The Hopeful Wanderer – A Weary Drifter

On the side of an empty stretch of highway, I found a little white stuffed rabbit sitting in the winter-dead grass. It wore a red dress patterned with bursts of yellow flowers. From beneath the hem, fuzzy feet poked out front, seemingly sat there and left behind. Black button eyes turned down toward the toes, as if deep in contemplation.

A breeze ruffled the rabbit’s long ears as I stopped close by, frowning downward. When my shadow fell over it, the rabbit looked up at me.

“I’m too tired to keep going,” it explained. Its front paws hung loose at its sides and it slouched over a little. The posture of the weary.

My mouth quirked. “I understand that. Where are you going?”

“I’m not really going anywhere,” said the rabbit. “Just going.”

A glance around in all directions revealed nothing nearby. Just miles of brittle brown grass and a long stretch of highway. The wide sky above had that navy blue quality that promised cold rain. “In that case,” I said, “I’d suggest finding a place to stop wandering. Only this is not a good place.”

The rabbit’s gaze found the tips of its toes again. “It’s as good a place as any.”

Nothing more did the rabbit say. After a minute, I turned my feet back toward the road.

But I hesitated. “Looks like we were headed the same direction,” I observed. “Would it help… if I walked with you awhile? Until you find a better place?”

Still the rabbit said nothing. At last, I trudged back to the highway shoulder. But behind me, I heard a crunch of grass, then gravel.

The little stuffed rabbit stepped up beside me, looking improbable. “Okay,” it said. “Just until I find a better place.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Not Alone

Sneaking. Steps soft in slippery snow, I crept through a city filled to the brim with night. Too dark to see even my hands stretched ahead of me. Feeling my way forward with zero light.

Light attracted the things that hunted here. Growls and snarls in the distance. Nearby. My breaths quickened at the fear of stumbling against one unseen.

I almost got to my goal unnoticed.

But I stumbled straight into a parked car. My body thumping against the metal echoed up the skyscrapers. A call to feast. I bounced off the car, slamming onto the snowy asphalt.

A snap of teeth and hot breath against my face woke me. I rolled away, scrambling to my feet. Hot bodies surrounded me. Panic drove me forward between them as they leapt. Just missing. I stretched my legs, flying blind down the street.

I might have run until I collapsed had I not crashed my shoulder into a lamppost. The only one, at the city center. I sobbed with relief: I’d made it. Furious howls sounded in my wake, the thumps of huge paws shook the ground. My palms running over the lamppost base snagged on a hard switch.

The lamppost lit up with an electric buzz. Cold, white light cast a large circle around me, illuminating the night hounds. Mere ragged shadows, suggestions of huge dogs with no eyes. They curled up like smoke, vanishing with mournful cries. Burnt cinders scented the air.

I braced my hands on my knees, gasping for breath. Other people stumbled out of the night into the ring of lamplight. They huddled together at the base of the lamppost, chilled but safe in the harsh glow.

Only a small number had braved the night to get here, though; the rest remained lost in the shadows.

You are never alone in the dark; even your monsters accompany you unseen.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Ancient Advice

I stood at the foot of a giant, neck craned back to gaze up. Up past the treetops, up past the hilltop, up to the amethyst evening sky. Three vast arms stretched away from the top of the wind turbine, stars outlining the shapes of wide fan blades. These remained still in the evening quiet, no wind to spin them.

“Wanderer.” The arms creaked above. “What has brought you here?”

I could not imagine such a giant capable of hearing me so far down here, but I cleared my throat anyway. “I’ve been on this world a long time. I want to know what to expect if my life goes on longer.”

As evening fell into night, a red light appeared at the tower’s peak. Flicking on and off, a warning signal. To me the light appeared like an eye, blinking in thought.

“Few have lived as long as you, Wanderer,” the turbine intoned. “Yet I have stood here for time forgotten, long since all my sisters fell.”

The scent of pine needles rose. I knew from my trek up here that several turbines lay crashed to the forest floor, in varying states of decay. I’d been forced to walk all the way around one of them, bloody with rust and lichen. Eyeing the base of this turbine, I wondered how much longer it would last. The rust didn’t look too bad yet.

“You won’t notice too much after awhile,” the turbine finished.

Glancing back up, I said, “Really?”

“Nah. The older you get, the faster time moves, until it all becomes a blur.” The blinking red eye seemed to slow in reflection. “Though at that speed, whirling around and around the year, the changing of seasons looks really pretty.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – A Short Break

All at once, my senses came crashing in. Leaving behind the bubble where my mind had floated, separate from sensation. I took a breath, surprised at this return to wakefulness.

I was seated on the floor, leaning against the wall in the low-ceilinged outbuilding where I had gone to ground. Long enough for my legs to have fallen asleep. Cold seeped in through through seams in the walls, a reminder of the chill afternoon outside. I ran my palms over the rough, thin carpet at my sides.

Clutter kept me company in the small space. Tires stacked in tiers, their rubbery scent mixing with dry dust on my tongue. Old rags, paint cans, a single folding chair. This might have been a home once, the way the narrow hall teed off to my right. Valence curtains hung over a short window, undisturbed by any breeze.

I let my head thump gently against the wall. My thoughts had wandered off into a place my senses could not follow. I was lucky to have found this safe place while that happened.

Outside, voices rose, accompanying the crunch of footsteps on frosty grass. I froze at their approach, scrambling to recall whether, in my dissociative state, I had managed to lock the door while stumbling in here.

The doorknob rattled. But the squeak of hinges did not follow. Unable to stop myself, I peaked around the corner. The silhouettes of two legs crept across the floor beneath the door. Someone outside said, “Huh.”

Then the voices and the footsteps retreated. Heading back to get a key, no doubt. I gathered myself and my bag, slipping out the door once my visitors had gone.

I made sure to twist the lock before letting the door close. Time to wander on again.

A humble offering for posting stunningly late this week.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Tread Not Here

As I trekked down a back alley, the memory of rained dripped from the sky in the wake of a thunderstorm, plopping into big puddles filling up numerous potholes. I splashed through these, heedless of the water soaking my socks, as I had no way to avoid the many of them.

Yet I pulled up short as a pair of shoes walked out in front of me. Patterned with flames and lacking a wearer. They stopped in the puddle just before me. When the water calmed, the reflection of a boy wearing a yellow jacket appeared, feet matching the soles of the empty shoes.

His voice came through watery, as if he spoke through a mouthful of liquid. “Watch out for this puddle,” he said. “It’ll take you.”

Peering down at his murky shape, I said, “Did it take you?”

The boy’s reflection nodded. I couldn’t make out his shadowy expression. “I watch over it now. So no one falls in, like me.”

Frowning, I glanced around. Not much foot traffic through this back way, but a warning should be set up here. “You can’t get back?”

A shrug. “Haven’t figured out how. But…” he glanced off into some unseen distance. “I have time. I’m not aging here.”

I wondered if he would ever get the chance to age, but I kept that to myself. “What do you need?”

“Well…” He turned his chin into his shoulder in thought. “If I didn’t have to guard this puddle, I could search for another one to bring me back.”

I straightened. “Say no more.”

A local sign shop received a peculiar commission from me. An A-frame sign to be set out next to a specific puddle on rainy days and to read:

This puddle will take you away. Tread not here.

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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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