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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

 

Fiction

A Long Afternoon Illustration

A Long Afternoon

I didnít like my new name.

Several months had passed since Iíd walked down that path, but it might as well have been a century. The intervening weeks as the summer ended brought unexpected challenges for me to face. I wasnít prepared to deal with them. There were some things I hadnít planned on coming to the surface, but they resisted my attempts to keep them submerged. Everything might have seemed normal to casual observers, but there were things under the surface I had a difficult time managing. I was haunted by the visions and dreams Iíd been having over the past few years. It felt like there were still so many questions to be asked. I regretted the opportunities I had missed despite everything I learned. It seemed that all my efforts up to that point had come to nothing and I was becoming increasingly frustrated. Still, there was enough to keep going. In the early autumn breezes, I still felt that unmistakable warm summer that I held onto. My ability to bring it back faded slowly as autumnís grey skies inexorably supplanted summerís bright blues. My self-confidence seemed to have faded, too. I felt less secure in my steps. I didnít go outside as much, and didnít have the motivation. The world was changing under my feet. I found myself lost in a new school, which could have been a different planet. I felt out of place and alone. There were all these strange faces, no one recognized me or even knew my name. It was an odd place to find myself. This wasnít entirely unexpected but I still found it disorienting. Slowly, I began to get a sense of where I was and came up with some techniques to get through the days.

When I walked around the airless, cold building it never felt welcoming or friendly. I could sense its grayness, radiating a distinct indifference towards me, which I returned in equal measure. There were no breezes, no warm air to surround me. This only helped in increasing my sense of isolation when I walked through its cold hallways. Despite this, I found ways to get through the day. I remained on my path no matter what they tried to throw in my way. She wasnít there with me, of course, but I remembered how she taught me to cover my tracks. This was useful for me since I needed to keep myself hidden largely while I was figuring things out. I decided to keep myself out of sight for the most part, walking slowly around and avoiding contact. Despite my efforts, there were still a few who decided to target me. I listened to their taunts and tried not to let it get to me. I was only there a few hours a day and they didnít really have much on me. It was hard for them to really get under my skin.

This might have been more effective had I been alone, but I knew that there was always someone walking with me. I walked through the halls and tried to ignore the other students. Sometimes, they yelled at me, taunting me over things that didnít matter. Most of the time, they didnít even come close to connecting with their target. They seemed like ghosts to me, drifting on the periphery like phantoms unable to connect since they lacked any emotional or physical relation with me. They tried to penetrate my fortress, but I wasnít going to tell them anything. They had no idea of the places Iíd been, or what I saw, or those mysterious dreams that seemed to follow me around, even when I wasnít sleeping. I created a kind of force field to surround me. I created an unseen barrier, keeping other people away. I was afraid of what might happen if they found out the truth. It wasnít the easiest thing to keep up but it allowed me to hide in plain sight. I didnít really need the distractions of socialization, and instead focused myself to concentrate on my dreams. I frequently found myself drowning in our secret world. Outwardly, I went through the motions, but the things we shared during those strange sporadic moments never receded far from the surface.

Those vivid dreams I latched onto helped to keep me from feeling completely alone. Sometimes, I would write them out in codes in the margins of my notebooks, using initials and letters to create a sub-language only I could decipher. My memories from the previous summers and our adventures together filled my mind and I didnít want to let them go without noting them down. I thought about her constantly, and wondered what she was doing, where she was, who she was with. It kept seeping into the day and Iíd find myself lost. I remembered what we did, walking with her alone on the beach under the moonlight or just sitting alone somewhere under a tree. She rarely said anything in my dreams, and she didnít have to. We had reached a kind of understanding, and could almost communicate without talking. As time went on, I didnít even need to have her around. Iíd just think of her for a moment when a problem would come up and Iíd usually figure out a solution, even without direct contact. It was all a little bit strange to me and I couldnít explain it. I kept those thoughts to myself, not wanting any interference. I knew if they found out the truth, theyíd probably call me something worse.

While some things had changed in the early autumn days, other things hadnít. Once I was through enduring those disorienting, frequently upsetting encounters, I resumed my bigger mission. At the end of each day, I walked home and found myself returning to those intense obsessions. I frequently found myself looking through the pages of my slowly fraying notebooks, attempting to figure out where the next steps would take me. It was a seemingly impossible task, with words and pictures that seemed to directly contradict one another. It would have been easier to give up or at least take a break. I was taking on too much during the day, and my nights and afternoons were supposedly a time to relax. There was no reason for me to dwell on it so much. Even through I couldnít prove it for sure, I knew that Iíd see her again. It was a difficult path to walk but I persisted. In a strange way it made sense, the challenge and mystery kept me going forward.

It seemed a little odd but I needed some kind of rationale, more for myself than anyone else. Sometimes, when I felt doubt creeping in, I took out the book and looked at its incomprehensible pages. There was something there, even though I couldnít get into it. Despite my many efforts, and many more months studying and thinking about it, there were still too many questions. Understanding what she was trying to tell me, or even why. I couldnít grasp what was happening despite my best efforts. At first, I couldnít really come close to figuring out what was actually inside of it. There were patterns and symbols that seemed vaguely familiar, and as I looked deeper, I saw some things begin to emerge. The pages seemed to be out of order at first, but then I noticed that things became less complicated as I read, yet more obstacles remained. One solution I considered was that it was an alien language, but she didnít seem alien to me. There were some people who might have been able to give me some clues, but I was determined to figure out its mysteries for myself. I decided to withhold it from anyone elseís view, I had so much time on the path alone, and thatís where I knew Iíd find the end. I knew Iíd been missing something, but I still couldnít figure out exactly what I was overlooking.

Even though I didnít understand most of what I was reading, I persisted throughout the months as the days shrank slowly. In a sense, I was still trying to keep myself connected to those memories from the previous summers. I couldnít seem to escape. The pages of that mysterious the book seemed to capture the essence of the spirit she carried with her. The pages seemed like they had been written long ago, but with me specifically in mind.  It elicited a strange sensation, as if she was present as I read, looking over my shoulder, pointing things out. If she was guiding me, her directions were going above my head, and I wandered around the pages, jumping back and forth haphazardly. This only made the book seem more confusing and I wondered if there was any reason or logic in its cryptic codes. I tried to sort some of the symbols into groups to little effect. Every time I thought I had it partially unlocked, something else would come up and scramble them once again. I couldnít quite figure out what they represented. I wondered if they meant names, colors, objects, emotions, or something else altogether. Whenever weíd meet, it was like she had an entirely different world with her. My perceptions would change; time would freeze, stand still then occasionally speed up or even move in reverse. It seemed to make sense while we were together, but became disorienting only when I recalled the events. It seemed like a dream, but there were strange occurrences that had carried over. When I looked back on them, the most immediate memory I had was a sensation of strange safety, of being distant and distinct from the rest of the world. It wasnít something Iíd forget and stayed with me even during the busiest and most complicated days. When we walked together, any worries I carried with me from the outside world seemed to evaporate, forgotten almost immediately. I still couldnít figure out the pattern, reason or attempt to predict when sheíd show up. At that point, it was just another one of the mysteries I still couldnít comprehend.

It had gotten to be a little overwhelming after awhile. Eventually, something needed to change.. During the interminable December interregnum between late fall holidays, I decided that I needed to break up my routine. I was getting a little frustrated with everything. As the daytime neared its end, I took that book out from under its cover, and hid it away. I was tired of examining it and finding only more questions. I felt a sense of trepidation creeping in, and the puzzle seemed to becoming inexorably more complicated each time I looked at the pages. I needed a break after all those months. There was a lot that I couldnít get around my head. In many ways, I was still lost in the previous summer. I needed to go back. I walked alone through the streets, on the long journey back to our secret place. I watched behind my back to make sure no one was following me. I kept my head low and averted my gaze from other people I passed on my way through the streets. I was unwilling to let them inside. There was no way I was going to be found there. I felt vulnerable on the streets. The day was growing late and it didnít feel like I was walking fast enough. I hadnít noticed but the onset of fall had a distinct effect on the world. I looked up occasionally and saw the suddenly bare trees swinging above my head once again. Their barren branches had lost most of their leaves, though a few shriveled remnants held on. While I was walking, the sun began its nightly descent, and the night arrived slowly, covering the streets with darkness, allowing me a welcome opportunity to hide. The world that had felt so claustrophobic during the day suddenly felt open and free once again. I noticed an increase in my senses and things began to quiet down. I began my ascent up the hills and the echoes of the day began to fall into a quiet murmur, then silence. At long last, I felt the pressure release, slowly with each step farther away. Simultaneously, that book with its confusing, conflicting symbols seemed to become less important. After what felt like a hundred miles, I reached the bottom of our hill. I stood there for a long quiet moment, at the edge of the street. I carefully walked over the barrier, watching the afternoon slowly fade into the night. I was looking over my shoulder, scanning up and down the street, slowly moving my focus left and right. There was no one around. It was reassuring to see nothing was nearby; no one was walking or even approaching my position.

As I took my first steps back up there, I noticed that some things had changed. The places I went the previous summer felt different, as if the paths had changed position. I thought I was seeing things, as if someone had done it on purpose to keep other people away. I recognized a few markers around and used them to navigate through the forest, walking carefully over the accumulated brush and leaves.  It was a bit harder to reach the top of the mountain since it was more complicated farther away. The ground felt wet and was slippery, more than I remembered but I arrived there once I regained my footing. It was a bit disorienting to find myself back there after all those months, like I was revisiting a dream. In some ways, it felt different all those months later, colder and lonelier. I walked up to a new divergence in the path and had to step the over a large group of rocks. I didnít remember this section, and wondered if my mind was playing tricks on me. On the other hand, it had been several months. Perhaps, my memories werenít as clear as I thought they were. It was very strange and I couldnít make up my mind what was actually going on. I decided to keep going and carefully walked up the crooked steps and found myself there once again. I could feel my feet relax as I reached the clearing, the weight I felt slowly lifting. I felt in some ways, like I was back walking through the beach, slipping under the gates to finally find one of our secret areas. I was greatly relieved to find a sense of peace emanating beneath the trees. I was finally able to leave the book behind me, with its unsolvable riddles slowly dissolving. Those clashing voices with their false mockery became distant taunts that gradually dissolved into silence. The chaotic confusion in my mind began to clear out, shedding its accumulated debris as I took in the sharp, cold air. I took a deep breath and soaked in the air. It was getting cold and its sharpness kept me away. Through the tree branches, I saw the last flickers of light from the sunset coloring the distant skies in pink and orange, and the night finally took control. I walked deeper into the woods still until I reached a familiar bridge. I took a few steps and noticed the old stream, still trickling underneath. I knew it would slowly freeze for the winter in a few more days but I admired the way it continued to flow, defying its impending hibernation.

I crossed the bridge and walked down a few more steps. Descending further into the woods, I felt very much alone, yet this brought a strange sense of security. This increased with each move I took downward. After a few minutes, I finally hit the bottom of the steps and felt a cold breeze coming from above. It seemed the blow right through me, and I could have turned back. I wasnít going to let it dissuade me, and I persisted. I didnít remember this part of the forest, and its untouched landscape intrigued me. I felt a little lost but it didnít bother me, since I wanted to explore it. I walked through the trees and looked around. They seemed larger than the ones up above, and their trunks were thicker making them look much older. I lost track of where I was precisely, and after a few more minutes walking around, I looked back and saw that the steps below the river had receded from view. It was dark, but when I stood between some of the trees, I could see my way though using the low moonlight to guide my steps. It took me awhile but I didnít mind. Each step took me father away from the things weighing me down. It felt lighter even as the night tightened its grip overhead. I walked through the thicket, trying not to worry about the time, though I knew it was getting late. The moon slowly changed position overhead and it shadow began to cast things in a different light. I could see shapes and patterns in the trees that I hadnít before and some of them were quite odd yet strangely familiar. It took me a few minutes to figure out what I was actually doing, but there was something drawing me to that part of the forest.

As I examined some of the trees, I saw things I hadnít seen earlier. I retraced some of my steps back towards the river above and saw things I hadnít before. The trees and brushes seemed to change appearance in the deeper night, though it was subtle and I needed to pay attention. Looking closely, it seemed that their branches seemed to be intertwined in ways that didnít seem entirely random, and I could see that a few of them were positioned in strange patterns, planted in rows and configurations that were noticeable, but easy to miss if you werenít looking for them. I walked close to one of them and was startled to see something I hadnít noticed on the way down. When I looked closely at its trunk, I could see a strange symbol carved into it. Initially, I couldnít understand what it meant, but as I examined it, it began to resemble a familiar shape. I took an even closer look and studied it.

It was a rough approximation of one of the more complicated symbols. It looked like it had been carved quickly, almost haphazardly but it was unmistakably one of the symbols from the book. Looking closely, I saw other scattered carvings scratched in a few of other trees, though they were hard to make out. It took me awhile to see their connections to the symbols Iíd seen in the book. They seemed like they had been there a long time, and their faded appearance and missing lines meant they didnít match the booksí illustrations exactly. Some of them seemed to have been obscured purposely by someone. I looked closely and some were upside down at an angle or reversed. It couldnít understand why they were cut that way. I looked closely at many of the trees, trying to find as many as I could. I still had no idea what they meant or who put them there. Impetuously locked away in a safe place, the book couldnít help me. This made it difficult to be absolutely sure that everything matched. I had studied it closely over the past months and had most of the symbols memorized. I still had doubts and there were some strange discrepancies. I thought about it and decided that there was too much in common between the symbols for me to ignore them. I knew she was trying to send me a message but it was only meant for me, and I was the only one who could unlock its secret code.

I walked farther from the first cluster of trees and began to carefully navigate back towards the steps. I didnít want to leave there without a chance of finding the trees again. As I walked further towards the hill, the visible markings on the trees disappeared, vanishing back into the night. The ones closer to the steps didnít have any marks on their trunks at all. They were as bare and cold as the ground and I was disheartened that there were only those few markings. I decided to go back into the woods and find the ones with the markings once again. If I looked at them closer, I thought I might find some answers. I returned and examined one round marking that appeared repeatedly. I studied it very closely, drawing my eyes into it while wondering what it represented. I took notes in my mind but it was difficult to make any progress. I was drawn into the symbols and immersed myself in them, trying to unlock a pattern that made sense. As the middle of the night approached, the moonlight moved directly overhead and cast the symbols in a different way.

They seemed brighter and more alike in some strange way, almost like letters that had become twisted into each another like the twisting paths of the treesí overhanging branches. I became even more immersed in them and forgot where I was for a few minutes. After looking at them very closely, I slowly began to see a pattern at long last and this emergence kept me immersed for quite a time. I was in such a deep concentration that it would be difficult to break, but something did. At first, I didnít really notice that something was moving behind me. I thought it might be leaves rustling at first. It was nothing but a brief gust a wind. However, the movement persisted and came closer to me. Suddenly, the quiet moment had disappeared. I felt something moving closer towards me and I stopped moving and held my breath. When I went there, I was certain no one had followed me, and I kept an eye out all the time for any potential intruders. I wasnít expecting this and my heart began to race as I felt something roll past the ground under my feet. I couldnít see what it was. It suddenly felt like a mistake to go back there alone. I didnít know what to do and stood there for a moment paralyzed, afraid of what would happen next.

My fear evaporated when she called out for me with my real name.


- Michael Palisano

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