“Coffee Break,” by Monica L. Anderson, is the First Place winning story in the romance category for the Ninth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with W.R. Parrish and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2014 issue of Writer's Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Tenth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Monica's winning entry.
by Monica L. Anderson
Every weekday, Felix wakes up at 6:15 am. He brushes his teeth, gets a shower, and slips into a two-piece suit. At 6:52 am, he leaves his apartment and drives to Coffee Shots for a large black coffee. He orders from the dance major Maggie, who pirouettes from the cash register toward the coffee maker and the gorgeous dark-haired barista attending it, Rowan. Rowan prepares Felix’s coffee with deft, sturdy hands and then offers the Styrofoam cup to Felix with a shy smile.
Every weekday, Felix thinks about saying hello to Rowan, about asking for his number or asking him on a date. For the length of a few brief seconds, as long as their eyes meet with the coffee exchange, Felix imagines a future with Rowan, watching movies on the couch, sharing secrets and fantasies in a king-sized bed, making love in the early morning hours before work.
Rowan glances down and Felix checks his watch. The rest of the day, he ignores the way two dark brown eyes pop into his mind without provocation, and when he returns to his empty apartment after work, he pretends he’s fine eating alone at the kitchen table built for two.
The routine continues for days, weeks, months – shy smiles and haunting coffee eyes, lonely dinners and empty beds. Felix starts eating in front of the television.
One night, he sleeps on the couch and wakes up at 6:35 am. Even rushing, he doesn’t leave his apartment until 7:04. He stops at Coffee Shots, but Maggie isn’t working the counter. Rowan stands there now, tugging at the sleeve of his orange polo shirt. He rips off a stray string before Felix clears his throat.
Rowan glances up and that shy smile returns. Felix ignores the way his heart beats just a little faster.
“Large coffee,” Felix says. “Black.”
Rowan nods and punches the order into the cash register. Felix presents the exact cost, $3.92, without being prompted. Rowan holds out his palm to take the cash, and Felix’s fingers feather-touch that warm skin. Felix snaps his hand away and moves to the other end of the counter to await his order. He wants to say hello, but he’s certain it’s too late now. He’s already ordered. He should have made small talk like he sometimes does with Maggie. He should have said something other than his damn order.
Rowan offers Felix the Styrofoam cup and Felix gathers his courage. If he can deliver marketing campaigns to rooms full of hardened businessmen over multi-million dollar deals, he can say hello to the barista he’s casually known for the better part of two years.
He reaches out, fingers brushing Rowan’s again, and says with only one stutter, “H- Hello.”
Felix waits. A small blush tints Rowan’s cheekbones and the top of his ears, but he looks down and walks back to the cash register without one word.
“Okay,” Felix says to the space Rowan had been standing in. He leaves without looking back. Rejection stings worse than the loneliness.
The next few days, Felix doesn’t stop for coffee and arrives early to work. He drags by 10 am, and vows to find a new coffee shop. He tries the Mocha Supreme down the street at lunchtime, but the coffee tastes bitter. At the Coffeetorium the next morning, the cashier misspells his name as Phil. He stands there for ten minutes, eyeing the large coffee on the counter with the wrong name before he realizes the mistake.
He returns to the Coffee Shots on a Thursday morning, determined to act like the professional he knows he is. But he deflates in disappointment the minute he doesn’t see Rowan. Maggie is alone at the counter, practicing her plies.
“Hey, Felix!” she says, bending down so far she’s half-hidden behind the counter. “You want the regular?”
“Awesome.” She rights herself and punches on the cash register. Felix pulls out $3.92 from his wallet. “Rowan will be sorry he missed you.”
92 cents scatter across the countertop. The dime and pennies roll onto the floor.
“He… what?” Felix says. He remembers to kneel down to collect the change only as an afterthought.
“Oh, gosh,” Maggie says, giggling now. “He goes on and on about you.”
Felix shakes his head. There has to be some mistake. “He’s never even said one word to me.” He gathers all the change he can find and rises. He’s two cents short. He digs through his pockets for more. He only has a nickel.
“Well, he wouldn’t, would he?” Maggie says. He hands her the coins and she rings up the order. She returns his three cent change.
“What do you mean?” Felix asks.
Maggie pirouettes over to the barista station. “The guy’s mute.”
Felix eats his dinner in front of the television. As he sits back into the love seat, he stares at the empty space beside him. Maybe loneliness hurts worse than rejection after all.
After taking his plate and fork to the sink, he leaves the kitchen and goes to his office. He sits at his computer, opens a web browser, and types in the words, “American Sign Language.”
Felix leaves his apartment at 6:46 am, too eager to wait and match his normal routine. He orders his large black coffee from Maggie, who winks at him, before moving down the counter. Rowan catches his eye but instantly blushes and drops his gaze. By the cash register, Maggie giggles.
While Rowan prepares the coffee, Felix bites his lip. Maybe this is a bad idea. If Rowan rejects him again, he doesn’t want to have to go to a different coffee shop. But he also would never forgive himself if he didn’t try.
Rowan holds the coffee out for Felix, but Felix doesn’t take it. Instead, he inhales deeply and signs, Hello.