This is my first fantasy story with a Deja Vu element. The read is a little longer than most of my stories, but I enjoyed writing it.
By Jon Moray
I didn’t have plans on taking a cross-country trip out west. Many of my colleagues at work suggested I go to the mountains to enjoy the air and do a little skiing. After several weeks of juggling destinations in my head, I decided to put their recommendations to the test. I booked a one-week stay at a four-star hotel right by the mountains. Donning a pair of skis was a little concerning to me, especially since it would be my first time.
Leading up to my vacation, I encountered several disturbing nightmares about being trapped inside of a still body, but being fully cognizant. In my slumber, I am calling out for help but all anyone can see is a fully comatose man on a bed; dead to the world and unresponsive. I have had this nightmare numerous times leading up to my trip. I wondered why I was being haunted by those terrifying nightmares and enlisted advice from friends only to be told that I truly needed to get away.
The morning of the trip, I woke up gasping for air as I battled through another round of my reoccurring nightmare. I had packed the night before and all I needed was a shower and breakfast. The SUV was full of gas and all the necessary maintenance checks were done. I just needed to turn the ignition and go. With a crisp chill in the air and a gleaming sun in my rear view, I pulled out of my neighborhood, stopped at a drive-thru a few miles away and filled up on two breakfast sandwiches and cup of black coffee. I drove twenty miles before turning onto Route 88 for the long haul along the countryside. Route 88 would serve as the long stretch to my destination. A barren road for the first five hundred miles that turned scenic as the hills and mountains neared. I planned to stop over twice to rest and break the repetition of the drive. There were several Sleep-N-Go’s along the route that always had availability, so when I felt tired I would pull off the road, check-in and hit the pillow.
I drove at a leisurely pace, respecting the speed limit for the most part as I had heard the local troopers in some of the small pass through towns were ticket hungry. I drove seven hundred miles that day and turned into the motel entrance at about ten o‘clock. I had never been that far out west so every mile was an adventure in curiosity. I went to bed with great anticipation of what the next day’s travels would bring.
My nightmare was much more magnified that evening as I slept in a tiny room, with flat pillows and a roaring heater. I dreamt of unfamiliar faces peering at me, as I lay frozen on the bed. I often wondered how you can dream of faces you’ve never met. Were these people fabricated in my imagination or were they people I passed by and only registered in my subconscious?
I woke up the next morning to a loud semi-truck’s engine just outside my second story room. I showered, shaved, dressed, and checked out of the motel. The newspaper on the counter called for rain and I noticed I had developed an odd monotone drawl to my voice when I exchanged pleasantries with the front desk clerk. I figured I had caught germs from the room when I slept with my mouth open.
I found another drive-thru along the way and ordered the same thing I ate for breakfast the morning before. I was traveling on Route 88 for about four hours when I came upon a sign that read ‘Dugansville – 2 Miles.’ I muttered the name of that town to myself repeatedly, wondering where I have heard of it before. The name sounded so familiar. About a half mile later, a billboard advertised ‘Grandma’s Western Cookery.’ The name of that diner rang a familiar tone as well. I was bewildered with intrigue as a low rumbling in my stomach alerted me of my hunger. I decided to turn off at the next exit and follow the signs to Grandma’s for a hearty home-style meal.
As I passed certain landmarks, I was overcome with the chilling feeling of experiencing multiple deja vu phenomenons. The cowboy statue in front of a small city hall building really tested my memory banks as each turn registered an aura of recognition. I was in this town before. I saw the diner sign past the second light on the right and I parallel parked about fifty feet away. I had developed a distinct nervous tic within the last two weeks that only surfaced when I was flustered, but today my neck was twitching like a chicken.
I reached the diner, which looked like a country home retrofitted for business. I stepped up the creaky wood plank steps and entered through a screened porch. The inside of the establishment was welcoming enough for me to seat myself at a booth by a window facing the street. The bell chime above the door alerted a waitress over to where I sat. I was looking down at a laminated two-sided menu when she approached.
“Good Morning Hon. Welcome to Grandma’s. Cup of coffee to start you off?” asked a heavy set, frizzy quaffed, redhead with a peach colored uniform and a ketchup stained apron. As I raised my head to answer, she dropped her pencil upon making eye contact. Her expression was that of a woman who just seen a ghost and about to take its order. She covered her mouth and sat opposite me as I retrieved her pencil from the black and white tiled checkered floor.
“Is there a problem?” I asked, in an attempt to break the eerie silence. My neck began gyrating again as she tried to overcome her frozen stare. My monotone voice caused her to cover her mouth with both hands as if to prevent screaming. She suddenly put her hand to my face and spoke, “Harry? Oh, it can’t be. It’s impossible.”
“Harry?” I asked, squinting, as I tried to read her gaze upon me. “I’m afraid you have me mixed up with someone else.”
She removed her hand and cackled, almost at a screeching pitch. “It’s you Harry, you’ve come back. This must be unfinished business or something, that’s what it amounts to. I have to call your brother,” she exclaimed, continuing her witch-like cackle.
I have heard that annoying laugh in my dreams; many times, over and over again. I studied her face to see if I had seen her in my evenings of unconsciousness. Her face didn’t register but that awful sound from her mouth did. She called over an older gentleman wearing faded overalls with a wood handle hammer swaying from the tool loop. His name was “Gentle” Gus, handyman by trade. His gait was slow and purposeless like if he had nothing to do and without a care of doing anything of significance. As he approached the booth, the waitress grabbed his arm and guided him to sit beside her.
“Gus dear, look at him. Look at those marble blue eyes. Look at him twitch. Speak young man, speak, and let your voice be heard to Ol’ Gus here,” she said, with eyes moving wildly about. His eyebrows lifted as he studied me. He began to rub his grizzled chin and tilted his head as if that would provide a better glimpse.
“Harry, why do you come a haunting this town like this? Boy, you’ve been dead for fifteen years. You’ve got no place here scaring up townsfolk. Now git. Ain’t nobody afraid of no phantom that’s been gone for years,” he said, extending a broken pointed index finger.
“You both are off your rockers. My name is Phil Marsten. I am on vacation and I just stopped for a bite to eat. Look, maybe I’ll just eat somewhere else.”
“Gus, you done upset the man. Get up and go back to your eggs. I’ll bring a fill up on your coffee in a minute,” she said, trying to diffuse a verbal confrontation between the old man and me.
“Alright, alright. But don’t you start any trouble around here. This is a town of peaceful folks that live very simple and plain.” He got up and hobbled back to his breakfast. The waitress, whose nametag read Loretta, clutched my hands in hers and massaged my fingers with her thumbs.
“Young man, you may be Phil now, but you were Harry many years ago, before..,” she stopped and turned away as tears glossed her eyes.
“Before what?” I asked, perplexed at her change in demeanor. She shook her head not to answer. She took a few moments to gather herself and spoke, “Harry, I mean Phil, I need to introduce you to your brother, I mean someone. Will you stick around long enough to meet him? His name is Lenny Shogant.”
This time my eyes widened at hearing the man’s name. That name, that last name, Shogant, echoed throughout my nightmares. I began to get a supernatural feeling about me that I could not explain. This town, Loretta’s laugh, that name; everything was beginning to feel like home. I entertained the notion that maybe I was once an inhabitant of this town in another time. I shook off the idea and answered Loretta, “I’ll stay long enough to eat my meal and fill my gas tank.”
Loretta bounced out of the booth and rushed to the pay telephone by the back exit, adjacent to the restrooms. She was buying time because she hadn’t even taken my order yet. I watched as she frantically tapped on the side of the Plexiglas privacy divider, awaiting an answer on the other end. Her hand moved over the phone in an attempt to shield her shrieking voice. Three minutes had elapsed when she returned to the booth to finally take my order. I ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a diet Coke. Loretta shuffled to the kitchen and got the cook cracking with the order. She hurried back and again helped herself to the booth seat opposite me.
“I hope you don’t mind but I called Lenny, Harry’s brother. He just has to meet you. You are a spitting image of Harry. Hon, he was a handsome devil before the accident,” she expressed, her light brown eyes sparkling.
“What about the accident?”
“Hon, he was completely paralyzed, couldn’t move a bone in his whole body. The doctors told the family there was no brain activity but his poor mother, God bless her heart, held out hope for as long as she could until she ran out of resources to keep them from pulling the plug. They convinced her it was for the best to end his struggle. She’s been in agony ever since, poor, poor woman.”
A voice came from the kitchen summoning to her that my order was ready. While she retrieved my lunch I had a hard time trying to compute the new information she had given me. Was I dreaming Harry’s agony? He was tormented in his shell of flesh; I know that from my nightmares. She placed the plate in front of me and almost spilled the soda as she clumsily slammed the plastic cup on the table.
“I’ll leave you to your meal. Take your time and enjoy it, hon.”
I nodded and dug in. The burger was undercooked but edible, while the fries tasted bland even with a generous amount of salt. I was hungry enough to finish the plate despite the lack of taste. I gulped the soda and motioned Loretta over for the bill. As I got her attention, an older man about the same age as Gus entered the diner. I immediately recognized him as one of the two people I saw looking down at me in my nightmares. It was Lenny, Harry’s older brother. He saw me and stopped in his tracks at my appearance. He was dressed like Gus without the hammer loop, and he walked with purpose. His faded blue denim shirt was rolled up above the elbows; a tell tale sign of how deep in toil he was. His demeanor was a cross between disbelief and anticipation for some answers. He took a deep breath and approached me. His eyes focused on mine for a moment and then traveled slowly down my seated frame. He sat and tilted his head just like Gus as I resumed my twitching. Silence dominated for several seconds until Loretta, in all her quirkiness, broke the calm with the awful echoes from her vocal chords.
“Lenny, this is Phil Marsten from back east. You can certainly see why I called you down here. Phil, this is Lenny Shogant, Harry’s brother.”
Lenny extended his hand across the table and I shook, noticing the roughness of his calloused fingers on my palm. He focused on each one of my eyes, alternating between each one as if he were taking a reflex test.
“People around here believe me to be your brother, reincarnated. What do you think of that?” I asked, in an attempt at some conversation. He didn’t answer. His focus was locked on my appearance; he probably didn’t hear the question.
“I have to admit this town is eerily familiar to me even though before today, I never knew this place existed.”
My monotone broke his trance as he finally spoke, “Huh, what was that?”
I was about to repeat when he made a comment about my speech impediment. “You look, act and sound just like my brother. You say this place looks familiar, yet you’ve never been here? Your neck…with all that moving, we used to call you the human Pez dispenser. Do you have thoughts like my brother?”
“I have had dreams that might’ve lent a feeling as to what your brother went through in his comatose state. In my dreams, your brother was aware of his surroundings even though he couldn’t express it to anyone.”
“You’ve had those kind of dreams?”
“Yes, ever since I booked my skiing trip to the mountains I have had these awful nightmares. It was horrible what your brother went through.”
Lenny sat back and hunched down in the booth as his shifty eyes told the story of a man that didn’t believe in the supernatural but still could not ignore the testimony I was giving. He paused a few moments as if he was trying to mentally piece together the next question he wanted to ask. Finally he spoke, “Going through those nightmares…was pulling the plug the right thing?”
I paused to gather my thoughts when he just waved away any attempt I could make at an answer. I glanced at the bill and reached in my back pocket for my wallet. I removed a ten-dollar bill, three ones, and got up to leave.
Lenny grabbed my arm. “I want you to take a walk with me through the old neighborhood. Will you do that for me? Will you walk with me?”
“I really have to go. I’m already behind schedule,” I answered, as he drew his hand away. He shrugged at Loretta for assistance but “The Cackler” surprisingly remained mum. His disappointment showed as he sat searching for words. I gave Loretta the cash and had her keep the change, which was about twenty percent. I nodded at Lenny and exited the diner.
I hooked a left and walked towards my vehicle when I noticed an older hunter green pickup truck parked in front of my truck. The truck struck an instant memory of me driving that same vehicle. I distinctly recalled a bumper sticker that read “Handyman in a Handy Land.” I rushed to the back of the truck and there it was, faded and mud stained, but still somewhat legible.
Lenny caught me looking at the vehicle, which belonged to him. The sight of this truck and the effect it had on my memory convinced me to take Lenny up on his offer.
“Why don’t we go for that walk, Lenny? I’ll call the hotel and inform them I’ll be a late arrival.”
We walked side by side as Lenny acted as a tour guide, pointing out landmarks and certain places where Harry did something memorable. Most of what I saw I didn’t recollect, probably because it had been fifteen years since Harry was alive here. I did recall the rusted fire hydrant that I was told I ran over just after I had gotten my license. Lenny pointed out the tire marks I had left before I jumped the curb. He laughed at how the marks were still visible after all the time that had passed.
“Lenny, how many miles do you have on your truck?” I asked.
“Around three hundred and seventy five thousand. It survived your accident. I never did replace the bumper. That truck is my livelihood. It is the most recognized vehicle in this town and because of its reliability, I am the towns’ most respected handyman.”
“What about Gentle Gus?”
“Gentle Gus has had a grudge against me since Harry’s accident. He always thought I stole his business out of pity because you were comatose and people thought I needed the business more than him. That’s Gus for you. The truth is he’s lazy and unreliable. He’ll blame everyone but himself.”
“That explained the cold reception I got when I met him at the diner.”
“Don’t pay him no mind.” We continued our ambling as I recalled a few street signs. I stopped in my tracks as we came to the intersection of Main and Franklin.
I peered over to the left to see a row of old cracker style houses across the street.
“Twenty-three Franklin Avenue,” I muttered, as I saw the house where I recalled a night on the front porch swing, waiting for Lenny to come home from a long day of toil.
“I dreamt all this,” I said, as I led the way to the old but cared for house with a wraparound porch. I was the first to step up onto the porch and quickly went for the swing. I swung and looked out at the scene that my subconscious recreated in my nightmares. Lenny went inside while I took in the cool country air with exhaled pleasure. He returned with what looked like a photo album. He sat beside me as I continued the rhythm of the swing. He opened up the album and narrated each picture and its significance. They were in chronological order and not one of them affected me until he got to pictures of us as young men. There were some nice pictures of us by the truck and even pictures taken of the damage I had done to it. He turned the page and I instantly recognized Harry’s mother pictured with Harry, arm-in-arm. I was taken aback at her striking features, as she was the woman I saw in my comatose state in the hospital room beside Lenny.
I stopped him from turning the page as I choked up at the love on her face in that picture. “Lenny, where is she? Where is your Mom?”
Lenny straightened up and stopped the motion of the swing. He was one that thought about what he would say before he would say it. “I am afraid she is bedridden in a nursing home. She’s been there for the last five years. She has never been the same since her decision to end Harry‘s life. I visit with her every day. God bless her, you can tell she is dying inside but still puts on a pleasant demeanor every time I see her.”
“Lenny, do you think I should see her? I don’t want to shock her in her weakened state, but I feel it is something I must do. Maybe it is fate that I see her.”
“I was thinking the same thing. I don’t know how she’d react, but I think it’s worth a try. She’s on the other side of town. Wait here, I’ll go get the truck.” He jumped off the swing and hurried around the corner out of sight as I continued to look at the album. As I was nearing the end, I came upon a picture of Harry in his coma. I saw the non-existent expression and the nothingness in his eyes. I imagined the sorrow his mom went through and brushed away tears as Lenny pulled up.
I hopped off the swing and opened the heavy creaking passenger door. I got in and recognized the cold metal odor of the vehicle. It rattled and the engine was loud but it got us where we needed to go. “Drive easy, don’t speed and you can drive a vehicle for as long as I drove this one. That’s what I always say.”
We got to the five-story, brick exterior, nursing home in fifteen minutes. We checked in at the security desk and took the elevator to the third floor. We approached a reception desk and the on-call nurse quickly recognized Lenny. I overheard her tell him his mother had very little to eat for breakfast and she didn’t want to participate in any of the days’ activities. He told her he we would only stay a few minutes. We went from the desk down a long corridor with numbers on the wall signifying how many feet you were from the elevators. We got to room 307 and I followed Lenny in. I stayed in the background as he greeted her with a hug and a kiss. He helped her sit up while adjusting her pillows.
“Mom, there is someone here I want you to see, is that alright?” She nodded slightly as Lenny motioned me forward. As I got closer, her half shut eyes widened at my sight. She pointed at me and looked at Lenny for an explanation. She began to mumble something, but was inaudible to both of us. I was now at the bed on her left side as she reached for me.
“My, my son,” she whispered, and began to sob. I drew closer and let my momentum bring me cheek to cheek with her. I could feel her tears on the side of my face as I reached around to embrace her. We were locked for several teary moments. I finally broke the embrace as I began to do my involuntary chicken impression.
“There goes the human Pez dispenser,” Lenny said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.
“Mom,” I said, naturally, not thinking for a moment that she wasn’t. “Mom, I just want you to know that I love you very much and you made the right decision. You freed me from agony,” I struggled to say, as tears beaded my flush cheeks. We embraced again and drenched each other’s clothes with the waterworks. A voice from the door broke our embrace as the nurse informed us our intrusion was encroaching on Mom’s medication and nap schedule. Lenny and I gave her one last hug before we exited. She managed a smile through her soaked face as I turned back and waved.
We walked toward the elevator as Lenny uttered, “I think it was good idea for her to see you. You probably gave her some piece of mind. Thank you.”
“I feel the same way. I think she needed to hear it from me.”
We took the elevator down, exited the building and headed to his truck. While driving back I asked, “What caused Harry’s accident?”
“He was going out west just like you. I offered to let him drive this truck but he scoffed at the idea, saying he would rent a sports car that would get him there in no time. He liked to drive fast. Anyway, when he was close to his destination, an avalanche engulfed Route 88 and he was thrust off the road and down a hill a hundred feet down. I believe if he had taken my truck he would’ve missed it altogether but I am speculating of course.”
“Of course. I understand,” I said, pondering the eerie coincidence of my trip out west on the same road. We got to the diner where my truck was parked and we bid our adieus with a firm handshake. He waved as his truck sputtered away and I got into my vehicle to continue my journey.
I had a six-hour drive ahead of me and I took the speed easy. I was on the road for four hours when all traffic stopped. Drivers were out of their vehicles conversing with each other. I got out of my truck to ascertain the nature of the traffic snarl. A motorist explained there had been an avalanche nine miles up the road that closed down Route 88. It had happened about two hours ago. Several casualties had been reported and an estimated fifty cars were affected by the disaster. After several cell phone inquiries about hotel lodging in the area, I turned around on the median and found a resort hotel at the next exit. It was a scaled down resort compared to the one I had booked but it had a lot of the same amenities, only at a smaller scale. I decided to stay there for the duration of my trip since it did have a hill that was a so-called mountain with skiing capabilities. As I laid my head down for the evening I stared out my window on the fourth floor with the neon resort sign blinking through. I reflected on the days’ events and it dawned on me that my stopover in Dugansville might’ve saved my life. I mentally calculated that I would’ve been in the vicinity at the time of the avalanche. Fate has a way of happening that way, even if it meant me reliving someone else’s life in my dreams.
I enjoyed the week I spent at the resort with the miniature mountain. Heck, I wouldn’t have tried to brave the slopes on the bigger mountains anyway. I let myself go with my grooming and had grown a mini beard. The twitching went away and my voice was no longer monotone. I felt like me again, before the nightmares. I haven’t had any more nightmares about Harry.
I packed up the truck, relaxed, but disappointed at the finality of my vacation. I checked out and revved up the Explorer to go back home. I planned to drive ten hours that day and check into a hotel about one hundred miles east of Dugansville. The drive was a smooth as could be. I was about five miles from the Dugansville exit when I saw Lenny and his truck, with the hood up on the side of the road. I pulled off the road and pulled up behind the truck. I got out and called to Lenny.
“Lenny. It’s good to see you again. Having trouble with the truck?”
“Do I know you?” he said, perplexed. “I appreciate you pulling over but I don’t believe we’ve met before.”
“Lenny, it’s me, Phil Marsten. We met a week ago. Don’t you recognize me? You believed me to be the reincarnation of Harry, your brother.”
“You are not the Phil Marsten I met. Heck, Harry never could grow facial hair. Your neck doesn’t twitch and you don’t have a problem with your speech. Your eyes are light blue. Harry’s was deep blue. Now, I don’t know who you are but you are not the guy who helped my mom go to her resting place in peace, God bless her soul.”
I stood shocked at his lack of recognition, however, I did lose a lot of the attributes that made him believe I was Harry. I was more shocked at the news of his mother passing. “You mom died? When? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“She died a few days after the visit from Phil. I believe she needed him to see her before she could let go of her life. She was just strong enough to hold on so he could put her at ease. I was on my way home from the funeral when my truck just quit on me.”
“Maybe I can help. What do you think the problem is?”
“Well, I pulled over to answer my cell. I don’t like to talk on it while driving. I cut off the ignition so I can hear over the engine and when I tried to fire it back up, it wouldn’t turn over. It either needs a jump or the starter is stuck.”
“Do you have cables?” I asked.
He reached over into the bed of the truck and pulled out the cables. I went to my truck to pull up beside him. Lenny hooked it up and after a few tries, it fired up.
“Thanks. I’ve been thinking about retiring this old vehicle. Do you know how many miles are on it? Take a guess.”
“I’d say about three hundred and seventy five thousand.”
“How’d you guess?” he asked, surprised. “Anyway, thanks for your help. You are a lifesaver.”
“Lenny, it is you who is the lifesaver. Have a great evening and keep doing what you do best in Dugansville.”
“Come again?” he asked, skeptically, at how I knew so much about him.
“Never mind. Take care,” I said, and turned back to my truck. I shut the hood and waved as I got into my vehicle. He did the same. I waited for him to pull out onto the road as my headlights shone a light on that faded, muddy, bumper sticker.