Excerpt from Déjà vu All over Again


Bitch-Slapped but Unbowed

Considering all the ways life had bitch-slapped Nate Evans silly over the years, he thought it a minor miracle he hadn’t gone ballistic long before the Air Force dropped a bomb on his home.

But then ballistic was a relative term. Did conking a military officer on the noggin with a five-iron count? He knew he wasn’t a violent person so, yeah, in retrospect, it probably did. What does the military call that? Collateral damage. That’s what the officer was. Just collateral damage. Still…

“This shit ain’t right,” Nate mumbled.

He sulked through the debris a good twenty yards from the burned-out shell of the mobile home he rented on an acre of prairie grass up the hill from Santa Barbara. The siding was equal parts rust and paint, and it leaked like a sieve when it rained, but it was all he had. It was the first Saturday of December, and that morning’s explosion scattered the odds and ends of his life across the yard. It took a random act of God and U.S. Military to show him the apocalyptic mess it had become. And if anybody knew a thing or two about creating apocalyptic visuals, it was Nate Evans. In thirty years as a screenwriter, a Hollywood hack-for hire, he had written them into a dozen movie scripts. Apocalypse was a guaranteed blockbuster storyline every summer.

Strands of Nate’s long gray hair, swirling in the breeze from the ocean, blew across his face. They smacked his nose and stuck to his lips. He tried to spit them away, but they only stuck to his tongue and tasted like Irish Spring soap. Out near the road, but inside the fence line, an Air Force lieutenant who had driven from Edwards Air Force Base stood talking to Sheriff’s Deputy DiCarlo. The fire investigator from Santa Barbara County circled around to the back of the trailer. He didn’t have much light left; the sun lingered over the Pacific’s horizon like a rubbernecking tourist trying to get one last look at the horrific scene of an accident.

“Move along. Nothing to see here,” Nate told the sun.

He toed a small golden trophy, blown off its base and out of his living room to this spot in the driveway. Mt. Hamilton High School, San Jose, California. Spirit trophy, class of ’79. He sighed. What a waste. His yearbook had been on the same shelf. Now it was splayed facedown in the dirt a step away. Most of the pages fell away from the spine and landed with a thump at his feet when he picked it up. Nate tossed the cover aside, spinning it like a Frisbee. He picked up one of his golf clubs that had been blown out of its bag he kept near the door and used it to poke at the mess, all random stuff, nothing worth resurrecting. A computer mouse here, a scrap of wall with a vintage poster from an obscure movie still attached there, a coffee mug, and the fuzzy dice from his first car. They were covered with soot. Would he find anything worth salvaging once they let him inside the trailer? Did he even own anything worth salvaging? Not likely.

Then he found that damned lunchbox. It was a child’s metal lunch-pail from the sixties with a rounded lid, illustrated with smiling faces of the cast from the TV show Lost In Space. Nate had come across it in an antique shop right after his divorce from Valerie went final five years ago. He bought it because it perfectly fit his state of mind at that time. Lost in space. He had filled it with photographs and letters from his twenty-five year marriage, his wedding ring, and the final divorce papers. He burned the contents and kept it as an urn for the ashes of a dead relationship. It was heartbreakingly funny at the time.

Nate leaned on the golf club for support, staring at the back end of the trailer where the bedroom survived. That corner still had its walls but swayed like a punch-drunk fighter ready to drop at the first breath of a serious wind. He set the lunchbox at his feet. It wasn’t even singed. He could almost taste the resentment welling up and coating the back of his tongue. Why the fuck, out of all the memories he had tucked away in nooks and crannies of the mobile home, had the most painful part of his life been the only thing to survive intact?

Nate kicked at the dirt, his shoe catching on a DVD case. Peggy Sue Got Married. He had a bazillion movies in just about every corner of the little trailer. He had seen this one almost that many times. God, what he wouldn’t give to go back and relive his high school days like Kathleen Turner did. The world made less sense when he was a teenager than it did now, but it was the last time he had been truly happy. Now all he had was a failed marriage. Failed career. Failed life, basically.

Nate pushed the head of the golf club into the dirt and leaned on it with both hands while he closed his eyes. A thin smile creased his lips. If he only wished for it hard enough, he might transport himself back in time. Raw desire with a tremendous imagination was a powerful thing. He could do it. He was almost there. Almost…

He thought of a girl named Cooper. The Coop-ster. Coop-o-rama. Julie to everyone else. “Jules,” when he was alone with her. She had popped into his head now and again over the years, and she always made him smile. After Nate caught Valerie in bed with a junior partner from her law firm, it was Jules who came to him in the middle of many sleepless nights to soothe him. She assured him she would never have done a dirty deed like that, and she reminded Nate he should never have let her get away back in high school. Now, he used her. Jules had become his favorite go-to memory whenever he was down. Where was she today? His heart took him back in time to be with her, and a nano-moment of peace hugged him for the effort. Focus, boy. Almost there…

Then he opened his eyes. “Rats.”

No surprise. Nothing had changed. A wisp of smoke rose from the charred rubble that had once been his home, like the incense from mass, an offering to some unseen God. The offering didn’t work.

“Christ on a cracker, give me a break.”

His belongings were still scattered everywhere. His life was still a shambles. This wasn’t Hollywood. He didn’t have a near-death experience like Peggy Sue to take him back in time. He didn’t have John Cusack’s Hot Tub Time Machine. Heck, he didn’t even have Mr. Destiny’s angel, Michael Caine, and that flick sucked pond scum.

Why couldn’t life allow him a do-over like that? A mulligan. He wasn’t bonkers, at least not certifiably. He knew this because he sometimes questioned his sanity, and that was proof. Everybody knows that only crazy people never question whether their elevator goes all the way to the top floor. No, he knew the difference between the dream and reality, but his heart badly wanted to go back and fix his life. His mind, knowing it was impossible, shrugged and indulged him. The daydreams started hitting him more often after he turned fifty and life in his rearview mirror looked prettier by the day. Sometimes they snuck up on him, but most were deliberate. It was pain management. He would conjure up memories, real and imagined, complete with conversations. High school, and those days with Julie and friends, became his way of finding a safe place to go when he felt blue. It didn’t necessarily mean he was a few bricks shy of a load. Did it? The nostalgia and fond memories usually made him feel better. Usually.

Today they jilted him. They only reminded him of what should have been.

The Air Force officer headed his way, stopping to snap a picture with a pocket camera and dictate observations into a mini voice recorder. Pennybacker or Pennymoocher was his name. Nate couldn’t recall after the way the officer grudgingly shook his hand with a mumbled introduction. This PennySucker guy treated him like an inconvenience.

“Now, Mr. Evans, tell me where you were, what were you doing, and what exactly did you see prior to this alleged explosion?”

Alleged? “Does this look like alleged?” Nate waved an upturned palm across the yard. Exhibit A.

The officer’s silver nametag said Lt. Prettypenny. “Just to keep the record straight.”

Nate had spent most of the day answering questions for the sheriff’s deputy, the fire crew chief, neighbors, and strangers who stopped by the front gate, and the investigator who was still making notes at the far side of the yard. He was tired of this.

“Went to the shed on the other side of the driveway to get more kindling for the wood stove I use to heat the trailer,” he told the lieutenant.

“Heading back when I heard a whistling sound. Looked up. Big-ass bullet-shaped thing falling out of the sky.” Nate imitated the sound while making a diving motion with one hand before slapping it hard in the palm of his other one.

“Crazy bang. Must have gone through the roof on the far side, near the propane tank. Stunned. Saw one of those military drones flying over the hill thataway. Sucker was sputtering and it was wobbling a lot. The bomb must have come from it. Hell yes, I’m sure. Started for the front door when… Kablooey. Knocked me on my ass. Shit raining down all over the friggin’ place.”

He told the officer that the fire investigator dude had hinted—nothing official, but just between us boys—the projectile might have severed the gas line from the propane tank and the wood stove touched it off.

“That’s pretty much it,” Nate concluded.

The lieutenant asked him more questions as if probing for a flaw. Yes, it was a drone. Yes, Nate would know one if he saw it. “It was one of those Predators. I know that for a fact. Most likely the MQ-1,” he added to impress the officer. It didn’t work. Nate recognized the aircraft from his research for a movie script years earlier. He had written the hijacking of a Predator drone into a spectacularly unsuccessful story about computer nerd vampires raised on video games who got their hands on military stockpiles in an effort to take over the world. Hellfire: A Love Story never caught on. But then, few of Nate’s scripts ever did. He did sell it to an independent producer and made enough money off the movie option to cover a few months rent on the trailer that, now, was no more. The producer hadn’t done anything with the story other than send him a small check each year just to keep the rights to make a film out of it someday. It was always someday with Nate’s scripts.

He could sure use a decent sale like that now, even if the story got eighty-sixed after he cashed the check. He had gone too long between projects. So long, in fact, his agent had stopped returning Nate’s calls. Some called it writer’s block. Nate called it being creatively constipated. The words were stuck inside somewhere, making him even more miserable.

“Odd thing, Mr. Evans.” The Air Force officer signaled for Nate to follow him. “It’s rare to see this level of damage.”

“This kind of thing happen a lot for you guys?” Nate was sorry when he said it. It was a feeble attempt at humor. It carried more sarcasm than he wanted but less anger than he felt. He wasn’t sure the lieutenant deserved it, but somebody sure as hell did.

The lieutenant ignored him. Prettypenny was young, tall, and thin, and probably not stooped like a vulture as Nate saw him. He shrugged and passed the buck. “I am only the IAO—initial assessment officer. Someone higher on the chain of command will have to order up an investigation. Or not. What you think you saw will be considered.”

Or Not. Nate’s anger was rising. “Give me a friggin’ break, okay? This is my life here.”

“I understand.” PennySucker surveyed the mess and then laughed, “I’d be upset, too. It wasn’t much of a life.”

Not much of a life?

“Just kidding,” PrettyAssSomething said. He quickly dropped the smile. The officer left Nate fuming there, telling him that nothing would get done until he filled out the appropriate papers.

Not much of a life? That son of a bitch. Where’d he come off with saying something like that? This was no joke.

Nate’s head started to throb and the muscles in his neck tightened. He raised the five iron in his hand. Never had his swing been as pure as it was right then on the Nate Evans Memorial Greens front nine. He knocked the smile off the ceramic gnome near the driveway, head and all. The plastic pink yard flamingo absorbed a brutal fairway blow with a dull thud. It bounced three times before dying at the base of the concrete stoop to what had been his front door. He shanked a can of diced tomatoes back toward the kitchen, but he got no distance whatsoever from the glass picture frame that shattered on impact. Nate stooped and picked up his black Magic 8 Ball. He flipped it over and read the fortune that floated to the surface of its belly.

Outlook not so good.

“Damn straight.” He tossed the ball up into the air and then clubbed it on the way down. The Magic 8 Ball soared over his ruined mobile home and nearly hit the fire department inspector. He glared back at Nate through the opening that should have been Nate’s living room wall.

“Fore!” Nate yelled.

Then he spotted his next target. He hurled the club with all his might in the direction of Lieutenant PrettypennyPants. It was an Olympic caliber hammer throw, soaring high into the early evening sky. The golf club rotated with a slow, graceful backspin and fell to earth with only slightly less precision than the bomb the Air Force had dropped on his house. But then, for a weapon that only cost $89.95 (on sale at Golf Jockey) compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars the military spent for its payload that day, accuracy wise, the five-iron was a much better return on investment.

The club came down grip end first and clipped the officer on the back of his head, knocking him to the ground. The metal blade of the five-iron made a glorious ping when it dinged the hood of the lieutenant’s standard-issue sedan.

Nate grinned. Asshole in one.

God! That felt good. He should have smacked the shit out of something years ago. It wasn’t enough. He was searching for something else to whack, smash, clobber, or otherwise maim when Prettypenny scrambled to his feet and marched at Nate.

Sheriff’s Deputy DiCarlo was quick. He diverted the Air Force officer by grabbing and spinning him so that momentum carried them back toward the deputy’s patrol car. As he looked over his shoulder at Nate, DiCarlo jerked his head in the direction of the road. And that’s how Nate wound up twenty minutes later sitting on a rickety stool swapping lies with a bunch of rednecks.

Swapping spit with a bodacious barfly.

Picking a fight to preserve her honor.

And getting the snot beat out of him by a biker with a beaver mullet at Ginny’s Church of the Holy Brew.

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