Deadlines

Click here to read an early draft of this short story.

Three cheerful baristas shout out customer orders. Coffee machines blaze like train engines from the other side of the shop. The cafe is dense at high noon as the sun comes directly through the windows, casting shadows of the store’s logo onto the floor and heating up the entire room. To learn more browse this site. The bustling line grows almost out of the double doors. Professionals in crisp suits and a-line skirts, teens dressed in collared work uniforms, and students with computer bags and earbuds crowd the space. An estrogen-filled book club of five members giggles heartily from the plush, worn couches in the corner, the folksy guitar strumming of a street musician drifts in from the hot porch, and the earthy scent of fresh coffee floats over the crowd of busy patrons.

A child of about three years old wanders into the coffee shop, his face tilted up to watch curiously at the towering adults around him. His bright red shirt is wrinkled, mismatched with his orange pants. His mother’s entrance after him is delayed by at least a full minute. She carries a car-seat in one hand, a McDonald’s Happy Meal in the other, and a diaper bag that is slipping off of her shoulder. She dumps all of her belongings onto the center table, her hair falling out of her ponytail in a haphazard mess, and gets behind the line. She firmly grabs at the wandering preschooler and reminds him to wait for her before entering a store next time. At the correction, the child’s round face suddenly grows sorrowful, and he begins to cry loudly with the whine and thunder of a kid who has missed their naptime.

In this coffee shop, I always sit against the exposed-brick accent wall, in the corner booth. From here, I can see the entire store. A dangling canvas painted by a local artist moves as the air conditioner shudders to life and begins to blow refreshingly cool air into the room. The glass above the ice cream selection fogs, and a flyer advertising “Tuesday Open-Mic Nights” falls off the bulletin board and takes flight across the room. The bench is cool and padded beneath me, with a small arc supporting my weight from behind. My hand runs along the deep crack in the vinyl on my left, exposing the foam stuffing of the booth. The shop is such a lively space, I almost forget about the niggling worry sitting like a rock in my stomach. Deadlines.

I force my gaze back to my computer in front of me, inhaling sharply and placing my index fingers on “F” and “J.” The screen is too dark now that the sun has become brighter in the windows. I adjust the screen and return my fingers to attention. The digital paper is exactly center-screen. It is a brilliant white. The margins are set. The typeface is determined. The line spacing is doubled. The screen has a cluster of fingerprints.

There is a small hair in my keyboard. The trackpad feels greasy, and my coffee cup is already half-empty. An echo of the rich warmth of fresh coffee is still in my mouth from before– it’s too cold to be palatable now. My left foot jostles up and down on its own. As someone orders a Chai Tea drink, the scent of spices reaches my brain. So good. I smell nutmeg and cinnamon, swirling around and blending into the thick coffee aroma. I take in a deep breath. I type a sentence, energized with a brief idea. I immediately delete it. It’s not as good as I want it to be. I need more coffee, but I cannot leave my seat until the first paragraph is written.

I can do this. It’s not that hard. I make the mistake of looking at the small analog clock behind the bar. It’s been thirty-six minutes since I began working. Not a single word has reached my paper. This is too hard. I knew I should never have started this. I can’t do it.

I straighten out my notepad, aligning it between the side of the laptop and my pen.

The mother finally has her coffee in hand and takes a seat at the table, serving her son a handful of chicken nuggets on a thin napkin. She shreds the nuggets to small chunks, pulls her hair back into a smooth ponytail, and refreshes her lip gloss using her phone screen as a mirror. She takes a long first sip of her coffee, glancing between her small gold watch and the front doors.

Within seconds, the coffee cup is on its side, the black liquid running across the table onto her blue jeans and sweatshirt. The boy begins to cry again, as his mother leaps to grasp at napkins and contain the spill.

A businessman abruptly appears next to her, an overnight bag on his back. Her shoulders instantly relax and her anger disappears as she flings her arms around him and their lips meet for a moment. Her coffee spill and flustered frown are both forgotten and a bright smile spreads across her features. Her posture straightens and her cheeks flood with color.

“Daddy!” The boy shrieks with delight, jumping up and clinging to the man’s knee. The man, realizing his wife and the table are soaked with coffee, grabs a fistful of napkins and takes a seat, one arm wrapping around the freshly-relaxed shoulders of his wife, the other soaking up coffee.

I look at the clock again. Fifty minutes. There is still not a word on my page. Finally, I am forced to relent to that ache in my stomach. I’ll have to get a Venti this time.

My instructor left this comment on my paper-- made me feel so encouraged!

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