The Hopeful Wanderer – Call to Launch

Rhythmic, echoing creaking drew me across flat empty plains to a flat, empty house. An untidy row of windows stared out from the house’s weathered flanks at the setting suns blazing orange and purple across the sky. My favorite kind. Next to the house stood a tall, tall tree, beneath the branches of which creaked a swing set.

The rusty swing swung back and forth. Empty. Creaking.

I hovered a wary distance away between a pair of old gateposts, regarding the mysterious swing. But I could not divine its secrets from here. So I huffed an irritated breath and approached, shoes crushing long yellow prairie grass that sprang back up in my wake.

When I got close, somewhere between blinks, a child appeared on the swing, facing the sunset.

Nonplussed, I stopped next to the swing, trying to decide whether the child had been there the whole time. My mind believed both realities at once and it hurt to think about.

I said, “Your swinging is very loud.”

“Only to you,” the child replied, smiling up at me. “You were meant to hear it.”

Pumping little legs harder and harder, the child rose higher and higher. The creaking of the chain increased in volume, roaring, crashing off the ground and careening into the sky. Hands over my ears, I held my breath, expecting to see the child go sliding off into the dirt.

“Now you’re here,” the child called, “I can go!”

At the apex of the next back swing, when the seat whipped all the way above the supporting pole, the child flew off. Kept going, going. And winked out over the horizon.

Silence settled over the empty plains as thrill shivered across my skin.

Gripping the cool chains in both hands, I sat down.

And started to swing.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Open Me

No path ahead, no path behind. Just four flights of concrete stairs embedded into a hillside invisible beneath a blank blanket of snow. These, for some reason, just damp, not buried along with everything else. Upward, the pale hill sloped into the pale sky. Downward, more snowy hills rolled away into infinity.

It felt like this had gone on since this world’s beginning and would continue long after I left.

I stamped my feet with cold, my shoes slopping in the dark ice melt dripping down the steps. Fast falling snow clung to my eyelashes and had already filled up my tracks, so that I could not even say which way I had come to get here.

Indecision cascaded over me like the warm, buttery light cast from above by the lamp topping a nearby wrought iron pole. Piled snow just about snuffed out the glow. A metal box clung to one side of the pole. I wondered if it contained a control switch I could use to make the light brighter. To help me see a way out of here.

The box popped open beneath my fingers with a cold clank. Inside, a dial. But it held directional markers rather than a scale for brightness output. Frowning, I twisted the dial until the needle pointed southward.

The ground beneath me shifted, almost toppling me. I clung to the wet metal rail as the entire ensemble of stairs twisted ninety degrees. At one end, presumably the southern end, the snow sizzled and melted away, revealing a concrete path snaking off into the distance.

I didn’t really need to go south, but I would take it. Smiling, I snapped the dial box shut. Then, as an afterthought, I took out a thick marker and wrote across the box’s surface:

“Open me.”


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Longing to Leave

When I left a labyrinth full of unsettling creatures, I went out through the wrong exit. Ahead, a simple wooden gate, twice my height with a neat pitched roof, blocked my way forward, more wooden fencing stretching to either side.

Almost as if to keep those strange cave creatures from getting out this way. Although what good a wooden fence would do, I didn’t see.

I consulted my fabric map of the labyrinth. As I suspected, this had not been my intended exit, but I wanted to leave all the same. Even walking all the way around the mountains instead of through, as I’d meant, would be preferable to going back.

The green scent of moss and water wafted on the breeze, tall bamboo trees swaying on the other side of the fence. Inviting. As I approached, I noted carvings on the outside walls of the cave. Images of sages and community leaders entering the cave to consult the otherworldly creatures. For wisdom? For trade?

When I reached for the gate latch, an electric snap sounded. A force punched me in the stomach, throwing me to my back. From there, when my vision cleared, I saw painted sigils on the under side of the roof. Marks for repelling the unearthly, for the most part. Defined as things not-of-this-world. Anyone else could pass through unharmed.

Wheezing, I sat up. So the rules applied to me too, it seemed. Clearly, something had changed since these people had communed with the others. I could call out, persuade someone to let me through. But my inability to open the gate myself was all the evidence anyone would need that they should not let me in. Out.

Oh, I wanted out of that labyrinth.

I turned around and headed back the way I had come.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Forth

A deep groan sounded through heavy fog as I inched my way up to a lane of thin ice running through a frozen lake. Though I was on the lookout for travelers along this lane, I also watched against any misstep that would send me plummeting below to a shivering grave. Several such lanes of thinner ice wound and turned beneath the frozen crust, steel gray water just visible below. Rushing from where one river fed into the lake to where another, far away, led back out. The lake itself stretched to the horizon, reflecting the fog and the white sky back and forth until I wondered if I stood in an upside down world.

As the groan died away, I took one cautious step back from where an ominous crack had split the thinner ice.

In the silence that followed, beneath that crack rushed a dark, amorphous shape, wriggling and reshaping. A water soul. Following by another, and another. All streaking along these icy lanes toward a world I could not reach. Not yet.

With care, I crouched next to the ice lane, little slivers of frost poking at my knees. I pulled off one glove and laid my hand flat over the crack. This fractional fracture, this threat to my very existence, was all that separated me from the other side. An impossible thing, an impossible distance away. Cold nipped at my fingers, leaching the warmth from my skin.

As I contemplated the passing souls, a much deeper cold settled into my bones.

Though I couldn’t swear it happened, as the last of the water souls passed, a vaporous hand had pressed a palm to the ice beneath mine. There for a flash. Gone in a breath. Leaving behind the freezing memory of connection with the dead.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Buried Tracks

At the bottom of a lake long dried up, my hazy gaze rested hopefully on a cloud building in the distance. Dust rose up around my plodding feet, settling on my cracked tongue. The size of this lakebed desert must have grown since the last estimation. I didn’t have enough water to get back; I could only move forward and hope I reached the edge before I ran out.

I tried not the think about how dehydration could have me just walking in circles.

A ridge of reddish rock stretched across my path, a veritable fortress wall. In the distance, it culminated at a former island, towering upward. I had tried to scale the wall only to slide back down on slopes of shale. When I had rolled to a stop at the base, dust in my hair, I picked myself up and followed the wall instead, looking for a break. Better to save my energy.

The cloud inched closer, pure white edges blurring with the horizon.

A break in the wall appeared all at once to my left. In the moment I registered freedom to continue forward, I stumbled on a hard object in the sand, going down to my knees. Tiny rocks skittered away from my hand as I scraped the object free. At first, I frowned, not understanding what I found.

A railroad tie. Attached to a railroad rail. The line passed through the break leading straight to… the oncoming cloud.

I got to my feet as the rippling heat revealed a dark train running toward me from the distance. The cloud of steam puffed upward, better than any raincloud I could imagine.

As the train neared, I stuck out my thumb to hitch a ride. The brakes squealed as the train started to slow.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Preservation Efforts

Without a breath of air to stir them, a plume of snowflakes rose up from the drifts coating the mountainside. Where the morning sunlight had not yet touched, deep blue shadows crept beneath a forest of firs. Nothing moved but the flurry of flakes, whirling around each other, the whole cluster angling upward along the mountain’s flank.

I crouched behind a screen of snow-heavy tree limbs, a tiny encampment from which I had not shifted all night. My legs hurt and snow soaked through the knees of my pants. Cold nipped at my lips. My breath fogged white, then gold, sparkling where the sunlight had just glanced over my shoulder, lancing between the trees down the mountain in a wide ray.

My breathing stopped. In the revealing light, the mysterious plume of snowflakes passing by my hiding place had resolved into a shape. Gold glimmered along the faint outline of a delicate creature – a long low body, tufted ears perked in my direction, pointed nose twitching for scent, one of four paws raised in consideration. Blinding white feathery wings folded along its back.

A breeze had lifted from my back, carrying my scent straight to the creature. All in a rush, it flapped those wings hard, scattering snow in every direction. The whoosh of wind threw flakes in my face, stinging my cheeks. Only four pawprints and the faint pattern of wings on the snow remained.

As well as one feather.

When I lifted the feather and moved it back and forth between shadow and light, it vanished in the darkness, though its icy touch stung my fingertips.

As promised to the people in the town below, hanging this at the community coop would at least deter any more of these creatures from stealing their chickens. That should appease the hunters.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Burning Roads

Someone set a field on fire with me in it.

Gray smoke rolled skyward and drifted along the tilled dirt, tangling around my feet and stinging my eyes. I had picked this field to cross because nothing grew in it, so I couldn’t imagine what the fire consumed. Pulling my shirt up over my nose and mouth, I trudged along with my head down.

I hoped I wasn’t trapped.

With so much haze in the air, blowing ahead and behind me, I almost walked straight into a thick swath of fire. Orange flickered at the base of a line of heavy black smoke rising into the afternoon, flashing warning lights. The leading edge of flames churned ahead in a straight line.

Making a barrier right across my path.

Realization dawning, I ran. Lungs heaving, eyes streaming, feet digging into soft earth, I caught up with the fire. Leaped across in its path. The scent of gasoline hung heavy in the air, assaulting my already overwork lungs. Clinging to my shoes where liquid soaked the earth.

On the other side, the wind blew the smoke away from me. Indifferent to my near escape, the flames crept along the gasoline trail while I stood with hands on knees, taking huge gulps of clean air.

Later, as I climbed the side of the valley, I got high enough to see the shape of the roads burning through the field. They spelled out words in huge cursive letters. Big enough to be seen from space.

SAVE US.

The irony got to me and I laughed a little until I coughed up more sooty phlegm. I could’ve been trapped inside those lines.

If the fire starters wanted to message aliens, I sure hoped those aliens could read cursive.


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#Spooktober2020 Day 30: Plague

My mouth was a weapon. One I could aim and fire at anyone. But once. Just once. Too obvious and the authorities would take me down.

Shouldering my way through the crowd, I grinned at the knowing.

So, so many people had gathered for our high school reunion. I hadn’t been invited, but found out about the reunion anyway. All these people who picked on me. Shunned me. They would make a perfect ground zero.

When I got to the middle of the gymnasium, lost in the crush of my peers all around me, I

opened my mouth

and

coughed.

#Spooktober2020 Day 29: Mirror

Seven mirrors in the house and I smashed every one to pieces when you left me. Seven times seven equals forty-nine years of bad luck. Worth it to never see your face look back at me again.

You wanted to ‘be your own person.’ To ‘do things for yourself for once.’ But what about me? Together from the womb, you and I. My bad luck that you abandoned me.

Crying and gasping amidst the wreckage of the mirrors around me, I grasped the iron crowbar with shaking hands, lifting it one last time. Just one more mirror to destroy.

You.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Guard Against

As I passed through a night dark farm, the door of a wood shed near the farmhouse rattled from the inside. A voice from within yelled, “Let me out! Let me OUT!”

I stopped at the door, hand on the cold iron latch, but didn’t open it. “Who’s in there?”

Something heavy slumped against the inner door. “This farm’s guardian. A scarecrow.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “What’s a guardian doing locked up in the wood shed?”

“The farmer gave up on the harvest. Stored me in here.” The voice sounded more angry than plaintive. A thump like a slammed fist made me jump. “I ask you, what’s a scarecrow without crows to scare?”

I shrugged. Unable to argue with that logic, I pulled the door open.

All at once, I was face to face around the edge of the door with a bright orange pumpkin, light from within casting two broad black exes for eyes in stark relief. Body made up of an orange raincoat and red shirt. A trail of holiday lights led away from the back of the scarecrow’s neck into the shed.

The scarecrow’s head tilted as it looked me up and down.

I raised my hands. “Easy…”

“You’re no crow,” the scarecrow observed. A warm scent like decaying pumpkin pulp drifted to me. “More of a wren, I’d say. Now I have work to do. Leave this land.”

The scarecrow thumped and jerked away, headed for the withered cornfield I had cut through earlier. The holiday lights clicked along the ground in its wake, until somewhere inside the shed, the cord popped free from the plug.

The pumpkin in the distance blinked. Blinked. And went out. The scarecrow’s silhouette vanished in the darkness.

“Hey, you’re welcome,” I muttered.

In the trees overhead, a crow cawed.


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