by Robert M. Mendonsa
‘The leaves’, she said. ‘The leaves are changing.’
Dylan woke to the droning hum of a vacuum cleaner. It resounded from the other side of his bedroom door, originating from the living room of his campus apartment. He crunched a pillow over his ears, tempted to throw the pillow into the door. It was the second time that week that some asshole was trying to piss him off with that air-sucking hunk of shit while he was hungover; and boy-oh, it was working.
Dylan sat up and registered the condition of his room. Everything was sunlit and faded under a white haze of window light. It was a mess, with piles of clutter divided over the four corners: books, assignment sheets, dirty clothes, a bowl stained with hardened streaks of dried yogurt. He was supposed to clean his dorm at some point this week, never getting to it. Originally, he was going to do it last night, but the seniors of his frat were apart of a pub crawl last night, and he wasn’t going to miss that. Granted, regret was felt right alongside the headache that pulsed through his temple, and he probably shouldn’t have drunk as much beer as he did last night—cheap shitty beer, at that—but he did, and now he was here.
It took him ten minutes to get up and get his shit together. Once he had his backpack and duffel bag filled with clothes he would need for the weekend, he was irritated to find that his phone had several unread messages. He sighed, looking over the screen. They were from his girlfriend, Anna.
Anna was a cool cat as far as Dylan was concerned, but sometimes she’d send him message after message if he didn’t reply in a timetable suitable for her concern. And while he loved her endlessly and often found her worrying to be cute, the state of his awakening brought an irritability over him. He decided to deal with it later. He tossed his phone into his back pocket, making a mental note to call Anna when he was in the car. It was time to get going.
Dylan walked into the living room, bags in hand. One of his roommates, a Business major named Kyle, was sitting on the apartment’s worn couch. Kyle was wearing a sleeveless Budweiser T-shirt and tattered blue shorts. Kyle was what Dylan thought of as your average, everyday college douche-bag: he was a complete and total fuckboy, abso-fucking-lutely—with a generic blend of interests that revolved around drinking vast amounts of alcohol, dancing to Trap music while coked-out, and fishing for pussy from girls too naïve to see what a square-faced, boring asshole he was. The kid practically hammered his braincells into the ground each-and-every second, a habit that Dylan was sure would suit him well in his future with business. Kyle was probably bred for the sole purpose of taking over his daddy’s business; and such pointlessness made Dylan want to tear his eyes out.
“You’re an asshole,” Dylan said.
Kyle threw up his hands, a grin playing at the corner of his mouth.
“What? I didn’t do shit,” Kyle said.
“Fucking vacuuming, you fucking kidding?”
“Someone’s got to do it.”
“Go write a poem about it, faggot.”
“Nice. You make your daddy proud, I’m sure.”
They sat like that for a while in the silent haze of the morning light. Then Dylan’s phone pulsed in his pocket, likely another message from Anna. She would probably call soon if he didn’t get back to her in the next couple of minutes.
Dylan started for the door and pulled it open. Kyle took this as a moment to interject another one of his assholisms into Dylan’s life.
“Have a nice day, sweetie. Give little Annie a kiss for me, will ya?” Kyle said.
The door latched shut behind Dylan, leaving him alone with its echo in the hallway.
At first glance the day looked as though it would be a bitter one, a light wind whistling under the overcast sky. The sun struggled to burn through a murky film of gray, illuminating dark swirls of clouds into incandescent mountains of fog that drifted through the sky. Dylan was driving in his ramshackle Civic, its tires tumbling over the crumbling road by the campus center. His thoughts were distracted by the fragrant scent of dying leaves, and the sweet, smoky stench of bonfires merging with the cooling air. On the radio Kurt Cobain was singing about how he was all warm and calm inside, about how he no longer had to hide.
Dylan was just taking a right onto a main road when his back-pocket trembled. He lifted himself up and reached for his phone, brushing his hand against the harsh upholstery of the seat while Kurt kept on singing his tune about knowing who was right.
Always knew it’d come to this, things have never been so swell, I have never failed to fail…
“Hey,” Dylan answered. “I was just going to call you.”
“Jesus, Dylan, you worried me. You didn’t answer for hours!” said Anna, her voice crawling from a slight interference of static. Kurt Cobain was cut off, replaced with the shrill chirp of an emergency broadcast message. Dylan jerked and turned the volume dial all the way down to zero; he fucking hated those test broadcasts, always biting into his ear from seemingly nowhere. He turned his attention back to the phone, juggling his attention between Anna and the road.
“Right. My bad. I was sleeping the night off.”
Dylan turned onto a winding road encompassed by large thickets of pine trees, his phone slipping to his chin. He readjusted himself, trying to focus on the sharp turn of the pavement while tightly gripping the chewed-up steering wheel.
“Yeah, most of the morning, you mean,” Anna said.
She played disdainfully with her tone, carefully circling to what Dylan thought of as The Grand Scheme of Things. He smiled a bit; her soft voice conjured up images of her subtle beauty: her flowing black hair and the dark intelligence of her brown eyes. It had been two weeks since they had last seen each other; and that was the longest stretch of time they’ve been apart since they started dating over the summer. They went to separate colleges, two hours apart, he Umass Amherst, she Merrimack College. They often took turns visiting one another but were recently separated by a busy stretch of exams and essays. Dylan couldn’t wait to lay with her again, to feel the soft strands of her hair between his fingertips.
God, he missed her.
“Dylan? Did you just hear what I just said?” the phone buzzed.
“Ah, that you can’t wait to run your fingers through my chest hair and call me daddy?” he said. Anna snorted.
“You’re an asshole,” she said, laughing. Dylan started to laugh with her. “I asked what time you’ll think you’ll get here?”
He looked to both his GPS and the dashboard clock.
“Well, I’ve got to stop and get gas. So, about one-thirty, it’s looking like?” he said. “Sorry I woke up late. You can thank Kyle for waking me up this time around, at least.”
“The vacuum?” she asked.
“The vacuum,” he agreed.
“What an asshole.”
“Hey, don’t worry: only two months before I can switch dorms. Can’t wait.”
“Yeah, then I can start visiting you again,” she said, laughing. “Alright, well, just wanted to check up on you, make sure you were still with the living. The orchard is open until six, so we’ve got plenty of time. Just drive safe, please. Take your time!”
“Cool. Will do,” he said. “I’ll see you in a bit.”
“Can’t wait,” she said, and they both hung up.
The road ahead widened and broke through a length forested hills, the trees an enclosure of displaced pigments. Looking over to the blur of colors made Dylan feel dizzy, so he focused on the road ahead and turned the volume of the radio back up. Static erupted from the speakers. Dylan recoiled.
He tried fiddling with the tuning dial, but every station was playing the same song, a song too ancient for human ears; it was the toll of intertwined radio waves, the harsh whisper of things that had been lost in the unseen spectrum and would continue to be lost in the unseen spectrum long after mankind was gone. Dylan turned off the radio and sighed.
It was going to be a long trip.
Dylan pulled into a gas station fifteen minutes down the road. The station was decrepit and withered, the overhanging sign cracked and weathered from the elements. The first couple letters were too worn to read, so it said:
ASK 4 VETREN DESCOUNT
An old man sat on a patio chair just outside the office entrance. He was reading a newspaper, his other hand using a Make America Great Again cap to scratch at a leathery, sunburnt scalp.
Dylan pulled beside the closest pump and killed the engine. He got out only to stand in place, admiring the view of the grassy knolls spread out across the road.
The field was heavily forested, with patches of dead grass laced over the ground just before the arching tree line. A gust began to build; it became a swirling cyclone that sent tremors through the intertwined limbs of pine and birchwood. It pushed upward and carried leaves with it, breaking into the sky in maddening patterns that Dylan couldn’t track with his eyes. Something about the view deeply disturbed him; the sky looked as though it was bleeding out streaks of red, orange, and yellow; and underneath it all Dylan began to see a shape utterly incongruent and massive behind the bizarre barriers of leaves. Dylan’s eyes pulsed and strained from just looking at it.
“Well I’ll be damned, what in the hell is that?” someone said.
Dylan flinched, shocked to see that the old man was standing right beside him, watching the unnatural shape taking form.
Dylan could only shake his head, dumbfounded by the amassing hoard of whirling leaves; it was now all he could make out. His attention shifted, focusing on an eruption of vibration from the cupholder of his car. He turned away from the old man and reached in through the open window. He grabbed his phone and answered it, deterred from looking toward the shifting horizon at his back.
“Hello?” Dylan said.
“Dylan? Oh God, Dylan? Are you there?”
It was Anna.
“Yeah, I’m here. What’s up?”
“I’m outside. My God, Dylan. The leaves,” she said, “The leaves are changing.”
Dylan was shaken with an overwhelming fit of déjà vu. He gazed over the meadow again into the disturbing vignette of dead grass and uprooted trees. Branches were thrashing, bending to the will of the wind. The torrent was building into a roar now; Dylan could barely hear the old man, his voice brushed away by the violence of the gust. He seemed to be waving at Dylan to get inside the office building, where he was retreating.
“I’m so scared, Dylan,” Anna said. “I want to see you, Dylan. I wish you were here!”
“It’s only the wind, Anna. It’s going to be fine!” Dylan shouted into the screen.
“But you’re two hours away, and you see it too,” Anna screeched. “Oh God, Oh God, you see it too, Dylan!”
“It’s okay, Anna, you’ve got to trust me,” he shouted.
“Dylan I lo–,” Anna started, only to be cut off from a sharp onrush of static. The line died, faltering into a silence veiled by the thundering wind. Ahead the horizon beyond the tree line began to illuminate, cascading streaks of fiery light breaking through the dense barriers of leaves.
“Anna? Fucking God, Anna?” Dylan screamed. “Hello?”
Now the trees began to part, their forms bowing over the ground in servitude to a formidable wave of seething light. The gravel and dirt tore up from the ground in violent upswings of broken earth, the ground looking as though it were falling into the sky, crumbling into a plane of nothingness.
“Anna, oh God, Anna!”
Dylan watched as the rush of the leaves came to meet him. Time slowed; images of his life played out as the breech of light overran the fields ahead. Dylan could see his mom and dad, and knew he was never going to see them again. He saw the faces of all his friends through the years, from both college and high school, whom he would never be able to laugh and joke with again, or be able to drink with or do stupid shit with again.
His fading thoughts were of Anna and her lovely face. All he wanted in those final moments of burning iridescence was to hold her, to touch her, to feel a kiss from her lips. He wanted to tell her one last time that he loved her. He wanted to hear her voice, to hear her call out his name, to trace a finger over her forearm.
Dylan was disintegrated in the eighth of a millisecond, his consciousness yanked from his fragmented body. He fell into a complete and utter blackness—an endless void—where his mind was trapped in the great cradle of life’s architect.
‘Dylan? Hey, Dylan,’ said a voice. ‘Earth to Dylan.’
It sounded like Anna.
Dylan jolted upward from a bed to find that Anna was lying beside him, looking him over with worry. She had one of her hands pressed against his chest, ruffling the soft tangle of hair there. Dark hair hung over one of her eyes, her lips a vibrant red.
Dylan looked around the bedroom. They were in Anna’s apartment, all the way back in eastern Massachusetts. Images flooded into his mind’s eye: the gas station, the old man, and the shape hidden behind the leaves.
“Hey, are you okay?” Anna asked, her eyes dark and inquisitive.
“The leaves are changing,” Dylan whispered.
Anna looked at Dylan with alarming concern, then looked out the window into the sunlit park that sat just outside the building. The trees were swaying gently alongside a breeze, their leaves a radiant conflux of red, orange, and yellow. She smiled and looked back toward Dylan. She laughed, and Dylan had never heard a sound so sweet and reassuring; her laughter swept away the surreal fog left over from the dream.
“That’s what trees usually do this time of year, isn’t it?” she said, laughing. Dylan could only grin back at her, realizing at how utterly ridiculous and cryptic he just sounded.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he said, taking in the sight of her. She leaned over and planted a soft kiss over his lips. He welcomed it.
Dylan relaxed and rested back onto the pillow, head sideways as he gazed into the shimmering Autumn tree line. Anna placed her head over his heart, her fingers slowly tracing the dimples on his chest.
“You worry me sometimes,” she said. “I love you, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. I love you, too,” he said, and soon they were both asleep again.