17 Painted Leaves

Painted Leaves

By Megan Nguyen

I think I would be considered a “plain NPC” by most people. Wearing nothing but simple and

solidly-colored clothes, I look innocuous and unnoticeable. There have been many times in my life when I greet someone I know, only to learn that they don’t recognize me. I am apparently very forgettable.

Every day feels the same. I wake up too early, take classes I don’t care about, go to a job I have no passion for, get home too late, and sleep until the cycle repeats the next day. Sometimes, I find myself lost in a haze as I go through my routine. Like my body was put on autopilot, I can work for hours and not become aware until after it’s over. At first, it was very disorienting. Suddenly realizing you arrived somewhere but not knowing how you did isn’t a situation most would enjoy. But as it kept happening, I began to embrace it. Despite the unsettling feeling, any escape from this hollow life is welcome.

Today was one of those days. My mind took the backseat as my hands worked, flying across my laptop’s keyboard. Around me, people quietly read at scattered tables and chairs. Dust floats around the room, throwing a foggy lens over my eyes. When I look back at my laptop, sentences of complete nonsense stare back at me. It’s grammatically correct and contains a good vocabulary, but the meaning of the words themselves is borderline gibberish. I can only blink, stunned in confusion at my own words.

As befuddlement consumes the little brain power I have left, a warm breeze caresses my cheek.

Turning my head, I suddenly meet bright and excited eyes.

A person stands next to me, one hand raised in greeting. With bright splashes of paint covering their clothes, they look like an artist. Against the dark backdrop of the bookshelves, they stand out like a rainbow in the apocalypse. Long eyelashes frame wide eyes, staring at me with unwavering eye contact. Their hand is slightly calloused, each finger stained with different colors. Particularly their ring finger, a vibrant shade of yellow with just a smudge of ivory at the second knuckle. Wild hair falls out of a messy bun, framing their face with little strands covered in more paint. How did it get there? I think, watching the smallest flakes of deep green fall onto the table. Every bit of this person is covered in life and passion. Those stains each speak of a deep care and love of something, a feeling that I probably haven’t felt in my entire life.

“Hello!” they say, voice echoing in the open library space. More flakes of paint scatter across the table like confetti.

I stand to apologize to everyone in the room, but none of them have even glanced up, still reading and studying undisturbed. I shoot a questioning glance at the stranger, but they say nothing. Their sunny smile hasn’t budged in the slightest.

“…hello?” I respond. I say the word so quietly that I almost think they didn’t hear me.

“It’s a pleasure to meet ya! Sadly, this place isn’t the best for conversation, so follow me,” they laugh and keep laughing as they walk away. The large windows cast bright blocks of light on them, creating a faint glow around their figure as they leave the library. Even as they strut out of the room, the cloud of dust floating around isn’t disturbed at all. Each of their steps echoes loudly, but no one even flinches at the sharp sound.

I stare at their fading back for a moment before slowly standing up and putting my laptop into my backpack. The strange ache in my chest gets stronger. With every step out of the building, more and more questions keep popping into my head.

Who is this person? Why didn’t anyone else look up when they yelled? Where are they taking me? Did they even wait—

At the very least, I get an answer to the last question. Leaning against the doorframe without a care in the world is the rainbow-covered stranger, sucking on a lollipop that seems to have magically appeared in the minute it took for me to find them. When they see me, they give me another sunny smile, cracking a red paint smudge on their cheek. More flakes of color fall to the floor. It reminds me of rose petals.

“Took ya long enough!” they say, smiling around the lollipop stick. The inside of their mouth is stained a sugary purple.

“…sorry about that. My laptop is bulky.”

“No worries, friend! Now follow me.” They wave their hands insistently, like urging a particularly antsy cat to go outside. I cautiously listen to them, keeping my head low as I follow their heels. Another stain of paint covers the heel of their shoe, a hot pink blotch filling each groove. The sidewalk is lined with healthy and bright flowers, mostly a bright pink mixed with some red, yellow, and purple.

Why am I following them?

They’re loud and obnoxious. Unapologetic about their appearance or their actions, they shine like a flashlight directly aimed at the face. Overwhelming, disorienting, and painful if looked at for too long. So why do I ache when I see them? Why do I feel a burning in my hands and heart as I look at their

paint-stained back, happily bouncing as they skip down the sidewalk?

Despite the mess, the absolute chaos covering every single inch of this person, I am jealous.

I hate any mess. It brings stress and confusion. The best way to have a calm life is for things to be in order, and for that order to stay the same. Change is scary and can bring about consequences that can’t be predicted. In short, it’s easier just to stay the same. My “same” is plain and basic. Nothing gaudy, nothing

messy, nothing even the slightest bit memorable. Talking to new people is scary, they bring change to my life that I cannot control. Every step saps energy from me. I let each day stay the same, not changing my cyclical routine. The exact opposite of this stranger.

They radiate chaos in every part of their body. A stain covers every visible part of them, they loudly make their presence known in each mannerism they express, and they smile without fail at the world.

They approached me without hesitation, welcoming me into their day like it wouldn’t affect them at all. Despite this chaos, which should bring instability and stress to their life, they look so happy. They take each step down the sidewalk like it’s a blessing, they smile at everything like it’s all the most beautiful sight in the world, and they treat me like a beloved friend. I burn with jealousy. I want to feel that way too.

“We’re here!”

It seems that my musing took more time than I thought. Before I even realized it, we reached our destination.

Behind the campus is a thick forest, with trees so tall that the branches almost look like they’re touching the sky. We stand right at the treeline, barely touching the shade offered by the lush green leaves. As we gazed into the shadows, a leaf fell gently onto the stranger’s head. Instead of landing, it slides off them. On one side of the leaf is a stain of orange, streaky and thin paint sticking to the chlorophyll-colored material. I like it.

I stare down at the fallen leaf for a moment longer before the stranger grabs my wrist and pulls me into the forest. Quickly, we become covered in darkness. The tall branches of the trees weave together, creating a ceiling where no light can enter. It’s truly magical.

“Uh…where are we goin—?” As I ask, my foot catches on a tree root.

Instead of immediately hitting the hard forest floor, I land on something soft. It feels weightless, like a cloud of warm air. My fall slows until it’s more like floating, and I gently settle on the ground. It’s too dark to tell what happened, but I don’t have a chance to think about it before I’m urged to my feet by the stranger’s voice.

“You okay there? It’s just a couple more minutes ’til we get there,” they whisper. Their voice has become airy, lacking the bright energy from when I first met them in the library. Now it’s faint, like the echo of the ocean caught in a conch shell.

“I’m okay…”

We keep walking, the only sounds being the squish of mossy ground under my shoes. I strain to hear anything else, but there’s only the slightest whistle of wind through the trees. Suddenly, a bright light breaks through between the trunks. It burns my eyes, urging me to turn away and go back to the library, away from this strangeness.

But I can’t.

My feet feel stuck to the ground, like the root I had tripped over wrapped around my feet and shackled me here. Every part of my body felt stiff, the muscles contracting and forcing me to stay in place.

It’s a flower field.

Before I could stop it, a rush of air left my lungs. This place is…so beautiful.

A lush clearing surrounded by dark woods bathed in radiant sunlight. Drops of dew cling to the grass, creating shining constellations on the ground. Flowers of all different types and colors bloom around the clearing, specks of the rainbow scattered like confetti around the field.

I can only stare, struck so strongly by the beauty that I fear my presence would disturb it.

The stranger has no issues with that, easily stepping into the clearing as if they belong there. And really, they do. The sun highlights the color splashed on them, making it look like patches of flowers are growing on their body. They walk in the clearing happily, basking in the strange beauty and life of the area. The wonder overwhelms me, as well as the acidic sting of jealousy.

Jealous of them for being able to treat this beauty so casually, as if this isn’t one of the most dazzling things I’ve seen in my life. After being stuck in a greyscale world, I got to experience a rainbow.

They glance at me over their shoulder, and I approach without a word. Even with such a fascinating landscape, my eyes can only focus on this person. They smile, and flakes of purple and yellow paint float to the ground. From those specks of color, a flower bud slowly sprouts, revealing a blossom as vibrant in color as the paint.

I drop my backpack at the base of a tree and look at the stranger in disbelief, but they don’t acknowledge it. They move forward until they reach a large stone at the edge of the clearing. After sitting down on the small cushion of moss on top, they usher me closer with a wave of their hand.

“I’m sure you have many questions,” they laugh, rocking in their seat like a child on a sugar high. “…I sure do,” I respond, raising a single eyebrow.

“Well, no time like the present! Ask away. I’ll only answer six of them!” They hold both hands, showing six fingers, above their head, waving them side to side.

“Why such an arbitrary number?” I ask without thinking. “Because I like it. Next!”

I sigh to let out my frustrations, then begin. “Who are you?” I start.

“No one in particular, next!” they reply.

I give a blank and exasperated stare, then continue. “Okay then, what are you?”

“I’m pretty sure most people understand me as, like, a spirit of some kind.”

…I’ll believe that for now. After all of the strange things I’ve seen today, I’ll take any explanation. “Spirit of what in particular?”

“Life. In general.”

How wonderfully vague and confusing.

“Could you possibly elaborate?” I ask, feeling frustration bubbling right below my skin.

“Well, life has many different forms, I just happened to want to try this one. It’s much more tiring than I expected though. Sorry, there isn’t much I can explain to you…”

I sigh. “Fine, I understand.”

“You have one more question to ask,” they smile, waving their hands as if extremely excited. “Hmm…er…what’s your name?”

“Thank you for asking! You can call me Nara.”

“Nara…” I whisper, testing it on my tongue. I like it, it suits them.

We both sit together on the rock, letting the sun bathe us in warmth. As we sit, more flowers bloom around our feet. A kaleidoscope of color surrounds my shoes, making my plain black sneakers look like gaping tears in a beautiful painting.

As we sit, we talk to each other. Nara tells the most wonderful stories, and I listen intently. It seems that as a spirit, they have an endless supply of fascinating tales to tell. They make me laugh, and I can’t recall the last time I did that.

Just as they impart stories to me, I tell Nara about myself and my life. Even as I try to tell them that there isn’t much, they insist. It feels like a boring topic after the stories Nara told me, but they seem to enjoy learning about me. I like talking to them.

Soon, the sun drops below the horizon and stars dot the sky.

This has been…the best day of my life. The gray monotony of my day has been broken, replaced with marvelous stains from the rainbow. I haven’t felt this many emotions since I was a child, still fresh and young and ignorant of the world and its troubles. I wish the rest of my life could be like this.

“I think you need to go,” Nara says.

“Yeah, it’s getting late. I’ll come back tomorrow. Same time?” I look at them, and they gaze at me with a strange sadness that I can’t identify.

“I’m sorry…you can’t come back. Taking this form took a lot more energy than I expected. I’ve barely been able to stay solid this long. After this, I don’t think I’ll ever return to this form again.”

…no. No way. I finally find something in my life that truly makes me feel alive, and they can only stay for a day?

Though I know it’s not possible, I think I hear the sound of my heart crumbling to pieces.

“W-what do I do now? I finally feel truly alive, like an actual person. I’ve only felt this way around you. I-I can’t go back to the life I had before!”

My heart beats a mile a minute, and everything becomes white noise.

“Hey, hey. Deep breath, please sit.” Warm yet light hands hold my shoulders, coaxing me onto the moss-covered ground.

The air in my throat catches, almost like I’m choking on the breath I’m trying to take. My limbs feel nearly numb, as if pins and needles have spread throughout every part of my body. The world seems to warp around me like I’m looking through a camera with the wrong lens and zoom. It hurts so much.

After what feels like hours of agony, the overwhelming dread subsides, leaving only a vague emptiness in my chest and extreme tiredness. Everything feels heavy, and I’ve never felt more exhausted.

As I lay on the ground, letting the fresh forest air dry the cold sweat covering me, I feel something nudge my top lip. It’s a small flower, with white petals surrounding a bright sun of seeds. Nara looks at me insistently, and I open my mouth without thinking. It’s sweet, but not like candy. It’s a natural sweetness, like ripe and soft fruit.

“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. I have to leave,” they whisper, their fingers gently brushing my forehead.

“But…what will I do without you?” I ask. I feel like someone wishing on a star, desperate and longing.

“Just because I am gone,” they smile, “doesn’t mean that the memory is gone. The beautiful moments between us, those still exist as long as you let them.”

“You’re the only person I’ve ever felt this way with…what if I never feel this way again?”

“There are more people in the world than you think. You’ve been so closed off, fearing change and craving unwavering security. That’s an impossible goal. No one can truly live alone.”

My lips part, cracking from how dry they are, trying to say something. Before even a single syllable is uttered, Nara smiles at me. It’s a melancholic smile, filled with happiness tinged ever so slightly with sadness.

Just as they smile, they fade away into shards of paint under the moonlight. Those shards scatter around the ground and grow flowers wherever they land. The new blossoms sway gently in the crisp night air. An earthy scent wafts around me, and I wish I could bottle it.

Eventually, even with my desire to never leave this flower field and the fresh memories still lingering in the ground, the cold air was unforgiving. As numbness consumes my fingers, I grab my abandoned backpack. It’s even colder than my hands.

The forest path is short, and I exit the treeline quickly. I attempt to take one more step forward, but my shoelace immediately stops me. As I stumble, a small leaf catches my eye. A streak of orange paint covers it, and a vivid image of that leaf landing upon Nara’s head flashes in my mind.

I pick it up and spin its stem between my fingers, letting the orange and green blend together. At the very least, it’s a wonderful keepsake for this day.

I take a book from my backpack and place the leaf between the pages, orange and green bright and stark against plain white. As I look up, the sun begins to peek over the horizon, cradling me in its fragile light.

A new day has come, and I smile. I have changed.


Anoka County Library Write On! 2023 Short Story Contest Winners Copyright © 2023 by Avrie Siedschlag; Ella Howard; Greta Graham; Renad Taher; Rachel Mueller; Daniel Gbati; Julia McBride; Audrey High; Lucia Floan; Rhett LeBeau; Anna Moline; Hannah Jemming; Valomi Lewis; Fen Hendren; Kathryn Downs; Megan Nguyen; Lizzie Elsenpeter; Sophia Accord; and Sophia Acord. All Rights Reserved.

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