Here is the first part of a children’s story I began last year. This is the first time in a long time I’ve felt excited while reading something I’ve written, and excited to finish it.
Written by Jen Butler
“Don’t make me do it!” Larry screamed. “Please… Don’t…” His voice turned to a whimper as he writhed in his slumber. A bead of sweat gathered on his skin, right above the small patch of yellow that he had yet to notice.
Larry awoke with a startle. “Wh-Huh?”
As his vision adjusted to the waking world, Larry saw a pair of eyes peek in through the hole of his tree house. His fear dissipated when he realized who it was.
“Oh! Hi, Steve. You scared me. Come on in.”
But he already had, even before Larry granted him permission. The others thought Steve was nuts, but Larry was certain there was an understanding between the two of them. He watched as Steve used his tiny, furry fingers to make a crevice in the gathered mess of pine straw, cotton, and the random turquoise blue thread that a transient bird had left. Larry secretly called this place “home,” but he knew he had to share. It’s what Mother wanted, after all.
Steve looked up at Larry and, without blinking, opened his mouth, flopped out his tongue, pushed on either side of his puffy cheeks, and with a POP sppllaaaattt POP shhplaaat, two slimy acorns dislodged from inside his cheeks, slid down the curved slide of his tongue, and landed perfectly into the crevice. Steve rubbed his hands together in a way that seemed rehearsed.
“Impressive,” Larry said. He thought he saw Steve squint and nod in agreement, but it also may have been a sneeze. It was hard to tell. Steve tended to move in short, erratic movements, which was typical of his kind. (Larry would know; he’d been studying the Squirrels his whole life.) Steve carefully covered the acorns. After adding the finishing touch of a down feather on top, he looked at Larry, stood tall, puffed out his chest, and pointed to his masterpiece, as if to say TADA!
“Beautiful work,” Larry said. If Larry could clap, he would have.
Squeak! Steve demanded.
The squirrel pointed again to the stash. Squuuueeeaak!
“I don’t understand.”
In a dramatically slow fashion, Steve used both paws to point to Larry and then to the spot covering his prized nuts. Squuu-EEAaaak. After a moment of silence, Larry was suddenly flailing in the air.
“No! Put me down!” He begged.
Steve obliged, adjusting Larry a little to the left, then a bit to the right. With a nod of approval, he patted Larry on the face and left.
Larry looked down and sighed, shifting slightly to avoid a tickle from the feather.
“Great. Now I’m Mother Hen,” he grumbled. This wasn’t the first time a Squirrel had elicited Larry’s help. As much as he pretended to be upset, Larry liked feeling useful. He sighed a fake sigh and peered outside.
Larry was the eldest leaf on Mother Oak—er, well, in Mother Oak. For one reason or another, he grew inside of the tree rather than on the outer branches, as all the other leaves had. This, Mother told him, made him special; she said he was destined for something great and had a specific purpose. The others called him sensitive, a hermit, and a chicken. (He was glad they couldn’t see him in his current state: sitting on a nest, warming acorns; they’d never let him hear the end of it.)
It was that time of year again, where the name of the season sounded like a morbid demand to Larry. Fall. The other leaves were happy, as they always were. Larry scrunched his face at the noisy group of young’ns as they giggled and rustled in the cooling breeze.
“I’m gonna’ be part of a leaf pile for a whole family!” one said.
“Oh yea? I-I’m gonna’ help fill up one of those trash bags that looks like a giant pumpkin!” gloated another. “A-a pumpkin with a scary face and everything!”
The dreamers wanted to travel, the poets wanted to be found and used as a bookmark, the hippies wanted to lie on the ground until they decomposed into the earth, and the trouble-makers wanted to find their way to a gutter so they could clog it. There were ooo’s and ah’s and other rambles of hopeful futures. Larry promptly tuned them out.
Once they leave, he thought, they can never come back. He shivered at the thought of it. He often had nightmares about falling. Whereas other leaves swayed back and forth in a gentle and rhythmic fashion (some unlucky enough to get whisked away in a spontaneous gust of wind), Larry’s dreams always showed him dropping toward the ground like a glass bowling ball and shattering into countless unrecognizable pieces.
He figured the best way to avoid such a fate was to stay put. Besides, there was too much unknown out there.
He looked around the inside of his home, where he’d been for many seasons, ever since he first started growing. He eyed the ceiling, which had a few hardened drips of sap and one beautiful yet antisocial (or possibly deaf?) arachnid, whom he called Susan. He glanced to where he’d been sitting moments prior and felt a pang in his heart as he eyed the stem that connected him to mother. He looked down and confirmed his worse fear: the stem was no longer attached to his body.
“No! No! No no no!” Larry couldn’t think of another word. Then, finally, “Mother!!!”
W h a t i s t h e m a t t e r, m y c h i l d? He heard Mother’s voice in his head, which was the way all Mothers in Nature communicated. She spoke slowly, methodically, and with a tone that was somehow both intimidating and caressing.
“Mother! My stem! Steve-he did this. It’s his fault!” He was frantic, shaking. “You can fix this. Right? This can be fixed.” There was no answer. “HELLO?!”
A l l h a p p e n s a s i t s h o u l d, She said after some time. She always spoke in simple sentences about depth and meaning and purpose and blah blah blah. Other times she’d say only one or two words, as if they were a part of a riddle. It had never bothered Larry until now.
“You’re wrong!” He said, “I can’t believe this is happening to me”
F o r… She said.
“This is all wrong!”
F o r… She repeated.
“What do I do?!”
F o r…
F o r y o u.
And with that, she went quiet.
“Four me?” he thought aloud. “Four… For? For me. Mother! What’s for me?”
There was no response. He could feel she was listening to him, and somehow knew there’d be no further response.
It was quickly yellowing, Larry noticed as he stared at his stem. He gulped. He didn’t want to think of what this meant for him. That was his life force, after all. It kept him safe. Did this mean… His mind was flooded with terrifying visions from his dreams.
He swatted away the thoughts, wondering what Mother had meant about “for you.” He hoped she was working out a way to reconnect him. After all, it was her job to keep him safe. Right?
“F-A-L! F-A-L!” The young ones were chanting again, making up cheers at their daily pep rally. They knew misspellings got under Larry’s skin, so they taunted him by spelling “fall” f-a-l and “leaves” l-e-a-f-s. It had become a sort of game to them. They’d chant incorrect spelling until Larry grumbled and shouted the correct letters out at them.
After about ten repetitions of f-a-l, the group went quiet.
“Laaaarry?” One called out at him.
“Scary Larry, are you in there?” another inquired.
“No!” Larry responded.
“He’s not in there,” one whispered.
“Yeth huh,” another said with a lisp.
“No he’s not! He said he wasn’—Ooohhh…” she cleared her throat. “Hey, Larry!” She waited.
“Um. We… WE ARE MISSPELLING WORDS.”
“Go away!” Larry barked back.
“Aren’t you maaaad?”
“Leave me alone!” He hissed.
There were murmurs outside, which were interrupted by a loud whistle of wind.
“Weeeeee!!!” the others shouted in unison, a sound that always seemed to correspond with a wind ride. Their shouts of glee grew quieter as the bunch of leaves rode the wind back and forth and back and forth until reaching the cold, hard ground.
Larry shivered. He silently wished them good luck. They’ll need it, he thought.
Days passed. Maybe even weeks. There were very few leaves left on Mother. She was preparing for a winter slumber, as she did every year. Larry was trying to go about things like normal: daily conversations with Steve and family, a solid sleep from sundown to sunup, and philosophical ponderings about the meaning of life. Something was different, though. Larry could feel the harshness of the wind more than he ever had before. He was starting to feel more sensitive overall. It was spotted and had a few stripes. Larry tried to ignore these blemishes, but he felt self-conscious about them and what they signified.
“I’m dying,” he told Steve one morning, matter-of-factly.
Steve didn’t look up from what he was doing, which looked like creating an artistic display… or just burying more food.
“I’m going to wither away in here, and no one will know I existed.”
Squeak, Steve reminded him.
“Yes; you know I exist. But no one else does. All the others who knew me have left. And what about my purpose? I thought I was meant for something great.”
Steve may have pointed to the front door. Or he could have been stretching his arm.
“No! No way. I’ll fall like a ton of bricks if I go out there. I’m fine right here. Where it’s safe.” Larry rolled to his side and sulked.
Some time into his sad snooze, Larry felt a tickle on his side. When he looked up, he saw Steve holding a piece of pine straw, using one end of it to poke him.
Steve held a solitary finger up to his mouth as if to hush Larry. Or he could have been scratching his nose. It was hard to tell.
“What’s going on?”
Larry turned his attention to the middle of his and Steve’s shared space, where a poof of feathers was moving up and down, up and down, in a rhythm that resembled breathing.
“What is that?” Larry whispered.
Steve flapped his arms by his side. Or he could have been exercising, preparing for more nest work. It was hard to tell.
“Ugh. Hi,” said the pile of feathers.
“Um… Hi?” Larry responded. He shrugged at Steve.
With a few grunts and grumbled words, the feather pile rotated until Larry could make out two eyeballs within it.
“Am I still in the Oak?” the eyeball feathers asked.
“The Oak. In the middle of the park. Am I still in it?”
“Yes,” Larry responded.
“Rats!” Feathers exclaimed, as it rotated back the other way.
“Squirrel, actually,” Larry corrected. “But I can see the resemblance. They’re much smarter than most think.”
There was no response.
“I’m Larry the Leaf. And this is Steve. Steve the Squirrel” Larry made an ahem noise and looked at Steve, who was being no help at all. “And you are…?”
“A failure,” Feathers huffed back.
“Oh. Uh. Hello, Afe… Hailer?”
The pile sighed. “My name is Flip. I’m a bird.”
“Oh! Of course. The feathers. Nice to meet you, Flip the Bird.”
“Not quite what you expected, huh?”
“Yea. Well. Me neither.”
Larry awkwardly bobbed, unsure of what to say.
“So…” He finally said. “Crazy weather out there, eh?”
“Listen. I don’t need small talk. Okay? I just… I messed something up in my calculations and… And I have to try again.” He breathed mindfully until his feathers settled, revealing the shape of a small bird with one featherless wing outstretched.
“Right. I’ll leave you to it, then.” Larry paused, briefly. “What are you trying to do?”
“Fly,” Flip said back, curtly. “Because I’m a bird and that’s what birds do.”
“Oh my. That’s terrifying.”
Flip waddled around toward Larry.
“I’m not scared of anything, okay?!” Flip yelled, which was accompanied by a poof! And his feathers extending into a fluffball. After a few calming breaths, his feathers settled again. Larry eyed the outstretched wing, noting that it didn’t seem to move like a normal one.
Flip caught Larry’s sight and sighed. He moved toward the exit, and took a deep breath. “See ya’, Leonard.”
“No! Don’t!” But before Larry could get a word out, the bird was gone.
Larry couldn’t believe how eager Flip had been to leave the tree. For the first time in his life, Larry allowed his imagination to wander to what all could be out there, beyond the park. He moved toward the tree hole to peer out at the remaining leaves. He saw that they had all left. Suddenly, he felt small. And he felt sad.
He heard a sniffle from outside of the tree.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
(…to be continued.)