“You could rip a piece of paper into a hundred thousand million pieces and you still would have no idea,” she told me on that lonely Autumn day when we both felt the first winter chill creep in.
“You could burn up all the grass and all the fields of Calvin Coolidge High School into smoldering ash, and you wouldn’t have a clue.”
We were lying in the biggest pile of leaves in the neighborhood, a pile we had raked ourselves (at her father’s gentle suggestion), lying head to head as she finally poured it all out.
“You could pick all the most beautiful flowers, wrench them from the comfort of their homes, and throw them off the highest cliff, watch them fall into the abyss to be forgotten, and you would never really know.”
She had just turned fifteen two weeks ago; I was still stuck behind at fourteen with months ahead of me. We had known each other for eight years, since we first poked fun at each other on the playgrounds of first grade, and here she was, telling it like it is.
“You could tear out all the hair on your head, rip all the freckles off your face and arms, and stomp on them until they’re a twisted, matted mess, and you couldn’t understand.”
I lay there with her, both of us entombed together in our momentary creation, and was all too aware of my silence. I couldn’t help it; there was nothing in my short life that had prepared me to react to the situation at hand, nothing to compare to this, and I could think of nothing to say. We lay, watching the slow drift of carefree clouds across the pale blue sky, watching the partially clothed trees as they lazily shed another article of disguise. These were the days of ending, of fading and letting go; these were the days of release, and she was releasing everything into the air of our temporary refuge.
“It’s not fair,” she said bluntly, the words stinging the air like the bitter breeze when it kicked up and whipped our faces. “It’s not fair.”
“I know,” I whispered softly, unsure and at a loss as to what else to say. “I know, and I’m sorry.” I immediately felt stupid, selfish saying that, out of touch and ashamed, but I was helpless to the situation. I felt helpless and hopeless, cold inside in a way that had nothing to do with the encroaching end of the year.
“It’s like -” she started, and trailed off. “Like everything you ever wanted…”
We slipped into an endless silence, and I knew she was crying. She was my best friend, had been my only best friend, had lived down the street and around the corner from me for as long as I could remember. We had wandered through the paths in our neighborhood, explored the massive woods nearby in comfortable silence, but this was by far the worst. Everything now felt hollow, empty. The days of running and laughing through the wide open fields, of sitting on swings and staring up at the stars, of getting muddy and hunting for frogs in Three-Mile Creek, they felt so far away from this decaying pile of plant matter that we had made our sanctuary.
She sniffed back a tear and I reached for her arm, the only warmth amongst the crackling red and orange and gold. “I’m sorry,” I whispered again. I wanted to fill the chill air with words and comfort and reassurance, anything, but nothing would come. My hand slid down her arm and came to rest in hers, and we lay there, soaking in the bony skeletons of the birch and oak that blotted the sky.
“It’s not real,” she said – “it can’t be real. It was never supposed to come to this.” We laid there immersed in our silence, at a loss for words, for two hours as the sun sank low, vacillating back and forth between disbelief and silence. What it is and what could have been. Dry eyes and tears.
“Hey Meg!” her father called eventually from the front porch. “Why don’t you come on inside?”
“Coming!” she called, and turned to me. She looked me up and down, covered in leaves, and laughed. “You look ridiculous!” she said, burying me in the rest of the pile and rolling out into the grass. We stood up, brushing leaves from our clothes, and I offered a tentative smile. “I’ll see ya tomorrow, Meg,” I said uncertainly.
“She grabbed me and pulled me in close. “Of course, Tommy,” she said happily. “See you tomorrow.”
The next day, she was gone. I came home from school and burst through our front door, calling “Hey Mom!” over my shoulder as I raced my younger brother to the top of the stairs. Skidding into my room to unpack my bag, the ringing of the phone reverberated throughout the house. Faintly, I heard my mother answer, and continued throwing my books onto my bed. I had just changed my shirt and was searching for where I flung my shoes when the knock came at my door.
“Tommy?” she said, opening it slightly, and before she said anything else, I knew. A coldness swept through me as I jammed my foot into my shoe and pushed past my mother, ignoring her calls, and sprinted out the door. Hitting the cold asphalt of the road, I raced toward the corner with a growing, internal plea of “no no no no no no no” careening around my head, each word keeping pace with my steps. Reaching the corner I hurtled onto the next street, gaining steam and running flat out, disregarding the pain in my stomach and legs. I reached number 23 Hemlock Street in what must have been a record time and stopped in the driveway, catching my breath. The house sat empty, shorn of life, and I stared back at it, unbelieving. Everything dropped out of me and I nearly fell, staggering sideways into the yard.
I was in a fog, my thoughts consumed by the faltering refrain in my head. It was with a jolt that I reached the pile of leaves, slightly disfigured by the Autumn wind, but with two distinct imprints marking their territory. Two distinct outlines the size of two idealistic kids. Two reserved spaces with only one body to fill them both.
Slowly, I lowered myself into my perfectly molded, red, orange and gold chamber. There was no sun today as I looked up from our beautifully crafted safe haven, just grey skies and freezing temperatures. It was November 19th, the coldest day of the year so far, and the last leaves from the birch and oak above me were slowly, one by one, detaching themselves from the safety of their branches and letting go, twirling gently toward their final repose.
The days were fading, the year was ending, the trees were letting go and, lying right here, I thought, she had had her release. I hadn’t said a word of meaning, had laid right next to her and soaked it all in while we watched the sun sink and the trees give it all up, and she had, I hoped, had her release. We laid there in silence and soaked in the Autumn, soaking in the best friendship, soaking in the years and the memories and the conversations and then, before anyone could help it, she was gone.
Hot tears rolled down my face as I laid in our carefully plotted hideaway, destined to remain only half-full for as long as it lasted. The day, again, was ending and I laid, again, in a helpless silence. As I stared through the naked branches above, in our frozen, brittle fortress of leaves, it began, softly at first, then gaining steam, to snow.
I sat up, watching the decaying red, the dying orange, the fading gold, turn gradually to white. Standing, I turned once more to number 23 Hemlock Street, glanced once more at the blank windows of the living room I knew so well, and surveyed for the last time the carefully raked pile of leaves, occupancy two, the biggest pile on the street, as the two noticeable indentations filled gradually with white. Gradually transformed to something new. Fading, but still a clear reminder.
The year was ending, but not everything was gone forever.
Dan Rys is a 22-year-old writer/journalist from Syracuse new York now living in Boston, MA. He runs a theme-based flash fiction blog called The Underwater Minefield.