The tree provides interim umbrage as the car parks under it. Its headlights illuminate the circle of mist enveloping the forest bed, with its canopy of red, orange, and gold leaves. The fog dilutes the hue’s intensity, but the light turns the spotlight on them. The car door slamming reverberates briefly before other woodland sounds swallow it.
The woman leans across to gently dabs her son’s chin as he dribbles. “Autumn is my beloved season, champ. When the trees gear up for change, and the jungle comes alive, wearing colours of a vibrant yet ineffectual flame. Look at this tree!” She points at their temporary shelter, moving his wheelchair so his eyes can focus on it.
“Mama brought your favourite: mashed cupcake!” She holds up a container, and his eyes light up. She spoons it in his mouth, and he gurgles with joy.
“This was such a lovely day, so I decided no therapy sessions but a picnic. Just you and mamma!” He lowers his face. “I know you miss papa, sweetheart.”
She feeds him another mouthful. “When I was your age, every morning after breakfast, I’d run to the trees to collect their orange leave and paste it in my hobby book.” He guffaws. “Your mom was a nerd! Still is one.”
A vacant look enters her eyes as she stares out of the windshield, her gaze unseeing. His bony arm pokes her. “Oops! Sorry, zoned out for a while.”
Once he finishes eating, she leans across and covers his spindly legs with a furry blanket. She puts an arm across his shoulders and draws him closer to her. Seeking his warmth. Inhaling his still-baby smell. “Do you want to hear a story, tiger?” He looks up in surprise but nods. She kisses him on his forehead.
“In the fall, the hues deepen within the forest while the animals plan. The squirrel collects acorns, and the rabbit’s long ears sway in the cold, crisp breeze. The pumpkins turn ripe while the bear begins to feast. Every day, he raids the beehive and sucks all the honey as the bees buzz angrily around him. He eats till his tummy is full and his mouth is sticky. Then he retires to his cave and sleeps the sleep of the fall.”
She tickles his tummy till squeals of laughter ricochet in the car’s closed confines. She joins him and they laugh till tears of mirth roll down their cheeks.
It’s late evening when police find the car in the park’s outskirts, still running. The woman’s body slumped over her child, as if in protection. A letter flutters on whims of the vent, stuck to the rear window. In it, she apologises to her son and lists the reasons that have forced her hand. Young-onset of a very aggressive Alzheimer’s disease guarantees her inadequacy to care for him. She is on leased time and can’t leave him alone without his parents.
A leaf drifts from the tree above, floating gracefully across the windshield, and settles between the bodies. Its colour matches the cheeks of those in the car. Cherry red.
The tree provides a final umbrage.
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