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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

 

Fiction



The Crack of Dawn


I never told anyone what I saw that afternoon.

Keeping quiet was difficult but, telling anyone else would have made things worse. I tried not to let it take over the summer. It shadowed my steps for several weeks after that afternoon. I studied the book that led me to that moment, and found no answers. I attempted to discover a reason, but this eluded for me no matter how many times I looked at its pages. I studied its symbols, some strange, others familiar. I deciphered some of it, enough to tell me where to stand that day. I saw something, but much of its other messages were beyond my abilities to decipher. I didnít understand what it cryptic letters meant. This uncertainty caused me a great deal of anxiety. I knew something was hovering over me in the distance, but I couldnít understand what exactly. Iíd need to be much more careful in my surroundings, and I wasnít taking unneeded risks for several weeks afterward. This made me fearful, and I was constantly looking around my shoulder, checking for some unseen threat. The summer dragged on keeping its grip on the world. Its heat felt almost inescapable while those symbols burned through the pages each time I opened it up. I felt like I was going around in circles, trying and failing to find the answers. After awhile, I decided that I may have been reading too much into it. Some of the messages inside its pages were false alarms. I tried not to let myself think about it too much. Part of me wished it was all a stupid kidsí daydream but I knew that wasnít true, either. I felt myself at the center of undercurrents I couldnít get away from. Everything felt strange and confusing, there were constant reminders everywhere I looked. I wished there was someone or something that would help me along. I searched for a signal but couldnít find anything to guide me. I was caught between what I knew was real and things I wasnít sure of.

Even with all that had transpired, there were a few strangely reassuring moments that helped me to keep moving forward. I couldnít really place their significance in isolation but they added up. As the summer progressed, I kept waiting and searching and made little progress. As the days reached August, the sun began to set earlier. The air at the beach seemed thicker as the accumulation of heat and water soaked through the atmosphere, making everything feel denser. I continued to go the beach during the day, but I was warier of where I went. It was crowded down there, and would have been easy to get lost. For several weeks after the storm, Iíd occasionally feel something rumbling underneath my feet whenever I began to wander away, as if I was being warned. It was a little frightening and I tried to keep within the boundaries of places I knew. I spent a lot of time in the safe company of my brother, and we competed against each other diving off the boards under the sun. As the summer days slipped into each other, I felt the stagnation slowly ease. The water was tranquil on the surface with its waves moving almost imperceptibly, growing stronger against the shoreline as the tides changed during the later afternoons. Under the surface, I noticed that the currents were getting a little choppy, grabbing at my ankles unexpectedly. This unpredictability made some of my more elaborate diving moves feel a bit too dangerous, so I took fewer chances when I went jumping off. It wasnít as exciting, but I still had something to keep my mind off things for awhile. The sun slowly lost its heat with the fading days becoming less oppressive. As the summer neared its end, the beachside became increasingly crowded as people began to sense the end and rushed to the shore. This wasnít an entirely bad thing, since the increasingly loud crowds helped drown out the noise that was still filtering inside of me. Most of those days were still relatively calm. Occasionally, a rain shower would come. They reminded me of how vulnerable I felt that day at the arcade when that storm seemed to explode from nowhere.

When it rained, I returned to the arcade but something had changed that I couldnít quite define. I couldnít focus on a single game and instead wandered between the different cabinets. The shadows were too long and I never really got into anything with the same intensity. The memory was always present, distracting me. I constantly looked over my shoulder more than once but never really saw anything. There was nothing else visible that I could see. It might have just been a momentary panic, a short daydream. I wasnít sure. I didnít let it stop me from having a little fun. I counted my quarters every morning and budgeted carefully so I could play as long as possible. There was nothing worse than finding yourself without money and hours left to do nothing. After awhile, I knew which games that I could play the longest and spent most of my time with them. Many of the older games had slower speeds and werenít as complicated making them easier to play, I spent a lot of timing playing the older ones like Tempest, which still looked sharp to me, but was a little bit too old to attract a crowd. I returned to old favorites like Defender, which I still hadnít completely mastered, but was good enough at to play for quite some time. I didnít play too much
Star Castle, and one or two tentative plays remained frustrating. I mostly avoided it for the remaining days of summer vacation. I wasnít very good at most of the newer games which were unfamiliar and more complicated. I still enjoyed playing Gyruss when I could, but some of the newer additions intimidated me and I decided to stay away from them to keep my money longer. They were frustrating to me, and my lack of concentration didnít help. I had a lot on my mind otherwise and I felt the games pull on me loosening for those few months. The summer days were gradually shortening and I felt that the summer hadnít really lived up to what I had expected it to be. There had been some odd occurrences to be sure, and I spent a lot of time wondering what exactly was happening. I wondered if I had dreamed all this up. There was no real evidence that certain things happened, aside from a few small indecipherable scribbles in someoneís coloring book. The days at the beach and arcade had also become a little bit predictable after awhile and they began to blend together. It almost felt like a job or school and it was beginning to wear me down. I needed a change of pace and I was looking for an opportunity to break the pattern Iíd fallen into.

My brother had gone off somewhere for the day and I was left to fend for myself on the beach one morning. I didnít feel like swimming or diving alone and I was getting a bit tired of the arcade at the point. Iíd played all the same games and desperately wanted to do something different. I decided to see what else was out there. I left my usual spots and felt a slight tingling under my feet but I ignored it. I walked towards the other side of the beach and looked around. This made me nervous at first, but something told me that the danger had passed, and I could safely resume my exploration to outside areas. The water seemed a little choppier out there and I knew it would be a bad idea to jump in. I wasnít really in the mood. I walked further towards the edge of the breaking currents and found something lying on the sand, I didnít know what it was at first but as I moved closer I saw that it was an old radio. I turned it over and it looked like it had been through a many years of wear and tear. Its back was faded and showed signs of rusting, and its antenna was missing the top half. I tried to turn it on but the dials were rusted in place. I decided to take it with me and carried it in my hand for the journey ahead. It was very strange, like someone had purposely left it there for me to find. I walked further along the seaside until I finally reached a somewhat hidden path. I had gone there before on a night a year or so earlier. No one knew about that place and I wanted to go back and see if anything had changed. Pressing my feet against the dirt, I didnít feel any rumbles underneath. I thought someone was clearing my path.

I had a strange dream a few nights where I danced with her once again, but my memory of it seemed kind of foggy. I felt a little adrift, but that weird premonition helped keep me motivated. I stepped over a cluster of rocks and climbed up the path a little until I reached down towards the clearing. I took my time, wanting to soak in the warm ocean air a lit bit longer, knowing that things were going to change once the fall arrived. I looked around and the saw a familiar grouping of trees overhead. I looked upwards and saw the afternoon shadows were growing longer, I didnít have much time to waste. I walked through the trees and continued over the unmarked path, gradually moving up into the hills. Measuring my steps carefully, so I knew how to get back to the beach, I walked through the underbrush and noticed how little seemed to have changed. I took in the air which seemed cooler, and less dense than the beachside, which was festering with humidity and crowds. It was like a premonition of the autumn, looming in the distance. In some strange way, it felt like I was taking a step ahead of reality. I walked further up the path until it ended. I stood there below and looked up to see a group of trees that sat at the bottom of a steep cliff that I remembered from a previous trip there. I stared upwards at the steep cliff and felt intimidated again. Nervously, I held my steps and doubted if going up there again was really such a good idea. It was completely dark and getting late. I wondered if anyone would come to help me if I slipped or ran into other trouble. I remembered walking down the steps and this helped reassure me. They were steep, but something I could navigate fairly easily. I looked further up the hill and saw the familiar clearing far above me and the memories came flooding back immediately.

Everything returned in a vivid flash and suddenly, I knew I was on the right path, and only needed to work up the courage to return there. I reminded myself of the many times I had gone there and left alone, and decided not to let myself be disappointed if that happened again. I felt a bit nervous but decided not to let the height and steep climb intimidate me. I looked around and remembered something I hadnít thought of. When I left there last time, the narrow group of steps that I walked down was covered in snow and ice, but now they were exposed and I could see the cracks, warps and holes in them. The steps didnít seem as safe as they had the last time I was there, with their uneven surfaces posing more of a challenge. I needed to be very careful climbing up them. The alternative was trying to climb on the side of the mountain. I remembered how afraid I felt that night when I got stuck there for hours. I decided to be more careful and I wouldnít let that happen again. It was starting to get a little bit dark and I could sense that I needed to hurry up. I walked up the steps slowly, with my head down, navigating their tricky surfaces for several minutes. I did a fairly good job keeping my balance and quickly found myself back at the top without much effort. I occasionally looked behind to make sure no one was following me. There was no one else there, exactly the way it should have been. I was finally alone, but I didnít feel lost. I made my way up to the clearing and saw that it had remained largely undisturbed through those many months. I looked around for a place to rest, since my feet were a little tired. Looking around I saw a small spot where I could sit and took the radio out of my hand, resting it by my side. I sat there for awhile and let the cool late summer air blow over my head. I watched the day dissolve into night, the sun receding gently into the night sky. Streetlights gradually turned on far below me, and I saw the cars move away from the beach, tracing the remnants of a slow summer day behind them. I was entirely alone all the way up there and my mind drifted back to the things that we had been through, all the close encounters, premonitions and odd feelings came back to me in waves, gently pulling me back into that strange, undefined place that seemed to happen only occasionally, but seemingly without warning.

As the air cooled and the breezes became stronger, the trees seemed to take on a different, less confining feel. Acting as conduits, their rustling leaves and branches almost began rustle, helping to form a subtle, unmistakably odd tone that almost sounded like a kind of signal. I sat there and listened as it changed its temperament, moment by moment, coursing through its natural instruments, slowly building and changing with each gust. It felt like there was an energy and a life all its own surrounding me, and I was entranced, like I had entered another world. I looked up and saw a few birds had begun to fly far overhead. They looked familiar, as if Iíd seen them in a dream, but I couldnít quite remember where they had come from or when I had seen them. Slowly, the night took over once again and I could see the first stars and then the moon come into view. I waited there patiently. I was not letting the winds and the commotion they caused move me from my spot. As the night went on, I saw the streets below begin to empty with each passing hour. Time passed and I saw lights go out, further distancing me from the world. I finally felt a little bit more at peace and I let myself fall into a bit of a daydream, where I walked beside the boats under the sun. Waking up, I realized I had lost track of time, there was virtually no noise, the wind had subsided, leaving a calm void that felt simultaneously serene and strange. It felt a little disorienting and the drafty air felt thinner as the night wore on. Time seemed to pass without much of a rhythm, slowly unfolding. I looked up towards the trees once again and saw the stars had come out. It was getting late, and even the birds that were flying overhead seemed to have gone home for the night. I sat there and looked around, down once again towards the beach, which seemed as quiet and still as it would in the middle of winter.

I was patiently waiting, expecting something to happen but, I had no idea if anyone else might show up. I thought for a moment, that I felt something, but then it passed. It was probably wishful thinking. I decided that it was nothing, chasing after an empty dream once again. I stood up for a moment to stretch out my legs and walked around the edge of the trees for a moment. I wandered into the thickets and started walking back down the path. I figured that the signals the trees and winds had gone unheeded. I began my sad descent back towards the beach when I heard a loud cracking noise. I turned my head and there was a sudden rush of sound coming from the clear up above me. I rushed back up the path and heard something else. It sounded like a strange kind of old music. The old, broken radio, which I had left there without thinking, had suddenly turned on. Someone must have got it working. I rushed towards the center and saw someone standing over it, turning the dials. At first I couldnít make out the figure in the darkness, but as I drew in closer, I recognized a distinct figure standing in her long, flowing polka-dotted dress, My heart skipped a beat and felt my feet lighten almost instantaneously. Immediately, I knew it was her and quickly moved closer back through the trees. I stood at the edge and I saw more clearly that it was absolutely her standing there. She cut a striking figure, even in the darkness. Oddly, she was hunched over the antique radio, turning its knobs and brushing off the dust with her fingers. She seemed intent on it and didnít seem to notice my presence at first. I didnít know what she was doing. It was so strange, and unexpected. In a moment, she had gone from a distant vague daydream to someone who was standing right there in front of me. I watched her for a moment and walked closer towards her. I could feel a strange energy and force surrounding her that I couldnít quite place.

I watched as she tried to get it to work. She was staring at the radio, turning its creaky, rusted dials tentatively, trying to get something in. She waved it around in different directions to no avail. There seemed to be a specific channel she was looking for and it wasnít quite coming in clearly, wavering in and out. It was drowning in static and other interference, and I could tell the batteries nearly completely drained. She waved the radio around trying to get it to work. It seemed to only make things worse. Its sound became wavier and more fragmented each time she tried to pinpoint its direction. After a minute or two of this, she glanced over and finally noticed that I was standing there watching. She looked at me and her attention seemed to shift towards me. She put down the now silent device and purposefully started walking in my direction. I couldnít make out that much in the darkness, but I could see her eyes as she moved closer. She seemed happy and I thought she was smiling, though I couldnít be sure. I felt most of the fears that had built up inside me dissipate rapidly when I was in her presence. They didnít matter for now and my mind focused on the moment. She seemed surprised to see me and took her hands, extending them towards me, and we embraced. In that moment, it was like all the time had passed instantaneously. We were together again. She stepped back and looked at me again. She looked me over and for moment she was puzzled. She seemed surprised for some reason. I had grown a few inches over the past few months and I probably looked a little different to her. Maybe she thought that I was some kind of alien or other strange creature she couldnít quite understand. I looked at her and she hadnít changed at all, though I noticed something about her I hadnít noticed before. She walked like her feet werenít quite on the ground, it almost seemed like she was floating, for a moment. There was a strangely divine purpose in the way she walked, an indescribably odd presence that seemed to follow her around.  She held my hand and pulled me along with her, guiding me towards the center of the clearing. I didnít know what to say but, I didnít really need to say a thing. I think she knew that I was waiting to see her for a long time and that I was probably a little bit confused. We walked for a short time around the perimeter, looking at the tall trees that surrounded and fortified the flat grassy section. Under its protective watch, the small forest gave us a kind of clandestine space where we could meet away from unwanted eyes. Nobody was going to come between us that night.

We stood there and she walked closer to me, and embraced me, holding my shoulders and enveloping me in a warm, natural hug that I didnít expect. She pulled her arms around me and I felt many of the fears I had felt evaporate almost immediately. I held her a little bit and put my hands on hers, and we shared a strange connection. I didnít quite understand what was happening. For a moment, the vision of what I had seen in the window passed through my mind and she seemed to be able to see it. She pushed back for a moment and looked through my eyes. Quickly, I knew whatever threat it had posed, or fears it created were unfounded. A malicious deception she quickly put to rest, dispatching it into oblivion before it was allowed to sully our time any longer. It would rarely cross my mind again for many years. She took her hands down and walked back down the center of the clearing Ė making space for herself and the radio beside a group of rocks. She looked at it carefully and twisted the knobs again. There was complete silence, as if the last bits of juice from its batteries had left it. She put it down on the ground once again and shrugged. It probably didnít really matter and the most important thing was that we were here together. She waved at me to join her and I walked back towards the center from the edge of the trees. I walked closer and sat down next to her. She held my hand once again and I felt something else I hadnít sensed in a long time. I remembered how it felt when we had been together the last time, how our feet and bodies synchronized perfectly when we were skating on the rink far below. We didnít need to do anything. I felt no pressure to recreate our last dances. The night grew a bit darker as we sat there, silently keeping each other company. There was no breeze or rain or anything. The night had grown deeper and the world was silent. We didnít make a single noise, keeping our secrets safe, not wanting to risk even the lowest single noise that would alert the outside world to our presence.

As we sat there, the stars above us moved slowly, almost imperceptibly across the sky. The winds slowly picked up once again and I could hear the leaves on edge of the trees begin to rustle once again. I looked at her once again and she seemed to have remained calm as always. She reached down and fiddled around with the radio again, in an attempt to get some signs of life from it. There was nothing. She handed it to me. I looked it over again, and tried shaking it around, too. I looked on the back and felt something sticking out of it. It was a small piece, and I examined it again. I shook it some more and heard something rattling on the inside that I hadnít before. There was nothing more to do, it was beyond repair. I put it down beside me and looked at her. She shrugged her shoulders once again. Not much we could do about it. She came a little bit closer to me and gave me a little kiss on my cheek for trying. I was a little embarrassed by this but also a bit surprises Ė it wasnít something I was expecting. I sat there for a few moments, paralyzed and not knowing what to do. I returned the kiss on her cheek as well and we both laughed for a moment, knowing that wasnít really the path we would take. It was strange for a moment. We resumed our silent vigil, watching the skies protected by the trees. At this point, they were beginning to shake a little bit more, and the night had grown old. They seemed to be anticipating the start of a summer morning. This meant our time together, as long as it seemed to have stretched into the night, wouldnít last forever.

I think she felt the time slowly running low and she decided to stand up. She walked towards the center of the clearing and waved me over again. I walked up to her position and she held out her hands. We didnít have any music, but that wasnít going to stop us. She grasped my hands in hers and swung me around a few times, twirling with me in the darkness, our nearly silent footsteps gliding over the ground. It felt surprisingly smooth, almost like we were gliding on ice once again. I could feel her movement increasing in speed and I intently followed her steps as best I could.  It was a strange feeling, but I when we were up there together, I felt a strange connection to her that no one else had. We danced around again and our energy made the world down there, seem unfathomably far below, sinking under us, seemingly evaporating under our feet as we moved together. Under the trees, covered under the night, our secret codes were protected. There were no shadows to see or monsters chasing us in the dark. She took the lead into more spins but my feet were still uncoordinated, making my moves clumsy. I stumbled around a little trying to keep up but I kept falling behind her. I was getting a little bit tired since I had been up all night. I was feeling a little overwhelmed by this unexpected encounter and decided to take a rest. I gently pulled away and found a place to sit down again. She followed me back there, sat down next to me and held my hand. She squeezed it tightly and gave me another quick hug. She understood I wasnít really in the mood. We sat there quietly for a few minutes, soaking in the atmosphere. I looked above once again and saw the skies on the east had begun to turn from black to a dark, navy blue. As the minutes slipped by, I saw the first red rays of the sun emerge on the horizon. I could see her better now, but she still seemed a little distant. I couldnít figure out what was happening, but I knew it wouldnít last as long as I would have liked. I looked in her eyes and she seemed sad all of a sudden, resigned to a fate I had no way of understanding. I knew she had to leave me but I didnít want accept it at first. I had waited so long to see her again but we were already ready to part ways. I shook my head no, but she took my hand and squeezed it a little. I knew that even though she would leave me, she would always be there and weíd meet again. The first light of day had begun to filter through the forest. She got up slowly and walked back towards the center of the clearing. She took a few more spins around by herself and laughed. She looked strangely radiant under the orange light, like she was not of this world. She waved at me one last time and I reluctantly waved goodbye. I watched her walk slowly away from me and felt my heart sink as she disappeared behind the trees, vanishing back into the shadows.

I sat there alone again for a few minutes and tried to keep myself from getting too upset. I took the radio from the ground, and found a safe hiding place for it, stashing it under a tree stump, carefully placing it so it wasnít visible from the outside. As I put it there, I knew when I found it again, that it would mean what had happened that night wasnít a daydream. I still felt the  connection we had shared pulsing through my body, though it had felt too brief this time, I knew that there were other things awaiting me. I looked up and the sun was beginning to draw closer to the horizon. Another summer day was about to come to life. I remembered how I had snuck off to get there and how I wasnít planning on staying too long. People were going to start getting worried if I wasnít home in bed in the morning. I decided not to waste any time and quickly ran back down the paths towards the bottom of the hill and back onto the street. I thought of all the times before, and all the strange things I had seen. Some of it seemed not to matter to me at all now, the way it had before. I kept running our dances through my head and it made me happy. A lot of my friends probably wouldnít understand why it mattered to me, but I did. I remembered the way her hands felt in mine, how her eyes seemed to see right through me. Sometimes, it was like she knew more about me than I did. I looked around and saw the streets were still largely deserted. I walked back towards home and suddenly, something came to me that I hadnít thought of once during the entire night. It was too late. She was gone. My heart sank.

I forgot to ask her about that book.

- Michael Palisano

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