Fiction · 01/11/2017

The Oracle of Exit 24

We take the I-88 offramp after a charred billboard that reads BITO and follow what signs haven’t been faded by the years and the weather. Aude, my girlfriend, wants answers, definitive answers, and for those we will visit the Oracle. We’ve been fighting about this for days, and here we are. It’s not worth fighting about anymore, and maybe the Oracle will have some answers.

We park the truck behind what used to be a fast food joint. The double arches gleam in the late-afternoon sun. It’s been far too long for the buildings on either side of the joint to smolder — almost three years, I think, at this point, since what happened — so they just sit, burnt out and blackened.

We find them in the play area, where flattened boxes are duct-taped over what remains of the floor-to-ceiling windows. The box labels read like a chant: Cisco Cisco Naptek Cisco. A structure of tubes, tunnels, slides, and a ball pit takes up a third of the room. Plastic tables and benches take up the rest.

Bent nearly in half over a composition book at one of the tables is someone who must be the scribe. She’s a youngish person in a sweater vest, a half-inch of fuzz on top of her scalp. Her cheeks have hollows. Her pen arcs over the pages. She must be the scribe, because she’s the only one writing.

On the far end of the room, I can just make out the Oracle sitting in the netting above the ball pit. Some secondary scribes, or low priestesses, their heads shaved, sit next to a molded clown sculpture on a side bench. Their pupils are huge, saucer-like. The five or six of them scratch themselves under their loose robes.

Aude strides right up to the table where the scribe sits and lays her hands flat against the pebbled plastic.

“O Oracle of Exit 24,” Aude says to the ceiling, “here are our offerings for you and your scribe.”

She drops her pack on the table with a thud that makes the scribe’s pile of notebooks bounce, then pulls out two air fresheners (one pine, one tangerine), a dented box of crackers, moisturizing soap, and three two-liter bottles of caffeine-free diet cola. The scribe looks up from her notes and grimaces, but then her grimace fades into a faint smile. She takes the offering and puts it all — except for the crackers — under the table. Her thumb slides under the flap of the cracker box. She splits the plastic and digs a handful out.

“What would you like to ask the Oracle?” the scribe says with crumbs at the corners of her mouth.

Aude’s breath catches.

The scribe flips through her notebook, comes to a clean page, then pushes her horn-rimmed glasses up her nose with one index finger. She grabs another cracker from the box.

“Jenny and I — we want to know what we’ll find when we reach her aunt’s house,” Aude says. “We want to know whether we should even go at all. It’s a long way through some dangerous places. You know how it is.”

“Anything more specific for the Oracle most holy and esteemed? You just want a travel forecast?”

“Yes.”

“Mmmf,” the scribe says, writing in her composition book. “Wait here.”

Before all this, Aude was a teacher who worked with struggling little kids. How she could learn to love wiping snotty noses and explaining C-A-T six hundred times over was beyond me, but she did and I love her for it. I was an insurance claims adjuster who specialized in auto repair. I can tell you exactly how much it would cost to fix each of the cars broken down along the side of the highway. We had a pretty good life, I guess, before.

Aunt Mimi’s house was the last place either of us felt truly safe. Dog hair and home cooking. You know. The risk, of course, is whether they’re still alive too. In some sense, it doesn’t matter. We don’t have anywhere else. I don’t know whether to stay or to go, whether staying or going even matters. I’m not actually sure I expect us to survive long-term: five years from now, ten years from now. Who knows about Aunt Mimi. She and my cousins and grandmother might still be holding out. Maybe going there will help us stay together. We’ve spent so many stressful, empty days hiding out at the agency that I sometimes worry Aude hates me, that she’d leave me if she could.

Aude holds me in place with her hand on my shoulder. I close my eyes for a moment. She scratches under my chin and then pecks me on the cheek. Like I said, I want us to survive long-term, I think, but I’m not sure I expect it. Sometimes I think about what would happen out here if one of us made a mistake, just a little one, and died. It only takes a few seconds of not looking back when exploring a looted store or when checking for hitchers on the back of the truck. Then that’s all, folks. One of us wouldn’t make it long.

I don’t tell Aude this, just like I didn’t tell her we’d run out of antibiotics until a few weeks after. She has enough to worry about.

+

The scribe comes back to us. “The Oracle will see you now.”

We approach the Oracle, who sits cross-legged on mesh suspended above the ball pit. She holds a red gas can. Her long, straight purple hair curtains the canister as she leans forward to inhale. With the hair, and the gas can, and the huffing, she could be anyone sitting at the side of the street, but in here, in the darkness of the play structure, she looks kind of supernatural.

As she exhales, her free forearm jerks. She takes another pull, holds it, and breathes out with her eyes closed. The mesh sways. This close, I can see that her hair is matted and her flowing skirt has a ragged hem. A leather pouch hangs from a string on her neck, and her eyes are soft-focused. Her breath comes out ragged, forced, as though she can blow a message out.

I stand back a bit, hoping I look at least somewhat respectful — even if I don’t believe it, there are a lot of those secondary scribes who seem attentive to our every step — but Aude gets closer to the Oracle. She stops next to the shoe cubbies, which still hold several pairs of tiny shoes with their laces neatly tucked in. Then she runs her hands over the tongues, over the soles, cups one pair in the palm of her hand.

After placing the shoes back, tenderly, into one of the cubbies, she climbs the bottom few rows. Now she’s so close, nearly level with the Oracle. Her voice rings through the play area.

“Oracle,” she says. “Most esteemed and holy Oracle. We are here to discover our true path: should we venture forth to our aunt’s house, to see whether anyone from our family still lives? It’s a very long trip, but we have a truck. We could go now, and be there in under a week. We just don’t know whether it’s worth it, and we seek insight from your connection with the Divine.”

Aude steps down and hesitates before sitting on a bench at one of the tables. Besides the Oracle’s labored breathing, it is so quiet that the room almost hums. The scribe turns to a clean page in her notebook. We wait. One of the secondary scribes scratches and scratches an itch on her leg. As my eyes fully adjust to the dimness, the bright colors of the balls in the pit below the Oracle almost glow. They’re just little plastic orbs, but they look like eggs about to hatch.

The Oracle takes another deep pull from the gas can, screws the cap back on, and unfolds herself from around it. She pulls up her pouch-necklace and kisses it.

“Two roads distant from each other,” the Oracle says. “The frank and the further, never never the twain shall meet. No one can count the grains of sand. The beach assault. Hibby, the dip dip. Measure the sea. Only know when you go whether to go. The journey must begin before results are measured. That’s the paradox of foxplay.”

The scribe nods as she scribbles across the page. She writes off the page, so that her pen scrapes across the table, but she seems not to notice. At the end of each page, she flips while continuing to write. When she pauses, she chews on her pen. It leaks and stains her lips blue. Cursing and spitting, she pulls another pen from the pocket of her vest, then pushes her glasses up her nose with the tip of her finger. A blot of ink blooms in the pocket of her vest, just above her heart.

The Oracle rocks in her seat, then gets up and spins in circles over the bouncy mesh. Her hair spreads out and her bare feet grip the netting.

“Family ties us together like sticky worms to the wall. Hook and line and sinker. The melon twists and goes sour. Scoop it. Maps themselves directionless. The stars are only but an illusion. Watch the compass. Spread love it’s the Duanesburg way.”

After unscrewing the cap of the can for another quick pull, this time standing, she puts it down and jumps to the edge of the netting. She enters the system of tubes. The scribe gets up from her seat to follow the Oracle as she moves through the play structure. Her attention to the Oracle’s every mumble is almost anthropological.

Aude turns and flaps her hand at me to come over. She whispers, “This means we should go, I think, because she even mentioned family and spreading love.”

“Well, let’s wait till she’s finished,” I say. “I mean, look at her. Can someone who lives like this really give us rational advice?”

“There must be a reason all these people are here!” Aude hisses. “Can’t you trust her? It’s not like we’ll know what’s up from the nightly news. Gas is made out of ancient plants and animals, so it’s special. It does things to the mind. I’m pretty sure shamans used to use it.”

I don’t point out that it also combusts to make car engines move, although I really want to. Maybe the Oracle does have insight we can’t access, though I doubt it. Or at least I thought I doubted it. Maybe Aude is right to come here, right to give them our supplies. I’ve never been a spiritual person, but there could be something I’m missing — some realm only the Oracle can see. A distant plane, maybe even a parallel universe. I have vague memories of a PBS special on string theory. Although, granted, Aude did used to visit mall psychics. Clarissa the clairvoyant reaped enough of her biweekly paycheck that I set up a budget for it in our home accounting software.

The Oracle moves fast now through the structure. It sounds like she’s down on her hands and knees. Thunk THUNK thunk pause THUNK thunk reverberates through the tubes. Her movement drowns out her muffled voice, and her hands squeak against the plastic.

“Crunch crunch the mosses!” it sounds like the Oracle says. Either that or Moses. The Oracle’s thunks fade as she moves through the tunnels toward the very back of the construction. I can no longer hear her. Aude gets up, takes a tentative step forward and cocks her ear. The scribe disappears into the shadows underneath the lofted tubes.

When the Oracle reappears near the front of the structure, she threads the yellow gas can spout out through the cap, so that the container can be poured, and she screws the cap back on. Lifting the can above her head, she shakes gas over the netting. When she arrives at the top of the spiral slide, she jumps and comes out at the bottom with her arms in the air. Her thin legs splay over the end, and her bare feet dangle. A beam of light streams through one of the few places where the cardboard gaps. Somehow it hits the Oracle’s face precisely. She folds her arms and gawks at Aude. She and Aude lock eyes. I notice their breathing goes in sync.

The scribe makes more notes. Minutes pass.

After ripping a sheaf of pages from the composition book, the scribe crumples some and goes to the garbage can. Dirty trays are still stacked on top. “Thank You” swings back and forth until the lid snaps shut. The scribe hands the rest of the pages to Aude.

“Thank you,” Aude says to the scribe. She glares at me.

As we turn to go, the Oracle hops off the slide and shakes the can of gasoline over the floor. The stink of it brings me back to gas station convenience stores, to the possibility of ice-cold soda. About halfway to the door, we turn back to watch. I start to take a step forward, back toward the play structure, but Aude holds her hand up in front of me.

“What are you doing, O Oracle?” the scribe says. There’s a note of panic in her voice. The Oracle pushes her out of the way. “You’re ruining everything we’ve worked for.”

The Oracle says nothing. The scribe tries to take the gas can away from her, but the Oracle holds on to it. She’s stronger than she looks. Then the Oracle unwraps the cloth from one of the pillars of the play structure and pulls off chunks of styrofoam with her long nails. She hums and sways as she drops the chunks into the gas can. The scribe reaches her hands out, drops them, sits back at the table, pen ready.

The Oracle stands still a moment, shakes the can, and holds her ear to it. Then she pours gas over more of the floor. After she douses the area around the structure with whatever’s in the can, the Oracle drops it. I flinch, Aude doesn’t. The scribe simply sits there.

Aude and I are frozen in place. We have to get out of here. I know this but can’t move.

The Oracle pulls out a lighter from somewhere within the folds of her skirt. She snaps the metal case open, strikes the wheel. When she crouches down to light the body, it goes up with a whoosh. The fire spreads. Flames grow up the plastic netting and surround the play structure tubes. The off-gas from the melting netting smells like tar.

Aude shakes herself, then runs forward and grabs a few of the notebooks from the scribe’s table. She stares at the Oracle, takes my shoulder, and we leave. After we check around the truck, we get into it and watch the fire through the windshield. It bursts out one of the windows. From here in the parking lot, the building looks as derelict as its neighbors, with siding gaps and a missing roof. Strangely, it is silent aside from the roil and hush of flame. All those people dead, and for what? We’ve seen death before, but not like this. Not for nothing. Maybe it’s all for nothing. Aude takes my hand.

As I start the truck, Aude pulls out the scribe’s pages. She opens them carefully, studies them, smoothes out the wrinkles. The other notebooks lay on her lap. I turn left out of the parking lot. We can at least get on the highway. After a bit, Aude breaks the silence by clearing her throat. I anticipate the relief, I think, of knowing.

“I can’t read her handwriting at all,” Aude says. “Fuck. I’ll ask you when we stop to take a look, but I think this is it. Let’s just go, huh?” She turns to me, and I kiss her right on the mouth as I drive.

Then I pull away, look at her drawn face, and start to laugh, deep down in my belly. I find it hard to stop. I laugh so hard that I start to wheeze, so I pull my inhaler from my pocket and suck down a few puffs. My sternum starts to ache. Aude laughs too. She begins at a chuckle. Then her giggle — I love her giggle — followed by guffaws.

Our laughter rolls from one to the other: Aude, me, Aude. It builds, and builds, and builds, and it feels like we can’t stop. She rolls down the window, sticks her head out, and sucks deep breaths from the sweet night air. I can’t tell whether she’s laughing or sobbing. She turns the radio on, but she can’t find a station. Everything is static.

+++

Emily Coon is the Fiction Editor at Black Warrior Review, Associate Editor at Fairy Tale Review, and a Graduate Council Fellow at the University of Alabama. Her work has appeared in Little Bird Stories and online at Ploughshares.