The ORACLE consists of a series of short stories tied together by means of a background story – a story within a story (similar to Ray Bradbury’s “Illustrated Man”). The stories are written with trick endings in the vein of the old Twilight Zone series.
So here’s a sneak peek of the first Episode.
It was a gradual thing. So slow that I hadn’t noticed anything was wrong until I heard the steady staccato sound of what could only be one thing – the tread of the recapped tire I’d just bought that morning in Los Angeles, peeling off.
I grabbed the wheel tightly. There was a sudden muted thud as the tire disintegrated and the car pulled sharply to the right. My high school Drivers Ed flashed through my mind—steer into the skid or opposite? Screw it! I took my foot off the gas and battled the car to a stop on the shoulder of the road.
I climbed out of the car, a classic 1965 Chevy Corvair that Vince, my on again, off again manager had loaned me. He couldn’t loan me a newer one because he didn’t own a newer car – well, at least anything that you would consider a recent model. Vince collected classic cars and didn’t own any other type.
The Chevy Corvair was definitely a classic. It had enjoyed only a limited manufacturing run that was cut short by the consumer advocate, Ralph Nader, who had labeled the Corvair unsafe at any speed.
Hmm…I wonder if Vince had loaned me this particular car on purpose? I thought about the insurance policy he made me take out before the trip. Nah. He was a sleaze but …nah.
Accepting my fate, I walked around the car to the passenger side and stared at the rear tire. “Damn.” Not only had the tread peeled off but the sidewalls had shredded as well. There basically wasn’t anything left of it.
A quick look around told me I needed to hurry and get it changed. There was a storm brewing to the west. The same storm I’d outrun when I left LA earlier today.
Popping the hood, knowing Corvair’s have their engine in the back I began digging through my luggage, removing my backpack, laptop and electric guitar before I found the spare tire buried in the usual place at the bottom of the trunk.
“Shit!” I screamed. The spare was flat!
I should have known Vince wouldn’t have bothered to maintain it. But I was in a hurry and didn’t stop to think about it.
As I stood shaking my head and cussing to myself, I realized that even if the spare was good, I couldn’t have changed the tire.
Crap! And no jack!
I surveyed the area and realized I was in trouble. The place where the tire decided to take a crap on me was desolate. I couldn’t see anything in any direction. Then I remembered, some time back maybe twenty miles, I’d seen a sign that said, “Next gas and service – sixty miles”.
I stacked my stuff back under the hood, slammed it down and went to sit in the driver’s seat. I leaned over and opened the glove box and found the tattered map of Arizona. I tucked in there at the start of my trip along with the directions to the Lollapalooza audition Vince had arranged for me. He said the audition could be my big break and besides he needed the money I’d bring in if I got the gig. I saw it as a chance to take a break from the LA scene that was sucking the life out of me.
Checking the map, I figured I was about fifty miles south of Kingman and then I remembered passing a sign for Wikieup a few miles back. I decided that was my best shot and gathered up my stuff and headed out. I was hoping to meet up with a Good Samaritan on the road, who’d give me a ride to the nearest town.
I wasn’t too confident though that I’d catch a ride anytime soon. I was dressed in faded jeans, and a Megadeth t-shirt. I had long hair half way down my back, tied in a ponytail. I had a cheap backpack that I had bought a few years ago, when I thought I was going to college that also carried a big Megadeth logo on it. I had it slung over one shoulder and my electric guitar in its leather carrying case slung over the other. I didn’t exactly blend in with the natives, plus I hadn’t seen a car for the last couple of hours.
So I walked and I walked and I walked.
The whole time, the storm I’d outrun earlier was steadily catching up. Even though it was still early, not quite four in the afternoon, the storm clouds had already obscured the sun to the point that it looked and felt as though it were twilight.
As I strode on, I could hear the steady increase in the telltale rumbling of the storm as it approached. I could feel the humidity climbing and could see the rain in the distance across the high desert. The wind blew with the smell of wet mesquite.
This was not the place I wanted to be, out in the open, when the storm finally hit. It had all the earmarks of being a torrential downpour and that would mean possible flash floods and lightning strikes.
Off in the distance on the side of a hill, I saw an old ranch house. There was a long access road that led to it, which appeared to have been used regularly and recently. So I began trotting down the road in the hopes of outrunning the approaching storm.
As I jogged up to the house, I was reminded of the ranches I’d seen in the old westerns on TV. The house was a long ranch-style affair with a few cottonwood trees off to the left of it. There was a big rundown barn off to the right of the house with a large empty corral next to it. The portrait of the Old West was completed by the purple mountains in the background and the thunderstorm rolling in over the top of them—-like a Remington painting—-one I wish wasn’t in.
I trotted up to the ranch house and up the two steps to the dilapidated porch just as the first of the heavy raindrops began to fall. I was about to open the tattered screen door then thought better of it and just knocked on the weathered front door through the torn screen.
As the rain began to come down in earnest, I knocked a second time, since the first knock seemed to go unanswered. As I waited for a response I hugged the wall of the ranch house in an attempt to stay dry, because the wind had picked up and was blowing the rain onto the porch.
After a minute or two no one answered the door, so I knocked a third time.
I was beginning to think there was no one home or the place was deserted. So I leaned over to look in a window, and thought I heard the creaking of the front door as it opened. But before I could check it out, lightning flashed almost upon me and the thunder roared loudly, startling me half to death. It took a few seconds but I recovered my wits and looked towards the door.
Someone was peering out though the small opening between the door and its jamb.
“Oh! Hi there.” I spoke, straining to do my best to sound as friendly as possible. “My car broke down a few miles up the road. It’s got a flat and I don’t have a spare.” I informed the mystery person.
Slowly the door opened wider revealing a tall, craggy old man with an apprehensive look on his face. He eyed me suspiciously from beneath a tuft of white hair and then looked around the immediate area as though he wasn’t convinced by my story. Probably looking for a hippie convoy of my pals.
“I’d appreciate being able to use your phone to call for a tow.” I said.
“Haven’t got one.” He croaked as he stared through me.
I got the distinct impression he was giving me the once over, trying to decide whether I was worth any more of his time. I was starting to get a bit unnerved by his glare when I heard a voice from inside the house call out.
“Jeb, who’s at the door?” It was woman’s voice.
The man turned slightly towards the voice as an elderly woman stepped up, opened the door wide and said, “Come on in young man, It’s not fitting to be standing outside in weather like this.”
She gave the old man a hard look. “Where are your manners Jeb?” she admonished.
As I stepped inside, out of the rain, the woman asked. “Is there something we can help you with, young man? We don’t get to see visitors out here unless they’ve had some sort of car trouble.”
“That’s exactly what happened. The car I borrowed from a friend had a flat tire and when I went to put on the spare I found it was flat. I could sure use a ride to the nearest town so I could arrange to have it towed in and the spare tire fixed.”
“Oh my, that certainly is a problem, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to get you into town tonight,” the woman stated casually.
“Oh, why?” I asked.
“The storm of course. The National Weather Service has issued a flash flood warning and that’s something we take very seriously around here. “Right, Jeb?” she stated, as she elbowed him in the ribs.
The poke seemed to work on old Jeb. He spoke right up. “Yeah, right,” he mumbled in a raspy voice.
The old woman gave him a look that would have made most men cringe, but not old Jeb. He just turned and walked into the living room.
“You can set your things down right here and then go take a seat in the living room. Are you hungry? I was just about to put dinner on the table and there is plenty to go around,” she offered.
“Well now that you mention it, I haven’t eaten all day.”
“Good. It’ll be just a few minutes and dinner will be served. We haven’t had a guest for dinner in a very long time,” she stated as she turned and walked into what I assumed was the kitchen.
As I wandered into the living room, Jeb glanced at me for only a moment. I could tell even though he wasn’t all that comfortable with my sudden arrival along with the storm, he would allow me to stay. He’d learned long ago that it was easier to let his wife have things her way, than to fight about it. That’s the kind of wisdom that takes us men years to come to terms with, my dad used to say.
As I sat on the sofa and looked around at the pictures of the two of them on the walls, I was struck by the contrast between my two hosts. Whereas Jeb was tall and lanky, she was short and stocky. Whereas Jeb was a bit standoffish, she was warm and friendly, perhaps even caring. Jeb’s features were weathered and gray. Hers were soft and silvery, sort of Grandmotherly.
You could tell from his looks, Jeb had never had a desk job and she had most likely never worked outside their home. They were both at least in their seventies, but they might have been even older – though they both appeared to still be spry and vibrant.
Jeb sat in what, I was sure, his special recliner across from the sofa. He picked up the newspaper from the table next to him and began reading – ignoring the fact I was even there.
So I spent my time checking out the room some more. They had good taste as far as I could see. There were Navajo rugs on the floor and Mexican clay pots filled with flowers in the corners of the room. The furniture had a Santa Fe look to it. It was white pine and hefty. The walls I noticed, were covered with pictures and mixed in with the ones of the two of them at different places, were several assorted scenes from the Old West. On the wall hung a 1969 Famers Insurance calendar – the kind insurance agents give you at the end of the year.
I was about to ask Jeb about the pictures when his wife strolled into the room.
“I must be slipping. How impolite of me. We never even introduced ourselves or asked your name,” she stated as she stepped over next to Jeb.
“I’m Chris.” I said.
“And I’m Helen and this, of course, is, Jeb,” she stated.
“It’s good to meet you”, I replied. Helen nudged Jeb and he made a grumbling sound from behind the newspaper.
“You’ll have to excuse the old man here. He’s become quite the loner in his old age. If he could he’d probably have me only come around at feeding time. He’s like an old crotchety bear,” she stated as Jeb growled behind the newspaper.
“Now you’re welcome to stay the night, Chris. We have a spare room all decked out and it would be inhuman to turn someone out on a night like this.” The lightning flashed and the thunder crashed at that precise moment as if to empathize her point.
“Oh no, that’s not necessary,” I replied.
“Nonsense, what are you going to do? Sleep out in a puddle?” she asked. “We can’t take you to town until tomorrow sometime because of the storm, remember?”
“Oh yeah, I a… just didn’t want to be an inconvenience.”
“It’s no problem. Jeb and I are happy to help others in need,” she said. She turned and walked out of the room bubbling over her shoulder, “Dinner will be ready in about ten minutes’ boys. Jeb why don’t you be just a bit more sociable and entertain our guest while I finish up in here.”
Jeb, as if on queue, set down the paper, glanced towards the kitchen, grumbled something incoherent, and then looked over at me. “Do ya like pictures?” he asked with a slight twinkle in his eyes.
“Sure, I guess. What kind are we talking about?” I asked.
He leaned forward in his chair, as if he were sharing a secret. “Three D pictures,” he said. He reached into a battered cardboard box beside his chair and pulled out an old time stereoscopic slide viewer. It was a stereopticon made of wood, about twelve inches long, with a viewer on one end that looked like a diver’s mask that fit over the viewer’s eyes. On the other end was the slide holder that slid back and forth to focus the 3D images.
Being a denizen of eBay, I’d seen one or two before. They were the 19th century’s equivalent of today’s VCR. At least one of these entertainment devices was found in nearly every middle and upper class parlor of that time period.
“Ever see one of these?” Jeb asked.
“I’ve seen pictures of them, but never an actual one.”
“I got this one for Helen on our wedding anniversary. Thought it would be nice to have it since it was an antique and all.” His eyes went to the coffee table in front of me. “Hand me that box under the table there.”
I looked down and saw a small silver colored metal box on the lower shelf. It was three inches by five inches and had a smooth finish, with no exterior markings of any kind.
I pulled it out and handed it to Jeb, who slipped the top off and set it on the table next to him. He gently pulled a slide from inside the box.
As he slid the slide into the stereopticon in his hand he asked, “Married?”
“What?” I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. I was so focused on watching how gently he was loading the slide into the viewer.
“Are you married, boy?” Jeb snapped, his tone bordering on hostile.
“Oh, no,” I replied.
“Any kids?” his face took on an inquisitive look and he winked at me. “You know,” he added.
I wasn’t sure what he was asking me. Was he asking me if I liked girls? Or maybe he was asking because he was about to show me some antique porn or something? I wasn’t sure where he was headed. “No. I don’t have kids,” I finally answered and he nodded his head.
“That’s good. They can be a handful,” the old cowboy said. He grew quiet for a moment as if he was contemplating something or maybe he was just remembering something about kids.
Jeb then stood up and walked over to an old Victorian style floor lamp at the opposite end of the sofa and turned it on. He handed me the viewer and said, “It works best the closer you are to the light, but not too close–the slides are kinda sensitive.”
I slid down the sofa to where I could easily train the viewer on the light and held it up.
“Be sure you focus it. Just slide the tray back and forth until you find the picture is nice and clear,” he instructed.
I adjusted the viewer and the picture slowly became crystal clear. It was a real nice picture for the age of the optics, but it was just a picture, nothing to write home about. I was about to say something like, “Nice” and hand the viewer back to Jeb when something extraordinary happened.
The image moved!
I blinked my eyes and actually took the viewer away from my face and looked at the slide from over the top of the view port. I then placed the viewer back in front of my face and watched as the scene depicted on the slide came to life.
The viewpoint of the slide was changing as if it were a scene from a movie where the camera pans around a room.
The moving picture showed the inside of a ship’s cabin. In the bunk against the far wall was a young Japanese girl. The waif was frightened, sobbing, and having a terrible nightmare.