Grillby walked tentatively into the back office, working hard to avoid brushing up against the spare pots and pans that were crammed into every nook and cranny. Suhail sat at his desk, hunched over a stack of papers, studiously ignoring his entrance. Grillby subtly increased the level of his flames, adding to the eerie glow that permeated the cramped room. His father-in-law responded in turn by increasing the height of his own blue blaze, drowning out the light of Grillby’s faintly glowing magic.
“Wait.” Suhail’s voice hissed with irritation.
Grillby lowered the output of his magic, properly rebuked. He hadn’t intended to anger his father-in-law, but Grillby had a way of getting under the other monster’s flames in a way that no other monster seemed capable.
He stood patiently, steadying the glow of his magic so as to not betray his disappointment and embarrassment.
After several minutes of silence, Suhail finally crackled quietly, “So, late again?” He looked up, and Grillby could see the telltale lick of angry flames protrude from his head.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Grillby said ashamedly. “It won’t happen again.”
His-father-in-law finally looked up from his papers, his body radiating blue light.
“Late, late, late. It’s like you have no sense of punctuality. How many times do you think I will forgive your tardiness? I wonder… will you be this late to my grandchild’s birth?”
Grillby shook his head quickly. “Of course not, sir.”
“But that’s only because Oya would never forgive you.” Suhail sighed. “You know, my business is not a charity. If you can’t do the job…” He let the unspoken threat hang in the air.
“I promise, sir. It won’t happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t. Now get out.” His command was accompanied with a bright flicker. “The floor needs scrubbing for tonight’s service and you’ve been promising to do it for days.”
Grillby left the back office as soon as Suhail returned to his ledgers. He walked over to the busboy station next door and carefully stretched long rubber gloves over his arms. His protective armor in place, he filled up a bucket with soap and water, grabbing a large sponge, and exited into the dining room.
The lunch hours were usually quiet and today was no exception; only two tables had any customers. In the back corner was a group of five cat monsters donning over-pretentious formalwear. A nearby table accommodated a pair of odd-looking skeleton monsters wearing what looked like hospital gowns.
A blur of green flames danced across his vision. Grillby sighed at the sight of Oya gliding across the room towards him, wearing those damned roller skates again. His wife beamed at him, her flames glimmering in happiness around her eyes.
“Late again, hmm?” she teased as she rolled over to him, delicately placing her hands on his hips.
“Careful, I’ve got water!”
“Sweetie, a little bit of water won’t kill me.”
“Come on, Oya,” he pled, “think about the baby.” He extended the flames on his arms and motioned to her roller skaters. “And take those off too!”
Her shrill laugh rang through the air. “Make me!”
“Come on, your father’s going to get mad and he’s not going to blame you.”
“Guess you’ll just have to deal with that,” she said as she leaned forward and gave him a tiny peck on his cheek. Dropping her voice to a nearly inaudible whisper, she asked, “So how was your date?”
“Not here!” he glanced at the door to the backroom, ensuring that there was no hint of blue flames. When he saw that no one was there, he replied softly, “He was nice.”
Oya giggled and gave him another small kiss before pushing off him and flying across the room on her skates.
“Good! We’ll talk more later! Table six will need bussing soon! Cover the other for me!” She winked as she disappeared into the kitchen.
Grillby shook his head, chuckling under his breath. He lugged the bucket of water across the room and set it down slowly, careful not to spill any of the dangerous liquid on himself. He got down on his knees and removed the soaking sponge from the pail. As he began to scrub the grime and skid marks from the floor, he thought back to his date from earlier. In truth, “nice” was a bit of an exaggeration. It had been his second date with the rabbit monster, and in truth, he had been quite a bore. All throughout the lunch, all he had done was drone on and on about his job at the Core.
But he supposed that he had at least been “nice” in bed.
A sudden loud, high-pitched whine startled him out of his reverie. The classical music that played over the speakers was drowned out by a booming voice emanating from the table closest to him.
“SANS, I AM HUNGRY!”
“shh, paps,” said a low voice. “you know we can’t afford this place.”
Grillby looked up from the floor and spotted the two skeletons sitting at the nearby table. Now that he was closer, he could see that the taller skeleton looked quite young – maybe high school-aged? Of course, with the way different monsters aged it was always difficult to tell. Though Grillby was convinced that the shorter skeleton was older. There was something about his posture or perhaps the way his eyes were underlined with dark shadows that seemed to convey age.
No matter their ages, the two certainly looked out of place in the restaurant. A thick layer of dirt covered both of their gowns and it looked like the two hadn’t seen a shower in days.
“IF WE CANNOT AFFORD IT, THEN WHY ARE WE HERE?” the taller skeleton cried out in frustration.
“papyrus, seriously, indoor voice please,” the smaller skeleton chided. “i just wanted to get away from the heat for a while, y’know?”
“I HATE HOTLAND!” The taller skeleton – apparently named Papyrus – folded his arms across his chest. “SANS, LET’S GO BACK! I’M SURE THERE’S FOOD BACK AT THE –”
“BUT SANS –”
“i said no!” The stubby skeleton slammed a fist down on the table, causing their glasses of water and silverware to rattle loudly. The group of cat monsters, who had just stood up to leave, looked over at the skeletons, clearly affronted.
The lanky skeleton sniffed loudly and Grillby could see tears forming in his eye sockets. The shorter skeleton tentatively reached his hand across the table, though he withdrew it almost immediately.
“i’m – i’m sorry, bro. please don’t cry. i didn’t mean to yell.”
“I – I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY WE LEFT, BROTHER! I MISS MY ROOM!” He sniveled. “AND MY BOOKS! AND MY TELEVISION! AND THE FOOD! AND – AND – AND EVERYTHING!”
The shorter monster grimaced. “believe me, paps, we – we can’t go back.”
“W-WHY NOT? C-CAN’T YOU USE YOUR – WHAT DO YOU CALL THEM – ‘SHORTCUTS’?”
“shh! keep that quiet! and… no. the lab’s in the past now, bro. it’s time to move on.” He made an attempt to sound cheery, though it was obvious to Grillby that it was affected. “’sides, hotland is great bro, you can really let your passions burn here.” He winked.
“SANS!” His voice cracked in exasperation, but the smile on his face was poorly hidden.
The other skeleton gave a small chuckle and the two lapsed into silence again.
Grillby gently placed the sponge on the ground and crawled to his feet. He hurried over to the now-emptied table six and looked over the pickings. Sure enough, the group of cat monsters had left behind plenty of perfectly edible food. He picked up a plate of half-eaten grilled crab apples and another dish of nearly untouched vegetable stew. As he turned and approached the other monsters’ table, they looked up at him, eyes widened in obvious fright. The shorter skeleton was already halfway out of his chair, looking ready to flee. Grillby gently placed the dishes down in front of the two.
“It’s not much, but… enjoy.”
The lanky skeleton grinned widely. “THANK YOU!”
The other skeleton smiled at Grillby, though the grin didn’t quite meet his eyes. “yeah, thanks, bud. really appreciate it.”
Grillby returned to the other table to remove the rest of the dishes. Despite the smaller skeleton’s lower tone and softer voice, his whispers carried across the room.
“paps, don’t touch that.”
“for all we know, it’s poisoned.”
“SANS! WHY WOULD ANYONE POISON FOOD?”
Grillby’s flames dimmed slightly as his soul reverberated with disappointment and pity. He had the feeling that the two skeletons were going to be picking through the dumpsters out back tonight anyway, and he had hoped to save them the trouble – not to mention the smell.
Sighing, he picked up the remaining dishes from the table. As he turned around, he saw the taller skeleton quickly steal a crab apple off the plate and stuff it into his mouth.
His brother grabbed the plate from him and shouted, “paps!”
His mouth full, the other skeleton whined, “I AM HUNGRY! AND I AM NOT GOING TO LET A MEAL GO BY IF WE AREN’T GOING TO GO BACK TO THE LAB!”
Smiling to himself, Grillby strolled past the table and delivered the dirty dishes to the busboy station. As he returned to wipe up the table with a dishtowel, he saw that the shorter skeleton had given in – the two monsters were ravenously engulfing the food, hardly stopping to chew. The younger skeleton made a loud smacking noise every time he took another bite.
Grillby’s soul prickled with a warm, fuzzy feeling at the sight. A new spring in his step, he washed down the table and returned to the floor to scrub it with enthusiasm.
It wasn’t long until the loud noises emanating from the skeletons’ table subsided and a comfortable silence fell over the dining room. Grillby chanced a glance at the table and saw that the two were leaning back in their chairs, expressions of sleepy satisfaction on their faces. Not a moment later, the stubby skeleton nodded to his brother and the two got up to leave. As the two passed by him, Grillby looked back down at the floor, pretending to be engrossed in his work.
Grillby jumped at the sound of his father-in-law’s angry voice. He looked up and saw a blur of blue flames speed across the room towards the exit. His soul sank in his chest as he saw Suhail grab the taller skeleton’s arm.
“Do not think for a minute that you can skip out on the bill, you two!” he shouted as he dragged the skeleton back into the restaurant.
“let my bro go now!”
The shorter skeleton was advancing on Suhail, his left eye glowing bright blue and his arm half-raised. Even from across the room, Grillby could feel the crackling energy of unformed magic cut through the air.
“Wait!” He quickly pushed himself off the floor and ran across the room, skidding to a stop in front of the three.
“Sir, it was my fault.”
Suhail harshly yanked the taller skeleton’s arm, eliciting a small cry from the monster. “Freeloaders skipping out on the bill are not your fault even if you should have been paying attention.”
“No, no, they never ordered. I just… gave them food before they even looked at a menu.” He looked down at his feet ashamedly.
The glow from Suhail’s flames brightened considerably in apparent anger. However, as his father-in-law dropped the monster’s arm, his voice conveyed nothing but remorse.
“Sirs, I am so sorry for my rudeness –”
The stout skeleton cut him off quickly. “it’s fine. let’s go, paps.”
He looked up and saw the smaller skeleton tugging insistently on his brother’s arm. As Suhail rounded to face Grillby, the shorter skeleton looked guiltily up at him and mouthed a “thank you” as he fled from the restaurant.
And as his father-in-law delivered on of his trademark speeches about the importance of keeping the business running and docked his pay, Grillby took comfort in the warmth that lingered within his soul.