The Leaves that Linger

 

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The Leaves that Linger

In my writing class this semester, I’ve been working on a short story. I haven’t published anything in a while because all my writing energy has been put into this story. Now I have finished writing it and am excited to show it to you guys!

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Now for: “The Leaves that Linger”.


On a day as gloomy as the neighborhood, a little boy made his way to the playground walking on a sidewalk that had ugly yellow weeds sprouting out of the gaping cracks and trash littering the curbs. The sky was thick with grey clouds, and papery litter stuck to the dark damp pavement. The air was stiff and heartlessly chilly, as if time had paused and the cold of winter stood still, never to leave. A thin layer of frost coated the faded grass like dirty icing, making it crunch under your feet. The area was fragrant with the smell of fresh rain, but a lingering smell of rotten wood also clung to the air. When the little boy inhaled the smell, it stung inside his nose because of the cold.

            Sitting behind the sidewalk were ramshackle houses, stacked close together; the front windows had boards nailed up against them or falling curtains. The iron railings on the porches were rusty and crooked, and the siding was rickety. The paint on these houses was peeling away, revealing soft dead wood.

             Nevertheless, amidst the stiff chill and the shadowy gloom, the little boy, about seven years old, continued on his way, every so often tripping on the cracked sidewalk. This child had a sweet face but a downcast expression, with long strands of his shaggy unkempt hair falling over his eyes. His eyes, marked by shadows underneath and heavy lids above, were the color of deep emerald.

The poor child had come from one of the shoddy houses that stood in this glum neighborhood, and he wore the shadows from his home around his eyes. He wore a clunky red sweatshirt he had found in the back of a closet. The sweatshirt was much too big, the bottom reaching almost to his knees and the sleeves falling far past his hands, but it kept him warm. His jeans were faded and smeared with grass stains. His face was dirty. His sneakers were a size too small, and his socks had holes. His name was Owen.

Owen was walking slowly with his hands stuffed inside the large drooping pockets of his sweatshirt and his green eyes staring at the sidewalk, glancing nervously around whenever he heard a noise. The shoe laces on his sneakers were bouncing around as his feet stumbled forward.

He came to a crack in the sidewalk. It was wide, like a chasm in a canyon. He stared at it for a moment, then he hovered his foot over the gap, stretching it as far to the other side as he could, to see if he could make the jump across. Seeing that his foot nearly reached the other side, Owen took a couple steps back, took a deep breath, ran up to the gap, leapt over it, landed, and then looked around as if to see if anyone noticed. The streets were empty. Owen continued on his way.

He approached the playground. It was on one side of a long grass field surrounded by a sidewalk, and there was an old grey tennis court at the other side. There was a beaten concrete path that led through the grass. Most of the mulch was gone and had been replaced by dirt and weeds, some big with spikes that stuck in your shoes. Pools of dark water full of crumpled leaves sat at the feet of the slides, and the swings creaked noisily because it had been a long time since the hinges had been oiled.

The play structure itself was a rusty thing, the paint chipping off the green and blue metal bars that served as climbing bars and ladders. Muddy footprints were caked on to the platforms and greasy handprints smeared the plastic windows. It smelled like copper and a moldy shower room. There was no one else there.

 

Owen walked down the concrete path, the bottoms of his sneakers scraping the crumbly rocks. But before he reached the playground, he turned off the path and headed towards a tree that stood a few paces from the playground. It was a grand oak tree with long branches that reached out from its majestic trunk. Its thick roots went deep into the ground, like a heavy anchor that holds a ship at sea.

This tree had a crown; its leaves, leaves that gave it color and beauty. It wore the dawn in spring and the sunset in fall. But in the winter, it had not a leaf.

Its bark, rich and brown in the summer, was now cast in wintery grey. Its bare branches thinned out and spiked towards their tips, becoming dark lines against the white sky of winter. At one point, this tree had been the beauty of the neighborhood, with its crown of leaves that glistened with dew in the spring and fell like drops of gold in the fall, but now it stood as a strong and menacing shadow.

Yet Owen still loved that tree in the winter. He remembered its crown and he loved it for it. After all, nothing else in that neighborhood had a crown, not even in summer.

 

But he never climbed that tree.

 

Owen came to stand at the foot of the tree. He gazed upward at its tall branches, then sat down at the base of the tree in between two large roots with his back against the bark. He pulled two small toys out of his large sweatshirt pocket and began to play quietly.

 

Owen had been playing for a few minutes when he heard voices that were growing steadily louder. He looked up and saw a small group of kids coming towards the playground. He pulled his hood over his head and yanked it down over his eyes.

The kids came quite near the tree but took no notice of Owen. These kids were older than Owen, about middle school-aged. He pushed his hood up on his forehead and watched them.

“‘Ey, Colton,” yelled one of them. “Betcha couldn’ beat me in a game a jackpot.”

“Shut up, Jase,” replied Colton, who had a deep voice. “I could break yer face wit’ a football.”

“Yo, Zeke!” Jase called. He tossed another kid a football. “We’re gonna play jackpot and yer’re gonna be ‘it’.”

Zeke swung his hair out of his face and posed to throw the ball.

“What a show-off,” muttered a girl.

“Zip it, Esme,” Colton snapped as he, Jase, and Esme formed a group several yards from Zeke.

“A hundred points if you catch it in the air,” Zeke said as he threw the football. It went spinning through the air. Colton knocked Jase aside and caught it.

“What tha heck, Colton?” Jase yelled.

“Get over it,” Colton replied as he threw the ball back to Zeke.

“Fifty points – catch it in the air or on the ground.” Zeke threw the ball so that it tumbled awkwardly off to a side. The three kids scrambled to get it.

“Agh, Colton, you cheater,” Jase mumbled as Colton arose with the ball in his hands.

“Geez, Jase, just play the game,” Esme said, rolling her eyes.

“He took the ball outta my hands, the freak!”

Zeke threw the ball again and the game continued.

 

Owen sat by his tree, watching them.

 

“Alright, here’s the jackpot,” Zeke announced with a smirk. “Whoever catches this wins all.”

He threw the ball. Jase reached for it. Colton pushed Jase away and caught the ball.

“Well, lookit that,” Jase said, glaring. “He pushed me again.”

“Colton wins,” Zeke decided. Colton dropped the ball and raised his arms in the air victoriously.

Jase’s eyes widened. “What?

“Dude, it’s just a game,” Esme said.

“An’ he’s just a jerk!” Jase picked up the football and flung it at Colton. It went right over his head and landed high up in the tree.

The children – including Owen – stared up at the tree in silence.

“Nice,” Colton commented, after a while.

Esme walked over to the tree. She looked at Owen, who cowered and looked away. Then she looked up and saw the ball wedged tightly between two branches.

“Hmmmm… agh, let’s just play something else,” she said.

“Yeah,” Jase said. “Wuz a dumb game anyway.”

The kids walked off.

“Yer’re ‘n idiot, Jase,” Colton remarked as they faded out of earshot.

 

Owen followed them with his eyes until they reached the tennis court at the other side of the field. He then rose from his sitting place and stared up into the tree, at the long twisting branches that journeyed out towards the sky; he looked at the ball, sitting high up there; then he looked at the kids playing far off.  He gazed at them for a long time, his green eyes like jewels.

Owen had watched the entire interaction shuddering whenever they spoke too loud, and looking down whenever he thought they’d turn in his direction. But when he watched them, he saw an exit out of his solitude. He saw these children and saw friends – something he didn’t have.

But Owen believed that, in order to have friends, first came acceptance. He looked away from the children, and once again saw the ball sitting in the tree.

 

He had never climbed that tree.

 

The ball was far out of his reach, and he didn’t dare climb to get it. It was too high.

Or is it? Owen thought. He stood on his tip toes and placed his arms around the lowest branch. The bark scratched his cold hands. He hoisted himself up, and was able to lift himself up onto a branch. He sat on the branch, staring at the ground, shuddering and clutching the branch. He reached up with a shaky arm and grabbed a second branch, but as he lifted himself onto it, he felt his stomach drop and quickly clambered back down.

I can’t do that, he thought. His eyes followed a branch all the way from the trunk to the sky. It’s just too high. He sat back down and continued playing.

But he kept looking back at the children playing at the tennis court.

If only I could climb it, if I could just do it. It can’t be that hard. Owen fidgeted. He stood up and began to walk around the tree, stepping on the roots with his feet. His gaze flew wildly back and forth from the tennis court to the ball sitting in the tree, and his hands wrung together – they were sweaty even though it was cold that day.

 

Then he noticed a small tree with thin branches that stood a short distance from the oak tree under which he stood. Its bark was pale and broken twigs lay at its feet. He grabbed the low branch on the large tree, hoisted himself onto it, and climbed up.

 

He never climbed that tree – and now he was.

 

He felt as if his stomach was thrashing around inside of him, and he trembled. He climbed up branch after branch; whenever he grabbed a branch his feet would swing around in search of a foothold.

At one point, his feet slipped off a notch in a branch that had been too shallow for him to get a good grip. He panicked as his legs dangled in the air but held tightly onto the branch his arms were holding onto. He pushed himself onto the branch and lifted his legs over it. Gasping, and with his eyes wide with fear, he kept going.

He saw the ball, sitting on a branch that stretched far out from the trunk. He climbed onto that branch and pushed himself all the way up to the ball. He grabbed the ball, and nearly fell backwards when he yanked it out of the notch in the branch. Owen tried to slide down the branch, but couldn’t with the ball in his arms. He let the ball drop to the ground. He shuddered when he heard the thud, and looked downward.

The ground was a long way down.

 

Owen wrapped his arms around the branch and pressed his body close to it. His heart was beating fast and his eyes were closed tight.

I can’t get down, he thought with a panic. I can’t get down. It’s too high.

 

He looked and saw the small tree with the thin branches that stood a short distance from the oak tree he was climbing. He inhaled deeply – the cold air bit at his nose – and slid back down.

He reached the lowest branch, and dropped to the ground. He let himself tumble onto his back. Then he sat up. He was on the ground next to his toys, in between the two large roots where he had been playing. And a couple feet away was the football.

Owen stood up, took the ball, and headed towards the tennis court.

He walked slowly but without stopping. As he neared the tennis court, he heard the same voices he had heard before.

Owen smiled, his green eyes gleamed. He happily imagined the looks on their faces when he returned to them their ball. They had never thought of him, but he had thought of them. They’d left their ball in the tree, but he had gone to retrieve it.

            I’ll be a hero, he thought.

He walked onto the tennis court.

 

“I’s my turn, back off, you!” Jase grabbed a tennis racket and swung it around at Colton.

“Calm down, Jase,” Esme said laughing.

Owen grinned. He walked up to Esme.

“I have your – ” he began, but Esme ran off to the other side of the net, dragging a tennis racket behind her. He approached Zeke.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I have your ball.”

“Aw, that was a fail, Jase!” Zeke yelled without noticing Owen. He tugged at Zeke’s shirt.

“I have your ball.”

“Get off me,” Zeke said, stepping to the side. Owen looked at him with frustration.

I have your ball,” he said again, gritting his teeth. But Zeke ran off.

Suddenly, a tennis ball soared right over Owen’s head. All the kids looked in Owen’s direction and saw him.

He made a small smile, and held up the ball. “I’ve brought you your – ”

Colton approached Owen and towered over him. Owen stared up at him in silence.

“You took our ball?” Colton asked.

“I didn’t,” Owen stuttered. “I… I just wanted to play.” Colton grabbed the ball. Owen’s hands retreated to the pockets of his sweatshirt.

“Go away,” Colton said.

“Can I play with you?” Owen pleaded. His heart clouded over.

“No, go away.”

Owen stood there.

Go away… or I’ll make you.”

“Geez, Colton,” Jase remarked.

Esme looked at Owen.

“Let’s just go,” she said.

Colton stomped off. “Whatever.”

Once again, the kids walked off. And once again, Owen watched them until they disappeared behind a house on the corner of the street.

 

Owen stood there in the gloom.

 

He looked around – at the ramshackle houses, at the sky thick with clouds, at the sidewalk littered with trash – and his eyes filled with tears. They trickled down his cheeks – red from the cold. He sniffled and wiped his nose on the long sleeves of his red sweatshirt. Then he stuffed his hands inside his pockets, turned around, and walked back towards the tree.

 

He walked past the playground, and his foot got caught on a sticky weed. He stumbled and yanked his foot away.

When he reached the tree, he stared at it for a long time. He had retrieved the ball, but no friends stood beside him. He was alone.

The sky grew darker. It was time to go home, but he didn’t want to. Reluctantly, he left the tree and started his way home.

As he left, he passed the tree with the small thin branches. When he glanced at it, he noticed for the first time that a small cluster of red leaves still clung to its branches – leaves from the autumn. Owen had never seen these leaves, but in the darkness of that grey day, they were as bright as a phoenix. A bit of light illuminated the tree. He looked up and saw a small patch of blue sunlight peeking through the clouds. A ray of sunlight had broken through. He smiled, a clear tear like a jewel dripped off his chin. He saw the big tree in the darkness.

 

He remembered that he had never climbed that tree. And now he had.

 

He stood on a battlefield, the conqueror. Reflecting off his lovely eyes was a hope kindled with courage. The leaves that lingered on that small tree shone like embers.

 

He smiled at the patch of sunlight and at the leaves that lingered, and walked away.

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5 thoughts on “The Leaves that Linger

  1. Wow Rayne, what a wonderful story. I love everything about it, your detailed descriptions, your dialog, your ending! You have advanced so much in your writing! What a challenge you took on to really develop a story to be longer and a character and narrative to be more complex. I’m as always very impressed with you but even more so than before. Now you have put yourself on a writer’s road that offers many many journeys (and victories) in your work ahead. Bravo!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The interactions and dialogue among the children are genuinely conveyed. The ending might not be what some of us expect, but what’s important is that Owen grapples with his own fears and pushes through them in the act of climbing the giant tree. This act of bravery created the catharsis Owen needed to deal with rejection. Nicely resolved!

    Liked by 1 person

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