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.’
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?”
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.
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.”
As I made to step off the sidewalk of a sunny city, a car with
dark windows pulled to a stop right in front of me. I scurried back up onto the
walk, frowning at having my way forward blocked. But as I made to step around
the intruding car, I peered within and paused, realizing the windows were not
just dark. The inside was brimming with plants. Green tendrils pressed against
the passenger side window. I could not see the driver.
The window slid down. Some tendrils popped free and I jerked
back to avoid the leafy onslaught. From within the verdant depths, a voice
said, “A little help?”
“What’s wrong with your side?” I asked the wall of leaves.
“It’s jammed,” he replied. “Pull me out!”
I popped the handle and, keeping a firm grip on the jamb, I
shoved my entire arm into the thicket. Cool leaves and twigs tickled me, then
my fingers brushed against warm skin. We clasped at the wrist and, bracing my
feet on the sidewalk, I hauled a man out. Vines wrapped around his torso and
clung to his ankles, but they tore free as he slithered from the car and lay
sprawled on the sidewalk.
With a raised eyebrow, I regarded one tendril inching its way out
the door. “Looks like you brought the forest back with you.”
“You know how they say,” the man panted, “leave nothing but
footprints, take nothing but memories?”
He climbed to his feet and brought his face close to mine. “They
weren’t kidding.” Making a ‘forget it’ gesture at the shrubby car, he stumbled
Squinting at the escaping tendril, I poked it back up into the car. Then I shut the door on the forest within and went to call a tow truck.
In a wide-open field of long summer grass stood a lonesome table, covered in gray cloth and bearing a shallow wicker basket. A single shady tree overhung the table, inviting in the over-bright afternoon sunlight. Sweat beaded on the back of my neck and grass crunched beneath my feet as I approached. Behind me lay nothing; ahead, even more of the same. A gentle breeze carried to me the sweet scent of warm fruit.
At the table, I paused beneath the shade, allowing the sweat to dry from my hair. A clear vase of field flowers sat next to the wicker basket and inside the basket were a couple of muffins, cupped in brown wax paper and stuck in the middle with a bunch of raspberries still hanging from their stems. From my bag, I withdrew another of these and set it down next to the first two. No chairs were nearby and I remained standing, eyeing the tall elm tree.
Dark green leaves above rustled despite a lack of breeze. Wood groaned as one of the boughs stretched down, reaching with twiggy fingers and picking up the muffin I had offered. Branch and muffin retracted into the canopy and several crumbs fell to the grass to the sounds of munching.
“Thank you,” the elm tree whispered. “You may enter.”
Just past the table, the view of the empty field and open sky rippled. I put out a hand and slipped through the illusory sheen into a field of raspberry bushes. Their sweet scent hung on the air. Behind me, the table and the tree still stood, appearing faded, as if over-exposed to the sun. Ahead, blue mountains shimmered beyond the field. I set off toward these down a green, grassy lane, avoiding touching a single fruit along the way.
Porcelain clinked against wood with the unmistakable sound of a mug being set down. “Well, that’s peculiar.”
At the bemused tone in my host’s voice, I glanced up from where I had been scanning the spines of her myriad books. She stood hunched over, peeking out beneath the half-opened blinds on her living room window. Rain pattered against the pane and the muted afternoon sunlight painted her in charcoal shades. She had one hand upraised, as if considering pointing but remembering her manners. Her mug steamed on the windowsill beside her.
Leaving my own mug, I got up and padded to her side, socks whispering soft against silky wooden floorboards. She shifted aside for me a little so we could both see out the narrow window. The delicious, earthy scent of coffee cut the cool air.
“Down there,” she said, quiet. “The man in the delivery uniform.”
The sidewalk below the apartment was a multi-colored sea of passing umbrellas. But I picked out the man she meant because he stood at a crosswalk, waiting to go, sans umbrella or even a rain jacket. This, it seemed, was because a sphere of dry air surrounded him, not a single raindrop willing to fall on his head.
“Huh,” I said.
As we watched, more people arrived at the crosswalk. One or two had clearly been caught by the rain and were soaked through. A woman holding her purse over her head eyed the sphere of dryness around the delivery man. They exchanged words and then she stepped in with him. A businessman did the same. Soon the delivery man had an entourage of damp but grateful people crossing the road with him. I could see his smile from here.
“I think,” I said, slow, “that he’s just having a very good day.”
The ocean’s surface receded above as I dove downward, out of reach all too soon. Pink rays of dancing sunlight lanced into the water around me, but these, too, fell behind. As my dive lost momentum, I blew out bubbles, sinking deeper into the sea. Every direction was an empty, darkening gradient of blue.
Now darkness encroached. I wished for daylight and longed for air, my lungs burning and my vision blurring. The weighty rock I held to drag me down wasn’t dragging fast enough and if I didn’t reach the bottom, I wouldn’t make it back to the top.
Below, a violet glow pierced the inky depths. Schools of fish swam between me and the light; these darted away as I passed among them. Spiny urchins and tiny starfish shrank back as my hand closed around a glassy orb. I dropped the stone. Turned myself around and pushed off from the bottom with all my strength.
My heart trembled. I couldn’t see the surface above. I only knew the direction by which way the last bit of air in my lungs wanted to go. Kicking mightily, I shot upward. The orb in my grasp blazed like an undersea star, lighting the way. When at last I made out the sunset tinged waves above, they were so far away. Too far.
And then, my head breaking through the surface, they weren’t. I choked and coughed and more waves slapped my face, but I was breathing air again.
Treading water, I held up the orb. Small chunks of indigo sea glass fused together with dark grout. Sealed within, stardust tinkled as it tumbled around, twinkling far across the waves. A beacon shining back toward land.
Or at least, as I set out following the direction of its blaze, I hoped so.
On a clear desert night, the crush of shifting sand from just outside my tent woke me. I lay on my bedroll in the dark, listening to the unmistakable sound of footsteps approaching. The gait of my visitor… lurched. Or hopped. When it stopped next to my tent, the shadow of a lengthy, humanoid shape limned against the distant, star strewn sky. Antlers protruded from between long, drooping ears.
It whuffed an animal breath.
My eyes found the tent zipper, expecting any second to see it begin to inch open. Against the canopy between me and the creature lay my bag. I could think of nothing within that would help me.
From the other side of that insubstantial nylon wall, a voice called with a high, thin quality that echoed away into the dunes. “Wanderer,” the creature crooned. Only the word it spoke did not sound like any word for wanderer.
Yet, somehow, that strange word meant me.
It was my name.
Instantly, though, whatever I had heard slid sideways in my mind. Gone, with only the lingering sense of rightness left behind.
I yanked the zipper down and snatched the tent flap open. As I ducked out, I glimpsed the flash of a glowing pair of wideset eyes. “What did you just sa-” I began.
But outside, no tall creature stood. The sands all around were empty but for a set of rabbit tracks leading away from my tent into the night. No second set showed the creature’s approach.
Hope sliced neatly from my chest. Along the graceful crest of a dune, the glint of starlight was a cruel, knowing grin.
They arrived as the full moon crested the horizon like an enormous gold coin. Silhouetted people in ones and twos materializing beneath the spreading limbs of the Memory Tree. Their outlines wavered and shimmered beneath the hazy moonbeams, solidifying as the night grew darker. I wasn’t the only person sitting beneath the boughs, so I wasn’t the only one with guests tonight. The living, strangers to me, sat or stood apart, awaiting the return of their own remembered loved ones, unconcerned with my presence.
All around me, my guests talked and laughed about times long gone. Some had already met each other through me, through previous events like this, but others introduced themselves for the first time. Eyes glinting and teeth flashing in the dark. I simply sat nearby and observed these friends long passed. They smiled or nodded at me, knowing their place here with us tonight meant they held a place in my heart.
The night grew longer and longer as the moon fled through the sky. The strangers nearby finished their visits and left, but we remained, for I could not visit the Memory Tree often. I opened drink after drink for us and grew dizzy as the twin suns began to pink the sky. With the oncoming morning, my guests wished me farewell and rained away into nothing.
Alone again, I lay on my back in the grass and the fading stars overhead spun and spun. I missed them all so much.