The morning breeze fluttered the gossamer sheer curtains until they stretched out like a robed armed pointing at the buzzing alarm clock. The ozone smell of the thunderstorm that had rumbled through in the predawn hours still clung to the air and the taste of it coated Alissa’s tongue as she rolled over to switch off the alarm. Her white duvet was bunched up between her thighs and she detangled herself to stretch away the remnants of sleep. She felt goose bumps dance in waves on her skin as she tossed the blankets off and slung her feet over the edge of the bed. Tingles of cold radiated up through her heels as she shuffled to the bathroom.
Bright morning light filtered in from the high gabled window and cast a perfect circle of light in the hallway. Alissa stood with her face upturned to it for as long as she could before the call of her bladder became too much to bear. She passed her reflection and smiled. Her shoulder length hair wasn’t the total disaster she had figured it would be and wouldn’t take much maintenance this morning. Her small silver crucifix dangled at her collarbone and flashed a brighter shade in the silvered surface. As she typically did, she had woken up early enough to shower before she headed out and wasted no time turning the water on to a temperature just above cool.
She pulled the simple white t-shirt over her head and slipped behind the diaphanous shower curtain. The cool water caressed her sleep covered skin. She shivered slightly and lathered up with her favorite body wash. Vanilla bubbles slid off her summer bronzed skin as she hummed a tuneless song to herself. Her fluffy white robe waited for her and she embraced it as she stepped out of the water. She brushed out her hair and pulled it back into a simple ponytail.
Stepping in to the hallway and looking into her small kitchen, Alissa saw the clock and she had stood in the shower much longer than she thought. She had a scant twenty minutes to get to work and she hurriedly dressed in her brightly colored uniform. She had worked at the diner for just over two years and still didn’t like the ill-fitting top that threatened to spill her chest out into the unsuspecting face of anyone she bent over to serve.
Grabbing her keys and purse, she hurried out the door and descended the small stairwell of her upper floor apartment. The home once had a doctor’s office on the main floor with living quarters upstairs and had been converted into two apartments. Her downstairs neighbor was a first year nursing student at the local college and, because of their varying schedules; they seldom bumped into each other. She was polite young girl that, despite being just a few years younger than Alissa, seemed almost childlike.
The passing storm had only served to amplify the humidity. Beads of sweat gathered on Alissa as she made her way to her four years past its last day car. The small hatchback was beyond well-used when she had purchased it from the car lot. It got great gas mileage when she could actually keep it going and she loved it to the point that parting with it would break her heart. Far too many memories were wrapped in its rusted shell. She told herself that if it ever truly died she would simply park it in her driveway and sit in it from time to time.
Alissa fist pumped like an underage youth getting into a night club with fake i.d. when the car started on the first turn of the ignition. A rarity for sure. She had used two-sided tape to suction a digital clock to the dash when the analog radio had finally given up the ghost and saw she had enough time to stop at the coffee shop beside her restaurant before work. It was a long-standing fight between herself and the small Greek man she worked for that she got coffee somewhere other than the brew she served regularly. Alissa pointed out politely that coffee purchased from a guy off the back of a truck could stay in the can as she would take a sip of her vanilla-scented cappuccino.
Pulling up beside the diner she spotted a familiar yet heartbreaking sight. Curled up beside the dumpster in the cramped alley between the two buildings was a homeless man who had taken to scavenging the scraps. His clothes were a patchwork of what looked like a white dinner jacket over a dingy collared shirt with tan pants stained from too many nights spent under bridges and in shelters. The lank hair falling over his eyes was more than a little grey mixed with what was once a lustrous brown. He had the look of a man who had gotten lost on the way home from a dinner party thirty years ago and never found his way home.
As Alissa got out of her car, the squeak from the door caused the man to sit up with a start. Dirty fingers pushed his hair back and he looked over at her with oddly luminous eyes. The hazel in them showed brilliant green flecks that seemed almost wolfish. He had moved so his back was against the dewy bricks and he continued to stare at her as if he had something he wanted to say. She smiled tightly under his gaze before walking quickly to the coffee shop. She looked back and his face seemed peaceful for a man who had spent the night outdoors.
The smells of coffee and baked goods assailed her as soon as she opened the door. The few patrons sat in small groups around circular tables and paid her little notice as she approached the counter. The familiar spray tanned face of the owner spread into a broad smile as she set a large steaming cup on the counter already prepared the way Alissa loved it. A self-declared flower child of advanced age, Gwen had surrounded herself and her small shop with the tie-dyed remnants of a bygone era. Posters protesting the Vietnam War and women’s rights sat on equal wall space with framed prints of Jimi Hendrix.
“Morning, Gwen,” Alissa smiled as she paid for her coffee with some of the coins she had received the previous day as a tip. The cup warmed her as she wrapped her hands around it. She took note of the fact that Gwen’s hair was now a shade of aquamarine that accentuated the fact her last spray tan was still as vibrant as the day she had it applied. The silver bracelets she wore on both her wrists jingled as she closed the old cash register and smoothed the black apron she wore. It did nothing to hide the fact the simple shift she wore was a similar color to her skin and gave the impression to anyone passing by the window that she had nothing on under her apron. A fact that elicited peals of laughter out of her every time someone stopped to do a double take at her.
“Morning, Alissa,” Gwen replied with a kindly grin.
“I don’t mean to seem insensitive,” Alissa started with a wave of her hand over the steaming cup, “But did you notice the guest you had out beside the dumpster?”
“Oh, John?” Gwen replied, “He’s been there a day or two at this point I think.”
“You’ve talked to him?” Alissa said quickly with an arched eyebrow.
“He’s a person just like everyone else, just seen better days is all,” Gwen shot back with a tone rising towards indignation.
“No, that’s not how I meant it,” Alissa said with an apologetic hand fluttering over her chest.
“Tell you what,” Gwen said as she turned behind her to the coffee pots and began pouring, “Take him this and talk to him yourself. He’s completely harmless.”
“Oh!” Alissa blurted as she was handed the scalding cup. The black surface rippled quickly and the heat of it reflected the sudden blush of shame that warmed her cheeks. Gwen bustled away to check on something in her ovens that smelled like her strawberry pie and Alissa made her way outside with a flutter of anxiousness in her stomach. She heard shouts from the alley way and rushed around the corner.
John was huddled against the corner of the dumpster as three camouflage-clad young men stood over him. The largest of the boys had a fist twisted in the collar of John’s coat and was shaking the prone man like a dog shaking a chew toy. John’s head clanged off the rusted metal with a hollow boom following every blow. Alissa rushed forward and with an arching swing of her arm threw a wave of scalding hot liquid across their backs.
`What the fuck! ` Bellowed the largest boy. He turned toward Alissa with a deadly glint in his eye. The other two boys were wiping furiously at the backs of their necks to try to pull away the clothing soaked with fiery coffee.
“What do you think you`re doing?” Alissa yelled at them as they turned their attention away from the disheveled man at their feet and focused on the backpedaling woman in front of them. She pulled her purse from her shoulder and wrapped the strap around her wrist to allow herself the option of defending herself as they advanced on her.
The side door of the diner banged open and the white shirted blur that was Alissa’s boss appeared in the space between the dumpster and the men. His just less than five foot stature and resemblance to a fire hydrant did nothing to detract from his powerfully muscled forearms and the boning knife clenched in his ham-sized fist. His eyes took in the scene with the same speed he did everything. He moved between Alissa and the boys in a flash.
“You should move along, malakas,” Nico growled in his thick accent, undiluted by nearly forty years of speaking English.
“Not worth my time anyway,” The large boy said with a huff and a roll of his shoulders. A large red welt had appeared on his neck and he passed a hand over it before fixing a cold glare on Alissa. “You on the other hand..,” He trailed off.
The chill passed from his eyes into the small of Alissa’s spine as she slipped behind her diminutive boss and into the restaurant. The young men shuffled off congratulating each other with the bravado of a pack of hyenas. Nico closed the door behind himself and chased after Alissa.
No one among them noticed that John had sat back up and placed his hands back into a semblance of prayer. Despite several blows to his head on the ringing steel, he didn’t have a mark on him.