The Hopeful Wanderer – Opening the Box

In the very last car of a subway train, I heard a squeak, as of skin sliding against glass. I glanced around the empty car from my seat somewhere in the middle, where I waited for takeoff. The noise came again, from the back door. Getting up to investigate, I wondered if someone was trying to sneak a ride.

But when I peered through the back door window, I found, somehow, another car attached to the back of mine. I had not noted this car when I boarded. Knew I had chosen the car very farthest back for a little peace.

In spite of my certainty, I could not deny this mysterious extra car. I opened my door and stepped into the service space between doors. A pair of hands were pressed against the other car’s window from inside. Another squeak sounded as the palms flattened further, as if desperately trying to push the door open.

No lights illuminated the inside of the car. I could not see the owner of the hands, which themselves were long and slender.

Above the door’s pull handle was a lock knob twisted shut. She was locked in there. In the dark. Who knew what she needed to escape? I reached for the knob.

A faint whisper in my ear. “Don’t unlock it.”

The lock snicked open beneath my fingers. The hands within pushed and pushed, shoving me aside. I stepped back to let her out, shuffling in the tight space.

But when the door swung wide, there was no one on the other side. Nothing but inky darkness. A cool breath of air brushed my cheek in passing and the semi-open door behind me creaked. Shocked, I pushed the mysterious car’s door shut, wondering what I had just released into the world.


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Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

In Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, orphaned, broadsword-wielding Gideon Nav makes a bid for freedom from a life of servitude on the claustrophobic planet of the Ninth House, but the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, necromancer and bone manipulation prodigy, thwarts Gideon’s attempt at escape, demanding the swordswoman’s help in exchange for her freedom. The Emperor has summoned the heirs of all the houses to the planet of the First House to participate in a deadly competition to gain immortality and sit at his right hand. Harrowhark cannot win without Gideon, but it turns out that Gideon also cannot survive without Harrowhark.

The narrative of Gideon the Ninth follows Gideon Nav’s foray into pretending to work with Harrowhark Nonagesimus, her lifelong enemy and tormentor, for a chance at freedom. But upon their arrival at the First House, the fabled home of the Emperor himself to which he may never return, they receive no explanation and only one rule for the trial set before them. Exploration and puzzle-solving ensue as the various heirs and their cavaliers execute different strategies to unlock the secrets of the ten-thousand year old, crumbling palace, stumbling across futuristic technology and ancient rituals alike.

Between snarky remarks and witty ripostes, Gideon and Harrowhark begin to learn more about each other and how to function as a team, even as the trial turns deadlier and deadlier. They begin the story as hated enemies and remain that way for a long time, until they catch themselves saving each other’s lives. As contestants fall around them left and right at the hands of a mysterious murderer, secrets long-kept start to surface, drawing them together.

The moment in Gideon the Ninth that sticks out to me the most happened when members of one of the houses had conned a coveted key from a character Gideon really (really) likes. It was dueling time, and though the smart thing to do was to stay out of the rising tensions between the houses, Gideon badly wanted to fight for that key. When Harrowhark announced that the Ninth House would represent the Sixth House in the match, some of the combatants got snippy about the move. Harrowhark simply said, “Death first to vultures and scavengers.” First, this moment represents Harrowhark at last caring about Gideon’s desires enough to allow her something she wanted, regardless of whether Harrowhark disagreed. Second, this also shows a tiny, tiny sliver of the way Harrowhark felt about the other houses’ taking advantage of an invalid; proof that she hid a fragment of honor beneath those layers of arrogance. This line also highlights the sudden moments of weighty syntax sprinkled within witty comments and sharp retorts throughout the narrative. Beyond just a delightful emphasis on the necromantic vibe in such short supply within the fantasy genre, brilliantly lively characters, and an even mix of action, exploration, and fighting, readers will enjoy the speedy and clever wording that had me laughing out loud.

As the first installment in The Locked Tomb series, Gideon the Ninth already has me hooked. I have to read the next books to solve the mysteries of Gideon’s past and her future – who and where did she come from? how will she continue in the state she’s left in at the end of the book? I rarely spend large swathes of time on reading these days, but as the book picked up in pace, I wound up reading the entire last half in one sitting. My only issue was the uniquely bad feeling I get when reading about enemies to lovers, as I find the unlikelihood of forgiveness for years of oppression and torment difficult to overcome in my suspense of disbelief. However, I love so, so much of the rest and I recognize that this hangup may only be mine, so I would recommend Gideon the Ninth to any readers who love the necromancy aesthetic, who are looking for a lesbian slow-burn, and who appreciate, as I did, a masculine-coded woman character.

My rating: 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.23 stars


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The Hopeful Wanderer – A Dusty Day

Thick dust whirled upward in a swirling column, thinning out and widening in breadth the higher the wind whipped into the sky. A dust devil. Close enough to my position in the middle of sandy scrub land that the dusty air rendered the sun above hazy. Close enough for the wind whistling through desert plants and scattering gravel every direction to take on the rattle of millions of skittering little feet.

Close enough.

Heat beat down on the top of my head. My bag lay somewhere to my left, to avoid getting mucky. I stood in the path of the column of dust, which rose and fell, rose and fell. I panted from my run to get there, eyeing the erratic motion of the thick base. Three times my width.

Here was good.

The dust devil bore down on me with a roar. I screwed my eyes shut and opened my palms at my side. Leaned into the wind slapping at me from all directions, twisting my hair. Felt dust and sand and gravel scour at my cheeks and palms. Wished the wind would lift me from my feet and carry me away.

But my feet remained bound to earth. In a blink, the dust devil passed, leaving me gasping in its wake. Hair and face and skin caked in dirt.

Turning, I watched the dust devil recede, losing momentum and structure. I licked my lips and spat, brown sludge mixing with the sand between my shoes. The thirsty ground wicked the moisture right up.

In the distance, the dust devil abruptly fell apart, collapsing and drifting away in the hot wind as if it had never existed.

Little granules of dirt ground between my teeth when I grinned. What fun.

In the distance, another dust devil rose.

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Word Nerd Scribbles: How and Why I Started Blogging

Way back when WordPress was barely WordPress but just after the (not so great) app had arrived, I started blogging primarily to remind the world that I was alive. Being in college forces you to think and make mental connections so much more than day-to-day life does, so at the time, I was filled with Thoughts and Feelings that I wanted to get out. But college also takes up far more of your time than does your average post-graduation life, so while I managed to type up a handful of blog posts about my Thoughts and Feelings, they soon languished in the wake of a stack of books half as tall as me for my English degree.

Maybe not half as tall, but these were for one semester. Yike.

Actually, I started blogging in high school. The now defunct Nerd Girl Scribbles, located at blogger.com at the time. But I was small-ish and had nothing to say, so rebranding happened sometime after.

Because of some nebulous cultural expectation and perhaps as a lingering habit from my days of writing argumentative papers about literature, I began feeling the uneasy need to review the books I read. After graduation, I had lost the classroom environment that encouraged discussion about assigned reading. I wanted to talk about the little narrative things I had noticed. You might say, well why didn’t you join a book club? I did, in fact. But they read books I didn’t enjoy so I ghosted. Instead, I began writing book reviews after closing the pages of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I loved it so much, had such a many things to say about it, and wanted the world to know about this book. (The world already knew about this book. I was late to the game.) After that, I kept up the book reviews and readers started following me for my thoughts about the random things I read. Wild.

The Friday before I was to take a one-week vacation, I was using my phone at work when I wasn’t supposed to, scrolling through Facebook. I came across the original post shown above, which asks the reader to describe them the way an author would in a book. As I went to repost, I knew no one would go along with the request, because effort. But people love to hear about themselves and I like to observe others, so. The offer to write character descriptions about the people who commented was born.

I wrote _thirty_ character descriptions. And surprise, surprise, people wrote some about me in return. I spent my whole vacation on this and it was a wonderful exercise in metaphor, finding my voice, and learning to tell a story in a few paragraphs. I also realized later, after hearing from my friends and family on why they decided not to participate, that I may have by accident revealed a little more about people than is usual. Shrug. Sometimes you just know a person. Sometimes you don’t know what’s a secret.

I wanted to keep all the character descriptions, not lose them to the vagaries of Facebook timelines. And hey, I already had a blog. One dedicated to a love of words. So each description got copied over and I had about half a year’s worth of content scheduled out.

Those were the good old days.

When those posts began to run out, I knew I wanted to keep posting weekly stories to keep my writing in front of the eyes of readers. My favorite show of all time is Mushishi, a serial story about a man who can see strange organisms not visible to everyone, phenomena closer to the source of life than anything else, and he makes his living by traveling across the country to help people troubled by these creatures. He’s gentle, patient, and kind, more willing to find a way around killing. I also at some point had started a (second or third or fifth) Deviantart profile. When I worked at Barnes & Noble, Mumford & Sons songs played on the overhead far more often than I would have liked, but one line always stuck out to me. “I’m a hopeless wanderer.” I tried to use that phrase, hopeless wanderer, as my username. It was, of course, already taken. So I twisted it into hopeful wanderer. Because as Brave Saint Saturn said, the bravest thing of all is always hope.

Those of you who follow my blog probably know where this went. I wanted to write a story about a person who never settled down, who was kind in their encounters with strange things, and I wanted very much to write about encounters with strange things. I had at the time begun toying with the idea of a neutral reader experience, that a lack of details about a main character viewed through first person could remove the lens of the author between the reader and the experience. Allow them to fall into the story themselves.

I suffer from depression. Or maybe I struggle with depression, because I fight the void every time it comes creeping back up. When one day I got my head above the briny waves of a depressive episode yet again, all these elements came together to create the first Hopeful Wanderer flash fic, A Barren Heart, which is about surviving depression again and again. For the last two years, I have written a Hopeful Wanderer tale (almost) every week. At the time of writing this article, we are ten episodes away from a total of one hundred!

Beyond the work of getting my words connected to readers – of newsletters and likes and follower counts and asking for patrons – the best part has always been the continued creation of this character and this world, of never knowing week to week what the Wanderer may see or do or learn. Sometimes, whatever life thing I’m grappling with slips into the subtext. Sometimes that thing gets noticed by readers, who find resonance with that subtext in themselves. The best part has been the connection. Of knowing that I am indeed alive, and that other people know that fact, too.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Secondhand Furniture

“When you said you needed help in your shop, I thought it would be a little more… finished.”

Afternoon light squirmed in through the front door of a very run down rental space, cascading through floating dust motes kicked up by my vigorous pushing of a broom. The floating dust would render my efforts useless later when they settled back to the floor, but I felt satisfied with my little pile of dirt and old leaves, with the clean white tiles left behind.

Nearby, my host knelt, carefully uprooting a sapling from where it had grown through a gap in the floor. Its branches strained toward the sunlight, growing just a little in shadow. A large pot waited ready for it.

“I been doing all this work myself,” said the shopkeeper. “Not a lot of folks willing to help out just for a couple nights in a bed.” She shot me a curious look over the tops of her glasses.

Before I could reply, a sneeze shook me to my toes. The shopkeeper, now also my host, offered me a handkerchief to blow my nose. “Sometimes,” I said with a sniffle, “it takes work to satisfy curiosity.” Said curiosity being at a cloud of dust billowing from a tiny shop tucked between two department stores in a city (usually) devoid of things like dust. “Why here, though? Seems more trouble than it’s worth.”

My host straightened up from repotting the sapling. She looked around at the boarded up windows, furniture so used as to no longer be secondhand, and weeds pushing up from beneath the floor. “I like rescuing things,” she said. “Besides, I’ve wanted to run a shop forever. Figure it’s time to put down roots.”

I gave her a smile to show I understood, not understanding at all.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Jealous Grass

A person was laying in the grass, and she had been for quite some time. Flat on her back. A bouquet of big white and yellow daisies clutched in her hands lay across her chest. When she continued not to move from her grassy bed, I walked over to investigate.

Blue eyes widened when I came into her view. The woman, more of a girl, did not move at my approach, which concerned me most. My next concern being the large white daisy stuck in her mouth, slender petals folded inward between her lips.

“Looks like a ritual,” I murmured. To her, I said, “Was this on purpose?”

An emphatic head shake.

When I tried to pull her up by the arm, her back stuck to the grass. A quick peek beneath her showed grass woven into the fibers of her shirt. Sitting back on my heels, I plucked the flower from her mouth.

Gagging, the girl spat more petals into the air. One stuck to her cheek. “It’s the flowers,” she wheezed. “You have to run!”

A grass petal slithered across the toe of my shoe. I shook it off.

“What started this?” I demanded.

A tear slid from the girl’s eye as grass wove lovingly into her hair. “I picked this bouquet,” she whispered.

“Throw them away!”

“I can’t let go!”

I snatched the bouquet from the girl’s hand, stems slipping from her unresistant fingers with ease, and tossed it as far as I could, loose petals raining down in the bouquet’s wake.

Grabbing her hand, I hauled the girl upright. Grass petals fell from her hair past her shocked expression. “I couldn’t… get out,” she whispered.

“You can now,” I replied. In the distance, the bouquet had begun sinking below a layer of jealous grass. “Let’s go.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – An Ocean Come to Stay

Warm, salty air blew in my face as I made my way to my favorite market, a place I had not visited in awhile. A setting sun pinking the soft clouds overhead let me know I needed to hurry before they closed down for the night.

I turned a corner for the stairs leading down into the market. But my feet slowed as I approached, for ocean water slapped against the bottom of the iron handrail, covering the steps halfway up.

All across the market was ocean.

As I stared out at the calm waves, my mind scurried around, searching for an answer. Though some time ago now, the last time I had visited this market, the ocean had lurked over a mile off, trapped behind the barrier of a sea wall to prevent flooding. The market itself had bustled with lively trade, the brick paths ringing with music and voices raised with the joy of shopping. Colorful awnings and overhangs had protected from the sun and seagulls. Street food scenting the air.

Yet the waves lapped and lapped at the stairway. Going nowhere. Giving up nothing. To me, it appeared as though the ocean had come to stay.

A few people moved along the sidewalk behind me, including a kid. A girl who gawked at me but tried to hide it.

As she passed, I cleared my throat to get the girl’s attention. “Excuse me, there used to be a market here,” I said, pointing at the waves. “Where is it now?”

The girl pointed in the same place. When I looked in the direction of her index finger, I saw a corner of red and white tent cloth waving from a few inches below the water. “The sea rose too fast,” she explained. “We couldn’t save any of it.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – A Seven Vessel Mission

Seven boats lay keeled over on their sides in the shallows of a cloudy bay. Water swallowed the gray sky above until they became mirrored reflections, indistinguishable, and lapped against the exposed ribs of the boats like a kitten at a captured fish. Wood and metal creaked as the tide began to shift back out to sea.

I crouched on a nearby pier, watching these boats. The sunlight grew wan, wearing on toward evening.

When the tide had well turned, a low creak echoed around the cove. The sound somewhere between the call of whales and the scraping of metal upon stone. Each boat, large and small, shuddered, wood planks groaning as their skeletal frames shifted. Though they did not, could not float, the boats rose on their keels as field beasts rising from a nap, shaking themselves off.

Surprised the boats had, in fact, activated, I flicked a switch on a device cradled in my palm. Seven dots lit up on the radar screen. I’d heard about this curious phenomenon, which occurred on a regular if infrequent schedule, and I wanted to know where they would go.

Ripples grew into waves crashing against the rocks at the foot of the pier. The boats clustered into a formation sensible to some bygone programmers, ranging from the largest in the middle to the smallest at the ends, arranged in a crescent.

Then the boats floated away. No pilots. No captains. No motors or sails. They angled out to sea, ragged black outlines against the setting sun. The tracker screen showed the dots growing more distant, but their glow remained steady and a digital needle pointed in their direction.

Between one blink and the next, the boats slipped beyond the horizon.

And the dots and the arrow on my tracker winked out.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – A Desperate Apology

“This world is dying.”

A woman stood in the middle of the crumbling living room in an abandoned house. She looked like a specter, with the dim afternoon sunlight struggling in through the dusty windows at her back, with her flowy dark clothes and her flowy dark hair, with the small deer skulls perched on her head in a macabre wreath. But she sounded just like a woman, sad and maybe getting over a cold.

I stood outside a broken bay window, peering into the living room. “I know,” I replied. “Everyone knows that.”

A little flame sparked as she struck a match, setting it to a sprig of some green plant she held. The glow lit up her face, darkening the hollows of her eyes. “I just don’t know what else to do,” she said. Her hard gaze flicked to my face. “Don’t try to stop me.”

“From what?” I asked. But then she dropped the smoldering herbs.

Sparks leapt in all directions and caught on the dry wood flooring, little tongues of flame curling up around the woman’s bare toes. She stepped delicately over them and made for the door, leaving a small inferno behind.

I stared, mouth agape. The woman joined me outside and watched the living room burn with me.

My eyes watered with the sting of smoke. “Why would you do this?”

She shrugged. “As an offering, I guess.” Fire climbed to the rafters and smoke billowed upward, but it was a windless day and the flames seemed disinclined to leave, though it wouldn’t have mattered. People had abandoned this neighborhood long ago.

“As an apology, too,” the woman continued. “To this world, for my part in helping to kill it.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Field Guardians

In a remote field of faded stubble, buried deep in the woods, I had almost crossed to the other side when two young women stepped out in front of me. I pulled up short, but they just stood there next to each other. Both wore a lacy white sun dress and no shoes. They seemed identical, except one had a tattoo on the top of her thigh, peeking from beneath the hem of her dress.

Each held a large section of tree bark in front of their faces.

In the silence, a cricket chirped nearby. When I tried to walk around, they shuffled to remain in my path. Dust rose from crackling stubble, drifting aside on a faint breeze.

I swallowed down the taste of earth. “May I pass?”

The one lacking tattoos motioned with an open hand. “Our field lies uncultivated. Won’t you contribute some seeds for the planting?”

I had no seeds with me, but I had eaten from a wild strawberry bush back the way I’d come. Trekking back beyond the field, I plucked a strabwerry and brought it back. Squeezing it to a red pulp, I picked out the seeds and placed them into the free hand of the tattooed one.

“And some water to help them grow?” said the first.

Uncapping my water bottle, I splashed some over the seeds. They floated in the water cupped in the woman’s hand.

“And a place to plant them?”

Crouching, I dug into the dirt at the woman’s feet, scooping out a fist sized hollow. The tattooed one knelt and poured the water and seeds inside. I closed up the hole with dirt scraped back over and a little green sprig sprang up.

The two women stepped apart and I nodded to each as I passed between them.

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