This story is by Jordan Gorrell and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Allison sat on a stool beside the bed in which her fiancé lied. In only a few hours time, he will have passed. Outside, on the grounds of the hospice center, the oaks and maples released their red and golden leaves, one by one. The leaves had come down heavy in the last few days, blanketing the grass, leaving little green to be seen. One of the groundskeepers downstairs groaned at the thought of all the raking that would have to be done. But for anyone else who laid eyes on it, they were filled with a comforting autumn glow.
“I’m feeling particularly weak today, my love,” Liam said to Allison. “But I’d still love to take a walk.”
His hand was on her lap, and she cupped it with both of hers. She squeezed it gently as he said this, looking at him with caring eyes. The left corner of her mouth pulled back slightly—as if a string connected from her heart had tugged it so. She could see he was struggling today. She wanted to be strong for him. But she felt she was just a slight gust of wind away from losing her composure. Her eyes welled up, and she put her head down on her shoulder to wipe away the coming tears, as to not take her hands from his. “Yes, I’d love that too,” she said.
She couldn’t hide her emotions from him. Liam knew she thought he was close to the end, but he didn’t care. All he could think about was how beautiful she was. As beautiful as ever.
After getting the nurse’s blessing, Allison took Liam outside and led him through the campus grounds. The sidewalks were hardly visible, buried by the leaves. And so they followed no path, going between the trees, wherever their feet would take them. She took him by the hand and walked slowly. Allison began, a little hesitant, “I’ve talked with your mother.” She took a quick side glance at him, cautious to not move her head. “She can’t come.” The leaves rustled in the trees and crinkled under their feet. “She didn’t say why. I wish it were different…”
They walked for a moment before she got a response. “It doesn’t matter,” Liam replied. He coughed a couple of times. “She’s never been around when it mattered. I don’t expect that to change now.” Allison didn’t know exactly what to say. The issue of Liam’s mother had always been a gray area. She’d only seen her once, and it wasn’t a pleasant meeting. She didn’t know whether or not she should reach out to her, or how Liam would react, as she hadn’t told him she had talked to her. “As long as I have you I’m fine Allie,” he said.
As they continued wandering, Liam thought about how twenty-seven seemed such an unfair age to die. All the work he’d put in throughout his life, to set himself up for later, now meant nothing. He would never see the fruits of his labor. He would’ve done things differently. But ultimately this is not what hurt him the most. Eventually, he noticed a bench nestled between two maple trees and pointed to it, a task which took more effort than it had in his entire life. “Let’s sit down for a few minutes. I need to rest.”
So they went and sat between the maples, facing the hospice center, only a couple hundred yards away. To Liam, the walk felt much longer. He thought of how beautiful Autumn was. The leaves entranced him. But then darker thoughts entered his mind. He laid his head on Allison’s shoulder, who put her arm around him. “Allie I’m sorry this happened,” Liam said. “Things were going to be so good.” He gripped her leg with his hand, squeezing. “I just wanted you to be happy.” He went on before Allison could reply. “Someday another guy is gonna come along, and make you so happy you forget all about me.” He squeezed her legs tightly now. He began choking up. “But I don’t want you to forget all about me Allie,” he croaked. “You should be happy.” He buried his head in her neck. “But please don’t forget about me…”
And then she felt his tears run warm down her neck, and she could no longer stay composed. She embraced him, wrapping him up in her arms as much as she possibly could. “I will never forget about you, Liam. I will never.” And so too her tears ran down. Down and off her cheeks and onto his shaved head where she had perched her chin. “No one can ever take your place in my heart Liam. I swear to you.”
Her hands ran up and down the outside of his coat, offering as much comfort as she could. She lifted his head up and looked at his pale face, and into his eyes, red with sadness. And she kissed him. For a moment both of them left the present and were sent back to times where their worries were much less. To times of being in their student apartment, Liam writing a paper he’d procrastinated on, soon to be procrastinating more as Allison lures him away from his computer and into the bed. Or mornings with coffee and pastries and kisses before heading to their classes. Or daydreaming sessions where they’d lie together and talk about the perfect home. They’d have two kids, a dog (she wanted a golden retriever, he wanted a husky, so they decided maybe they’d have to get both), a big yard to throw around a baseball or football. They’d invite the grandparents over for dinner on Sundays, and they’d run around and tease the kids.
Then the kiss ended, putting them back in the present. “Thank you, Allie,” Liam said, once again resting his head on her shoulder.
For a while they sat in silence, holding each other, sniffling. But then something caught Liam’s eye. “Do you see that?” he said.
She looked around a moment. “See what?” she asked.
“Look.” And again Liam gathered some strength, lifting his arm and pointing forward, towards the ground. “There, that leaf.”
After a few seconds, Allison saw it, about ten feet in front of them. It was the most brilliantly red leaf she had ever seen, likely from one of the maples they were sitting between. It stuck out among all the other colors in the ocean of leaves. “Wow,” she said. “It almost doesn’t even seem real.”
Struggling, Liam began to stand up. Allison quickly got on her feet to help him. He began leading her towards the leaf. It was even more stunning up close. Orange veins ran through it, accenting its powerful red hue. He slowly began to bend over to pick it up, but Allison stopped him. “No Liam I’ll get it for you love,” she said, but he protested.
“I can get it.” He kneeled and grabbed the leaf, Allison helping him back up. He looked at it for a moment before holding it out to her. “This is for you. You deserve something beautiful.”
She accepted his gift and kissed him again. “Thank you, Liam,” she said. “I love it.”
As they walked back to the entrance of the building, Allison looked at the leaf admiringly. She was holding it by the stem when an unusually strong breeze came by and took it from her, and sending it twirling into the sky. “Oh no,” she said burying her face in her hands, “I didn’t mean to.”
He laughed a weak laugh. “No that’s alright, now someone else will hopefully get to enjoy it.”
And so back in his room, they spent the last of his hours laughing and kissing and caressing, one of the nurses checking in on them every once in a while. Liam felt fulfilled somehow, seeing the red leaf brought him some sort of peace—as if unfinished things had been resolved. And soon after feeling the fulfillment, he felt tired. Completely and entirely tired. The sun was soon to set. “I think I need to close my eyes for a while,” Liam said in barely a whisper. “I love you so much you know.”
“I know hun, I love you too,” she said. “Sleep some alright?” But a part of her knew that this would be the last time he closed his eyes. She kissed his forehead. “I’ll be right here with you. And I promise you’ll always be with me.”
She waited for his response, but he was already asleep. His breathing seemed to be getting slower, and slower, and slower. She squeezed his hand, and the tears came silently. She looked out the window. Suddenly, a brilliantly red maple leaf flew up and stuck to the window for a moment, before peeling off and flying away.