Drama Fiction Speculative

Liam checked his watch for what must have been the fifteenth time in the past five minutes. He was astounded to see the second hand still ticking along, reliably as ever. Had it still only been another minute? It felt like he was stuck in time; the waiting was interminable. Liam sighed and drummed his fingers on the table. If he wasn’t here in another five minutes, Liam was going to leave. He’d had enough of waiting, and he was wishing he just hadn’t come at all. Liam looked around the café in an attempt to distract himself.

The door had just opened and a tall, thin man in a neat suit walked in. “Larry!” the barista called, her face cracking into a smile. “The usual?” Liam watched Larry head to the counter and pass over his credit card. What would it be like, to have such stability in your life that the barista recognizes you and remembers your order every time? He’d always been jealous of that type of person, who could stay put and stick to a schedule. Build a routine. He was always on the move and changing plans last second. Liam couldn’t even remember the last time he had lived in the same place longer than six months. He was adventurous, was what people always said. Or maybe he was just unsettled. Dissatisfied with the many lives he had attempted to live.

Liam glanced at his watch again. It hadn’t even been a full minute, this time. He pulled his phone out of his pocket to reread the last text. “9 o’clock at Ground Beans good for you?” It was 9:05 now, though. Liam didn’t know what he had expected. To trust that someone so chronically unreliable, so perpetually not there, would show up on time, at the right place…it had been childish, to think this might work. He might as well just leave now and spare the inevitable pain of this meeting. It was infuriating that he had ever even agreed to put himself through this whole ordeal. By now if he actually did show up, which Liam was very much starting to doubt, Liam would have plenty to say. He had years of pent-up anger ready to boil over, and the wait was not helping. Liam peered out the window through the driving rain, trying to discern the faces of the pedestrians hurrying by. He could be any of them, really. Liam doubted he would recognize him.

A barking laugh to his left jerked Liam’s attention from the street. A woman in spandex and a shirt so tight it left little to the imagination was laughing uproariously at something her similarly-dressed friend had said. Liam wondered if they had actually exercised before coming, or if they just dressed like they were about to in a way of justifying the calories of their sugary drinks. Their hair looked too pristine, their makeup too immaculate for them to actually be planning to get in a jog this morning. Maybe they were power walkers. “And then, he told me that his mom would be over any minute, so I might as well stay and meet her! So I was running around trying to find my clothes, get dressed and out of there as quickly as I could-”

“You know that was a line, right? I bet that’s how he gets rid of girls every morning!” the second woman said with an almost indecent giggle.

“Well, it worked!” The two women subsided into snorts of laughter, and Liam reluctantly felt the corners of his mouth twitch up. He picked up his phone out of habit so he didn’t look like he was eaves dropping, and his heart leapt into his throat when he saw a new text on the screen. “Running late, be there soon”, it read. So he hadn’t flaked, after all. Liam tried to keep his nerves in check. This was what he had wanted, right? At least he wasn’t going to get stood up. Probably not, anyway. But maybe the “sorry I’m late” ruse was just drawing out the inevitable. Why should Liam believe he would come today, after he had been absent for the past twenty-five years?

The two women had quieted down now, and Liam scanned the coffee shop for another distraction to pass the time. His focus caught on a man and woman who were probably in their early forties. Husband and wife, maybe? Liam didn’t think so, somehow. The way the man’s pupils dilated when he looked at her, the way his eyes kept flicking down to her chest when she talked, made him think they hadn’t known each other long. While the woman swirled her coffee in its cup, the man picked up his phone and dialed a number. He stretched back in his chair, looking at ease and in complete contrast to Liam, whose muscles were tense, as though ready to spring into action at any moment. Liam’s fingers were drumming his leg incessantly as he peered down the sidewalk in both directions again. But he’d already said he was running late. He wouldn’t be here yet.

“Hey, Jude, this is Charles,” the man’s voice boomed. “Yeah, I’m going to need to push our meeting back, if you’ve got some flexibility in your schedule today.” He paused, listening to the response on the other end of the line, and the woman took a large gulp of her iced latte. “Don’t I know it,” he said. “I’ve just been so swamped at the office this morning.” In spite of his worry, Liam couldn’t help but smile at the brazen lie. “I’ve been stuck in a meeting for a couple hours now, and I don’t think I’ll make it to your office by eleven. Can we push back to noon? Maybe even one, if you can?” The man gave the woman a grin and reached across the table to run his fingers up her arm to her shoulder. “I’m trying to rush the meeting and get out as quickly as I can. Sorry ‘bout this, Jude.” Liam noticed that he was playing footsie with the woman under the table now, too. “Ohp, they’re calling me back in. Just need to finalize this deal, and I’ll let try to get over to your office by one o’clock, maybe one thirty…Yup, alright…see you then. Cheers.” He ended the call and set the phone down on the table. “Agh, I just can’t arse myself to work today. Wanna go back to my place? Charlene will be at work by now, so we can have a bit more time together.” The woman shot him a cloying smile and nodded and Liam watched them walk out, hand in hand. Sure, his morals might be a bit askew for Liam’s taste, but what wouldn’t he give for just a bit of the man’s confidence.

Liam glanced at his watch again. He was only eight minutes late. That wasn’t so bad on the face of it, but in reality, the wait had been not just the past eight minutes, but the past twenty-five years. Liam’s temper was still simmering just under the surface. Maybe if he couldn’t bring himself to arrive on time, he didn’t deserve another chance. No one could argue that he didn’t deserve a chance anyway, even if he had arrived on time. Why had he even reached out to meet now, after all this time? Liam considered getting up and walking out. What would he really lose if he left now? He would probably only say things he would regret later. They would all be true, of course, but maybe things would be better left unsaid. He could get up now and go back to his normal life. His hectic, unsettled, life. He had been fine enough before he agreed to this meeting, and he would be fine enough after. It didn’t matter much, how it went.

But even as he stood and pulled his wet raincoat over his t-shirt, Liam knew he didn’t believe that. He had been dreaming of this day far too long to believe that he would be fine after, and yet he was still trembling, whether with anger or nerves, he couldn’t tell anymore. He’d had enough of this. Liam slipped his phone into his jeans pocket and was pushing his chair in when the door chimed and a man with a young boy in a dirty rugby kit walked in. “Don’t tell your mum I let you skip school today, right?” The boy giggled and nodded. “What do you want? A scroll? Juice?” Liam couldn’t tear his eyes away as they walked up to the counter, the young boy’s hand inside his dad’s. Liam could see the adoration, the excitement in the boy’s eyes as he looked up at his father. He wondered if his life would be different if he’d gotten days like this with his own father. Just the two of them hanging out, keeping secrets from his mum and having adventures together.

Liam was standing in the middle of the café now, halfway between his abandoned seat and the door. He wanted to leave. He had decided to go. And yet something kept him rooted to the spot. He looked up at the boy again, whose face was now covered in powdered sugar, but not enough sugar to hide his ear-to-ear grin. Liam wondered if the boy and his father would still be close when he grew up. What would their relationship look like when the boy was Liam’s age? The dad looked down at his son, and even through his stern reprimand for the trail of sugar down his son’s shirt, Liam could see the father’s care. How different would Liam’s life have been, if his father had ever cared enough to look at him like that father did his son? How different would it be if his father looked at him like that, now? It didn’t have to be too late, did it?

Almost without realizing what he was doing, Liam walked back to the table and slid into his chair once more, eyes still fixed on the father and son who were now chatting animatedly about rugby.

When he couldn’t bear to watch them anymore, Liam found a teenage girl a few tables away to focus on instead. She looked nearly as on edge as he felt. She was twirling a lock of hair around her fingers, biting her lower lip, and fiddling with a paper in the other hand. As she fluttered the paper back and forth, he caught a glimpse- it was a resume. Looked like she was waiting for a job interview. Liam knew the feeling well. He had jumped from one job to the next ever since his first job at age fifteen. He had probably sat through more interviews already in the intervening fifteen years than this girl ever would. Her lips were moving soundlessly, like she was rehearsing answers for practice interview questions she had found online. He wondered if she would get the job. Wondered if she was even qualified for it. With how nervous she looked, how much she apparently cared, he hoped she got it. He wanted to walk over and tell her to take a deep breath, relax, not get herself too worked up. And then he considered that he could take his own advice.

Liam had checked his watch this time without realizing it. He was closing in on ten minutes late, now.

There was an elderly couple sitting one table over from the nervous teen. He looked at them, admiring the patience with which the man spoke to his wife, who appeared to be deaf, or very nearly so. They were four tables away from him, and yet their conversation was loud enough to cover the anxious patter of his own tapping foot. “I said, how’s your coffee?”

The woman’s head bobbed in a perpetual nod, in that way of old people who spent most of their days sitting. “Good. It’s hot. Better than yesterday’s.”

“I told you to send it back, if you thought it was bad.”

“Send it back?” the wife shouted. “I said it’s good. Very fresh.”

“No,” the husband shouted back, “You should have sent the coffee back yesterday, if it was cold.”

“But it’s not cold! It’s hot! Don’t you ever listen, Howard?”

The wife took another sip of coffee through pursed lips, probably because it’s so hot, Liam thought, and their bickering subsided.

Liam wondered how much his father would have changed, as he aged. Surely not as much as this elderly couple had- his parents had had him young, and Liam knew his father was only in his early fifties. But time must have changed him. People don’t just stay the same, in twenty-five years of not knowing them. Liam himself wasn’t a child anymore, just on the threshold of kindergarten. And likewise, his father must have changed in unimaginable ways. Had he found someone with whom to grow old? Someone to bicker about coffee with?

The couple had given up on talking now, but the husband reached over the table to grasp his wife’s hand in his. They just sat, gazing into each other’s eyes like they had nowhere else in the world they would rather be. How long had it taken for them to reach that point in their relationship? Maybe there was still time left, enough to salvage the lost time and recover from the years of hurt.

He was eleven minutes late, now. How long before he gave up and left? How much would Liam really be missing, if he left before he showed up? But Liam knew he couldn’t leave. He would wait as long as it took.

The husband stood up, put his coat on, and shuffled around the table to help his wife up. He helped her shrug a raincoat on and sling her purse over her shoulder, then held her hand tightly as they walked toward the exit.

A man entering from the street took a step back out into the rain to hold the door wide for them.

Twelve minutes late, now.

The couple disappeared into a sheet of rain and the man stepped through the doorway, shaking water out of a sopping hat.

He stood by the door for a long moment, eyes scanning the room, looking for something. Or maybe someone.

His gaze caught on Liam and he paused, eyes searching his face.

Liam saw that the man had the same heavy brows that he himself had. His chin was pointed, high cheekbones, they even had a similar build- tall, thin but muscular, broad shoulders-

Before he had thought about it, without making a conscious decision to do so, Liam was on his feet. Heart in his throat, he walked out from behind the table and had crossed the café in six steps. The man was waiting, now with a nervous, hesitant smile on his face. “Liam?”

Liam held his hand out and, for the first time in twenty-five years, his father took his hand.

June 07, 2024 14:18

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Alexis Araneta
04:22 Jun 13, 2024

Heather !!! This is probably one of the best stories that Critique Circle has sent me to. Gorgeous imagery here. I love the idea of a café, a place one consumes a drink that perks one up, being the setting of a tension-filled story. Brilliant use of the prompt here. Splendid work !


Heather Eldridge
23:26 Jun 13, 2024

Thanks, Alexis! Glad you enjoyed it.


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Mary Bendickson
20:04 Jun 09, 2024

He watched a panorama of life cycles while restarting his own.


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