Falling

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I didn't know his name, or anything about him, except that he walked past me every morning through Hort Woods and up the path to north campus with a green messenger bag. I might know, if I ever managed to say anything when our eyes met. Instead, those brave chirping birds sang away the morning amidst my silence.

I finally gathered my courage one day, the day before spring break two years ago, but he never came. I waited in the woods, pacing, until I was late. Then, I spent my entire spring break thinking about my woodland mystery crush and how I would finally approach him on that first day back – except it never came.

Like a late frost, the "novel COVID-19 virus" kept everyone inside, at home, and both of us out of my tree-filled dreamscape. Sometimes I walked through the woods that spring, in case he was there. I wondered if he ever thought of me or did the same.

The months slowly passed with the seasons. The closest I came to the feeling I had before COVID was reading Thomas Hardy in the woods and pretending we were characters who would emerge from the trees like Gabriel Oak pursuing Bathsheba.

Eventually, people began to emerge from their hiding places. And with sleepy eyes, I saw him walking ahead of me for the first time in a year. He wasn't alone. As fast as my heart leapt into my throat, it sank to the ground of the woods, our woods. I couldn't breathe. I ran out onto the path, vowing never to return. I was crushed, and I finally understood the word play.

I walked an extra mile out of my way all spring and summer. It was not until that next fall, when I decided that I could again trod my pitiful, padded path. Only then, did my nostalgia overcome my disappointment. I missed him and those trees and the hope that I felt (albeit empty) when walking in those woods. I remember telling my brother once, when we were children, that I could breathe better around trees. He laughed at me and eventually moved to a big city. These woods were the only place I ever felt comfort.

The first month of the semester ended without any sign of him (or his companion). To my relief, I enjoyed beautiful strolls back and forth in the crisp autumn weather. Undisturbed, I happily squinted through morning sunlit leaves and smiled at the harvest moon peeking out at me on my way home.

Just when I thought tranquility reigned, I heard the crunch of leaves underfoot, his foot. I knew the sound of those boots anywhere and dove behind a tree, clenching my library book to my chest to keep him from hearing my heartbeat. As it throbbed in my ears, I watched him walk alone with his green messenger bag, the way he did during simpler times. Afraid of losing him again, I darted forward to hide behind closer trees. Suddenly, he stopped to admire an orange leaf falling in front of him. He bent over to pick it up, spun it around between his fingers, and continued walking with it at his side.

Without any thought of what I would say, I cut a path around to sneak ahead of him. The wind blew more leaves down upon us. He relished in the leafy cyclone and smiled at the leaves the way one does a long-lost friend. He loved this place, too – the way I did and do again. And I loved him.

Watch an animated extra: https://youtu.be/EecPw50emTg

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