Laina scanned the lavender ribbon of sky between the buildings. How long had she been in Simmy’s shop? The mechanical sigh of a heavy brakes summoned her toward the street. She hustled down the dank alley. Her feet struck the sidewalk just as the city bus pulled away from the curb.
“No!” She ran, pounding the cement with her soles. Arms flailing, she clamored at the fading cloud of exhaust. “Wait, please!”
With less than a legal pause, the driver motored around the corner. Her only hope for escape had fled the block for the day. A gust struck her back, flinging her hair into her eyes. She tucked it behind her ear and scanned the barred windows glaring around her. Liquor store, head shop, bail bondsman … no refuge for someone who didn’t belong to these streets.
A scrap of newspaper tumbled past her feet. As she strode across the intersection to the next block, the paper skittered ahead of her. Her swelling toes stung against the unforgiving tips of her shoes.
A whiff of brine and stale beer blew into her face from the breeze at her back. A tug at her coat arm whirled her around to face the stubble-faced man shadowing her.
“Just need a couple bucks for bus fare.” He stumbled, clutching at her purse strap.
Laina yanked it away from his hand and backed toward the nearest storefront. Her voice trembled. “I think the bus might be gone for today.”
He staggered toward her, baring a snaggle-toothed grin. “We’ll have to think of something else to do until it gets here then.”
She grabbed a door handle and rattled it. Locked. “I-I’m waiting for someone else, so–”
“Aww, don’t be like that, sweetheart.” The drunk bounding to the doorway and hemmed her in. “‘Sides, it don’t look like you’re really waitin’ for anybody in particular. You’re out here all alone, ain’tcha?”
“I, uh . . .” She pressed her back against the door. The rusty bars snagged at her hair.
The door swung inward, and Laina toppled onto the floor beside a pair of cowboy boots.
“You bothering my friend, Petey?” Arden extended his hand to Laina.
“Naw, I was just gonna ask her to buy me a drink.” He raised a wavering finger. “Of water. Or soda.”
“We talked about this. The last thing you need is another drink. Go on to the meeting at Jack’s. If I see you like this again, I’m calling Ralph.” He nodded toward the street as he lifted Laina into the familiar sandalwood scent of his cologne.
Petey scuttled away, hollering over his shoulder like a maimed cat. “Now, don’t you go a’callin’ Ralph on me! I’m gonna be at that meetin’. You can ask Jack tomorrow.”
He stuck his head out the door. “I will.”
“Thanks for … saving me.” Laina straightened her coat and adjusted the purse strap on her shoulder “So, I didn’t expect to run into you today.”
“I could say the same of you.” He latched the deadbolts and turned to face her.
She shrugged. “You work in this part of town?”
“Yes, ma’am. Here, there, and everywhere.”
“Of course. Your ministry is for guys like Petey, the sort of folks who live in these kinds of places.” She nodded at him until he folded his arms.
“Yeah, that, and I also happen to live here myself.” He raised his chin.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean–”
“Yes, you did. Thing is, I used to smell a lot like Petey out there. I belong here as much as he does. And I can’t help my neighbors by thinkin’ I’m holier’n Jesus.”
She bit her lip for a moment. “I feel really awful. And this is more than awkward. Can I start over?”
He tilted his head, and a smile warmed the dimples from his cheeks. “Now you’re talkin’ my lingo.” He pulled a tattered diner chair from a nearby table. “Can I offer you a drink? I ain’t got nothing stronger than coffee, but there’s a few liters of soda in the pantry. Bubbles might settle them shakes you got there.”
Laina sat, stuffing her quaking hands under her legs. “Yeah, I’ve had quite the freaky day. Too many of those lately.”
He ducked under a chipped deli counter covered with empty boxes. “What brings you to my neck of the woods, Ms. Journalist?”
“Research. I actually got an editorial assignment.”
He pursed his lips to one side as he emerged from the counter with a generic soda bottle. “Hmm.”
She smiled, shuffling her feet against the worn linoleum. “Yeah, I guess you were right.”
Lips thinned into a straight line, he set the soda on a nearby table and strode over to her. Arden squatted in front of her and narrowed his eyes. “You didn’t come out here to see Simmy did you?”
“I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (John 12:46).