The Carrying Digit - part two - Fiction - By Michael Palisano -









In Memory
Sean Pettibone



The Carrying Digit (part two)

I knew there was no going back. I turned my gaze towards the opposing direction, and examined the suddenly intimidating surroundings. Everything was blurry and stratified, nothing like I was expecting. There didn’t look like any obvious way to move forward. I had no idea what had brought me there. There were no familiar sights or forms. The flat surfaces and hot and combined to make me disoriented at first. I climbed slowly out from the canyon and set a path slowly and cautiously. I nervously waited for the storm to return, but it only seemed to push further back, before vanishing out of sight beneath the horizon. I looked up towards the sun for some kind of guidance, but it seemed to be having its own problems. It seemed to be splintering apart, its radiance fraying into indistinct slices. It seemed to be having trouble staying together, its surface temporarily disrupted by some unseen force. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening to it. I wondered if the pair of storms had set it off course, or perhaps my eyes were playing some kind of trick on me. I wondered if I was disoriented by the rapid change in my surroundings. I looked back towards the distant mountains, and examined their fuzzy outlines for any additional clues. They revealed nothing from that far away but I decided to walk towards them, hoping that something might emerge.

I walked cautiously at first, not wanting to disturb the fragile sand beneath me, unsure of what might lurk beneath the dusty ground. It took me a long time to regain my momentum but I was eventually able to make what felt like a decent amount of progress, walking a quarter mile closer. I still wasn’t able to see anything that felt out of the ordinary, but noticed that the light above me was growing stronger. When I looked up, I noticed the sun had regained a somewhat more stable form. I decided to use the opportunity to move back towards the mountains. The ground began to heat up and quickly started to burn through my shoes, making each step burn. This slowed me down but I didn’t stop. Moving carefully, I realized the rocks scattered about gave me some relief. I searched for them carefully jumping over the hot sand, trying to avoid the expanses of hot sand, jumping between them. After successfully clearing several areas of rocks, I came to an area that had no obstacles. There was nothing but hot sand ahead of me, without any uneven surfaces or sharp rocks to worry about. I stood at its edge and decided to move forward, this time though I’d put a little more effort into thing. I began to run out towards the mountains, hoping my increased speed would reduce my exposure to hot surface. Inside a few minutes, I was moving at a faster rate and making what felt like good time. There were no clocks around, but I knew there wasn’t an unlimited amount of time to explore.

The ground remained hot and flat, with no divergence in sight. The lack of visible paths only encouraged me to run faster and I could feel the waves forming as I began to gain even more momentum and speed. While I was running, I kicked up a cloud of dust behind me and it seemed to goad me to keep going, chasing behind me like a shadow in the night. I kept running on a mostly straight path through the desert and I began to see more details of the distant mountains begin to emerge. They seemed to be oddly configured, with unnatural spikes and formations becoming visible as I walked towards them. This was another motivation that kept me going, though I was beginning to get a little tired. I kept up the pace and ran over the ground, I looked ahead and there didn’t seem to be anything blocking me, I kept myself from getting too excited and tried to concentrate on the goal ahead of me. I knew in a matter of minutes, I’d be there but had to keep going. The flat surface provided little resistance and allowed me to concentrate on maintaining my pace. After awhile I had achieved a kind of machine-like rhythm that allowed me to mark space quickly. I was finally able to stop worrying about where I was, and focus on where I was going. There might have been a purpose after all. I felt like I was on the crest of finding some answers. I began to speed up again and ran as fast as I could for several minutes. I felt the shadow behind me slipping further and further back and the mountains ahead were tantalizingly close. I looked up towards the sun and noticed nervously that it was splitting and fraying apart, though not to the same degree it had earlier.

I watched it transform and dissipate, trying to figure out what exactly what was happening. Its pulses looked distant, yet created an unrelenting, inescapable heat over the landscape. I slowed down for half a minute and looked towards it, hoping some pattern or sign would emerge. It took me a minute to understand where it had been in relation to my previous position. It was gradually sliding closer towards my position. I felt its burning light begin to permeate through my clothes as I ran beneath it. I found myself trying to escape, making up some kid’s game where I could try and beat it, pretending it was a kind of race. I focused on its position and began zig-zagging across the ground while keeping the mountains in my sight. I felt like I was getting ahead of things for a brief time, almost gaining on its position. I ran faster and zipped through. I ran almost as fast as I could, and everything seemed to be going fine until my legs unexpectedly caught on something. I felt my feet get tangled up and before I knew it, I felt myself crashing to the ground. I was caught off guard and falling stopped my momentum. I stumbled and fell but there was no real damage.

It took the wind out of me and I sat on the ground wondering how I could have let myself act so carelessly. I took in a deep breath and closed my eyes, drifting away for a moment, wondering what else might have changed. I felt something trying to grab my hand, but it seemed to slip away quickly. I dismissed the sensation as a side-effect from the transformation. Then it happened again, this time it seemed to intensify but still ended quickly. I turned my head and tried to see what had tried to contact me, but there was nothing. Something about it was immediately familiar but I couldn’t quite figure out what exactly. The transient connection caused a residual wave as the form pulled away but it wasn’t the buzzing I was used to feeling. I felt something brush against my hand for a second time. I still couldn’t figure out what it was and was startled by the unexpected occurrence. There was nothing close by, it made no sense. I kept my eyes closed for a few more moments and wondered what was going on. I didn’t hear anything and was still alone out there. I sat for a moment and held my breath, trying to figure out what happened. I opened my eyes nervously and saw a strange figure standing between me and the sun. The bright sun blurred my sight, making it difficult to see who it was at first. Coming ever closer, a familiar form came towards me marking an unmistakable shadow as she accelerated. She resembled a ghost, gliding over the surface without friction, pushing clouds of dust from the sand that seemed to tear and pull apart, evaporating in front of her.

She moved effortlessly, seeming to glide over the ground as she drew closer. It looked like she was floating over the sand like an apparition. I couldn’t believe she was there with me and had to rub my eyes. It took a moment before it sank in. As the bright sun equalized and adjusted, it became increasingly obvious that it was her. I looked carefully and she seemed detached from the ground, not touching the surface. Her shadowy visage solidified when her shadow came near. I began to see her feet moving beneath her as she came closer. She seemed to have landed and was walking at a more normal rate towards me. There was nothing to stop her and before I knew it, she was standing directly overhead, looking down on me. I sat there bewildered, wondering how she’d been able to appear without any warning. Everything surrounding me was flat, empty and vacant. Aside from the distant hills, there was no place for anyone to hide. I couldn’t figure out how she had snuck up on me without giving me the slightest signal. More importantly, I couldn’t understand how she located me out there. I hadn’t left any clues behind; nobody else would know where I was heading. I waited for answers as she stood there. She didn’t tell me anything, seemingly immune to my worries. Instead she began nonchalantly wave at me, signaling it was finally time for me to stand up. She came closer and held onto my hand, firmly gripping it. She wasn’t going to let me slip away this time. The lingering questions become irrelevant. I tried not to worry and was more relieved than frightened by her arrival. I was no longer stranded or lost.

I knew she’d been searching for me but she didn’t seem terribly surprised by my situation. After a few minutes, she finally released my hand from her tight grip. She stepped back for a moment and waited for me to regain my composure and energy. I looked at her carefully and she didn’t seem to have changed at all since our last encounter. I didn’t know how to respond at first and decided to let her decide what to do next. I stood up and brushed the dirt off and walked towards her position, standing beside her. She seemed to be waiting for something. I didn’t precisely know what it could be but I knew I had to be patient. After several minutes she took out her mysterious machine and waved it around quickly before placing it by her side. She watched the distant mountains and waited for some reaction, but there was no apparent response. She grew increasingly frustrated and began walking in different directions. She paced in several small circles, looking around for awhile before stopping. She aimed her machine at the mountains, scanning them for some purpose that wasn’t immediately clear to me. It took her awhile and she seemed to examine them closely. I tried to walk closer but still couldn’t figure out exactly what was happening.

After a few minutes, the machine let out a loud beep and she turned it in another direction, and scanned the skies above. She seemed to be searching for something, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it might have been. The machine began to hum and buzz when she pointed it towards the east and I took a step back to give her the space to examine them closely. She turned and was facing in the opposite angle, scanning in every direction except the mountains. She pointed it upwards and back towards the eastern horizon. I didn’t see anything there but flat land with no apparent destination. I didn’t understand why she was interested in what appeared to be nothing. She began to walk towards the east quickly, headed towards what appeared to be a dead end. There was nothing but a flat expanse with no landmarks of distinction. I hesitated and kept walking in the other direction, but I realized she had a better idea of where we should go.  I looked at her and she seemed impatient. She started motioning towards me, waving her arms furiously. She was losing patience and didn’t appreciate my hesitation. Sensing this, I quickly changed direction and followed the path as she walked towards the flat desert.

It took me a few minutes to catch up but with some effort but I’d finally drawn close. She waited until I was only a few paces behind. I looked around and began to see things in a new light. Everything I’d been through finally seemed to have a purpose. While everything wasn’t precisely clear, things finally began to come together when I reached her position. The burden lifted from my shoulders. All the frustration I’d endured seemed to fall away and the barriers in front of us seemed to fall away. As we walked towards the other side of the flat surface, I felt the pressure on my feet begin to subside. The wind finally seemed to be blowing at our back. I realized why it didn’t seem like I was getting anywhere no matter how fast I ran. It would have made no difference. I’d been going in the wrong direction since I arrived.  

While I was busy contemplating my mistakes, she’d moved straight ahead, undeterred. Before I knew it she’d gotten far ahead of me, and I struggled to catch up to her position. I started to run but at half-speed, not wanting to repeat the same mistake. The surface felt a bit friendlier, somehow my deliberate pacing gave me more confidence and I was making good time before I knew it. She’d paused for a moment and didn’t seem to notice I was there. I looked over towards the empty horizon and then back in her direction. She held firm, but there was something odd about her disposition. She seemed annoyed that things weren’t going as she expected. She warily looked in my direction and seemed exasperated. I sensed her frustration; there was nowhere for us to go, it looked like she’d given up for the moment. I trusted her by that point and thought that she’d figure a way out but any solutions weren’t obvious.  

We stood across from one another for a moment, both seemingly perplexed about what to do next. She held her machine tightly, and looked back towards the mountains. They seemed to be too far away at that point. We could retrace our steps and go back there, but it would have probably been a waste of time. The opposite direction held a way back towards the empty holding pen where the boat had been. It would have been a vacant expedition. We’d walk a long time for something that was already a lost cause. She looked at me nervously and seemed to wonder if I had any ideas to get us out of there. I had thought of running faster or trying another direction, but each path seemed impossible. Instead of deciding right away, we decided to wait it out and see if anything changed. I walked closer and stood beside her, taking a quick moment to rest. I felt the heat build and its assault was relentless. It became unbearable the longer we stood still. The sun’s intensity was unwavering. Its heat grew inexorably with every minute. We knew it was time to leave. 

After a few minutes of indecision, she decided to walk ahead, taking the lead. She moved ahead a few steps and held out her machine. She waved it around a few times and attempted to draw an outline of a door or a gateway, as she had previously. I was relieved that the solution was going to be simple after awhile. She began to sketch a doorway for us to walk through. I was excited and began to run towards it, going past her. She yelled at me to stop, and quickly caught me, yanking my arm back in the process. I wondered what was going on; we’d made escapes through these doors in the past. She told me to look closely at the path directly in front of it. The sand was collapsing underneath the gate. It began to expand rapidly, creating a large sinkhole that quickly surrounded the gate. After a few minutes, the outlines of the doorway began to collapse, folding under the pressure. Its outline withered and diminished, until its frame fell into the cavern below. I had no idea what had changed but her machine seemed to lack the same power it had during previous encounters. She seemed puzzled by it response and examined its dials in her hands, searching for some explanation. My heart sank and I had no idea what had gone wrong. We took a step back and watched the gap shrank. It had finished consuming the portal and filled back up with sand nearly as quickly as it had opened. I watched it helplessly and felt a sense of guilt. Thanks to my mistakes, we were both stranded.

Waves of heat continued to build as we stood there, I felt like helpless and frightened. I looked over towards her direction, and she seemed strangely sanguine about the setbacks we’d endured. I wanted to walk forward, dreaming of escaping from the heat, but she grabbed my arm and held me back. It was too dangerous to explore and she wasn’t going to let me slip from her grasp again. The area in front of us remained unstable and dangerous; it wouldn’t be a good idea to run ahead recklessly. She took the machine from its container and I noticed it looked somewhat beaten down, there were scratches and bumps on its surface, one of its dials seemed to have come a little loose. She maneuvered it carefully and aimed it at the sun above. At first, I thought she was re-energizing it, but her purpose was revealed only a few minutes later. She held it in place for a few minutes, patiently awaiting its demonstration, entirely positioned to grab as much energy as it could. Finally, it let off another loud siren, an unmistakable sign that its task was finished. She pulled it downward, and unexpectedly placed it at her side. The mysterious digits at the ends of her hands moved across the machine effortlessly. I watched her and she barely glanced down. She knew which dials and switches to move, working its elaborate configurations by instinct and memory alone.  

She created a few codes and clicks, making in a kind of pattern that seemed to breathe a kind of strange life into it. The machine began clicking and buzzing then its dials spun on their own, working quickly, they converged. This activated a mysterious hidden power that brightened the surroundings. After several additional waves of input patterns, the machine was completely alive. Its surface started to buzz and beep quickly, responding affirmatively to each of her commands. She seemed happy enough with the results that any residual worry slipped away. I wondered what was going on but her focused had changed. I watched closely and she began to walk quickly towards the mountains, unexpectedly turning back in what had seemed like exactly the wrong direction. I watched her confidently stride back towards there. I was reluctant to follow her immediately and wanted to know it was safe before jumping ahead. 

She didn’t hesitate and began to slip farther away. I finally decided to walk behind her, carefully staying on the path she forged. I kept a close watch on her, since I didn’t want to lose track of where she was headed. We walked together for a few minutes when she unexpectedly stopped. She knelt down, put the machine in front of her and began adjusting its dials. There was another loud beep, followed by a long buzz. She stood up and walked forward with renewed confidence, looking beyond our immediate situation. I began to pick up my pace and wanted to catch up to her, but knew I’d have to keep back. I thought I was doing what she wanted, but I something strange occurred when I moved closer. She pushed a few dials on her strange machine and it gave off another loud beep. She began waving the machine in my direction, and then resumed her trek toward the mountains. I wasn’t sure what to do next and watched carefully. As she moved into the distance, her shadow seemed to dissipate and shrink. A second later, she disappeared, vanishing right in front of me.  

I didn’t quite believe what happened, and found myself puzzled. More importantly, I was once more alone, out there under the hot sun. I was wandering the empty expanse without anyone beside me. I looked towards the other directions, but there was no sign of her. She was walking right in front of me, and before I could blink, she was gone. I wondered why she’d left me there. I was abandoned, left out there all alone. I didn’t understand why she’d leave without warning. I ran towards the position where I last saw her and there was nothing. I looked towards the west, back into the mountains and the empty chasm. I started to panic, but had no idea where to look for her. I didn’t understand where she could have gone. With no obvious answers in the immediate surroundings, I decided against running around in scattered directions. I held my fear at bay, and decided to simply stand in place. I took a deep breath and held by arms together, waiting for something to happen. Closing my eyes, I tried to listen for a signal, perhaps the familiar clicking of dials, but there was only silence. I waited a few minutes longer, trying to ignore the omnipresent pulses of heat burning through my clothes. The waiting began to get to me but I figured that I had no other option. I walked a few steps and turned towards the fallen portal, it was now completely covered. Only the faintest remnants of its appearance were visible. I walked closer towards it and knelt down over it, carefully keeping a distance from the unstable gap. I took my hand and tried to brush the sand aside, but it just caved back instantly, hiding its location by quickly re-covering the surface and revealing nothing.

I stood up again and looked back towards the distant mountains. There seemed to be some unexpected activity. I managed to run close enough to see what was going on. Large flocks of mysterious birds seemed to have converged on a location and were dropping long slender arrows at the base of them. I began to walk closer to get a better view but stopped cold when I felt something. It felt like a hand had brushed against my back. I knew immediately that I wasn’t alone after all. She’d been following me the entire time, as silent as a shadow. I turned around, but didn’t see her there. I tried to get her to respond by calling out her name, but she remained completely silent, and wouldn’t fall for that tactic. I turned back towards her apparent position and tried to block out the blinding sun. I raised my arms but it seemed to have no effect. This was strange, it was bright out and I was sure I’d cast at least a small shadow on the surface. I wasn’t expecting what happened next. I nervously held up my hands and was surprised by what I saw. Despite holding my fingers right in front of me, I couldn’t see whether their digits were longer or shorter. 

I waved them around, but it had no effect. I tired rolling my arms, but nothing came of it. I looked down towards my feet, I could still feel them on the ground, but it looked like nobody was there. I tried to run faster, then slower. I sprinted in quick bursts, jumped around, swung my arms in circles and waited for something to change. Despite my best efforts, there was nothing I could do that would change them back to normal. I was startled by this and stood there silently, trying to comprehend what happened. I looked up into the sun, and suddenly felt an odd sense of being impervious. I felt its heat dissipate, completely oblivious to its presence, the threat began to subside. I walked a few steps and its waves began bounce off my body instead of sinking in. I looked behind, attempting to retrace my steps but there were no footprints in the sand. It had taken me a long time until I figured out what she was doing. I began to walk ahead but felt her grab my hand forcefully. It was still too dangerous for me to be out there alone. I needed to stay close, maintaining a position at her side. She wasn’t letting me slip away again. As she held me in her firm grasp, I finally realized what happened and where we needed to go. We began walking together and quickly resumed our journey. Regaining momentum, our pace increased until we nearly flew, gliding over the sand, leaving no evidence in our wake. A dry gasp of hot wind drew up a cloud of dust that blew unimpeded, passing effortlessly through our position, seemingly unconcerned; entirely oblivious to our presence.

I looked around and she was nowhere to be found. She had vanished beneath the desert sun. I walked alone once again and found myself taking solitary steps heading back towards the distant mountains. I waited for her to return but she never came back. I hesitated and stood in place for a moment. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I stood there for a moment under the hot sun and my mind wandered. I retraced my steps and found myself back to where I’d landed. I searched for the any trace of the boat but there was nothing there. I looked and examined the surface; there was nothing there. Not a grain of sand seemed out of place. I extended my hands and looked for their shadow, but there was none cast. I finally realized what she’d been trying to show me. Without needing to look further, I knew exactly where she was.

- Michael Palisano