by Jess Leigh Unrein
Every girl lived in anticipation and fear of going to see The Oracle on her birthday. Some parents would take her when she could barely walk, shuffling her into the private receiving room with a smile and a pat on the head. Other parents waited until the girl turned thirteen, or in some rare cases even fifteen, claiming that the question was more appropriate for young ladies. Some parents said the entire process was perverse and objected to the whole notion. These girls still found a way to go themselves, getting midnight rides from older siblings or friends with cars.
No one knew what The Oracle was or where it came from. Some people thought it might be a minor god. Others said it was a spell powered by witches or an algorithm brought by a time traveler. It was hard to say. But a girl went into the small room with the plush red chair and dark velvet walls, sat across from the plain wooden table, and waited for the verdict to appear. When she walked in, the card on the table would be blank. Then the girl would blink and it would be filled out in neat cursive script.
Young girls spent hours speculating about each other’s numbers, even though their parents disapproved of such talk. Higher numbers were often signs of great beauty, and might fetch modeling contracts or television roles for girls that were previously overlooked. However, large numbers could backfire and label a girl as a slut. A smaller, respectable number meant that a girl might grow up to be obedient and meek, shy and bookish, or just generally unobjectionable.
A “zero” would have been ideal, if we lived in a perfect world. But everyone agreed that we did not, so a zero wasn’t possible, given everything. There was only one number that you absolutely did not want.
Marcia Gray’s parents took her on her thirteenth birthday. Natalie Meeks from down the street got a 107, which seemed rather high to Marcia. She didn’t want something quite that impressive. Katy Fitzpatrick, her best friend since forever, had gotten a 32, which was disconcertingly low considering how pretty she was. Katy’s parents took her when she was only six, so everyone had already gotten over the disappointing 32 ages ago. Marcia was plain but kind, and good at the piano. A 32 would suit her just fine.
Marcia’s dad refused to go. The whole process gave him the heebie-jeebies, he said. Marcia thought that was for the best anyway. This was more of a woman’s ritual.
The Oracle was nestled between a laundromat and a taco joint. Marcia thought it was odd that something so important took place somewhere so unimpressive. She held her mother’s hand as they walked through the door, even though at thirteen she was much too old to go around holding Mommy’s hand everywhere. Then again, this was no ordinary day.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want,” Marcia’s mom told her.
There was no real weight to the words. It was more of a ritual script. Marcia was already one of the last girls in her class to go. She wouldn’t be the first one in living memory to chicken out.
She stepped into the receiving room and noted how cheap everything felt. How unspecial. She thought maybe she should have gone when she was younger, to preserve some of the mystique and glamor of what was about to come.
She decided not to linger, pray, or hope too hard for any particular outcome. After deep breath and a blink, her birthday card was on the table in neat cursive handwriting.
Marcia Gray: 1 man will think about killing you in this lifetime
Her stomach plummeted through the floor. She felt faint and wanted to cry. She wanted to tear the room apart and find whichever of her friends was playing a prank on her. This couldn’t be real. Not for her.
She got a 1. The cursed number. The number that meant her days were limited. How had she already turned thirteen with only a 1? Even girls who died in their teens often had 5s, or at least 3s. A 1 meant that she would die before other men even had a chance to think about it. It meant she would never travel a far-flung city and catch the eye of a shifty stranger on a subway train. She would never record a popular song on YouTube that would inspire lurid, violent thoughts in young men. It meant she would never do anything worthwhile.
After a few moments her mother cleared her throat on the other side of the door, and Marcia panicked anew. How was she going to tell her mother? She opened the door slowly and held the card out for her mother to read. Her mother said nothing. She reached out to grab her mother’s hand, wanting some reassurance that this couldn’t be right, and she would live a long, healthy life. But her mother snatched her hand back as if Marcia’s touch burned, and said “Get in the car.” Her mother was pale.
The ride back was silent. They got home, and her mother immediately called Mrs. Fitzpatrick and then every other mom in the neighborhood. Marcia’s dad picked the card up off the counter and all the color drained from his face. He retreated to his study with a bottle of whiskey and sat at his desk, stupefied with his head in his hands.
Mrs. Fitzpatrick appeared with a casserole almost immediately. Marcia opened the door and Mrs. Fitzpatrick bustled in, shoving Marcia aside on the way to give her mother a generous hug.
“I’m so sorry, my dear,” Mrs. Fitzpatrick cooed, “She was always such a good girl. No mother should have to go through this.”
More parents from the neighborhood filtered into their crowded kitchen displacing Marcia further and further out to the edges of the room. Marcia thought about what her ending would be like. It would be gruesome, and she would be alone with her killer. That’s how 1s tended to go. She sniffled and wiped her nose with the sleeve of her sweater. Mrs. Meeks shushed her and wagged a finger, “You be quiet. You have no idea what your mother is going through right now.”
Marcia made brief eye contact with her mother, who gaped at her in horror and broke into tears again. The room erupted into a new chorus of sympathetic murmurs. “She was such a good girl. So much potential. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Another ritual script, Marcia thought, and her stomach churned as she took it all in.
“There was nothing you could have done,” she heard Mrs. Fitzpatrick say. She saw her dad sneak out the back door for a smoke with Mr. Meeks.
Mrs. Kelton, always a gossip, said to the woman next to her, “It’s usually the father in these cases, isn’t it? I always knew there was something off about him.”
More adults came with more casseroles. Texts full of broken hearts and skulls and R.I.P emojis started flowing in on Marcia’s phone, displacing the birthday cakes and smileys from just a few hours before. She felt dizzy in the whirlwind of activity, feeling impossibly small.
“I’m still here,” she said, but no one seemed to listen.
Jess Leigh Unrein is a software engineer, writer, and devoted cat person in Chicago, IL. They love the sunrise over Lake Michigan and are afraid of tornadoes.
Amazing story with a lot of emotion. Thank you very much for sharing, I look forward to reading more.
Love this! Unique and timely given the way social media, algorhithms, and other generalized, dehumanizing methods predict our interests and likeability.