A man works, behind a counter, crafting wake-ups. He combines cloudlike froth and powdered bean, dissolved in steaming water; hands them away for thrice a dollar, the occasional heavy-lidded smile. His face is blurred, his unimportance in the bigger picture, as the world rolls on by. They’re addicts, they all are; it’s just another bitter morning, with a bitter drink to warm the hand, defrost the heart, and he’s just a most-likely-bitter person, behind a counter, crafting wake-ups.
Wake up, wake up, from where dreams engulf, where reality does not cut so sharp! Wake up, face the day! You know you have to; the hot liquid pleasantly whispers as it steams and hazes the windows, hides the world outside. Wake up, drink more and wake up. That is the wake-up call.
Given a minute’s silence as rush hour dies, he takes a moment to watch the room, half full with people who hunch over laptops at small round tables, alone in their heads, sleep prizing open mouths with stifled, sleepy sounds. There’s little conversation – in fact, most people sit by themselves, except the odd pair of work colleagues or honeymoon-phase couple who can’t be parted: nobody is up and out the house at such an ungodly hour by choice. Not even he is.
He watches people shake and drink themselves back to life. Fingers begin to get faster on keyboards. The by-choice-early-birds enter, and conversation starts to pick up. The last of the first-round leave for their offices, and then the dreamers come.
Their waddling in, clasping of bigger hands, hair in pigtails or naturally mussed, and too brightly dressed outfits for the muted earthy tones of the walls and floors and paper cups, fills him with overwhelming jealousy. The dreamers, they’re never bitter. They never come for a wake-up, they come for sickly sweet drinks that quite surely wake you up, but not in the same way. They sugar-coat their sugar-coated lives and leave them in the clouds with castles and mermaids. He always hopes his shift will end before they arrive, but that’s highly improbable, because they are the nobodies that would be up and out the house at such an ungodly hour if they could. They come out as soon as their pestering becomes unbearable.
He is possessed by an involuntary shiver as the first reaches the front of his line. He doesn’t hate them: he hates what they stand for. What he lost. The sweet slumber he woke up from.
But every dreamer wakes up in the end. They’ll become like him, and all the rest of the first-round. Waking up, waking up, from where dreams engulf and reality does not cut so sharp. Listening to the wake-up call.
He serves them whipped-snow peaks on molten chocolate, fake smiles and warm brownies. Some even get milkshakes, neon ice-slush – madness! How high in the clouds you must be to want to have your teeth chattering, when the cruel outside already does that for free. He supposes it’s true again, it certainly would wake you up, but it’s still not the same. They’re still up there, floating and wild. Disconnected. Free.
They wriggle at their tables, take too-quick bites and slurp their drinks when they’re almost gone. His mind invites him to a fantasy for a second. A dragon breathes the steam that hazes the windows, a witch is in the back summoning more cake pops so they’ll never run out, a yeti delivers the ice for the frappes and slushies.
The soft chiming for noon marks the end of his shift, and he gratefully trades his till to a high-schooler who grins and waves at the dreamers who so much as glance her way. He could’ve sworn he saw her earlier in the first-round looking miserable, weighed down by the bags under her eyes with three or so empty cups haphazard on the table; he’s sure she’s here for the exact same reason, just is a lot better at hiding it. He doesn’t care much for the taste of his craft, but he finds himself sipping one as he leaves anyway. It scalds his tongue, slides delightfully down his throat, and reminds him that the imagining was useless. The steam on the windows is solely scientific; the cake pops will run out, and soon by the rate the dreamers were getting at them; and the deliverymen are just as grouchy and ordinary as him. It would do him good to remember that: he’d only suffocate up in the clouds.
Wake up, wake up, face the day! You’ve already made it halfway. He does not care for the taste, but he does like the wake-up call. A sharp rush of cold air greets him as he leaves and steps out into the bleak grey.
He clasps his cup in both hands, channeling the warmth as he turns down the street. He lets his feet wander awhile, aimless. He finishes his drink, but keeps it in hand until the last of the heat escapes it, then tosses it into the nearest trashcan. The sky is silvery and thick with clouds, and he is still blurred. Every face walking by has more importance, more life. Maybe some smiles are genuine. Maybe some people stopped dreaming because they didn’t have to anymore – because what they once dreamt became their reality. Maybe some people wake up to goodness, and not just to work. He keeps wandering, knowing exactly where he is but lost all the same. Eventually he finds himself back at the hazed windows, echoing hushed friendly chatter and a soft glow. Is this what addiction does? He muses. Does he have nothing better to do than waste another bit of his sorry paycheck on a drink he hardly likes?
That is the wake-up call, he supposes. Wake up, drink more and wake up.
Realizing he really does have nothing better to do, he pushes open the door. The heat envelopes him like a hug, and he’s about to push it away and leave again – bitterly cursing his mistake, the room was even more full of dreamers – when he notices a familiar face.
A friend from his youth sits at one of the tables nearest him. He’d once known that face as well as his own – better, even. He had been a brother, a boy who had chased him through the clouds right to the end. He’d assumed they’d both fallen off the edge, hit the ground hard and jolted awake. But they’d grown apart, so it’d just been assumption, not knowledge. Maybe, he admits to himself, he’d hoped. But he realizes now he had fallen alone.
The friend leans over his table, talking intently to a woman sitting opposite. He practically shines with happiness, and the woman is no different. He clasps her hand where a beautiful ring glints in the warm lighting, and the man doesn’t need to eavesdrop to know they are planning. Planning life. A hundred possibilities is spread out before them, lows and highs, and they are taking a moment to dream of them all. Neither of them has purchased wake-ups, or any sort of drink or cake. It is just them, and that is enough.
The man doesn’t end up buying another wake-up that day, but he does leave the hazed windows behind with another type of call thrumming through his system.
Wake up, wake up, from where life is monotonous, and you have little purpose! Wake up, see the light! You know you’d better; the memory of his old friend’s grin pleasantly nudges him as it clears his vision, reveals the goodness outside. Wake up, realise there is something wondrous for you, too, and really wake up. That is the true wake-up call.
The next morning, a man works, behind a counter, crafting wake-ups. But today, the room doesn’t look so dreary, and the smiles he gives aren’t so fake. The outside is frosty, but like the unforgiving touch of an ice queen.
Maybe some don’t have to stop dreaming at all.