The Stray Diagram - Fiction - By Michael Palisano -









In Memory
Sean Pettibone



The Stray Diagram (part two)

It was disconcerting and we spent a few minutes wandering around, staggering through the cloudy fog. I saw her in the distance but the green light made it difficult to ascertain how far away she was and I had no idea where we had exactly landed. It was confusing and I walked around. I reached out but couldnít see anything to hold onto. I walked in one direction, then another, and then stood still. I had no idea where to go next, so I decided to pause for a moment. When I stood still, I felt a strange sense of warmth, unexpectedly coming from above. I turned my head upwards and the heat seemed to intensify, burning away to fog that surrounded us. I took in a deep breath of the warm air, the ghostly green hues slowing shifting towards a familiar looking bright blue. I watched carefully and saw the trails of long white clouds, slowly drifting overhead, seemingly undisturbed our presence. The surge of energy began to release its grip. In the distance overhead, I located the source of the warm energy. I look further above and located the retinas and crests at the edges of a hot summer sun. It seemed that the world had swapped seasons. Another summer had had risen, taking control the skies above us. Its relentless energy heated the surface beneath, transforming ice to grass. I turned my head and looked around and we were standing in the middle of a field, surrounded by trees, twisting around in endless configurations, the clouds began to soften and calm. I felt the warmth return to my feet, gradually, the ground became firmer. I looked around and noticed there were paths and walkways extending towards the other side of the field.

She began to walk quickly, her feet seeming to float as she traversed them. She had an intuitive notion of where she was, guided by some unseen force. The field seemed familiar to me, but I was still disoriented, and a little dizzy. I had to take another break and catch my breath. As my eyes adjusted to the bright environment, I looked around and saw some oddly familiar sights and sounds along the path as I walked behind her. There were a few scattered turns in the walkways and paths that looked familiar. We went underneath a path and found ourselves underneath a group of large trees, their branches seeming to cover the walkways, covering them up. I began to remember some of the paths but they were in different places, almost reverses. The trees were smaller and weaker than I remembered while the bushes and brushes seemed to have moved along with some of the paths rearranged in different positions. We walked along the path together and she pushed ahead of me, unfettered by the thick branches overhanging. As we walked, a strange sense of dťjŗ vu overcame me as I recognized where we were heading. I wasnít sure, but if my instincts we right, something there made me turn around the last time. I remained behind her, following her path but I felt increasingly nervous, remembering my own journey on a similar path only a few days earlier, when I discovered the abandoned cottage. I looked around, and found myself running in the other direction after I felt something pulling me away.

As we walked towards the structure, I was perplexed but also increasingly fearful. It seemed I was being drawn back with equal force by her and I couldnít quite understand why. It took a few minutes of walking, but I knew exactly where we where when we arrived at a small clearing and encountered the small, immediately familiar structure, standing and waiting for us. I felt a lump in my throat, and my immediate feeling was that I shouldnít have come back. At first glance, the small cottage didnít seem that different than the last time Iíd been there, but as we moved closer, I began to notice some strange, inexplicable changes in its appearance. The brick walkways had been fixed; there was no longer grass between the steps, which made it easier to navigate. The windows which had been boarded up had been fixed and some of them were open. As I walked closer, its appearance changed inexplicably, no longer threatening, it had suddenly become warm and welcoming. I felt a gush of warmth under my feet as I moved closer. She walked ahead of me and I tried to stay close, but my feet were beginning to get sore. I watched and it something else seemed odd as she walked up onto the wooden porch. The open windows were no longer boarded up and as I looked towards the right of backyard, it seemed an entire side-section of the structure had vanished, replaced by a long brick, wall. The outer fencing was also missing, which made things feel more open, allowing more sunlight to beam into the backyard.

I began walking towards the cottage and began to feel increasingly confused. I wondered why we had traveled so far, and taken so much time, only to return to what felt like a destination. It was frustrated and confused and the longer I stood in back of the building, the less I understood. I froze in place for a moment and wondered what was happening. Growing impatient, she called my name and I saw her gazing back towards me impatiently, tapping her feet with a sense of urgency I hadnít really expected. This made me nervous once more, and I felt a pit forming in my stomach, but I knew she had her reasons. I walked closer and put my hands on the railings aside the stairs, and entered the edges behind the cottage. On my previous encounter, they sagged and seemed loose. I didnít feel safe holding onto them and I was afraid to given their dilapidated, rusted appearance. When I walked closer, gliding my hand over them, it seemed they had been restored, polished, and held steady in place. As I walked onto the main porch, I noticed the boards werenít crooked or broken. They didnít make a sound or even creak when we walked on them. I looked at the back door and it seemed to have been freshly painted in a bright red.  Its windows were open, and it seemed like it had a purpose. The quiet didnít last as we heard something. I quickly realized that there was someone talking, reciting what seemed to be a serried of directions and numbers, loudly enough to be heard from outside the building.

I couldnít make out what was being said but it seemed to be a familiar voice that she recognized immediately. She excitedly walked ahead, almost flying and nearly ran towards the back of the cottage. I ran behind her quickly and it took me a minute to catch up, but before I knew it she run further into the back and had disappeared and was standing directly behind the back entrance. I saw the ladder from my previous visit on the ground. There were buckets of paint and brushes on the side. I looked above the back porch when we turned around the other side of the building and there was a picture etched into a glass window, shimmering above its rear door. Its bright colors created a tranquil summer scene. There was a brightly colored beach, people sitting under a sun with a sailboat in the distance. It was just like I remembered, but its colors were sharp and vibrant, like it had just been painted. She walked to the back door, and it was hanging slightly open. She turned the bright red door-knob and slowly opened it. The voice Iíd heard before echoed from behind and I could hear someone reciting a long list of numbers, names and, directions. It seemed disconnected to me, but it stirred something inside her. She shook her head up and down, not seeming to believe what she was hearing and walked inside without hesitation, but I held back, standing on the back porch nervously for a moment, not knowing what to expect. She sensed my hesitation and walked down the steps. Grabbing my hand forcefully, she pulled my arm and pushed me up the steps until and we both stood in front of the door. We were going to find the answers to the mysteries lurking within the building together.

We took our first few steps inside and were standing inside a large open entrance, with a small lobby that opened into a single long, narrow hallway. There were a few smaller rooms on each side of walkway. Their doors were open, allowing them to fill with the warm summer air. They seemed to be filled with people and voices. We heard the noise and talking grow even louder as we stepped inside, the noise of dozens of kids in their classrooms, talking and shouting excitedly. There seemed to be a sense of anticipation in the air. She walked past several of the classroom, peaking inside each one and I knew she was looking for that voice from the inside. As we moved closer, she seemed to walk even faster, and I knew it was someone she recognized.
She turned towards me for a moment to make sure I was keeping up and then walked ahead. Quickly moving further down the hall, she effortlessly passed the other classrooms until she reached the second to last door. She looked inside excitedly and seemed instantly relieved. She walked inside the door and I followed her towards the inside of the room and I walked towards the back of the class. Standing by her side, I felt like I was intruding and wasnít supposed to be there. She didnít seem to have any fear, and I wondered why she seemed to draw so little attention. On the other side of the classroom, I saw the teacher sitting behind her wooden desk. She was tapping her fingers and occasionally stopped to remind them to stay out of trouble. I noticed she was warily looking over her students, who were seated at their desks, but seemed not to be paying much attention. They seemed to be very excited about something and they were talking with each other, but not really doing anything at their desks. Most of them seemed like pretty average kids around my age, but I didnít recognize any of them.

Neither the kids nor their teacher seemed to notice us standing in back of the room observing them. It was a warm summer day and they were more interested in making jokes and goofing around with each other. They looked happy and normal for the most part and didnít seem to be listening to their teacher. The instructor seemed to have largely given up on lecturing them. She spoke up sporadically, reminding them to stay out of trouble, and try not to forget what theyíd learned. There seemed to be no attention paid to the lessons she tried in vain to explain. It seemed like they were waiting out the clock on the late afternoon. We looked over the classroom, and most of the kids seemed distracted. However, there was one student sitting in the back row who seemed to be the exception. She looked more focused and level-headed than the other kids. The longer we looked at her, the more we noticed how she stood out from the rest of the kids in other ways.

Her long black dress covered her entire body, and draped around her like a cloak. It protected her from the outside, giving her an immediate of separation from the other students, She stood out from the others in other ways. I almost noticed that she was a several inches taller than they were, even when she was sitting down. We walked towards her noticed that the girl wasnít like most of her classmates in other ways. I noticed that she was busy, concentrating on the paper in front of her. Ignoring the cascading noise surrounding her, the young girl was quietly working on something, drawing quickly on the page. She seemed to be working deliberately, filling the paper with short lines. Even though she was in the back of the room and most of the other kids didnít care or notice what she was doing, the young student seemed to be taking steps to avoid being seen. She looked around the room warily and didnít seem to want to show her anyone else. I couldnít quite make out what she was drawing, but when we moved closer, I saw that the mysterious girl seemed to be sketching out a picture of some kind, but I couldnít quite see what she was doing, she held it at an angle that would make it difficult for anyone else to look directly on the page.

We walked quietly towards the back of the classroom, carefully keeping a safe distance from the students. Despite our efforts to stay out of the way, the girl seemed to sense something was amiss and quickly looked around, like she knew someone was watching her. She looked around the room, and looked right through us like we werenít even there. She moved her head back and nervously gazed at the other kids sitting ahead of her. They didnít seem to notice her or care about her clandestine work. A little embarrassed and frustrated, the girl looked a bit out of place. She seemed to want to hide and quickly crouched underneath her desk. She looked like she felt a presence but couldnít understand where it was coming from. She looked back towards the teacher at the front of the room, but the girl couldnít seem to locate the source of the intrusion. We watched her scan the room and after a few minutes, seemed to dismiss the disturbance. She returned to her work, tried to keep her head down, and focused on her paper again and stayed quiet to avoid attention. We stepped back towards the doorway and I felt a bit nervous since I didnít want to get in anyoneís way. Some of the kids started throwing papers around and began yelling. This drew the mysterious girlís attention away from her paper for a moment. She accidentally locked eyes with her teacher, and stopped drawing immediately. Her hands moved quickly and instinctively folded up her paper, hiding it inside her striped, multi-colored notebook, its spectrum of color quickly hidden from view. The teacher let out a deep sigh, seemingly frustrated by her insistent student, and threw her arms up in surrender, giving in to her demands.

The kids began to get a little rambunctious, their voices and yells grew louder as the minutes passed. They started yelling, stomping their feet on the floor, neglecting to notice the teacherís direction, they seemed to take over the room. After a few minutes of this, some of the kids began to look towards the clock on the wall and stated counting down in unison until the school bell rang. They all jumped up simultaneously and seemed to sprint out of the class, streaming out into the hallway as fast as they could. The teacher stayed behind and let out a deep breath, relieved that the long hot day was finally over. However, that mysterious girl stayed behind, sitting at her desk quietly. She took the notebook and put it inside her desk, carefully concealing it between a few textbooks. The teacher looked at her oddly, and asked her if she heard the bell. She was mostly silent and nodded her head. The teacher told her not to worry, that the day was finally over, and reassured her that there would be plenty of time for working and drawing tomorrow.

She slowly got up, grabbed her bag and walked out of the room, waving towards the teacher and saying goodbye. The girl stopped and lingered for a moment, inside the doorway and seemed not to realize her duty was done for the day. We watched her as she walked into the hallway, and paused to look around, extending her stay inside the building. She walked deliberately at a slow pace and it was obvious that she wasnít in a hurry to leave. She slowly made her way towards the back portion of the building and looked over the papers pinned to the bulletin boards, carefully reading them for some reason. By the time she reached the back porch, the other kids had run far ahead of her, reaching the edge of the surrounding forest. She began to walk away from the school, somewhat reluctantly. The other kids were running and screaming far ahead of her, and we watched them disappear as they headed home. The mysterious girl began to walk home and while the other kids seemed like they were racing against each other, she didnít seem to mind letting them take the lead and they quickly ran ahead of her.

We watched her slowly walk towards the other side of the field, walking in a kind of slow march, deliberately pacing and measuring her steps. It seemed odd, but she seemed to have some kind of purpose. I watched her outline slowly diminish until she vanished underneath the trees, venturing too far for us to track without running after. We held back and watched all of this unfold without making an effort to interfere. Standing on the schoolís back porch, I looked back towards her and was a bit surprised to see a strange melancholy had overcome her. It seemed that she might have known the young girl, or had some kind of connection, but I wasnít sure what it could be. I tried to reassure her that it would probably work out, but she didnít seem to hear me. We stood there for a few minutes and allowing the summer air to overflow though us. She stood there silently for awhile and I wondered what was happening. She was uncharacteristically stoic, and didnít seem to be in a rush. Several minutes passed and I found my mind drifting until I heard the door behind us open. The teacher hurried past us and hurriedly walked towards the other side of the building, seeming not to notice or care that we were standing directly in front of her path.

The teacher seemed to be in a rush to leave, and I realized that what she was waiting for. She took the opportunity, and as soon as the teacher left our sight, she headed back inside, re-opening the door just closed. She began walking back towards the classroom, taking a direct route without pausing. I wondered what she was doing and a part of me didnít want to go. It felt a little intrusive, like we were trespassing. She nudged me to join her, that it was fine. I wasnít sure and didnít want to go back inside. However, she insisted that I join her. I watched as she went to the young girlís desk and pulled out the folder from between the books. She took out and unfolded the large paper and placed it on the desk. I sat down and she moved her fingers across it, gently pointing out things that I might overlook. We examined the strikingly elaborate drawing and despite being a rough draft drawn in pencil, several things drew my eyes towards it immediately.

Even though it was apparently rushed together, work snuck in-between other projects, it looked nearly flawless and in its creation and design. It was impressive how elaborate and detailed the composition and drafting was, there were only a few minor flaws, occasional stray strokes but the entire draft felt as complete as it was complex. The more we looked at it, the more I realized that this wasnít some idle sketch, but an deliberate attempt at creating a rough draft for something that could be made, and might actually work somehow in the distant future. It was a complicated blue print for a strange light device. It was multilayered, complicated and somewhat impractical. It resembled something out of another dimension, built for a different time in the long-distant future. Its surface was covered with numerous dials and switches, each labeled with inscrutable, incomprehensible symbols indicating their purpose or function. I examined it closely but still couldnít decipher some of its writing. She helpfully turned it at an angle, and under the new light, some of the notations became legible. It was an odd machine that it would theoretically allow travel to different times and dimensions on condensed beams of energy that would be converted to create subatomic paths to travel through for some indefinite purpose.

As I examined the drawing further, and read the notations, more of its capabilities became clear. The object was meticulously detailed enough to make out how it might work. She had drawn and sketched out a strange, almost supernatural object that seemed to be far beyond the capabilities of science, let alone something sketched out for a girl her age. I had to look twice and pulled my head back so I could view her diagram in its entirety. As I looked at it, something strange happened. The sketch seemed to undergo a subtle change in appearance. It began to take on a strangely familiar form, color and shape. I admired the attention to detail and effort that had gone into its design, but there was something about that seemed to come from another place. Some things I didnít notice at first became more important the longer I looked at it. I focused on the main sketch and overlooked something. On the bottom right, at the pageís edge, she had carefully inscribed her initials in a distinct style and that I recognized immediately. At first, I couldnít believe my eyes, but the handwriting was unmistakable. I looked up at her and she seemed happy. She stood behind me, looking over my shoulder while carefully examining her initial sketch. I looked back and saw and her face was flush in a way I hadnít seen before. She seemed relieved that I had finally made the connection, her face filled with pride and happiness as she radiated in the complexity and creativity in her drawing.

She pushed her hands onto the paper and began moving her fingers over it, carefully right above the surface as not to smudge its details and lines. I heard a deep, wistful breath. Exhaling with a sense of relief, she seemed to have found what sheíd been searching for. The sketch was something important that she hadnít seen it in a long time, leaving it behind that day, hidden in the folder, nearly forgotten. We looked at it for quite some time before she decided it was enough. She took the page and folded it back up, slipping it back into the notebook, then placing it carefully so it remained hidden between the books, largely undisturbed. We made sure it the desk drawer was closed neatly so it would be easy to retrieve and open when the girl came back for it. We stood there silently for a moment and I looked at her. In that moment, she looked different, and seemed simultaneously younger and older, stronger yet more vulnerable, a strange mix I wasnít accustomed to. Another bell half-rang, piercing the quiet, indicating a last call to warn straggling teachers and students that the doors were locking for the day. We knew it was time to leave and she walked back towards the entrance. I noticed she wasnít as confident as usual, her steps were tentative and she began slouching somewhat, weighed down by what weíd seen. She moved slower than usual, perhaps weighed by conflicting emotions and intense memories.

She turned and took an extended look around the lobby, seeming to want to remember every detail. After soaking the memories in for a few minutes, she finally had enough and we headed towards the back door for the second time. She seemed a bit sad as her figure reluctantly began to move down the hallway, crossing into the lobby, and then finally towards the the exit. She approached the door carefully, walking slowly until she was close enough to open it. The door was locked automatically and wouldnít budge no matter how much she turned the handle. She noticed a small dial beneath it. Instinctively, she remembered the combination and turned it from memory. The door complied, opening instantly. She stood in front of me, waiting for me to catch up to her. She was holding it open with her foot. We stepped outside and heard the door slam shut, locking automatically behind us.

The afternoon was growing late and I figured weíd be on our way to the next encounter quickly. I heard some of the kids still yelling in the distance, their voices echoing through the humid air. I began walking down the steps, passing the ladder and its paints, out towards the field. It took a moment to notice that she wasnít walking beside me as usual. I turned back and she remained underneath the porchís awning. I looked at her and saw something else I hadn't anticipated. She seemed a little lost for a moment, quietly observing the world around her. I paused and stood in the field for a few minutes, finding myself walking ahead of her without realizing it. She looked strangely melancholy, gazing into the wooded expanse and soaking in the warm early summer air only added to her reluctance to leave. The memories began to overwhelm her, even after so much time had passed. I stood patiently and waited for her. I finally realized the importance of what she'd hidden inside her old desk and why she had returned.

- Michael Palisano