(disclaimer: there could be a number of errors in this, but I literally just finished writing it about 10 minutes ago!)
I banged my palms on the steering wheel in time to the music while waiting for the light to change. Twenty more minutes and I’d be home for the weekend. My mind wandered to Marla, a woman I met a few weeks back on an internet dating site. We’d spent two nights together in those three weeks, and my brain hoped that it was only because of my work schedule that we hadn’t been able to connected more often. I felt my heart race at the thought of the skin-tight dress she’d worn the previous Saturday when we’d driven up to Boise for—
The blare of at least three horns shattered my concentration and brought me back to reality. I felt my face turn red as I wondered how long I had made the cars behind me wait to turn left onto Borah Ave. A glance in my rearview mirror once my foot hit the gas pedal made me turn even more red. Their multiple rude gestures and mouthed insults were the proper payment for any dumbass who couldn’t get off his cell phone or stop picking her nose long enough to notice the light had turned green.
I crossed over the first two lanes, my light still a bright green arrow, when a blur caught my peripheral vision. I felt my nerves tingle all at once as I realized a blue Honda wasn’t going to stop at its red light. I couldn’t decide whether to jam my foot on the gas or the brake, but the Honda was moving so fast that I never got to make the decision. A loud bang preceded the crunch of metal and glass by a quarter of a second, the airbags in my Chevy Cavalier filling instantly and whiting out my world.
I braced as hard as I could with my arms and legs, sure that it was the worst thing I could do but unable to control my muscles thanks to the fear flooding my body with adrenaline. The impact spun my car around at least four times, another crunch bringing it to a stop against what I guessed was a utility pole. The worry that I might have suffered whiplash, a broken bone, or a broken nose thanks to the airbag was partially lessened by being able to see the world around me as the airbag deflated.
I blinked a couple of times, unsure of what I was seeing. The Honda was in the middle of the street, its front end completely pulverized, yet the driver had somehow extricated himself through the rear window and was walking toward me—holding what looked like a huge, chromed pistol. As if me making eye contact had enacted a program execution, the man raised the pistol and began firing at me.
“FUCK!” I screamed, involuntarily reaching for the door handle. “Fuck fuck fuck!” I yelled again as I pulled the handle multiple times.
The door wouldn’t budge. Every bullet that struck the Chevy made me jerk. I thought I was going to have a heart attack from the pounding in my chest. The only window that was still intact exploded behind me. I jerked again then decided to exit through the passenger door. The seatbelt brought me up short, leaving a burn on my neck from the rough kevlar riding across it as if it were a hangman’s rope. Another explosion of noise was followed by a new burning sensation, this one in my right thigh.
“Fuck you!” I screamed, trying to click the button to disengage the seatbelt while at the same time trying to feel the wound in my leg.
The seatbelt popped and I scrambled across the center console, praying the passenger door would open. I pulled the lever and nothing happened again other than a sharp noise made me look up. A hole in the passenger seat’s headrest stared back at me. I pulled the handle again, this time using my good leg to push against the other door while shouldering the passenger side open.
A creak and a pop made me almost burst into tears as the door opened and I saw blacktop pavement below. I pulled myself out onto the warm asphalt then stood up to run when my right leg buckled and I sat down hard on the ground. The world began to spin, my senses in overload as I heard the click of the mans shoes on the road. I tried to stand up again, pushing myself up against the rear door, making it halfway when the man stepped around the rear of the car.
The fraction of a second I looked at his face, I felt a weird deja vu, as if I’d met him at a party or a convention and we’d had a conversation describing this exact event. My eyes were glued to the massive pistol in his hand. I tracked it as if it were a fighter jet and my eyes were radar, watching it raise to my face. I saw the left side of the man’s lips curl up as he pulled the trigger.
“Shit!” I screamed as the hammer felt on an empty chamber.
The warm piss I felt in my jeans turned ice cold instantly, which helped me put that region of my body into lockdown. The man frowned, and I felt the same deja vu again, this time much stronger. Part of me wondered why the fuck no one else was jumping out of their car and tackling this asshole, while another wondered if I had shit myself a little to compliment the piss I’d donated to my boxers and Levi’s. Somehow, a third part of my brain screamed at me to run like hell, bad leg or not. He reached into his jacket pocket. The instant I saw another magazine for his pistol, I decided I wasn’t going to die with a massive crater in my face.
The pain flared through my leg as I pivoted and ran, though it was more of a stumble. The man said nothing, didn’t yell at me to stop, didn’t make a single noise. I knew after two steps I was going to die, as I could feel my right leg giving out. The adrenaline flooding through my system was now so overwhelming that it was becoming toxic, making my joints feel as if I had arthritis, forcing my chest to take short, hiccuping breaths. Two steps later, I heard the roar of an engine.
I looked back, falling to the ground as my leg finally gave out, sure I’d see the man smiling while pointing the gun at my face again. Instead, I saw a pickup truck slam into the man and carry him the three feet into the rear end of my Chevy. My mind began to shut down when I heard the crunch of bones over the crunch of the Ford truck destroying what was left of my car. My lunch ejected into the street when I noticed the man’s legs resting underneath the truck, while his shoulders and head were still poking above the hood.
“Tony!” a familiar voice screamed at me from the pickup truck.
The sense of deja vu was stronger than ever, and it made me throw up again.
“Tony! Come on!” Chris Ballantyne shouted in my face.
I knew I was hallucinating. One second Chris was in the truck yelling at me, the next he was leaning over me, roughly shaking me while attempting to get me to stand up. One more trip through the deja vu feeling made me swoon, and the world began to go dark until he slapped me. I wanted to ask my best friend of the last eight years why the hell he had just hit me. I felt a giggle build in me as I tried to phrase the question of why the fuck he rammed the truck into my car, snapping a man in half. The giggle died when I remembered the train tunnel I’d stared down just before the click of an empty gun made me piss my pants.
“Come on, man! We got to go. NOW!”
I laughed all the way back to the truck, as it was the only way to make the pain in my leg disappear long enough to put weight on my right foot. Chris shoved me in through the driver’s side, my head banging into the hard plastic of the center console twice before I was able to get far enough to let him in. I heard the his door slam and the gears grind while I tried to orient myself in the passenger seat. The roar of the engine was drowned out by the squeal of tires burning and metal screeching as the truck attempted to separate itself from my Chevy.
I finally righted myself and heard my own voice shout in fright at the remains of the assassin still pinned between the truck and my car. Chris shifted into first and punched the gas, immediately shifting back into reverse and revving the engine again. The sounds of metal being torn and ripped stopped after a loud bang as the truck finally detached itself and began to speed backward. My face nearly collided with the dashboard when Chris slammed on the brakes. He shifted into first again and floored it, my head rebounding from the headrest behind me.
“What the fuck?” I yelled, both at Chris for what was happening, as well as the dark red blood covering my hand.
I was afraid to pull my hand away from my leg, thanks to watching too many WW2 and Vietnam documentaries and movies. The image in my head was of a jet of blood erupting from the wound the instant I removed the impromptu tourniquet.
“Shut up!” he yelled, not taking his eyes off the road. “Hang on!”
I opened my mouth to tell him off when my face crashed into the window as he took a sharp left. I wasn’t sure if the sound of sirens was real, or was the result of my third or fourth concussion in the last three minutes. I kept my mouth shut, doing my best to get the seatbelt latched before the truck rolled or crashed into something else. I braced myself for another hard turn, this one to the right, expecting Chris to gun the engine again and speed down another street. Instead, the truck stopped accelerating at 35mph, the speed limit of Anderson Blvd, and we cruised down the road as if we hadn’t just killed a man by sandwiching him between two vehicles.
“Just shut up for now,” Chris said when I opened my mouth to ask him what the fuck was going on. “Please, Anthony, just let me get us out of here. We’re in a lot of trouble.”
“What the fuck do you mean we?” I yelled, unwilling to follow his orders. “You fuckin’ killed that guy, not me!”
“Just shut the fuck up!” he screamed, turning toward me long enough for me to see that it might be a good idea to do as he said.
I brooded for the next ten minutes as we made our way out into the low, rolling hills of the desert scrub. The adrenaline had worn off and I felt exhausted, scared, and wet. I groaned, remembering that I’d pissed myself. I groaned again, as once I remembered, I instantly felt the cold, slimy, disgusting sensation of wet jeans and underwear. I decided to finally take a good look down, praying once again that my soaked lower half was from urine instead of blood from the bullet in my leg. I couldn’t tell, as the sun was beginning to set low enough that the short hills created deep shadows within the truck’s cab.
I cursed Chris out for almost ten minutes straight when he left the gravel road, turning onto a road that felt like it was made of uneven railroad ties. The urge to throw up again was getting harder to keep under control, as was my ability to stay awake. That thought led to the next logical one that I was probably in shock and dying from blood loss. I felt the icy tingles roll through my nervous system again, but I was also awake and alert, my brain unable to rid itself of the thought I was bleeding to death.
The seatbelt clicked as it locked into place when Chris slammed on the brakes. I looked around, wondering if the evening was already this dark, or if my world was growing dark and I was about to meet my maker. He clucked and leaned over, grabbing the hand clamped to my thigh so he could get a good look.
“Stop crying,” he said with a frown as he leaned back in his seat. “It’s just a flesh wound.”
“Man, fuck you!” I screamed. “I got shot!”
“Yeah, and you’re lucky it didn’t actually go into your leg. It will bleed for a while, and it needs to be cleaned and dressed, but you’re not going to die.”
“What the fuck is going on? Where the fuck did you come from? Who the fuck was that guy? How th—”
He held up his hand, which was good, as I felt myself blacking out again. I took a few deep breaths and opened my eyes, waiting a few seconds for the world to snap back into place.
“Did you have one of those deja vu moments?”
“What?” I asked, confused, mostly because I was having the strongest deja vu of my entire life the instant the words left his mouth.
“What the fuck?”
“Look, Tony, you can keep asking ‘what the fuck’ a million times, but that isn’t helping. Did you have a deja vu when that guy nailed you? Are you having one right now?”
“Yes!” He cocked his head and gave me a strange look. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. “Yes. Both. A lot. Ever since that guy plowed into me at the intersection, it’s like one big deja vu that doesn’t go away, just has peaks and valleys.”
“Shit,” he said under his breath.
“Shit? What does that mean? That sounds like you’re pretty upset that I gave some kind of correct answer.”
“It means we’re in even more trouble than I thought.”
“Why do you keep saying ‘we’?” I seemed to have forgotten how to talk in a normal voice, as everything came out at full volume.
“Listen, Tony. Listen to me carefully. Are you ready to listen?” I nodded my head. “Good. You’re not going to believe any of this, but you don’t really have a choice. My name is Chris, but it’s not Chris Ballantyne.”
I stared at him, wondering if the deja vu feeling about to make me explode was the lead-up to a punchline that was never going to be funny.
“It’s Christopher Granlund,” he continued before I could interrupt him. “I’m not really your best friend. I mean, I am, because that’s what I’ve had to be for the last eight years, but it’s not who I really am.”
“This shit isn’t funny,” I said. I couldn’t tell if I was becoming angry or frightened.
“I know it isn’t. We hoped this day would never come, but it has. Anthony, I’m your best friend because I had to stay close to you just in case this day ever happened. I volunteered, giving up any chance at a normal life, having a family, all of that, just to make sure I was in the right place at the right time should I need to be.”
“Stop talking in riddles, goddammit!”
“I’m sorry. Here, let me look at your leg. I’m rated as E-5 in medical services.”
“Get the fuck away from me!” I screamed, shoving his hand out of the way. I didn’t want him touching me. I didn’t want to hear anything he had to say.
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry. Relax. Look, Tony, you know that deja vu stuff?”
I nodded again, though I was now afraid he was going to kill me if I didn’t do as he wanted or answer his questions satisfactorily.
“Have you felt that your whole life?” he asked, leaning back against his door.
“No. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Think about it.”
“Just think about it, okay? It’s important. You won’t believe me otherwise.”
“I don’t fuckin’ believe you now!” He held up a hand again. I sighed and tried to focus my mind. “Fine. I might have had them my whole life, I don’t know. I didn’t really notice them until I was ten or eleven.”
“What happened in your life around that time?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I got kissed for the first time? I won the Little League regionals game with a three-run homer that summer?”
“Uh, I got my new laptop, made the Honor Roll… what the fuck, Chris? Just tell me what I’m supposed to remember.”
“Think harder,” he said, narrowing his eyes at me. “Think about the movies you watched.”
“Okay,” I said, racking my brain to remember. “‘Standard Practice’?” He shook his head. “‘Unity Evolved’?” Another shake of his head. “‘Multiple Invaders’?”
He nodded his head. I stared at him for a few seconds, wondering both how it was important, but also how he knew I’d seen the movie. It would have been at least seven years before I met him, though I might have mentioned it in some conversation.
“What’s so important about that movie?” I asked.
“You remember the concept of it? About the time machine the guy invented?”
“Sure,” I said, thinking about the movie for the first time in years.
“Good. Now tell me about the bunk beds you and Michael shared.”
The deja vu feeling blasted through me again, and this time, I was sure I could almost hold on to it long enough to get a good look at what was going on within that metaphysical state. It passed, but the wave of nausea hit me and I almost hurled into the floorboards of the pickup.
“I don’t have a brother,” I snapped. “You know that. You’ve met my family. I’m an only child. Stop fucking with me!”
“Come on, Tony. Think harder. Your older brother Michael. You two shared bunk beds. You were always jealous of his because he had Pittsburgh Steelers sheets and you had Star Wars. You loved Star Wars, but you felt immature still holding on to a ‘kid movie’ when Mikey was already into football and basketball.”
“Shut the fuck up, man,” I said, holding the side of my head with my free hand.
“Remember when you were eight?” he asked. “You almost killed him and yourself when you were playing with fire in your bedroom? How you barely made it out with him, lucky to escape only with singed hair and pajamas and a half-melted GI Joe action figure?”
I threw up at the mention of GI Joe. The deja vu was so strong it made my guts clench a few more times. I could smell the acrid, smoky stench of melted plastic and burnt hair. For a fraction of a second, I saw a second face in my memory, one that could have been a boy my age, his face black with soot and most of the left side of his head missing hair.
“STOP!” I shrieked. “Just fucking stop!” My gut were on fire from throwing up violently, while my brain was on fire from the constant flashes of deja vu. “Stop putting shit in my head!”
“I’m not putting anything in your head,” Chris said, his voice calm. “I’m triggering memories.”
“Bullshit! You’re doing something to me. I’m an only child. You know this!”
“You’re right. You are an only child. Now. But you weren’t. You had a brother. You know this.”
I felt as if he’d punched me. The memories of Michael screaming and crying while I tried to lead us out of the burning bedroom flashed through my mind. I felt the panic, the fear, and I could even smell the smoke and feel the heat as the curtains went up in flames as if they were made out of napalm. The look in my little brother’s eyes after making our way through a dark house, parents nowhere to be found, had nearly killed me then. It was both accusatory and loving.
Except none of it ever happened. I couldn’t stop the tremors that started in my feet and rolled through my body into my head. I felt like a Pez dispenser with a broken spring the way my skull bobbled around on my neck. The way my skin seemed to vibrate took me away to another memory, one of me an Michael playing an old game that our father had saved from his own childhood, where a bunch of plastic football players would wander around a metal field whenever a switch was flipped and the playing surface became a miniature earthquake.
“Noooo,” I groaned, my stomach threatening to expel whatever was left in it—likely nothing but bile and acid by this point.
“You’re remembering,” Chris said, placing a hand on my arm to steady me.
“Fuck you!” I screeched, jerking away from his touch.
I opened the door and fell out of the seat onto the hard-packed dirt. My hands found the rear tire after I scooted along the ground as I did my best to escape the madness of whatever was happening. I heard Chris open his door, then the soft crunch of his boots as he circled around the rear of the truck.
“Leave me alone!” I screamed.
“I can’t, Anthony,” he said. The expression on his face was a mix of guilt, fear, anger, and sorrow. “But you have to get yourself together quickly. They won’t stop after a single failed attempt, especially now that they’ve got the right universe.”
“W-w-what?” I stuttered, slowly pulling myself up from the ground. I tried to shake off Chris’ helping hand but decided I needed it to steady myself. “Just leave me alone. I want to go home.”
“You can’t go home, Tony,” he said sadly.
“Then I’m going anywhere you aren’t, fucker!”
I took two hesitant steps, turned back to look at Chris, then ran for it. I had no idea where I was going to go. Desert surrounded me on all sides, but I knew we weren’t that far away from the city. I hoped I wouldn’t bleed to death before I made it back to civilization where I could call the police, an ambulance, hell, the National Guard if necessary. I fell down after stubbing my toe on a sagebrush root, barely getting my hands up in time to safe myself from losing an eye to a sharp rock poking out of the dirt. I looked back, angry that I’d barely made it fifty yards from the truck, frightened when I saw Chris slowly walking toward me with his hands up as if I were about to arrest him.
“Tony, you can’t escape,” he said after coming to a stop in front of me. He kneeled down and eyed the wound in my leg. “You have to come with me unless you want to die. Unless you want everything to unravel, and not just for you.”
“Goddammit!” I exploded, leaning forward to shove him as hard as I could. He wasn’t expecting it and fell over backward, a puff of dirt rising from the ground around him. “Tell me what the fuck is going on! No more riddles!”
Chris sighed after sitting up. “All right. Just calm down. Remember what I said about déjà vu?”
I nodded then scooted backward on my ass a few feet just in case I needed to stand up and run again.
“Okay,” he said. “Déjà vu happens when your timeline gets changed. Your mind shifts to take in the altered events though to you, they have always been. Déjà vu is like the waste, the roughage that your mind can’t do anything with, and it’s always right near the moment where the old reality merges with the current reality. It’s the synchronization with time that you feel.”
I laughed. It wasn’t a humorous laugh. I knew I was either having a nightmare, or someone had slipped me a dose of good painkillers on the way to the hospital after my traffic accident.
“Remember how you felt when we talked about Michael?” he asked, sending another wave of nausea and deja vu through me. “That’s part of the waste of the old timeline, a ghost memory that is too ingrained to be purged. You’ll never be able to forget the memories that affect you the most, and nearly killing your little brother was traumatic.”
“Man, fu—” I started but he punched me in my wounded leg. I let out a bloodcurdling scream.
“Shut the fuck and listen to me, goddammit,” he growled.
He relayed some more stories about my supposed original life timeline, but they all sounded made up to me. Except each one had a certain, significant detail that gave me that déjà vu feeling all over again each time I heard it. I couldn’t hold on to the memory, but I could sense it. Hiding, lurking somewhere. I didn’t believe him, didn’t want to believe him. I played along, getting my pulse and my emotions under control after almost being murdered, after watching Chris murder my would-be murderer.
“Bullshit,” I said, refusing to listen to anything else he said.
He shook his head then stood up, reaching a hand down to help me get to my feet. I swayed for a few seconds as my internal compass righted itself. I looked off to the north, catching a glint of metal from a building in the distance.
“It’s true,” he said softly. He let go of my when he was sure I could stand on my own. “You know it’s true even if your brain is actively rebelling against it.”
“What the fuck does this have to do with some asshole trying to kill me?” I asked.
“Stop with the fuckin’ riddles!”
“That guy… he was sent here to kill you. I was assigned to you to keep it from happening.”
“Who assigned you to be my guardian angel?” I asked, taking a hesitant step away from him.
I felt another blast of deja vu scream through me as if it were a fighter jet doing Mach 3 through a narrow canyon. I took another step back, glancing again toward the city.
“Then who assigned that fucker to murder me?” I asked, shuffling my feet to make sure I had full control of them and the legs they were attached to.
Chris only stared at me. I saw a storm of emotions cross his face, and the way he narrowed his eyes told me he was trying to decide if he should tell me that particular bit of information.
“Tony…” he said, trailing off.
“Fuck you. I’m done listening to you. Stay the fuck away from me.”
I turned and began to walk toward Boise, uncaring if I fell down dead in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t even care if Chris decided to get back in the truck and run me down, pulverizing my bones as he had the murderer he’d pinned between his truck and my Chevy.
“Tony!” he shouted but I refused to turn around. I heard the scuff of his boots as he jogged toward me. “Tony, listen to me.”
He stopped but I continued forward, the world a hazy, blurry blob other than the narrow tunnel of high detail directly in front of me. I was more sure than ever that I wouldn’t make it a mile before falling over dead—or at least going into a coma from shock and blood loss.
“Tony! The man I killed… the man who tried to kill you…”
I stopped, then turned around slowly, a shiver racing along my nervous system until I felt like I might shake so hard my joints would all pop out of their sockets at once. The deja vu this time was a slightly different flavor, as if I knew what he was saying had to be true. I stared at him for what seemed like forever. When he remained silent, I nodded as if it was exactly what I expected from him, then turned and began to trudge through the desert once more.
“I gotta go, Chris,” I said with a sigh, though my words came out through chattering teeth. “See ya.”
“The man who tried to kill you is you!” he yelled at my back. “Same as the man who ordered the hit is you!”
I collapsed into the dirt when my brain heard the words and suffered a complete breakdown from the agonizing fury of the most intense deja vu yet. The man with the gun… his face… I knew then he was telling the truth. The killer was me, but a much older version of me. The world became a black void as if someone had flipped a light switch on the sun.