John walked onto his back porch, breathing deeply of the crisp October air. He pulled out a cigarette and lit up. The plumes of smoke mingled with the white clouds of his breath until both were indistinguishable. Frost tipped the lawn, blades of grass stiff in the morning sunshine. A low mist hovered over the lake, creating the illusion of warmth where none would be until next June.
Hugging his mug of coffee, he leaned against the railing and watched the shoreline. Up here in northern Michigan, a cold snap could come at any time; they’d been lucky so far, even sailed a final lap around the lake last Sunday. This weekend, they’d have to pull up the dock and hoist the boat out of the water. He wasn’t looking forward to all that work, pulling the wooden platform from the muck and setting it ashore. Maybe he’d get his brother in-law to lend a hand.
A noise drew his attention. It came from the side of the house…a scuttling sound followed by a thud. Like spiders falling from the sky. Cautiously, he crept to the edge of the porch and peered around the corner.
For a moment, he noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Between his property and his neighbor’s house lay a narrow strip of ground. There was an unspoken rule about not storing anything here, keeping it clear for kids to play. Kimmie, his daughter, used to build mud pies with other children. That was many years ago,though; she would be eleven years old come spring. John smiled as he thought of her, now fast asleep upstairs.
Something caught his eye. A fluttery movement above, in the branches of the tall birch which grew directly on the property line, followed by that same scuttling sound. He watched as a single leaf spiraled to the ground where it landed with a soft thud. John smiled. Fall had definitely arrived.
He set his coffee cup down on the railing and stood under the tree. Overhead, another leaf surrendered its tenuous grasp on the wood. Followed by another, then another. In moments, a rain shower of dying leaves floated to the earth, cascading down upon John. He laughed. It was like being a kid again, playing in some old pile of raked leaves. Only, this felt more magical…like he’d been chosen somehow to witness this miracle of life winding down in preparation for next season’s eventual renewal.
When it was over, he stood in the middle of a puddle of deceased foliage and the birch lay completely bare. He walked reluctantly back to the porch, still brimming with wonderment. That’s why he’d moved out here from the suburbs in the first place. He and his family loved nature. They fished as much as they could, went hiking every weekend, and enjoyed the lake with friends every chance they got. No exhaust fumes, no long commute. Working from home was a dream come true for him.
He paused while sipping his brew. A familiar sound drifted across the air. That’s right! Another birch grew down by the edge of the water. He could spot it from here and, sure enough, a couple leaves had just launched themselves from their nesting places.
It was all he could do not to run down toward the lake.
Again, he stood beneath the majestic birch, with its bark peeling away in white strips that looked like albino scabs, and witnessed the leaves commence their suicide leaps. They collected around him, sad reminders of warm days long past. When it was over, John gave a satisfied sigh and walked back to the porch.
He’d gone a few steps, when he heard an even louder thud directly behind him.
Whirling around, slightly off-balance, he gaped at the large bough lying on the ground. It had missed his head by about a foot. He looked up at the oak tree which grew next to the birch, but couldn’t even tell from where the branch had detached. The wind picked up and the tree groaned eerily, a creaking forlorn sigh. Unsteadily, he took a step backward.
Something moved on his left. He turned to see one of the smaller trees in his neighbor’s yard topple over in slow motion. It crashed to the ground, full head of leaves shaking in disbelief.
John took another step toward the house.
Movement all around. The air filled with the sounds of healthy roots wrenched from the ground and splintering wood that seemed like screams. John ran back to the porch, dodging a descending pine and leaping over a fallen fir.
Everything is dying, he thought frantically. What’s happening?
He got to the porch and stood there, breathing hard, watching tree after tree collapse as if knocked down by some unseen giant hand, all around the lake. A cacophony of shattered wood, uprooted earth and crashing foliage echoed across the water. The horizon fell.
His first thought was to call the DNR. Something was happening to the ecosystem; exactly what, he had no idea. He’d never seen, in all of nature, anything quite like this. He went inside to get his cell phone.
No signal. That was odd. Though they lived in a rural area, he selected this carrier specifically because he could get a good connection to their tower. Perplexed, he switched on the television to see if maybe the local news had picked up anything. White noise. The same from his radio.
“Don’t panic,” he whispered, and the uneven tone of his own voice scared him. In his head, visions of terrorist attacks surfaced. Was this some kind of biological fallout? Was he, even now, being contaminated? He thought of those dead leaves falling over him, caressing his upturned face.
No need to wake the wife and kid. Not yet. No use scaring them until he had a better idea of what was happening. The neighbor. He might know. John went out the side entrance and sprinted to the house next door. Banged on the frame. No answer. Knocked again, more loudly. They were usually up way before John.
“Bill?” he called out and tried the door. It opened. “Bill, you okay?”
He went from room to room, calling out his neighbor’s name. Nobody answered, and he found no one in the house. The TV had been left on, showing the same blank static as his set. On the kitchen table, a half mug of coffee sat cooling.
As he walked back to his house, a popping noise sounded overhead. The porch light went out. He went inside to find the electricity off. A quick check of the breaker box found no blown fuses. John sighed. No choice now but to wake his family and head into town, maybe even get a hotel room until the authorities could figure out what the hell was happening here.
He walked upstairs.
Both bedrooms were empty.
He stood over his daughter’s bed, the SpongeBob Squarepants blanket pulled up but messy and ruffled, as if she’d been there only moments before or still there and somehow invisible. John slipped his hand under the covers and recoiled when he felt her warmth still on the sheets. Stumbling backwards, he called out her name.
His voice sounded like a plaintive seagull looking for scraps on a deserted beach.
In his own bed, where his wife had slept beside him less than half an hour ago, he found her wedding ring between the pillows.
Help. I need help, he thought. Get the police, form a search party. They’ve been kidnapped…that’s it. He knew his mind had jumped the track but was unable to curb the escalating panic.
Walking mechanically to the garage, he found both vehicles still there. He tried the overhead door opener, but the electricity was still out. Grunting, he opened the door manually. The chill morning air flooded into the garage. He got into his truck and turned the ignition. Nothing. No click of the solenoid, no dashboard lights. Though he already knew the answer, he tried his wife’s car. Same result: stone dead.
He began walking to town, three miles away.
No birds chirped. No squirrels scampered. Nothing stirred on the road. On either side, fallen trees lay like wounded soldiers. The only sound came from John’s shoes on the dirt track. He passed other houses with dark windows staring at him like blank eyes. With each step, his unease grew. He started to run.
In town, the empty buildings seemed to lean over the deserted streets. John walked in and out of the shops, seeing no one, hearing nothing.
He sat at an intersection under a blank traffic light and began to cry.
His tears spattered to the cement. Disappeared.
John blinked. Squinted. The tears were literally disappearing as they hit the ground. He wiped his face and got to his feet.
It was happening. He could feel it.
He held his hand up to the sunlight and discovered he could see right through the flesh. Even as he watched, his fingers became less distinct, almost ghostly. Something tickled his face. He reached up to brush it away and brought back a handful of hair. His scalp tingled, as more of his hair fluttered to the ground and began to puddle around his shoes.
I’m joining them, he thought. I’m crossing over. A sudden joy blossomed in his chest.
No more dialysis, no more catheter, no more probing hypodermics in the middle of the night from some faceless nurse who smells like Listerine. No more wailing wife or crying daughter. No more overdue electric bill, no more handiwork around the house. No more noisy neighbors or barking dogs or cups of coffee on the porch in the morning air.
He could sense his family gathered around his bed in the cancer ward. He could hear the rattle of his own ravaged lungs as they turned off the machines that pumped in oxygen tasting nothing like the cool, sweet air that swept off the lake in October.
John felt himself tipping over like a tree pushed by some unseen hand.
Fall was here at last.
# # #
I had reckoning in mind when I wrote this story, with vague notions of reaping what we sow, whether we want to or not. If you smoke cigarettes your whole life, you might have to contend with the possibility of cancer at some distant point in the future. If you decide to squander what Mother Earth provides without giving back, you may have to deal with the fallout of climate change. And if you blind yourself to the goodness of human potential and instead seek to fill your own pockets at the expense of others, aligning yourself with greedy, soul-sucking hate-mongers, well... I hope this tale gives you pause.