The Israeli bus was newer and had air conditioning, the strength of which had passengers wrapped in blankets and sweaters. Yet, Jack was burning up. His scalp itched and felt like hot coals. Resting his head on the coldness of the window, he willed the onset of sleep.
Rest had been elusive since boarding the bus in Tel Aviv, the mid-morning spring sunshine full of optimism for the newly inaugurated direct service to Cairo, unimaginable for decades. Camp David had shifted the narrative. Jack was not about to pass up the opportunity.
He had saved most of his wages from working in the big, sweaty laundry room deep in the basement of the tourist hotel in Haifa, all the while planning a month’s exploration of Egypt. In her last letter, his mom had asked when he’d be getting over the travel bug. But something was compelling him to remain in the Middle East.
The air conditioning on the idling bus cut out with a low thud, the passengers issuing a collective groan. They were at Kantara, waiting in line to board the Suez Canal ferry, the dry expanse of the Sinai behind them dispatched to the night. Jack took a long drink from a bottled water, turned tepid in his backpack. The fever continued to rage. He let his head imprint on the window and stared out at a parking lot caught in the soft light of street lamps.
Another bus eased its way to a stop next to them, almost in touching distance. A blonde, round faced girl, early twenties like him was smiling. It took Jack a moment to realize her smile was for him. His in return was thin, unconvincing. She made a sad face and mouthed “You OK?” He shook his head and tried another weak smile. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed back, her face kind and full of sympathy. There was something so familiar about her, a nagging déjà vu. Then she was moving and waving, her face now earnest with encouragement. Gone. Jack looked out at the asphalt once more and felt his body retreat from the blaze. Sleep came.
The commotion of chatter and belongings being retrieved from the overheads brought Jack abruptly back to the present. Sleep interrupted, he felt groggy, but the fever had subsided some. He was the last to alight, the driver eyeing him with impatience. The Suez crossing had delayed them several hours and now it was past midnight.
Like all bus stations the surrounding area seemed sketchy. The late hour had emptied the streets, but Jack could hear a hum of honking traffic nearby. As Jack gathered his bearings, a small man wearing a grubby looking gabeya and open sandals approached him. “You like taxi?” Jack gave him a paper with the name of a cheap hotel used by travelers. “OK. You come,” requested the man, gesturing toward a small vehicle streaked with city grime. Slumping into the cramped backseat clutching his backpack, Jack felt the fever surge back like a breaking wave.
The sun was already parching the teeming city in the early morning. Jack sat in the cooled lobby waiting for the taxi that the desk clerk had summoned on the phone. It was the same clerk who had checked him in. Looking a little alarmed, he had made reference to the small red spots on Jack’s face. In the room, he saw that they were also on his torso and thighs, but his rising concern was snuffed out by sleep before his head had settled into the pillow.
The itching had woken him during the dawn call to prayer, the red spots now everywhere, even between his toes. The fever ebbed and flowed. A long cool shower provided brief respite. Jack regarded himself in the bathroom mirror. His slender, sinewy body and limbs were riddled with red spots, fewer on his angular face which gave off an appearance of sunburn. His scalp itched beneath raven, shoulder length hair. It was time to see a doctor.
The city was chaos. Vehicles honking, their drivers shouting, peddlers of every kind announcing their wares. His nose took in the sharp sensations of cooking, sweat, tobacco, sewage. His head was reeling. The sun baked the taxi and he felt ready to pass out.
“Sir, sir! Please OK?” The driver was shaking his leg, offering him a bottled water. Jack downed half and poured the rest over his head. Laughing, the driver gave him a thumbs up. Deep breaths, closed eyes. Then, unexpectedly, the déjà vu feeling he’d experienced at the Suez nudged its way back into his consciousness.
At first he thought it was just a lookalike, but her smile and wave of recognition confirmed it was the same girl from the bus at the Suez. Jack leaned toward the window, quizzical, slightly incredulous. The driver was tapping him on the leg again, offering another bottled water. Jack took it and drained it the same way as the first. When he turned back to the window, the taxi the girl was riding in had gone.
Stripped to the waist, Jack found himself perched on a stained gurney facing an elderly doctor. Surrounding them both were twelve medical students. Set on the banks of The Nile, the cavernous hospital had the feel of a rundown university campus. Struggling to stay conscious, Jack had waited two hours to be seen and now he was the puzzle the medical students were excitedly trying to solve in their native Arabic, pieces of which he found himself understanding, despite knowing no Arabic at all. Confused, he shrugged it off as a symptom of delirium.
In his sixties, slightly overweight, with salt and pepper hair and beard, the doctor’s eyes had sparkled with pride behind his glasses when he’d told Jack that he’d studied in the U.S. As he led the impromptu class to arrive at a diagnosis, Jack fought the urge to lay out on the soiled gurney and surrender to sleep. He was 22 years old and had never felt so seriously ill.
By late afternoon, the sun still assaulting the city, he was back in a taxi en route to the hotel. In his lap he clutched a bag of pills for the fever and a cream to help with the itching. There had been no conclusive diagnosis. Best guesses ranged from smallpox to a bad allergic reaction. The doctor had told Jack to return in forty-eight hours if things didn’t change.
As debilitating as his symptoms were, he’d grown used to them. But now something new was happening. His organs were aching, as though they were constricting, getting smaller. Maybe the illness was just sapping all his strength. But there was something else. As in the hospital, snatches of Arabic coming off the streets as the taxi idled in standstill traffic were comprehensible. Was he in the throes of some delirious, altered state while the landscape of his body realigned? The driver honked at the stationary vehicles up ahead.
The taxi let him out a block from the hotel which, in truth, was little more than a hostel without the dorms. Old and rundown, but functional for the cheap price. The guests were mostly European backpackers. Jack went into a small grocery store and loaded up on water and snacks, the angry blotches on his face drawing stares.
Back outside, the sunlight exploding into glares off parked cars, Jack was gripped once more by the déjà vu. This time it was strong, unrelenting. He scanned the street. At the intersection she was getting into a taxi, a wide brimmed straw hat covering most of her blonde hair. She waved and smiled. In his head a soft voice in Arabic: All will be well, as clearly as if she were standing right next to him. The taxi pulled away.
Jack propped an old box fan on a rickety wooden chair and lay back in its path on the single bed. He’d taken a cold shower and applied the cream all over, the itching held at bay. The meds were kicking in and the fan was cooling his face and scalp. Staying hydrated and munching on snacks, he tried to make sense of everything that had been going on. The only way he could rationalize it was that he’d picked up a nasty virus in Israel, and that the girl was a hallucination, an invention of the fever, along with the comprehensible Arabic and the voice in his head. Waning now, he resolved to sleep for the next twenty-four hours.
Jack rose off his knees flushing away the vomit in the toilet. He splashed water over his face. The fever and red spots had noticeably subsided, no longer itching. “The vomiting’s good. It means it’ll soon be time.” She was sitting in the threadbare armchair, her voice reaching him above the whirring of the fan. Jack closed the door and took a shower.
He’d felt the déjà vu moments before properly waking. She was in the chair across from him, smiling as usual. He could see now that she was a few years older than him, her blonde hair streaked with light shades of pink. She wore a lightweight blouse and capris, hands resting on the brim of the straw hat in her lap. She talked, he listened. Filling his head with the notion of time being nonlinear, elastic; of realities that the ordinary human mind couldn’t grasp. That they had a connection and his being in Cairo was designed.
Stepping back into the room in shorts and a t-shirt, he’d expected her to be gone, dissolved like the mirage she was. That smile again. “Feeling better?” He nodded. She offered him her hand. Jack moved to the chair and took it, feeling her clasp, the metal of a bracelet. “See? I’m real, Jack.” He sat back on the bed, cross-legged, the fan moving his wet hair.
The young woman leaned forward, hands on her knees. “It will soon be time. The vomiting is the last stage. The fever and rash are clearing up, aren’t they?” Jack blew out his cheeks, looked beyond her. “OK, let’s cut out all the sci-fi. What’s really going on here?” She raised her eyebrows, amused. “I told you before,” she said, settling back into the chair, “there exist things beyond the mind’s concept of reality, of time and dimension.” Jack remained unconvinced. He reached for a bottled water and twisted off the cap.
“Why can I suddenly understand Arabic?”
“It’s one of your languages.” She stood up and went to the window. Outside it was the hot midafternoon. “My telling you things won’t help, Jack. You’ll need to experience them for yourself.” Her back still to him. “I am your guide for this first time.”
Jack held his stomach, wincing. He still felt that his insides were constricting, somehow shrinking. He realized he hadn’t eaten real food since arriving in Cairo. “Yes!” she announced, pivoting to face him, gathering up her hat and purse from the chair, “You should eat. Let’s get you some food.”
Something so familiar about this girl, yet so many unknowns; questions remaining unanswered. Jack was standing on the Qasr El Nil bridge, breathing in the river and watching the barge traffic, his fever and skin rash all but gone now. It was cloudy for once, the air less oppressive. Jack weighed his options to leave Cairo: take the bus back to Tel Aviv; travel down to Luxor like he’d planned before the trip; head up to Alexandria and take a boat to Greece. The déjà vu crept up on him. He looked all around. Waited. She didn’t appear.
Sitting on the armchair in front of the fan, Jack put the Luxor bus ticket in his wallet. He had one more full day left in Cairo. Next to him on the bed was the handwritten note she’d left for him with the desk clerk in reception. 11:30. Just bring yourself and an open mind. Anna. Anna. It was the first time she’d revealed her name. Under it an address at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar.
The labyrinths and mazes of the bazaar were an eruption of color, sound, and texture, the stone archways and alleys of uneven brick conjuring biblical scenes. The déjà vu pulled Jack’s gaze off to the right and he saw Anna smiling and waving in front of a store bursting with hookahs of every shape and size, the metals awash with glinting sunlight. Avoiding a bent elderly man pulling a cart of fruit, he crossed the street to meet her.
She wore a linen dress below the knee. Pink, matching the strands in her hair. Kneeling to adjust one of her flip flops, the wide-brimmed straw hat Jack had seen before slid off her head. He picked it up, brushing off dust. “Hey,” she said, straightening back up and taking the hat. Jack tightened the belt around his shorts a couple more notches. He’d lost weight and had been battling the constricting feeling all morning. He ran his hands back through his hair, getting it off his face and neck, the armpits of his white polo shirt already starting to bleed stains. “Hey.”
Anna seemed confident, unsurprised that he’d come. She glanced at her watch as if calculating something. “OK, let’s head out. I’ll lead the way. Stay close.” Jack couldn’t fathom why, but he had no caution or reservations around her. The familiarity was disarming, as though she were a childhood cousin returned to his life. He stepped out behind her into the throng.
Hawking and bartering all around them, the Arabic mixed in with broken English mostly comprehensible again to Jack. He was glad their pace had been slowed by the crowds. Anna wove her way through, occasionally looking back to check on him. Abruptly, she stopped and raised her right arm, pointing repeatedly to indicate a change of direction. They entered a narrow alleyway, the din of the bazaar receding to background noise.
Anna checked her watch again. “How are you feeling?” She was looking down the alleyway. “Strange.” Jack held her look, searching her face. “Where are we going, Anna?” She reached out and took both his hands in hers. “Home.” She said it in Arabic.
There was resignation in his spirit, his energy. An acquiescence. He felt no danger, just an unlikely trust in what was unfolding. They walked farther into the alleyway, small homes of stone on each side. The air grew noticeably cooler, a low thrum pulsing from somewhere at the end of the street. Anna squeezed his hand and pointed to a peeling turquoise door on the left. “This one.”
Knocking. They waited. The thrum, slow and rhythmic was beyond the door. To its right a solitary window covered by an iron grille. The temperature continued to fall. Jack looked up and down the alleyway. Deserted, save for a foraging stray dog. The sound of sliding bolts signaled someone unlocking the door.
Inside the air was cold and musty, blended with cooking spices. Tiled floors and bare walls of painted stone. Darkened rooms broke away from a long hallway, its sconces throwing up small crescents of light. Anna moved forward slowly, but with the purpose of one who has familiarity. Standing against one wall were ten or twelve men of varying ages dressed in long sleeved robes. As Anna and Jack passed each one lowered his head in deference. The constrictions in Jack grew tighter, making him grimace, the déjà vu bathing him in its promise of recognition. Anna stopped in front of the room that held the low base of the thrum.
Once inside, Anna drew Jack to the center of the small box-like room. Cocooned in darkness, save for a thin shaft of moving, vertical light between them; its texture resembling water, yet Jack felt nothing as he passed his hands through it. The qualities of the thrum altered to a quickening rhythm, a higher pitch. A pause, all sound robbed. Then the violent crack of a whip, of lightning splitting stone. Now brought into a void, no purchase for limb or thought. Just the profound, unremitting silence of time eternal.
The recollection, the sensation was momentary. The journey had been neither fleeting, nor had searched endlessly for the edges of a universe. Yet somehow it had been both. The déjà vu released the boy Pharoah from its hold and his eyes fell upon his wife and half-sister, Ankhesenamun. Feeling his searching look, the older teen turned, her smile familiar, eyes complicitous.
David Patten is an educator living in Colorado. He was raised in London, England, but has spent half of his life in the U.S.
He loves reading and creating short fiction. He is hoping to increase the audience for his work.
Very engaging narrative.. the layers of consciousness, memory, experience subtly woven..
Well done. I enjoyed this story and the way the author told it very much. I found I had to learn the backstory of the Egyptian woman and her husband once I finished reading. Fascinating backstory, subtly and successfully woven into the author’s tale.
Highly engaging and very well written. Enjoyed it greatly.