The day before I started my freshman year of high school, my brother began acting strange. He’d been angry for weeks, now that his days of sovereignty where he ruled over our street block had come to an end. His complaints had been rumbling through the house, building up to what I assumed would be a fierce storm. If that storm was coming, today would be the day, but there were no dark clouds hanging over our kitchen as he watched me make my sandwich for the next day. Just his pensive face as he stared.
It wasn’t like he usually ignored me, however we’d been much closer three years ago, before he’d started high school. Around that time, I discovered he had no patience for the imaginary world inside my mind. But he’d still walk past and muss my short hair, before I returned to my castle behind closed eyes, and he got into the sort of trouble that made my parents worry their lips until they bled. The attention he was putting on me now was almost scary.
“You busy?” he finally asked, before he leaned back and crossed his arms.
“I’m making a sandwich,” I replied dryly. “Does that count?”
“I need to talk to you about something.”
I put down the jelly I currently held, and moved over to him, squinting my eyes as if it would help me see through him. He didn’t seem angry...maybe anxious. But there weren’t many thing Elijah got nervous about and talking to me certainly wasn’t one of them.
“Well?” I questioned, as I mirrored his crossed arms.
He looked past me, out the window and into the woods behind our house. I turned my head but didn’t think there was anything strange. When I looked at him again he was frowning.
“It’s nothing,” he finally said, as he pushed up from his chair. “I’m sure Mom and Dad have already talked to you about it, and it’s not like I could explain it...”
Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to know what was stuck in his mind. But before I could convince him, he walked away, and I was left with burning questions that would soon be doused by my worry about my first day as a freshman.
Elijah’s storm didn’t hit that night; instead there was an explosion. I was already in bed when the first spark was lit, burning away until he blew up. He didn’t want to go to senior year. He didn’t care about school. His strange behavior that afternoon was bleached from my mind by the time my eyes drifted shut.
School passed quickly, especially for someone like me. My daydreams were a blessing and a curse. The hours flew by, but so did my chance at friends. It seemed I’d built them up in my minds, giving them qualities carved from something no mortal possessed, because each disappointed me as soon as a few words left their mouth.
It was the middle of Autumn, when my brother’s strangeness returned. I hadn’t noticed his stares right away, for once not focused on my thoughts, but the world outside. There was no need for dreams, when reality was aflame with shades of red and gold. The woods outside were slowly being stripped bare, but the leaves that refused to let go without witnessing the beginning of winter, gave magic to the trees. It was these images that caused me not to notice Elijah until he through something at my face.
“Hey!” I exclaimed, a glare starting to form before I even pulled away the object that had obstructed my vision. When I did see what it was, my frown softened.
When I was younger I loved to wear Elijah sweatshirts. They comforted me in a way that even his hugs couldn’t, encasing me in their warmth. Elijah eventually told me he was too old to share with his sister, yet now there was one in my lap.
“Put it on,” Elijah demanded. “We’re going for a walk.”
I stared at him, bewildered, as he walked out the door without waiting for my response. A part of me wanted to remain where I was, proving I didn’t take orders from him, but the idea of being wrapped in warmth as I strolled through the woods that already called to me so fervently, I couldn’t resist.
Elijah was silent, even after I caught up beside him. This may have bothered me had it not been for the array of sounds that pulled me to walk further into the woods. The crackle of leaves beneath my feet, and the wind that blew steadily were only parts of the melody.
We were far enough into the woods that our house disappeared, before Elijah finally broke our silence.
“Do you think the leaves on the trees are cool?”
“Of course,” I immediately replied. “They could be fit to crown a queen of Autumn. Or to blend in with the feathers of a phoenix who soars above, reminding of the colors of past even when winter begins...”
I trailed off, expecting to see him tuning out, but instead he was nodding along with my words. He smiled at me, and I returned it, though I knew my expression was blatantly tentative.
“What about the leaves on the ground?”
This time, I didn’t immediately launch into a response. He wasn’t just asking me about the scenery. I knew he was searching for something deeper.
I swallowed, still unsure of my response. “They’re beautiful too.”
“Are they better than the ones that remain on the trees?”
“Of course not,” I scoffed.
His smile brightened for a moment, before all but his eyes darkened into a mood of seriousness. He stopped walking, and I followed his lead, pausing directly beneath an exquisite example of the trees and leaves we were discussing.
“Even though they’re the first to touch the ground?” he asked, quietly. “Think about it; they lead the way, getting the honor of commencing the fall season. They begin a sort of revolution that bursts colors into the chilling air. Doesn’t that mean they’re better?”
I’d never heard my brother speak so imaginatively, not even when regaling false tales of his football triumphs. My mind replayed his words again and again, so I wouldn’t forget what was said, nor how it was spoken. As for the meaning in his words, I didn’t know if I agreed. Maybe if I told him so, it would ruin it all, and this bond that was growing between my brother and the hidden parts of my mind would dissipate, but I couldn’t allow myself to speak falsehoods in response to such beautiful musings.
I looked down at the leaves underneath me, their stunning color somewhat veiled by the dirt. They were still remarkable, and in a way, they fueled my desire to wander further into the woods, forming a path as they pressed into the dirt. I loved them just as dearly, but they didn’t produce a catch in my breath when I looked at them, like the ones who still clung to the branches.
“I prefer the leaves on the trees,” I finally answered. “I think everything you said is true, I just don’t think it makes them better. They were the first, but what’s the point in that when it’s not a race?”
He nodded his head and added, “There are a lot of things that aren’t a race. There’re a lot of things in which being the first doesn’t improve qualities. In fact, the leaves would be beautiful even if they never fell at all.”
“They would be,” I sighed, “but they must at some point.”
“Yeah,” he said, suddenly looking anywhere but at me. “I guess they do.”
The silence between us returned, but this time it was too heavy to only be filled with noises of the woods. I let it settle for a moment, before the quiet became too much to bear.
“Is this what you wanted to talk to me about before the first day of school?”
“It was,” he smiled sadly, “but I realized if I’d tried to teach you about it then, it wouldn’t have amounted to anything. I had to find a way to make it come into your world, not come out of mine.”
I frowned. “What you’ve said was...wonderful, but you haven’t really taught me anything. I mean, I don’t think so.”
“I’m hoping I have, and you just haven’t realized it yet,” he said, reaching out in a familiar movement to ruffle my hair. “When I started high school, Mom and Dad tried to basically tell me not to grow up too fast.” He paused, kicking his shoe against the ground. “It didn’t really work. They gave me all these facts about how I’d be pressured to do stuff and I didn’t have to give in. But the thing was, I wanted to. I thought that I needed to party, drink, and do other stuff that I’m sure you don't want to hear about, because it was like...some rite of passage. I wouldn’t really be me until I did it, or at least I wouldn’t be the best me.”
“You’re a fallen leaf,” I breathed, realization dawning on my face.
“That’s a nice way of putting it,” he shrugged. “But yes, I fell too quickly, and looking back on it, I wish I’d held on.”
He reached his hand up, barely brushing his fingers against a crimson colored leaf, causing it to drop from the tree. It fluttered in the wind for a moment, spiraling out of control, before landing at my feet.
“I know you’re not like me,” he continued, his voice slightly hoarse, “and maybe you’ll never feel the urge to do any of it. And I know I don’t see the world as if everything is alive, like you do. But I just thought, maybe if I could show you this, in a way your eyes could see, you might not make the same mistakes.”
He had shown me. He’d somehow captured that part of my mind I thought he’d always chosen to ignore and painted a picture that it grasped with ease. And what a picture it was. But he was right when he said it was my world. He had been able to glimpse into it, but I saw so much more.
“Elijah,” I said, and he glanced up from the ground at his name. “You forgot one important part about the fallen leaves. They’re the ones waiting to catch the others who drift down. They make sure that even if others get lost as they fall, they won’t be alone on the ground.”
He looked at me with wide eyes, but I just stared back determinedly. It was the same look of wonder I always wore on the first day of Autumn, when the world became something new. I was hoping he’d had a similar revelation, even if it was about something inconsequential to him.
“Come on,” he finally said, wrapping his arm around my shoulder. “Let's get back to the house.”
We followed back the path we came, though neither of us were quite the same as when we’d first journeyed out. The trees around us had already changed as well, as the leaves fell—some gently and some too swift. Eventually, I would fall too, like everyone who witnessed the seasons change. But not just yet, and when I did, there would already be many below, waiting to catch me.