The Hopeful Wanderer – A Punctuated Demand

Question marks surrounded me. Big, pale, spray painted on every trunk as far as I could see. Glowing in the gloom beneath the spreading branches of enormous pines. All facing me, like the disapproving gaze of a fussy uncle.

Just a moment ago, the forest had appeared as any other cluster of trees. Embarrassment overtook me as I realized I had just stepped uninvited into someone’s home. No direction looked like a safe retreat, so I huddled in on myself. A single crow squawked overhead.

Nothing happened. Except, every time I blinked, the question-marked trees jumped closer. Soon, they crowded around me, no space between their trunks, bark creaking against bark. Looming over me. Punctuation marks demanding answers. Yet I had none, for I knew not the question.

“Um,” I said at last. “I sense you don’t want me here. How can I leave?”

The base of every single trunk bowed sideways. Each curved in the same direction. Each question mark now flipped upside down.

By my feet, a carpet of yellowed pine needles rustled. A matted layer of them rose up into the shape of a mouth. Pine cones lined the lips like nubby teeth.

Smug as inexorable, tunneling roots, a voice drawled, “How indeed?”

At that, the forest swallowed me up in one gulp.

Sometime later, it spat me out again. I clawed my way past twisting roots and through a smelly layer of rotten loam. When my fingers broke free, I dug myself out, spitting up pine needles and dead leaves.

Once upright, I pawed muck from my eyes. A quick turn revealed the forest had dumped me at its edge, on the side from which I had entered. As I coughed up the last granules of dirt, I determined to take the long way back around.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – The Role of the Witness

In a disintegrating room stood a girl in a white dress. She had her back to me, hem trailing among broken bricks.

She was about to begin.

“What’s that sound?” She turned toward the wrecked wall, then she stumbled backward and fell over. Her form drifted apart like fingers raked through mist.

After a moment, she reappeared with her back to me.

This was my fourth viewing. Tourists come to see the ghost girl replay her last moments had all left. I blew out a soft breath.

“What’s that sound?” the girl said again, turning.

“Shhh…” I said. This time, I heard a dry, slithering rustle.

Now the girl turned wide eyes upon me. “It’s coming,” she whispered. Voices trickled in from another room.

“Just stay quiet,” I replied. Back then, I had stepped away to inform her parents of the danger and missed the next part.

The girl crept up to a spectral, boarded up window. Peeked through a gap in the planks. I moved closer to see what she saw.

A single eyeball, looking back at her.

The girl screamed and fell backward. A gasped breath. Then the entire wall blew inward, several bricks slamming into her. She lay stunned with a monster towering over her. Long, scaly body coiled up, feathered wings fluttering, single eye roving.

Her parents and I raced in. We all had screamed, “No!” But now our mouths moved soundlessly. For us, I said, “No.”

Snapping the girl up in its sharp metal beak, the creature flapped away into the night.

The girl reappeared with her back to me, but she turned around. “Will you come back?” she asked.

My heart sank. No matter how many times I returned to bear witness, she continued to make this request.

As always, I said, “Of course.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Smiling at Strangers

A face loomed in the darkness outside our stopped subway train. Outlined in glowing white lines. Xs for eyes. A hand-drawn, rictus grin. A mask. It bobbed along up and down the cars, pressing against the windows, fingertips tapping the glass. Giggling echoed down the tunnel, accompanying a high-pitched voice asking, “Who smiled? Whooo smiiiiled?”

Within, some of us glanced around at each other, wondering who had broken the taboo. At all stations, ancient signs declared, “Do not smile at strangers.” Relics of a time of scams and con artists. Now the tunnels were too dangerous for casual opportunists. Suggestion had become rule.

The voice of the conductor buzzed over the intercom. “Who pulled the emergency brake? What’s going on?”

In front of me, the face had paused, tilted, as if curious. A bare finger rubbed against the glass. Over and over. “Was it youuuu?”

I swallowed.

Behind me, a woman stuttered a reply to the conductor. “No one,” she explained. “S-someone smiled at a stranger.”

A curse word sounded through the intercom before the conductor remembered to close the channel. Without the presence of an authority figure, the entire car held its collective breath.

The face watched us like fish in a bowl.

As the engine revved, the train lurched forward. Before me, beside the mask, the white outline of a hand bloomed, fingers outspread. They waved cheerfully at me. As the face receded, the voice sang out, “Byeeeeee.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Swift Hooves

Thunder sounded as a herd of horses broke from a stand of trees, hooves drumming on winter dead grass as they passed. One, the color of butter with black tail and legs, paused beside me, dancing and snorting.

“A mountain lion follows,” the horse said. “Climb on, before it catches you!”

A rustle in the trees. There, between the distant trunks, the tawny hide of a cougar flicked from sunlight to shadow. I turned away, saying, “I’m better at running than riding, thanks.”

The horse leapt in front of me, ears back. “You’re too slow on those two legs. Now hurry up!”

I took a breath, knowing the horse was right, and clambered aboard, nearly slipping several times. A low growl, followed by a frustrated roar and the thump of huge paws. “C’mon, c’mon!” I hissed.

Then I was upright and we were away, wind whistling across my ears. Though my fingers gripped rough mane, I flopped around on the horse’s back like a sack of potatoes. Racing steps of the big cat right behind us had me leaning low over the horse’s neck, holding on for my life. The scent of sweat and fear rose from its skin, adding to my own terror. I couldn’t afford to fall now.

At some point, the sounds of pursuit fell away. Behind us, the big cat stood watching us escape, tail twitching. When at last the horse stopped, I slid down its side onto numb feet, then fell over on my butt.

Looking up at the horse above me, I said, “Thanks for your help, but I hope I never have to do that again.”

The horse shook itself out. “Perhaps next time will be under safer circumstances.” It raised its head, ears pricked toward the danger we’d left behind. “Hopefully, anyway.”

This tale dedicated to my mother, Jenette Baker, who loves the Wanderer and horses alike.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Making Change

Sweet, floral perfume hung on the stale air of a forgotten warehouse. Wafting among corroded pipes, which wove their way along a high ceiling and around long, dusty windows. Drifting through the trash and dead leaves scattered across a concrete floor. Reflecting off once-white walls and old, broken furniture.

I was following a trail of flowers.

Each blossom sprang from the concrete as if grown from dirt – fresh, colorful, trembling with life. The trail meandered this way and that, seeming to follow the least messy path through the warehouse. Once, it stopped at the windows, leaving a large cluster of plants there. A circle rubbed clean of muck showed where hands had wiped away the dirt for a clear view outside.

I did not bother looking out myself. This city, I knew, only decayed.

At the farthest end of the warehouse, a curious thing hung from above. A bower of flowers, twisted around themselves and ballooning upward to the ceiling, where strong roots dug into cracks in the plaster. This bower reached almost to the floor, where a gaunt woman stood weaving more blooms in among the rest. A carpet of blossoms festooned the floor around her. The trail ended here.

Candlelight illuminated my approach, evidencing my following of her, yet she did not stop her work. The plants around the hem of her dress seemed to grow without pause.

When I had come close, I asked, “Who are you?”

She drew another cluster of flowers from the floor to the bower in her hands. “Nobody,” she replied.

Groaning sounded from above and I tipped my gaze upward. The roots along the ceiling spread even farther. “And what are you doing here?”

A small, bitter smile. “Nothing. Just trying to make a small change.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – A Seed of Doubt

Brushed with soft pink hues in the fading evening light, full white dandelion heads stretched away from either side of a dirt path. Evidence of a wishing festival lay scattered all around me – broken, bald stalks discarded in the dirt. On still air rode the scent of sap and cut grass, warning other plants of the danger of being plucked.

More than half of the dandelion field lay in ruin. Stalks crunched beneath my shoes as I made my way to the first line of puffs still sanding. Rumors said this particular field imparted more potent wishes than most, but only on one day of the year. Today. I knelt and took a living stalk in hand. I had until the suns fell bellow the horizon to make my wish.

A little burst of feathery seeds floated past my face. Someone’s earlier wish. I followed their progress into the smokey blue evening, away until I could see them no longer. Sun rays glanced through the head of the dandelion I held poised to pick, illuminating the clinging seeds like the hundred tiny things I wanted. Yet how they clung, not quite ready to go or else they would have already gone. In what way had I earned a say in that timing?

As the suns slipped away, I sighed and released the dandelion, laying back on the bed of destroyed plants. Better these seeds flew off in their own time and not in mine.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Next Time

Just peculiar enough to look like an accident, a white truck hulked beneath a tree in bloom. The pale pollen and petals piled upon its windshield, however, revealed that it had huddled below the heavy branches for a long time. Nighttime crouched like a presence between the tree trunk and the car door.

A rustling sent my heart skittering. No breeze had brushed the branches, yet somehow the darkness moved. I stood before the car, now regretting my curiosity to investigate. My feet felt rooted to the grassy ground. An unusual scent of burning carburetor hung in the still air.

Two things happened at once. A massive gust of wind rose, sending me stumbling toward that darkened gap with the force of a pair of hands. From out below the tree rushed a person, eyes wide, clothes bedraggled, face bloodied. I could pick out no more details before they slammed into me, shoving me against the wind until at last it dropped, no longer pushing me from behind.

The person’s voice quivered as they clung to me. “Don’t go in there,” they said. Then they released me and scrambled off into the night.

A moment of quiet. Then a screech of rending metal tore through the air. The truck quivered. Buckled. Dragging deeper beneath the tree. I stumbled back, but couldn’t turn away. Crunching like chewing sounded as the truck lurched backward, crushing smaller and smaller until none of it was left.

Leaves shivered as the tree seemed to smile, white blooms like blunt teeth. Low, rumbling laughter. Nearly friendly, but not quite.

“Next time, Wanderer.”

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