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When the Last Leaf Falls

by Michaela Gallien 9 months ago in Short Story
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A Holiday Short Story

The brisk morning breeze sent fallen leaves chittering across the asphalt. I pulled the soft throw blanket further over my shoulders, holding it close to my chest to block the cold morning air. My slipper-covered foot rested on the porch as I rocked gently in my chair. I peered over the railing into the front yard and took in the view. The green grass had its tips painted with frost that glistened in the morning sun; many of the surrounding trees were missing a majority of their leaves; the air smelled of decomposing leaves and frost. I tightened my grip around my cup of tea to warm my fingertips.

For a moment, I listened to the sounds of the morning. There was a quiet rustling coming from the distant bushes. I imagined tiny woodland animals scurrying to gather some last-minute food for hibernation. The rest of the world remained fairly quiet as many of the birds had already started their journey to their winter homes. A heaviness lingered in the air and it moved with the breeze stinging my cheeks. It is the kind of heaviness that slowly crept into your home as the days grew shorter and colder. Shops and summer festivities slowly closed their doors for the winter. It is the kind of heaviness that rests on your shoulders waiting to sink its way into your chest. I took a deep breath and as I exhaled a cloud of mist appeared in front of me, and I watched it gradually fade into the morning air. I sipped my tea.

Muffled sounds of doors opening and closing inside the house could be heard through the windows. I heard the tiny pitter-patter of feet on the hardwood floor. Peeking into the window, I could see the children searching the house for me as they slowly wandered from room to room. I waved to them as they came up to the window and beckoned me inside. My son's hair stood straight up in the back and I could see a drool mark by the corner of his mouth. My daughter's hair was tangled at the bottom and her eyes drooped with the grogginess of the morning.

I sighed and hoped the looming heaviness wouldn't follow me inside. As soon as the front door opened, I was embraced by the warmth of my home. The kids came into the entryway and their eyes lit up at the sight of me. "There you are, Mommy!" A look of concern crossed his face. "Why were you outside?" My son approached me and cupped my hands in his in an attempt to warm them. A feeling of warmth spread through my body, and I crouched down to be at eye level with him. I fought the urge to plant a kiss on every freckle that was splattered across his face.

"Here I am! I was just having some tea on the porch. It's chilly out there, I don't think it will be long till there is snow on the ground." I examined my children as I silently dreaded the idea of snow. Both of them wore pajamas that were a bit too small for them. The pants' legs fell just above their ankles and their shirt sleeves just above their wrists. I'll get them some brand-new pajamas with this next paycheck, I thought to myself. I could feel the heaviness making its way into the house, seeping in from under the front door and resting on my shoulders. I once again pulled the throw blanket close to my chest imagining it was a shield that would keep the heaviness from settling.

"Snow means Christmas!" My daughter shrieked with glee, "That means Santa!" Her eyes glistened with the early Christmas spirit.

It didn't matter how close I pulled the blanket to my chest, the heaviness settled there. For a moment, I felt I couldn't catch my breath, and I moved to the couch to steady myself. The sun beat through the windows, already making its journey across the sky, preparing to settle on the horizon early this afternoon. I frowned again. The holidays were just a few weeks away. I was behind on some bills after an unexpected incident, and the country store where I work has slowed down, as it does during the winter months. I was still writing on the side but, it wasn't a solid source of income. The heaviness sank deeper into my chest. You still have time, I thought, things have to get better.

"Mommy, do you think we could start getting ready for Christmas today?" My son crawled onto my lap and rested his head under my chin. I needed something to distract me from the heaviness settling in the bottom of my chest, where it planned to reside until spring. I pictured the living room decorated for the holidays. I imagined pretty white lights draped over the entryways, our Christmas tree tucked snug in the corner and fully decorated, and our stockings hanging from the mantle of the fireplace.

"We can start decorating after breakfast. It will have to be finished later though because Nan is coming over so I can go to work." Nan is how my children referred to my mother, and even though they hated when I worked the weekends, I knew they loved spending time with her. I poured two bowls of Fruit Loops with some milk and placed them in front of the children on the table. I watched as they hurriedly ate their breakfast occasionally almost spilling the bowls entirely. "Everly and Eli, slow down while eating your breakfast before you make a mess."

"Sorry." They said in unison as they started moving in slow motion. I shook my head lightly and began shuffling through the stack of mail on the counter. There were past due notices, envelopes stamped with the bright action required notice, and then the daunting holiday catalogs that seemed strategically placed to make light of the other items. I tucked all of the important envelopes away in one of the kitchen drawers just as the front door swung open, “Hello!” A voice called to us in a sing-song manner from the entryway.

“We are in the kitchen!” I called back and quickly shut the drawer. Eli and Everly had stopped eating and were now whispering and giggling to each other. We all recognized the voice and the way she had said hello.

My mother entered the kitchen. Her eyes were wide with excitement to see her grandchildren. "Nan!" Both of the kids jumped out of their seats and rushed to hug her. Her arms opened wide awaiting the embrace. I watched them as they squeezed each other tight, and tried to push the feeling of sadness bubbling up in my throat. I smiled softly trying to mask the overwhelming emotions.

“Since you two are done with breakfast, how about you start taking all the holiday decorations out of the hall closet. I’m about to make Nan and I some tea and we will meet you in the living room.” Eli and Everly rushed out of the room giggling with excitement. The hall closet creaked open and it wasn't long till we heard boxes sliding across the floor.

My mother waited patiently for them to be enthralled in their assignment before speaking, “It’s a bit early to be decorating for the holidays, don’t you think? Thanksgiving is only a couple of weeks away, we still have weeks till Christmas.”

I rolled my eyes, “It makes the kids happy and it’s what they wanted to do today before I go to work. I would like them to enjoy what they can about the holidays while they can. Especially since they’re going to be pretty disappointed with the turnout this year.” The heaviness in my chest made me feel weighed down and rooted where I stood.

“Oh, Emelia. They will not be disappointed. You’re being too harsh on yourself. You give Eli and Everly the world but only focus on the moments you can’t. You give so much of yourself to them every day, plus everything else you do. It isn't your fault you ended up in this situation, your book is terrific, and the publisher thought so too. How were you to know it wasn't going to sell?"

In response to my mother's question, I handed her a cup of tea. The publisher, like my mother, loved my novel and felt it was so relatable that it would easily sell out. Both had convinced me to purchase what now feels like an overabundance of copies to sell. It had been so disappointing that it shattered my writing dream, to be a successful author of a novel.

"It doesn't matter now, I purchased inventory that I haven't sold and foolishly trusted a publisher that tricked me as a new writer. They made money off of me and now I can't afford to give my children the kind of holiday they deserve." I squeezed the mug in my hand, allowing the heat emanating from it to sting my fingertips, keeping the threatening tears at bay. You let your dream ruin a good thing for your children, I thought to myself.

From the living room, I could hear the kids bickering back and forth. They sat beside a large box and were arguing over the items inside. When I entered the living room to see what all the fuss was about they both appeared startled. "What are you two fighting over? " Eli looked down at his lap that was hidden by the box and then back up at me.

I held my hand out for him to place the item, "I'm sorry mommy." My hand felt hot as soon as the item was placed in it. I looked down at my novel, and as I peered into the box there were the rest of the copies I had tried to keep hidden. Looking back at my kids, neither one of them wanted to look up at me. Their eyes stayed on their hands tangled in their laps. I sighed and turned to my mother, she was standing in the doorway with her cup of tea.

"How about we hurry up and get this tree up before I run out of time and have to go to work?" I said turning back to my kids. Finally, their eyes met mine and they jumped up in excitement.

We got to work emptying boxes filled with holiday decor. The artificial tree went up in three easy steps and my mother took the time to fluff the branches for us. After a quick light test, I gradually plucked ornaments from a box and handed them to the kids to place on the tree. Once the tree was fully decorated, I handed each of them their stockings to hang on the mantle of the fireplace. Occasionally I would glance over at the box containing all of the copies of my novel and the heaviness would start to take over. I tried to remain focused on the quality time with my kids and forget the box was even there.

The sun was beginning to set. I got up from my spot on the couch and went back into the kitchen to grab food for work. My mother handed a couple of decoration items from a box to the kids, and then hurriedly followed behind me. "What is it, mom?" I asked as she entered the kitchen. I sensed the urgency in her step.

"I was just thinking, you should take the books with you to work tonight. Maybe you could ask Mr. Anderson to set up a display of them. You could offer him half of the book sales. That way you can get them out of your house. It could be an opportunity to make some extra money and for a fresh start in your writing career." Her eyes were soft and sincere, there was a glimmer of longing in them. She desperately wanted me to be rid of them. It could help lift some of the heaviness and take some stress away, I thought.

"Honestly, that's not a terrible idea." My mother smiled triumphantly. I said goodbye to my mother and the kids and permitted them to finish decorating without me.

"We can't wait for you to see it when you get home!" Eli said squeezing my hand.

"You're going to be so excited!" Everly said jumping up and down with glee.

"I'll see you all tonight!" I called as I continued towards the driveway. There was a small breeze and I watched the few leaves left on the trees dance, clinging to the branches with all of their might. One leaf was left on the large oak tree in the front yard. I stared at it a little longer than the others. Once in the car, I looked up at the leaf one more time and shut my eyes. I imagined that I was the leaf clinging tight to the branch of the oak tree. Every time the wind blew I would hold tighter than I ever have, trying desperately to not fall. It was imperative not to fail, I reminded myself, and to hold on as the leaf does.

Only two customers wandered around the store when I clocked in. Mr. Anderson was busy on the phone with his wife so I left the box of novels behind the counter. The store had a rustic appeal to it. The interior matched the log cabin style of the exterior. We sold handmade signs and jewelry, candles, local wine, bumper stickers, candy, and other tourist-related trinkets. Both customers smiled and gave a small nod in my direction before departing the store. Mr. Anderson came out of the backroom mumbling under his breath when he noticed me.

"Emelia! I'm glad to see you dear!" Even though he smiled he looked tired. His hair was pure white and I had assumed it was due to the stress of running a store, but also dealing with his high-maintenance wife. He was heavier in the gut area and not very tall. He always smiled when he saw me and was always so generous and kind.

"Good evening, Mr. Anderson! How is Mrs. Anderson?"

He sighed and shook his head, "Unfortunately, still a huge pain in the rear end! She wants to purchase brand new IPads for all of the grandbabies this year. I've tried to explain to her we are in no shape and I have holiday bonuses I give to the employees for their families, and she isn't having it."

I tried not to let the anxiety show on my face. Mr. Anderson was extremely generous with his holiday bonus every year, and this year I could use it. If Mrs. Anderson decided that she needed the money for their grandchildren, then that was it. No holiday bonus for anyone, "She doesn't think your grandchildren are a tad young for IPads? They wouldn't be better off with something like a toy or a book?" I thought about Eli and Everly, their wishlists consisted of items like crayons, books, dolls, action figures. They had yet to ask for anything electronic-related.

"They take after their grandmother. They all feel they need the latest and greatest. Even more frustrating, they all feel like they deserve it. I'm afraid it's going to come down to me not handing out a bonus to the employees this year. You know how she can get sometimes. I wish they would ask for a toy or a book instead. It would be easier on my pocket and better for my employees."

"Speaking of books, I brought in a box full of my novel. I was curious if I could set up a display of them. We could split the profit fifty-fifty if you'd like, I would just really like them out of my house. It's just another reminder of a dream that didn't work out for me." I sighed. The sun had set and through the windows of the country store the only light that could be seen was that of a street light. I could feel the heaviness in the bottom of my chest. I wrapped my cardigan around my torso and hugged it close to my body.

Mr. Anderson looked at the box and back at me. Unlike me, he didn't try to hide the brief look of sadness. I knew at that moment he was feeling sorry for me and it made my stomach feel as though it were in knots, "You can set up a display, and I don't want any of the profits. I will even buy the first copy from you. It doesn't make up for the holiday bonus now but hopefully, it will." He grabbed a copy of the novel from the box and fished a twenty out of his pocket. "You can keep the change too," He looked down at his watch, "Well, it's five-thirty. If I don't get moving now I won't be home in time for dinner and the misses will have my head. Enjoy the rest of your night Emelia, call if you need anything."

"Thank you again, Mr. Anderson. Have a good night, tell Mrs. Anderson I said hello!" He gave a small wave in response and I got to work setting up a display for my novel. I found an old corner shelving unit and set it up right next to the wine display. It would catch the eye of anyone looking for some wine, and there was nothing better than settling in with a glass of wine and a good book.

I kept checking the time as I worked diligently on my display. I wanted to ensure I locked the doors right at nine for closing so I could make it home to my kids before they went to bed. I kept one book off of the display to leave on the counter by the register. I hoped when people saw it they would ask about it, then I could point them in the direction of my display. The heaviness stayed with me the entire night. I thought of the leaf and whether it was still hanging onto the branch. Alone in the store, I felt as though I were barely hanging on. My mind went back to Mr. Anderson telling me he isn't giving out holiday bonuses this year and I felt the knots in my stomach again. There was no guaranteeing my book would even sell here, and if it did there was still the chance I wouldn't make what I would've received from a bonus.

I bowed my head and began whispering under my breath, "Please, I need a miracle. I just need a huge miracle, please. Let me sell all of my books, or come into some money somehow. Eli and Everly need it. They don't just need it, they deserve it."

Never had I done something like that. I wasn't sure if I was saying a prayer, or who I was talking to, or what I was hoping would happen. I just knew, at that moment, I needed faith and hope. Eli and Everly deserve the world and I intend to give it to them, whatever it takes. I began pacing the store to keep from crying as the anxious feeling had become overwhelming. As I tidied some shelves I began wishing someone would come into the store, they didn't have to purchase anything, the presence of another person would help kill the looming feeling of loneliness.

The bells hanging from the front door jingled as if on cue, and I peered around the corner of the aisle to see who was walking in. An older gentleman in a black peacoat strolled into the store and began looking around. I slowly made my way back to my post behind the register, "Hi, how are you?"

He jumped, "Oh goodness, you startled me! I am just ducky, young lady. How are you?" He continued to look around as he spoke.

"Honestly, I am much better now that there is someone else in the store. I felt like I was on the verge of going mad being here alone." My eyes followed him around the store. He turned the rack with the bumper stickers on it, looking it up and down. He continued through the store quietly looking over the shelves. "Can I help you find something?"

He wandered back to the counter where I stood, "I'm not sure. I'm looking for an item I can buy multiple of. For the holidays I like to donate a gift to the shelter for them to hand out. I just don't want to purchase a little trinket or sticker. I want something they can use that's more meaningful." He peered down at the counter and noticed my novel, he raised an eyebrow and picked it up. "A book could be the perfect item. Do you have anymore?"

There was a feeling of knots in my stomach again, "We only have that one book for sale. I'm not sure they will like it though. It's just a mediocre first novel written by some unknown author. You would probably be better off going to a Barnes and Noble for a gift." He looked from the novel to me and continued to read the back cover. I stood watching him, feeling sick to my stomach. Anxiety and fear washed over me, the heaviness in my chest took my breath away and I struggled to find words. I wanted him to put the novel down and save me the embarassment of his critique. I shouldn't have asked to sell the books here, I thought to myself.

"Are there more of these?" His eyes stayed glued to the back cover of the book.

"The display is next to the wine." I pointed to the other side of the register, directing him to the display I had just finished putting together. Silently, he placed the novel back on the counter and made his way towards the wine. I began to sweat, I felt like a chef awaiting the response of a food critique. I tried to hide my shock when he came around the corner with a pile of the books in hand. When every copy of the novel was placed on the counter in front of me I could no longer hide my shock. "How much do I owe you?" He said with a smile.

"I-uh. The owner never told me how much to sell them for." I kept looking from the pile of books to the man.

"Well, how about I give you what I think these are all worth then?" At a loss for words, I nodded in agreement and began bagging the books.

He handed over a pile of cash and grinned, "It's a lovely story. Thank you, and happy holidays Emelia." My heart dropped as he said my name and before I could find the words to respond he was gone.

I looked at the cash in my hands and felt my heart racing. I started counting the bills and gasped as I got to the last one. A small note was stuck to the last bill, give Eli and Everly the Christmas they deserve, Happy Holidays. I ran to the front door in hopes the man would still be out there. The parking lot was empty, and I looked back down at the cash in my hand, two-thousand dollars. I knew my books were not worth that. I tried to hold back tears. I took a deep breath and imagined the last leaf on the tree at home. As I exhaled I imagined it releasing itself from the branch and making its journey to the ground. As the tears fell, I felt a sense of relief. Like the leaf I let go, and all of my worries went with it.

Short Story

About the author

Michaela Gallien

writing is my outlet to free my mind, relieve stress, and truly be creative. I hope to share strong messages and relatable captivating stories that impact a greater audience.

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