I wish you were here.
Autumn is the hardest season;
the leaves have all fallen, and they fell like they were fallin' in love with the ground,
and the trees are naked and lonely.
I keep trying to tell them new leaves'll come around in the spring,
But you can't tell trees those things;
they're like me, they just stand there and don't listen.
I wish you were here.

-Andrea Gibson, Photograph


Maybe this is how it ends, he thought, pulling his coat tighter around him. The air was crisp, October making its presence known by the cold front that came in early this year. Deacon Claybourne walked down the street, the leaves crunching under his boots, leaving stains on the sidewalks as they crumbled under his step. A few more hurled themselves from their branches, and fluttered in front of his face before hitting the pavement.

I know how you feel, he thought, and then shook his head, determined to think of something else. Anything else.

He realized, however, that it was futile, when the colors on the ground him reminded him only of her hair, the sky reminded him only of her eyes, and the empty branches reminded him only of his heart now that they were apart.

He shut his eyes, and heard her words the morning after one of the biggest fights they'd ever had, that August humidity finding its way into her voice as it swirled around him, nearly suffocating him.

"Deacon, I can't do this anymore."

"Baby, please." He reached for her hand.

She stepped back, "No." Her lip trembled when she spoke, "I really can't do this anymore."

He opened his eyes, the wind burned his face, made his eyes water with the chill. He longed to have that August day back, to take her face in his hands and make her stay. Bruise her lips with his until she realized there was no place else she'd rather be, that of all the things in the world, this was the only thing she could do anymore.

But he'd let her leave, his anger from the previous night not snuffed completely, he'd let her leave. He wondered now how long his dreams would replay that moment, how often he'd have to relive the memory of her back walking away from him. In his dreams, he tries to go after her, but he never can—his feet are always stuck to the ground. Some nights, he's wearing lead boots, and his legs are so heavy he can't lift them to follow her. Sometimes, they're cemented to the spot. Sometimes, they're buried in the ground, and he's a tree destined to beat itself bloody every four seasons, waiting for her to return.

He screams himself hoarse in his dreams—Rayna! —he screams, but she can't hear him, or she doesn't turn around, the specifics don't really matter.

If he were lucky, the dreams would stop soon, and he could stop sleeping fitfully, stop being scared to close his eyes at night.

Deacon Claybourne was many things, but lucky wasn't one of them.

He'd tried to call her the first week in September, and the second, and the third, and now it was autumn, and he'd almost forgotten what her voice sounded like not over a recording.

It was their favorite season together—autumn—for the last 11 years they'd spent their autumns together, in various states of dress and undress, in various states of relationship, but always, always together. They'd carved pumpkins, drank cider, walked hand in hand through corn mazes, the electricity between them burning straight through their gloves, not scared of anything that popped out at them. They'd just look at each other, and one of them would squeeze the other's hand. Their greatest fear, they both knew, though they'd never said it out loud, could not be embodied by some pre-teen in a mask. Don't let go.

In 11 autumns, they'd sipped hot chocolate in front of the fire, written songs in front of the fire, told stories in front of the fire, explored each others bodies in front of the fire, just the soft glow to guide them. They'd fought in front of the fire—just twice—and made up twice, and once more for good measure.

Deacon wondered now if he'd ever see another fire without thinking of her.

There are plenty of fish in the sea, people had said to him. So many iterations of that sentiment had been sent his way since word got out—he knew it had when people started stopping their hushed conversations when they saw him—that he could scarcely keep track of the idioms. Coleman, to his credit, had been the nicest about it. Beverly, on the other hand, had not been.

People wanted to help. People thought they were helping, so Deacon just smiled weakly, nodded his head and clenched his teeth, because people weren't damn fish; and, anyway, in his world, one problem remained: oceans didn't even exist without Rayna Jaymes.

He opened the door to his cabin, flicked on the light, then the heater. He heard it groan to life, and he sat on the couch and rubbed his hands together, waiting for the warmth to circulate. When it finally did, he took off his coat and picked up his guitar, his fingers pressing the strings into the wood until it hurt. He played a chord, and then another, and stared at the phone.

I won't call her, he told himself, but even as the words danced across his mind, he knew they were a lie. He would drink hot coffee, write a crappy song to salvage for parts at a later date, and try not to think of her. He would, he knew, fail miserably.

And so, with the autumn wind howling outside, he would pick up the phone, dial her number, and wrap the cord around his finger as it rang, the faint echo coming back at him down the line. He would listen to her voice on the recording—leave a message—and he would smile, because no matter how bad things got, hearing her voice made him smile; then he would speak after the tone the thought that consumed his mind. By some small miracle, his voice wouldn't break as he whispered the five words he would say to Rayna Jaymes if he knew they would be the very last ones she ever heard from him:

I wish you were here.