Beneath the Surface - Fiction - By Michael Palisano -









In Memory
Sean Pettibone




Beneath the Surface

I was surrounded on all sides. I found myself in the middle of the ocean, with only a shaky platform standing between me and the endless waves. I felt it swaying under my feet, moving up and down, and it was difficult to keep my balance with waves seeping onto and leaking through its unstable boards. I felt a little bit disoriented. It had been a long journey, and now I found myself, unexpectedly in the same place where things began. I looked around and scanned the horizon for a signal but saw nothing out of the ordinary. The narrow path of light had faded, vanishing instantaneously the moment Iíd passed through its small portal. I felt a strong wave and turned around quickly to keep my balance, nearly tripping on my feet and plunging into the water, but managed to straddle the boards, saving myself from disaster. In a sudden moment of panic, I attempted to find the portal again, only to see all its forms had vanished, evaporating under a hot sunís overpowering glare. There was no return path.

I looked around, turned my head and looked out towards the seemingly endless ocean expanse and couldnít find a path back through. There was no evidence of anything out of the ordinary. It seemed as if none of it had ever happened. I was getting a little bit shaky, a strange dizziness, caused by either the sudden change in place or my own lack of preparation for the waves made me stumble unsteadily on the shaky platform. It took a few moments, and I decided to close my eyes, drawing some breaths as I attempted to steady myself on the narrow platform. After a few moments, I realized that I was in a familiar place. I didnít know how much time had really passed, but I was standing there alone, just a small kid, staggering around disoriented, on an unsteady platform, far from shore. Its fragile structure was barely able to keep me afloat, despite my light form, I heard its weathered boards creaking under the piercing summer heat which made my tentative steps tenuous at best.  

I gradually became accustomed to the altered environment, though it took some effort. The sun beat on my shoulders and it took up a mesmerizing position above me, dominating the summer sky, unchallenged. As its heat burned, the warmth saturated my shirt, I felt it transporting me and the memories came flooding back. It felt immediately familiar but something didnít feel right. I tried to but couldnít grasp what it was. I looked down towards my feet and nervously navigated over the leaky unsteady boards. I tried to steady myself but the boards were loose and I couldnít figure out where I needed to go at first. I was disoriented, and had just stepped out from behind the wall and walked into the portal, not knowing what was going to happen. I wasnít expecting to find myself out there in the sea. I closed my eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. I didnít know what I had done, but remembered feeling overwhelmed. I couldnít quite understand how Iíd gotten there or more importantly why I was back on the platform.

Thinking about it for a moment, I decided that there had to be a reason and I decided to embrace the moment. Opening my eyes, I noticed that the waters had calmed, they were still choppy, but their unpredictability had subsided. I held out my hands and looked at them closely; this began to help me gain a sense of balance and the platform seemed to respond, stabilizing itself against the waves. I was looking for a sign, but knew that once I calmed down enough, something had changed. I examined my hands again and rubbed my fingers up and down my face and they felt warm and smooth. It was like no time had passed, though this was only on the surface. Somehow, I found myself transported back to that time. At least thatís where I guessed I ended up. My head was still spinning from all that had happened in the preceding time. I retraced all the places I had walked, the distances and moments. It was confusing and contradictory. The longer I explored, the more these mysteries deepened, collapsing and merging into one another remaining unresolved. I was mostly confused by the second mysterious woman that accompanied me and opened the last portal, the seemingly endless walks up and down hills, paths and sidewalks. Most of all were the weird and sudden changes in location and time, none of it seemed to make much sense, but none of it surprised me anymore. I stood there alone on the platform, and watched the waves under my feet, their patterns and motions simultaneously familiar and strangely disorienting.

I looked around and turned my head up towards the sky, its clouds shifting rapidly, racing under the watchful gaze, reflecting their shapes and casting shadows beneath the shimmering summer sun. It was hot, almost lighting the hollow planks on fire. I looked down at my feet and pulled off my sandals. The surf over-ran the platform and cooled its boards. I walked around its edges and I was relieved to feel warmth at long last. I looked towards the edge of the platform and decided to look around some more, walking tentatively towards the edge. I soaked in the moment, and wished it could last forever. I saw my shadow on the surface, a small echo under my feet, I turned around and saw it change shape and size as it grew and diminished, a seemingly innocuous thing, but something I understood better.

The shadowís movements were something under my control. I created my own code, using an array of secret moves and motions with my legs. I watched my  signals expand and change, then slowly disappear, their forms drifting and vanishing under the cresting waves. Their forms were unseen by anyone else, a small secret hidden on the waves out there on the water, a message only I could understand. I silently played with the water for a few minutes, creating a kind of secret game, making my movements dodge and jump over and through the currents, creating patterns between the waves. I was creating signals and messages only me and the sun could see, forming signs and codes by moving my arms and legs, changing my position. I was playing, a challenge under the sunís watch, carefully looking through the waves. I watched them form shapes and dissolve and looked around and wondered if they would make something happen. I looked up towards the sun, there was no response. I sketched out more shapes and symbols. I waited and watched them disappear under the currents, washed out until they were no longer visible. There was nothing to see, no response. I was disappointed and decided to do something else for awhile, I had a different idea. There was something else I needed to see that Iíd overlooked previously.

Time froze in place and I felt liberated to do something different, playing with the ocean. I was completely in control, creating my own world. Iíd steadied myself and the renewed confidence allowed me to think for a moment. I looked around and I was still fatefully alone, even though it was getting later in the morning, nobody else had come on the platform, which was strange for the middle of summer, but the lack of friends didnít bother me. Instead, it made me feel unencumbered, the minutes passed as I played a new game. I found myself simply timing and counting the space between waves as they passed under my shadow. I watched their foamy crests rising, their currents running through the water. I walked parallel to them on the surface, trying to race against them sideways. I tried moving horizontally, letting my shadow sneak up under the feet, surprising an unsuspecting wave. The challenges I created werenít complex but they took my mind off the confusion of trying to recreate symbols I vaguely remembered.

It was a welcome break from trying to discover the reason behind my situation. I stood there and watched my shadows on the ocean waves, dissolving and forming with a calm but persistent rhythm that felt equal parts natural and mechanical. It resembled a merger of opposing forces. For a few fleeting moments, my shadow seemed to combine with the water, walking alongside the ocean waves perfectly for a few moments only to fall out of sync. It was hard to anticipate and counter the oceanís rhythms, but I had fun trying to mimic the currents. In a strange way, running alongside the waves was like waking up after a long sleep, coming back to life. Things felt different, but I couldnít figure out exactly what had changed. I was definitely seeing things I hadnít before, from different angles. Iíd been there many times, but that moment, if this makes sense, it felt like I was only just now discovering it. I saw it in an almost completely different perspective and running alongside it was a way of exploring that I hadnít attempted before. A previously diminutive world was opening up for me before my eyes. It was full of mysteries and secrets to discover and find. It was an exhilarating moment and I was determined not to let the opportunity slip away without thoroughly enjoying every second of it.

I ran up and down the sides of the platform several times more and gradually got better at the game. I walked the narrow planks enough that I could almost do it with my eyes closed. I watched the waves and they seemed to have calmed down enough as the tides went out that they no longer offered a challenge for me. I needed something else to do and since I was alone, I though of something I could do that wouldnít require company. I remembered all my practices in the few weeks and realized that I could do better, though Iíd need to put more effort and thought into things if I was going to progress in skills. I took a moment and closed my eyes, inhaling the warm air to steady myself for the task ahead. Once I decided to jump into the water, diving again and I placed my toes downward and crouched down, slowly I closed my eyes and took another strange leap. I jump up and fell down, making a perfect dive, waiting until my toes reached the bottom of the river, holding my breath. I concentrated my energies and let my worried fade for a moment.

I tried to enjoy the moment. I quickly propelled up towards the surface, and felt the water drain off the top of my head. I waited slowly and looked around, wondering what the change in perspective would reveal. I looked back towards the platform, slowly bobbing up in down in the water. I treaded on the surface for a moment while I decided what to do next. I felt the sun beginning to dry my hair again, and felt the waves pushing towards me. I decided to swim back towards the floating platform once again. I climbed onto it once again and sat for a moment. I wasnít sure what was happening, a moment ago, I was wrapped up, covered in layers of protection, in the middle of an unforgiving of winter. Then, seemingly, in a moment, I walked through a laser created portal and transported immediately, I was standing alone on the platform on a summer day, returning to that care-free time, seemingly only days earlier. I couldnít understand why I was repeatedly drawn back into that moment. Perhaps, there was something that happened that day which I kept missing, it was probably important. I returned to that first moment, a sudden return that first day when I saw her standing there without warning. It was an average day, until I encountered an unexpected visitor whose eyes seemed to stretch on into eternity, extending beyond forever. In that mysterious visit, the outlines of reality channeled outward, a splash in time, creating a circumference of ever expanding ripples, coursing through endless rings on the surface of a deceptively calm ocean.  

I was taken aback and sat for a moment, overcome by the realization that things had changed. I was no longer the same kid I was before. I wasnít sure whether that was necessarily a good thing. I looked towards the shoreline, its sands shining in the distance and wondered what was waiting for me. I looked over my feet again, examining them and wondering what it was that felt different. I couldnít isolate the change, but I knew things didnít feel exactly as they should. I wondered what was happening, how I found myself standing there again, the hot sun beating through my shirt, burning my back. I turned around and looked back towards the sound, scanning for some sign or clue. It remained as mysterious as the clouds, distant and uncontrollable. I closed my eyes and remembered all the groups of symbols and wordless words Iíd seen and tried to figure out what the meant, but their mysteries remained, hidden, drifting far above me, their answers hidden somewhere beyond the sun.

Initially, I had felt isolated standing alone on the shaky platform, the currents were crashing around me in unrelenting waves with the shore at a remote distance. There was no one else in sight. I could see none of the other kids I was accustomed to having around standing there, waiting for their turn. There were no witnesses to my sudden return. Nobody I knew seemed to be swimming nearby, the waves slowly subsided and I could feel a strangely reassuring silence coming over me. I no longer felt alone but strangely liberated. It was a rare moment when I didnít need to perform for anyone. There wasnít anyone standing over me, either telling me what I couldnít do, I had my own abilities and could do what I wanted. I used this chance to make a preliminary practice jumps to ready my experiment. I was free to do what I wanted, and decided to take another path through the surface, I wanted to attempt a different approach, I had a feeling that something unusual might happen.

I determined that I would enjoy the moment, and took a deep breath. I realized that it would be much easier than I thought it would be, the only thing in my path to that point had been my own fears and caution, I had been underestimating myself and undermining what Iíd learned over those many days. Despite rehearsing in my mind, I wondered what I could have done to prompt the sudden change in expectations. At first I thought I would jump right into it, but decided to take a moment a figure out what to do. I stood there for a moment and decided on a different strategy than what I had initially planned. I knelt for a moment and steadied my feet, walking slowly around the edges until I reached the opposing side. The waves seemed calmer, washing smoothly under the platform. It provided a calmer surface, which would be perfect for my latest experiment. I turned around and looked away from the water.

I looked back towards the unforgiving sun, and closed my eyes, allowing its heat to take control. Holding my arms by my side, I knelt down, and held my ankles for a moment to steady myself. I took one last glance at the sky and jumped straight up. I propelled myself upward. Accelerating through the summer air, nearly effortlessly, I felt my body flying through the air, giving me more momentum than I expected. My plan was actually working. It carried me higher than I anticipated. It gave me extra time and I was able to pull of my stunt with much less effort than expected. I turned over, my feet and head exchanging position, something I didnít think Iíd ever be able pull off.

As I reached the peak, I rolled myself upside down and took one last deep breath before I plummeted beneath the surface. I plunged through the water, and quickly swam down towards the bottom and the mysteries lurking below. Gravity and pressure subsided and I found myself suspended upside-down. I put my hands out and felt through the murky muddy floor, trying to find something, but I couldnít find anything to hold onto. I moved around for a moment and tried to figure out what to do next. I crouched down quickly and put my feet on the ground, and tried to push myself forward, but didnít see anything. I needed to move quickly, my air was limited. I searched for a few moments and saw something I hadnít noticed before. The surface was covered with what seemed like ice or glass. Looking closer, I saw that they were mineral encrusted rocks, half-covered by sand, shimmering beneath, almost unnoticed. I examined it for a moment, but quickly realized time was running out, so I turned myself upwards again, and jumped up back towards the surface. I needed a breath of air, but I knew Iíd return quickly. 

The commotion kicked up by my feet typically clouded the view but with that approach, I was able to see the bottom from a different perspective, and saw things I hadnít noticed before. For my second attempt, I decided to approach things differently. I had the advantage of knowing what I was looking for. I took a deeper breath and held myself a little lower, hands out by my side. I closed my eyes and let the sun warm my head for a moment. I jumped up and reversed direction once again, hitting the ocean head first once again. Plunging downward with a new purpose, I took my hands out and quickly reached the bottom, towards the glittering rocks and mysterious objects. Not wanting to waste time, I searched for them and quickly found a small cluster of sticking out from the muddy. I examined them for a moment and gathered a couple in my hands, intending to use them for some unknown purpose. I put a couple in my pocket but heard a small voice telling me not to. I didnít understand why, but I took them out almost as quickly Ė somehow, I knew they werenít mine to take. I took a moment and watched as they resettled once again, and covered them with mud, letting them remain hidden. I wasnít disappointed, but they werenít there for me to take, I knew that it wasnít right, I was only there to look, and I shouldnít have disturbed them in the first place. The day had given other rewards, I didnít really need them.

I didnít have much breath left but I had just enough to take another long look around at the bottom before resurfacing. Far above, I heard something I didnít expect. Then, I felt something plunge down into the water above me. I moved away quickly to avoid it, and quickly knew that someone else had joined me, unexpectedly. When I resurfaced, I climbed up the ladder quickly, the breaking waves were active. I saw that some other kids had finally arrived on the platform and were beginning to dive in with abandon. They flew themselves off the diving pier one after another, hitting the water in quick succession, not waiting or looking down below. I noticed that some of them were new there, but others I recognized. I saw my brother there and he looked at me and seemed surprised. I donít think he expected to see me out there that early. He stood there for a moment and asked what I had been doing down there so long.

I shrugged my shoulders and just waited in line behind him. I took a few minutes to stand there and catch my breath, trying to figure out a new strategy so the other kids wouldnít think I was weird. I decided to make a small adjustment, going down and rising quickly, taking quick glimpses and not lingering too long down there. I watched a few of the other kids ahead of me jump in and decided to make it look accidental, but I made it so I could reach the bottom and resume my searches quickly. I took a quick jump and plunged downward, and spun around a few times. I didnít see anything at first, the waters were too choppy from the frequent dives, making it difficult to see anything. I attempted a few more jumps but decided that things were getting too crowded. I didnít have the space to explore, and was getting a little bit frustrated. Instead, it decided to take a break from the long dives. It was noisy and I was more tired than I let on plus It had been a very long journey, though no one seemed to know where Iíd been. I wasnít about to tell anyone my secrets and they probably wouldnít have believed me.

I decided to head back to the beach and waved back to my brother, who was happily swimming and jumping around with the others. It took awhile to get back to the beach, but as I reached the shallow waters, I was able to stand up and gradually emerged from the ocean. When I reached the shore, I stood up and noticed the sign on the lifeguardís stand Ė it was early July. It had apparently been approximately a month since our first encounter. In some ways, it felt much longer since so much had happened. Still, it felt like a distant memory, and many of the details, the signs and symbols, our secret codes and clandestine meetings in different places seemed to have diminished in importance. Walking on the sand, solid ground was a great relief after the balancing act on the unsteady waves. I felt the heat on my body and the water quickly evaporated. I looked around and found my familiar blanket, which was in its usual spot. I brushed the remaining sand off my feet and sat down.

I looked around while most things hadnít really changed, everything felt different. I looked towards one side of the beach and saw the pier I had walked on strutting out into the distance. On the other side of the horizon, there were several sailboats heading towards those mysterious islands and points beyond, their travels and passengers unknown to me. I looked across the swing sets towards the arcade, and remembered all the games there. For a moment, I thought about going again but I had no spare change or quarters in my pocket. I would wait for another time. Mostly, I looked for things that no one else seemed to be able to see. I swerved around in several directions, and twisted the blanket until it was only a small knot. I found a stick and made up some weird symbols in the sand, quickly erasing them. I looked around hopefully for a moment, but there was no immediate response. I remembered a different set of symbols from another place and made some rough versions of them to no avail.

I looked around the beach, examining all the people walking around. Nobody seemed strange or out of place. No one seemed to hear or respond to my half-hearted attempts to call them. This wasnít exactly unexpected but, I was disappointed in myself for not knowing how to go back through the doorway. On the other hand, I was strangely relieved, almost happy that no mysterious figures loomed before me. The two of them were enough for me to handle at that moment. I decided to take a walk on the sidewalk, for no real reason, I just felt like walking around. It was getting later and the morning had become afternoon. The sun was at its
high point and my shadow was behind me instead of standing in my way. I felt my steps, and walked freely at long last. I walked on the sidewalk without feeling any special burden, I felt relief for the first time in a long time. The weight was off my shoulders, though somehow I knew it would return. I let myself soak in the sun and heat, walking slowly over the hot concrete; I jumped over the gaps in the sidewalkís cracks, manipulating my shadow against the sun. I decided to enjoy the moment and decided to hold off on the journey. It was only July and I still had plenty of time left in the summer. There would be plenty of time to find answers. I was greatly relieved; the burden was off my shoulders. I was a normal kid again, at least for the moment.

- Michael Palisano