Your great grandfather built the railroad. There was a piece of it that ran behind our house, and if you followed it far enough, you would find The Oracle – if you believed in that sort of thing. No one I knew personally had met him, but everyone’s cousin’s best friend’s boyfriend had their own story to tell. Accounts varied wildly –he was either a man or something much worse, either in a decaying old house or an abandoned train car, or perhaps standing in the middle of the tracks, bathed in a halo of sunlight that shot out from his body like lightning. There was no coherent version of him, which may have been his doing; a way of getting people to search for him if only to figure out the truth.
One afternoon, my good friend and I were walking along the railroad tracks. We both knew the legend, of course, but neither of us were looking to find him. We were in our twenties at the time, home from college for the summer. There wasn’t that much to do in small towns back then, so one afternoon, we decided to see where the old railroad, which had been quiet for years, went. We figured that as long as we stayed close to the tracks, we couldn’t get lost, because they would lead us right back to town.
We had been walking for a while when the horizon bent around in an odd shape that cast unnatural shadows against the afternoon sky. As we approached, the shape in the distance grew into an old wooden table draped in a white lace cloth, unmoving despite the breeze. A man sat facing us. His face was sheathed in the shadows of an strangely deepening evening. It seemed as though the sun went down faster the closer we got, and that if we turned and walked the other way, it would rise again. My friend and I exchanged a glance, remembering the old stories.
The man was tall and thin, with a prominent brow and jawline, both of which were accentuated by deep-set eyes and sunken cheeks. He wore an old man’s suit, crisp and fitted, of the kind that were only dusted off for special occasions. It reminded me of the one my cousin was buried in two years before.
“Sit,” he gestured to the two empty chairs across from him, “please.” His voice was smooth, inviting yet commanding. There was a hidden power beneath its surface. Against my better judgment, I felt compelled to take a seat. I made a mental note that the way home was behind us. He smiled as we joined him and turned to me, “Would you like a consult or a vision?”
I glanced toward my friend, who was seated next to me, to confirm that this was really happening. He looked just as confused as I felt.
The Oracle snapped his fingers, “Don’t look at him. Look at me.”
“Would you like a consult or a vision?” His voice was firmer this time. I knew that I would have to choose.
“A vision,” I told him.
“Excellent!” The Oracle grinned. He cupped my face in his hands, and at his touch, I felt an electric, buzzing energy radiating from his fingertips. He pulled that energy from the air around him and directed it into my body. Though I felt like I was convulsing, I was rigid in my seat, paralyzed by the Oracle’s touch. Then, I felt my eyes roll back as I slipped under.
I awoke in a stairwell, walking downward. My footsteps echoed hollowly, and my lungs were clogged with the thick scent of copper. I walked down several floors, but the stairs continued with no end in sight. Peering over the handrail, I stared down an infinite depth and shuddered at the sudden thought of myself pitching forward, over the railing and into the darkness below. As I walked down, a man walked up past me. The next level down, he passed me again. I recognized him from his suit –it was the Oracle. This went on for several floors. I began to walk faster, but he matched my pace. We continued to pass each other. Eventually, I was sprinting down the stairwell, and he was running up at me, our steps creating a cacophony of clangs on the metal stairs.
I must have traveled dozens of floors down when I turned and began to run up the stairs in an attempt to throw him off my trail. It was like he had planned every move I made. He had built this stage and directed every action; perhaps he even chose my own thoughts. As I ran up, he ran in the opposite direction. It was much more unsettling to see him running down. His menacing figure loomed taller than before. Suddenly, the Oracle launched forward and pinned me against the railing, threatening to push me over the edge. Again, I was paralyzed. He held me tightly, like a paper airplane crushed in the unyielding fist of a toddler. A loud clanging shadowed every movement, even the slightest of breaths; it overwhelmed me –steel-toed shoes drumming on metal stairs, a molten gaze so hot it burned my eyes to meet it, the grim assurance of a metal handrail against my back that the metal ground was far below, the frantic words reverberating off metal walls, the gnashing of metallic teeth, and the wailing of a quicksilver tongue.
“Two days from now,” his words seemed to come from somewhere else, like they had traveled a long way before reaching his mouth. “Two days from now, are you listening?”
I could not move. I could not speak.
“Two days from now –that’s June 27th– will be a very important day.”
“What’s going to happen?” I asked.
“This is just a vision. I can’t tell you. You should have asked for a consult.”
The Oracle tightened his grip and brought his face mere inches from mine. I still could not move. The railing bowed beneath our weight and as if at his command, snapped. I fell headfirst into the darkness. As I fell, the air became thicker, heavier almost, and at some point, I was no longer falling downward but upward. The cold ground became an unattainable sky.
I was suspended in midair. The Oracle was gone. I dared to take a breath, but my lungs filled with water. Beneath me was an infinite darkness; above me hung the sun, a pinprick in the swirling surface of the water. It cast a single spotlight that illuminated me.
Beneath me, the ghostly white figure of the Oracle appeared, his arms outstretched toward my dangling feet. I scrambled for the surface. It was like climbing a mountain. The weight of the water held me in place like a writhing ant under a forceful thumb.
My ascent was slow and agonizing, but I escaped before he could grab me. The moment I broke the surface was accompanied by the blaring of a car horn, so loud it shook the water. I returned to my body, which I had left slumped over the table. I began to cough up water in between each gasping breath.
The sun had almost disappeared entirely in the time I was inside that twisted dream world. How long had we been gone? Surely someone will come looking for us, I told myself. All they would have to do is follow the tracks. A troubling thought occurred to me. Would anyone be able to find us? Was this reality, or just another trick of the mind like the stairwell? Had we left the real world for good?
Leaping up from the table, I went to grab my friend and pull him away when the Oracle pointed at me.
“Sit down!” he commanded. Every muscle in his body tensed, coiled like a cobra poised to strike.
Reluctantly, I sank back into my chair. Satisfied, the Oracle turned to my friend, “Would you like a consult or a vision?”
“Don’t!” I warned.
“It’s not your turn!” The Oracle hissed.
He returned his venomous eyes to my friend and repeated, “Would you like a consult or a vision?”
I shook my head, pleading him not to answer, to just get up and run home, but I think we both knew that would be no use. “A consult,” he said.
Just like he had done with me, the Oracle placed his hands on either side of my friend’s face. When he pulled him away, his eyes stared straight ahead as if he were in a trance.
The Oracle stared at him intently for a few moments. I wanted so badly to get up and run, but I couldn’t leave my friend. It was dark now, darker than I had ever seen the night. I could not see the moon or any stars. Part of me worried that I was still asleep and that this was more of my vision. My friend’s mouth moved as if he were speaking, but no sound came out. The Oracle seemed to understand what he was saying. He nodded solemnly and brought his hands to his face once again.
Suddenly, my friend snapped awake and began screaming. He shot up from the table and sprinted away. I followed closely behind him, not looking back. We ran for what felt like hours and did not stop until we reached my house. We raced inside, slammed the door behind us, and locked it. My heart still racing, I peeked out of the window. The train tracks were empty. The Oracle had not followed.
I told my friend what I saw during my turn and then asked him what happened in his.
“It was weird, man. When I went under, I woke up, like… outside of my body. I was like a ghost or something. I could move around, but I wasn’t really there. I couldn’t interact with anything. I tried to touch the table, but my hand went right through.” He was silent for a moment, probably wondering whether or not he wanted to tell me the rest.
“I saw my mother, but I… I don’t think it was my mother, if that makes sense. She looked just like her, but you met my mom. She was a nice lady.”
My friend’s mom had died when he was a child. I couldn’t help but wonder how the Oracle knew. My vision was something that he could have shown anyone, but how did he manage to create an experience that was so specific to my friend?
“She looked like my mom and sounded just like her, though she was translucent, much like me. But the things she said weren’t things my mother would ever say. They were cruel. She told me that she hated me and that she was glad about what was going to happen.”
“What’s going to happen?” I asked.
“She said I’m going to die.” My friend looked terrified.
“Did she say when? Or how?”
“No. I tried to ask, but then the Oracle brought me back.” Again, he was quiet. Then, he leaned closer to me, afraid that someone could be listening in on our conversation, and asked, “Do you think it’s true?”
“No,” I said. “I mean, it can’t be. He was just some freak that messed with our heads. Maybe he drugged us or something.” I wanted to believe what I had said, but I couldn’t shake the dread that still lingered in the pit of my stomach.
I drove my friend home and went to bed. I felt better in the morning, but not totally normal. I was still freaked out. We decided not to tell anyone about what had happened because we knew no one would believe it. It would be better for us to just ride this thing out and get on with our lives.
June 27th finally came. I didn’t leave my house. I was determined to prove the Oracle wrong. This was not going to be a big day; it was going to be as boring as I could make it. That evening, my friend called and asked if I wanted to catch a movie. I said I wasn’t feeling up to it and went to bed early, eager to get the day over with. If nothing happened on June 27th, the Oracle was wrong.
I was relieved when I woke up on June 28th. My life was back to normal again, and I felt like I could finally forget about what happened that day out on the train tracks. But when I went down to get breakfast, my mom was sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for me. She told me that my friend was in a car accident last night. On his way home from the movies, another driver fell asleep at the wheel and drifted into the wrong lane. He swerved to avoid a head-on collision, but his car broke through the guard rail and fell into the lake. He drowned.
A wave of dread passed over me, and I felt like I was going to throw up. The memories of our encounter with the Oracle flooded back to me all at once. Even all these years later, I still think about that summer. I don’t know if the Oracle told use those things because they were going to happen or if he made them happen himself. I still wonder if everything would have turned out the same way if we hadn’t sat down at that table.
CREDIT: K. Brown