Lonely, the ghost of Autumn leaned against her tree and stretched her legs along the edge of her grave. A breeze sipped uselessly at her warmth, though she still tucked her arms into her dress. Her bones clawed from the earth, brown with the rot of years. Autumn envied them. Her eleven years remained untouched by the passage of time.
She prayed most nights, when the stars were out and the animals scuttled by in small packs. In the beginning she prayed for life. Then, as the years rolled by and she began to know the animals by name, she prayed only for a friend. She prayed for anyone to know she was there beside the tree. Anyone other than the devil-man who had put her there.
That October day, with her arms tucked in her dress and her eyes scanning the fogged horizon, a boy answered her prayers. At first she thought he was the devil-man, but his feet fell lightly and without malice. She dared to peek around the tree and saw that he was young, her own age at most. He had scraggly brown hair and boots that looked too big for his feet. He had red lips that looked pretty in the setting sun.
The boy saw her and Autumn was very nervous. She stepped timidly around the tree, her hands clasped at her waist. She wished that she could change her clothes. Her dress was tattered, her flesh grimy with dirt. Her hair hung in a mess of knots and bugs.
“Hello,” said the boy.
Autumn had not spoken in many years. “Hu-low,” she managed.
The boy stared at her, scrutinizing. He wore a striped shirt and torn jeans and had a long stick in his hands. “Are you lost?” he asked.
“No,” she said curtly. “Are you?”
“I’ve got a compass,” he said. He showed her his compass.
Autumn stepped softly toward him, but not so far from the tree that the shadows would come.
“I heard you crying,” said the boy.
He went to her, swishing his stick high and low. Up above, a squirrel scurried along a branch. “Why are your clothes so dirty.”
“Because I live in the woods.”
The boy smiled. “Nice place to live. Do you get cold at night?”
He extended a hand. “My name’s Davie.”
Autumn liked his name and politely told him so as they shook hands. Dirt crunched out when their palms met.
“It’s really David,” he said. “But I like Davie better.”
“Me too.” She pushed her hair behind her ears. “Would you like to sit with me?”
Davie hesitated and then leaned upon his stick. “Are you sure you aren’t lost? I live just outside the woods.” He pointed into the distance. “You can’t see it from here, but off that way.”
“I’m sure,” she said.
Davie looked at her doubtfully, and Autumn feared he might leave.
“Please, stay,” she said hurriedly. “Just for a few minutes?”
Davie eyed her up and down, and his face sunk with pity. “Are you a psycho-girl?” he asked.
“Are you a vampire?”
Autumn giggled. “No.”
“Will you come back to my house if I sit with you?”
Autumn felt sad, but would not lie. “I can’t.”
Davie set his stick aside and stepped toward her. Autumn was very happy about that. She took his hand. His palm was sweaty but she didn’t mind. They sat against the tree. They sat beside the bones.
Autumn had grown so accustomed to them that they were like furniture, and she was surprised when the color vanished from Davie’s face. Where the ribs poked up, the faded shreds of her dress were still a subtle hint of blue. Davie let go of her hand and stood up as if he’d been bitten.
“Davie, please!” she cried.
But Davie, who had seen her and talked to her and touched her, turned and ran.
Autumn cried out, crawled after him, but the shadows found her so quickly. They swarmed her skin and dragged her back to the tree. Davie looked back only once as he shrunk into the distance, and Autumn reached out for him, crying, “Please! Please don’t leave me!”
He left her.
Autumn mourned that fleeting encounter with the boy Davie. That night she wailed into the blue-grey night, her cries sending birds to flight, and no animals dared go near her tree. When clouds came over the sky and blackened the earth, she crawled up against the exposed ribs of her body and hung her fingers along the gaps.
“Take me back,” she pleaded. “I can’t be alone any longer! Not now!”
But she was alone, and even the squirrels who knew her and were the first to return when her weeping subdued could not comfort the misery that radiated from that ghost of a girl named Autumn. The bones would do nothing but mock her, as they had done for so long.
The next morning, Autumn sat on the other side of the tree, so that her bones were out of sight. She combed her hair with her fingers and shook out her dress and brushed off the dirt from her skin. She pinched her cheeks every hour, and licked her lips, and watched the horizon for Davie to come back.
The sun passed overhead. Leaves rustled. Wind whispered in the trees. And he did not come. The sun drooped down toward the treetops, and bats chased tiny bugs up above. And he did not come.
When dusk lowered and owls opened their eyes in branches all around her, she saw a shadow rise up in the distance. In the half light she saw the devil-man coming toward her and made ready to climb her tree to hide away until he passed from her bones. But this shadow was too small and timid. Relief blossomed within her heart.
The boy Davie lingered at a distance, the sun an orb of amber beside his head. His boots were muddy, and he wore a brown coat with gloves. White puffs of breath sprang up and out of his mouth.
“We can sit on this side if you’d like,” said Autumn.
Davie didn’t move. He reached down and picked up a fallen leaf, crunched it in his hands, the papery bits fluttering to the ground. “Okay,” he said and approached the spot where she sat.
Autumn took his hand and guided him down. He scooted close and didn’t let go.
“You came back,” she said.
“To see if you were real,” said Davie.
They said nothing else for some time and only listened to echoes of birds and animals. Autumn lay her head on Davie’s shoulder and her hair fell down along his arm. He brushed it away tenderly. His skin was warm and it brought back memories of a time before the devil-man; of a time before her tree.
Davie’s heart beat fast. His hands shook. Autumn ran her fingers down his arm to calm him.
Before long, dusk gave way to night.
“What’s your name?” Davie whispered.
“Autumn.” Wind hissed, and an owl asked who…who?
“I can’t stay here all night,” said Davie.
He squeezed her hand and Autumn squeezed back, imploring him to stay just a moment longer. “I’ll come back again soon, I promise.”
He stood up and her hand followed until it slipped from his palm.
“That’s all I need to hear,” she said.
Davie walked away, glancing back every few steps until he was swallowed by the woods.
The following afternoon, Davie brought her a coat.
“It was Mother’s,” he said. “But she got a new one so I thought–”
“It’s lovely,” said Autumn, and she set it beside her on the ground. It was a very nice coat, with thick wool lining and a hood. She gazed at it longingly.
“Will you wear it?”
Autumn’s lips pressed together tight. She feigned a smile. “I don’t get cold,” she said.
Davie looked to the bones. “Yes,” he said. “Of course.”
“May I keep it, anyway?”
Davie nodded. His teeth chattered. He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again.
Autumn said, “You want to ask me something.”
Davie’s cheeks grew red. “I don’t want to upset you.”
That made her laugh, long and loud and sudden. “Ask away, Davie,” she said.
He cleared his throat and fidgeted with his gloves. “How did you die?” he asked, and then covered his mouth as if he couldn’t believe he’d just spoken those words.
“It’s been so long,” said Autumn. “I really don’t remember.”
Davie looked relieved at the answer.
“But I do remember who killed me.” She leaned in and whispered into his ear, “The devil-man.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Wind rose, bringing with it the hints of an evening storm.
Autumn said, “You’re much nicer than him.”
Davie grimaced. “No one I know thinks I’m nice,” he said.
“Not even your friends?”
“I haven’t got any friends.”
“Not even your mother?”
That brought a tiny grin to his face. “My mother thinks I’m nice.” He rubbed Autumn’s palm with his finger and she liked it. “You are the very first girl who has ever said anything to me.”
Autumn flowed with pride.
Davie said, “I thought that maybe we could be friends.”
Autumn surprised him with a hug. Their cheeks squished together, and she breathed deep the scent of burnt wood that clung to his jacket. “I’d like that very much, Davie,” she said. “I really, really would.”
October was cold, November colder, but Davie still came everyday to Autumn’s tree. Some days he brought flowers, which she placed upon the coat. Others he brought his writing and read to her. She said that it was very good, though she mostly listened to his voice. It was a passionate voice. It was a thankful voice.
He told her about his mother, and his old town where people were nicer. She told him about the tree and the animals and the shadows.
They always sat on the other side of the tree, where they could not see the bones. The skull’s hollow eyes stared out of the earth, a mute reminder that in time Davie would leave her. He would move on and grow up, and she would stay there at her tree, alone again.
At night, when he had gone home, Autumn prayed.
“You’ll leave me some day,” said Autumn, on the first night of December snow.
Davie was heavily bundled in winter clothes, his face surrounded by a large trapper hat. His cheeks were red with cold. Leaning in close, he said, “Will not.” A perfect snowflake landed and then burst upon his nose.
Autumn’s voice trembled. “You will grow up and forget about me.”
“You’re a psycho-girl if you think I could forget about you.”
To Autumn’s surprise, Davie leaned in and kissed her. His scarf pressed against the nape of her neck, and his mouth tasted like eggnog. It was her first kiss.
Sparkling and clean, the snow fell around them, and Autumn’s bones were slowly covered.
When a January blizzard blanketed the woods there came days when Davie would not come. He said that his mother worried, fearful that he would get lost and freeze far away from home. On those frozen days when she was alone, Autumn felt the bitter sting of heartache.
Icicles hung like gleaming daggers from the branches.
“You must kill the devil-man,” said Autumn.
“I have never killed anyone before,” said Davie.
Autumn took his hands into hers, placed them to her heart. “It’s easy if it’s for love,” she said.
“I don’t know if I can.”
“If you kill the Devil-man, we can be together forever.” She gazed at the spot of snow that buried her bones.
Davie took his hands from her chest, kissed her cheek warmly, and stood up. “I don’t know what he looks like.”
Autumn told him that there was no other man around who looked like the devil-man. He was a massive brute, with big hands and a big neck and long black hair. She drew an outline of him in the snow. “Will you look for him?” she asked.
He said he would look, but nothing more.
February came and went, and the snow melted into the ground. Autumn’s hope that Davie would find the devil-man melted with it. But then, one evening when Davie came to her tree, he had a new look to him. A look that only the man who’d trapped her here could conjure.
“I found him, Autumn,” Davie said to her, whispering the words as if the devil-man might hear him.
Autumn hugged him and squeezed him and kissed his face and eyes and rubbed his back. “Will you kill him for me, Davie?”
Davie pressed his face into her neck. His cheeks grew wet. “Yes,” he said. “I’ll kill the devil-man.”
Days passed. March sunlight warmed the woods, and the snow was gone for good. Autumn’s bones resurfaced, clean. Her skull smiled out at the world.
Davie had not returned. With each passing sunset she worried that her only friend was lost for good, that her errand was not a solution, but a catalyst for the destruction of her only friendship.
At night, once again, she prayed.
One warm, spring night, the devil-man came to the tree. She knew it was him when the animals on the ground ran, and the new growth on the trees seemed to wither away in fear. She climbed high into the branches that looked down upon her bones and watched his monstrous shape descend upon her prison. Like a goliath he lumbered to the spot.
The sight of him was like a ghastly nightmare, and she turned away, only listened to his rustling. Tears dripped over her hand that covered her mouth. She would not cry out. She would not let the devil-man know she was there. So Autumn stared out through the treetops at the glowing eyes of the distant owls and squirrels and the swooping black shapes of the bats. Clinging to the swaying branch, Autumn remained silent and still until at last the monster left her and stalked into the rising sun.
Then she climbed down to wait for the boy Davie.
Davie returned to her at last that same morning, wearing the ill-fitted boots and striped shirt he’d worn when they first met. He limped, struggling to her, and nearly collapsed at her side. His neck was bruised, his eyes swollen and red.
Autumn placed his head in her lap and stroked his hair and cheek. His scalp was crusted with dry blood.
It was quiet except for the distant echoes of birdsong. Forest floor breezes tossed leaves up and over the bones.
“I think I killed him,” said Davie.
“You’re unsure?” asked Autumn.
“It was so fast. I’ve never killed before. Everything went hazy.” He shivered at her side. “I was so scared.” Then he pushed himself up and stared into her eyes with a longing, hopeful gaze. He remembered something so very important. “But did it work, Autumn? Please tell me it worked!”
She placed her hand tenderly upon the earth, where the devil-man had buried Davie’s body.
“Yes,” said the ghost of Autumn, smiling. “It worked.”
Cory Cone lives and work in Baltimore, Maryland, and is am a 2007 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. He is happily married and raising two annoying, yet adorable cats. Cory works as a Database Manager by day and a fiction writer by night. He blogs from time to time at www.corycone.com and tweets occasionally @corycone.