The Following Day - Fiction - By Michael Palisano -









In Memory
Sean Pettibone



The Following Day

Iíd fallen back to Earth.

Looking back on that afternoon, I felt kind of stupid. I was focused on what turned out to be entirely the wrong things. I spent so much time in the arcade, enraptured by a silly space game with its spinning space ships that I completely missed what was happening right beside me. Enraptured by the gameís patterns, I lost place where I was and it echoed through my mind until I realized something had changed. Someone was swinging right beside me, attempting to send me a message but I had completely missed it until it was too late. Before I knew it, she was gone and no matter where I looked out on the beach, she was nowhere to be found. I strained all afternoon but there was no one there. I took the book she left behind and put it under my arm, clutching it closely so no one would see. I went back to the blanket and put it into my notebook, hiding it so no one would notice. I decided that wasnít good enough and wrapped it inside a large towel, making it appear almost invisible among the blankets. I walked back down the beach and looked towards the ocean, watching the boats glide over its waves. I wondered if that little girl was on one of them, staring out over the ocean, looking at me standing alone searching for her. I wondered what she thought of me. Did she think I was stupid, thick, and oblivious to what now seemed to be obvious? The strange thing was, I didnít even know who she was exactly. That was only the first of many questions I had. Was she exactly the same person I danced with on the island, or on the ice?  I wondered if she knew that mysterious woman, and if so, how did she know her. As I walked over the sands, I thought about things and realized I didnít know many of the answers.

It seemed like that girl knew more about these things than I did, which was frustrating. Along with my own questions, the ones she asked me reverberated through my head, adding more mystery and confusion. On top of all of that, even though I had mostly deciphered the message in the book, I had no idea what it meant or what I could do about it. These things bounced around my head as I walked along the beach. I went towards the water and let the curling, green waves wash over my shoes. The tide had gone out a bit and the ground was choked with seaweed and other debris. I walked carefully over it to avoid getting by feet tangled in them. I did this while simultaneously avoiding the sharp rocks and shells that poked up through the permeable sands. It was a familiar place, but I was feeling a bit lost and disappointed in myself. Under the sunís glare, I found myself aimlessly wandering along the curving shore, wondering how I had managed to get everything so wrong. I reached the other end of the beach and before I realized it, had gotten to the edge of the beach, I found myself standing nearly a mile away from where I started. There was only a small sliver of sand to walk on at that narrow point. This made it difficult to avoid the clumps of seaweed and rocks without losing my balance. I was getting a bit far away and decided to turn back around, since I knew it would a long time to walk back. No matter how far I walked, the islands seemed no closer to me and I felt their distance compound a sinking feeling burrowing into my heart. I wondered if I would ever return there and why I ever went in the first place. 

The afternoon grew late and as the sun began its slow descent, I sensed the shadows growing longer, letting the first specks of night-time show their impending arrival. Looking over the waters, the islands seemed more distant than from the shore than before. Their distinctions began to blur and they resembled impenetrable fortresses, surrounded by trees protected by deep water even the leisure boats couldnít enter. I remembered going out there and feeling safe, but things had changed in only a few months. It suddenly seemed like a very bad idea. Slowly, I retraced my steps back towards the blanket, which seemed to take quite a bit longer going back, until I collapsed. Suddenly, my brother was there with me once again and he began to ask me where I had been. I told him I was out exploring and looking for something. Iím not sure if he realized what was happening, but he knew something was up. I sat on the blanket and laid down, staring up into the blue sky. Trying to avoid the sunís glare, I turned my head to the side, away from the beach and back towards the concrete and steel structures. I saw the arcade in the corner of my eye and turned back towards the ocean. There was no need to go back there Ė in fact I was disappointed in its false escape, which had led me in the wrong direction. I laid there for awhile and let the warm sand into my shoes, allowing it to warm my sore feet and relaxed for a moment. I let the worries fade away and began to act like a normal kid again. Thinking it would be a bad idea to let too much inside of me out, I closed my eyes and warmed myself under the summer sun. Before I knew it, the sun got low in the sky and it was time to leave. I packed everything up into our bags, carefully leaving the book hidden from view. I sat in the back seat of the car and sank down low in my seat. The car turned the corner and I saw the beach disappear from the mirrors. I was relieved to put the disappointing day behind me, but I hadnít given up entirely. I left the beach but my exile wouldnít last long. I knew weíd be back the once again the next morning. My mind was swirling with frustration and doubt, which only intensified when the night fell. As dusk became night, this quickly turned to resolution. I vowed to myself, that when I returned the next day, that things would be different. Nothing would stand in my path.

When I returned home, I tried to keep things under my hat but I was still thinking about the book and the message inside of it all through dinnertime. I snuck up to my bedroom with it and examined it again, but it still made no sense to me. I tried to think of different interpretations, but all I could come up with were some odd directions that seemed to contradict themselves and defied my attempts to unlock them. I spent a good deal of the night trying to unwrap that enigma, but made no progress. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that I didnít really have the tools, there were things I didnít know and until I figured them out, I wouldnít be able to solve its mystery and figure out what to do next. It was a frustrating puzzle I couldnít solve. I went to bed that night and felt the warm summer wind flow over my body and I slowly let myself drift off to sleep, a series of odd and familiar symbols dancing in my mind, to what end I had no idea.

I woke up early the next morning and looked out the window. It was a strange dawn, the skies seemed a little busier than normal. I could sense something different. The sun was at an odd angle that morning and its initial glowing radiance seemed almost white. This early glow colored the clouds strange shades of yellow and purple, giving the entire sky an almost dreamlike appearance. I didnít mind, since I was still half-asleep. I wondered what this meant but it didnít last very long as the morning came through the windows and the early dawn gave way to a more standard morning. I watched the skies brighten quickly as they usually did as the day broke in the summer. I watched the clouds lose their pink sheen and the day brightened quickly and I drifted back to sleep. I heard the world bubble back to life in the distance, but decided to go back to bed for a few more minutes. I was awoken by my brother who shook me awake excitedly. Everyone else had already gotten up and was packed and ready to go back to the beach. I was already a bit behind before I rolled out of bed. Quickly, I dressed up and gathered the usual things, but I left the vexing book hidden under my bed, no need to expose its secrets to the harsh sunlight unnecessarily. I walked outside and things felt different. Everything felt hotter than it had the previous day. Entering the car, I felt the seats were already boiling hot and the air conditioning did little to change this. The ride seemed to go on forever, I didnít know exactly what I was anticipating, but something inside me felt that it would be important.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally arrived and found an unexpectedly long line of cars waiting to get inside. The air was definitely hotter than it had been in a few weeks. I looked up and saw that the early clouds that seemed to hold so much promise had thickened and bundled together, giving the sky a cluttered appearance. As we unloaded the car, I noticed that there were throngs of people walking towards the beach ahead of us. We took our time unpacking and carried our buckets and pails, blankets and folding chairs carefully towards the ocean. We took a long detour to the less traveled side of the beach, which lacked the swings and showers of the main portion but was slightly less crowded. It still took some time to find a good spot on the sand and by the time we did, there were already people surrounding us on all sides. Our fortress was already under assault before we even started. The lack of space also meant that we wouldnít be building sand castles, so we were basically stuck there. This situation didnít last long and as soon as we placed our blankets and nailed them down with plastic shovels.

After setting up, I snuck off on my own and took a look around. I wandered around the beach for a few minutes, looking for her everywhere along the shore, but I had no sightings. There was an endless stream of ephemeral shadows gliding along the sands, some having a vague resemblance but none actually the one I sought. I returned to our section of the beach, still guarded by our blankets and pails and met up with my brother again. As usual, he wondered where I went. I told him I went our exploring and that was that. He said that Mother wanted him to keep an eye on me which I didnít want. The last thing I needed after yesterday was another shadow following me around. On the other hand, I wasnít really in the mood to fight, and decided to let myself have some fun. Walking down the sands and back on to the sidewalk, we quickly passed by the swings and the slides once again and I decided to walk by them quickly. I barely made a glance at them, but saw that all the seats were now filled, but no one in them looked familiar to me. It was beginning to get even hotter, and the concrete began to burn so we fled towards the water. It was still early enough that the tide hadnít completely come into the beach, making our journey just a little bit longer. There was a long stretch of shallows to wade through but the deep water was still reachable. We jumped right in and there were already loads of swimmers who ahead of us. We took our time but eventually arrived at the diving platform. Weíd been there the previous summer and the water out there was a bit choppier than it had been the previous day. Taking turns, we splashed into the ocean laughing just as we had always done. I watched other kids climb on and it got a little crowded, causing the boards to rock, making it difficult to balance. Despite this, I was able to make a few big dives and jumped over board a more than a few times, laughing and enjoying the summer day. Everything I was so worried about seemed to have been left behind on the distant shore. It felt like nothing could reach us out there, surrounded by the water we soaked in the sunshine, letting the summerís warmth dry our hair for a few minutes before weíd plunge and submerge into the water once again.

This went on for quite some time and I felt a bit more confident with each dive, making bigger and bolder jumps as I gained my footing and measured myself against the other kids. I wasnít going to let them have all the fun. It became a challenge to let go earlier and reach higher, causing a bigger splash with each jump. Occasionally, Iíd make enough of an impact that the waves would over-run the board, covering it with sudsy water for a few seconds. It wasnít something that resulted in any thing dangerous, and we were pretty cool about keeping things together. There werenít any adults around but that wasnít necessarily a bad thing. We continued to jump in the water together and I stopped worrying completely after awhile, everything had seemingly melted away under the sun and for the first time in nearly a year, I felt like a kid again. It didnít last as long as I would have liked. After a particularly huge and somewhat giant jump, I plunged a little lower then I was expecting, and it took longer to get to the surface than I had planned for. I hadnít held my breath as long as I should have and I had a moment when I was a little afraid. I quickly kicked my feet and surged upwards getting back to air as quickly as I could. This made me slightly nervous, but I was determined to learn from it. Next time, Iíd hold me breath longer, jump higher and go down even deeper, I wasnít going to be afraid. I knew I would be able to do it, and without any distractions I decided to go for it. I stopped for a moment and looked around at the other kids and jumped higher and faster than I had the last time. When I reached the top, I took a deep breath and felt myself fall into the water, going farther down than before, plunging deep under the water. I kicked my feet stronger than I had the last time, and quickly resurfaced, triumphantly over the waves. I looked up at the other kids and my brother standing there. I donít think they thought I had it in me. I took a moment and looked around, the ocean surrounded me and I couldíve stayed there, jumping in the ocean, swimming under the sun, forever.

I took a few more dives and let the worries that had shadowed me the previous day submerge under the cleansing ocean waters. I was having a great time with everyone else and we competed against each other, jumping with increasingly complicated moves, spinning around and swirling into the water, watching each other and having fun. As the afternoon wore on, the sun became even hotter and I could feel the ocean currents getting a little more active. I didnít really bother me at first, but the waves got a little stronger as the sun moved slowly across the sky, I was really getting good at things at this point, allowing myself to let the waves and ocean time my moves. After awhile, I got a little bit tired but decided not to swim back. Across the sky, I noticed that there was a cluster of clouds forming to the north of us. I didnít think much of it at first, but they quickly grew in size. I knew my time on the diving board wasnít going to last, so I put more effort into each jump, making huge splashes and yelling as I went under. Slowly, the clouds became ever darker and I knew rain was on the way. The sky was getting a little darker, and I knew Iíd have to go back sooner than I wanted. It was almost time to go swim back to the beach, so I decided to go out with a bang. For my last jump of the day, I jumped as high as I could and spun myself around furiously in the air, hitting the water and falling below. It felt great to do such a stunt and so I decided that would be a great way to end the day. When I got to the surface, I noticed that my brother was standing there impatiently Ė he motioned towards the sky nervously. I could see that the clouds had spread even more and the skies were starting to fill up. We decided to go back to the shore, reluctantly.

It took awhile to get back and as we swam towards the edges of the shallow waters, I felt a few small rain drops on my head, I swam a little bit faster and looked back and saw the other kids had also decided to leave and were taking their last jumps and heading back, too. It didnít take long for us to reach the shallows again and by that time the showers had begun to overspread the beach. Finally, we reached the edge of the beach and felt the waves which had become choppier and maybe a little bit too rough. We made it back just in time, and as we headed back towards our blankets, we could hear the lifeguardsí whistles and shouts, warning everyone to get out of the water. I went towards our blanket and felt a bit disappointed. While we had been out there for quite some time, it felt like it had ended a little bit too soon. The air was still hot and sticky, but the direct sunlight was gone.  We dried off as best we could, put on our sandals and sat there for a few minutes while we decided what to do next. We looked across the parking lot and saw the indoor oasis that had been sitting there the whole time waiting for a moment like this. The rain grew a little bit stronger and a lot people and their families had left for the day. We decided to stick around, since we knew the storm probably wouldnít last. The arcade was still open and we decided to go across the street and spend some time there. We thought the storm would pass by and that soon, weíd be back in the water. Running across the street passed the panicked drivers revving up their engine for an escape, we passed the mini-golf course without looking and went straight inside, right before the rain started picking up.

I looked around at the rows of games and saw the other kids were already lined up along most of the newer ones. Not surprisingly, the new Gyruss game that had transfixed me only a day earlier was busy and it looked like it would stay that way for awhile. As I looked around, I could see many of the games towards the front had clusters of players around them. I would need to look for something else to distract me. I decided to head towards the back and found that some of the older machines were very much available. I didnít mind very much, since the older ones had their own challenges and quirks that made them fun for me, some of which also held memories of other summers. I checked around and saw several machines that were familiar: Space Invaders, Galaxian, that weird track-ball football game. All of these were fun, but I wanted something that I hadnít played in awhile. I walked around the corner past the pinball machines and Skee-ball lanes and saw a slightly older, weird game standing there between to other machines. It was a difficult and not very popular space game called
Star Castle. It was one of those games that I found a little bit frustrating but decided to give it another go. I put in my quarter and navigated my space ship around, blasting the rings that surrounded the inner cannon. There were three layers of rings spinning around in different directions which made it difficult to get the hang of. To make things even harder, if you accidentally shot all the rings in one layer, theyíd regenerate. I wasnít able to get my shot timing right, and the game hadnít gotten any easier in the past year. If anything, it was more difficult now since I was frustrated. As I played round after round in a futile attempt to shoot the rings out and shoot the center cannon, I felt a few rumbles under my feet. At first, I thought it was the other kids dancing around, but after awhile it was obvious that the storm had become stronger and the rumbles of thunder were becoming more intense. I was oblivious to them and continued putting quarters in the machine, vainly hoping to figure out the gameís trick and technique. I knew that once I figured it out, Iíd be able to push through many levels. I just had to stick it out. One more game, I almost had it down. I plopped in the quarter and began another mission. I shot out the first few sections of the outer ring, carefully leaving enough full so that it wouldnít regenerate when I worked on the second layer. I was definitely on the right path and knew this would be the clincher when Iíd finally figure out the game. I was confident, just needed to go a little higher, and get a little deeper. Suddenly, without warning, the screen went black.

I looked up from the machine and saw everything else had gone dark as well. There was a lot of screaming and yelling as everyone looked up and realized theyíd lost their games, too. The storm had apparently knocked out the power because the lights were out along with the fans. I could see out the windows and saw that the skies had become as dark as night, with sudden flashes of light and growling that seemed to grow louder and more dangerous with each passing moment. I was nearly alone towards the back of the arcade and saw the other kids moving towards the front counters, most of them probably looking for refunds or something. I watched the attendant quickly try and calm everyone down. He was successful until a fairly large bolt of lightning hit nearby, shaking the entire building, seemingly to its foundation. It caused the entire place to shake and the concrete rolled and buckled under our feet. The force was intense, shaking the window fans and quieting the mob of suddenly trapped kids instantly. I watched them standing on the other side of the arcade and looked over the rows of machines. Having my game erased in a moment, my mind began to race into other directions. With all the commotion going around me, I decided to step a little further back for a moment and get out of the way. Things seemed like they were getting a bit dangerous. As the storm intensified and its lightning grew brighter and closer, the attendant quickly pulled down the plastic doors over the windows to keep the main entry dry. This had the unexpected effect of making everyone feel even more trapped inside the building. It made the stormís sudden imposition all the more unsettling. This caused something to occur to me that I didnít expect. Standing there alone in the darkness, I thought of my previous encounters with her and the strange little girl Iíd seen the previous day. I still hadnít figured out whether of if they were connected, but I felt there was something there that I needed to figure out. I was also a little worried about my brother and mother and wondered where they were. I heard my brotherís yelling across the room and picked him out in the crowd, which was a bit reassuring. We stood there for what felt like an eternity, but the storm really only lasted around twenty or so minutes. As I stood there, the patterns and techniques I had applied to
Star Castle quickly dissolved under the force of the thunderstorm, but these were quickly replaced by other thoughts.  

I was nearly frozen in fear for a moment and I closed my eyes and imagined I was somewhere else. I thought of how I felt earlier in the day when the sun was out and what had happened only a day before. I remembered my strange encounter and how I found a clue sitting there, I thought about that mysterious bookís codes and directions and how I couldnít figure them out all night. I opened my eyes a minute or so later. Nothing had changed. Looking again, I saw the storm was still raging around us. I noticed that the darkness had revealed things I didnít notice in the light.  I saw some odd coincidences that I wouldnít have noticed ordinarily. There were some connections that I hadnít seen before. Between the darkness surrounding me and the low light, I saw things in the arcadeís layout that were strangely familiar to me. I didnít see their pattern when all the machines were turned on, their volumes up and without the other distractions, they seemed to change. I noticed that the machines were arranged in three rows with about ten games across. I remembered some fragments of the directions and moved quickly to the middle row, to the third machine on the right and turned around backwards away from the other kids. I was facing the back wall, and all the commotion was now behind me. I stood there for a few minutes and heard more crashes of thunder, and experienced the occasional flash of lightning. The other kids were walking towards the front of the arcade looking to get out. The attendant told them not to leave, that it wasnít safe outside. I walked a little further back and looked again at the back wall. I scanned it until I saw a small window on the right around an exhaust fan. In the darkness, I noticed that someone had put a stick through the grates to keep it open which made it resemble one of the symbols in our code. It usually meant to look at or examine something, but do so carefully. Though the nearby window, I had a clearer view and could see the storm raging over the shoreline and its distant islands. I watched as the rain fell down in nearly impossible waves that seemed like they would never end. This was punctuated by more flashes of light and thunder. I stood there focused on the window and watched as the formerly tranquil afternoon transformed into chaotic dusk. I watched the storm from that supposedly safe distance and listened as the rain poured down on the roof. I was a little taken aback by how frightening and almost supernatural the storm seemed, having come from almost nothing. I watched the storm intensely, focusing on its power and strength as it pummeled what suddenly seemed like a small, vulnerable shack. I stood there watching that small portal intently waiting. There was a huge flash and in that half-moment, I saw something I didnít expect.

Slowly, inevitably, and even a little bit reluctantly, the worst of the storm gradually began to subside and its hold on the afternoon began to fade. The rain lost its intensity as the thunder and lightning gave way to the sun. Light slowly returned from behind the closed windows and summer resumed, seemingly oblivious. Aside from the dripping water coming off the roof, and the puddles on the ground, it was almost like nothing happened. A few minutes later, the power came back on and the machines with them. The kids stayed away from them for a while, nervously watching to see if theyíd actually stay on this time, but they gradually returned to play once again, mostly without missing a beat. Everyone else seemed to be getting back to normal, but I was still a bit shaken up by what I had seen. My mind was still racing too fast from everything and I decided not to go back to try and beat
Star Castle
again. Iíd lost all my momentum and my hands were trembling. I didnít tell anyone what Iíd seen in the window, my instincts told me that it would be a bad idea, and instead used the storm as a convenient cover for my nervousness. My brother found me in the back of the arcade and seemed relieved to have found me. He was kind of angry at me and told me he was getting a little tired of me wandering off all time and not telling anyone where I was going. He looked at me and noticed that I was still a little unsettled and my arms were still shaking. We walked up to the front of the arcade to get a soda, hoping to calm my nerves. I drank it down quickly but it didnít help much. My brother told me to calm down, that I didnít need to be afraid anymore. He told me that my skin had gone pale, that it looked like Iíd just seen a ghost. If only he knew.

- Michael Palisano