Hey there, everyone. Welcome to my table here in the corner of Wormhole Coffee. What’s left of it anyway… I’m glad to see that we all survived what I can only assume was some sort of zombie apocalypse. Or something. Looks like there isn’t much left out there—just a bunch of empty storefronts, litter and ash blowing down the streets, cars left abandoned. But the worst of it is over.
I know we all have a lot of questions. “What happened?” “Where did they come from?” “Why were they here?” I hope that, with the passage of time, we’ll be able to answer those questions. But, right now, the only question we need to be asking ourselves is “What do we do now?” I sure as hell don’t know.
It’s been a long, weird day. That’s an understatement. Let me tell you about it…
I woke up this morning with a gasp. The room was still mostly dark, even though it was already close to 7am. Dark. And quiet. I propped myself up, my elbows supporting my weight, and I listened closely. I heard nothing; nothing but the silent whoosh of the ceiling fan, the wind outside whipping against my window, the distant bark of a dog. And that was it. Not the usual Chicago cacophony of noise—bass beats thumping from my neighbor’s car outside my window, the dogs barking, kids chattering clamorously on their way to school, the cars, the construction crews… All of that was curiously gone. I opened my blinds and gazed out at the Chicago skyline. A thick, heavy fog had descended on the city. Like smoke. So thick, so dense, that I couldn’t make out the outlines of the skyscrapers that are typically so dominant.
I turned on the news to see if Mayor Emmanuel was making a statement—he wasn’t. There was nothing on air but static and white noise.
In the wake of Sandy, Chicago became a little eerier, sure—Lake Michigan’s heaved 10-15 feet up in the air, pushing themselves closer and closer to flooding Lake Shore Drive, the wind howled menacingly, and the cold… But Sandy is over now.
It was unusual, sure. But this is Chicago. When you’ve lived here your whole life like I have, nothing really surprises you anymore.
So I went about my usual morning routine. Took my dog, for a walk, showered, got dressed, gave the dog some breakfast, sighed, braced myself for another long day at the office, then made my way to my car so that I could get some breakfast of my own.
I drove around for a while. Not a person in sight. No cars. No pedestrians. No planes flying. All of the businesses were closed—boarded up, even. Nothing doing. I drove up and down Chicago Avenue, up and down Ashland Avenue, took side streets to drive around neighborhoods, just to see if they were as vacant as the main thoroughfares.
I turned on the radio and switched to WXRT, my favorite radio station, to see if there was any news. But there was nothing. No commercials, no DJ’s, no traffic report—just that song “Pumped Up Kicks” repeating itself over and over. As much as I love that song, as much as it was my Summer 2011 jam, amid all of this emptiness, it was incredibly eerie. I switched off the radio and just sat in my car for a while, on Milwaukee Avenue, staring out my front window. Trying to wrap my mind around everything that was happening.
Rather, everything that wasn’t happening.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone dart across the street, up the sidewalk, and disappear into a building. Another person, a girl with short hair, on the opposite side of the street, was frantically biking up Milwaukee. I jumped out of my car and ran after her, shouting, “Hey! You! Stop!” She either didn’t hear me in her panic or was ignoring me in her panic. I quickened my pace and finally caught up to her when she stopped at a red light—even in times like this, she practiced bicycle safety. I grabbed her by the shoulders, and spun her around to face me.
“Why didn’t you stop? Couldn’t you hear me??” I shouted. “What’s happening here??”
“There’s no time to talk. Come on,” she replied. “There’s a safe house just up this sidewalk a bit.”
We ran north-east, up Milwaukee Avenue. All of the storefronts, all of the shop windows still had their displays and signs. It was like business as usual this Monday morning. But there was no business to be done. We ran, and ran, to what, I didn’t know. I just followed her blindly into the fog. I didn’t even know her name.
We slowed down our pace between Evergreen Avenue and North Honore Street—where they filmed that John Cusack movie, High Fidelity. We passed a few more store fronts, then stopped, and fought to catch our breath.
“I haven’t run like that since high school,” I said between deep breaths. “I hated it so much that I decided to never do it again…[pant, pant, pant]…You know… Exercise?…[pant, pant]…Guess I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Shut up,” she snapped. “Just be glad you ran into me. Just be glad that I’m a nice person. It’s the only reason you’re still alive.”
“Huh,” I replied. “Funny… Here I was thinking you were trying to kill me!” I laughed nervously.
“Kill you…? Should I have killed you…? Are you one of them…?” She squinted her eyes at me and approached me slowly. “Are you!?” She shouted in my face so loud, my ears rang a bit.
“No…,” I said slowly. “No, I don’t think so…”
She sized me up for a moment. “Good. Come on.”
“Who are them?” I asked.
She didn’t reply. She approached a store that had their windows boarded up—the only one on the street like it. The rest of the storefronts just had smashed windows. It took me a moment to realize that we were at Wormhole Coffee, one of my favorite spots in the city for my morning cuppa.
“Hey, Wormhole!” I exclaimed. “I love this place!”
“Shut up! Keep it down or they’ll hear you. You don’t want to be heard by them…”
“Who are they?? Who are them??”
No reply. Instead she knocked on the door slowly. Two raps.
A man’s voice from inside: “Hello?”
“I am the Key Master,” she replied. I thought it was ironic, but didn’t point it out.
“I am the Gate Keeper,” said the man’s voice.
Not necessarily ironic, but it still gave me a chuckle.
The door opened quickly and we were hurried inside, then the man slammed the door behind us and locked it up again. “Can’t be too careful, you know” he quipped. The cafe looked like it always does—1980′s movie posters on the walls—Ghostbusters, Top Gun, Uncle Buck, Goonies, Romancing the Stone, The Princess Bride, The Blues Brothers—, collector’s lunchboxes decorating one of the shelves, the couches, tables, and chairs were all in their places, a couple people were playing the Nintendo and arguing over whose turn it was to face Bowser in Super Mario Brothers 3.
Even though he was dressed as Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, I recognized the man who opened the door for us as the owner of Wormhole, Travis. His muscly torso gave him away pretty easily.
I overheard him talking to the girl—the “Key Master,” apparently: “How’re you holding up, Tully?” he asked.
“I’m good. I found this guy walking around out there. He doesn’t know what happened yet. How are things here, Dana?”
“No, no,” I butted in. “Sorry to interrupt. His name’s not Dana, it’s Travis.”
“Please call me Dana,” he replied. “We have code names here now. Can’t be too careful, you know.”
“So I’ve heard. Why did you go with Dana?”
“We’re going with the Ghostbusters thing. I have the longest hair of anyone here and I’m in charge of the door. So. It made sense.”
“But doesn’t everyone here know you as Travis already?”
“Then why the code names?”
“Just go with it, Walter.”
“Whoa, whoa, Walter Peck!? Seriously?? I’m the EPA guy?? Can’t I be Venkman instead?”
“No, no! Sorry, I mean Walter White,” he replied. “You look just like him.”
“Yeah—it’s been a rough morning.”
He pointed at a guy in a MadCap Coffee t-shirt. “Besides, he already claimed Venkman.”
We spent the next several hours locked up inside. People started to complain about their hunger. A couple people decided to go outside to break into a local grocer, but Travis—errr, Dana, I mean—stopped them.
“Don’t,” he said. “We don’t believe in that, here. We need to support local business, guys. We don’t know what’s happening out there, either. Can’t be too careful, you know. Besides we have plenty of Halfwit Coffee here to keep our bellies warm, we’re featuring a guest roaster on the pour-over bar, we have a stockpile of different cereals, lots of milk, and all the Fritz Pastry you could want! I knew something like this would happen someday, so I keep the cereal in air-tight containers to keep it fresh. We have the freshest cereal in town. Fruit Loops, anyone?”
Everyone raised their hands.
“Okay, cereal is all good and well,” said Tully. “But we need to come up with a plan to get out of here. We can’t stay locked up in here all day.”
All the hands went down. “Way to be a kill joy,” somebody muttered.
“Am I the only one here thinking rationally!?” Tully shouted. “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills or something!”
“No, she’s right,” I said. “We need to come up with a plan.”
“I’ve got an idea!” exclaimed Dana. “Why don’t we all get in the Dolorean and travel back to yesterday to see if we can prevent all of this from happening! We’ll be heroes! Plus, it’s right by the EXIT sign so it’ll be easy to get out of here!”
“That’s a good idea,” I said. “But you do realize that the Dolorean doesn’t actually do time travel… Right?”
“Wait, what? What do you mean?”
“Time travel hasn’t been discovered yet. The Back to the Future movie franchise was just science fiction. It was an amazing movie franchise, obviously. But nothing more.”
“Really…?” he sighed. “Damn. I put gas in it this morning, just in case. Can’t be too careful, you know.”
The nerdy hipster, Egon jumped up. “I’ve got it!” he shouted. Then he ran over to the Nintendo, put in The Legend of Zelda and started strategizing his next move. We all watched him for about ten minutes, when Tully finally spoke up. “Sooo… What’s your idea?”
“Ohhhh… I’m sorry,” he replied, sheepishly. “This was my idea. You can play next, if you want to.”
A deep sigh emitted from the entire group.
Just then, a loud banging was heard from the front of the store. Then again. And again. In a matter of a few moments, it sounded like a huge group of people had gathered outside, and were banging loudly on the wooden planks blocking the windows.
“It’s them,” sighed Tully. “They’re here.”
And they were all trying to get in.
Dana went to the door. “Hello?” he shouted. “I am Dana! You know—the Gate Keeper? Who are you?”
“There is no Dana, only ZUUL!” exclaimed the voice outside.
Dana turned to Tully. “Zuul? We didn’t name anyone Zuul, did we?”
“No,” she replied. “Definitely not. Stay here and keep them out!” She ran over to the couches, where the television and Nintendo are, to approach Egon. “Egon,” she blurted out. “You’ve got to do something! You’ve got to help us come up with a plan!”
“No!” he shouted back, angrily. “I was here first!”
“You are so useless!” she shouted back at him. “We’re all going to die at their hands and you’re too busy playing a video game!”
“Wait a second,” I said. “No. No, maybe Egon’s right. Maybe our solution is somewhere in this game!”
One of the baristas poked his head out from under the counter. “What do you mean…?”
“Wait, who are you?” I asked.
“Ummm… I’m Ray.”
“What? Seriously? Have you been here the entire time?”
“Ummm… Yeah. I was making Harrison Gourds for everybody.”
“What the hell is that? And why are you dressed as a lobster?”
“Chill, bro. It’s delicious. That’s all you need to know. And, as for the costume—I don’t know, dude, I saw Travis dressed up in his costume so I just thought that’s what we were doing today.”
“Hey!” Dana shouted. “First of all, please stick with the Ghostbusters thing, otherwise it’ll get too confusing for everybody. Secondly, this isn’t a costume, it’s just the first thing I found in my closet this morning.”
We all looked at Dana, questioningly.
“What? I mean… It was dark. I couldn’t really see. I just reached in and this is what I grabbed.”
I turned back to Ray. “Just…tell me what a Harrison Gourd is.”
“Fine,” he sighed, exasperated. “It’s our specialty beverage for the season. It’s like… An Autumnal signature drink.”
“Okay. All right. Well. That sounds delicious. Great plan, Ray.” I sat down in one of the chairs by the couches and watched Egon play Zelda. “Look, guys. Link has to overcome a lot of obstacles to rescue Princess Zelda, right? He never hides. He always goes out there, even though he knows there’s danger at every turn. Maybe one of us just needs to go out there and approach… Them.”
“But won’t you need the Noble Sword…?” somebody asked.
“No.” I replied. “Just coffee. Quick, man.”
“Coffee. Yes—have some.”
“What if we don’t have enough…?”
“Look at those shelves! We have plenty!”
Jeannine, the cafe manager, took a quick inventory.
“He’s right,” she said. “There’s enough here to survive whatever they throw at us.”
Everyone looked to the front of the store just in time to see the boards covering the windows getting torn apart one by one. Dana was doing his best to keep the door shut, shoving his muscly torso into it with all his might. “I can’t hold them back much longer, so I hope you guys have come up with a plan! Can’t be too careful you know!”
Enough boards had been torn away by that point so that we could see out the window a bit. A crowd of people had gathered in front of the building and were pressing in closer and closer. They were human beings. They were businessmen, school teachers, housewives, college students—human beings from all walks of life, of all nationalities.
But there something a bit off about these people. Their faces were blank. Expressionless. Their hair was disheveled, their clothes rumpled, all of them completely unkempt. They shuffled their feet slowly, dragging their briefcases and backpacks along the pavement behind them. Like zombies. But they were alive.
“Coooooffffffffffeeeeeeeeee……” they droned. “Coooooooffffffffffffeeeeeeeeee…….”
They weren’t the walking dead. They were the uncaffeinated masses.
“Hurry!” Dana shouted. “I can’t keep them out much longer!”
“I can’t watch!” screamed somebody behind the bar. “It’s all too horrible!”
I breathed in deep. “All right,” I said. “I’m going out there.” Everyone sighed a unified “be careful” or a “God speed, Walter White.”
“Wait!” exclaimed Tully from behind me. “It’s dangerous to go alone.” She hopped over the counter to the espresso machine, poured a couple shots, and steamed some milk.
“Here,” she said, as she slid a couple of drinks across the stainless steel counter. “Take these.”
“What are these?” I asked.
“These are two of specialty drinks. You’ll need them. This one is our Tomahawk—espresso, maple syrup, and matcha. It’ll come in handy while fighting them off. The other one could be really useful if you use it right—our Peanut Butter Koopa Troopa. Espresso, chocolate, and peanut butter.”
“Are you sure that these will work?”
“Yes. Have some.”
“Thanks, Tully. You guys keep serving up these drinks—I’m sure we’ll need them. Coffee! Quick, men!”
“Okay, okay, okay!” the baristas shouted in reply. “But don’t expect us to look. It’s all too horrible out there!”
I took one last look at the group of people staring at me, silently praying for my safety. “Welp,” I said. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
Dana flung the door open wide and shouted, “Go, Walt! Go!” I ran out into the swarms of people with two cups of coffee. Out into the unknown world.
As we now know, there was no zombie apocalypse, there was no them. It was just a city-wide coffee shortage. The only real threat any of us faced was, if we had a cup of coffee in our hands, one of the “zombies” might have tried to take it from us.
In the end, Dana, Tully, Ray, Venkman, Egon, and the other baristas got the people to form a single-file line down Milwaukee Avenue and the awesome baristas of Wormhole served them their much-needed Halfwit Coffee.
Please, though—don’t thank me. I’m just a survivor, like you.
Thank them—the fine folks at Wormhole Coffee. They’re the real heroes.