The Hopeful Wanderer – Tree Huggers

From my angle, arms wrapped around several tree trunks as if holding on for dear life. Just arms, it seemed. Their bodies

hidden

or

gone.

I stood in the middle of a forest wrapped in arms, hyperventilating. Because I could feel a pull, a tug, a call to join. And when I walked around to the other side of the first tree, I found a person… hugging it.

Only. Tree bark overlapped the man’s outline. He had his face pressed so deep into the tree that the bark had conformed to him. Or he to the bark. His hands held on tight, with a white-knuckled desperation.

The other hugged trees had more people pressed against them. As if they had all wandered in from the same direction and just pushed themselves into the side of a tree. Every one of them breathed, but I could not guess at how.

Tugging the shoulder of one woman, I managed to pry her grip from her tree. She pulled away with a sucking pop, her whole front peeling out of an impression the shape of her body.

When she turned to me, she had no face. Just the pattern of wood grain dug into her skin. I stumbled back, but she made no moves to attack or leave. Just stood there. Lost.

I had pulled several others from their trees before I noticed the first few had quietly pressed themselves back into place in their indentations. I watched, helpless, as the rest followed suit, one by one.

I could not save them.

All this time I had avoided looking at one particular tree. This one empty of a hugger. I longed to wrap my arms around its trunk and remain here forever. So instead of rescuing everyone, I saved myself and walked away.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Lent Shape

On the outskirts of a forgotten town, I found a person with a white sheet draped over them.

The sheet covered their entire body. They stood in front of a burnt out building on the side of a gravel drive. Just stood there. All day. No one else came or went. And I sat on a stone wall on the other side of the drive, watching. Waiting to see what they would do.

But in the end, as twilight began to creep up from the horizon, I gave in first.

Gravel crunched beneath my shoes, echoing loud off the nearby building. I approached the seeming specter at an angle, going slow, as if to avoid startling a wild creature. The enshrouded person did not move away.

“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing out here? Are you okay?”

As if to face me, the head turned, tracking me. They made no reply.

I crouched down in front of the person. Even this close, they smelled like nothing more than laundry detergent. “I won’t hurt you,” I said. “I’m just going to check.” Hand shaking, I took the rough hem of the sheet and lifted, peering beneath to see the person’s face.

No one was inside.

Within the human-shaped space underneath, reddish evening sunlight filtered through the cloth on the other side of where the head should have been.

I dropped the hem and backed away, breathing hard.

A muffled voice said, “No one sees me without this on. You were watching, so I stayed.”

Then the sheet made all the motions of someone opening it up. Invisible arms pushed the cloth off and it fell into a heap at my feet.

“Where…” I turned all the way around, but I was alone with the pile of cloth, “…did you go?”


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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

The Hopeful Wanderer – The Gift of Knowledge

A sense of familiarity closed around my shoulders as I crept through the crumbling ruins of a massive apartment complex. By the several levels towering above me high enough to almost block out the sun and the many rotted out doorways peering down at me, this place had once housed hundreds of people. Now moss clustered on walls and balconies. Debris littered the courtyard floor. Empty storefronts gaped from recesses in the ground level walls like mouths open in surprise that an intruder would set foot in this forgotten place.

In lieu of the collapsed elevators, a massive stairwell at the end of the courtyard circled up and up. But it also led downward. This I followed into a cool underground level, where sunlight never touched. Water dripped somewhere in the distance; moss fuzzed the walls, soft and deep beneath my fingertips as I trailed my hand along the sides. I could see nothing at all.

Yet around a bend, a faint electric buzz started with the sight of a blue-green glow. I stepped through a pair of double doors. Or rather, over them, as both had fallen off their hinges long ago. The sign above the doorway read: Information Technology.

The glow now permeated the room, coming from a moss-covered terminal at the far end. Hologram ports lined the walls, in various stages of takeover by moss and deterioration. But above the active terminal, a shimmering ball of blue quicksilver rippled in on itself, as if lost in contemplation.

When I stopped in front of the holograph, eyes squinted against the brightness, the quicksilver resolved itself into the idea of a face.

“Ah, Wanderer.” Though the AI spoke in a sophisticated accent, the tones kept glitching out, like a bad connection. “You have changed so much, I did not recognize you at first. Less fiery, more subdued.” A plonk issued from beneath the terminal, followed by a hiss as a small cover slid open. “I assume you are here for this.”

From the little cavity behind the cover, I drew forth a slim glass tube, capped at both ends. A little pile of stardust glowed within. Just like all the other caches of stardust I had found, this one’s glow seemed to lead off in a certain direction, pointing more upward than any way else.

I rolled the slender tube between my fingers, watching the way the dust slithered over itself. “Every time I find one of these…” I started. But I couldn’t quite finish the thought out loud. A nagging suspicion. That tug of familiarity with every place where I discovered more stardust. I could not help but wonder… “Who… who gave this to you?”

The AI remained silent. For several moments, I felt studied. “You did,” it said at last. “Centuries ago.”


Thank you for reading the 100th Hopeful Wanderer tale.

The Hopeful Wanderer – Bloodred Blight

Blood, slick and swift, dribbled like drops of rain from the needle tips of a tall, old pine. Red gathered around the base of the trunk, staining scrub, dirt, and stones alike. Lessening along the height of the pine, but climbing ever upward, spreading down limb and bough. A bloodred pool glistened at the tree’s roots, the stink of copper choking the air. I tasted pennies on the back of my tongue.

My boots squelched as I approached the bloody pine, liquid red filling the indents of my tracks. As I drew near, my skin stretched across my bones, losing moisture at once. Beads of sweat dripping from my brow took on a pink hue, mingling with the red at my feet as they fell.

Joints aching, I knelt among the tree’s roots. Clusters of low twigs reached toward me, grasping, ready to hold me here forever.

I withdrew a pocket knife. The blade gleamed, reflecting bloody silver. “You cannot have me,” I whispered through cracking lips.

Upon each exposed root, I carved a different sigil, all for loosening, for shaking, for falling. Blood welled up from each cut, flowing over my fingertips. Sticky. The pine above groaned and shivered with every slice biting into bark.

At last, I stood back, breathing hard, vision blurry. “May the earth rise against,” I gasped.

A rumble started beneath my feet, sending ripples dancing over the bloody pool. Rocks clattered. I stumbled and fell. A crack split the air, followed by a crash as the pine toppled over, its longest branches just brushing my sleeve. Like the fingertips of a betrayed lover.

When I looked, a network of roots lay exposed to the air, dripping blood slowing. Dirt and rocks clogged the pool of blood, clotted like a scab over an old wound.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Sea Sparkle

Craggy rocks nipped at the soles of my feet as I clambered from a sparkling sea. Close to shore, blue light limned the water around every stone, brightening and dimming with the ebb and flow of the waves. Blue clung to my skin, outlining my toes, creeping up my legs. Growing heavier and heavier. Should the blue weight drag me down, I would drown in water no deeper than my waist. I pushed forward, avoiding the sandy bottom lest my heavy steps pushed so deep that I could not escape.

As I pulled myself out of the water onto a stony outcrop, a large shape moved in the dark. Just visible in the bioluminescent glow. A humanoid creature crouched in the shallows between me and safety. Blue light played across smooth, sharklike skin, revealing a long muzzle and a golden eye staring at me. The mouth parted to reveal rows of razor teeth.

The creature came nosing toward me. I froze, unable to step off the stone, heavy enough now that the blue would pull me under. My knees buckled under the added weight and I sank into a sit.

Blue glowed from within the creature’s gullet as it opened its mouth wide. Webbed hands groped at my safe rock and I scrabbled back as far as I could go. A long tongue slithered out and scooped up the blue sparkles clinging to the hem of my pants.

At once my leg felt lighter.

The glow outlining me dimmed as the creature cleared away every last glimmer. When I could stand, I did so slowly. Eyeing my retreat to the shore, the creature backed away to crouch in the shallows. With a snap, it resumed its meal of the blue glow, spreading darkness ever outward around it once more.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – A Garden of Lights

Twilight lit up with colorful sparkles carpeting the ground around the silhouette of a nearby tree. Colors clustered together like starbursts, clumps of sapphire and aqua scattered around those of tangerine and ruby, alongside honey and violet drops. Where I stood at the limit of their glow, these small orbs twinkled up at me from the ground at my feet, illuminating dead and dying grass all around. I had not noticed in the dark.

Not too far away, the shadow of a person stood up from a crouch, holding an electric cord that led away into the lights. This they dropped on the ground with a faint thump. Rainbow light touched their legs but not their face, making them impossible to make out. I wondered if I looked the same to them.

“What’s this?” I asked.

Turning to me, the person’s bearing shifted to something like a smile. “A garden,” they said, looking over to view their work.

“Don’t you think flowers would be more useful?” I said. “Lights don’t make oxygen or cleanse carbon monoxide from the air.”

“True,” they said. Their voice dropped a key to sadness. “But it’s too late for conservation efforts in this place. Flowers no longer grow here.”

That sadness crept down my spine and lodged at the base. Remembering the deadened grass, I surveyed the area. By the fading sunlight, I noted lots of dwellings, plentiful sidewalks, few trees. Almost no patches of earth where grass could grow. I wondered what had poisoned this ground so that flowers could not bloom here anymore.

“Besides,” the stranger added, “you can’t see flowers at night. Not like this.” A hitch crept into their voice, as if they fought back tears. “So this is alright. Yeah, it’ll have to do.”


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Visible at Sunset

An apparition. As the second sun fell behind a rocky horizon, the conical tail of a long-falling star appeared against the backdrop of deep blue night. Blazing with light, it outshone surrounding clutches of stars. Pointing down toward the disappearing sun like an arrow shot into the heavens, as if someone had taken issue with their sole source for life.

“Disaster…” The whispered word repeated over and over, taken up like a chant among several voices around me. We sat upon the spine of the world, one of many such spiny mountain ranges, and the word seemed to fall away down into the deep, rocky trenches, vanishing into the night.

Still gazing up at the wonder above, I asked, “Disaster for what?”

Eyes and teeth flashed in the dark as faces turned toward me. I had not started this mountain trek with this group, but we’d had the same destination in mind, so I had joined them somewhere between flat ground and here. A thoughtful hum rose from their ranks as they considered my question.

“The oceans may continue to rise,” one of them postulated.

“Bigger earthquakes,” said another.

“Restlessness of spirits.”

“Species extinction.”

“You know,” the last said, “disaster. The apparition is an ominous portent.”

“You forgot acid rain and deforestation,” I said. “All those things happened last year. And the year before. Our planet is dying. But this-” I waved my hand toward the distant comet, “has nothing to do with that.” My hand dropped back into my lap, heavy with the futility of it all. “The only ominous portents are us.”

The apparition, the mere comet, wandered along its journey around the suns. At such a great distance, cold and heedless of our tragedies. No wisdom to impart as it passed.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – The Taste of Copper

The white glow of a small ornate lantern pushed back the darkness surrounding us like a tiny star. My guide crouched on a rock beside a still pool, holding a common stick with the ring of the lantern hooked on the end. Below, the reflection of the light glowed just as bright, a twin star. But neither my guide’s nor my reflection appeared in the water.

Covering the bottom of the pool, thousands of copper coins of all shapes and sizes glinted like dull eyes staring back at us. Waiting on our move.

Before we could cross the river, my guide had insisted we visit this place to gain passage. I eyed the slow, lazy river passing us by, wondering what danger could lurk within such a quiet channel.

“Can I take one?” I asked him.

“You can try.”

I slid my hand beneath the cool water, cooler than I expected. My fingertips brushed against flat coins, sensing their round edges, bumping along embossed words and images. Coins from all over the world. Meaningless currencies, some no longer even in existence.

At random, I selected an old coin, one enduring a slow takeover of blue-green malachite. This one, I figured, would see me across to safety.

The moment I drew the coin from the water, my mouth flooded with the taste of copper. Surprised, I dropped the coin back into the still water with a minute plunk. Working my mouth, I spat out a glob of blood. It, too, hit the water. I watched as the glob sank.

By the time it came to rest among the piles of treasures, my blood had itself changed into a copper coin. Shiny, new, winking at me in the lantern light.

My guide nodded once. “The river accepts you. Now you may cross.”


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The Hopeful Wanderer – To Be Known

Cradled in the palms of a young man was a nest of interwoven brown twigs, the bowl filled to the brim with tiny eggs the color of spring. Buttery yellow, pastel pink, hazy purple, soft white. All speckled with little red dots, minuscule dribbles of blood. The clack as they jostled against each other promised thick, hard shells, filled with gooey, spicy delight. My stomach twisted at the memory of overindulgence.

We stood together in a faded barn loft, where the boy had just pulled the nest down from among the rafters. Straw so old it had gone to white littered the wood floor and fine dust wandered away through the open loft doors. The eggs almost glowed with color by comparison with our drab surroundings.

As if in offering, the boy held the nest out to me. “Take these.”

Though desire arced through me, I raised my hands as if to ward him off. “Why do you want me to have them?”

“They’re my secrets,” he said. “I need you to hold onto them. Don’t you want to know?”

My mouth watered with the heady scent of sugar wafting up from the eggs. I swallowed. “If I take these,” I warned, “I will devour them.”

As his eyes widened, he hugged the bundle of eggs a little closer to his chest. “Why would you do that?”

I slipped my hands into my pockets, resisting temptation. “Don’t be so willing to give your secrets out,” I growled. “No one can protect them like you.”

The boy’s head bowed. “I’d still risk it,” he whispered. “To be known.”

“You know yourself,” I replied. Though he flinched, I pressed on. “Secrets are dangerous and therefore delicious. Be careful who you feed.”


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Making Arrangements

Stacks of desert rocks dotted the sand, piled high and straight. Each painted a different color of the rainbow, each the size of my head or bigger. But in the early morning light, my guide and I noted in silence how around the toes of these rainbow pillars, the light pink and the light blue rocks lay scattered about in the sand. My guide frowned, his mustache twitching.

“Are they always like this?” I asked. The sun had not yet grown hot, but I could feel fingers of warmth tickling my spine as it crested the horizon.

“Not at all,” my guide replied. If anything, he looked a little green. “The ancients meant for all the colors to support one another, as we all support one another.”

I stalked around the cluster of pillars. Those still standing looked faded and weather worn, but the blues and pinks each featured a dent in them, exposing raw, fresh color to the air. “Looks like someone hit these very hard. Hard enough to knock them out of the stack without upsetting the rest.”

My guide hefted one of the pink rocks in his hands, regarding it as if it could speak to tell him why this had happened. “The ancients placed these pillars here long ago. We have guesses, but we don’t know much about the colors’ meaning.”

“Can we put them back where they were?”

“Not without help.”

“We can’t leave them like this.” The sight of such a targeted attack left my stomach wrung out.

“We’ll get help,” my guide reassured me. “After.”

Before we went back, we stacked the pinks and the blues at the tops of each pillar. That felt right. That the other colors should, for a moment, support those which had gotten knocked down.

That felt right.


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