Dead Leaves

by Susan Wade

It was the last day of October, and the wind had gone cold. A delicious, shivery chill that was welcome after the blinding heat of summer. Anne danced along the sidewalk on her way home from the bus stop, enjoying the scuff of her leather shoes on the pavement and the pleasing scrunch of the leaves.

Everyone had been in a good mood today at work, because of Halloween. They'd gathered in Sid's office at four for punch and cookies, and he'd let them leave at 4:30. "To get ready for your parties," he had said with a laugh.

And the wonderful thing was, she did have a party tonight. Her costume was all ready--a long black skirt, a cobwebby black shawl, and a large, lifelike rubber spider to wear in her hair. She would be a black widow. Melody and Bob were picking her up at seven, and Bob said he had a friend who wanted to meet her . . .

Anne realized she was looking forward to the evening for the first time in a long time. For the first time since she had packed a few things and run in the middle of the night, nearly a year ago. The terror had taken a long time to fade. It was hard, never being certain Sam wouldn't come after her--find her somehow--and hurt her again. But she had held on and made a new life for herself: a new job, a new apartment, and now, maybe, a new boyfriend?

I'm getting over it, she thought, and smiled.

She stopped scrunching along and picked up her pace, anticipating the evening ahead.

They had to park a couple of blocks away from the party, because there were so many cars already there. Melody laughed and said it would be fun to walk--maybe they should stop and do a little trick-or-treating along the way. She was justifiably proud of her costume--a harem outfit she'd rented from Electric Ladyland.

Anne had that damp, nervous feeling she got when meeting strangers. Ever since Sam . . . Bob's friend was going to meet them at the party. What if he didn't like the way she looked? Did this full skirt emphasize her hips to much? She found herself slowing down, letting Bob and Melody move ahead. She needed a minute to pull herself together.

Leaves skritched along the sidewalk behind her, rattling on the pavement like the claws of some small creature that was stalking her. Ordinarily, she loved autumn leaves: their colors, the way they smelled, even the sound they made as they scrunched under her feet. But tonight the sound of them skittering along behind her got on her nerves.

Just then, something sharp brushed against the back of her knee.

She spun around. There was nothing there. The wind died, and the leaves were suddenly still, like mischievous children feigning sleep the second their mother opened the bedroom door. Anne looked around carefully, but there was nothing there at all. Just the wind, and her own silliness, because she was nervous about meeting Bob's friend. Melody had said his name was Elliot.

Anne looked for them and realized they were far ahead of her now, already turning onto the next block. She started walking again, much faster now. She didn't want to walk into the party by herself.

As she approached the corner, the wind gusted, fluttering chill fingers through her shawl and blowing its fringe about. A horde of dried leaves swirled around her, curving up from the ground in a bizarre funnel. They brushed at her shirt, her arms, her neck, surrounding her. They reminded her of cats, rubbing up against her and . . . tasting her.

The thought made her shiver. Tasting her? She batted the swirl of leaves aside and raced up the block toward the party. Melody and Bob were just going inside; if she hurried, she would be right behind them.

The leaves eddied disconsolately in her wake, then settled back to earth, waiting.

It was well after midnight when Anne and Elliot emerged from the party, which was still going strong. She was giddy and a bit light-headed from the smoking orange punch. She hadn't realized there was so much alcohol in it. When she wavered on the porch steps, Elliot laughed and took her arm.

"Here, hold onto me. The car's down this way." He turned and headed toward Speedway.

He was nice. Very nice. Anne held onto him with pleasure. He had made her feel so comfortable at the party, asking her friendly questions and really listening to the answers. And telling just enough about himself too. He was a lawyer, hoped to make partner next year, and loved playing softball.

The cold air felt good on her flushed cheeks. She took a deep breath, enjoying the October smell of the air: brittle leaves and carved pumpkins and woodsmoke.

"It's not much further," Elliot said. "Sorry."

She smiled at him and leaned closer. "Don't be. I like to walk."

The streetlight next to them blinked out, and she jumped.

"They're on timers," he said. "Saves the city money. Let's see, I think I parked under that tree over there."

It was inky under the tree's shadow, and she paused.

Elliot must have sensed her hesitation. "Let me go open the door so you can see. Don't want you twisting your ankle or anything--could lead to litigation."

Her irrational uneasiness faded, and she laughed. "That would be nice. Thanks."

He stepped off the curb and made a show of groping around. "It's got to be here somewhere."

Once he was in the shadows, she couldn't see him at all. She heard the chink of his keys, then an odd hollow thud. There was a sliding sound, and she thought he said something.

Worried, she took three quick steps toward the tree. "Elliot? Are you okay?"

A figure stepped out of the shadows just ahead of her. He was big. Bigger than Elliot.

"Hi, Annie. How are you, babe? Long time, no see."

"Sam?" The name came out in a squeak, and her head spun. "What are you doing here?"

"To see you, babe. What else? Took me long enough to find you, but following your old friends finally paid off."

Fear had turned her stone-cold. She strained to see past the shadows under the tree. "Elliot?"

Dead leaves scuttled behind her.

"Don't worry about him," Sam said. "It's just you and me, now."

She cut and ran, but he was on her like lightning. He twisted her arm around, and that's when she saw the knife.

"After midnight--it's the Day of the Dead," he said. His teeth gleamed white in the darkness. "And you and me are gonna celebrate it special this year."

The leaves crept forward and clustered around the fallen body, piling higher and deeper until it was completely buried.

A bit of black fringe fluttered in the October wind, and then was still.

"Dead Leaves" copyright 1996 by Susan Wade. From the October 31, 1996 edition of XLNT, the entertainment magazine of the Austin-American Statesman.

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