by D. Gansen
I heard thunder roll behind me like a faraway drum solo. “Oh man,” I muttered. It was dark and I was lost somewhere south of the interstate in the middle of North Dakota. Now, I was going to get caught in a storm and I was driving my dad’s ’69 Boss Mustang. The thought of hail deflowering its pristine, black, shiny-as-glass lacquer, made a lump of anguish jiggle in my stomach. It was the second car my dad ever owned, and he was pretty much in love with it; but on my seventeenth birthday, he handed me the keys and title. I almost started to bawl. I didn’t though, because men don’t cry over sentimental stuff.
My headlights made a puddle of light that led me down the road, but all around me was the prairie darkness. Then, like a miracle, as the first drops of rain fell, I saw a light ahead. I put my foot down and pretty soon I could read the sign. Individual yellow light bulbs lined up to announce: Out of Time Motel. It wasn’t a very reassuring name, but I turned in anyway and was relieved that the parking lot was asphalt, not gravel. The paint, you know. I stopped under the green fiberglass awning and smiled to myself as the rain tapped on it, trying in vain to get to my car.
I rolled down the window and looked through the wall of glass into the office and saw some chairs and the registration counter. There was no clerk, but all the lights were on and the neon sign beside the door told me that there was a vacancy.
I grabbed my duffle bag out of the back seat and went in. It was Dad’s duffle bag from when he was in the Guard. I wasn’t sentimental about it. It was just handy.
The little brass bell on the door jingled and startled me, and by the time I turned back to the counter, a young woman was standing behind it, looking at me. She didn’t say anything for a couple of seconds. Women stare at me all the time. Why not? I’m twenty-five, tall, and good looking.
“I found you just in time,” I said, gesturing behind me. It had started to rain hard. By then, I was beginning to get the impression that she wasn’t admiring me—she was studying me.
“It’s only going to get worse, too,” she remarked.
I could only see her from the waist up and it struck me as odd that someone so young would be wearing a crisp, short-sleeved white blouse and have her hair all humped up like Mom did when she was a kid. She made me think of Laura Petrie on that old TV show, Dick Van Dyke.
On the counter, a book lay open. She took the silver pen from its stand and offered it to me. When I got closer, I saw that she was holding a fountain pen. I had only seen those in old movies. The register was one of those books that you write your name and license plate number in.
The girl must’ve seen that I was puzzled, because she explained, “My boss is a nostalgia freak.” She pointed to the lobby and I noticed that the furniture was low and tailored and that gross avocado green like the toaster Mom threw away a long time ago. On the brown Formica-topped coffee table were magazines with names I didn’t recognize. One had a picture of the old president, John F. Kennedy, on it.
The girl took my credit card and, to my amazement, put it through one of those manual machines that makes a carbon copy of the number on a piece of paper.
“Out of Time Motel must mean out of step with time,” I said, giving her one of my charming smiles.
She looked at my card before handing it back to me. “Well, John, everything is relative.” That seemed like an odd thing to say and I was beginning to feel awkward, but she continued. “Cable hasn’t made it out here and we’re out of reach of any cell towers. Consider yourself in the mid twentieth century, it will be less stressful.”
“No problem,” I said, but took a look at my phone and felt like a junkie looking at an empty nickel bag. I nodded at the door on my right. “Is that a diner next door?” Just then a bolt of lightning brightened the room like an atom bomb flash, instantly followed by a staggering explosion. I ducked instinctively. “Jesus!” I yelled. “That was close!” Then hail started to fall out of the sky like white buckshot.
The girl was perfectly calm and glanced around the room. “Good. It’s still the twentieth century.” I assumed she was kidding and smiled. Then she pointed towards an alcove where an antique vending machine stood beside an even more ancient Coke machine that looked like a big metal cooler. “Diner’s closed for the winter. There are plenty of stale cheese crackers.”
I squinted at the vending machine—all fake wood and buzzing fluorescent lights. My stomach growled.
“How about a hot dog?” she asked. “Put your bag in your room and come back.” She handed me a key on a ring with a plastic tag.
The room was the same as the lobby: all ’60’s and ’70’s furniture. Everything looked new. “Reproduction,” I told myself. I didn’t think about it much, though. Decorating is a woman thing.
Back in the lobby, I checked the nameplate on the registration desk. “Stella?” I asked it. “Who names their kid ‘Stella’?”
“Come on back, Johnny,” Stella shouted. Nobody had called me “Johnny” since I was thirteen and announced that I would no longer answer to it. My grandfather’s name had been John, and I wanted to be like him.
I passed the desk and stepped through an open door. Now I seemed to be in Great Aunt Lilly’s living room. There was dark, stuffed furniture and a big wooden cabinet like hers. She had called it a sideboard. A record was spinning on the phonograph and a woman was singing something about the “white cliffs of Dover.” Because of my interest in the Second World War, I knew it was a song from the 1940s. I looked down at the bomber pilot’s jacket I was wearing. It had been Granddad’s way back then.
“Hey Johnny,” Stella called again. I would have to tell her to lay off the “Johnny” bit.
She was in the kitchen, pulling hot dogs out of a pot of boiling water with tongs. The pot was avocado green, the stove was avocado green, the refrigerator was… you guessed it. I had returned to the ’70s. As I put my hand on the back of one of the chrome and plastic chairs, I caught a movement in the corner of my eye and turned. Sitting just inside the back door was the biggest German shepherd that I had ever seen. He was making purposeful eye contact with me, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had said, “Wie geht’s?”
“That’s Mr. Beretta,” Stella said.
I put my coat on the back of the chair and sat, but Mr. Beretta did not take his eyes off me. “Has he killed anybody lately?” I asked. I squirted ketchup out of a bottle that looked like it belonged in the diner.
“It’s been awhile,” she said.
I looked up to make sure she was kidding, but now she was staring at my coat.
“It’s a bomber jacket,” I said. “Granddad was a B-17 pilot in the Second World War. A B-17 is a…”
“Bomber plane,” she finished. “I’ll give you fifteen hundred dollars for it.”
I choked on the bite of hot dog I’d just taken.
“Okay, two thousand. Cash.”
I loved that jacket even more than I loved the Mustang. Not in a sentimental way. It’s just that it was so cool.
“No!” I said louder than was necessary.
Mr. Beretta’s ears perked up.
“Okay. Relax.” Stella sat back and folded her arms.
I could feel her eyeing me. I ate in case it was going to be my last meal. Two hot dogs later, she let me in on what she was thinking.
“Johnny,” she started. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
Ghosts! What next? Wasn’t this place weird enough? “I never thought about it,” I said, “but they seem like sentimental wishful thinking or too much imagination to me.” Neither of those conditions cluttered my mind.
Stella sighed. “Yes. Humans do a lot of wishful thinking. But,” she continued, “there are places in the universes where essences, or one of your imaginative people might say ‘spirits,’ get caught.” She glanced at her watch and got up. “We have time. Let me show you what I mean.”
The hot dogs were flailing around in my stomach. I had to go; I couldn’t outrun Mr. Beretta. The dog gave way so she could open the back door, and he and I followed her out onto the cement patio.
I thought I was losing my mind. The surface, open to the elements, was dry. The sky was clear and glittering with constellations, but I could still hear the thunder and the rain.
Stella raised her arm and pointed to our left: westward. It was darker than the inside of my closet where I used to hide when my poor little sister screamed because no one could understand the sounds she made. She was trapped in her head, inhabiting her own strange world. Now I was trapped in this one.
About two hundred yards away, a glow was silently moving and growing. I considered running, but I wasn’t afraid. It was just instinct, I guess. It took a long time for me to make out its shape—their shape, and when I did, I squeezed my eyes shut then opened them, but it didn’t help.
Six ghostly horses and their ghostly riders were charging towards us. It was like watching the negative print of an old western movie. Hooves churned, spurs flew, the men gestured and their lips moved, but I couldn’t hear them.
As they passed I could see every detail in glowing white. Their hats were stained with sweat, their long mustaches fluttered, their six-shooters glittered and their rifles flapped in their scabbards. Then they carried on with their chase or flight, gradually disappearing into the east.
I closed my gaping mouth, sucked in a lungful of cold air and shouted, “What the hell was that?”
Stella waved at the flicker they had become. “I call it the ‘posse’. In 1866 they rode into that canyon after a gang that had robbed a bank and killed five people. The posse was ambushed and murdered. Now, they’re trapped in the Vortex, and every Friday night they ride into that canyon. And I don’t know how to help them.” When she and Mr. Beretta went in, I stood like an idiot staring after them.
I wasn’t scared. Granddad wasn’t scared when he piloted his shot-up B-17 toward England after bombing the hell out of Germany. Even when he realized he couldn’t make it, he kept it level so the crew could bail out. He was a hero and I wanted to be like him. So I went inside and started yelling. “What the hell was that?” Mr. Beretta glared but I didn’t care. “Who are you? Why did you show me that?”
Stella looked at me with her dark calm eyes. She put two cans of beer on the table and opened them with a pointed can opener. I sat down in a hurry and took a couple of big gulps.
“Johnny,” Stella started. I scowled at her and she tried again. “John, if I didn’t need your help, I wouldn’t have shown you and I wouldn’t have brought you here.”
“Brought me? I’m on my way to see…” I couldn’t finish while she was shaking her head.
“Your cousin in Wyoming would be very surprised to see you.”
Marley and I had exchanged emails. “Are you some kind of hacker?” I asked.
Again she shook her head. “I’m the most powerful Vortex guardian in all the universes. If it pertains to my job, I can do almost anything—almost.”
This was either silly or very serious. “Vortex,” I repeated. Mom and Dad liked to go to Sedona, Arizona, so I knew something about this. “Isn’t that supposed to be in Sedona where the hippies go for the vibes and you can get your palm read cheap?”
“We’ve provided that area with some atmosphere,” Stella said casually. She was saying all of this like we were just passing the time of day in simple gossip. I let her go on because I didn’t know what to say. “I can’t have a bunch of humans hanging around here,” she said. “It’s too dangerous. Even the Lakota Sioux won’t come within two miles of this spot. They don’t know what it is, but they don’t want to mess with it, either. You Europeans would come in droves because it would seem miraculous, and you know how you are when it comes to the possibility of a miracle.”
I wasn’t sure but I didn’t say so.
“I guard the Vortex because it can serve as a passage. It can be a passage between universes, dimensions, planes, times… or any combination of those. Things get through from time to time and I have to catch them and send them back. I imagine you’ve seen some of the TV shows about chupacabra or werewolves or UFOs. They didn’t get through my Vortex, but all the guardians aren’t as watchful as I am.”
I’m not superstitious at all, so this all sounded crazy to me, but I’m as curious as the next guy and it didn’t look like they were going to kill me, so I went along with it. “Vortex,” I said again. “Is that where the posse came from?”
She turned her head away and scratched the brow of Mr. Beretta who had come to sit on the floor beside her. “No. They died so close to the Vortex that a part of them got trapped. The energy of the Vortex holds them here. Even if the person doesn’t die here, if something that’s, let’s say ‘imbued with their spirit’ is brought here, the Vortex will draw out that spirit and hold it, too.” She gestured in the direction of the diner.
I turned to look at it through the window. There were lights on inside. “I thought it was closed,” I said, then felt sick when she replied.
“It is.” She rose and leaned over the sink and opened the window. I could hear music.
Stella turned and looked me in the eye and asked, “Scared, John? Do you want to see why I brought you here and why I wanted your coat?”
I wasn’t scared when I dug my fingers into the fleece lining of Granddad’s coat, just wary. Great Aunt Lilly gave me the coat for my eighteenth birthday. It had been one of the few things left of Granddad’s. Grandma burned everything she could get her hands on after he died. I never knew Grandma, so I asked Great Aunt Lilly about that. She told me that Grandma had been angry. I had to push her pretty hard and use my favorite nephew status to get her to say more, and even then, she averted her eyes and said that her brother had not been quite faithful to Grandma. That didn’t seem like a reason to burn a guy’s stuff. Granddad had been a kid back then, and Grandma hadn’t gone with him to South Dakota where he got his training. She shouldn’t have been surprised that he had a fling.
Great Aunt Lilly had given me a picture, too. It was a picture of Granddad and his crew standing in front of their bomber. She had always told me I looked like him and the picture proved it. There he was: young, smiling, hat cocked to one side, hands in the pockets of his jacket—now my jacket. It could have been me standing there. Great Aunt Lilly had the jacket because Granddad had forgotten it the last time he left—when he left and never came back.
“Show me,” I said. If Granddad wasn’t afraid to fly that sputtering plane on two engines until all the other guys in that picture got out, even though he knew it would be too late for him to escape, I guessed I could face a ghost.
I followed her back to the lobby but the dog stayed behind. To make sure she knew I wasn’t scared, I made a joke. “Is he a guardian, too?”
Stella didn’t laugh. “Yes. He chose to be a dog this time.”
I kept quiet as we entered the lobby and passed through the door to the diner. I prepared myself for what might be in there. I hugged Granddad’s coat. Great Aunt Lilly told me that his last words to her were, “Don’t worry about me.” Of course she worried about him. He had been on his way back to the war, back to flying that big heavy airplane six hours one way, all the time taking fire from the ground and from the sky; and six hours back to England, concentrating, muscling those primitive controls, putting the danger out of his mind while he tried to find his way home and keep his men alive.
I stepped into the diner. Was it built yesterday? The chrome gleamed, the plastic was smooth and the colors were intense in the sunny fluorescent light. The jukebox glowed, and a hundred little bulbs on its front flashed red, then blue, then green. It was playing some peppy, swingy music and I wondered who had put their quarters (no, it said five cents) into the slot and pushed the buttons.
Stella glanced at her dainty little watch again and gestured me to one of the turquoise upholstered booths. “The owner had this diner brought up from Rapid City,” she said. “The Vortex took it over.” She put a finger to her lips.
I heard voices. They were faint at first, but as they got louder, the speakers became visible. A group of six teenagers appeared beside the jukebox. They were talking and laughing and dancing a little. The girls were wearing full, calf-length skirts and white socks and loafer shoes. The boys were wearing white t-shirts and jeans with the hems rolled up a few times. They were wearing white socks and loafers, too. They didn’t seem to notice us.
The middle-aged couple now sitting at the counter didn’t notice us, either, or the guy with a newspaper sitting a few stools away. There was a pale young man behind the counter who put a cup of coffee down in front of the newspaper man, then leaned his elbows on the speckled Formica of the counter. He sighed and wiped something off his cheek.
The bell on the door jingled, and I craned my neck over the booth to see. Another young man had come in, but this one… My heart punched me in the chest. He was wearing khaki flight overalls and a bomber captain’s hat. He looked just like me. Stella grabbed my arm to keep me from getting up. “Wait,” she whispered.
The newcomer smiled happily and approached the counter. “Greg!” he said to the other young man. “I’m back!” There was no response or acknowledgement. The young man in the coveralls, Granddad, stepped back and frowned.
Stella released me. I jumped up and yelled, “Granddad!”
The young man looked at me for a minute. Of course he didn’t know who in the hell I was or why I was calling him “granddad.” He didn’t even know he had a son. Dad was born eight months after he left—two after he died.
I wonder what he thought as he realized that I was his double. My heart banged against my chest again as he crossed the twenty feet that separated us. I couldn’t speak, but he said, “Who the hell are you?” It never occurred to him to be afraid at the sudden appearance of a strangely dressed doppelganger.
I had to swallow hard before I managed to say, “John Dealy.”
His green eyes didn’t flicker, but there was a long pause and I could tell he was thinking, trying to make sense of it. He looked slowly around the diner, letting his eyes linger on the young man behind the counter. Finally he said, “I’m John Dealy.”
The lump came up in my throat again and tears were trying to squeeze their way into my eyes, but I certainly wasn’t going to cry in front of a fearless war hero. “I know. Dad wanted me named after you.”
“Who’s your dad?”
“Gavin Dealy. Grandma’s name was Marge and I had a Great Aunt Lilly.”
The young man blinked. “Marge,” Granddad murmured. His green eyes darkened like mine do when I’m sad, then they brightened and he said, “Little Lilly.” There was another long silence since, apparently, I had been struck dumb. He was more resilient than me. “How long has it been?” he asked.
I glanced at Stella, but she wouldn’t step in.
“Sixty-six years,” I said.
“They must all be gone by now.”
“Your whole crew survived, Granddad.” I was excited to be able to tell him that. “Three of ’em lived long enough to see your name on the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.” I don’t think that meant much to him. Did they even call it World War II back then? “I even talked to one of ’em five years ago. His name was Coffee. He said great things about you.” That old man had reinforced my desire to be like my granddad.
The young man in front of me smiled. He remembered them as he had known them: young, like him. “They were good kids.”
“You’re a hero, Granddad. You saved them.”
At that, he looked at me hard and I thought he was angry, but his green eyes softened before he said, “It wasn’t heroic, I was responsible for them.”
“Was it scary?” I dared whisper.
“Not for long.”
“You were scared?” The words got stuck in my throat for a second.
“Sure,” Granddad said. “Anybody who says they’ve never been scared is either stupid or a liar.” He was matter-of-fact about it. Then I saw that he was looking at my coat—his coat. I was clutching it. I must’ve seemed like a kid hugging his security blanket, like Suzy hung on to that goofy stuffed elephant I won at a carnival. He must’ve wondered where I got his old coat.
“Great Aunt Lilly gave it to me just before she… died.” I continued without thinking. “Grandma burned everything else.”
Granddad rubbed his chin and once again turned his head to see the sad young man at the counter. “Well, I don’t blame her,” he finally said. “She gave me a break though, and promised not to tell anyone else.” He went on before I had a chance to ask what he meant. “I don’t suppose you know what happened to…” he gestured with his chin towards the counter, “Greg.”
I didn’t even know who Greg was, but Stella said softly behind me, “He committed suicide when he found out you were dead.”
I was surprised when tears filled those green eyes that were just like mine. “Poor kid,” he said. Then he looked at Stella. “Why can’t he see me?”
“You’re on different planes. It’s like there’s a wall between you.”
A tear ran down Granddad’s cheek.
“Give him the coat, John,” Stella said. “They’ve both touched it at the same time. It will bring them together.”
That’s why she had wanted my coat. She was a determined Vortex guardian.
Granddad looked at me. He wanted it bad, I could tell. I knew I would give it to him, but it was hard to get my arms to hold it out. When he touched it, I suddenly felt bigger somehow. I knew he felt it, too, because his eyes widened. We both held it. I didn’t want to let go. Maybe he didn’t either, but that other young man was more important to him than a stranger like me.
My hands opened slowly and I gave him one of those trembly, screwed up smiles people do when they’re about to burst into tears. That young man, war hero, and my grandfather saluted me. “Thank you, Johnny,” he said, looking me in the eye. “Thank you.”
I saluted him, like a little kid imitating an adult, like that little boy in the pictures of John Kennedy’s funeral.
Then my granddad put on the jacket.
Suddenly, the young man at the counter straightened, grinned, and yelled, “Johnny!” He jumped up and easily slid over the counter. He ran into Granddad’s arms. I could tell he was crying.
It was more than the hug of two casual friends, and I think I know why Grandma had been so angry, but I felt glad for them. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. I didn’t even notice when the jukebox went silent, or when the teenagers disappeared, or the middle-aged couple, or the newspaper man. Even after the two young men faded away, I kept staring at the empty place.
I don’t know how long I stood there, but eventually I realized that I still had my arm raised in that final gesture of respect. It was pretty sentimental of me.
“You did it, John,” Stella said.
I didn’t even turn around when I said, “You can call me Johnny.” Granddad had been scared, so it was okay for me to be scared. Granddad had cried and been sentimental, so I could be those things, too. I felt my shoulders shake and, for the first time since I was thirteen, I heard myself sob. I had told myself so many times that men don’t cry. When Great Aunt Lilly died, I had stood, stone-faced in front of her coffin. My dog, Jake, had gone to sleep for the last time while, dry-eyed, I had held his paw. And Suzy… poor little Suzy, screaming and screaming because she couldn’t make anyone understand her. Poor Suzy, with her face frozen into a squint so nobody could tell she was smiling—nobody but me. I should have cried for her.
I was sad, but somehow, I felt relieved, too. It was like Granddad’s coat had been something heavy and letting go of it had changed me. After I blew my nose and rubbed my face dry, I returned to Stella and said, “He was a hero.”
That Vortex guardian and I talked for a long time about what had happened and how she could help the other inhabitants of the diner. Later, in the ’70s-inspired hotel room, I slept like a man with a clear conscience and a clean bill of health.
By the time I was ready to leave, it was nine a.m. I had my duffel bag but not my coat when I left the room and walked into a bright, cool day. A lot had changed out there.
The parking lot asphalt was broken and weedy. The sign was leaning and peeling. I turned to look at the building. The Out of Time Motel had turned into a broken down relic: a matriarch who looked her age. I don’t know why I wasn’t surprised. Maybe I was all surprised out.
I walked to my car, which was now sitting under a dangerously leaning awning, and tossed my bag into the back seat. I turned to the plywood wall which had once been glass and saw a little sign stapled where the door had been. Written in faded black marker was one final message from the past: Closed.