By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire.
Not actually on fire, of course. I hadn’t been close to a real fire since my early twenties, when the world last seemed exciting and not in the least bit scary.
This kind of fire was the orange, red and gold of late fall, yet I had been too shut up in my own house to notice the colors creeping into the trees. Like the dying leaves, my own life was slipping away, and it had been for years.
My dog finished her business, and I let her wander a bit as I picked up the leaves cascading to the stoop. “C’mon, Roxie,” I finally called, and she ran to me, her tongue hanging out to one side like a bubble gum cigar.
I sighed, another staple of my youth long gone. I could still taste the chalky flavor of those candy cigars as my best friend and I “smoked” them at the school bus stop. We blew dust in each other’s faces in between giggles, much to the disapproval of the kids waiting with us. We didn’t care. It was fun, and at 10 years old, that was all that mattered.
My mind drifted again to that fateful night so many years ago. Fun was all that mattered then, too, and I had paid the price.
Roxie followed me inside, and I hung my jacket by the door. I refilled her water bowl and headed to my desk just off the entry-way, in the area meant for a formal dining room. I didn’t own any dining room furniture, and even if I did, my social life was so inconsequential I didn’t need an entire room to remind me of it. The space worked just fine for my office.
I glanced at my watch, realized I was almost late for work and grabbed the headset hanging off the side of my desk. I had been one of the fortunate ones still able to work during the pandemic. In all truthfulness, it really hadn’t impacted me that much. I already spent most of my time at home. From work to Amazon to Door Dash, I hadn’t needed to venture out much other than to take Roxie to the vet when she chewed up a suspicious mushroom. It was a little lonely, yes, but that was how I liked it.
I brushed my fingers against the scar on my left cheek and ran a hand down my arm. My shirt covered the damage, but I could still feel raised edges through the thin cloth. The wounds had healed, but I had not, the pain of that night still very much with me.
It started out as a simple bonfire, just a small group of college kids trying to unwind on a crisp October evening. It would have been just like any other outing had RJ, my boyfriend at the time, not thrown a can of hairspray into the flames. And it wasn’t just any hair spray. It was the aerosol kind so popular in the ’80s. I have no idea where he got it, but clearly, he had planned this little experiment before he showed up that night.
“It was just for fun,” he told the cops as an EMT loaded me into the ambulance. I had the misfortune of standing beside RJ when he lobbed the can into the flames. He jumped backward, but my reflexes were not that quick. His twisted idea of “fun” put me in the hospital for weeks, and these lovely scars were my daily reminder of how impulsive youthfulness could be.
He apologized—profusely—but this did nothing to minimize my pain or restore my outlook on life. Once bubbly, outgoing and fearless, my days post-injury consisted of bandages and pain killers, not parties and all-night cram sessions. Eventually, RJ stopped coming around. Eventually, they all did, and I really couldn’t blame them. I finished that semester online, doing my best to become invisible to the world.
Roxie growled near the front door, and I noticed a moving van across the street. “The Davis house finally sold,” I told Roxie, as if she would care even if could she understand me. It had been empty for quite some time now, ever since the night Mrs. Davis decided to blow Mr. Davis’ head off with a shotgun. I remember my shock at hearing the news. They had always been so nice to me. I guess what my parents used to say about not knowing what happens behind closed doors was true.
I turned my attention back to the call, twisting my pen between my fingers as I paused in my note-taking. Once the call ended, I was responsible for summarizing the discussion and sending out meeting notes. A pretty tedious task, but I didn’t mind. I made a decent living and had even been referred to new clients who, like many business leaders, were too busy to capture notes but wanted documentation. As long as I didn’t have to show my face or speak, I was happy to oblige, my little bubble of solitude remaining intact.
I was so lost in thought I didn’t notice Roxie wagging her tail in excitement as a lone male unlatched the gate and made his way up my drive. It wasn’t until the doorbell rang that I saw him standing at my door, his olive green jacket blending in perfectly with the vibrant leaves behind him.
I froze. I couldn’t leave my work call nor could I hide. The doorbell rang again, and Roxie started barking. It wasn’t a threatening bark. She was excited. There was someone else to pay attention to her.
Exasperated, I unplugged my headset and turned up the speakers so I could monitor the meeting. Thankfully, Mr. Morgan was talking. I could come back in 10 minutes, and he would still be trying to make a point.
“Can I help you?” I asked, cracking the door as I unsuccessfully tried to move Roxie out of the way.
“I’m sorry to bother you.” I could see one dark eye and a tuft of curly hair through the small opening. Roxie tried to get past, but I blocked her with my foot.
“Hello. I’m Devin. Um… I just moved here from Albuquerque.”
I didn’t know what to say. Mr. Morgan’s voice droned on, and I heard him mention accounting principles. I estimated I had about two minutes before he wrapped things up.
“I’m kinda busy,” I said, still using my foot to keep Roxie at bay. Thankfully, she was small. My previous dog, a 110-pound retriever, would have taken the door off its hinges by now.
“Of course, you are,” my new neighbor exclaimed, and I realized he sounded awkward, almost shy. I felt bad. I knew better than anyone how hard it was to start over.
“Um…” he continued. “I was just wondering if you had a cell phone charger I might borrow? I seem to have lost mine.”
“Sure,” I said, primarily because I needed him to leave so I could get back to work. “Just a second.”
I closed the door and Roxie lay in front of it, whimpering. It took a minute to shuffle through paper clips, post-it notes and gift cards I forgot I had but, finally, I found a spare charger in my desk drawer.
“Here you go.” I opened the door just wide enough to hand it over, and Roxie saw that as her opportunity. Before I could react, she was at Devin’s feet, jumping and begging for attention.
“Roxie!” I was irritated, and the fact that I could hear the meeting winding down made it worse. Not thinking, I threw the door open and grabbed her by the collar. I picked her up and pulled her to my chest, trying to contain her wriggling. “Sorry about that,” I managed to say, pulling my hair forward to block my scar, as I stared into the eyes of perhaps the most attractive man I had ever met.
He laughed and reached out to pet her, making Roxie squirm even more. “Hi, Roxie,” he said, as he scratched her beneath the chin. “Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Natalie,” I told him, deciding the least I could do was introduce myself. “Welcome to the neighborhood… At least my little part of it.” I waved grandly behind me, feeling like an idiot but not knowing what else to say. My irritation had been replaced with… Well, I don’t really know what you’d call it. Lust? No, I was far too sensible for that. Curiosity was more like it.
The work meeting ended, and I could hear the rustling of papers, which meant I needed to stop the recording. “I’m sorry, but I really do need to get back to work.”
I gestured again, this time toward my messy desk. Oh, how I wished I had been inspired to do some fall cleaning over the weekend! It was bad enough I was wearing loose yoga pants and an oversized shirt. At least I had showered and brushed my teeth, though.
“Of course.” He took the charger and thanked me. “I’ll get this back to you soon. See ya, Roxie.” One more quick pat on the head and he was gone, the dead leaves crunching beneath his feet as he made his way down the drive.
I scurried to my desk and turned off the recording. Unable to help myself, I walked back to the door. Devin must have sensed I was there because he waved as he closed the gate at the end of my drive. I waved back, a goofy grin plastered across my face that, thankfully, he could not see.
Roxie was doing circles at the door, and I knew what that meant. She had gotten excited and now had to pee. I grabbed my coat and let her out, this time walking through the leaves alongside her. The crunch felt exhilarating beneath my feet, as did the cool fall breeze blowing against my bare face.
The fiery leaves would eventually give way to the gray stillness of an all-consuming winter, but I didn’t care. It felt like spring as we returned to the house and I settled into my desk chair to complete my work. Roxie curled up in her bed. “Good girl,” I told her, not in the least bit referring to her behavior.
Roxie wagged her tail in approval, and I tucked my loose hair behind one ear, my scars suddenly not so important. Perhaps today was my reminder to start living again.