puzzles next to her personal notebook, but both sat forgotten as she stared out the window.
Ash sat down across from her. "Hey Cas."
Her attention came away from the people, and with it, her sea-blue eyes. "Hey you," she said contentedly. "How much time do you have on your lunch?"
"Well, a lot I guess." He relaxed his shoulders, burning through the remaining stress. "I'm kinda done for the day."
She narrowed her eyes. "Oh, I see. I take it that's not a good thing?"
"Not so much." Ash sighed, then straightened up. "I am hungry, though. Did you order anything? I can go grab something really quick."
"I did, actually." She laid a finger against her freckled cheek, her eyes brightening. "And… I think it's here now. Thank you!" She called thanks over Ash's shoulder.
Ash turned to see the brunette waitress with a long ponytail, carrying a large plate in each hand. "No problem, Cascadia," she said, setting down a plate in front of each patron. "If you need anything else, come find me, I have a big table to get cleared."
"Okay," Ash said, "thanks Jenna."
Ash looked back at his dish piled high with seafood and pasta, then at his friend. "Cas, this is one of the most expensive things on the menu. And it's not burned, so it had to be full price. What's the occasion?"
"Surprise!" Cascadia said, pulling out a sheet from her notebook and sliding it across the table to him.
Dear Miss Dewlenser,
We have decided to accept your short story "Crisis of Faith" for publication in the next issue. Please find enclosed a check for your compensation…
"Thank you," Cascadia said, bowing from her seat. "I thought this was worth a celebration, so I wanted to get a little something for the both of us."
"I'm not sure this counts as a little something… but I'll take it. Ready?" He held his fingertips up to his forehead. She nodded. They both made the Sign of the Cross and said Grace, Ash kissing his fingertips at the end of the prayer. Cascadia had ordered herself an extravagant dish of fancy cheesy pasta and vegetables roasted with oil and herbs.
Two glasses of ice water sat in the middle of the table, both full. Ash picked one up and slaked the thirst he had worked up, then raised it to Cascadia. "A toast?"
Cascadia noticed her glass for the first time. "Oh, of course." She picked it up, and they tapped them together, then she took a few sips.
Satisfied, Ash took to his meal, savoring every mouthful of the shrimp and clams he rarely got to eat. "This is good," he said, after swallowing a bite. "The garlic in the Alfredo sauce gets roasted here, it helps the flavor stay strong."
She gave him a satisfied smile. "I'm glad you enjoy it."
He nodded. There was plenty to enjoy, even in the face of disappointment. "So, how was class today?" He cracked open a clam with his fork and spoon.
"Oh, it was Monday." Her exuberant tone dimmed. "Economics and chemistry 101. The most boring classes I think I've ever had. I haven't found anything exciting in either of them. The chemistry lab, sure, that's fun." She held her fork sideways above her plate. "Especially when we get liquids that have no water in them. Those are fun to work with. Did you know that almost all liquid chemicals are odorless and colorless?"
"I think it's funny," she continued. "It's like they're pretending to be water, they feel left out. But other than that, it's boring. Why is science part of an English degree anyhow?"
Ash chuckled. "To make sure you know how awful being a scientist would be."
"Like I need a reminder of that."
They chatted about assorted topics; what they needed to pick up from the bodega around the corner, whether she had ever heard back from the landlord about getting a cat, and what to do with the upcoming weekend, even though the previous one had just ended.
Ash pushed away his plate and started tidying the table. "Well, since you're going home, I guess I'm coming with you."
Cascadia crumpled up her napkin and set it on the table. "You won't hear me complaining about that." As she stood from the table, her long brown skirt fell around her legs. She gathered the rest of her things into her sling bag while Ash bussed the table, then got his daypack from the coat hook near the back. Full and content and together, they stepped out onto the sidewalk.
The downtown sidewalks were lined with potted shrubbery and dotted with trees, just beginning to show little buds of life in the early season. Cascadia tried to examine each car that drove by, glancing in the windows at the inhabitants. When someone's face struck her fancy, she scribbled down the details on her memo pad, the kind with a plastic cover and waterproof pages.
Ash examined the greenery and the patchy white clouds in the sky. "I'm glad this winter was a mild one. It's already spring, that much closer to summer."
"I'm not," Cascadia said, her attention still on the cars. "It's so beautiful when the streets are coated in snow and the windows are rimed with ice."
"Umm… 'window' doesn't rhyme with 'ice'."
She glanced back at him, a playful expression on her face. "No, not r-h-y-m-e, r-i-m-e. Rime is a deposit of ice crystals on a surface. To be rimed is to be lightly covered with ice."
"Got it," he said. "I see you're enjoying the dictionary you got for your birthday."
"Maybe I am."
The yellow lighted letters on the front of the bus advertised their destination. Ash waited to see if the white-haired lady they had been waiting with needed any help up the steps, but she could handle it on her own. Cascadia went next, showing the driver her university student pass, followed by Ash with his prepaid monthly pass.
Cascadia settled by the window, cradling her bag in her lap, as the bus set off for its next stop. Ash positioned his pack at his feet and got comfortable, sitting slightly to the side so their knees didn't touch.
She said a prayer of gratitude for their little habits like this. This part of the city was definitely not what someone would label as 'inner,' but that same proverbial someone would still encounter unsavory elements if given enough time. She was glad she could just relax and enjoy the ride, since Ash was vigilant enough for the both of them.
"Hey, I have an idea," Cascadia said. "Why don't we get off at the thrift store, I thought you said you wanted to look for clothes?"
"I did…" Ash looked from the window to her grinning face. "Let me guess, it's orange sticker day."
Ash groaned. "Please only paperbacks this time, hardcovers are so heavy."
"Come on, books are good for you. You build brain muscles and arm muscles at the same time. Although that would require you to actually read them." She leveled a finger at him. They both adjusted their balance as the bus smoothly turned around a corner.
"Hey, I read cookbooks."
She frowned. "I don't think lists of ingredients and directions count as literature."
"What about in the introductions, when the chef talks about the history of the food and where it came from?"
"Alright, fair enough." She nodded. "I'll give you that much."
"Good." They turned back to their stations, hers out the window and his toward the front of the bus, their expressions of annoyance soon turning into carefree grins.
Ash's phone buzzed. He pulled it from his pocket and flipped it open. After responding, he sat staring at it a moment longer than usual.
"Who was it?" she asked tentatively.
"It's from Óscar Mario. He heard about an opening at a new restaurant."
"That sounds interesting."
"Yeah, I'd have to check the bus routes first, though."
Ash pushed aside the decision-making for now and picked up the text exchange about the last fútbol game they had watched together. He was so absorbed, he didn't notice that they were approaching their goal until Cascadia pulled the cable on the wall to signal the driver.
The expansive treasure hunt that was the local thrift store never ceased to enthrall Cascadia and intrigue Ash. It was the type which accepted any sort of item for resale, so one side of the building was dedicated to clothing, another to gently used furniture, and another to housewares and decor. Most of the things on the shelves and racks were old and many were odd, but it was always attractive to two budget-conscious, discerning shoppers.
Cascadia immediately went for a shopping cart, but Ash's exasperated look made her pick up a hand basket instead. She plunged headfirst into the aisles of books, while he had a go at the clothing section. He didn't always find shirts in his size which didn't also have holes in them, but when he did, the price made the expedition worthwhile.
Ash tuned out the popular music blaring overhead as he navigated the racks of shirts, ignoring the ones with pithy sayings printed on the front. After finding a dark gray button-up shirt, he walked past the accessories on the way to the front. Noticing the baseball caps, he briefly considered one with a red stripe on the top of the brow and a white one on the bottom, but decided against it. It didn't really fit his image.1
After checking out, and contributing to the positive environmental impact which was announced on the overhead speakers every so often, he folded his purchases into his backpack, then walked the shelves of books to find his wayward companion.
Around the corner, he found her headed in his direction, holding the basket in front, with her eyes on the bookshelves instead of the aisle. After another step, she saw something out of her side vision and pulled up short, letting out a tiny yelp.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Cascadia said automatically, her basket inches from him. "Oh, it's just you." She pushed the basket forward to bump against him. "You'll never believe what I found." She gestured with her free hand to the spoils of her efforts. "They had the entire series, all the same edition, and in really good shape. I'm so excited!"
Ash examined the spines. "But you already have the first three."
She shrugged. "I'll donate them, that way they'll all match."
"Hey, it's your bookshelf space."
Cascadia made a pained expression as they walked toward the registers. "Probably floor space by now. So Ash…" she said imploringly. "Would you be willing to carry half of them and I can carry the others? Or we can do sixty-forty."
He counted the books again. "I don't think you wanna cut one of them in half."
She screwed up her face. "Rounded up then?"
Ash pretended to consider a moment. "Sure, I'll take half."
Octave of Stars is currently airing on Substack for free, with two of the 45 total posts per week. It’ll be fully released at the end of April 2024. If you don’t want to wait that long, you can get the entire story right now, in either Ebook or paperback! Every purchase supports the ZMT Books mission of family-friendly entertainment.
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It gave him a very strong desire to collect animals and keep them in small spaces