A small, brick coffee shop emerged in the fog as I walked along the loneliest of streets, maybe not the best location for a business. It was so close to a place I’d seen in my dreams I had to stop. Milo’s Coffee was spelled out on a sign that looked exactly like a Peet’s Coffee sign, only with the name changed. It was almost too weird to be real. There it was, though, as real as the grey, dismal morning, among surroundings that couldn’t have been any more surreal.
Beyond ugly cement barriers bearing beat-up, orange-painted warning tags, the river played with its breath in the cold morning air. The streets were as empty as the tables in the coffee house window. Color was nearly absent. No people passed me on the early morning sidewalk. There were no sounds of cars, and no boats disturbed the still perfection of the water as it glided slowly to the sea. An eerie silence clung to everything like invisible insulation.
The promise of warmth and caffeine splashing a golden glow onto the ashen canvas of dawn was impossible to pass by. I walked through the door and turned to look back, somewhat confused, through the big picture windows and out at the little dead-end street beyond them. I shook my head and tightened my stomach to clear a creeping malaise. There was no smell of fresh coffee to meet my anxious nose, and there was no warmth to replace the chill from the air outside.
“What can I get you, Miss?”
A thin, pale-faced barista stood behind the counter. Her hair was pulled into a pony tail through the back of a brown baseball cap which was pulled down over a face that offered no smile. Her expression was one of someone who, at the crack of dawn, had already had a very long day. Her face was incredibly familiar, not from one of my dreams like the coffee shop, but I couldn’t place it.
“She’ll have a caramel macchiato,” an old man’s voice piped up from behind me. “With extra whipped cream.” I turned to find a pair of unmistakeable billowing white eyebrows attached to its owner.
“Walter!” I threw my arms around him in exuberant surprise.
I never thought I’d see Walter Abercrombie again. The last time I’d seen him, he was collapsed on a stage, attended by paramedics. Twice since, I’d left bouquets of flowers at his grave on the anniversary of his great accomplishment. He shouldn’t have been there. Walter Abercrombie was dead, but I forgot the absurdity of it in my excitement to see him.
“How’s my little writer been?” he asked, his voice as smooth as ever. “Did you ever get your book published?”
Walter looked like a hundred-thirteen-year-old version of Mark Twain. It sounded funny to hear him call me his little writer. It gave me an imagined sense of esteem, and I’m sure he knew it.
“No, I sent it to an editor, and I got really depressed over some of her comments. I’m gonna re-write some parts of it, I think, but I just start cryin’ every time I try.”
Walter nodded knowingly. He gestured to a table where his steaming black coffee was awaiting his return. I glanced at the coffee shop window with a twisted frown. I should have been able to see his table when I’d looked in from the street.
“I don’t get it,” I said, sitting across from him, just like old times. “What’re you doin’ here?”
“That’s not the question,” he replied. “The question is what are you doing here?”
“I ain’t the one who died, Walter,” I observed with a shudder, realizing I had watched when it happened.
The one thing I hated about Walter was the way his huge eyebrows pushed out from his face when he pondered something. It made me feel like I had giant caterpillars crawling on my own face.
“I died?” Walter’s eyes suddenly looked vacant beneath them. He stared intently at something over my right shoulder and I realized the space he stared into was unoccupied by the sounds that should have been the barista making my carmach. When I turned to look, there was no one behind the counter.
“You had a heart attack,” I confirmed, turning back. “At your award ceremony.”
“So I did.” An amused smile played underneath his pure white mustache. “I suppose I must have forgotten, but there it is, isn’t it?”
“You never even got your plaque,” I reminded him. I was used to Walter forgetting things.
“Well…” He drew the word out long and then chuckled a little. “I suppose all that swimming must have tuckered out the old ticker.” A sigh followed. “Adulation and accolades don’t mean a lot here.”
For the first time, I realized I had no idea where here was. It was like I really had walked into one of my own dreams.
“Caramel macchiato, extra whip!”
The barista’s voice sent a shiver through me. I stood up to get my coffee. I stared for a moment at the her face. High school maybe? Eyes of no particular color seemed to stare right back through me, and the hint of a smile she finally offered when I took my cup only made me nervous. I returned to the table to find Walter standing.
“Where exactly are we?” I asked.
“I was already anticipating your question, young lady.” He picked up his coffee. “Let’s go for a walk.”
I started to follow him, and then I realized I hadn’t paid for my carmach. “Wait up,” I said and started to the counter, only to find we were alone again. “Where’d she… go?”
Indeed! Who was she? Walter was holding the door. A mixture of wisdom and mirth twinkled under his cotton-bale eyebrows. I followed him quietly, he put his arm around me, and we strolled down the street together. The sun was peeking through the fog, and a large bus, the first sign of life outside, rolled loudly past us… On a dead-end street! I stared after it. It was hard to shake the sudden feeling that it had just dropped me off a few minutes before.
“I’m surprised you didn’t recognize it,” Walter said. “You’ve been there many times.”
“Milo’s?” I was confused. “I guess, maybe, but only in my dreams. I’ve never really been there.” I took a sip of my coffee and then studied it to be sure. Steam rose from the cup, but I felt no warmth in my finger tips, nor in my throat when I swallowed.
“Why, sure you have. We were there the last time I saw you!”
“That was two years ago, Walter, and it was only a dream. I’m pretty sure I would’ve remembered if it wasn’t.”
“Dreams, shmeams!” he scoffed. “I remembered what coffee you drink, didn’t I?”
We turned a corner and walked up the steps to a small apartment that suddenly began to look very familiar. He pushed the door open without knocking or ringing. I instantly recognized Brittney’s furniture and the light brown piano Daddy bought me when I first left for college sitting next to the TV. Brittney’s clothes were tossed haphazardly on the couch and the remote to the TV lay broken open in the middle of the floor.
“What the Hell!” I exclaimed. “How did we get here?
Walter didn’t answer. I began to get very scared, and then mortal terror replaced the blood in my veins. I remembered exactly where I’d seen that damned barista’s face before! She’d come floating across the little inlet by the cemetery when we were up there drinking one night. I clutched Walter’s arm in desperation and tried to pull him back out of the apartment door.
“Never mind!” I found myself begging. “I don’t care, I just want to go back now.”
“You can’t go back, little writer,” my ancient friend smiled.
“Because you never left.”
Walter gently led me through the door by my hand and around to the left where the entry-closet door stood open. A broken box of papers was spilled out onto the floor. My whole body went numb with shock as I stood face to face with myself, hanging from the coat rod with a leather belt around my neck… quiet…. blue… and utterly dead!
“But… but… but the belt broke,” I burst out in tears.
Walter wrapped a comforting arm around me again. “No, Annie, I’m so sorry. It didn’t.”
© 2012 Anne Schilde