Orange leaves danced in the breeze outside the train station in Birmingham, Alabama. Josh stared out the window at the silent spectacle. The tree wasn't very big, and it was planted in a small circle cut out of the cement sidewalk. It was a rather ignominious place for a tree, a stingy little cache of dirt. But there it stood, its foliage still green at the base but a brilliant orange at the tips. It looked like the leaves were blushing.
The leaves penetrated through Josh's blank stare and general haze of disinterest.
"Look, Joshie." His mom was suddenly there beside him, a slight smile on her lips. "Fall leaves. Aren't they the prettiest thing?"
Josh blinked and shook his head. The space beside him was, of course, entirely empty.
What day was it anyway? Time had lost its meaning since he'd left home. The days of the week used to be a big deal. Dreaded Mondays, back to school. Wednesdays, midweek blahs. Fridays, halle-fucking-lujah. Saturdays and Sundays were treasured and usually wasted and slipped by way too fast. Now the days blurred into one another like watercolors in the rain.
He glanced at a newspaper someone had left on the top of a nearby trash bin. Saturday, October 1st.
Daniel walked up to him with his usual nervous energy. "Hey. We can get to Tampa for thirty-nine bucks." His tone was both eager and bitter. Daniel hated spending money and felt the entire world was one big conspiracy formed solely to rob him of the small trickles of coins and bills he got working odd jobs or begging on the street. That was a point of view Josh couldn't really argue with.
Josh didn't respond. He looked at the tree. He could feel the glass of the window under his palm, but the sensation was remote, like Daniel. The only thing that seemed real was that single tree with orange on its leaves.
Someday, you and me are going to New England in October to see the fall leaves. Look here. Aren't they the most gorgeous things you ever saw?
His mom had shown him pictures on the computer. The photos were too beautiful to be real. There were narrow country roads passing through forests of tall, thin trees in brilliant shades of garnet and marigold. There were deep indigo ponds edged in fire. There were green mountains mounded like sleeping giants and dotted with swatches of paint.
He remembered his mom's fond smile. Look at that scenery, Josh. That right there is an embarrassment of riches.
His own favorite photo was of a man sitting on the porch of a log cabin, sipping a mug of coffee. The steam rose from the mug into the misty morning air, and beyond the porch had been a blanket of red on the ground and a host of magical trees.
What would it be like to sit on your porch and see that? Even for just one day? Even for just one perfect hour? Alabama didn't have trees like that. We'll go, just the two of us. Maybe next fall. She'd said that every year. Well, every year except this one.
"Josh," Daniel insisted. "Dude. Tickets for Tampa. We'd better get in line. The train leaves in half an hour. You've got enough money, don't you?"
"I'm not going to Tampa," Josh said. He didn't know he was going to say it until the saying was done, but it felt right. The seeds of an idea were forming in his mind. More than seeds. A conviction. For the first time since he'd run away from home three months ago, he knew where he was going.
"Whaddya mean? We said we were going to Florida. That's what we said," Daniel complained.
Well, Daniel had said that yesterday, and Josh had felt too apathetic to argue, so he'd let Daniel drag him to the train station. But things were different now.
Josh looked down at his shoes, not wanting to meet Daniel's eyes. "Sorry. I changed my mind. I'm going north."
"North? North where?"
Josh shrugged. "Massachusetts. Vermont. Someplace like that."
"But it's going to be winter soon! We said we'd go to Florida. You can live on the beaches down there. And maybe we can pick up some work at fast food places and shit. You don't wanna be homeless in fucking Vermont in the winter, dude."
The warning stirred the ideas that were gaining hold in Josh's brain. October. Fall leaves in New England. Summer's sweet good-bye. The earth going into hibernation. And then?
Winter. Snow. An image of a thick blanket of snow in the woods came to him, maybe next to a lake. That would be a good place. He could curl up in a snowbank and… let go. It wouldn't hurt much probably. And it was a beautiful image—tragic and peaceful with the muffled fall of snow covering him like a blanket. It felt right.
"Josh?" Daniel prompted in a worried voice.
Josh blinked. He picked up his duffel bag and slung it over his shoulder. The rank odor of it cut through his thoughts. The bag contained his last earthly possessions and the last of his mother too. It had once been a nice bag, gray with a red Nike swoosh, but a few months of living on the streets had given it a patina of dirt and it smelled like seriously rank laundry. It would fit neatly in a garbage bin and no one would ever miss it.
"Sorry," Josh mumbled. "I promised my mom. So… guess we split here. I hope you find a job down in Tampa."
"Your mom?" Daniel sounded so confused. Josh risked a look at him. It was a mistake, because he saw the pleading, fearful look in Daniel's eyes, and it made Josh feel like crap.
He'd only met Daniel a week ago, but the kid—Daniel was only sixteen, so Josh could call him a kid—was homeless too. He'd latched onto Josh with badly-hidden desperation. For a moment Josh second-guessed his decision. Daniel had unfortunately bright red hair, a fuckton of freckles, and braces. Josh worried about those braces. Didn't they have to be tightened or something? And eventually, they'd have to come off, right? But Daniel had left his dentist and dental insurance far behind when he'd run away from home. What was going to happen to Daniel's braces?
Josh would never know now. He felt guilty leaving Daniel, but it was a momentary twinge. He wasn't Daniel's big brother. And Daniel didn't know him, didn't care about him, not really. Daniel just wanted company, anyone's company. The apathy Josh wore like a shroud crept back in, numbing his heart. Daniel would be okay. In fact, he'd be better off without Josh. Most people were.
And there were fall leaves in New England.
"I'm sorry, but I gotta go. Good luck," Josh mumbled. On impulse, he gave Daniel a hug.
Daniel clung on for an uncomfortable moment. His fingers dug into Josh's shoulders as if they were pins trying to nail a butterfly's wings to a display card. "Promise me you'll be okay, Josh. Promise you won't do anything stupid." Daniel's words were muffled against Josh's shoulder. They were so quiet they could barely be heard over the hum of the train station.
Josh pulled away. "Don't worry about me. I'm golden." He forced the ends of his lips upward.
"Promise, you bastard," Daniel said in a fierce whisper.
"Take care, Daniel. Be safe." Josh gave a little salute, and walked away.