A vivid red leaf fell from the old maple tree, twirling slowly in the cold autumn air. Melody watched it as it glided to the ground and landed on a pile of half-dead leaves. The blue Cybunny hobbled towards it, her crutches clicking quietly on the paving stones. Shifting one of the sticks to her other arm, she leant on them as she bent down, laboriously stretching to pick up the leaf.
Kale heaved a sigh from his perch behind the upstairs window. Every day for the past three months he’d watch his little sister leave her room to go outside and pick up a handful of leaves.
The red Lutari got up and, after a second’s hesitation, walked down the creaking staircase to the front room. The light above him flickered weakly, casting unusual shadows over the dirty walls and furniture as he opened the door.
Mel was standing outside on the front step of the apartment, looking up at the huge maple tree. “Most of its leaves are gone.”
Kale reached out and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “It’s cold out there. Come in.”
The Cybunny held up the leaf she’d found. “Look at this. It’s the best one I’ve seen this autumn. Just look at the colour!”
“Yeah,” Kale said as he pulled his sister indoors. “It’s freezing here, and the doctor said you need to rest, remember?”
“It’s not cold,” Mel objected as Kale started to help her up the staircase. “It’s not even winter yet. I’ll stay inside once it starts to snow, okay? Just let me have my freedom until then.”
Kale opened the door to her room and Mel, with the help of her crutches, hobbled inside. Once he’d closed the door, the Lutari sighed and ran a hand over his face. “Just be grateful we have somewhere to stay until winter,” he muttered.
The kitchen of the apartment they lived in was warm. Smells assaulted Kale as he opened the door, and it only took him a few seconds to realise they would be having tuna casserole for dinner. Judith, the old blue Yurble, was hacking at a large onion, her eyes squinted against the vapours.
Suddenly aware of how ravenous he felt, Kale plucked an apple from the fruit bowl on the table.
“That’s being added to your rent,” Judith snapped.
Kale smiled. Judith always acted tough and cold, but he knew she had an incredibly sweet temperament. She treated his sister and him more like family than boarders. It was just that times were hard, and Judith couldn’t afford to give much leeway.
The Yurble swiped the chopped onion into a large saucepan. “How’s the job hunting?”
“Meh,” Kale grumbled as he bit into the apple. It tasted sweet and juicy. There never seemed to be quite enough food around to satisfy anyone’s hunger, and Kale delighted in the small treat for a second before answering Judith. “Not so good at the moment. I went for an interview this morning, but they’d already given it to someone else. It seems like no one’s hiring at the moment.”
“It’s tough times, kid; you’ve just got to be tougher.” The Yurble paused for a minute and then began to rummage in her pockets. “I saw this in the paper this morning. It’s worth a shot, anyhow.” She pulled out a crumpled ad and handed it to the Lutari.
Kale took it and read it carefully. It was an ad for a delivery boy needed for a legal firm. “The successful applicant must be trustworthy and professional”, it read. There were several days and times that he could apply, one of which was that afternoon.
“It’s an unskilled job,” Judith said, adding tuna and milk to the onions, which had by then cooked. “You wouldn’t be paid much.”
“I’ll take anything, just as long as it pays the rent,” Kale said as he tucked the clipping into his pocket and took another bite of the apple.
Judith’s face softened. “Listen, kid. I know things are rough for you right now, since they laid you off that last job. If there’s anything I can... I mean, the rent...”
Kale placed a hand on Judith’s shoulder and smiled. “It’s okay. You’re already letting us have board for virtually nothing, and you need to eat, too. Don’t worry about it.”
Judith smiled back. “You’re a good kid, Kale. I’m sure things will work out. They always do. Though, what with your sister like this and the doctor’s fees so expensive...”
The apple suddenly tasted bitter in Kale’s mouth. He turned to leave the kitchen. “We’ll make it somehow.”
“Yeah. Good luck, kid.”
The air outside the kitchen was exceptionally cold. Kale wrapped his jacket around himself and marched out of the building, shuddering against the sudden change in temperature. He glanced back at the window that belonged to his sister’s room, and saw the blurry outline of a small, sick Cybunny waving to him. He smiled, making an effort to look more optimistic than he felt, and waved back.
When their parents had died two years previously, the authorities had wanted send Melody to stay at their aunt’s. She was an old, cranky, strict Aisha who lived in a different continent and, as Kale was legally old enough to be her guardian, he refused to let them take her.
They worked together well as a small, broken family, but the sudden grief made Mel’s illness flair up, and soon their days became a never-ending stream of doctor’s clinics.
And then the large factory where Kale had worked closed, and hundreds of the townspeople were suddenly unemployed. There were so many jobseekers and so few jobs. The doctor’s fees suddenly felt that much more expensive, and Kale knew that if he couldn’t get a new job soon, he would have to send Melody to her aunt’s.
The Lutari slowly walked along the pavement, heading towards the legal firm. Homeless pets called to him from the alcoves of closed shops, begging for loose change. All Kale could do was shrug at them; he was no better off. He had barely enough savings to keep a roof over their heads for another week. He had no idea how he would afford food and medical bills on top of that.
A high, piercing scream shook him out of his thoughts. Ahead of him, a tall, pretty Ogrin was struggling against a short black Mynci, who had grabbed her bag. With a tug, the thief tore it free from the Ogrin’s hands and began to race down the street in Kale’s direction.
The Lutari took a step back, knowing it would be useless trying to catch such a small, fast creature. He almost felt pity for the thief as it dived down a side-street. It was barely more than a child; no doubt hunger had pushed it to this.
A flash of something caught Kale’s eye. As the thief had run down the street the bag in his grip had knocked against the brick wall and several objects had fallen out. Kale walked towards them and slowly bent to pick them up.
It was what you would expect to find in a handbag; lipstick, a diary... and a coin purse. Kale looked at the faerie Ogrin. Pets had stopped to help her to her feet. She was pretty, and wore a sleek, neat business suit. Her hair was styled into a neat bun, and her makeup was starting to run from her tears. Obviously an executive; someone who still had a job. Someone who had money saved in the bank.
Kale picked up the purse and glanced back at her. She hadn’t noticed him; he opened the leather pouch and peeked inside. There was enough money there to keep him and Melody fed and clothed for close to a month.
Breathing deeply, Kale closed the purse again. She could spare it. She would certainly have more than a hundred times that saved in the bank.
He fingered the bag nervously and thought of Melody. He would finally be able to buy that new coat she’d stared at every time they’d passed it in the store. She hadn’t asked for it, because she knew he couldn’t afford it, but he’d seen it in her face; she’d wanted it.
And then he thought of the questioning look that would be in her eyes when he brought it home so unexpectedly.
He stooped down and picked up the lipstick and diary, then walked towards the Ogrin. She was wiping at her eyes with a handkerchief someone had lent her, and, with a final remorseful grimace, he held out the three items. “They were on the ground.”
She looked at him, her large pink eyes surprised, and took the items with a shuddering sigh. “Thank you so much. Oh, my diary... I don’t know how I could survive without it... and my money. Thank you.”
Kale shrugged and squeezed out of the crowd that had formed. He didn’t need thanks; he needed a job.
The Lutari walked down the street quickly, huddled against the wind. He’d passed up a wonderful opportunity, but at least he’d kept his conscience clean. He thought he might have felt some warm glow; a feeling of justification, a feeling of righteousness; but all he felt was hollow.
He stopped in front of a large building and checked the time on the clipping Judith had given him. He was late for the interview, now. Gritting his teeth he pushed open the door and walked up to the receptionist.
He only had to mention the ad and she pointed to a row of chairs lined up against the wall. “Take a seat,” she said coldly. “Miss Evens will be here to speak with you shortly.”
Kale could feel her eyes sizing him up as he walked to the chair. It was a posh establishment, and he knew he was hugely out of place in his tattered coat and scuffed boots.
The room was silent as he waited. Occasionally groups of businessmen, dressed in smart suits and holding briefcases, walked past, but no one paid any attention to him.
He was on the verge of giving up and leaving when a door opened and a tall, pretty faerie Ogrin entered. Kale felt his jaw go slack as a humiliated flush swept across his face.
She hadn’t seen him. Instead, she walked over to the receptionist. “Sorry I’m so late, Ellen. I ran into some trouble. Do we have any new interviewees?”
“Just the one today,” Ellen, the receptionist, replied, approaching her boss and pointing at Kale. She lowered her voice, and Kale strained to hear. “I wouldn’t bother with him, though. He looks shifty to me.”
The Ogrin’s eyes met Kale’s, and widened with surprise. She approached him. “Mr...?”
“Kale,” Kale muttered, standing and preparing to leave. “I’m sorry, I-”
“How soon can you start, Kale?” Evens asked, making both the Lutari and the receptionist blink at her.
Ellen tugged on the Ogrin’s sleeve. “But miss, I don’t think he’s good for the job. We want someone trustworthy, remember?”
The Ogrin smiled, extending her hand to shake Kale’s. “Exactly.”
~ - ~ - ~
Kale raced up the stairs to Mel’s room, barely pausing to knock on the door before barging in. “You won’t believe this, Mel. I found a job!”
The small Cybunny turned in her seat to smile at him. “Really?”
“Uh-huh,” he said. “I got it in the most bizarre, way, too. At least it pays well. What’s that?”
Melody turned back to large sheet of cardboard balanced on her desk. “It’s finally finished.”
Kale took a slow breath as he looked at it. It was a painting of a huge maple tree, the leaves of which were a rainbow of reds and yellows. While the ground below it and the sky above were made from paint, though, the tree itself had been carefully crafted out of layers of the leaves Mel had been collecting for months.
“It’s beautiful,” was the only thing Kale could think of to say.
“I made it to remind ourselves of the seasons,” Melody whispered. “Winter can feel like the end of everything. But it isn’t; there’s always a spring after it.”
Kale knelt down next to his sister and pulled her into an embrace. “You’re right, Mel. And I think our spring has started.”