Elana’s pencil rasped across her order pad as she half-listened to the family in front of her reciting their meal choices. This was a typical Wednesday night family: the workaholic husband that couldn’t stay off his phone, frazzled wife who had probably already dipped into that bottle of red she had promised herself not to finish that night, and two bundles of chaotic energy that felt the whole of the restaurant was their romper room. The smile Elana wore was like the rest of her uniform: slightly rumpled and askew.
Her smile continued as the wife droned on, being needlessly nitpicky. Elana offered a verbal pacifier to the woman when she sensed they were needed. Years of waitressing had taught her a varied collection: “No problem”, “We can do that”, “We’d be happy to” being in her ready repertoire but she knew this woman was going to make her dig deeper. As the wife carried on unabated, Elana imagined that her name was Katie and she acted this way because her ordinary life left her feeling powerless. It helped Elana empathize with the lady.
The woman finally wound down and Elana nodded to her. “I’ll get this right in.”
Elana turned on her heel so hard, her old sneakers squealed on the linoleum. Her vision narrowed until the door to the kitchen filled her vision. The door was an ordinary, swinging kitchen door with a porthole window. None of the patrons of the restaurant knew the horror of what lay beyond.
Elana sighed inwardly, knowing with the list of demands the lady had, she would have to speak directly with Raoul, the head cook. Before she could consider any longer, she broke into a trot that sped into a sprint within a few paces.
She shouldered through the swinging door and threw herself into a forward roll, quickly and gracefully coming to a knee. She swept the front part of the kitchen with her gaze, alert for anyone sneaking about. She happily exhaled the breath she’d been holding. None of the kitchen trolls were about.
The room she found herself in was small corridors lined with terrible instruments of the culinary arts bisected by a large metal table. Pots and pans, ladles, knives hemmed a person in, giving one no room to maneuver. Fryers could be seen lining the far wall, eagerly waiting for any passerby to snap at with flesh scalding grease. Elana jumped as the hermetic pop of the walk-in door being open sounded behind her. She cursed herself a fool for not having checked before thinking herself safe.
A small brunette head appeared from the depths of the walk-in, the locks captured in a utilitarian bun. Elana almost burst into a happy giggle when the other waitress, Sheila, came fully into view lugging a jug of marinara sauce. Her eyes widened when she saw Elana standing there and then melted into a relieved smile. Elana returned the smile.
Sheila's eyes settled on the order book clutched in Elana’s hands. “You going back to talk to Raoul?”
Elana nodded sharply, her eyes roaming away from meeting the other woman’s eyes.
“Wade hasn’t clocked in yet, he’s not on till five. You might still have time…”
Wade was a lecherous legend in a kitchen full of letches. He was also the troll that guarded the shorter of the two routes to Raoul.
Both women glanced at the clock. It read 4:58. Elana mouthed a silent thank you and turned to the smaller of the two corridors she could take. For a moment, she fought a rising wave of panic that made her vision swim. Elana’s heart quaked. The smaller corridor was a dangerous way with limited maneuverability and narrow visibility. Elana would never see any of the kitchen trolls lying in wait.
Her hands gripped the order book, the knuckles turning white. She took a shaky breath and, before she could think better, plunged down the corridor. Shadows jumped toward her in the shaky lighting. In seconds, darkness swallowed Elana whole. She stumbled blindly, knocking into pots and started when an errant ladle snuck its way under her skirt. She sped up, wishing to get to the end.
Before she knew it, she was through, letting a silent prayer of praise fly through her body. No one had been back there.
Now, she stood in front of another long metal table. On it, errant splotches of thin blood ran toward each other in tiny rivulets. Behind it was a sinister, flat iron grill scored black by continuous immolations. Elana could see the remains of the last sacrifice that had been placed upon its surface. Around the table were strewn an assortment of knives. It was the Altar of Raoul.
“Raoul?” Elana's voice timidly tested the air. She hated how meek she sounded. “Raoul?” she said, pushing a bit more air through but only ending up pitching her voice into a squeak.
“Elaaaana!” came a loud, boisterous voice from behind the altar. A hulking, reptilian figure cloaked in shadows rose, two pinpricks of hellish red lights centering themselves on Elana. She could feel his gaze roam her body uninvited, blistering her skin in gooseflesh. “What can I do with you?” Raoul asked, licking his lips.
“Lady at table 5 has a few special requests.” Elana held out her order book with shaky hands.
Raoul moved with surprising ease for one so large. He covered the distance between them in the blink of an eye, seeming to flow around her rather than actually moving, and his arm was around Elana’s shoulders before she could shrink away. In the light, he wore a tattered, once white, stained t-shirt. His gut obscenely overhung the front of his pants and his ample body hair made his skin look black. This close, Elana’s nose crinkled as his body odor smacked her in the face with the force of a UFC fighter.
Raoul plucked the order book from Elana’s shaking hands. He looked over the list of demands. “This is a lot to do, Elaaaana.”—Elana quivered in disgust at the way his voice molested her name—”But for you, I will do it…” The smile that he favored Elana with made her skin crawl.
Elana felt Raoul’s rough hand travel from her shoulders down to between her shoulder blades. The hand only stayed there a moment before it snuck down to the small of her back. Her stomach turned at the unwanted appendage’s walk down her body and its intended destination. Elana barely held herself upright, wanting to fall into a quivering ball on the floor, continually reminding herself that she needed this job. I have three mouths to feed, she repeated like a mantra in her head.
A sharp rap resounded through the kitchen and Raoul’s hand flew from the small of her back. “Ow, what the fuck!” Raoul roared, nursing the offending hand.
Both he and Elana wheeled around. A big, black woman stood, arms crossed, ladle in hand, her entire body limned in light, an angel descending from on high.
“Where exactly were you thinking of putting that hand, Raoul?” Her words were verbal darts piercing the air and fire flew from her eyes as she scorched the head cook with her gaze.
“I was just playing!” Raoul cried, raising his arms to ward himself from her eyes. He shrank back to a normal man in response to Mama Ty’s luminescence.
“OH, IS THAT IT?” Mama Ty’s voice boomed throughout the small space.
Little reptilian heads poked out of the myriad crannies surrounding the area. The kitchen trolls. Their yellowish were wide and eerily too big for their heads. Elana shivered but took courage from Mama Ty’s fierce light. So emboldened, she found herself meeting their gazes defiantly.
Her eyes fell upon the youthful face of Bolton, blue eyes and sandy hair, the busboy, the only person in a clean and pressed uniform. He was the only person with the presence of mind to look embarrassed by what was transpiring. He looked away from Elana. A sad smile crossed her face. Soon enough, he’d leave or risk becoming just another kitchen troll. “I think you’ll find that she didn’t think it was funny.” Mama Ty looked down on Raoul.
“What’s happening here?” The voice emanated from the back room, ricocheting off the walls. It was Steve, the manager on duty. The kitchen trolls started clambering around, hooting and hollering in monosyllabic intonations. The sound of his voice was like blood in the water. From the manager’s office, a shadow extended towards the gathered people.
Elana shrank back but felt Mama Ty’s hand press firmly into her back. It bolstered her, reassured her. Elana watched as the shadow clawed through the kitchen toward the two women, like a mob of lost souls scrambling over each other to be the first to grab her. Her breath caught in her throat. Elana’s heart fell like a lead weight on her chest when she considered what the coming of Steve portended for she and Mama Ty.
Then, to Elana’s surprise, the most miraculous thing happened. The shadow stopped short of Mama Ty’s light. It tentatively quested forward but recoiled from its touch. Steve, the scourge of the restaurant, knew fear.
“She hit me again, Steve,” Raoul said, sounding like some child tattling on their sibling.
“Ty, what have we said about hit—”
“OH, NO, STEVE! THAT ISN’T HOW THIS IS GOING DOWN. You ain’t about to get on me.” She stepped in front of Elana, her arms gesticulating wildly. “Not when you got these men groping these poor women.” Mama Ty rose and her light spread like two dragon wings. Elana regarded the older black woman with awe.
The shadow on the floor scurried back from Mama Ty to Steve, wrapping around his leg. “I’m sure it was all in—”
“Oh, don’t give me that bullshit.” Mama Ty sneered at Steve’s shocked expression. “I’m sorry, did I interrupt you? Were you about to say in fun? Or was it in good fun?” Mama Ty favored Steve with a look that told exactly how big of an idiot she thought he was. Her finger knifed the air and Elana swore she could hear it cut it. Her finger pointed arrow straight at Steve. He shrank into himself. “You men need to stop thinking this way,”—her eyes traveled the room, capturing each kitchen troll in her powerful gaze—”We ain’t blessed by your attention. Ain’t not one of us wants anything to do with you disgusting pieces of…” Her voice trailed off as she saw Bolton standing there looking on at the scene wide-eyed. “Bolton, what you doing here? Don’t you have tables to clean?”
Bolton only managed to stammer nonsensical sounds, clearly overwhelmed by Mama Ty’s attention.
“Calm down, child. None of this has got one whit to do with you. But you mark these men, you want to be nothing like them. You got that?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Bolton’s voice shook.
“Go clean some tables.” Mama Ty turned her attention back to Steve.
Released from the power of Mama Ty’s gaze, Bolton zoomed out of the kitchen.
“Now, you, Steve, are going to make sure these girls ain’t harassed by any of these...boys.” The word dripped with every ounce of disgust that Mama Ty could muster.
“Ah, ahem, yes, of course. Such play shouldn’t be going on anywhere in this restaurant. Of course not.” Steve rambled on, clearly discombobulated from coming face to face with his own impotency.
Mama Ty favored Elana with a warm smile. “Go get your order out, girl.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Elana felt like she should salute the powerful woman.
A few minutes later, she carried a tray laden with the family’s order. As she dropped it off, she watched as each dish passed the wife’s inspection. Once the order was delivered and had passed muster, the wife, without anything to complain about, looked at a loss as to what to say.
The husband broke the standstill. Not even looking up from his phone, he said, “May I have more ice water?”
“No problem, sir.” Elana smiled at the wife.
As she walked away, Elana heard the woman say, “I don’t think she deserves 15%, I mean, what has she really done?”