An Old Stump
When he opened his eyes again, the Wandering Stranger was greeted by the morning sun. He winced. With his bones aching he sat up right, then stood up. He was still soaked all the way through, but it would soon warm up. From what he could recall, the storm had gone on well into the predawn hours. A yawn cracked his jaws wide open.
Looking around, he examined the aftermath of the storm; twigs, sticks, and branches—all of them widow-makers in their own right—littered the ground. Immediately he began searching for a weapon. Casting around for straight, thick branches, he finally found what he was looking for. He needed something that was strong, sturdy. After testing his find, he pulled a knife from his belt. Getting down on his knees he began to whittle away at the knobby bits, then proceeded to sharpen one of the ends into a point. It took him a while, but once he was done he cleaned and sheathed his knife.
Muttering that he had made better, the Wandering Stranger got to his feet. After venturing a few feet he came to the river. Its waters had gone well past the river bank. Solemnly, he watched as bits of debris floated down the choked waters. He looked behind him.
There was no one to be seen, yet there was someone following him, even if they were miles behind. Sometimes he had looked back to almost be overtaken. Shuddering at the thought, the Wandering Stranger set off alongside the river, mindful of keeping a good distance. One false step and he could crash through an overhanging bank. Although he would need to ford the river, he did not want to be near water this deep. He would seek out a narrower, shallower part of the river.
The sun was at its highest peak when he came to a suitable area; here the river was nothing more than a burbling stream. With a wry smile he leapt across. He landed lightly on the other side. It wasn’t much of a jump, really.
His journey had taken him into another wooded area. The scent of pine filled his nostrils. Taking a look around he noticed the start, or end, of a path; judging by the wear and tear of the asphalt the path was quite old, unused even. At least in this area of the wood . . . Travel worn as he was, the Wandering Stranger was not one to give up a good mystery. He was curious as to where this path went. So he followed it.
The pine wood soon gave way to a well manicured park: an open field with few rolling hills, and several trees standing out in the open here and there. It was deserted, but that didn’t surprise him in the least. People were not on his list of things to see. He took a deep breath, and the Wandering Stranger found that for the first time in months he was relaxed; his pursuers were far behind him, following a false lead no doubt, and he could relax. The park was very nice as well. It has a calm atmosphere, and it was quiet; every so often a robin would trill a few notes from a nearby bush.
So far the path he was taking had a bank immediately to his left, overgrown with brush. There were plenty of willow trees as far as he could tell, which meant that there was a creek down that bank. At times the trees would thin, and he could see dirt paths leading down to the water. After an hour or so the path verged away from the bushes, leading the Wandering Stranger down a gentle hill, and then across a road.
He stopped to take in his surroundings. On the other side of the road was the other half of the park. To his left the road ended in a dead end. However, to his right he could see houses. They were probably a kilometer down the road though. He could just pick out a few people in the yards of maybe two or three houses; they were far enough to look like ants.
At one point in his life, he had lived in a house too. How long ago was that?
With a shake of his head he began to cross the road, looking straight ahead of him at the path. Without any warning a loud shriek broke the calm silence of the park, stopping the Wanderer dead in his tracks. Every fibre of his being froze as the shriek painfully died down. It was still echoing in his mind moments after it had gone, replaying itself over and over in his mind as he desperately searched for an answer.
What had made the shriek?
That was the question.
But what was the answer? It had sounded human, but from experience he knew to not to take things at face-value. The world was, unfortunately, not as simple as it appeared to be, and many things could be deceiving. Too many things were deceiving, as a matter of fact. Further along the path, he could see what looked to be a crow or a raven in the distance. The bird was hovering over something.
Gripping his spear in one hand, the Wandering Stranger set off at a trot. He was going to find out what that bird was hovering over.
By the time he had reached the spot, the bird was long gone. What he found was a tree stump.
A butcher knife was stuck in it.
A group of kids could have easily done this as a trick, he mused. They had seen him walking down the path, and on seeing that he was a stranger they had decided to play a prank on him. It was a simple explanation that anyone could think of. It was an erronious one, however. He could feel it in his gut.
On seeing the knife his blood was not the only thing to run cold; the whole air around him was like ice when it had been warm just minutes before.
Without a second thought he wrenched the knife free from old stump, and made his way to the creek, holding the thing away from him the entire time. Once he neared the banks, he chucked the knife into the dense brush, and walked away. As soon as he was back on the path he started to lightly jog. Hunger gnawed at his belly, and he winced.
The food that he purchased before was likely gone, or the little which was left had spoiled from the rain, whichever came first. It was likely that he would have to forage.
All thoughts of food left his mind. Loud rustling and cracking came from the spot where he had chucked the knife.
The Wandering Stranger broke out in a mad run. This time he would not look back. The path lead him into the woods once more, and he followed it, dashing over fallen branches and crack in the pavement. As the woods began to thin once more he realized that the path was leading him back into the small town. Just then a thought occurred to him: he was hungry, and here was a small town; he could easily walk into a coffee shop, get something to eat, and no one would follow him.
If anyone was following him. The rustling in the bushes could just be an animal, curious as to who had thrown the knife. A small part of him—the logical, rational part—chided him. Pushing that thought aside, the Wandering Stranger did the one thing that he did not want to do.
He thrust his spear into the bush.
It was just as well that he did, for at that exact moment the path was intercepted by another road. Turning right, he left the path. Slowing his pace to a walk he panted for breath. Someone from their house was watching him from their front porch. He stopped to look back at them.
“Afternoon,” the Wandering Stranger began, “I’m just passing through, do you know of any good places to have coffee?”
The woman sat up in her chair. She was maybe in her late fifties. A crochet hook was in her left hand, what looked to be a hat in the other. Looking at him curiously, she answered him: “The Cloudy Cafe; you’ll find it on Wentworth St.” Giving him one last look, she returned to her hat.
“Thank you!” The Wandering Stranger continued on his his way. On closer inspection, he found that he quite liked this town; its inhabitants were friendlier than in some places, for one thing. And the houses were all well kept, each with its own manicured lawn. On the outskirts of some towns the houses were usually run down dumps, the tell-tale sign of a slum. This was a suburb.