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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The Hopeful Wanderer – Guided Passage

Light bloomed behind me in a passage I had already cleared, so bright as to drown out the glow of my flashlight. Looking back, I had to hold up a hand to shield my eyes. I could see nothing but the sandstone walls of the cavern.

“Are you lost?” a voice asked. It echoed around the chamber ahead as well as behind, surrounding me.

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Can you point that elsewhere?”

The light shifted away, its absence revealing a man holding a staff tipped with a glowing crystal. Shirtless and barefoot. A lean, hungry look in his narrow eyes.

“Where are you going?” the stranger asked. “I can guide you.”

“Have you been following me?” I asked. “You weren’t there when I passed through just now.”

“I live in these caves,” he replied. His shadow loomed huge on the wall between us. “I guide the lost.”

Noting that he had failed to answer my question, I said, “I wouldn’t take up your time. If you could just point me toward the way out…”

The man’s mouth pressed into a thin line. He paused so long I wondered if he would even respond. Then, arm raised toward the passage I had been following already, he said, “Take a left at the first fork.” With that, he dimmed the crystal, melting away down another passage. As he did, his fading shadow shifted to look just a little like a jackal.

After waiting a moment to ensure the man wouldn’t return, I pressed on. At the first fork, I took a right, following the directions of a map I had acquired for this trip. It wasn’t long before I reached the exit. Once out, I added a note to the map’s corner. ‘Offering of guidance not to be trusted.’

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Getting Collected

When I went to ride the elevator back downstairs, I found a pair of legs sticking out of the doors of the only working car. They had not been there when I first came up, looking clean but uncomfortable against the grimy concrete floor. Unmoving. Out of place.

The elevator dinged and the doors started shutting. They bounced off the sides of the woman lying half in and half out of the car, then slid back open with the realization that someone blocked their path. She made a little ‘oof’ noise, but otherwise didn’t move.

I stopped next to her legs, looking down at her. “Not a great place for a nap,” I observed.

She just blinked at the wall in response.

Once again the elevator dinged and the doors began to slide. I slipped between them, pressing them open with my back. Then I leaned there, wondering if she was having a fit.

“Just let them close,” the woman mumbled.

At least she was coherent. I scrunched my face in skepticism. “I don’t think I will,” I replied. “It’ll just hurt you more.”

Her shoulders hitched with a heavy exhalation. “Whatever.”

We stood that way a long time, the doors bumping my back every now and then. One or two other people showed up to use the elevator, but I shooed them in the direction of the stairs. They cast quizzical looks at me over their shoulders.

Sometime later, the woman got up on hands and knees and crawled into the elevator car. I stepped inside with her. The doors closed behind me with a relieved sigh.

She flopped down on the tiles and looked up at me. “I think I can make it home now.”

I nodded, hand hovering over the buttons panel. “What floor?”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Emergency Dive

A muted clanking sounded from the door. All of us in the room tensed, thinking the water pressure outside had at last overpowered the sealed door’s capacity to keep it out. But then the clanking came again, rhythmic, like knocking.

“They’re here,” I said. “Get ready.”

The group moved around behind me. I took several breaths then held, and pulled the door open.

A torrent of water gushed in, swinging the door wide and slamming me into everyone in a confused mass of tangled limbs and roaring water and cries of surprise. The room began to fill in no time. We floated upward with it toward the rapidly approaching ceiling.

Once above the door frame, the waters calmed. Then a person burst up from below the surface, wearing goggles and a tank on her back. She popped out her mouthpiece, spraying water. “How many?” she asked.

“Seven,” a woman next to me replied.

The diver handed out Y-shaped breathers. I affixed mine just as my hair brushed the ceiling and water closed over my head. The lights flickered out. By the beam of a flashlight attached to the diver’s harness, I saw her counting heads. Satisfied everyone had their breathers in, she made a ‘follow me’ motion.

We filed after her back down through the door and into the flooded shopping center. Racks of floating shirts tugged against their hangers, like curious cloth creatures. Other divers led more swimmers to our destination, a floor just above the flood waters.

When we climbed out onto dry carpet, I said, “What happened?”

“Levy broke out of nowhere,” our rescuer replied. She began collecting breathers.

“What do we do now?” a man asked.

The diver pointed out toward a balcony. “Wait for rescue.” Then she flipped back into the water and vanished below.

The Hopeful Wanderer 52 – The Lonely Operator

Though the warped radio station door stuck to the jamb when I pulled it open, just inside, unseen machinery hummed productively. Unseen, because thin smoke drifted along the floor, curling around my shoes. I reopened the door, letting the strong breeze outside push it wide.

A distorted voice, as if piped through a ham radio, echoed from within the smoke. “Qpn-zee? Is that you?”

Ah. Wrong number. “No,” I called back. “But I got your signal.”

Eyes watering, I pulled my shirt up over my nose and stepped deeper into the station. The vague outline of a room opened out into a single, circular control booth, lit with the ambient glow of a constellation of buttons. Through the haze, I just made out a person seated at the widest control panel, twisted around to face me, one eye glowing.

Through the muffling fabric of my shirt, I said, “What’s on fire?” But as I moved closer, I could see the way the smoke rolled out from beneath the control panel. How the person did not move away from the danger, because their entire lower half trailed away in a thick tangle of wires to various locations around the booth.

This was a bot, hardwired into the station itself.

“One of my processors overheated,” the bot explained. “I am Static. Designation?”

“From trying to call Qpn-zee?” I asked.

“Designation?” it repeated.

I shrugged a little, never sure how to introduce myself. “I’m called the Wanderer.”

“Yeah, and I’m called the Operator,” said Static. It adjusted a knob and a whine I hadn’t noticed diminished. “Your real name?”

My mouth opened and closed. “I… don’t know.” I had never known.

Static narrowed its single eye at me. “You’re that Wanderer, then.”

I spread my hands, my shirt sliding off my nose. “That’s who you reached. Can we do something about this smoke?”

Static faced forward again, laughing a hard little laugh. “I didn’t ask you to help me. Only one person can do that.”

Stepping around an exposed pile of wires, I sidled toward the wall. “Qpn-zee?” I said. “Your signal got pretty far. Could be they’re just behind me.” I had noticed a window here covered with duct tape. Vinyl crinkled beneath my searching fingertips.

“How did you even hear me?” Static asked. It cut its gaze toward me just as I popped the window latch. “Hey, what are you-!”

I pushed the window outward and a gust blew in, stirring dust and smoke alike. Sunlight flooded the control booth, glinting off Static’s brushed metal face. It looked surprised at the fact of daylight.

I leaned my hip against the windowsill. “I don’t know much about digital machinery,” I explained, “but I do know you have to keep it cool. Can’t do that with everything boarded up.”

“I couldn’t-” Static started. “After Qpn-zee left, I… I couldn’t do that.”

Dusting my hands, I said, “I know I can’t help you, like you said. But if I meet Qpn-zee in my wanderings, I’ll send them out here.” I picked my way back to the hallway. On my way, I paused to face Static. “In your broadcast… it sounds like you miss them.”

Static looked flabbergasted. At what I had done or the fact of me, I couldn’t tell. Then it sort of smiled with its one eye. “Yeah. I do.”

As I stepped outside, its ham radio voice called out. “Hey! What am I supposed to do if it rains?!”

I raised an arm, waving behind me. “I’d say this place could use a little moss.”

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