This story is one of the October Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.
Ellery had always loved the arboretum at this time of year.
Ash smiled at the memory of the last time he’d been here with her – almost exactly a year ago – as he paid for his entrance ticket and followed the dusty path towards the cluster of honey and marmalade coloured trees in the distance.
It was just the kind of weather Ellery would have liked, too, Ash thought. The breeze was gentle but strong enough to make the leaves dance playfully at his feet, and the sun – warm but not too bright – ignited the tops of the trees in a striking amber blaze.
Ash could just imagine Ellery’s face, flushed against the crisp October air and beaming at the sight of such a stunning autumn display. Against his better judgement, he pictured her beside him now, holding his hand and leaning her head on his shoulder before letting her inner child pull them towards the piles of fallen leaves that itched to be kicked into the sky.
What he’d have given for it to be real.
All too suddenly, the grief Ash had been battling for the last six months swelled from deep within him, gripping him harder than the ground that clutched the withering trees he walked amongst. He tried desperately to fight against the pain, the heartache…
The memory of Ellery’s last breath.
But it all stuck to him like sap as he carried on his journey around the arboretum, hot tears obscuring the leaves around him into a kaleidoscope of auburn.
So much so that it was a while before he noticed the person walking just a few meters in front of him.
Wrenching himself out of his lamenting thoughts, Ash blinked away the remaining blur of tears, trying to focus his vision so he could see –
His heart stopped.
He blinked again, harder.
It wasn’t just anyone over there.
It was her.
It was Ellery.
Ash shook his head vigorously, convinced he was losing his mind.
Right before him were Ellery’s blonde curls.
Ellery’s azure-blue coat.
Ellery’s buoyant gait.
… until she walked around a corner and disappeared from sight.
Ash ran to the spot where he had seen her just moments ago, but she was nowhere to be found.
He looked around frantically, desperate to know where she’d gone.
“…Ellery?” Her name fractured in his throat.
Just as he was about to lose hope, his eyes found her wandering down an avenue laced with yellow-leaved trees.
“Ellery?” he called again, a little louder than before.
But she didn’t look back.
Instead, she began to curve towards another blind bend.
In a few seconds, Ash would lose her.
No, he thought wildly. I can’t let that happen.
“Ellery!” he cried out, dashing towards her.
His voice reverberated along the path, and at last Ellery stopped, the trees shedding their leaves around her like golden snow.
As she began to turn slowly, slowly around, Ash felt his lungs rage against his ribcage and his stomach contort with every conceivable emotion under the autumn sun.
“Ellery!” he cried breathlessly, his smile so wide his lips cracked. “Ellery! El-”
Ash skidded to a halt as her face met his.
His heart sank.
Because of course… she wasn’t Ellery.
“Er… hello?” the stranger offered with an unsure smile.
“I…” Ash stammered, “I, um…”
The girl waited patiently. Among their flaxen surroundings, Ash couldn’t help but notice the striking blue of her eyes.
So unlike Ellery’s hazel ones.
“I… I’m so sorry,” Ash managed eventually. “I thought you were El – someone I knew.”
“Oh, I see!” the girl laughed warmly. “I thought I heard my name, but I wasn’t entirely sure. My hearing’s not the best!”
Ash stared at her in disbelief.
“Your… your name’s Ellery?” he babbled.
“It’s Emily,” the girl replied, grinning. “So kind of close!”
“Oh,” Ash said, feeling stupider by the minute. “Yeah, I uh… I guess.”
A silence fell between them, broken only by the bleating of birds above.
“So… you know my name,” the girl – Emily – prompted gently. “May I know yours?”
“A-Ash,” Ash replied. He was surprised she’d even asked.
“Ash!” Emily’s smile broadened. “Like these trees!”
“These are ash trees,” Emily explained, nodding towards the branches encircling them. “They’re not the most impressive ones here, though. You can find those on the other side of the arboretum.”
“Ah. Right. I get you.”
“Would you like to see them?”
Ash started at the brightness in Emily’s voice.
“I’m heading that way now,” Emily said. “I’m on my own, and it looks like you are too, so…”
Her voice trailed off, a rosy glow gently spreading across her cheeks.
And before Ash knew what was happening, before his grief could stop him, he whispered: