“How did you know it was my birthday?” asked Wander.
Sitting behind his desk at the front of the hostel, the elderly proprietor looked up from his computer and smiled. “Your passport,” he replied. “Twenty. A wonderful year. A time when many things may change.”
Wander smiled back. The past five years had been nothing but a time of change. Six months wandering South America, and another two years wandering Africa. Seven months in Ireland, a year in Russia. Indonesia in the morning, Australia at night. With no family or friends, birthdays had been just another day to check off the calendar. Now, at the southwestern coast of Morocco, the warm waters of the eastern Atlantic sent salt on the breeze, maybe a birthday could be something to look forward to after all.
Wander leaned forward. “So, what should I do on my birthday?”
“Ahh, now that is a good question.” The proprietor sat back in his chair. “Check your email and all those social thingies, then come back. I will tell you then.”
Logging on to the hostel’s computer, Wander wondered how many other people in the world had access to the internet but didn’t have a Facespace account. Or a Twitlinkpinstagramr+. Opening the daypack, Wander took out a small flip phone. A traveler on a couch looked up from their bright-screened, too-big-for-the-hand Apsamgoo iGalixel and smirked.
“Trust me,” said Wander over the beeps and boops coming from the traveler’s phone. “Last thing I need is a data plan or unlimited messaging.”
It had been a while since Wander had checked email—somewhere between Thailand and Morocco, but that time had been such a whirlwind Wander could hardly remember. Not that it mattered.
Not that there was anyone who would be emailing. Or showing up for a surprise party. Or sending a card.
When your only friends were your backpack and the stretch of road currently under your feet, you learned not to make birthdays a big deal.
Still, that hadn’t been the only people. And for twenty, well, Wander couldn’t help but hope. There were people Wander had connected with over the years. Random wanderings together in a new city. Dormmates in a hostel room. The traveler in Galway, Ireland. When they met, Wander wondered what else could have happened between them. They’d exchanged info… that last touch of hand on hand had been so hard to let go… but now, on Wander’s birthday… nothing. Wander looked away. The screen must have been too bright. Of course that’s why Wander’s eyes eyes hurt all of a sudden.
There was always Paithoon in Chiang Mai too. Then again, thought Wander, maybe not hearing from Paithoon was a good thing.
With a sigh and a shrug, Wander logged off email, then the computer. Moving to the little table at the window of the hostel’s common room, Wander stared at the ocean. Blue rising. Whitecaps cresting, then falling. The dry air mingled with the sea spray, suffusing everything with the taste and scent of salt. The few days Wander had been here had been calm, refreshing—badly needed, especially after all that had happened in Thailand.
The memories stirred, the remembered dreams, the remembered past, hard won from five years of traveling and weeks of frustration and sleeplessness, trying to uncover Wander’s own forgotten history. Wander had been more than ready to move on. The southwestern coast of Morocco, staring out over the Atlantic, was as good as anywhere else, but those final moments in Chiang Mai still clung to Wander’s mind. A storm had come, a storm had passed, and now Wander was enjoying the calm. At least, it felt like the calm. But Wander knew a question cast a shadow even over the bright Moroccan morning: was the storm truly over, or was this the quiet eye—to be followed by more storm?
A tap on the shoulder made Wander turn.
The hostel proprietor smiled and held out a large envelope, bigger than a regular sheet of paper.
“What’s this?” asked Wander.
He shrugged and set it down. “Today’s mail,” he said as he went to answer the phone.
The side Wander saw was blank. Turning it over, there was no return address—not even a mailing address. Just “Wander,” written in a fine script with immaculate—and familiar—handwriting.
Wander opened the envelope and gasped.
The stiff, thick sheet inside was like Wander’s favorite painting, called “The Wanderer in the Fog.” In the painting, the figure held a walking stick, wore a black tailcoat, and stared out over mountains and valleys. This was similar, but different.
Running a fingertip over the surface of the art, the rough and smooth textures left no doubt that this was a painting. On a narrow outcropping sticking out from the edge of a rocky cliff, a figure stood before a sheer drop to a white-capped, gray-blue sea below. At the far edge of the sea, Wander could just make out a thin line, as if a new world lay just beyond. Despite the blue sky, shadow obscured the figure so much that Wander could not tell if it was a woman or a man. The black rock of the cliff didn’t look like it was in shadow though. It looked like it had been burned and charred. Below the cliff, a strange, shadowy light seemed to glow upward from somewhere unseen, somewhere down the cliff toward the sea. It enhanced an overarching conflict, as if the painting were caught between darkness and light. Calm seas had grown teeth, whipped into a growing frenzy as a storm blew in.
“The Wanderer” showed only one figure. And so did this painting—except in the foreground, at the left bottom corner.
Gloved in black leather, a left hand reached out toward the wanderer at the edge of the world.
Heart pounding, Wander turned the painting over and read:
No matter where you wander,
May you always find a
The Thai madwoman had signed her name. Wander smiled and let out a chuckle. It made no sense that the madwoman’s painting had gotten from Chiang Mai to this hostel in Morocco, but if anyone would have managed it, it would be her.
Beneath the message was a P.S.:
I dreamed recently, and at the last moment of the dream, this is what I saw. I don’t know how I knew it, and I don’t know where this is, but I knew this was you.
Wander stared at the calm seas outside the hostel’s window. The madwoman had to be wrong… but Wander knew better. Trembling a little, Wander tucked the painting back into the envelope.
“Happy birthday,” said the traveler sitting nearby, with a nod toward the card. “I couldn’t help but see.”
Wander shrugged. “I’m glad someone noticed.”
The sunlight coming through the window was warm, bright but soft. Wander had savored every moment so far, every bite of breakfast, every sensation, the touch of water on hands, the scent of tea. But the painting changed everything. A shadow hung over the sunny morning. Wander looked at the card again. A birthday could be a momentous day. A day where everything could change. A day where someone could make a decision that just might change everything.
Wander considered going back to the dorm room and putting the card in the big pack there, but decided against it. The card was a memento, a reminder of what the madwoman had helped Wander learn, there in Thailand, those lonely, hard weeks ago. The daypack always went with Wander—and so would the card.
Wander unzipped the daypack and put the card inside. By now, after all these years, the pack reminded Wander of a dog, though by now it was an old dog. It was the one thing Wander still had from then, from there, when as a teenager Wander had been left with nothing and so had left with nothing. Except for the backpack. The one constant in Wander’s life for the last five years.
With a sigh, Wander went back to the front desk. “So, what did you decide this traveler should do today?”
He smiled and leaned forward.
On a small piece of paper, he drew a map. He said nothing, only occasionally looked out the window, as if gauging something, checking something. Whenever he did, when he looked back the smile would be gone from his eyes, as if it had been taken by whatever he was looking for.
Or maybe he just wasn’t looking forward to cleaning up the puke in the upstairs bathroom.
Accepting the map with a thanks, Wander started to walk away.
“Wait,” said the proprietor. “What you got in the mail. Was it good news?”
Wander shrugged. “You tell me.” Reaching into the daypack, Wander handed him the painting.
He looked at it, saying nothing, staring and staring. He read the back. Then, at last, he looked at Wander.
“Well, this is interesting,” he said. “I indeed gave you one map, one option. But if you want, you could go here instead.”