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The skittering sound of leaves chasing each other across the street raised his head. Little brown, tattered racers, always dancing in the wind. He smiled faintly as one caught itself on his worn shoe, almost in a greeting. In acknowledgment he gently gathered it up in a weathered hand and raised it to his eyes, marveling over the marbled veins and colors, the only spark of life in this bleak place. Another gust of wind pulled at the tiny thing and it strained to be free, wanting to fly again. He pressed it lightly to his lips.
“Give them my regards,” he whispered and let go. The little dancer twirled away from the bench into the gray Autumn sky.
He closed his eyes and leaned back on the cold stone, forever his refuge.
Twirling red leaves mixed with her flaming hair as she danced with them, laughing. Her yellow and orange dress spun with her, away, back. Away, back. Her small, pale hands gathered up bright leaves and threw them in a cascading shower of color, falling around her.
“Come on, daddy!” she cried joyfully.
He laughed, “No, no, I’m much too old for that. Your mother’s still young and fit, though!” He winked and playfully nudged his wife sitting on the bench beside him.
“Oh no you don’t, Nelson!” his wife retorted from behind her knitting.
His daughter ran up with her red hair filled with leaves and cheeks pink. “Come on! Please?” she tugged at his large hands with her small ones, eyes full of hope.
He pretended to consider. “Well…”
With a mischievous grin he freed his hands from her grasp and gathered two handfuls of leaves and dropped them on the heads of his wife and daughter, who squealed happily.
“Now you’ve done it!” his wife cried in mock indignation, throwing down her knitting needles. She grabbed her husband around the waist and pulled him down into the flaming leaves, covering him with their vibrant colors. Their daughter leaped on top of both of them, bringing the leaves with her. He playfully tickled her, making her squeal and try to frantically wiggle away.
His wife laughed and threw leaves at the both of them until all three laid, spent, back against the flaming mosaic, watching the weak Autumn sun sink down into the horizon.
A family of four passed him, children staring curiously at the strange man on the bench.
The younger child, the girl, stopped in front of him.
“Are you a hobo?” she asked shamelessly.
He raised his weathered gaze from the sidewalk to her blue, shining eyes. Blue like his daughter’s. “You shouldn’t talk to strangers,” he muttered, voice gravelly from lack of use.
She instead sat down on the bench next to him, feet dangling off the edge.
“Sarah, come on,” her mother called absently.
The girl, Sarah, kept watching his face. “Are you ok?”
Watching a crack in the sidewalk, he answered quietly, “I was once…now I don’t know what I am anymore.”
Her mother realized in alarm Sarah wasn’t coming and stalked back, grabbing her daughter’s arm as she dragged her off the bench.
“Sarah, what did I tell you?” her mother accused.
“Wait, mom!” she struggled to a stop. “I think he’s in trouble.”
“They all say they’re in trouble,” her mother replied with another tug.” But they really have jobs and houses.”
The girl wriggled from her mother's grasp and took a few steps towards him. She put her little hand into her light blue coat and drew out a few silver coins. She set them carefully beside him on the bench with a tiny smile.
His tongue worked to find words, anything to respond to the small act of kindness.
Finally he looked up to respond, but there is no one there. Or were they even really there at all?
He knew what they called him. Senile. Insane. Driven mad by the loss of his wife and daughter. He heard their clucking, disapproving tongues, their false sympathies.
“I know what you're going through.”
“I'm so sorry for your loss.”
They used so many words, but none of them described the void inside him. None of the words could heal the aching, raw wound inside him.
As he sat on his bench, day after day, he could almost see them again. Hanna. Rosie.
Swinging slightly in the breeze, his daughter watched the leaves blow past.
“Daddy?” she asked.
“Why are the leaves always dancing?”
He smiled over at her. “You think they're dancing?”
She leaned down and picked one up and examined it. “Yes,” she said finally.
“Well they're little people,” he said.
“Are not!” she said, but her blue eyes were wide, hungry for a story.
“They're people who've died,” he said. “But they're only the nicest girls and boys. They always play and dance, and never get hungry or tired. And then when winter comes, they go up to heaven to wait for all their friends.”
“Do you think I'll be a little dancer, daddy?”
He trussed her hair fondly. “You'll be the prettiest one, but not for a long, long time.”
He felt the emptiness throbbing as he tried to remember his daughter's voice.
Fingers clenched, he sat as immovable as his cold stone bench as the brown leaves swirled around him. The sky above his head was rapidly darkening.
Another gust brought the little shriveled dancers flying around his head, obscuring his vision. Tattered reminders of his life’s previous youth and beauty shone dully out of their fragile limbs.
The wind picked up, he was dimly aware of a howling noise.
Leaves whipped past his head with increasing fervor.
Somewhere an alarm was sounding, but he didn’t hear it. His ears picked up another sound—a light, tinkling laughter.
Wind tearing at this face he turned towards the sound, eyes watering. Yellow dress. Strands of copper hair.
He stumbled forward, barely daring to hope.
“You’re dead,” he whispered brokenly.
“I’ve been here the whole time,” she said. “We were dancing, daddy.”
“Who was dancing?” he asked.
“The spirits. They told me you were ready.”
“Ready for what?” he asked.
“To go home.”
A small, pale hand slipped into his and he felt his feet lift from the cement.
Wind howling around him, he kept his eyes locked on that small face and felt no fear. An overwhelming sense of peace consumed him and his dry lips cracked open, for the first time in years, into a smile. The whirling wind bore him away.
“That’s where the crazy man used to always sit,” the boy told his little sister.
“He wasn’t crazy!” she retorted.
“Did you ever meet him?”
“No, but he would always be muttering about leaves.”
The mother waved her children away from the empty bench. “It’s not nice to gossip.”
“It’s sad, really. To lose his wife and daughter and drive himself mad,” the father said.
“So very sad.”
They both continued on their ways and never thought of him again.
The boy and the girl hopped along the sidewalk, crushing every leaf in their path.
Behind them, unnoticed, a bright leaf, unnaturally colored for the bleak surroundings, settled lightly on the gray stone momentarily before being whisked away by the light breeze.