Becca trudged through the forest on her way home from school. Her mood was, as it had been for many weeks, morose. Putting it down to the move that had taken them several states from where she’d grown up, her mother had dealt with Becca’s lingering sadness by ignoring it. That was pretty much how the woman had dealt with everything since the moment her own mother’s heart had given out, taking away the only thing they had both loved unconditionally.
A large brown leaf drifted down from the tree Becca passed under. It danced on the wind a moment before landing at her feet. Shaking herself out of the funk she’d wrapped herself in, Becca looked around and was struck by the scene around her. Rays of golden autumn light broke through the trees, turning the patch of forest she’d cut through dozens of times into something magical.
It was too beautiful to not stop and enjoy it. Becca dropped the bag on the ground and followed it down. Crimson leaves crunched as she settled on the ground and stretched out her legs. She kicked out with her lace-up ankle boots for good measure. Leaves flew up, then settled back around her jean-clad legs.
It could be a quilt, Becca mused.
So many leaves had fallen across the clearing that it was impossible to see the grass buried underneath. Becca couldn’t help but think of Grandmother’s quilts, hanging on their wooden stand in the old woman’s room. As a child, Becca had loved nothing more than dragging a quilt off that stand onto the floor where she could wrap herself in its heavy folds like a pigtailed burrito.
The moment was so magical that Becca almost believed she could grab the blanket of fallen leaves and wrap herself up in it, just as she had with those old quilts. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The sweet decay of dead leaves mingled with the memory of the lavender and talc that had always permeated Grandmother’s room. Tears swelled behind Becca’s closed eyes.
Those old quilts now sat in an unloved pile at the back of her mother’s closet. The old walnut stand was… actually, Becca didn’t know what had become of the quilt rack after Grandmother passed; probably amid the massive pile of furniture that had been consigned to the VFW Home, so Becca’s mother didn’t have to think about it.
Becca sighed and shook off the leaves. Dreaming would get her nowhere. Grandmother was gone, and Becca was too old to be playing in the leaves. She started to rise-
-then froze when the hand she had dropped to push herself to her feet landed on something unexpected. Something… alive.
Something that felt remarkably like a human hand.
Trying to choke back the scream that had risen to her throat, Becca scuttled sideways in a wild rustle of leaves. The auburn-haired boy gave her a bemused look, as if Becca’s response was somehow irrational. He drew his jean-clad knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Air, air was beautiful. Too bad Becca couldn’t drag enough of it into her lungs to make breathing a possibility…
It wasn’t surprise at seeing a person in a place they hadn’t occupied the moment before that stole Becca’s breath away, though that certainly didn’t help.
The boy had the most amazing eyes Becca had ever seen. They were the color of autumn sunshine, deep and golden, and they looked warm enough to melt in. Those eyes weren’t just incredible; they were otherworldly. The irises swirled like molten gold as Becca watched, astonished. No human had eyes like that.
She knew she should be terrified yet, for some reason she couldn’t understand, Becca found herself drawn toward the boy, mesmerized by those eyes. Before she became aware of moving, Becca was on her knees, inching toward the boy with the golden eyes.
“Who-? How-?” she couldn’t form thoughts coherent enough to finish the questions.
He raised an eyebrow. A smile touched his lips. Becca had the feeling her struggle amused the strange boy.
Becca tried to imagine what she must look like to him; a girl with wild curls barely held in check by the beanie she wore, wearing the three-sizes-too-big army jacket she’d dug out of her father’s trunk in the attic. A girl whose frayed fingerless gloves didn’t hide the nails she chewed when she got nervous and whose battered, old backpack – the same one she’d gotten at the start of eighth grade – spilled the books of poetry that got her teased relentlessly by classmates spilled out onto the blanket of crimson and amber leaves.
She had no right even speaking to someone as beautiful as him.
Painfully aware of the fact that she was staring, open-mouthed, at the strange boy, Becca sat back on her heels and dropped her eyes. Cheeks burning, she rubbed her hands on her knees to brush off the dirt and leaves that clung to them. Faced with the most gorgeous boy she’d ever seen, what had Becca done?
No wonder she’d never had a serious boyfriend…
“I scared you.”
His voice was like his eyes; golden as the sun and smooth as honey.
She didn’t bother trying to deny it. Surely every living thing for miles around could hear her heart pound.
“I apologize,” the boy said. “It wasn’t my intention.”
“’S’okay,” Becca lied.
Silence stretched between them, broken only by the sound of birds chattering in the distance.
“Uh,” she said to break the silence, “I’m Becca.”
The boy nodded, as if she had confirmed what he already knew. He didn’t immediately offer his name in return. After a moment, Becca pressed him for it.
“So… what’s your name?”
He looked thoughtful. “You can call me Sam,” he said.
Something about the way he said it made Becca uneasy. “Is- Is that your name?”
The boy shrugged. “It’s close enough.”
“What were you thinking about?” the boy who called himself Sam asked, stopping Becca from overthinking his response.
“When you first saw me.”
Strange way to put it, she thought. It made it sound like he’d seen Becca before she’d seen him. She didn’t want to dwell on that too long.
“My grandmother,” she answered. “She used to make quilts. I was thinking that the leaves were so thick that I could crawl under them and go to sleep.”
“Like a quilt?”
Becca nodded, feeling a little foolish.
That grin was back.
“Did you try?” Sam asked.
Now Becca was certain he was making fun of her. She felt foolish enough on her own; she didn’t need some strange boy mocking her.
“To crawl under the leaves and go to sleep?”
“That’s not funny,” Becca told him, cheeks burning.
His smile faded. “No,” Sam agreed, “it’s not.”
He was serious? Maybe he wasn’t making fun of her, after all. Becca wasn’t sure she liked that thought any better. Either Sam was crazy, or he thought Becca was. She decided that she didn’t need to hang around to find out which was closer to the truth.
“Well, Sam,” she said, starting to rise, “it was nice to meet you. I think I’m going to get back to reality now.”
He caught her hand, stopping her. “Who decides what reality is?” His expression had grown somber.
A feeling of unease crept along Becca’s veins from the spot where their flesh met. He said it with such intensity that Becca was forced to consider the question. Who did decide what reality was? Not her. If she had, she wouldn’t have chosen this reality for herself.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I think you do.”
She didn’t, not really, but she maybe was starting to. And it scared her.
“I- I think I should go.” Becca pulled her hand free and stood.
Sam didn’t ask her to stay. Instead, he said, “Join me.”
Confusion dragged Becca’s lips into a frown.
“Where?” she asked.
“Here.” He waved an arm to encompass the forest that surrounded them.
Becca knew that she should be worried about all the very real and very horrible things that lurked in forests – things like crazy guys who abused, then killed girls like her. (Or, crazier guys who didn’t much care which order they did it in.) Logically, Becca knew she ought to fear being alone with any stranger in the woods. Logically.
Illogically, Becca thought that there must be worse things in the world than psychopaths and murderers – things that, when they said, “Join me,” meant considerably longer than until her heart stopped beating.
Even more illogically, she wondered what that might be like. To be with someone forever…
She’d obviously spent too much time since her grandmother’s funeral thinking about death.
Sam raised an eyebrow in response to her question. “Why?” he echoed.
Why would I join you? Why would you ask me to? Why me?
Becca couldn’t find a way to ask any of the questions racing through her mind without feeling like a stupid child.
When she didn’t answer, Sam gave her a crooked smile and said, “Why not?”
Well, there was her mother… but her mother had developed a habit of rolling her eyes and sighing whenever Becca said something the woman didn’t agree with. Which, recently, was often. Besides, her mother was seeing that guy from the bank and it looked like things were getting serious. Her mother’s life would be better without an annoying teenager in it, getting in the way.
Then, there was school… but what loss was that, really? Classes she found tedious and classmates even more so? She’d been in town nearly six months and Becca still hadn’t made any friends at school. She doubted anyone would even notice if she failed to turn up tomorrow.
And… what? What ese did Becca have in her life but a desire to have a different one?
If she could have thought of a single thing worth going home for, Becca would have given Sam a different answer.
“Okay,” she said.
He beamed. It was like turning a corner to be struck full in the face by the rising sun. Becca found herself smiling back.
Sam rose gracefully, unfolding his long legs like a sapling reaching its branches toward the sky. He bent, grabbed a handful of leaves, and flicked them back the way Becca’s grandmother would turn back a quilt before tucking her into bed. The smell of damp soil reached Becca’s nostrils. She saw, in the earthen bed, worms that had been woken from their midday nap burrowing deeper into the soil.
She should have been disgusted by the worms but, instead, Becca found herself a little jealous of them. To be so deep in the earth that you went unnoticed by passersby… that held a certain appeal.
Easing himself down, Sam beckoned to her. Before she joined him, Becca took the time to remove her jacket and clunky boots. Her grandmother would never have forgiven her if Becca ruined such a beautiful quilt. Then, she climbed into the bed Sam had made and snuggled close. He wrapped an arm around Becca, pulling the quilt over them both. The leaves fell in place over them and, for the first time in months, Becca felt that she was exactly where she was meant to be.