Valya Dudycz Lupescu
“A dead dad isn’t an excuse to fail,“ my mother said in a moment of Champagne wisdom. “Dig deep enough, and everybody’s sleeping on bones.”
As if that explained away my misdemeanors. I wasn’t in a hurry to die, but neither was I afraid of death. I grew up with death. He tucked me in at night, dared me to pocket sweets from the Superette, and poured my mom cocktails. Since my teenage years, I had been looking for death on every thrill ride and in every risky decision, waiting to find death on the face of each anonymous lover. I knew the more we risked losing, the more we had to gain. My mother didn’t understand that death wasn’t an excuse; death made the chances worth taking. I think that’s why the oracle woman with her proclamations didn’t scare me.
The first time I saw her, she sat down next to a man in a wrinkled blue suit and told him, “You’re going to die.”
Most people on the bus didn’t notice. Even in the days before mobile phones, we found ways to ignore one another: Walkman stereos, doodling on sketchpads, fumbling with paperbacks. I had spotted the man earlier as we waited to board the #74. Too young to stink of that much Old Spice, he tapped his teeth with a gnarled Bic pen and eventually sat down in front of me.
“The world is divided into people who live in disarray and those who choose the neat path,” my mother always said. She would tsk-tsk her disapproval at my rumpled shirts, then head to work with a Virginia Slim in the silver cigarette holder between her fingers.
Mom would have liked the oracle woman with her well-pressed slacks and Aqua Net bun. She would have disapproved of the lipstick on the side of the Old Spice man’s unpressed collar, but it fascinated me. I imagined they must have been unforgettable lips, and I understood wanting to hold onto something.
The next day, Old Spice man was not in line, but the oracle woman got on at Western and walked up to a Goth in a purple fishnet shirt. The Goth was never seen again. I liked to think she didn’t mind, that maybe she found comfort in it. By the time the oracle woman spoke to Maria, an elderly waitress with an embroidered nametag, most people had begun to pay attention. A regular, Maria was missed.
Passengers started leaving the bus whenever they spotted the oracle woman, and some stopped riding the route altogether. On the contrary, I found her appearance exciting. I caught my breath each time she boarded. It reminded me of watching Lotto with my mother. Mom religiously played the same numbers: my dad’s birthday, their first kiss, their wedding, the day he died in Vietnam. All I knew about my father were those numbers — more real than the dog tags hidden in Mom’s underwear drawer beside the brown braid of his hair.
In truth, I kept waiting for the oracle woman to take the empty seat beside me. I hoped she would. I often thought about following her and imagined the house she lived in and the frozen dinners she ate sitting in front of the television watching Twilight Zone reruns. Did she have pets or plants or shelves of books? I wondered if she brought death or just forecast what she saw. I wondered if she was haunted.
Then one day, I asked. The oracle woman was alone after the middle-aged man in a dusty motorcycle jacket beside her got off. I sat down next to her, but she ignored me and kept staring out the window.
After we passed my usual stop at the university, I asked, “What about me?”
She said nothing, just stared ahead, her lips somewhere in between a grimace and a grin. Then she looked at me, her blue-grey eyes so pale they were almost white.
“In the end it’s your choice,” she said.
The oracle woman leaned over to give me a kiss on the cheek, her breath full of mint. When I pulled away, she slipped something into my hand, then slumped forward in her seat. I slid past her and got off the bus, trying to convince myself that she was only asleep. My head was throbbing, and it was only after I walked a few blocks that I looked to see what she had placed in my hand — a pair of silver sewing scissors.
The next morning, I went to see my mother for our Sunday morning coffee, scissors in my back pocket. Walking down the street, I saw threads of light that stretched out from the tops of everyone’s heads. Some were long and bright, others short and faded. The strange strands floated as if in water or in space, and I worried I was having an oracular migraine or a flashback.
When my mother answered the door, the truth hit me. Mom’s thread was tiny and frayed. I wanted to run home and hide, but instead put my arms around her in an unfamiliar gesture.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I said, “but I can’t stay for coffee.”
I left to walk alone along the lakeshore. I didn’t want to know when death was coming. I didn’t want to make those kinds of choices and declarations. I tossed the scissors into the lake. Then I reached down and picked up a piece of green beach glass from the sand. I carried it home in my hand, feeling the smooth shape of glass worn away by decades of waves.
Built on death, on ashes and swamp, Chicago became something out of nothing. I understood that impulse. After Mom’s funeral, I moved to the Pacific Northwest. I kept her cigarette holder and my father’s dog tags on a bookcase next to my diploma, sea glass beside them. They reminded me that relics were the secret cornerstones of skyscrapers; each one made us reach higher.
VALYA DUDYCZ LUPESCU is the author of Amazon bestselling novel, The Silence of Trees, and founding editor of Conclave: A Journal of Character. Since earning her MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Valya has worked as a college professor, obituary writer, content manager, goth cocktail waitress, and co-producer of an independent feature film. Her comic book, Sticks & Bones was successfully crowdfunded via kickstarter. Valya has been published in Danse Macabre, Abyss & Apex, Fickle Muses, and other places; and she has work forthcoming in Mythic Delirium and Scheherezade’s Bequest.