Leaves of Change

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic
An emotional short story about a young man who undergoes a period of thoughtful change, and befriends strangers in the forest who become his backup of support through hard times, until those hard times take on a greater toll than he would have imagined.

Submitted: December 19, 2013

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Submitted: December 19, 2013

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For when the last leaf falls, the world decides that it is time for the end. The end of time. The end of life. The end of whatever had existed – and a transition for that which is to come.

My senior year was one of chaotic thoughts and emotions. While the others were busy with parties and dates and college applications, I was swimming in a field of wonders – unable to calm my very soul. I can recall the everyday routine I spent walking in the park since I was a child, tall oaks, sorrowful willows, strong maples on either sides. Every neutral colour imaginable was painted on the leaves – the blood reds of the maples and the brilliant yellows and faded greens of the oaks.

On the old benches were certain people – the lonely, the truthful, the sad. It was the same every year – the same people every day of autumn. I had befriended the regulars of the park. Those who cannot make time every day to come to such a breathless place had become worthless in my eyes.

I seeked comfort here. Under the kind gaze of Mr Burrows, the elderly man who would sit on the bench each day. In the autumn, the pigeons who pecked near the fountain surrounded him. The flapping of their wings and the rapid beating of their hearts were heard from a distance. They would pelter him, begging for the seeds he carried in the pocket of his jacket, perhaps the crumbs from his bagel, or the chunks of cheese. They hooted and bobbed their heads in satisfaction as they pecked, chewed, and swallowed the small treats they often took for granted. I seeked comfort here, from a man who had seen so much in his life, and ended up on a plain park bench, year after year. From a man whom the pigeons, squirrels, and even timid chipmunks trusted and loved. How could I, then, not trust and love?

I seeked affection here. From Helen and her little son Caesar, who sat across from Mr Burrows and watched him tell us stories, or feed the wood animals, or the city pigeons. They had the biggest smiles you could have imagined. Gentle faces, rosy cheeks, dark curls of hair that looked like shriveled coal. Mother and son, identical. Their eyes were the same too. The same deep, profound gray; when you look into those eyes, you see regret and shame, and sadness. A sort of sadness that could make your heart burst. The sort of sadness which is unreadable, unguessable, a secret whispering in the wind of the cool weather, shaking the leaves off the trees and sending them into a frenzy of dancers on the park walkway. Despite the fact that they were poor and homeless, they were always laughing and smiling, and jesting with old Mr Burrows and me. Little Caesar had such a beautiful face, you might think he was a little angel of some sort. He was a joy to the eye.

Come autumn, they would arrive, sit on the bench with us until the sky darkened and the city lights turned on. You could see the tall skyscrapers light up behind us, the roar of cars on the street and the gentle buzz of the streetlights. The whistles of policemen echoed around the square and into the park. Little Caesar would say, “I want to be a police officer.” and we told him he will. One day.

There was the wealthy but humble Mrs Dublin, a middle-aged widow and her two cats. She'd walk up the walkway where we meet in the fall, her cats on a leash, and settle on the large granite rock that sat square beside Caesar and Helen's bench. She'd tell us how her kittens were born, how her children grew up, how her husband, her best friend, her companion, had died. Every laugh line on her face gave away a life of joy and a life of acceptance. She didn't care how rich or poor, young or old a person was – she loved them nonetheless. She was a rare find – a fossil in the backyard, a mark on a test you never studied for. She was remarkable. Her modest approach to a life of prosperity was a surprise to this selfish world. She was like a mother to me, a teacher with unlimited patience. I couldn't help but respect and admire her.

And lastly, of course, there was Alvin. The young US Marine who had given up on bloodshed and discrimination, on battles and snippers and bombs, just so he could sleep in peace, eat in peace, live in peace. He had seen so many children get blown to pieces before his eyes, elderly men fall into the dirt to breathe their last, mothers running for cover as grenades were thrown their way. He had seen men fighting for their innocence. He had seen scrawny teenagers protecting their little siblings, suffering seven, eight, nine bullets in the chest just so their kin would have a future. And for what? For oil? For fame and fortune and gold and silver badges, stars strapped to their shoulders for every kill? For a reputation of bravelessness, or a reputation of sadism? What good was it to be a warrior when the rest of the world thought you were a monster? He had run from the war zone alone, his fellow soldiers calling him a coward, but inwardly wishing they too could turn their backs on the explosions and hide under the covers for endless years.

But when Alvin had come back from the many wars he had to endure, he realized that he was never going to be the same. He would walk the streets in broad daylight, walk by laughing people and worried business men, and when a cargo truck would screech to a stop by the crosswalk, his stomach would wrap into a knot, thinking it was a tank rounding into the alleyways back in the plains of the battlefield. When a group of teenagers would go running past him, laughing mischeiviously, he could feel his shoulders tense and his heart skip a beat, mistaking them for his fellow men, thinking that this war was a game, and they just had to play to win it. He had that worry in him, that emotion, that weakness that every human ought to have.

And so he spent his days with us in the same time of the year, told us stories of war and captives staring at him out of the bars of a prison, watching him walk freely when it should be them. Sometimes if a dog barked in the distance, or a person walked by without warning, he would wince or jump to his feet. Sometimes, when it got dark, he would tell us about a girl he loved and left behind when he went off to join the Marines. Bianca, his childhood sweetheart. After several years, she told him she couldn't take it anymore. She was going to move on and forget him. He never even heard from her again.

Sometimes, Alvin's eyes would tear up at the mention of youth and old people and women, and he would stare at his friends regretfully, Helen, Caesar, Mr Burrows and Mrs Dublin, and me, each reminding him of who he witnessed, hoping he had another chance to change.

Every autumn, walking in that park, talking with those people, gave me strength. Strength to fight the chaos at school, at sports, with friends. Strength to keep alive love for my family, during those hard times when you have no choice but to hate. Strength to give myself another chance, to allow myself time to forgive. I needed these people. I needed their love, their advice, their acceptance. I needed these people who don't see me for a miserly, hormonal adolescent, but for a young person still struggling to figure out the world around him. I needed their patience and their time to listen to me. To hear me breathe when nobody can, to hear me talk when nobody wants to listen, to hear me cry when I don't dare to in front of the rest of the world.

But all of that was about to change.

When I was beginning my last year in school, I suddenly started to think about reality. It was like a wave of ice had washed over me, choking me without giving me a chance to surface. Like a sudden slap from a parent, a sudden swearword from a teacher, a sudden betrayal from a friend.

That was the year that a disaster struck. That was the year when traffic had crammed the streets on our way home, when my older brother was picking me up from the library on his way home from a massive college party. He was studying close to home, so he didn't stay on campus, which was a relief for my mother, who worried that something would happen to him and she would never found out if he flew off to Harvard or Kingston. He was never much a brainiac, but he was my favourite brother. Good-humored, relaxed, and helpful. He would never snap at me if I asked for something. We only had each other, so what could we do?

Sure, I was eighteen already. I needed to get my own car. But I didn't have enough money. Nor did I have a license, although I knew how to drive for years.

It was pouring like crazy outside as I waited for Chris to pull up to the library. There was a glow off the pavement, and the many cars that were jamming up the main roads in the city were basking under the wet, thick drizzle of rainfall.

Chris let me drive. I sat in the front seat, looking pleased with myself as I raced out to the road. It had been just a single moment of laughter and exchangement of jokes later that there was a bright, blank current of whiteness which washed me out, and the the car was skidding out of control.

We had collided with one of Chris's upperclassmen, drunk and unaware until he saw the blood oozing out of Chris's skull, his head torn open and his gray matter lying not too far away from the accident.

He died instantly. I had killed him. Despite all the drunken jerk's fault, it was also mostly mine. I hadn't taken caution, hadn't listened to him as he told me I was passing the urban speed limit. He was only twenty-one, only started living out there. And I had destroyed him. I had destroyed everything.

Weeks later, I was out of the hospital, back in school. Everything kicked back into action. Family ran the way it always did, with occasional sobs from Mom. Nobody talked to me at school. It was like the whole world had forgotten that Chris had even existed. I hadn't gone to the park since the accident, and there was barely a week left until autumn was over, and the fallen leaves had almost left the trees bare.

I was drenched in misery, in shame and in sorrow. I had lost the only sibling I had, and it was all my fault.

Of course, I ended up back in the park. I passed by the iron gates, the cool wind lifting my hair out of my eyes. My lips were chapped and bitten. I had chewed on them till I opened fresh cuts in them. I didn't know if I could face the reality my friends would reveal. I can't run away from what I had done. If nobody wanted to remember Chris, they will. But if nobody wanted to forgive, I'm afraid that they might not either.

I strolled in one day after school, head hanging low, a lump swelling dangerously in my throat. I was sorry for missing all my meetings with my friends here, and I was sorry for even showing up. I had missed so much of what was happening to them. I needed to be banished from this turf – I didn't deserve the kindness, or the comfort, or the acceptance, or the tranquility. I didn't deserve the gentle pat on the head Mr Burrows gave me, his blue eyes twinkling as he smiled affectionately under his pale white mustache.

“It's okay, Darrell.” he said with a sigh, “It wasn't your fault. Don't blame yourself.”

Just staring at his kind face, I suddenly felt sorry for him, which was a surprise because I had never felt that way about Mr Burrows. He had a limp like no other, and couldn't afford an operation for his arthritis. He had survived a stroke that week. His one jacket that he wore since I've known him was tattered and there were a few spots of pigeon droppings and a tear near the collar. But he was still so loving and honest. I had never seen him without a smile.

  I wasn't deserving either, of the hug Helen gave me, channeling the love my own mother could never achieve.

  “Darlin', you made a mistake. You're still young, you're gonna make 'em all your life.” she said, patting my shoulder as she released me. Helen didn't even have a home, I thought, looking at her. She was dressed in the same, ragged, torn turtleneck and cardigan she wears every year, her sweatpants smelled of mold and she had been forced to steal a pair of cheap white sneakers for herself and her son, the only things they could wear on their feet. Behind her, I looked at seven-year-old Caesar, who grinned back at me as though he was the happiest person in the world. He lived in a cardboard box near the shelter. He ate leftover pizza for dinner every night, and half-eaten donuts from the trash cans for dessert. He had two different coloured socks and his toes were sticking out of holes at the tip.

While all the kids his age are watching Cartoon Network, popping balloons at parties and playing on Nintendo 3DS Xls. And he – he had been diagnosed with cancer. He had none of those gadgets, and never would he experience that kind of childhood. Yet he managed to stay happy. To be happy.

But I wasn't listening to a word they were saying. I was suddenly mesmerized by their simplicity. I was wondering what Chris would have thought of them, and why I had never told anybody about these people, these amazing people I had known for so long. These people who's personalities and experiences changed my life, the way I think. My mother wouldn't have cared, my father doesn't even notice me in the house, let alone out of it. But Chris – he would have cared. He would have shared my views, and he would have opened to them. Wouldn't he?

  He had always been a party guy, a popular kid at high school and a ladies' man. I was none of those, although I was a better student than he was. He hadn't really cared about what he would do with life. He hadn't really thought about the purpose. And to think that, have I?

Alvin, his body scarred with bullet holes, his broken nose red from cold, rested his hands on my shoulders and looked carefully into my eyes. He was moving back to Minnesota that weekend. We would probably never see him again.

His gaze was clouded with betrayal of a loved one, the fear of a battue, the pain of killing, and witnessing the killed. You can see his true sadness and hopeless demeanor, his flinching and fright of life. His friends had called him a coward. How had he managed to squeeze his way out without feeling like a coward? How come he didn't feel compelled to go back and prove his bravery to them, to his sergeant, to his opponents? But he didn't.

“You're going to have to move on, Darrell. You can't live like this, eating your heart out. The dead die because it is their time to go. Chris hasn't left so you could spend your entire life mourning over him.”

“He didn't know he was going to die.” I said quietly, looking away from those painful eyes.

  “But he died for a reason. You could have been killed, easily. You were the driver, and you're younger than him. But God kept you alive for a reason.”

What reason, I wondered.

"You think so?"

“I know so.” he said, and gave my shoulder a squeeze, “You believe in fate, Darrell?”

  “Sometimes.” I answered, leaning against a glowing lamp near the walkway. The sky was darkening slowly. The bare trees were twisting and bending in the light wind that suddenly picked up.

The sky was littered with small, twinkling stars. I could feel the amazement stun me. With all the skyscrapers and the glittery streetlights, we could still manage to see the stars. What did this mean to me?

Alvin and the others looked up at the sky also.

“Look at those stars, Darrell,” said Mrs Dublin, “that sky, that world out there. Do you think it is all an accident?”

I couldn't say no. I closed my eyes, and I believed. I knew that undeniably, God was there. Fate did it's work. It was all for a reason. Not just by accident. It wasn't anybody's fault. It just happened.

And I knew, that if I can see the stars, up here, side by side with the skyscrapers and the city lights, I could be grateful and see through my sadness. I could be happy with the leaves of change, because they fell every year without us even noticing.


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