Chapter One

Life at the Trendy Hippo

“Gather round, everyone.” Leslie called from the raised dining section at the rear of the restaurant. We assembled in a neat line, arrayed in front of her, ready for our orders. I smiled; Leslie was short enough that even with the admittedly-low step up, she still only saw eye to eye with her employees. She smiled good-naturedly at us all.

“Tonight’s gonna be a little unusual.” We all laughed. Unusual is what the Trendy Hippo was built on, what it was built for. The entire brand of dining we offered centered on being surprising and unexpected. “OK, more unusual. We have only one customer left today.”

We waited patiently for her to explain. We had just finished the lunch rush; there should be dozens more patrons before closing time.

“We’ve been booked for a private party for the rest of the evening.” That raised a few eyebrows. The Hippo wasn’t exactly cheap to begin with, but as far as I knew, Leslie didn’t even offer private parties. Whoever managed to talk her into shutting down the restaurant for the night must have a lot of cash to throw around. “And when I say ‘private’, I mean private. Their main request for the evening was discretion. You’ll understand why when they arrive, I imagine. I have every confidence in you all. Let me be clear, though: we should not refrain from giving our guests the Trendy Hippo hospitality that our diners have come to expect.” I’d come to appreciate this quality in Leslie; at first I had thought this was the typical gentle reminder that there will be dire consequences for fucking up that bosses like to give so much, but in time, I learned that Leslie meant every word sincerely. It was a vote of confidence from her.

She glanced at her watch. “We’re going to have a busy night, so let’s all take a break now, and when we’re done with our lunch, we can reset for the party. We have a couple extra things to prepare for the night, but otherwise, it’s business as usual. You’ll all still be taking orders from tables individually, but there will be no need to bring checks or receipts to tables; we’ll take care of it at the group level.” No bills, of course, meant no tips, but that didn’t really bother me. Leslie was aggressive about making sure that tips weren’t an important part of our paychecks. I asked her about it once, and she stared at me like I had called her a crook. “It’s nobody’s job to pay you but mine.” she had said, and that was the end of the conversation.

“How does pizza sound for lunch?” she asked. General murmurs of assent answered her. “Pizza it is!” she beamed, and dismissed us to clear up the restaurant. It was another of Leslie’s quirks; most restaurants would give them discounts on the food they served all day, or have the chef with the least seniority cook for the staff. “That sounds like a lot of extra work for the cooks on what should be their break.” Leslie had said, so she instituted a “meals included” work policy: she ordered in food for the entire staff. Once it arrived, we were expected to get food as soon as feasible without impacting guests; if the day was too busy to give the staff a chance to eat, she’d start telling guests it would be an hour or more wait for them to eat, and force a break. “Seattle has plenty of places to eat, they’re not going to starve.” she had said the first time I saw it happen.

The schedule for today had me working the raised seating Leslie had been addressing us from, so I started at the booths in the back, wiping down tables, resetting condiments, and getting things ready for the next wave of diners. Moving through the smaller tables at the front of the platform, I let my mind drift, wondering who had booked the restaurant. Three possibilities: famous people, paranoid people, or ostentatious people. Ostentatious people were easily ruled out; the Trendy Hippo didn’t really set an impressive atmosphere. It felt more like a hipster dive than an upscale or fine-dining restaurant. If you wanted to make an impression, there were better ways to do it for less money. Unless you’re super eccentric, I suppose. What set the Hippo apart was its approach to service, not its setting. Paranoid people, similarly, would be an odd group to see here; paranoid people, I imagined, would value consistency, and the Trendy Hippo was anything but. Which famous people, though? The Seahawks? Politicians? Some band? Cast of a movie?

It wasn’t long before the restaurant was set to rights, and the staff pushed together some of the free-floating tables in the main dining area. I pulled up a chair next to another waiter, Damian, who was fiddling with his phone. I conspicuously read over his shoulder as his wife sent him a photo of their daughter. “Rude.” Damian said, not looking up at me, but smiling.

I grinned. “And how is Amelia?” Damian’s daughter was a frequent visitor the restaurant, and the entire staff loved her. It was not uncommon to overhear Damian’s wife scolding the kitchen staff, all wearing their most innocent expressions, for sneaking Amelia a treat and ruining her supper.

Damian grinned. “She’s turning six this weekend. When I asked her what kind of cake she wanted, she told me she wanted cookies from the Friendly Hippo.” Everyone had heard the little girl’s misheard version of the restaurant’s name; nobody thought it should be corrected. “What about you, Andy? Anything fun planned for this weekend?”

I laughed. “Man, you know I have no life. Probably just restoring my apartment to order and watching Netflix.”

“I know it’s none of my business, but I worry about you, dude. You should have more in your life than Netflix and work.”

I squirmed. Life could be unpleasant, and avoiding it could be so comforting. “I’m ok, but thanks. I’m just at a point in my life where this is the rhythm I need, y’know? It won’t last forever.”

Damian nodded, but his frown didn’t disappear entirely. “Just be careful, man. Easy to burn out like that, and it’s easy to miss out on a lot if you don’t take the opportunities you have when you’re young.” Damian was in his mid-thirties, just over ten years my senior, but that didn’t stop our friendship from having a mentor-mentee aspect to it at times. I valued Damian’s advice, and trust him, but I’m also not entirely ready for my life to expand. I’m happy with my routines.

The pizza arrived, and Leslie paid the delivery man while we all grabbed slices. As we ate, I traded guesses as to who the mystery guests would be with the cooks, and promised Maria to surreptitiously get an autograph for her if it turned out to be the Seahawks. “If it’s the Seahawks”, I joked, “you can even wait my tables for me.” She threw a napkin at me.

I looked around, grinning. Leslie had gathered some good people around her.

After we finished eating and had a bit of time to socialise and decompress, Leslie clapped her hands. “We’ve got people arriving in about half an hour, so now’s the time for finishing touches. Showtime.” The dishwashing staff filtered out to finish up from the lunch rush, getting ready for their new customers. The cooks huddled around Leslie, apparently getting the details on some of the few changes she had mentioned.

I put on my wireless headset just in time to catch Damian repeating “Andy smells and we should fire him.”

“Hey!” I exclaimed, laughing.

“Oh, good, your headset works.” Damian replied. I could almost hear Damian’s grin as the other waitstaff laughed. I shot him a wounded look across the restaurant, which Damian met with an impish grin. I laughed, and got to work checking my section, placing menus and waters, and making sure everything was ready. Leslie bought into mise en place for the entire restaurant, not just her kitchen, and I have to admit, however grudgingly, that it was the necessary oil for the admittedly strange machine she had turned her restaurant into. Although I’d only been on the job for just over a year, I’d come to appreciate just how much control we needed to exercise over the restaurant to create the chaotic and unexpected atmosphere the diners enjoyed in a pleasant, not annoying, way.

Once satisfied that my domain was as it should be, I retreated to the service area by the kitchen, waiting for our guests. I didn’t have to wait long; Leslie started welcoming people and pointing them to their seats less than ten minutes later. My section fllled in in groups of twos and threes, and I noticed people seemed to be eschewing the booths in favor of the tables, which were unceremoniously pushed together to create a single, mammoth table. Fine by me. Gives me a larger audience. I examined my charges, taking notes. They mostly seemed to be in their early twenties, all unfairly good looking. Their clothing was understated but well-tailored, and they laughed and talked with an ease that belied a close relationship. Movie is looking good. But as the tables filled, it became obvious I was wrong. Too many people for a movie. TV show? My speculation was interrupted by Leslie’s “curtains up, Andy!” over the headset, signaling that my table was fully seated and I should make my entrance.

I skipped my way over to the table, deciding on an opening as I went. Positioning myself at the head of the long table, I waited until all dozen-some-odd millenials were looking at me, expectantly. “Hi there! My name’s Andy, and I’m gonna be your friend for tonight. Maybe for longer, but that really depends on how well you tip.” I joked. “Oh, wait,” I continued, raising my hand to my headset as if I was getting new information, “I’ve been informed you’re not in charge of paying tonight. So, uh, don’t get attached?” The table laughed. “Now, before I get y’all started, have any of you fine folks dined with us before?” I asked. A few hands were knowingly raised. “And you came back?” I asked, incredulous. They laughed again. “Well, you lot are pretty enough, I suppose you can’t be sensible, too.” I stuck my tongue out. More chortles. “Alright, alright, I’m sure you didn’t come here just to have me make fun of you. You could get that just by following me on Twitter, I’m @AndyStructable. Can I start you off with something other than water? Maybe some snacks?” I eyed the thin waists and athletic builds. “Maybe some carrots and celery? Y’all obviously aren’t taking care of yourselves.” More laughter.

I looked at the young woman seated immediately to my right. “How ‘bout you, dear?” I asked, fishing my order pad out of my apron. She bit her lip, looking at the drink menu. “Undecided, eh?” I asked, smiling at her sheepish look. “No worries, you pick out what you like, I’ll distract myself with a selfie.” I bent down next to her, pulling out my phone and holding it out. She nearly knocked over her water glass in her haste to drop the menu and cover the camera on my phone. That’s… weird. There was a quiet, awkward beat. “I mean, I know I’m not as pretty as y’all, but surely I’m not so ugly you can’t bear the sight of me?” I joked, feigning hurt. The table laughed, tension defused.

“Aww, Katie, I think you hurt the poor guy’s feelings.” the man seated to her right said. He grinned over at me, pulling out his own phone. “C’mere, I’ll take one with you.” I beamed and moved next to him, putting my chin on the guy’s shoulder and doing my best “best friends” face. The guy smiled broadly, showing off dimples you could drink from. The screen flashed. “Perfect!” the guy laughed, tucking his phone away.

“Hey, don’t hog our new friend!” a girl across the table accused. I obediently went to take a selfie with her, only to have a plant a kiss on my cheek just before her phone took the picture.

“No fair!” the guy shouted. “I didn’t get a kiss.” I laughed, and moved back around to plant a big, wet raspberry on the guy’s cheek. The table chuckled appreciatively, but the guy adopted a look of feigned stubborness. “That wasn’t a real kiss.” he protested, pouting.

“Tongue or no tongue, cutie?” I replied, without missing a beat. The guy blushed, and the table laughed louder still. “I’m just kidding, I have ‘no tongue for strangers’ rule.”

“And what about for old friends?” came a familiar voice from further down the table. I looked up to see Callum grinning back at me. An older, more fit, better dressed Callum, but unmistakably still Callum. I froze, unsure what to do. This was… unexpected.

“Oh, Cal, give yourself a break.” I replied, covering the awkward silence. “You’re not that old.” Cal laughed, just as free and easy as it had always been.

“Anyways, before we got into the admittedly more interesting business of which of you lovely people I was going to play tonsil hockey with, I believe we were talking about what drinks and other assorted goodies I could bring to you.” My antics had bought the table enough time, and I was able to move smoothly around the table, jotting down orders and posing for the occasional selfie, borrowing people’s phones and putting my number in under silly names like “Hot Waiter”, and generally carrying on, much to the amusement of my customers. Cal tried to strike up conversation, but after I dodged the questions, he got the hint that now wasn’t the best time.

“I’ll be back with your drinks shortly. If I’m not, y’all are in charge of my tombstone. I want it to have my last words on it: ‘it’s probably fine.’” I skipped away towards the service area to enter their orders, pausing at Damian’s tables to stand behind him, shadowing his movements with exaggerated expressions, much to the delight of Damian’s customers. I scooted away to place the orders as Damian caught on to the giggles and swatted at me.

As I placed the orders and waited for the kitchen staff to fill them, I thought back to high school. Me and Callum were inseperable, the best of friends, and though we went to different colleges, our friendship had remained strong, at first. Hoisting my tray, I forcibly pushed the memories away, focusing on the here and now. The Trendy Hippo was a pretty unforgiving environment for distracted waitstaff; I needed my wits about me.

Returning to my table, I distributed the drinks, reminding everyone that I was going to be asking what they want to eat next, shooting exaggerated, pointed looks at Katie. She blushed, but smiled. I started taking orders, but before long, got my favourite question. Leslie had built the menu around this question.

“What’s today’s special?” the unfortunate diner asked, smiling up at me with an almost palpably earnest expression.

“Today’s special is Up To You.” I replied, cheerfully.

“What do you mean?”

“What do you mean what do I mean?”

“I get to decide today’s special?”

“No, of course not, don’t be silly.”

“OK, then what’s today’s special?”

“I already told you, it’s Up To You.” I glanced around the table. Everyone looked confused, and understandably so.

“Today’s special is up to me?”

“No, today’s special is Up To You.”

The guy was started to get frustrated. “Do I get to pick today’s special or not?”

“Of course not,” I replied calmly. “The head chef picks every day’s special.”

“Great. So what’s the special today?”

“The Special is a dessert, no matter what day it is.”

“The special is a dessert?”

“Yes, of course.”

“OK, so what’s the dessert today?”

“What dessert?”

You could almost see the steam coming out of the guy’s ears. Based on the chuckles, it sounded like one of the diners had caught on to the game. “Today’s special!” the diner replied.

“Today’s special isn’t a dessert, why would today’s special be a dessert? Today’s special is Up To You…”

“OK, forget the special.”


“What do you recommend?”

“Me? I dunno… I Wouldn’t Eat Here?”

“What do you mean you wouldn’t eat here?!”


“You wouldn’t eat here?”

“Of course I’d eat here! The food is great!”

“OK, so what’s your favourite dish here, then?”

“I just told you, I Wouldn’t Eat Here.” By now at least half the diners had caught on and were thoroughly enjoying the show.

“OK, right, whatever. But the chef eats their own food?”


“And they enjoy it?”


“OK, so what’s the chef’s favourite?”

“The chef is really partial to The Special.”

The diner adopted a tone of resignation. “I’m going to regret asking, but what’s today’s special?”

“It’s Up To You.” By this point, the whole table had caught on, and were gasping for air from laughing so hard.

“It’s Abbot and Costello” one managed to wheeze out.

Now the poor diner looked really confused. “What’s Abbot and Costello?” he asked.

I could barely keep it together. I smiled the most shit-eating grin I could muster and replied, as innocently as I could, “No, What’s on second.”

I don’t think anyone at the table could breathe for a solid three minutes.

After I finished clearing away the main course, I finally found out what the “extra things” we needed to prepare for the night were. Leslie and the head chef wheeled out a table holding a pair of cakes, positioning it at the center of the restaurant. A man in a suit, probably in his forties, joined Leslie. He called everyone to gather round, so I drifted off towards the service area, where I’d be out of the way. Callum inconspicuously sidled over towards me, getting close enough that we could discreetly carry on a conversation. The man had begun talking, but Callum obviously had no interest in listening.

“Small world, huh?” he asked.

“No kidding,” I mumbled in reply.

“I’ve missed you. How have you been?” he looked at me curiously, and I sensed some unasked questions lurking beneath the surface.

“I’ve… been.” I looked him over properly, taking in his short brown hair, his bright green eyes, and his wide grin. Where I remembered diminutive and unimposing, he had turned lean and musclebound. He looked solid. Someone–it sure as hell wasn’t him–had dressed him in clothes that showed off his new physique. “But shit, man, you look great. What the hell happened to you?”

He laughed. “It’s for the show! Gotta look the part.”

“The show?”

He stared at me. “C’mon, Andy, get with the times.” He gestured around us. “You really haven’t heard of Grimm Academy?”

“Um… Not really?”

He shook his head, laughing. “So many sixteen year old girls are shrieking about the injustice right now.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure they are. And listen, I love seeing you, but I’m kind of at work, y’know? Maybe we could catch up sometime when I’m not in my uniform.”

He smirked at me. “Oh, I see, you want to make the fangirls even more jealous.”

It tooks me a minute to get the joke. I shot him a dirty look. “You know what I mean.”

“I do. And I’d like that. What are you up to tomorrow?”

“It’s Saturday, I’m off work.” I tossed him my phone. “Go ahead and put your number in, I’ll text you after work and we can make plans.”

He caught my phone, tossing me his. I punched in my number, looking up just in time to see him to a selfie while blowing a kiss to use as his contact photo in my phone. Typical Callum. We tossed each other our phones back just in time; whatever speech was being made finished a moment later. I politely clapped, having no idea what I was applauding. My mind was still occupied, wondering if what I’d just done was a good idea or not.

The rest of the evening passed relatively uneventfully, but I was dead tired by the time the party finished up around nine. I had gotten in at noon, to help handle the lunch rush, so it had been long day. Working at the Hippo left little time for idle hands or idle thoughts; our job was to make sure every diner went home with at least one (positive!) story to share about our outrageous antics, and Leslie expected us to work together like a veteran improv troupe, playing off each other expertly. We were supposed to be as coordinated as ballet dancers, our movements and interactions carrying a rhythm and grace. It was demanding and challenging, but rewarding and interesting. I never had a dull day at work, but I also didn’t have the luxury of having off days, either.

As I cleared plates, I noticed that, without fail, each customer had tucked a few bills underneath their plate. I did a double-take when I saw the denominations; nobody left under $20. Actors. I let my mind wander to the plans I had made earlier. I still didn’t know if it was a good idea to catch up with Callum or not. I mean, I know I would love to, and that we’d be able to pick our friendship up right where we left off, but… I’m not sure that’s what’s best for me. Or what’s best for Callum, more importantly. I’ll figure it out later.

I finished clearing the table and separating it back out into multiple tables before Leslie caught sight of me. “Go home, Andy.” she ordered. “You look dead tired. You’re no use to me tired. Get some rest this weekend, you’ve earned it.” I nodded thanks at her, and retreated to the kitchen to pool tips with everyone and split them. To my surprise, even though we never brought anyone a bill, no waiter returned empty-handed.

Pocketing my share of the tips, I set out into a crisp Seattle night. My apartment wasn’t a long walk from the Hippo, and the warm July air wasn’t so hot that walking was unpleasant, so I took my time, letting the familiar journey serve as a backdrop to my internal struggle. By the time I got to the duplex I called home, I had reached a weary decision. What would Damian say? I knew Damian would kick my ass if he found out I had the chance to connect with an old friend and passed it up to be by myself.

And honestly, What would Damian say? had turned into a pretty good proxy for what would future-Andy say? Which really meant there wasn’t much to decide.

As I traipsed up the well-worn staircase, white paint peeling, to the second-story deck that led into my apartment, all I really wanted to do was go to bed. I unlocked the door, shrugged out of my shoes, sank into the couch. Fishing my phone out of my pocket, I started a new text to Callum.

So about tomorrow.

He replied almost instantly. I’ll bring season one on Blu-ray and popcorn. You provide drinks and TV. Cool if we do it at your place?


Cool. I’ll see you around ten a.m.

I texted him my address, and closed my eyes. No, can’t fall asleep here. I wasn’t a stranger to falling asleep on my couch, but it was really starting to mess with my back. I wearily pulled myself to my feet, shuffled through the kitchen to the bedroom, and fell into bed, promptly passing out.