By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire.
I’d seen the leaves change colour every year, but that day they seemed brighter than ever. They weren’t just red and orange; there were still hints of green every now and then, which gave the fire more depth.
“Are you all right?” Jason asked as I stared at the trees.
“Yes. Yes, I’m fine. I mean… Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’ll manage.” He took my hand, and his skin felt as hot as the fire flaming through the tree tops around us. “Come on, let’s go the scenic way home.”
We walked in silence at first, both of us still processing, and every now and then his grip would tighten. I’d squeeze him back, but I don’t know if he realised what he was doing. Whenever I stole a glance across at him he was frowning at the ground, his jaw clenched, as he always did when he was thinking something through.
I needed to know what he was thinking, but I was terrified to ask. There couldn’t be anything good going on in there, and I couldn’t cope with anything else just then. But… the idea of him going through it by himself, and not being able to talk to me, was even worse. We were halfway home before I thought of something to say.
“Did you ever collect leaves?” I blurted out.
“Leaves. Did you ever collect them? You know, to scrapbook or show your mum.”
It was probably clear as day what I was trying to do, but he grinned anyway and pulled me closer. “Not really. I’m sure I took them home a couple of times, but I don’t think anything happened with them. Just got tossed in the bin the next day, when the shine had gone from them.”
“Aren’t they wonderful though? So full of colour, and so bright!” For some reason I started to panic when he got that close to me, and instead of reaching out for him I bent to run my free hand through the piles on the floor. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
With a laugh he crouched down next to me. “They are. But they’re already dying, already dead really…” Whether he saw my face or realised what he was saying, he stopped. “Sorry. Yes, they are beautiful.”
So then we were crouched in the leaves, off the main path, away from everyone else. Neither of us wanted to get home, not really. Out here wasn’t the place to talk about such things, but when we got home we’d have to mention it again. For now we could forget, we could pretend nothing was happening.
I don’t know how long we spent there, only that when we finally stood up we were both hobbling from our legs going numb beneath us. We laughed at each other as we stumbled, and then Jason kicked some leaves at me.
“What are you doing?” I laughed, at long last pulling my hand away from his, as I protected my face. The second the contact was lost I missed it, and it was only his smile that stopped me leaping at him to get it back.
“Getting some feeling back into my legs,” he replied. “Come on, have a go.”
And that was why we were still running through the leaves when it got dark, kicking them about in showers of fire. In the dusk the colours were even brighter, catching the last rays of the day before they floated back to the earth. But then it got too dark, and the fire died. Neither of us said it, but we knew we couldn’t put off going home any longer.
At the main road, just across from our house, Jason stopped.
“Hang on.” He bent down and dug about, before picking up a huge, glorious leaf. Even in the stark street-lamps I could see the spectrum of colours it had, all blending together. Our own personal fire.
“What’s that for?” I asked, terrified of what he might say.
“Well, you asked about bringing leaves home as a kid. I thought I’d give it a go. Our turn to decide what being an adult means, huh?”
That was our phrase; our excuse for eating a whole tub of ice-cream for breakfast at the weekends, our excuse that one week when we’d only used disposable crockery, our excuse when we ate our lunch in bed because neither of us could be bothered to sit in chairs.
I crossed the road after him, so he wouldn’t see me struggle.
Later that evening – so much later, after all the words and the tears – we were sat on the living room carpet, cuddling each other. The leaf had been given pride of place on the sideboard, at least for tonight. Takeaway pizza boxes were still scattered over the floor, the remains of the pizzas already cold. Neither of us had been able to eat much. The curtains were open, and I was watching the trees across the street sway in the night breeze when Jason spoke.
“I’m sorry. I lied. I’m not fine.”
We stayed there until we fell asleep, still entwined.
Today when I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire again. Just as vibrant, just as stunning, and I was grateful for that bit of light and beauty in the world.
The walk home today was faster, but I still went the scenic route and kicked the leaves. There was only one voice laughing though, and hearing it out loud made the loneliness even worse.
Across the road from my house I stopped in the same spot and hunted about. Sure enough I found another leaf, just as big, although maybe not as impressive. I don’t have as good an eye for spotting them it seems.
When I got in I didn’t have to worry about cooking. I knew what I’d be having for food this evening, and I knew I wouldn’t eat it all either. But that wasn’t really the point.
I took my new leaf and placed it on the sideboard, leaning it up against the frame that holds the one from last year, next to the urn that is Jason. There was nothing more to do, not that I could think of, so I sat on the floor and looked out the window, watching the trees.
“The leaves are on fire again,” I said to my empty house. “Just like last year. Do you remember that day?”
When it got dark I could feel him there with me.
I’ll stay here until I fall asleep, hugging myself.