Somewhere outside, a baby was crying. Maj searched for the source of the sound half-heartedly, seeing only the blur of traffic beyond rain-streaked window panes. It hardly mattered. The baby was beyond his current sphere of problems, foremost of which was the empty mug sitting on the table in front of him. Setting down his battered copy of Shakespeare's Othello, he turned from the window to scan the cafe instead. It was busier than usual for a Thursday afternoon; nearly every table was full. Still, inattentiveness was uncharacteristic of her.
Staring into the coffee-stained abyss of his chipped, red mug, he almost failed to hear the familiar click of her high heels. Her smile, when he looked up, was like the sun.
"You're so quiet; I almost forgot you were here."
"Hello Daena." For three years he'd been coming to this cafe and still the feel of her name on his lips was like something forbidden. He could feel himself blushing.
"Need a warm-up?" She lowered the coffee pot over his cup tauntingly, flashing him another one of those smiles. A strand of hair the color of rosewood had come loose from her ponytail, brushing the line of her cheekbone. He watched hungrily as she tucked it behind her ear. "Well?"
"A r-refill?" He hated hearing his own nervous stutter. He could feel the blush rising again. "Yes, please."
The rosy scent of her perfume blended intoxicatingly with the smell of fresh Columbian roast. He ducked his head in thanks as she turned to leave, smiling shyly at her playful wink. She didn't know how much these small interactions meant to him, how much she meant to him. But he'd tell her one day.
He took a sip of coffee, careful not to burn his tongue. He could feel eyes on him from across the room, but he couldn't bring himself to meet them. He was simply too shy.
So… this is my life, Daena thought gloomily, scooping a final dollop of foam onto the cappuccino in her hand and passing it over the counter to its owner. The customer grunted his thanks and retreated back to his table. A filth-crusted dime remained in his place on the countertop; the only tip she had received all day. She left it where it was, turning to rinse her spoon and (steaming cup/mug/what do we call that thing?) in the sink opposite. Somewhere outside, a baby started to cry. Daena gritted her teeth, wishing the rain that pounded against the windows were loud enough to drown out the sound, to drive it away. She already had a throbbing headache, she did not need another annoyance added.
"Daena, hun, why don'tcha make the rounds now?" Her manager, Ruby's, voice pierced between throbs, making her flinch. Another annoyance. The other woman brandished a coffee pot at her, the attempt at a maternal smile on her broad face not quite reaching her eyes; her eyes spoke only of distaste and cold calculation. There was lipstick on her teeth.
"Sure, no problem." Daena wiped her hands on her apron and took the pot, pasted on a smile of her own. Pretended she wanted nothing better than to refill people's coffee, to clean up their messes, to listen to their bitching about how slow the service was, and to smile while she did so. She felt brittle, libel to shatter, but her grin was unshakeable.
The café was busier than usual for a Thursday afternoon, most likely due to the rain. Bad weather drove people to seek the shelter of a warm, clean place, a hot drink. After all, what could be more comforting than a mug of peppermint tea, a fresh scone and a friend to share it with? Daena envied them the moments of solace they were receiving, wished she were on the other side of the coffee pot. She might even have enjoyed watching the raindrops hit the windows, the flash of lightning in the night-black sky. Instead, all she could see were the muddy footprints tracking across the floor (how long would it take to clean those up?) and the stack of dirty dishes piling up in the kitchen. And, of course, the empty tip jar. Apparently their good mood did not extend to improving hers. They assumed that the cost of her smile was included in the price of their latte. According to Ruby, it was.
Faces blended together as she made the "rounds," clearing away plates and refilling mugs, slipping once or twice on an errant pool of rainwater. Needless to say, her mood was far from bright when she came to his table.
Maj was a café regular, had been coming every evening for as long as she could remember. He was some kind of writer. Foreign. The quiet, studious type. Shy, sweet, simple… and absolutely gorgeous. Under normal circumstances, the very sight of him could turn her legs to jelly. Tonight, it was like a lifeline. She could feel herself warming up as she approached his table, the click of her high heels on the linoleum sounding too loud to her ears. He must have heard them too. When he looked up, his sweet, timid smile was like the sun bursting from behind a cloud.
Don't just stare at him! Say something!
"You're so quiet; I almost forgot you were here." It was a familiar vein of conversation between the two of them, this gentle teasing. As always, it made him blush. And, as always, his blush made her smile.
"Hello Daena." A strand of his unruly, dark hair had fallen over his eyes. She wanted to reach forward and brush it back, to feel the warm skin of his cheek. Instead, she proffered the half-empty coffee pot in her hand.
"Need a warm-up?" For a moment, he just stared. It made her nervous. She covered it as best she could, widening her smile and tucking back a few loose hairs of her own. "Well?"
"A r-refill?" He seemed to notice his mistake and ducked his head, blushing again. "Yes, please."
As always, she feigned more confidence than she had, winking playfully at him as she turned to leave. The feel of his eyes on her back sent chills up her spine. She wanted him to call her back, to invite her to sit next to him, to tell her all about the battered book he was reading tonight. She longed to ignore the beckoning hands of the other customers, demanding the smile and the service their money had bought. She wanted him to walk her home, rain or no.
As always, she turned to get a final glimpse of him – his artistic profile, the dark fringe of eyelashes against his cheek as he closed his eyes, savoring the coffee she had brought. She would see him again tomorrow. Maybe then he would ask her. Maybe then she would get the chance to say yes. Oh, how she longed for that chance.
Eleven o'clock could not have come soon enough. Daena heaved a final sigh of relief as she opened the door to leave, flicking the light switch off without a backward glance. She knew without looking that she had missed a spot mopping, that there were a few leftover dishes in the sink. She knew Ruby would give her an earful about it in the morning. She couldn't care less. The rain had stopped, if only momentarily, and she was taking it as her sign to make an escape. Escape. Home. The thought made the keys jingling in her hand sound like music.
Raindrops leftover from her morning transit dripped from her oversized rain slicker to the ground, coated her fingers as she reached into her pocket for what remained of her soggy pack of cigarettes.
Smoke break? I don't abide by smoking in my café. You'll have to go without.
"Up yours, Ruby," Daena held the last of her black-papered cigarettes between pursed lips and fumbled in her bag for the blue Bic lighter she had stolen from her roommate's dresser that morning. Hers had mysteriously gone missing. She had the feeling that it would be sitting on that same dresser when she arrived home. It didn't make much difference.
The scrape and click of the lighter was almost comforting. The flame's glow was reflected in the dark window of Ruby's Café, lighting up her face in a brief, blinding flash. She looked a mess. Wisps of hair had come loose from her ponytail and there were dark circles underneath her eyes. She looked tired. She felt tired. The cigarette helped some. The spicy flavor of cloves always brought back the vaguest memories of Christmastime. She took another pull and tugged her hood forward to shield her face. The rain may have stopped, but the night was still chilly and she had a long walk ahead of her. Unfortunately, her iPod had gone the same mysterious route as her lighter. So, instead of familiarizing herself with The Decemberists' new album, she hummed tunelessly and savored the last of her clove cigarettes.
Footsteps on the pavement behind her made her freeze. There was never much foot traffic near the café at this time of night. She usually made it halfway home without ever seeing a soul. The presence of another person on the dark street made her nervous. Her mind flitted to the pepper spray hidden deep within the confines of her purse. She wasn't sure she could reach it in time if the stranger meant trouble.
Trying to seem nonchalant, she flicked her half-smoked cigarette into the gutter and glanced over her shoulder. Nothing there. Not the slightest sign of movement. Not even a stray cat or a windblown scrap of garbage.
I'm just tired. Just jumpy. She scanned the sidewalk, searching for the remains of her cigarette. Of course, it had landed in the middle of a scummy puddle. She would have to wait until morning for another. Shit. That'll teach me, I guess.
Tucking her hands deep into the pockets of her rain slicker, she resumed her tuneless humming and settled into a faster pace. She would be home before she knew it. Home and safe.
Maybe her roommate would bum her a cigarette when she got there.
She hadn't seen him. Maj did not know whether to feel disappointed or relieved. Of all the nights he had secretly escorted her home, he had never been so clumsy, loud, or careless. Of course, she also usually wore headphones, which made it easier for him to pass unnoticed. Not like tonight. Tonight, she glanced over her shoulder every few minutes, and – every time she did – he was forced to duck into doorsteps, into alleyways, around corners. She may not have seen him, but she knew he was there. Knew someone was there. He needed to be more careful.
He waited at the corner of fifth and fifth, as he always did, and watched her climb the steps of her apartment building. The hood of her raincoat had fallen back in her hurry and the raindrops in her hair glistened under the street light. Beautiful. He could spend the rest of his life just looking at her and never grow tired of it.
She couldn't seem to find her keys. Her agitation grew with every passing moment – she could feel him watching. She knew she wasn't alone. By the time she finally managed to fish the wayward keys from her purse, her hands were shaking so badly that she promptly dropped them. He wanted to step out of his place in the shadows and pick them up for her – let her know there was no reason to fear – but he didn't want to have to explain why he was there, why he had followed. He couldn't. She would not believe he had done it for her safety only. She would think he was some kind of creep, some strange pervert. He didn't like to think of that. He wasn't strange, only protective. The night was a dangerous place and she shouldn't have to brave it alone.
The click of her key in the lock was his signal to leave, which he did reluctantly. He would see her again tomorrow. Maybe he would finally tell her how he felt then, invite her to join him for coffee. If only he wasn't so damn shy.
Night was creeping into Daena's room. The candles had burnt themselves out hours earlier, all but one. It was in its final moments now, sputtering and drowning in a pool of melted wax. Daena watched it die, catching her breath as she was suddenly engulfed in total darkness. It fell on her like a blanket, stifling. Suffocating. Every muscle in her body tensed in the absence of that weak candlelight.
There is nothing to be afraid of. Close your eyes. Go to sleep. Somewhere downstairs, somewhere outside – perhaps only in her head – there was a rustle. Hardly a sound at all. Still, she could not reach the bedside lamp fast enough. Relief washed over her as the light bloomed and illuminated all the dark corners of her room. Nothing there. Nothing unusual. Nothing to be afraid of. She had known that. So why couldn't she relax?
It was only a feeling. Nothing to be afraid of. Come on, now. Go to sleep! But she couldn't. Images kept flashing through her mind. Every time she closed her eyes, she swore she could feel someone watching. Something. Peering over the edge of her bed, peeking through the closed curtains… There was nothing there, of course. There never was. Just that feeling; that unshakeable feeling. Something watching. Lurking. Waiting… but for what?
Calm down. No one is watching you… or are they?