* this story was first published in TL;DR: A Redditwriters Mixtape, the debut anthology from TLDR Press.
Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower. -Albert Camus
Jay hesitated at the bedroom door. It would be so much easier if Willa was already asleep. But there was no way around; the only way through…was through. He opened the door. Willa lay awake, bathed in a thin blue glow from her phone. She watched him come in, kick off his sandals, peel off his shirt. As he climbed into bed, she asked, “Did you take out the trash? And the leaf bags?”
So much for sleep. “Of course, you couldn’t ask me that twenty seconds before, when I still had my pants on.”
“Well, did you?”
Of course, Jay hadn’t done it; he was hoping that someone else who lived in this house might decide to take a proprietary interest in the maintenance of the home. A little initiative, a little consideration. Silly man. Foolish hope.
“Well, why didn’t you?” he asked. “I was working. You know, work? That thing I do every day that gets us money?”
“But I fed the cats. And scooped the litter boxes.”
“Yeah, ’cause that’s the same as ten hours of work. God damn it.” Jay slid his pants back on. “Any chance you want to come down and help me? There are like twenty bags of leaves to carry out.”
Willa turned and pulled her blanket over her shoulder. “There aren’t that many. And I’m already in bed.”
“Fine.” Someone had to be the responsible one. Signs weren’t pointing to Willa. “By the way, I’m cutting down all the trees next summer.” She rolled over to face him, a cold, hard stare that drove him out of the room.
He went back downstairs and out through the garage. On a box sat Willa’s centerpiece turkey: a hideous ceramic thing she had painted purple and orange in second grade. Its face was locked in a leer, a horrific grimace. My painted feathers are the sole evidence of the last time Willa did any work. You’re such a bitch, Jay. You’re Willa’s bitch.
He scooped up the turkey and threw it into the trash. He wouldn’t have to see that damn thing this Thanksgiving, at least. I don’t know where it went, Dearest. Maybe it got put into another box? Maybe it accidentally got sold in the garage sale? The one nice thing about always taking out the trash– you bypassed quite a few painful discussions. If you were lucky, it never got noticed. Just forgotten. Forever.
In the driveway waited thirteen, he counted, tall paper lawn bags stuffed with leaves. Dim imposing columns, ready to be placed like monoliths for a suburban Stonehenge.
He lifted the first one, and his back gave a twinge. A little reminder of raking and packing all these damn leaves into all these damn bags. A little gift from the trees, especially the big tulip poplar out front. The tulip poplar was the gift that kept on giving every fall. Maybe he really should cut it down. Raking would be so much faster and easier without it. The hard part would be Willa; she thought the tree was the most beautiful thing about the house. Maybe he’d just do it while she was on travel.
The night was cold and bright, with no wind to speak of. The empty tree branches were black against the moonlit sky. He set the first bag down at the curb and stretched his back. See what a shadow of a man I’ve become. Taunted by a shrewish wife, defeated by bags of leaves. “You!” he pointed at the tulip poplar. “You did most of this leaf shit. Next summer, you’re gone.” The tree towered over the house, just as it always did. He gave it the finger and went back for the next bag.
The second bag ripped at the top when he set it down, and a few leaves scattered around. He picked them up and put them back into the bag. He felt a sharp pain in his hand. Stuck in the flesh at the base of his thumb was the stem of a tulip poplar leaf.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” He plucked it out and crumpled it. “You’re not doing yourself any favors,” he called to the tulip tree, and went back for the next bag. He set it into place at the curb, and then he heard a scraping. Like a paper edge dragged over stone. But it was just a leaf on the sidewalk, blown in the wind for a second. It came again. Toward him. His thumb stung. “Okay, this is stupid,” he said, and stomped the leaf flat. He went back for the next bag.
Bag four had an unstable tilt, so he leaned it against the others. More leaves spilled from the tops of the overfilled bags, but he left them where they were. Just get this done with and get to bed. He brought bag five up and used it to further brace bag four. There were more scraping sounds, but he ignored them and hurried back for bag six.
When the rasping sound started again, there were three leaves. They scratched along the sidewalk in short fits– now this one, now that one, now the other– no more than a hand’s width each time. But he didn’t feel any wind. “I’m not afraid of you,” he said. He stepped deliberately on each leaf in turn, then headed back for the next bag.
Jay put down bag seven, and the scratching began yet again. Now there were ten leaves, maybe more. His hand hurt again where the leaf had pierced, and he stepped back, but then forced himself to stop. “This is stupid. You’re running from leaves,” he said. “Leaves. Basically, dry tree crap.” He stood his ground, and watched as the leaves made their erratic way to him. “So, what’s it gonna be?” The leaves came to his feet and stopped, pressed against the soles of his sandals.
Nothing happened. He shook his head and exhaled. “Scared of leaves. What a tough guy.”
Stabbing pain shot through his feet as the leaves wrapped around them. He fell to the ground, clawing the leaves off and crumpling each one. His feet burned. Drops of blood welled up.
And the scratching noises came again. A chill washed over him, and he scrambled to his feet.
“I’m not afraid of you!” he shouted. Twenty leaves this time, maybe thirty, jumping a foot or more with each step. There was less scraping now, more crackling and tapping as they leapt toward him. He trampled them furiously as they charged in. One stuck his foot again, and a new burning pain hit. He pulled the leaf off and crumpled it. He stomped down hard: “nota– fraida– buncha– goddam– leaves.” He twisted his foot on the last one, grinding the leaf into smithereens on the sidewalk.
His breath came heavy. But he listened, poised, ready to stomp. One minute– two– still quiet. He raised his clenched fists in the air. “Yes!” He turned back to the tulip poplar. “Next summer. You. Down.” We’ll see who is whose bitch then.
The rasping started again. Loud. They were all around: the leaves at the curb, the driveway, down the sidewalk. All the leaves, whirling, swarming towards him. A cold breath, almost sounding like Willa’s voice, crystallized in his mind: run.
He ran down the sidewalk, away from the driveway and across the front of his yard. Past the tulip poplar. A shudder ran through him as another swarm of leaves whirled up in the direction he was running. He turned to cross the street, but the leaves behind had caught him. They swirled up and pounced.
Hundreds of needles jabbed him. All over his legs, now his sides, one as high as his neck. Each cut was a blossom of pain and fiery agony, and still they came. He fell, and he thought that would be the end. They stabbed and slashed his face. Everything burned. He clawed at the leaves, but still they came, and still they slashed and stung.
“Stop! Please, stop! I didn’t mean it! I wouldn’t cut any trees down! Please, make it stop!” He rolled and slapped, and suddenly the leaves were still, and he was free.
One eye burned and couldn’t see. He couldn’t feel his legs or his arms, and he couldn’t catch his breath. But he staggered to his feet and ran past the tree to the front porch. The door was locked. He rang the bell and pounded at the door, then slumped against it. “Willa! Let me in! For God’s sake let me in, quick! Now!” The leaves began to swirl and jump toward him again. His legs wouldn’t move. Oh God, please no, please no more…
The hallway light inside the house came on, and Willa looked out of the small window next to the door.
“Willa, it’s me– open the door and let me in, please! Now!” The leaves were at the porch now. “Willa!”
Willa’s face was impassive. She turned off the light and folded her arms, watching.
Then the leaves were on him again, and he collapsed. The last thing he saw from his good eye was Willa, watching from the window by the door, a little smile curling on her face.