"Coffee, double sugar please," said the woman as she stepped up to the counter.
Edward, adjusting the shade on his cap said, "Y-yes ma'am, double sugar coffee," before reaching underneath the counter to pick up a fresh cup.
Stealing glances at the customer, Edward noticed that she was taller than most and had a bulky build. She wore a simple dark purple sleeveless top, torn jeans and high heeled boots. Around her neck hung a rectangle chrome plate with the letters 'STEELE' vertically carved into it using a military font, and it was attached to a simple leather strip. Her eyes coated in a vibrant blue colour, looked tired and distant – not an unusual sight this late in the evening.
Putting the cup on the counter, Edward said, "Here you go ma'am, uh, one coffee with double sugar."
The woman put her cell phone back into her shoulder bag and gave him a polite little smile. As he started ringing up the order on the register, the woman blinked as if she suddenly realized something and started fumbling around inside her bag once more.
"Actually, I have a gift card," she said, "around here somewhere, I hope."
Still searching through the many side pockets in her bag, the woman's phone started to ring, to which she responded with a hoarse groan. Finding the gift card, she handed it over to Edward before answering her phone.
"Yes Alfred?" her tone had a stiff and forced politeness to it, "No, that wasn't me. Uh-huh, well you can tell Mr Wayne that he can kiss my-"
She picked up the cup as her eyes asked Edward if the payment was in order and he gave her a thumbs up. Mouthing a 'thank you' the woman rolled with her eyes at the other half of the conversation before she retreated to a small table by the window.
The coffee store fell quiet, save the calm piano music playing over the speakers and the woman's hushed phone conversation. Edward politely waited for the woman to finish her call and gave her a good minute of quiet before he walked over to her table.
"Uh, excuse me, ma'am?" he asked timidly.
"Yes, what is it Edward?"
"There, uh- there was some money left on your gift card," he said, holding out the card. "How did- how did you know my name?"
The woman took a sip from her coffee, before she pointed at the name tag on Edwards’s apron, a clever little smile hid behind her cup. A radio news broadcast came in over the speakers, covering the latest headline; Power Girl's apparent unprovoked assault on the Mira Hong Kong hotel.
Shaking his head, Edward turned to walk back to the counter, saying "What has the world come to?"
"You think she did it?" the woman said, "Power Girl I mean."
"I- uh, don't know ma'am," he said, pulling off his cap and stroking his black, buzz cut hair, "I'm not- I mean, I'm a little slow, so..."
"You seem to do fine," she said, folding her hands around the cup, "minding this store all on your own."
"It's- uh, quiet these days," Edward could feel his cheek burn lightly at the compliment, "so they- they let me do... stuff."
"Well, it's good to hear that good things still happen," the woman sighed and stretched in her seat, "even in these gloomy days."
"Wh-what about you, ma'am," Edward felt a sense of bravery bubbling inside him, "do you think she did it?"
"No, there is no way," the woman's words came out with an unyielding conviction.
"I'm glad, since- I- I couldn't agree more, ma'am."
"Oh?" the woman rested her elbow on the table and planted her chin on top of her hand, "You don't say that just to flirt with me, are you?"
"Oh no!" Edward blurted out, "I would never- Not that you're- u-ugly, more on the contrary. It's just unprofessional."
"Why thank you, Edward," the woman beamed him a warm, if not tired smile, "you're very sweet to tell me so."
Outside the streetlights started turning on and as the pavement got tapped by hundreds of rain drops, an ambulance drove by; its siren blaring and screaming. For a brief moment it stole the attention of the woman, who gave a glance outside, tracing the tail lights of the ambulance with her eyes until it was out of sight.
“You see…” he started, hesitation embracing him as the woman put her gaze on him, “I-I met her once, about 20 years ago.”
The woman raised an eyebrow in interest, that clever looking smile returned to gently curve her lips. Her rich blue eyes drifted from Edward to the store entrance and back again before she reached out and tapped the opposite side of her table, beckoning him to join her. Sniffing and rubbing a finger under his nose, Edward mustered the courage to sit down with the woman.
“She-she’s a real nice lady,” he assured the woman, sinking down in his seat, “I’ll never forget it, the day we met.”
Edward explained with an enthusiasm gently hidden behind a thin veil of shyness how he’d met Power Girl. Back when he was still in school, the other kids in his class often bullied him. It started with the special treatment he got from the teachers, which resulted in resentment and name calling. For a while he endured it, since as far as Edward knew, he hadn’t done anything wrong.
The name calling escalated in time, place and volume before mutating into pranks, stealing of books, slapping, hitting and kicking. It was never hard enough to leave marks and the missing books were always found, though in a manner that would test the teacher’s patience with him and not his pranksters.
Then one day, on his way back from school, his pranksters were on a particular good streak, they’d run into her; Power Girl. She’d been standing by the bus stop, helping an old lady read the time table when Edward’s pranksters rushed over to greet her, like kids often do when they see their idol.
Edward wanted to join them, but was at the end of his rope as far as confidence and self-worth went, so he’d reluctantly carried on his way home. In the back of his mind he thanked Power Girl for showing up when she did, for if nothing else, she had distracted his pranksters when he was mere inches away from crying his broken little heart out.
“Who is that?” Power Girl asked the kids, “Isn’t he your friend?”
“Nah, that’s just stupid Edward,” one of the kids said, dismissing him as if he was nothing but a used napkin.
“Power Girl! Power Girl!” another kid chimed in, “Lift me, lift me!”
“It’s not nice to call people stupid,” she said, her tone showed hint of disapproval, “Edward? Won’t you join us?”
Edward carefully glanced over his shoulder, as if he excused his very existence, his hands tightening their grip around the straps of his school bag. He wanted to go, he really, really did, but somehow he knew that if he did go, the others would never let him live it down. They resented him enough already because of the way the teachers treated him, right?
“Go away, stupid Edward,” one kid said.
“Yeah, you’re just a stupid cry baby,” another said.
It didn’t take long before the small gang of kids started chanting ‘stupid, stupid, stupid’ like they were trying to drive Edward away. It had proven effective before and today was no different.
“Hey!” Power Girl’s tone cracked like an angry bullwhip, the kids stopping their chanting in mid word, looking up at her with intimidated eyes.
She left them in a stride, straight as an arrow Power Girl walked over to Edward and squatted down in front of him. Resting her hands on her knees, she hunched down even further to try and get a look on Edward’s face, hidden underneath a baseball cap. Their eyes met and as he'd expected, there was a shift in Power Girl's expression when she saw his face. Then, using her thumb, she swiped away a lonesome tear trekking down his cheek and somehow he could see it in her vibrant blue eyes; she understood and most of all, she didn't care.
“It’s okay Edward,” she said, her tone soft and gentle, “you’re not stupid, okay? You’re just a little slow, that’s all.”
“Ye-yes ma’am,” Edward chocked out the words, terrified that his emotions would get the better of him and the dam would burst.
“Those are the stupid ones,” she said, nudging her head at the other kids, “they can’t tell the difference between stupid and slow.”
He nodded in agreement and they shared an easy sounding giggle as if they had a secret, just the two of them. Power Girl rose back to her feet, patted him lightly on the head and softly rose into the air. Their eyes met and she gave him a smile and a wink before accelerating and curving up around a skyscraper, out of sight.
Leaning back in her chair and nodding to herself, the woman said, “That must have been back in ’93.”
“Y-yeah…” Edward carefully counted on his fingers, “that’s right, 1993. How did you know?”
“Well you’re certainly not in elementary school anymore,” she said, “and you work here, so I figured you’d be in your early 20’s.”
“I suppose,” he said, feeling his cheeks blush again, “I-I’m just a little slow with these things.”
“Don’t worry about it Edward,” she said, glancing out the rain wet window, “you’re doing fine.”
Rain started coming down by the fire-hose outside, the drops were hitting the ground so hard, it made one wonder if it was raining up or down. Every now and then an angry gust of wind smeared its face against the store window before leaving as quickly as it came. By the looks of it, no one was walking home tonight, they’d be swimming, the lot of them.
“Ha-have you met her, ma’am?”
The woman sighed, looking outside at the rain and some poor pedestrian across the street that braved the weather with nothing but a fragile umbrella for shelter. Her sleepy eyes shifted between a distant and close daze, as if peering deep into either past or future, yet finding herself drifting back to her own reflection in the store window.
“Once,” she said, there was a weight to her word, as if bound and tied down by some great burden.
“How- how did it go?” Edward asked, “Was it… not nice?”
The woman drummed lightly on the table with her fingers to break up the mood, and with a forced smile she said, “Not bad, all things considered.”
She finished the last of her coffee, collected her bag and gave her phone one last check before she rose from her seat. With the bag over her shoulder, the woman headed for the door and tapped in a number on her phone as she went. Much to Edward’s surprise, she started speaking in clean, fluent Cantonese with no trace of dialect.
Again the woman mouthed a ‘thank you’ to Edward as she stopped in the doorway and gave him a quick little salute with her wrist before leaving the store.