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TOO LATE - Kenny Togunloju

I sit at the corner table of the cafe, gripping my “to-go” coffee cup with both hands. It’s warm to the touch, but the heat doesn’t bother me. Rather, I find it comforting, a welcome relief from the cold December weather. The café door chimes, and I jerk my head at the entrance. It’s not her, just some guy wearing a neck scarf. Disappointed, I glance at my watch. 12:28. She’ll show, I reassure myself. I was early.


I feel a slight tremor and realize my hands are shaking. Unsure whether it’s nerves or the cold, I raise the cup to my lips and take a sip, hoping to quell the shaking. But instead, the coffee scalds my tongue. I yank the cup away, spilling a few drops on my shirt. Damn it. Still holding the coffee cup, I get up and walk to the self-serve station to grab some napkins. I curse under my breath as I dab my shirt, but the brown stain still persists. It’s a new shirt too. Sighing, I give up, throwing the napkins in the trash. Hopefully, the stain comes out in the wash. I zip up my jacket, turn around to head back to my table when the café door chimes again. This time, she walks in.


She’s dressed in a black parka jacket, matching with black gloves, blue skinny jeans, and winter boots. My heart does a pirouette. I realize that I’ve only ever seen her wearing running clothes before. Not that it matters. She looks stunning either way. Her green eyes scans the coffee shop with a tentative smile on her face. I’m so enamored by her presence that it doesn’t occur to me that she’s looking for me.


Her eyes travels to where I'm standing, and she sees me. Her confused smile turns to a grin, and she waves. Mustering up a confident smile, I wave back and walk over to her.


“Hi!” Sara says with an effervescent smile. “It’s so great to see you!” She surprises me by giving me a hug.


"Yeah, you too!” I say returning her hug. My body is turned to the side, to keep the coffee cup away from her, so the hug ends up feeling awkward. But when we pull apart, she seems unfazed but it.


 “Should we grab a seat?” Sara says looking around.


 “Yeah, I’m over th– ” I point at the corner table but stop. “Neck Scarf” guy has already occupied my empty seat.


 “Oh, we can grab this one,” Sara says, pulling out a chair at a table by our right. The table is smack in the center of the café. Too exposed for my liking but I set my coffee cup down anyway. I take the seat facing the entrance.


“I’m so glad you called,” Sara says as we sit down. “It’s been a while.”


“Yeah, last time we saw was at the anniversary party,” I reply. “That was like what? Two months ago?”


“Yeah, abouts,” Sara says, glancing at my coffee cup.


“Oh, sorry, I got here super early, so I ordered,” I say in an apologetic tone. “Sorry I should have texted to ask what you wanted – ”


“Oh no worries,” Sara says with a dismissive wave. “I’ll just pop over to the counter. I’ll be right back.”


She bounces up from her seat, pausing to take off her jacket to wrap it around her chair. She walks over to the order counter. I feel a gnawing feeling in my stomach. I can’t tell whether it’s dread or butterflies. Probably both. I sit still, drumming my fingers on my coffee cup. A couple of minutes pass. I resist the urge to turn around and check if she’s still here. The pessimistic part of me thinks she’s snuck out through the back.


You’re being ridiculous, I say to myself. She’s just getting coffee. Her jacket is still hanging over the chair.


She returns a couple of minutes, coffee in hand. I exhale. She gives me a quizzical look.


“What’s wrong?” she asks, as she sits down, setting her gloves on the table. “You look worried.”


“Oh, I do?” I feign surprise. “Nah, I was just… thinking about something.”


“About what?” she says, her expression turning serious. “Is everything okay?”


“Oh, everything’s fine,” I try to sound nonchalant. Everything’s not fine. “You know me, I just… like to think.”


“Okay?” She looks unconvinced, looking at me with narrowed eyes. I try to escape her gaze by taking another sip of coffee, careful not to spill any on my jacket.


“So, what’s going on at work?” I ask in an attempt to change the subject. “Have you published that paper?”


It works. She immediately lights up and starts talking about the project she’s been working on for months. She works as a researcher at a laboratory. Although I don’t understand ninety-nine percent of what she does, she’s so bright, so full of energy when she talks about it, that I become deeply engrossed in her story. As we chat, the gnawing feeling goes away. I begin to feel more at ease.


“… so yeah, looks like it’s being pushed back another month,” Sara finishes with a shake of her head. She takes a sip of her coffee.


“Wow, so you basically went through all that and they still won’t publish?” I say with genuine outrage.


Sara shrugs. “It doesn’t matter. It just means I get to do more research.” She sets her coffee cup down. “So, what did you want to talk about?”


Her directness takes me off guard. The gnawing feeling returns. I clear my throat. “Right.” I take a deep breath. “So, um I’m just going to get this off my chest and um just don’t freak out, okay? I’m not expecting a response or anything like that.”


She gives me a pained look. “Okay,” she says. I can already tell this was going poorly, but I soldier on.


“I know we’ve been friends for a while,” I say. “I mean we only hang out at Run Club but, seeing you on Thursday evenings is usually the highlight of my week.”


Sara opens her mouth to say something, but I put out a hand to stop her. I need to get through this.


“When you stopped coming to Run Club,” I continue, “I started wondering if that had anything to do with me.”


“It didn’t,” Sara says with a surprised look.


I nod. “I know. I figured you were just busy. I know you’re training for another marathon and your running schedule might not fit with Run Club’s.”


Sara frowns slightly. “Yeah. What are you trying to tell me?”


I exhale. “I’m saying that I missed you and your sudden absence made me realize that I might never see you again. So, I called to tell you… that I have feelings for you.”


There. I said it. I watch as Sara’s expression turns from confusion to shock.


“And I know a while back that you told me you were seeing someone,” I rush on before she could say anything. “I don’t know if you’re still together or –”


“We’re engaged, actually,” Sara says gently.


I feel the wind rush out my lungs, like I have just been sucker punched in the gut. My eyes instinctively travel to her fingers, and I see the ring. I must not have noticed it when she took off her gloves.


I swallow the lump in my throat. “When?” I ask.


“A couple of weeks after the anniversary party,” she says her eyes full of pity. “We went paragliding. He proposed there.”


I nod, faking a smile. “Well, congrats!” I say. “I’m really happy for you.”


“Nick,” Sara reaches out for my hand, but I draw it away.


“No, um sorry.” I get up, leaving my unfinished coffee on the table. “I’m going to go. Good luck with the wedding, and… all that.”


Sara nods, giving me a wistful smile. “Thank you.”


I can feel her eyes on me, as I walk out of the café. I struggle to hold back tears as I stumble into the cold winter air. I cross the street to my parked car, fumbling for my car keys. Retrieving the tiny rectangular remote, I unlock my car and get in, slamming the door behind me. I start the car and turn on the heat, but I don’t put it in drive.


Instead, I sit there and let the tears flow freely.


Kenny Togunloju is a writer, currently residing in Seattle, Washington. His short fiction has appeared in The Horror Tree. When he's not writing, he enjoys running and playing chess. The genre of this story is Short Story.

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