The Oracle

Eric W Jepson
originally published 2008 in Nossa Morte

 

Abandoning the car had been a good idea. It was still cruising down the road and they were following it, slowly. He would have a great headstart. Running through the woods was smart—his best chance. And besides, now he was free. He could escape. He could be safe. He was safe.

For now.

***

If people similarly dressed hadn’t been in the news recently, Randy might not have noticed them. Well, sure, that they were looking at him and that they wore long robes—either brown or just dirty—but not notice them. You see strange things in the city, strange people.

***

He paused behind one of the larger trees, bent over, and tried to catch his breath and listen at the same time. Could he hear anything? He wasn’t sure. But it didn’t matter. He was only safe as long as he ran.

***

He mentioned it to his buddy Pedro at work. Pedro hadn’t seen them. “Cultists?”

“I guess, maybe, yeah. How can you not have seen them? They’re all over! I see them everyday—almost every time I go outside.”

“Whatever, man; don’t think I don’t believe you. Just cause I haven’t seen them doesn’t make you crazy.”

***

His foot twisted over a rock and in correcting his fall, he tripped over a root and slid down a sudden embankment. He hit his head on a rounded stone, and his last thought was how cold the water was and please don’t let it ruin my suit.

***

Randy figured that if Pedro had never seen them then they must not be as ubiquitous as he thought. So he started watching them back.

There were always four or five of them. Four men and, if this particular group had a fifth member, a woman. Except there were no particular groups. About ten days into watching them, he realized that the tallest member always had a heavy brow and a scraggly, nearly stylish goat and ’stache. That two of the other men were always whispering to each other and sharing a cigarette. That the fourth usually sat if he could—on a fire hydrant or wherever—and just stared at Randy behind large, thick glasses, his mouth veiled by his robe. The woman, when she was around, stood next to the tall man and together they would sometimes consult scraps of paper. Once Randy saw them burn those scraps. Another time they crumpled them up and tossed them onto the sidewalk, then studied the pattern. Meanwhile, the smokers and Glasses watched Randy.

Stop. You’re getting paranoid.

Oh yeah? Then why are they always where you are?

***

The faintest bleached streaks of cobalt stretched across the nearly dawn sky when Randy opened his eyes. He was lying in a stream. His suit was soaked. What was I—?

He remembered immediately.

He scrambled out of the shallow stream and into a slight hollow in the embankment and listened.

And listened.

It was still dark—should he keep running? But which way?

Listen!

Voices.

***

A couple weeks later, Randy was leaving work when the woman came up to him. “Hello,” she said.

“Hi.”

“Pleasant day?” It was a question.

“Yes.”

She nodded. “What is your name?”

Randy paused, but answered. “Randy. What’s yours?”

“I sacrificed my name years ago, to the last Oracle. I don’t need one now. My robes provide identity and recognition,” she paused, “Randy.”

“Ah.”

“Thank you, Randy.” She touched his arm and ran without looking across the street. He watched her go.

***

He couldn’t make out what the voices were saying, but he figured it was them. And they seemed to be getting louder. Then he heard Glasses mention his name.

The sun found its way through the foliage and shot a single sunbeam off the stream and into Randy’s face. He held up a hand to keep the light out of his eyes and looked back at the stream.

Where he had lain was a vague, human sized—but not shaped—depression.  But very clearly, from the depression to him, was a line of footprints, sunk deep in the muck and flooded with muddy water.

***

Now they would nod and say “Randy” whenever he passed by. Every morning he told himself to avoid them, to stay away, but each day he walked nearer. The tall one held out pieces of paper that would brush him as he walked by to lunch—he made no attempt to avoid them—and he would pretend not to notice. And then he would watch them from the cafe window as they wrote on the papers and crumpled and burned them. And watched him. They were mutual voyeurs. How did they choose me, Randy wondered.

***

Glasses was reciting the names of the trees and other flora, Randy realized as he pressed into his hollow. He wasn’t speaking to anyone at all. He must be alone. Randy considered running again. He considered fighting. He could take on just Glasses, couldn’t he? Just one of them? Just go for his glasses; he’s got to be blind without those coke bottles.

But maybe he won’t notice me.

The sound of Glasses’s feet was close, but didn’t seem to be coming closer.

Go for it. Run. Run. This stream has got to go back to the city. Follow the stream.

***

Spring arrived and the day was too nice not to eat outdoors. He ordered a sandwich and stepped outside and looked at the four men standing, watching him. A beautiful day. An open city. Be bold. Do something you can tell your friends about. He walked over to them and asked if he could join them. They froze until the tall one nodded, and they all shuffled a few feet over and sat around a fountain, turned on for the first time this year, a stark cube spouting water.

***

He picked up a nice, round stone, about the size of a golfball. He felt certain Glasses was headed away from him now, and if he could throw the stone so that Glasses would continue in that direction, following the sound, Randy could run away unobserved. He squeezed the stone tight. He swung out of his cavity and threw it as hard as he could.

***

They all had sacrificed their names. To the last Oracle. He had accepted their offering, they said. Randy nodded, but he wasn’t wondering what they meant, but rather how they had reached a point where they could, apparently, mean it. As he tried to remember everything he had read about cults, they rambled on and on. He wasn’t really listening. He nodded and said um-hum and yeah, but he did not hear what they said.

But as they parted, he wished he had heard.

“We’ll see you tonight, Randy,” they said.

***

The stone hit Glasses in the back of the neck and he fell to the ground. Randy was so startled to see Glasses less that ten feet away that he froze.

Run, he reminded himself. But it wasn’t until Glasses right hand had begun to creep up to his bleeding neck that Randy turned and ran downstream. At a lower point in the embankment, he scrambled up. Out of the mud he could run faster and leave a slighter trail. He thought he could hear yelling far behind him. He had the lead, but if he followed the stream, wouldn’t they find him?

But the stream must lead somewhere. I can’t go in circles!

***

When Randy arrived home that evening, all five of them were waiting, sitting in the lobby stairwell of his condo complex. He didn’t see them at first. He was reaching for the elevator’s up button when they chorused, “Randy.” He spun around, and a jagged pulse of adrenaline shot through him. “We need you, Randy.”

***

Randy stood at the front of a craggy pile of rocks. He had walked around it four times, but the stream trickled under it, and never came out. He stood, panting, staring at the stream, his path, as it disappeared under the rocks.

A pinecone fell and Randy spun around. As he jerked his head, searching for a new path, a squirrel chattered. A squirrel had once bit his sister. Good enough. He started running again, away from the squirrel.

***

They considered it absurd, the notion that they might want to convert Randy to their way of life. “You have a job,” the tall man said. “Besides, what would be the point?” The others nodded as if this were explanation enough, perfectly sensible.

The six of them sat together in the stairwell. And Randy couldn’t explain it, because they never said anything that made much sense, but he liked being with them. They weren’t interesting or entertaining and to be honest, he didn’t even really like them—he certainly didn’t want any of his friends to see them with him—but there was something about them. Something about the way they hung on his every word. Where every um was treated with an almost reverential gravity.

“How did you know where I live?” he asked.

“You told us, Randy.”

“How did you get here?”

“We drove. It’s Friday.”

Then they smiled, stood, and he watched them climb into their hippie van and drive away.

***

Randy rolled back and forth on his back, bit his lips, and clutched his right ankle with both hands. It had been popping and sliding all day before finally giving out, and running in these shoes hadn’t helped. He slowly calmed his breathing. He uncurled his legs and gingerly tried to stand. It hurt, but so far, so good. He tried to walk, but his ankle wouldn’t take any of the weight, and he could hardly bend it.

Hide. I have to hide.

***

Monday, for lunch, Randy bought a dozen cheap tacos to share with his little cult.

“You are important, Randy,” the woman said. “You have been prepared.” She seemed nervous. “We need you.” The others nodded. “We don’t know what to do next.”

***

Climbing trees with only one ankle, Randy soon discovered, wouldn’t work. And he saw no rocks or caves or even much slope. It was warm and well lighted here, and the trees were spaced farther apart. The leaves from last autumn were rotting on the ground, but not nearly enough for cover.

Randy looked around. Every direction looked the same.

He was mostly dry now, except for his feet.

He looked around.

He picked a direction.

He began to stumble away.

To hide.

***

The woman removed a dirty pink square of paper from her robes and asked Randy to breathe on it. Then she crouched down on the ground and drew a circle with a piece of chalk, divided it into quarters. In one segment she drew a double cross. She handed the paper to the tall man, who crumpled it up and handed it to Randy.

“Please,” he said.

Randy had seen them do this often enough. He dropped it into the circle. It bounded into the quarter opposite the double cross. The woman carefully unfolded it and traced it as it lay. Then she picked it up, handed it to the tall man, who crumpled it up again, and handed it to Randy.

“Again.”

***

Randy sat down at the crest of the hill he had discovered. It was about forty, fifty feet down, and steep. No way he could walk it. Slide? Yes, but what about the trail that would leave?

But what else could he do?

Randy held his bad ankle straight out, a few inches above the ground, and using his good leg as a brake, began to slide down the hill.

***

When the circle was filled with squares, Glasses crouched down and examined it. He touched the cement gently. He traced chalklines with his fingers. He nodded to the tall man. “Yes.”

The tall man gestured with his head, and Randy joined him and Glasses in a crouch. The tall man gently took Randy’s left hand and placed it in the circle. The woman quickly marked where the tips of his fingers fell and the curve between fingers and thumb. Randy removed his hand and Glasses took his right hand and carefully repeated the process.

Randy sat on the bench with the smokers as the other three examined the circle. They shook and nodded and, finally, smiled. Randy looked around, making sure no one from the office could see him.

Glasses turned to Randy, his rotting smile leapt from behind his cracked lips, his clouded, gray eyes, wide behind the cracked lenses. “It’s you. We were right. It is you!”

***

Nearing the bottom of the hill, a metallic glint hit Randy’s eyes. He looked up and saw, about a hundred yards off, behind the trees, a 50s-style, aluminum-dome RV trailer.

Help.

***

“The last Oracle promised you would come, Randy. We’ve been waiting so long.” The tall man bowed his head.

Randy’s lunch had already broken two hours.

He stood. “I have to go.”

“We will see you, Randy.” Glasses smiled his blackened smile. “We will see you always. Hello.”

The others bowed their heads and repeated, “Hello.”

He glanced back as he walked away. They had drawn a new circle and were crumpling up new pieces of paper.

No more, Randy, he told himself. No more.

***

Randy leaped and hopped and staggered through the trees, whatever seemed like it might hurt least. He nearly fell several times. He panted their bark and held his side. Maybe they would be having a late breakfast right now, in that trailer. Bacon. Pancakes. Oh please let them be having breakfast.

He came around a large, thorny bush and got his first clear view of a broken window and flattened tires. A dying, yellow wildflower grew up tall from the ground and through a large crack in the step below the door.

Randy struggled up the step, avoiding the flower. He tested the door and it swung open. He leaned into the trailer.

***

That Friday, Randy asked Pedro for a ride home, lying that his car had broken down, was in the shop. He tried to casually suggest they leave through the back of the building. But the smokers were there.

“Go away!” he shouted, and grabbed Pedro’s arm.

Pedro caught his balance and looked from the smokers to his friend.   “Randy—?”

“Leave me alone…” Randy watched as the smokers wrote down GOAWAYLEAVEMEALONE on little pink squares. Randy’s shoulders quivered and he looked at Pedro.

“Let’s go, Pedro.” He swallowed. “Please.”

LETSGOPEDROPLEASE

***

Nothing could be so stuffy. Randy’s nostrils closed. A thousand billion dustmotes danced in the light. The smell of rotten cloth was dizzying. The foam cushions and bed were ripped up. The floor crunched with mouse droppings. The windowsills were littered with dead flies, the torn curtains coated in abandoned webs.

But I can’t run anymore. I have to hide somewhere.

I’m tired.

***

“They follow me everywhere!” Randy shouted at Pedro as they drove to Pedro’s place. “It’s not like they’re dangerous, but they won’t leave me alone.  They write down every single thing I say; they’re driving me crazy.”

“Have you talked to the police?”

“I tried calling yesterday, but they don’t get it; they don’t understand what it’s like. But my life, Pedro! My life is consumed by them. They think everything I do is important. They always know where I am. Turn right.”

“What?”

“Turn right. They might be following us. Go in some circles or something.”

Pedro slowed to turn, and looked straight into Randy’s face.

Randy turned away. “I’m sorry. You don’t know what it’s like. They say I’m their Oracle.”

***

Although the air was still stuffy, Randy didn’t notice the individual smells anymore. He found a hollow space under the mattress. Nothing living seemed to be down there. He took the cast iron poker he’d found in a cupboard under the sink and broke a hole through the aluminum so he could breathe and see outside. He crawled into his little cave, and tried to reposition the mattress over him.

***

Pedro returned Randy to his apartment around dawn. “There they are.”

“Okay,” Randy said. “Okay. Wait for me.” He took a deep breath, got out, and walked up to them. All five stood watching him. “I can no longer be your Oracle,” he said.

They looked shocked, confused. The woman sat down. Glasses rubbed his eyes under the lenses.

The tall man suddenly shook his head and he and the smokers took out pens and started writing Randy’s words on pink squares. The woman saw them and quickly drew a circle.

They crumpled and tossed and unfolded, tracing some. Then they looked back at Randy who was standing, telling himself: patience, patience, you encouraged them, quiet, patience.

“You mean it,” they said. The tall man and Glasses nodded to one another. “Your time as Oracle has ended.” The other three dropped their heads.

Randy let out a relieved laugh, turned to Pedro and waved him away. Pedro raised his eyebrows and Randy nodded. Pedro shrugged and drove off.

“When,” said the woman as Pedro disappeared around a corner.

“Tonight?” asked Glasses.

No one answered, and Randy realized the pause was for him.

“What?”

“Do you want to end tonight?”

“Sooner the better.”

***

Randy didn’t realize he had slept until he was awakened by voices.

“Should we split up again?” said the tall man. “I’m not sure we’re still following him. The hill looked likely, but we haven’t seen anything else since the sun came up.”

One of the smokers spat.

Randy could see them outside the trailer by craning his neck, bringing his eyes to the hole he had made. He gripped the poker tighter and looked back at the mattress.

“If he’s not here,” said the tall man, “what then?”

“Doubt not,” said the woman.

“Look.” Randy twisted his head to see Glasses standing by the door, pointing. “A flower.”

***

As they walked together to the rusted van, Randy wondered if it was too late to change into jeans. The tall man laid a hand on Randy’s shoulder and squeezed. “We’ll take your car,” he told him. “Follow us,” he told the others.

***

Randy watched all but the smokers enter the trailer. He heard them turn around in the small space.

“He’s not here.”

“But the flower—”

“No.”

“He’s here.”

“Maybe he only was here.”

“He’s here.”

***

“It won’t hurt, Randy,” said the tall man as they turned off the main canyon road onto a paved but single-lane road. “It’s quick. That’s our gift to your mortal half. The last Oracle told us how to do it. There is much of truth in you, Randy. Perhaps the future of the world. We thank you.”

Randy was thinking of his options again. The tall man had pulled out a knife when Randy tried to drive contrary to his directions in town, but it was just sitting in his lap now. And besides, he wouldn’t kill him while he was driving, would he? But gas. He checked the gas gauge again. Maybe not even enough to get back to town.

***

Randy lay on his back with the poker on his chest and held onto the mattress with both hands, his fingers dug deep in the rotting foam.

“This doesn’t seem to come off,” said the woman.

Randy heard the other two pairs of footsteps shuffle past her to the bed. The mattress tore away. Randy dropped his clumps of foam, grabbed the poker and swung.

***

Slowing around a curve, the tall man leaned out his window and gestured to the van behind them. “Pull over here.”

He and Randy got out of the car, and the tall man followed Randy over to the van. Randy kept the keys in his hand, arranging one key between each knuckle. He and the tall man watched the smokers pull out knives and ropes and stakes, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a box of matches. He felt the tall man step a bit to the side to observe.

Randy turned and swung his fist as hard as he could. The keys ripped into the tall man’s face, who dropped his knife and fell to the ground. By the time woman fell beside him and tried to staunch the bleeding with her filthy sleeve, Randy was already starting his car and taking off.

He saw headlights appear behind him as he slowed for the first curve.

***

The poker didn’t hit hard, but the impact opened up the wounds on the tall man’s face and knocked him over. Glasses and the woman jumped out of reach and Randy tried to stand. “Go!” he shouted at them and they fell out of the trailer, the tall man scrambling behind them.

Randy struggled out of his hole and limped to the door, slamming it behind them.

***

As long as he was on this twisted road, Randy knew as he slowed for yet another curve, he would never lose them. And I’m almost out of gas.

Like an answer to prayer, the road straightened out. Randy gunned it, knowing the van couldn’t match his sporty thing for acceleration. He slowed for the next corner and was greeted by another long straightaway. After this one, he told himself.

***

Through the broken window, Randy watched the smokers take their backpacks off from under their robes and pull out the stakes and ropes. They took a stout, foot-long branch off the ground and tied it to one end of the rope. One smoker stood stationary and held the other end of the rope, while the other walked around him, dragging the piece of wood, drawing a circle in the dirt. They pounded stakes in the ground around the circle and nodded.

“We’re ready for you now,” said the tall man.

“Come,” said Glasses, and he smiled his blackened smile.

“Please,” said the woman.

Randy leaned against the far wall and gripped and regripped the poker.

“Now,” said Glasses.

***

Randy hit the next corner and saw the road change into a series of squiggles. He could take this, no need to slow down. At the first squiggle the road narrowed and he realized he was at the edge of a dropoff. “Keep going,” he yelled at himself as he looked at the gas gauge. “Keep going!”

***

After some discussion, the smokers started to build a fire next to the head of the trailer. It immediately filled the trailer with heat, and soon, smoke. Randy’s eyes stung and he started to cough, but he stayed put. He cracked the door for air, but it didn’t help. So he flung it open, lifted the poker and ran out, screaming, his ankle screaming along.

He swung, but missed Glasses, and fell on the ground. One of the smokers lifted a rotted two-by-four taken from the picnic table, and brought it down on his head.

***

Randy could see a small dirt road coming up. He slowed down and switched off his headlights as he turned onto it, hoping they would miss him. He carefully followed the trail, careful not to use his brakes no matter how deep the holes, straining for a glimpse of road ahead and trying to watch his rearview.

The van passed through his cloud of dust and immediately slowed. He heard the tires squeal.

Randy swore as he hit the brakes. He jumped out, slamming the door behind him. The car slowly drove itself off, and Randy ran. “Stay on the road, baby,” he prayed.

***

When Randy awoke, it was nearly night again. As he turned his head, he saw the trailer still smoldering, a few coals glowing in the twilight. When he looked down at his naked body, he saw the smeared dirt and sweat and the ropes biting into his wrists and ankles, tying him to the stakes.

“He’s awake,” he heard someone say.

Randy looked for the voice and saw the tall man arranging the bottle of alcohol, the matches and a pile of rags off to Randy’s left. “Thank you, Randy.”

The five robes gathered around him, each holding a knife and a length of braided—Randy wasn’t sure—hair? Glasses stepped over Randy and stood looking down into his face. “You have taught us much, even in these past few trying hours. We are excited to learn all.” He placed a wilted, yellow flower on a long stem on Randy’s chest. “We sacrifice to your immortal half our memories of flowers, and the right to ever enjoy another.”

Glasses stood back and nodded. They each bowed to Randy’s prone form. And advanced.

***

Abandoning the car had been a good idea. It was still cruising down the road and they were following it, slowly. He would have a great headstart. Running through the woods was smart—his best chance. And besides, now he was free. He could escape. He could be safe. He was safe.

For now.