The lightning strike happened once every century. A fork of white heat would streak across a black canvas, like a spotlight, a searchlight, a beacon whistling a quiet plea of notice. Then came the purple glow, and legend had it that the glow was a direct calling from God himself, imprinting instructions into their wandering minds. Last was a cascading flurry of red dashes, crimson cuts, eyelashes blinking, clouding the purple eye, staring down at the Called.
Then it was gone, and darkness enveloped the world once again.
Diana was twenty-two. Black hair. Big eyes. An artist from the Big Apple, yet somehow she found herself in Vegas, two hundred dollars and an extra pair of shoes in her drawstring bag. New Year’s Eve coming up, too. She brought friends along with her– some no-names from the art scene in Brooklyn– to get roaring drunk and spend their last quarters on the slot machine. They didn’t have enough to pay rent anyway.
Diana couldn’t explain why she’d chosen Las Vegas when her friends asked her where they should go. It felt as if a magnet was stapled to the back of her head. Every step she took to the east, to the coastline of the city, or to the Portuguese bakery next to her favorite park, she felt a sharp tug pulling her west. There was an odd pressure against her neck when she went to bed, and her head would twist to the side, never quite resting on the pillow right. She was distracted, too. A recent NYU graduate, she knew she’d be stumbling around blindly for a while. But this was something else.
The first few days in Vegas were uneventful, if gambling and drinking and puking weren’t considered events. Diana couldn’t relish the moment. With shaking hands she threw down a pair of sevens, lost fifty dollars, and with shaking eyes she watched her friends tilt their heads back, necks arched, cackle as if the money were nothing. Diana thought maybe if that magnet wasn’t in the back of her head, she could tilt her neck in the right way and laugh along with them. Yet her heart was still misguided, and with twenty five dollars to her name, she spoke up. “You chose this place, Diana,” they scolded when she suggested slowing down, saving something so that they could afford that last night in the hotel. “Don’t be such a fucking killjoy.”
On New Year’s Eve, Diana tried to drink champagne, but the bubbles wouldn’t slide down her throat without scratching the skin inside. Her friends were drunk, and they danced to the beat of a dubstep song in the back arena of the hotel. Diana felt the bass of the music in her spine, tried to move loosely like her friends, but she was a robot among ballet dancers. Too little alcohol, she told herself. Drink.
But it wasn’t working, and Diana could feel tears threatening to cascade down her cheeks. Chest tight, she pushed her way through the crowd into open air. She found her feet planted on the back porch of the hotel, facing the western sky. The sun trickled beneath jagged cliff edges, and Diana forced herself to breathe. Be normal just for once, Diana. Breathe.
Except that magnet was still in the back of her head, twisting her thoughts as if her mind were trapped in a tornado. She focused on the sunset, focused on the melting hues and the perfect stillness, the rocks a mile out that looked like shark teeth. She told herself, over and over, to be normal. Just for once.
And then Diana felt her feet move. Not back to the hotel, to her intoxicated friends and full glass of champagne and pulsing strobe lights. Her feet pulled her off of the porch, onto the dusty rubble of Nevada’s vast deserts. One after the other, toe to heel, she moved to the jagged teeth and the hot, melting sun.
Diana couldn’t speak as her legs jerked up and down, pulling her to the west. She knew she should be terrified, should be sobbing and clawing her way back to the hotel. But an odd sense of calm wafted over her, and she decided that if this was what being possessed felt like, she didn’t mind it in the least.
The sun was sinking below the shark teeth, casting the desert in a warm orange hue. Diana was transfixed, eyes peeled open and head held high. The glow of the sun was like an oven, sizzling Diana’s skin as a bead of sweat dripped from her hairline. But she didn’t mind; the tranquility was stronger than any drug she’d ever used in Brooklyn. It was a natural high, and she felt like she was soaring.
Soon Diana was standing below the teeth. It hadn’t taken quite as long as she’d expected. She reached a hand out and felt the cool rock in front of her. The sun had completely disappeared now, casting the world in a dark navy tinge. Diana watched as her hand moved back and forth, felt the little bumps and ridges and nooks of the rock. She glanced behind her. The hotel was a little blip of light on the horizon.
A light to the left made Diana stop. She whipped around, and a door was etched into the rock, a pasty glow emanating from inside. Every instinct, every hint of sanity and reason and rationality told her to turn around and run. She’d probably been drugged, or was on an acid trip and didn’t even know it. Fuck it. She had to run.
Except Diana felt the magnet pull her forward, into the light of the door. All at once, the light overwhelmed her senses, and all she could see was white, all she could feel was the escalating beat of her heart, all she could hear were her quick intakes of breath. If she was dying, she didn’t mind. The fear had evaporated with the burst of light at the door.
“Welcome to the Oasis for Lost Souls, Diana. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
The voice was inside her head. Calm. Soothing. Like a thick pool of honey trickling down her throat from that cold metal spoon. Her mother used to make her eat honey when her throat hurt, back in the suburbs of New York. Then Diana left, went on her big adventure. Big Apple, Big dreams, Big debts. Big, vacant holes that she just couldn’t fill. Big, whopping tears, then finally, dry eyes in the desert. And now the soothing voice that enveloped her like a warm blanket. It knew her already, she could tell. It was an old friend welcoming her home, like she’d never been home before.
The light began to wilt, slowly trickling to form a cool grey. Diana squinted, blinking her long lashes. Shapes danced around her, midnight blacks and pearly whites. Voices, not The Voice, but voices all the same. A bustle of energy. More squinting, lashes flicking. A clear image clicked into place.
It was a diner. Tall red and white-striped pillars lined the entrance, tapering into the blurred horizon. To Diana’s left were rows of booths, two seats with room for two facing each other, a violet marble table perched between them. To her right was an endless clear counter, lined with pink cakes and crumbly muffins and sweet tarts. Glittering red stools sat side-by-side. There was no ceiling, she realized, tilting her neck as far back as it could go. White light like a crystalline sky encased the diner, folding around the contents in every direction, even the floor.
And the people. Seated at the booths, idly stirring mugs of coffee, chatting away. Swiveling on the stools. Walking up and down the main path, grins plastered on their gleaming faces. Some were waitresses and waiters, dressed in pinstripes. The others were a melting pot. Diana had never seen such diversity, not even in New York – headdresses, Chanel bags, suits, robes. Diana laughed, cupped a hand to her mouth. Standing in the doorway, she was an outsider. But she already had an odd premonition that this place was hers.
“See that empty seat? It’s all yours.” The Voice. In her head again.
Two minutes later, she was seated, swiveling back and forth. Her mind was reeling. Drugs? Too real to be a hallucination. Had she died? Maybe. Was she terrified? Not sure.
“It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” A waitress was suddenly standing in front of her, leaning on the countertop. Diana realized it had been the waitress’ voice floating through her head. The waitress turned away before Diana could speak. But soon she was back, with a steaming mug of green tea, no sugar. Just how Diana liked it. “Soon you won’t be stuck in the initial shock. You need time is all.”
Diana nodded. So many questions. Yet she could feel time trickling away. That slippery beast, time. Never enough. “Where am I? I know it’s an… Oasis. But really. Am I dead?”
The waitress laughed. “Nonsense, sweetheart. Just in between. You’ll be back in a little while.” The waitress pursed her ruby red lips, her blue eyes bright. She leaned down to Diana’s eye level, then pointed behind Diana’s head. “See that clock over there?” Diana swiveled her stool, gazing at the white sky, searching for what the waitress was talking about. Then she saw the black frame, about five feet in diameter , and the intricately carved hands. On ten. It was only ten o’clock?
The waitress, now whispering in Diana’s ear, sensed her confusion. “Time runs differently here. That clock controls it all. At twelve, we’ll disappear.”
Diana’s heart thumped. It should have been ominous, yet the waitress spoke nonchalantly, her voice laced with a thick twang like melted sugar and gooey cotton candy. If she wasn’t concerned, Diana shouldn’t be, either.
“How is this happening?” Such a simple question, and Diana pleaded for a clear answer. Intriguing as it was, she needed concrete. The white sky wasn’t enough to plant her feet on.
“Well, that’s the million dollar question,” the waitress began. Diana nodded her head, eyes wide, begging the waitress to go on. “See, you’re here because you’re, shall we say, finding your way. And we’re here because of the lightning strike,” the waitress paused when she saw Diana’s unblinking eyes and slack jaw. Lightning strike. Sounded like a bad movie. “It happens once every century,” the waitress continued, idly twirling a strand of chestnut hair. “And there we are. Here I am.”
“Where do you go? You know, at twelve,” Diana struggled to string the puzzle pieces together. Champagne. Shark teeth. Light. Diner. Waitress. Clock. Lightning strike. The progression was too fast, too disjointed. It didn’t fit.
The waitress giggled, and grabbed Diana’s cup of tea that Diana hadn’t realized she’d emptied. In a second it was steaming in front of her. “Too many questions, sweetheart.” The waitress straightened her apron on her uniform and turned to the woman on Diana’s left, pouring her a glass of lemonade.
Diana swiveled her stool to face the rest of the diner. Hundreds of people. Hundreds of stories. She was overwhelmed, yet unbelievably content. It was that magnet whispering emotions into her head, she was sure.
“I’ve got it!” Diana felt a tap on her shoulder and turned her stool to the right. She was bombarded by a pair of icy blue eyes boring into her own, a finger pointed at her chest. “I bet you’re a Diana. It’s the nose.”
“Excuse me?” Diana’s heart thumped and her spine tickled with nervous anticipation for the first time since she had entered the diner. She hadn’t uttered her name aloud, not yet. Maybe the rest could hear that voice in her head, too. Maybe–
“Sorry to freak ya out,” the man with the icy blue eyes leaned back on his stool and took a sip of coffee. “The name’s Barns. From Missouri. Been here,” he gazed at the clock on the wall, “five hours. Lovin’ it.”
Diana nodded. He seemed friendly enough. If he was in the diner, and if the waitress wasn’t lying, then he was lost too. Instant connection.
“So tell me, Miss Diana– oh yeah, it’s the nose because all them Diana’s got it; that English princess, the Roman goddess, and that actress on the TV sometimes. I always try to guess folks’ names. It’s a talent of mine — what brings you to the Oasis?” Barns peered closely at her, and it felt as though he was looking directly into her soul, unspooling her genes and thoughts with each syllable.
She hadn’t really thought of why she was there, actually. It just felt right. That magnet.
“I don’t exactly know,” she confessed. “I’m just here, I guess.”
Barns leaned back in his chair and cackled. “I guess? I guess? Well, Miss Diana, therein lies your problem! You’ve got to be sure! No more second-guessing. Put in all you’ve got, or go home crying, that’s my motto,” Barns jabbed a thumb at his chest, clearly proud of his advice. “I been living that way since ‘79. Sure of everything I do, and certainly certain of that.”
“Then why are you here?” Diana let the words slip out before considering their weight. But Barns laughed again; not a cackle, but a slow, remorseful laugh.
“Even the most sure of sures have some issues, Miss Diana. Had a daughter. Not anymore. She looked a bit like you,” Barns’ icy blue eyes stared into Diana’s once more. Diana didn’t shirk away. His eyes were pure. Empty pools, ghosts of lost loves still haunting the gentle waves. It was sad, but Barns didn’t seem to mind. “Anyways, I’m lost.” Barns stared at the clock. “Dammit. It’s already eleven. Time flies, that’s another sure thing.”
Diana gulped a sip of tea. Only one hour left. The magnet was pleased; she didn’t want to leave.
Barns leaned his elbow on the counter and propped his head on his hand, the way a father would when listening to his daughter’s worries. “Tell me. Tell me something you’re sure of.”
“I don’t believe in heaven.” Diana was startled. But it was true. “And I don’t know if I believe in this place. I want to, but I must be on a trip,” she lowered her voice, “You know, drugs. I came from Vegas.”
Barns cackled again. “A trip! How endearing!” He stopped laughing and was once again serious, if not for the slight smirk on his lips. “Got another tidbit for ya. Don’t question too much. Some questions are good, but some will drive ya just plain mad. Don’t focus too much on those. Focus on the now-time, Miss Diana.”
Diana found herself laughing. The now-time. She loved the way Barns spoke – a mix of southern slang and old-English. And he was right, too. The magnet brought her somewhere that was so isolated, it had no time and place, aside from the clock on the wall. It was the most extreme of now-times, and Diana was happier than she’d been in years. Maybe it was the magnet. But the harmonious tranquility felt deeper than that.
“Another cup of tea, sweetheart?” The waitress was back. Diana nodded and in a second her green tea was steaming again. Diana stared at the thick green liquid, entranced by the coils of hot mist that made her eyes warm and wet. Wet with tears, maybe.
The waitress noticed her melancholy and bent down to her level, whispering in her ear with those ruby-red lips. “I’ll let you in on another secret, Diana.” She leaned back and grinned, flashing pearly white teeth. “You’re this much closer,” she held her pointer finger and thumb an inch apart. “To finding your way. And I know that doesn’t seem like much, but I’ve met thousands of you Called. And believe me, once you leave, you’ll be heading in the right path.”
Diana wanted to ask her how she knew that. How she understood Diana’s predicament– lost with too little and too much at the same time. She wanted to ask about the Called. Wanted to know what to do once she left, if she’d really be going the right way. Or the wrong way. But she glanced at Barns next to her, his icy eyes still staring at her own, and she understood. It was the now-time that she had to worry about. Being sure in the now-time.
And Diana was sure that the waitress was right. Something inside had changed in Diana– like a switch flicked the other way. It was just an inkling, just a premonition of hope, a twinge of security. But Diana knew that the Oasis had given her that insight she needed. The Oasis had given her the wisdom, the secrets of a bigger world, one that wasn’t impossibly intimidating, one that wasn’t a labyrinth with no exit. She had been given the push she needed to find her path.
A loud gong shattered Diana’s heavy repose and she jumped, spinning her stool to face the clock. The thick black hand was approaching twelve, and moving swiftly.
“Time to abandon ship,” the waitress laughed and pursed her lips as she grabbed Diana’s tea and the woman to her left’s lemonade. “I really do hope you enjoyed your stay, Diana,” she said. Her eyes were sincere as she leaned down and kissed Diana’s cheek, leaving an almost nonexistent lipstick stain. She turned and made her way down the aisle, gathering more steamy mugs and tall glasses.
“Remember, Miss Diana, remember what to focus on.” Barns reached out a hand and Diana shook it, attempting to memorize all the ice and sparkle and mischief in his eyes. It was happening too fast. She was leaving too soon.
The gong sounded again. This time the black hand was almost on twelve. Diana whipped her head around the diner, spinning her stool in a full circle. She wanted to memorize it all. She didn’t want to go back to Vegas, didn’t want to face her friends and money and full glass of champagne. But she had to remember the now-time. The present. The certainty in the moment.
Suddenly Diana’s world erupted in a flash of white light, just as when she had entered the Oasis. She felt her heart pounding, felt the blood in her veins and the tea warming her throat like her own personal sun. The gong rang. Once, twice, and then, silence.
Diana realized her eyes were closed. She opened them hesitantly, all too aware of the darkness around her and cool air on her skin. Her head felt lighter somehow, and she thought she might faint.
She was standing at the edge of the back porch of the hotel. Her toes were dangling over the wood, almost touching the dry desert floor. She stared at the jagged shark teeth in the distance. They were so far away — maybe a mile — and she thought she may have gone crazy. But it was too real to be drugs, too true to be imagined. The waitress was real. Barns was real.
A strike of light illuminated the sky for a split second before the darkness fell and the stars returned. It was a fork of lightning, with an aftershock of purple and red. The waitress had mentioned that. The lightning strike, marking the appearance of the Oasis. Marking its exit, too.
“Diana!” Diana turned to see her friends in the doorway, stumbling over each others’ feet and holding sloshing glasses of champagne. “There you are! Come on, let’s party!” The others shrieked in response and quickly fled the doorway, raising their glasses to the beat of a heavy bass and pulsing lights. Diana watched them go, not sorry to see them leave.
She turned back to the jagged shark teeth. Their silhouette against the black sky was almost invisible now, and Diana squinted to make out the sharp lines. The door was somewhere in there. Maybe it was gone now, but it had been there. She knew it had been there.
Diana faced the party. Her head still felt light, and again she wondered if she might faint. But it wasn’t dizziness that caused her to feel like a feather in the wind. Something was missing.
With a deep breath and a wave of sudden serenity, Diana realized it was the magnet that was gone. No longer pulling her to the west, no longer pointing her in a mysterious direction.
But she didn’t need it anymore.