I have a secret.
I really hate waiting tables. People say it’s like a rite of passage or something - every teenager has to have a crappy job, it builds character. Well, I’ve got enough character, thank you. I’ve got all the character I can stand. But I needed a job, and this was the best I could find, so here I am waitressing in Hell’s Kitchen.
Okay, so that’s not the real name. It’s Helen’s Kitchen, the little diner at 60th and Figueroa, but Ellie, one of the waitresses I work with, nicknamed it that and it stuck. I guess all the good waitressing jobs were taken by out-of-work actors (after all, this is L.A.) and us high school dropouts trying to escape our pasts just have to make do with what’s left.
I glance over to my section, where two surly men have seated themselves. Great. My shift is almost over and I haven’t had nearly enough sexual harassment today, so I’m really thankful that these guys are here for me in a pinch.
Wow, do I sound bitter or what? It’s just, you know, I’ve been here long enough that I can pretty much identify the different types of people that come in here. These kinds of guys? Never a good sign. With a sigh, I wipe my sweaty palms on my apron, pull out my pad and pen, and head over to the table.
“Hi, my name is Anne. I’ll be your waitress. Can I take your order?”
I stand there and endure the lewd comments – they’re pretty much standard by now – and jot down the orders before heading back to the kitchen.
“Two specials, Don,” I say, shoving the ticket into the clip in front of the cook. Don is a gruff black man with a smattering of gray in his hair, and he’s worked at the diner for close to forever. I don’t know how he could stand it for that long, but he’s got this brusque yet sweet thing going on that makes me like him. Maybe I’m just hard up for a father figure.
“Sure thing, Annie,” he says. I like when he calls me Annie. It reminds me of orphan Annie, and how she had a tough life but things turned out pretty good in the end. That’s all I wanted in life, a happy ending. But, as it turns out, life’s not a musical. Mine’s more like a Shakespearean tragedy. Hard-knock life indeed.
Ellie is the other waitress on tonight, and when I come back to the kitchen she’s leaning against the counter snapping her gum. Ellie is in her mid-thirties, but looks about a decade older. She says having kids made her age. She’s a single mother of two little boys who she brings to work sometimes, when she can’t find a babysitter. She lets them play in one of the booths at the back of the diner, which is totally against the rules, but the manager’s only here during the day, and none of the night staff are going to narc on one of our own.
“Show off your tits a little, you’ll get a better tip,” Ellie tells me, miming a gesture of unbuttoning the top button of her work uniform. She must have seen my current customers.
“She don’t need to,” Don says, waving a spatula at the two of us. “She’s a looker.”
I blush. I’m petite and blonde, and I used to be really popular when I was in high school. At my first high school, anyway. Then some things happened and… well, that’s not important. The point is, I know I’m pretty, but the kind of attention I attract now, in this part of town… well, let’s just say it’s a far cry from being homecoming queen.
Don shoots a look at Ellie. “You show ’em your tits. You need all the help you can get.”
She scowls at him, and I chuckle a little. Those two have worked the night shift together for years, and if bitching at each other were a sport, they’d be gold medalists. Sometimes I keep score – so far tonight Don’s winning, 14-6.
I expect Ellie to get in a return shot to even the score a little, but instead she turns back to me. “Your shift’s almost over, sweets.”
Don’t I know it. I cast a longing look at the clock on the wall. Almost eleven-thirty. I’m done at midnight. “I’ve just got that one table.”
“Skip out early,” Don suggests. “Ellie’ll take your table.”
I weigh my options. The extra tip would be nice. But on the other hand, I’m tired and my feet are killing me and if I don’t get a back massage soon, I’m sure I’ll develop scoliosis or something. So, yeah, I’m pretty desperate to get out of here as soon as possible. I look over to Ellie, to see if she’s down with Don’s idea.
She waves her hand at me in a “shoo” motion. “You’re young. Go have fun.”
I smile at her gratefully and pull off my apron. I’m thrilled to get out of here, but being young and having fun aren’t really on the agenda. I’ve had to grow up pretty fast, with everything that’s happened to me. I’m only seventeen, but I’ve seen too much to just be a kid like everyone else my age. Besides, having fun costs money, and I’ve got to save every penny to pay for such extravagant things like food and rent.
Even though it’s thirteen blocks, I walk home to my apartment. Well, “hovel” would be a more accurate description. Like the diner, it’s on the wrong side of town, and takes up half the second floor of a run-down apartment building stuck between an abandoned warehouse and a seedy bar.
Home, sweet home.
I cut through an alley and get a chill that has little to do with the southern California weather. I wrap my arms tighter around myself and keep up a brisk pace. I’m not stupid. I know that a girl like me walking alone at night is a prime target, so I always stay on my guard.
I wouldn’t mind if someone offered to walk me home, but no one does. I’m alone, basically, in a strange city, no family, no friends. If anything did happen to me, there’d be no one to even notice until I didn’t show up to work. I know, not the most comforting thought, but as my mother would no doubt say if she saw me, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” I’ve never totally understood what that means – why bother making the bed if you’re just gonna get back in it? – but I don’t think that’s the point. The point is, Mom’s not here, nobody’s here, and it was my choice, so I’m walking home alone.
I’m almost there when two men leap out of the shadows and block my path. “Look at you,” one of them growls. “Pretty little thing, all alone at night.”
I freeze. I can sense at least two more sneaking up behind me, so turning and running is out of the question. Doesn’t stop that fight-or-flight instinct from pumping me full of adrenaline, though.
“Didn’t nobody ever tell you it ain’t safe for little girls out here?” says the other man in front of me. He snickers and takes a step closer.
I back up and one of the men grabs me from behind. I let out a shriek and lash out in what turns out to be a literal knee-jerk reaction, hitting him with more force than he was probably expecting from a girl my size. Flinging my fist backwards over my shoulder, I punch him square in the nose, then twist and knee him in the groin.
Yeah, I know self-defense. Told you I wasn’t stupid. Oh, and that instinctual multiple-choice question? I’ll take fight. Every time.
As my attacker falls to the ground wincing in pain, I spin around to size up my other opponents. With a collective snarl, all three slide into their game faces.
I sigh. “You just can’t leave me alone, can you?”
One of the vampires, the first one who’d spoken, grabs me by the throat. “What did you say?”
I kick him in the chest, and he stumbles backwards, losing his grip on me. “You picked the wrong girl to mess with,” I say, pulling a stake out of my pocket and assuming a ready position.
See, I have a secret. I’m a vampire slayer.
Apparently undeterred by my demonstration of skills or my stake, the two uninjured vampires attack me. I spin, hitting one with the heel of my hand, then backhanding the other.
One of them comes lunging at me, and I hold out the stake so he runs right into it. One down, three to go. I spot a trash can in the alley and heave it at the next vamp that gets near me. He goes down, but only for a minute, and then I’ve got two coming at me at once.
I’m trained for this, I know the moves, but it’s been awhile, and the kicks are a little slow. One goes down with a kick in the face, but the other manages to duck and then he pulls my legs out from under me. I hit the ground with a thump, the pavement knocking the wind out of me. I vault myself back up, and my muscles remember this as the adrenaline really starts to kick in. I do a spin-kick-elbow jab thing that gets one of the vamps out of my way, only to be grabbed from behind again. His hands clamp down on my upper arms, and I bend forward, jerking my shoulders and heaving him over my head into the wall. He lets go and slumps to the ground. I stake him before he has a chance to get up.
There’s two of them now, and they come at me from either side. I jump up, do a kind of split in midair, kicking them both, but it’s clumsy and one gets it a lot harder than the other. The one who got the weaker kick doesn’t even go down, and he’s coming at me before I can really recover.
He throws me, and I let out a grunt as my back hits the wall. I’m stunned for a second, can’t think, just looking up at my attacker with wide eyes. Then, all of a sudden, I’m showered with broken glass and sticky liquid, and the vampire’s crumpling to the ground, a bottle broken over his head.
I stare at the person who’s just come to my aid, disbelief written across my face. “Spike?”
Before I can even form a coherent sentence, Spike’s turned around, black duster swirling behind him, and he’s staking the other vampire. I make quick work of the concussed vamp at my feet, then square off with Spike.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
He smirks, a hint of swagger in his stance. “Saving your ass, it would seem. You can thank me anytime, love.”
I punch him in the face. “You want me to thank you?” I stare at him incredulously as he rubs his jaw.
“Hey! That was a good bottle of bourbon I wasted on you.” Spike pouts a little, scrunching up his nose and turning his big baby blues on me. “Wouldn’t kill you to show some gratitude.”
Gosh, if he weren’t my mortal enemy, I might actually be swayed by that routine. I roll my eyes at him in disgust. “Sorry, I’m still stuck on the ‘what the hell are you doing here?’ You were supposed to take Dru and leave the country, remember? That was our deal.”
“Well, Dru didn’t like that deal much.”
I cock back my fist to slug him again, and he dances out of reach with considerable grace, especially when you realize he’s wearing combat boots.
“She left the country all by herself and told me if I was so chummy with the Slayer, I should just go back to her.” He emphasizes the last bit by angrily kicking at an empty beer can.
“So, now you’re… saving me. From vampires.” Stranger things have happened to me, but not much. And that’s saying a lot, because I’ve seen stuff you wouldn’t believe.
Spike shrugs. “If anyone’s going to kill you, it’s gonna be me.”
“I can’t tell you how comforting that’s not.”
“Last time I saw you, figured Angel’d be doing the honors.” He looks at me with what I think is admiration. “Guessing you beat him though, being as you’re still here.”
“I don’t wanna talk about it,” I mutter, and I start heading toward my apartment again. I probably shouldn’t let Spike know where I live, but he can’t get in without an invitation, and I really just want to get away from here.
And I don’t want to talk about Angel. Especially not with him.
See, here’s the thing. Spike called me Buffy back there, in the alley. That’s my real name. I’ve been going by Anne – it’s my middle name – ever since I ran away, but the truth is, I’m Buffy. Buffy Summers, the Chosen One. The vampire slayer.
And the thing I’ve been running away from? That’s Angel. My boyfriend… ex-boyfriend. Also a vampire. I fell in love with him when he had a soul, but then he lost his soul and he was evil and I had to kill him.
That’s the short version, anyway. Like I said, I don’t really want to talk about it.