“May I have your leaves please?”
Rake in hand, Billy Swackhamer looked up at the voice: a petite, young girl—couldn’t have been older than his seventeen years. She was wearing a long, light sweater, hardly warm enough against the sudden chill that had hit town. Her skin was white, very white. The word “albino” came to mind, but he wasn’t really sure of its definition. She stood still, waiting for his reply.
“You want the leaves?”
Billy looked at all he still had to bag. A couple hours’ work easy, but his parents had said he needed to get this chore done or he wouldn’t be going to the movies with his friends tonight.
“How much?” he asked.
A confused look came to her face. “I don’t understand.”
“What do I need to pay you to do the job?”
“There is no charge. As a matter of fact…” She took some tiny steps closer to him and removed a folded bill from her garment’s pocket. She held it out. “…you may have this.”
A fifty! He pushed the money away, but she kept offering it. “You want to pay me for the leaves?”
“That’s not the way it usually goes. The person who does the work gets the money.”
The girl tucked the fifty into one of his hoodie’s pockets. “Yes?” she asked.
“Thanks.” He passed her his rake, which she held with the handle’s end against the ground. “Are the others coming soon?”
“I need no help.”
“J-Just you? You’ll never finish.”
“Do not doubt me.”
“All the leaves have to be bagged by three, when my mom and dad get home.”
“Plenty of time.” She turned the rake over and breathed in a gulp of crisp air.
Even though she had said not to doubt her, Billy did. If she wasn’t done by three o’clock, he’d be grounded all weekend—richer but grounded. “You’re sure you don’t…”
She gave him a gentle shove toward the car in the driveway.
* * *
The fifty-dollar bill in his pocket, Billy couldn’t escape the idea he was dealing with a cuckoo. He locked the house up tight against a possible burglary, jumped in his car, and—his uneasy stomach growling—headed off. He could see her waving goodbye in the rearview mirror.
* * *
He ate his value meal slowly, trying to decide when to go home. There was no way that girl was going to finish the job. She’d be gone, he was sure, and the leaves would be everywhere.
He looked at the clock on his cell. He’d better be getting back. He’d have to work even harder to be done by three, but everyone’s entitled to a lunch break—right?
* * *
She was gone, along with every leaf. The rake was leaning against the house. There were no full compost bags to be seen, even though Billy had partially filled one earlier.
He counted the brown bags under the rake. Four: the number he had brought out.
She took all that refuse without using a single bag? Even his original one was there, now empty. She must have lied about not needing any help. Someone had to have come by with a truck.
For a moment, Billy thought he was being punked, but which of his friends would go this far for a prank and pay him fifty bucks? None of his pals had that kind of money.
He scooped up the bags and rake, and brought them to the shed in the backyard, which was as leafless as the front. He put the stuff inside, locked the wooden door, and thought for a moment.
Should he tell his parents?
No. They wouldn’t believe him. They’d think he had been drinking… or worse. He’d keep the truth to himself, only owning up if a neighbor asked either of them what had happened with that young girl who came by while they were out.
Right now, the leaves were gone, and he still had more than forty bucks in his pocket. He nervously went into the house. Nothing missing. Relieved, Billy plopped down on Dad’s overstuffed La-Z-Boy and pulled up the website for the local multiplex on his phone.
* * *
Billy saw nothing more of the girl.
When his father asked him what he had done with the full leaf bags—Billy hadn’t thought of that—he lied that he took them down to the recycling center (and made a mental note to get rid of the four in the shed as soon as possible). He could tell Dad didn’t know whether to believe him, but there was no denying the chore that was to decide his boy’s weekend plans was done.
* * *
Bill pulled on his knit, green skullcap to keep his balding head warm and began raking. Dad had gone to see Mom at the hospital—damn cancer!—but only he was allowed visitations at this point. Bill promised he’d take care of the leaves when Dad insisted he would do it—an effort to keep his mind off his wife’s worsening disease. Bill told him, in a way that only a son can tell his father, to get the hell in the car and go.
* * *
Bill looked up. It was her, the girl from all those years ago, the one who bought the leaves. She slowly came closer. No, it couldn’t be the same person, though she looked exactly like what his failing mind had recorded back when. She would have aged in the intervening cruel years too, but she looked as bright and young as before.
“May I have your leaves please?” She pulled two fifties from her sweater and pressed them into Bill’s right hand. “I figured that, after all these years,” she explained, “the price had gone up.”
* * *
Bill drove away, leaving the young lady alone. He stayed out for a couple of hours, walking the aisles at Target, not really noticing a thing on the shelves. When Dad, exhausted, returned, there wasn’t even the hint of a leaf to be seen. The lady was good.
He told his son to go home. Mom, he reported, was holding her own. He was going right to bed. The younger Swackhamer knew not to argue.
Bill slipped one of the fifty-dollar bills into a pocket of his father’s jacket before leaving.
* * *
Mr. Swackhamer was already exhausted. The young, thirty-something real estate agent had finally found an interested buyer for the Swackhamers’ long-empty Colonial. After a brave and painful battle, cancer had taken Mom eleven years ago. Dad followed less than nine months later, a broken man with empty tear ducts.
The potential buyer insisted on seeing the house in the morning, to which the commission-hungry agent readily agreed without considering the effects on anyone else. Because of the sudden deadline and his desire not to argue with anyone, Swackhamer found himself raking the yard to put on the best front for the morning.
* * *
She didn’t speak this time. His foggy mind barely recalled her place in his life. She had some connection to the leaves. He knew that or thought he did. She walked toward him. “Remember me?”
“A… A little,” he replied, trying to recall.
She reached out one hand and touched her thumb to his creased brow. The wrinkles felt odd to a being who knew nothing of aging. Swackhamer grew dizzy, heat penetrating his mind. He lost his grip on the rake. She held him against falling. Before long, he recovered. “Now?”
“Yes,” he said after a brief pause, the memories coming back to him like molasses. “The leaves.”
She grinned. “That’s right.”
Swackhamer gestured about the yard. “If you want more,” he said, “I’ve got plenty.”
From the calm, moonless night, a sudden, gusty wind blew down the country road and into the neighborhood. Swackhamer shivered. His visitor didn’t seem cold at all.
A large, diamond-shaped aircraft came gliding down the street, like a surfer on a wave, and stopped over them. The unraked leaves blew in all directions from the ship’s spinning motion. Swackhamer shielded his old eyes against the glowing and blinking lights on the thing’s belly. The lady took one of his wrinkled hands in one of her alabaster ones. “Come,” she said. “I need your help.”
* * *
He slept most of the two-hour trip, drifting off into a snore-filled nap when the ship hit light speed. He groggily awoke as they touched down with a clang onto the planet Kymar. The young lady helped him rise, took him by one hand, and led him to the vessel’s main hatch. “What can I—” Swackhamer began.
“Shhh,” the Kymarian replied, gently putting a warm finger on the Earther’s lips. “First, see.”
* * *
She pressed a red button on the bulkhead, and the hatch slid up into itself. Swackhamer took a big gulp of the sweetest air he had ever known and looked out onto an alien world covered with leaves of all colors and many shapes. Dozens of the planet’s inhabitants, who looked much like the lady he had come to know, strolled on a walkway between immense piles of leaves, admiring their beauty. After taking a few minutes to appreciate the patchwork quilt the aliens had created, the Earther asked, “Why?”
The young lady led him down a ramp, which extended from below the hatch to the public walkway, and took him on a stroll. “The oxygen,” she answered. “We needed it.”
He took another deep breath, the planet’s wonderful air bathing his lungs. “Feels great.”
“Now,” she went on, “but before all this work, there wasn’t enough for the tiniest beast to breathe.”
They walked past thousands of vibrant, octagonal leaves from the tropo tree of Sanfria Prime—happily squirming against each other on the ground as they let out frequent bursts of pure oxygen from tiny holes in their faces. Later came the circular, bright-yellow leaves of the puy tree from Angelickus. They hummed an alien tune as they took turns making oxygen by spinning in the air in circles.
The Kymarian led the old man all over, pointing out many wonderful things. He saw unbelievable sights and heard some of the most beautiful sounds since Mozart. Finally, they came to an immense pile of silent and still leaves—deteriorating, brown, crunchy, and dead.
“These are,” Swackhamer stammered, “from my… my tree?”
“From your planet. They give us nothing. We’d like to return them to you.” They stretched on well past his vision. Football fields’ worth. “All the others produce oxygen to some extent. That’s how our scientists made Kymar livable again.”
“Our leaves make air when they’re on trees.”
“Only then?” she asked hopefully.
“I think so. It’s been a long time since school.”
She sighed. “Our scientists have been wasting their time.”
“Every other leaf produces oxygen—the tropo, the puy, and many you haven’t seen yet. Only your world’s don’t. The scientists figured they must be missing something, that there had to be a way to make the Earth leaves contribute to our atmosphere. They’ve long tried in vain to fix what they thought was a solvable problem. Now we know it can never happen.”
“Sorry,” Swackhamer uttered, as though it was his fault.
“The Earth leaves must be destroyed to make way for other air-giving ones. How do you propose we start?”
“They are a product of your world.”
A puy leaf, momentarily separated from the others, swirled around him. He gently grabbed it, and the yellow thing giggled in his hand. “Mr. Swackhamer!” the lady objected before he let go.
“Earth’s don’t.” Another yellow leaf blew past. He smiled, but ignored it. “Getting all these leaves here must have been exhausting.”
“Did you ever take a break?”
“Of course not. We had a world to save.”
Swackhamer smiled. “The Earth leaves are dead?”
“Nothing can harm them?”
Swackhamer backed up many paces, ignoring the lady’s questions of what he was doing. He waited for some chatting Kymarians to pass him on the walkway.
It had been years! He gulped a deep breath of the air of many worlds and took off in what, for his age, passed as running. With a happy scream, he leapt into the dead leaves.
Worried, she was beside him in a moment. “Surprise!” he yelled as he quickly rose from the pile, some of it clinging to his clothes.
“What was that?” she asked.
“You never tried it?”
“I never even thought about it.”
“I used to do it all the time back home when I was a boy. It’s the best use for our fallen leaves. Try it.”
“I don’t know.” She looked at his happy face. “Does it hurt?”
“No. It’ll be fun.”
She walked to where Swackhamer had started his run and did her best to imitate him. Where she landed was crunchy, but soft. She soon popped up from under the leaves, laughing, her white cheeks red.
She called to the others that they really should try this. Some of them had seen what she did and copied her. Those remaining copied them. Before long, the pile of dead Earth leaves was crowded with fair-skinned, chuckling Kymarians jumping in, jumping out, and going under once more.
Swackhamer’s friend waded through the leaves to him. Many other Kymarians took gleeful, repeated dives behind her. “This is what you call ‘fun?’” she asked, catching her breath.
He chuckled slightly. “Yes.”
“I never suspected leaves that didn’t give oxygen could be of any use.” She picked up a handful, held them up, let go, and watched them fall back into the pile. “We were raised to respect them. Without their gifts, Kymar would be uninhabitable. That’s why I yelled when you grabbed that puy leaf. Now we know these leaves can be beneficial.”
“So you don’t want to get rid of them?”
“Certainly not! We may even need more.” She reached out and clutched Swackhamer’s age-spotted hands. “You showed us something I wouldn’t have thought possible. How can we repay you?”
“Take me back to Earth?”
“Of course. Whenever you choose.”
“Let’s wait a bit,” he suggested, the fun the Kymarians were having taking him back to his younger days, when leaves were a pleasure, not a chore.
* * *
After sincere thanks from everyone, Swackhamer was on his way home. The young lady dropped him at his parents’ Colonial and happily—joyfully—took all the fallen leaves with her.
Mike has had over 150 audio plays produced in the U.S. and overseas.
He’s won The Columbine Award and a dozen Moondance International Film Festival awards in their TV pilot, audio play, short screenplay, and short story categories.
His prose work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies.
In 2020, his screenplay Die Laughing was a semi-finalist in the Unique Voices Screenplay Competition from Creative Screenwriting Magazine. The following year, his TV pilot script “The Bullying Squad” was a quarter-finalist in the Emerging Writers Genre Screenplay Competition.
Mike is the writer of two short films, Dark Chocolate and Hotline.
In 2013, he won the inaugural Marion Thauer Brown Audio Drama Scriptwriting Competition. In 2020, he came in second. For several of the in-between years, he served as a judge.
Mike keeps a blog at audioauthor.blogspot.com.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Fallen”:
In “The Fallen” author Mike Murphy demonstrates the perfect recipe for a short story (or any story for that matter): hook the reader with an intriguing opening that poses multiple questions, sprinkle in some conflict, fold in more mystery, cook it, then let the reader bite into the surprise and savor it.
Two other things made this piece work for us. The first was the author’s out-of-the-box thinking in crafting it. Second was the bit of nostalgia that takes us back to our own childhood memories of fall and jumping in piles of leaves.