20 comments

American Contemporary Suspense

“Can I get you anything else?” the wannabe barista asked, not having the courtesy of coming out from behind the counter. Juliet didn’t ignore the question—she just didn’t hear it. Her preoccupied eyes, red and moist, darted from the container in her right hand to the door in front of her and then back again. The cup had Juliet Lamb written in sharpie near the top. She wasn’t sure why she had given her full name when she ordered, maybe she thought it would make her bigger, like a blowfish under attack.

The height and placement of the table were familiar to Juliet as was the contour of the chair. Her visceral reaction to the location, however, was not. Juliet's heart raced and her breath was shallow and quick. No one in the shop paid her any attention, but she felt watched nonetheless.

“Ma’am,” he said, more loudly this time, his voice dripping with disdain. “We’re closing in forty-five minutes. Do you want another cup of coffee?” The teenaged employee obviously needed more customer service training as he had been counting down the minutes until closing for the last two hours. In all fairness, Juliet had been there for more than four hours, so maybe she was making him as nervous as the night was making her.

Forty-five minutes, she thought to herself. I can make it forty-five minutes. 

“No thank you,” she finally responded. “I’m still working on this one.” Juliet held the cup up for the boy to see, but he had already gone back to mopping the floor. Had he looked her way, he would have noticed the paper cup was no longer in pristine condition. Juliet had been tapping and scratching at it so incessantly that the vessel looked as if, at any moment, it would no longer be able to hold its steaming contents.

Since arriving, Juliet had only ordered two cups of coffee. She had no idea when he might be there, but she wasn’t taking a chance that he might come and go while she was in the restroom. If that happened, she would have to relive this day all over again, and that thought was oppressive.  

The bell on the front door was a cruel, ever present companion. For most of the night, it would ring constantly as customers filed in and out of the boutique coffee shop. The sound had a Pavlovian effect on Juliet, only instead of salivating—her heart would palpitate with each chime. On more than one occasion, she was sure it would burst out of her chest.

There were windows on both sides of the corner shop allowing her to see bundled strangers walking past, doing their best to defeat the cold and vanquish the wind. Juliet had no such issues as the shop was uncomfortably warm and the down jacket she had donned for the excursion still enveloped her. She had pulled the zipper down just far enough to allow her free hand to rest inside its inner pocket, tightly gripping the badge she had placed there just before she had left on her mission.

“Closing in thirty minutes.”

There was a time when this rude coffee jockey would have suffered Juliet’s wrath, but not today. 

Ding ding, the chime rang as the only other customer walked out into the night. For most of the evening there were people all around her. A boy who might be studying for an exam sat at the table next to her when she first arrived, and he was replaced by a young couple who loved both coffee and each other. Most recently the aforementioned table had been occupied by a businesswoman who seemed to be closing some deals while taking shots of espresso like they were whiskey. But now the shop finally mirrored her inner feelings: she was alone.

There were only fifteen minutes left before closing when she saw him through the window to her right. He was wearing a long black coat with the collar pulled up. His head was covered with a woolen hat and his eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses. Juliet didn’t hear the chime ring as he opened the door. All was inaudible save for the throbbing of her heart in her ears. She clutched the star tightly to her chest as he walked to the counter, seemingly oblivious to her presence. 

He must be toying with me.

Behind his mirrored eyes, Juliet felt him staring her down. She had been waiting all night for him, and now, with him less than ten feet away, she felt paralyzed. Juliet cocked her head straining to hear his voice as he recited his order to the barista. She would never forget that voice, yet in a way that seemed to mock her, he barely spoke above a whisper. 

Then he pulled off his hat and pushed up his glasses exposing his face for the world to see. Juliet closed her eyes and finally exhaled. It wasn’t him. He wouldn’t come—he couldn’t come. She had been in the courtroom the day he was convicted, but today, at long last, Juliet believed she didn’t have to live in fear anymore.  

Both the barista and the customer turned to look at Juliet as she burst into laughter and gulped down the last bit of her coffee. 

It had been exactly one year—one year and four hours. Now it was closing time and past time for her to go.  

Ding ding, the chimes sang to her as she walked out onto the sidewalk. She had ventured out on her own for the first time since the assault. Juliet had faced her fears and had overcome them. The call to Dr. Levy could wait, but she pulled out her phone nonetheless.

“Sweetie, I made it. I’m on the way home.”

“I’m so proud of you, mommy. Did the badge work?”

“It sure did, baby,” Juliet answered. “And I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Pulling the toy sheriff’s star from her pocket, she reread the word her six-year-old daughter had scribbled on it earlier that day: Supermom.  


January 23, 2022 21:57

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20 comments

Hannah Barrett
02:14 Jan 30, 2022

I really enjoyed this, Lee, especially the tender moment at the end with her son. The badge had me guessing (is she a rookie cop? is she undercover?), and I love the unexpected place you took it. Loved how you incorporated the last name pursuant to Karen's feedback - the line "She wasn’t sure why she had given her full name when she ordered, maybe she thought it would make her bigger, like a blowfish under attack" is just great. Well done!

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Thom With An H
04:26 Jan 30, 2022

Hannah my palindrome friend you made my day. When I wrote this I wanted to be a bit vague in the beginning and I wanted to trust the reader to understand at the end. You have made me believe in myself. Thank you for your time and your very kind words!!!

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Hannah Barrett
14:44 Jan 30, 2022

And YOU just made my day with your palindrome observation! I think a lot of writers (myself included) are afraid to trust their readers - what if they don't get it?!? It's a balancing act for sure but the payoff is big if you get it right. And I think you totally got it right here.

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Russell Norman
10:17 Jan 26, 2022

Great story. Kept the suspense as to why she was there going nicely, with an unexpected twist at the end. Well done.

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Karen Kinley
18:45 Jan 26, 2022

I really loved the suspense of this story and the beautiful imagery ("...while taking shots of espresso like they were whiskey." And "But now the shop finally mirrored her inner feelings: she was alone.") Vintage Thom. But I have to admit, I'm confused as to why she is waiting for a man who was convicted and sent to jail? You said that now "she believed." Why wouldn't she believe it? You mentioned her therapist. Perhaps delve a little more into her psyche so that this would be explained? Also, why is she waiting there on that particular da...

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Karen Kinley
02:49 Jan 27, 2022

One more thing...the prompt says you got a name from the Character Name Generator. Was it just "Denise"? Or was there a last name? Or someone else in the story? I know the judges will sometimes disqualify a story if it doesn't meet the prompt, and I'd hate for you to lose a chance to compete for something so silly. But honestly, I'm not sure what it would be looking for.

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Thom With An H
13:58 Jan 27, 2022

There was a last name but I didn’t really need a last name. It didn’t occur to me that using the last name was a requirement. The prompt seemed to give license to the writer. I hope I’m not disqualified for that.

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Karen Kinley
15:32 Jan 27, 2022

I'm not sure, but as a Reedsy judge this is a question I would have. So I asked the moderator just now and will let you know what she says. Some of the "rules" are not obvious to everyone. For example, song lyrics of ANY kind are grounds for story dismissal because of copyright laws. I myself didn't know this one. But if you have to add a last name, it's an easy edit!

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Thom With An H
16:17 Jan 27, 2022

Thanks for checking for me.

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Thom With An H
13:58 Jan 28, 2022

I think I fixed the issue. I had to change the name all together because I couldn't get it to generate the same one again and I didn't remember the last name.

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Karen Kinley
15:57 Jan 28, 2022

I will check out your story again! I finally heard back from Reedsy. She said, "First and last would be ideal, but stories won't be disqualified for just being a first name." So there you have it!

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Karen Kinley
16:28 Jan 26, 2022

Lee, I.B. Dunn, and/or Thom, Hello old friend! It's hard to keep up with you! Hey, I actually submitted a story this week, but it's SUPER short and I need some help on how to beef it up. Also, you need to let me know if it "works" (you will see what I mean when you read it). I doubled it so the site would accept it. It's only 529 words, so I need some serious suggestions. I promise to read this story later today (I'm at work) and offer some feedback as well. I think it's high time that you won one of these! Hope you are well! Karen

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Thom With An H
16:37 Jan 26, 2022

I am on it. I will give you feedback right after work. It's so good to hear from you and always a pleasure to read you.

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Thom With An H
00:14 Jan 27, 2022

Karen it absolutely works. I hope I helped even a little. Let me know when you work on it. I’d like to read it again.

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Karen Kinley
02:31 Jan 27, 2022

Thank you so much! Your suggestions are wonderful! Definitely something to work with. I will let you know when I revise. Thanks again!

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Taj Isly
18:43 Feb 22, 2022

What I mostly appreciate in your stories is the description of the main character state of mind. I am reading and learning too! So thank you for the stories:)

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01:07 Feb 17, 2022

A very nuanced character study…the MC’s characterization is rich and thoughtful. The ending was wonderfully heartwarming, after the stark tension. Well done!

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Story Time
17:08 Feb 02, 2022

This was such a wonderful read for my cold New England morning. Thank you and well done.

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S. Thomson
15:11 Jan 29, 2022

Hi, I'm about confused about the plot of this story. Why is Juliet waiting in the coffee shop for the man who assaulted her? Is this a revenge mission? If this is the first time she has been out in a year, why does she think he will come to this cafe? Also, why does seeing the man at the end alleviate her fears, I would have thought it would have made her more scared, if anything. In the first paragraph, I'm not sure why he's a "wannabe barista." He works at the coffee shop, right? Isn't he just a barista? If Juliet has only ordered two cup...

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Thom With An H
15:43 Jan 29, 2022

I think a big part of the story is left to the reader to infer. One symptom of PTSD is irrational fear. Working at a coffee shop, even a boutique coffee shop doesn’t make one a barista. I was trying to make him more three dimensional. Thanks for the read and the feedback.

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