An Icy Reception - Fiction - By Michael Palisano -









In Memory
Sean Pettibone




An Icy Reception

I felt my footsteps slow as I walked back through the forest. I was reluctant to leave that area, mostly disappointed that I hadnít really found anything; there were a few scattered clues and signs, but nothing that really seemed to fit in with everything else Iíd encountered that summer. I was tempted to go back and explore some more. A part of me still wanted to explore more, and take another step. I would have been satisfied with even a fleeting glimpse inside the mysterious structure, but something dissuaded me from going back. I knew returning would be a mistake; there was a strange force that seemed to be pulling me away from it. I turned back around and continued across the clearing, back towards the forest in the distance. The trees gave grounding to the skies above, their black splotches rising at odd angles, almost forming letters in their twisted, curved lines, like permanent ink at the bottom of a painting, forming a natural signature without need for a name. I tried to connect the forms to previous symbols Iíd seen, but my memories were scattered and distracted by the forest. I tried to walk around once more but couldnít quite find the right direction.

I quietly arranged and catalogued my memories, trying to make sense of things. I was searching for some kind of clue as to where I should head next, but nothing seemed to coalesce, there was an overwhelming amount for me to process. I walked forward without direction, letting the sun light my path back home. I heard a distant rumbling behind me, there seemed to be something else out there. Up to that point, I hadnít thought that anyone else would be out there. I saw no other footprints, no sign of life. This was unnerving and I wondered if someone was following me, without my realizing it. I scanned the forest looking for someone on the ground that might have created the noise, but couldnít see anybody there. There was no movement coming from that direction, and I couldnít figure out where it could have come from. I waited nervously for a few minutes and stood still in the middle of the field. I worried that I had disturbed something, I felt a strange tingling in my feet, and began walking slowly backwards, a step at a time, preparing myself to run away quickly, just in case. I looked around nervously; despite my trepidation, I didnít see anything that felt threatening or out of the ordinary.

My heart was beating faster, I had gone out there alone many times, but I knew that it was only a matter of time until someone would catch me there. I wanted to run and duck behind a tree to avoid being caught, but I was exposed. There was nothing I could do. I looked up at the hot sun and it suddenly seemed like a hot spotlight, beaming directly on me, anyone would see me right away. There was nowhere to hide; the secrets I kept were vulnerable out there under the sun, for anyone to see. I stood there nervously for a few more minutes, waiting for my tormentor to come out from the shadows, pouncing on me. Just as my anxiety seemed to become unbearable, I heard a second noise from the same direction. I looked at the tree branches rustling above and saw a large flock of small birds flying upwards in the distance, just above the area where I had been exploring. They seemed to rise in formation, flying together in straight parallel lines, quickly soaring above the trees. There were too many too count and I couldnít see exactly what type of birds they were, but I could make out their small silhouettes as they flapped their wings, quickly flying above the trees, they sank down once more and crashed backwards, gliding back into the forest depths, disappearing as quickly as they had appeared. I watched them for a moment until they vanished back into hiding.  

Looking into the deep lines, I stood there for a moment, looking back. I could almost make out the letters in their twisted branches, but they seemed to be just out of reach, slightly above my comprehension. I tried to locate the cabin, but it had vanished, seemingly submerged beneath the thick trees. I knew it would take a lot of time and luck to locate its exact position, and that take a huge effort. Retracing all those steps seemed risky, with no reason for me to think it would welcome my return. I wondered if it wanted to be found. I had gone too far to turn back. Instead, I decided it would be better to take a rest and hold my breath for a moment. I closed my eyes and tried to catalog and arrange my memories, holding them for another time, hoping to hold onto something useful, for use at another time. I walked slowly back over the uneven paths through the edge of the clearing. Emerging back onto the flat land, I could feel the heat again. The ground seemed to melt under the summer sun, it was later in the afternoon but it still burned through the sky, a fiery king overlooking the wooded preserve, ruling from far above. Its intensity still reaching through the trees, despite my attempts to hide underneath them, their strong branches gave me no respite on the afternoon. The heavy forest clusters offered no relief, and I could feel its heat maliciously burning my shoulders through them. I had taken a long journey and put in a lot of effort but was left with nothing tangible to show for my efforts. Despite everything standing in my way, I continued to walk despite the disappearing, evasive paths that seemed to vanish under my feet. I took a mouthful of the fresh air which seemed to rejuvenate me. In that moment, I reminded myself once more of all that happened. Despite everything, the long journeys had been worth it.

I took a few steps forward, and found myself moving towards the temporary lines that I had drawn. They took me inside, and I walked in different positions seeming to go around in circles. I had to protect myself, there was no way I would let anyone follow me out there, I wanted to explore on my own. The presence of anyone else would interfere, theyíd only slow me down and get in my way. It took a while but I finally reached the other side of the forest, and I could see the shadows begin to lengthen behind me, the branches on the other side seemed longer and they seemed to darken with each step. I still had time, but it wasnít unlimited. I needed to hurry if I wanted to make it out of the thickets of the forest before darkness fell. I looked at my side and could see my own stretching further behind me. Increasing the pace, I walked at a faster rhythm through the twisting pathways. I was moving over the ground quickly and I quickly got into a good pace. As I scaled down through the forest under the trees, it was almost like I was dancing beneath them. I watched my shadow move with their branches and felt like my feet were almost being guided in the right direction.

I was eager to get back home and anticipated what I would need. I needed to take a rest which would allow me to piece together the scattered clues, and figure out what was happening. I was happy to be back on track, and my plans were falling into place. It felt like I was finally going in the right direction, but I knew not to dally around. I began to quickly descend into the lower portion of the path and began to regain my confidence. Everything seemed familiar at first, and I was headed back down the dirt paths quickly. I skipped over the rocks and jumped over the bumps, and everything seemed to be going as I remembered but soon I realized I had made wrong turn somewhere. I didnít realize it at first, but I found myself walking over pine needles and the branches suddenly grew thicker and they seemed to be standing in my path. I tried turning back but seemed to have lost my way several turns back. There was an unusually cool breeze that arrived in a sudden burst. This was unnerving and I suddenly felt a little off balance, my head was spinning for a moment and I stopped in place for a moment. I regained my composure after it passed through and I looked around. I was a bit startled by what happened with me realizing it. The trees had grown surprisingly thick at that point; they closed in and surrounded me, obscuring my sense of direction and pointing in confusing directions. I felt lost and began to feel my legs get a little numb. I had been walking too quickly and lost track of my position and before I knew it, I had no idea where I was.

I was lost once more, stranded in the middle of an unfamiliar area. I looked up towards the sun to ascertain my position, but it didnít offer much guidance. Its diffuse light gave no clue as to where I was or where I should go. I stumbled over thick branches that touched the ground, moving slowly away from the exit. I became frightened for a short time, wondering if I would escape the encroaching trees. Their sharp needles seemed to draw closer the further I walked and it took a bit of effort to avoid getting stuck by them. I walked more carefully with each step, avoiding the sharp points along the way. I had to be careful and patiently worked my way back up, moving towards a more level surface where there werenít as many trees. I had some breathing room and decided to take a look around. I looked up and saw the sunlight beginning to falter, slowly diminishing, its heat no longer overbearing and intense. In the distance, I heard another commotion and quickly realized the birds had gone on another mission, fluttering around, their suddenly loud and urgent squawks, yells and, calls echoed all the way to me, reverberating throughout the forest as they commanded each other on their mission. As they had before, they vanished just as quickly, their cacophony going silent as they vanished once more, taking their acquisitions and discoveries with them, on a flight to safety quickly returning to their hidden nests.

I stood for a moment and let their echoes subside, waiting for the right moment to move forward. I had to time things just right. The trees above shaded the ground and offered protection, but also made it more difficult to see where I was going. I carefully walked some more and looked for some signal that I had turned back in the right direction and was heading home. It had been a long afternoon and I wasnít sure where I was heading. I looked through the thick branches surrounding me and tried to see some break between them, but they were opaque and I could only see more branches beyond, further confusing my position. I couldnít seem to find the path I had entered, nothing seemed like it was in the right place, or where I remembered. I walked faster but that didnít seem to lead me anywhere. A sense of almost-panic began to set in, it seemed like there was no way out of there, and the light was beginning to falter with every step. It felt like my chance was slipping away. The trees grew taller their needles sharper and it seemed like my feet were sinking into the ground no matter how fast I walked. I tried to remember the path, from where I had come, but there were no obvious markers and I just seemed to be getting deeper. I took several desperate turns, but each one seemed only to send me further into the depths of the forest. The air grew thinner and the light became even darker, while a cool breeze that had been sporadic became consistent, gliding through my thin summer clothes into my bones. I wanted to pause and listen for the birds once more, but there was suddenly too much at stake for me to stand and wait. I walked further down into the woods, going underneath their branches which grew thicker and thicker until I couldnít see the blue skies above at all. Despite all my effort, I had managed to remain lost.

I decided to take one last shot at an escape, and decided to walk in the opposite direction of where my instincts told me to go. The ground quickly became uneven, with no clear path but I kept going forward and began to feel myself going downward, back towards the ground and hopefully, civilization. There were several sharp turns and twists in the ground, and it was hard to keep up a steady pace, but I knew I had to keep going, there was no other choice. I took the harder steps that I had been reluctant to, and I began to see some things on the ground that seemed to show promise, there were some scattered patched of concrete surface, as the broken ends of a sidewalk began to form under my feet. I walked deeper into the woods and things began to brighten up. The trees began to break apart from one another, opening a path that seemed more solid, almost completely covered. I nearly ran across the walkway, trying not to get too excited, and the straight line helped me move quickly through its ground without losing momentum. I continued running, and things began to open up. I could sense the lowering altitude and continued until I reached one final turn, which I easily navigated. I reached around with anticipation but my heart sank into my feet once I realized what happened.

I found myself standing at the bottom of the walkway, where the path ended. At this point, it was blocked on three sides by thick, overgrown weeds and vines that covered its walls. Each was at least twenty feet tall. I looked around and there was no way through. The bushes and shrubs above were covered by clusters of thick, sharp thorny bundles that stuck out like the pines, making it unlikely that climbing would allow me to get over them. I searched for some way through but no ladders or windows were visible. However, the break meant I could see the sun directly above me. Its diminishing, late afternoon light still flickered through the trees and lit the landing. I saw my shadow beneath me and it seemed to grow darker. Layers of mud, leaves and rock worked at masking the thick ground and only intractable situation I found myself in. I walked closer towards the thickets looking for some kind of sign, something that would direct me how to get out, or even a way forward. I scanned the vines but they were tangle and sharp, there werenít any markings or symbols. Walking closer, I saw some odd patterns emerge. At first, it seemed like it was only my imagination, but I was intrigued. I took some of them in my hands and examined them for any additional markings but couldnít find any at first. I tried to see if there was anything behind them, and wondered what might be hiding, but had no idea what to look for. I pushed them aside and looked between them to see what they might be hiding. The only thing I discovered were more vines, wrapped around each other, making for an impermeable barrier. There was no way to get through.

The sun began to sink in the distance, and the shadows lengthened even more, making it even harder for me to see. I stood there and watched the vines covering the bottom of the hill and they seemed unmovable, and unreachable. I wondered why I had been drawn there in the first place. I might have tricked myself into believing I was on a different path, but ended up lost there with seemingly no way out. I had reached the end, with nothing to show for it. I felt a breeze, which was colder than the previous gusts. It seemed to blow right through me, chilling me to the core. I knew something had to happen quick or deeper trouble would follow. I looked out of the corner of my eye towards the opposite end of the embankment, and saw something odd. It was familiar but I wasnít expecting to see it. Almost hidden between the tangled clusters of vines, I saw the outlines of three distinctive dials, evenly spaced and aligned. If I hadnít looked closely, I would have missed them. I walked closer and pulled the vines covering them aside. I saw the outlines of a strangely familiar looking doorway. It took me a moment to realize where I was, but once I figured it out, I was taken aback. I wondered how I got all the way back there, I had returned without realizing it. I took a few minutes to mark my path there and it didnít seem to make sense no matter how hard I tried. I thought someone was playing a trick on me.

I took another tentative step back and looked it over. I needed to make sure I wasnít seeing things, but there it was, inviting me inside like an old friend. I felt the encroaching darkness and cold, and new instinctively that this was door it was safe to enter. I looked at its surface and nothing seemed to have changed. I noticed a small panel sticking out, slightly ajar and opened it, which revealed a small dial and other buttons. I examined the dialís symbols which were back in their neutral positions, with the same esoteric odd symbols. When I went to turn it, I found it cold to the touch and it seemed to be frozen in place. I tried to move it, but it wouldnít turn in either direction. I tried again to dislodge it, but it wasnít going anywhere. I tried using both my hands and turned it really hard, which finally seemed to unfreeze it, and it spun wildly a few times around. I held it again to stop its spinning and maneuvered it back in position. Examining it for a moment, I realized what I needed to do.  

I remembered how long the frustrating trial and error from my previous encounter took and tried to recreate the combination I had successfully used before. Nervously, I pulled dial and held my hand on it until it was guided into place. I closed the panel and waited. There was nothing. I walked back towards it and tuned the dial positions carefully and deliberately, arranging them some more until they were in just the right position. I held my breath and stood back for a moment. At first, there was silence. I had made a mistake Ė either my memory was faulty or the combination had changed. I felt my heart sink and the silence underlined my defeat. I walked back towards it to try another combination when I heard a sudden loud clicking noise. That was followed by a loud thump and I could hear the locks turning, there was metal clanging inside the door and it slowly began to shake. A few moments later, there was another loud clasp and the door began to open. It greeted me with a burst of cold, almost frigid air that felt strange, almost alien, in its clarity and cleanliness. I didnít wait for it to open all the way before running inside, back to safety. I stood inside a familiar corridor, and waited for a moment. I found the right button and quickly pressed it, the door stopped opening and began to close once more until it was sealed tightly behind me. I was finally safe but had no time to bask in my good luck. Iíd spent too much time going around in circles and it was getting late. I knew someone was waiting for me.

(Click here for Part 2)