It was cold. The wind bit Winnie’s lips and pecked at her cheeks—but she didn’t want September’s kisses, tonight. She ducked her head, but the wind ran its fingers through her hair and through the branches of the golden trees. She swayed with them.
When was the last time she had eaten? The leaves looked like hardened honey in the dwindling sunlight. She wondered what they tasted like.
Reaching for one of the branches, she gazed furtively around the empty park—empty but for the man sitting on the wooden bench. Her heartbeat quickened. She hadn’t had to beg since—well, since her parents had kicked her out, a few months ago. She had managed to get by shifting from one couch to the next, until she had been eventually abandoned by her so-called friends.
But here she was, the skin on her hands beginning to crack from the cold. Taking a deep breath, she approached the silhouette.
“Excuse me, sir. Do you have any change?” At second glance, he wasn’t a man at all—almost, but not quite. He couldn’t have been much older than herself. Eighteen or nineteen, she thought. His long, tangled hair was the colour of dying leaves; paler, somehow.
He didn’t answer for awhile, gave no indication at all that he even knew she was standing there. Blushing, she wrapped her coat around her wire-thin body and turned to leave.
“What will you do with it?” he asked. His voice was crispy, like the crackling of a fire or the snapping of twigs. Winnie’s face grew warmer as she turned back.
“With the money.” He turned his eyes toward her for the first time. She tried to recognize a colour in them, until she realized that they held, in fact, a dazzling kaleidoscope spanning the visual spectrum. It was something she had learned about in school, but she couldn’t remember if it was the definition of white or black.
“Hello? Are you alright?” The boy’s voice reached her ears over the clamouring of her thoughts.
Was she alright? She thought of her rumbling stomach, of her frozen fingers, of her life crumbling around her like the leaves falling from the trees. “No,” she said, and sat down on the bench next to him.
Silence, but for the howling, persistent wind. “I was asking you what you wanted,” he said, finally. He bent down to touch a leaf lying in the grass, then thought better of it. A strand of rusty hair had fallen into his eyes. He didn’t move it out of the way.
Winnie considered the question. “I want a cup of tea,” she said. “With a little milk, but no sugar. And maybe some muffins on the side.” She scooped up the leaf the boy had hesitated to touch, considering it in her hands. It felt warm until it disintegrated into little dead flakes in her lap. Like… “Brown sugar,” she continued. “I wouldn’t mind some brown sugar, but no white. And I want it to be in a little coffee shop, the kind that nobody knows about so it’s mostly empty, but the people who are there are friendly and welcoming. It’s quiet, though. Maybe some very faint jazz music in the background. It’s so warm that I have to take off my coat so I don’t sweat. And I want a book on the table next to my muffin—”
“What kind of muffin?” The boy was watching her intently. His eyes flashed orange, yellow, then a deep purple.
“Carrot,” Winnie said, fluttering her eyes closed. She felt her hands gently thaw, as if they were near a glowing fire. She felt the tips of her ears melt like burning ice cubes. She felt her coat fall off her shoulders, although she hadn’t moved, and she felt a small weight in her lap. Opening her eyes, she saw that the brown sugar flakes had rearranged themselves into a perfect muffin.
Carrot, she noted.
And then there was a table with a plate and a cup of tea and On the Road by Kerouac. She rifled through the pages; there was even a bookmark slipped between the long-winded sentences. And there were faint trumpet sounds in the air and a general feeling of home, and she relaxed into the soft cushions of the armchair in which she sat.
Winnie gaped in awe at the vision. A few students sat around sipping coffee and typing away on laptops. It was the exact coffee shop she had imagined while sitting in the park. Her eyes went around in a wide circle, until they ended back at her table. A purse sat on the ground next to her feet. It seemed to belong to no one. It clinked when she picked it up; she moved the muffin onto the plate to free her lap.
The purse was dripping with coins. Pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters poured out before her. Do you have any change? she thought, and smiled. She glanced out the window and saw in it the reflection of a beautiful, blissful girl.
The wind was now shaking the trees with all its might, and the leaves fluttered in a torrential downpour. The sky had sunk to a bruised shade; a few stars had begun to peck it gently and soothingly. Winnie opened the book to page one, and outside, a halo of sunset-coloured hair dodged between the treeburst of dying leaves.