by Andreas Brooks

     "Mr. Brown, could you send Miles to the principal's office for early dismissal?"
     The loudspeaker cracked off as a room full of wide-eyed fifth graders looked on. Miles, a thin, dark-haired young man, methodically collected his backpack and coat from the rear of the room. He placed several large books into a black canvas bag and exited without saying goodbye. From the warmth and welcome of his classroom, Miles walked in the direction of the office.
     He walked through silent halls, leaning forward with the weight of his oversized pack as he moved. Corkboards displaying colorful student artwork lined the walls adjacent to an open-air library. Miles quickly passed classrooms full of students, staring intently or talking quietly without turning to inspect or inquire. Speckled linoleum tiles gave way to the dense brown carpeting of the administrative suite. A familiar scent of long-standing burned coffee and perfume occupied the space. He stepped alongside a broad wooden desk and stood quietly. Next to the looming figure of his father, Miles appeared small and thin.
     "I'm here."
     Heavy wood and glass doors opened into a bright, crisp autumn afternoon. A cool breeze swept across the asphalt ahead of them as they walked toward the car. A flag tightened and flapped overhead. They climbed into the grey four-door and pulled off onto an empty country road covered in a tapestry of fallen orange and brown leaves.
     The day's endless news reports, rendered in dry voices, emanated from the speakers while Miles played a portable game in the back seat. They sat in silence while the afternoon's clear sun flashed through trees lining the road. His father sipped coffee from a travel mug and listened intently, his left arm propped on the windowsill. Miles turned off his game, withdrew a heavy biology textbook and opened it on his lap.
     Glancing into the rearview mirror, Miles's father saw him read only to pause and stare out the window.
     "What are you reading?"
     Miles snapped into awareness and responded, "We are learning about trees in class, so I got a book on the seasons from the library during lunch. I was looking at all the trees along the road." They sat in silence for a few moments more until Miles asked, "Dad, how many trees do you think there are?" The child's voice was high in pitch and clear in tone.
     "Well, I don't know if I can answer that question. Millions, I guess. Heck, there might be a million along this very road."
     "No way!" Miles said, closing the book. Sitting up, he kneeled on the seat and perched his arms on the backs of the front seats. "I thought it might be a couple hundred but not a million."
     "Well, you have to figure that there are at least as many trees as there are lands and the world is bigger than we've seen. There are still places on Earth where no one has ever been." Miles thought about this for a while. They looked forward through the windshield onto the winding road. "The numbers we humans use are small compared to things on a global scale. Imagine the billions of blades of grass, the trillions of drops of water in all the oceans. We usually count by the dozens or maybe a hundred. Trees even live longer than humans, some can even live to be a thousand years old if their environment is just right, and nobody cuts them down."
     "Do trees grow everywhere? Even the North Pole?"
     "Well, I don't know about the North Pole, but they sure grow most places. Trees take in sunlight and water to make leaves, bark, and even acorns. I remember learning about that when I was your age. I think the process is called photosynthesis." He glanced from the road to see Miles looking ahead with a furrowed brow.
     "So leaves are made out of water and sunlight? I never thought about where they come from. What happens to the all the leaves that change? When they fall, what happens to all of them?" They both looked for a moment at the passing splendor, piles of color whipping in the wind.
     "Well, the tree grows new ones in the Spring when the weather warms up. They go into dormancy so they can conserve energy while it's cold. Sort of like a groundhog in the winter."
     "No, I mean the other ones, the ones that fell. If they fall every year, wouldn't there be huge mountains of them? That would be sweet. Jump off the roof into a huge pile, you could even row a boat through a whole ocean of them." Miles mused momentarily on this other reality. His imagination ran through a whole world of leaves filled with the pleasant aroma of autumn.
     "Oh, the old ones are still here, just not in the same way. They break up into little pieces, smaller than you can see. The wind, rain, and eventually snow turn them all into dust and dirt. All the soil you have ever seen came from old trees and leaves."
     "Then what happens to them? Do they just sit there forever and ever as dirt?"
     "Well, eventually they turn into more leaves. The tree soaks up all the nutrients with rain water through the roots."
     "New from old, I get it. Kinda like recycling right? Then what happens?"
     "Every year the same thing happens again and again. Trees have been doing this for millions of years. I suppose they've gotten pretty good at it. Do you remember when we cut down that tree in the back yard? The rings we saw in the wood show us how old the tree is, one for every year."
     Smiling, Miles responded, "Cool. I wonder if you cut off your arm, would there be rings there too?"
     Grinning, the father looked into his mirror and said, "Well, there's only one way to find out."
     Sloping hills led to an intersection of two country roads. They came to a stop at a rustic gas station with just one pump. A gust of wind, howling as it went, caught the driver's side door and snapped it forward. The father stood with his hands in his pockets, filled the tank quickly, and returned just as fast. The sun crept lower into a fast-moving stream of clouds that lined the western horizon. The first chill of winter moved through the wind. They turned north and resumed their drive.
     Miles, lying on the back seat, asked, "Is it true that the sun will explode and destroy the Earth?"
     Suppressing a chuckle, the father responded, "What? Where did you hear that?"
     "My teacher said it was only a matter of time before all stars eventually blow up."
     "Your teacher certainly found a way to make science interesting. Actually our sun is pretty young compared to other stars. I think we have several million years before that happens. We will probably have space travel by then and live in other galaxies."
     "That's good to hear. And then all that stuff, the leaves and dirt and trees, will just float around in space forever. Sounds lonely. My teacher said that space is freezing cold and quiet all the time."
     "Your teacher sounds depressed. Well, you know, all that stuff will eventually run into something. Another planet or another star. Nothing can float forever. Even if it takes a long time, it will eventually hit something."
     "So all the stuff on Earth could eventually become part of a star?"
     "Yeah I guess so. It's cool to think about."
     "So the light from a sun is coming from all the old stuff that made it through space and lands there. The sun makes light, and it has to come from somewhere."
     "That's true. I guess you're right."
     They drove on until the sun just rested on a purple rim in the distant mountains. The car rolled to a stop on a gravel road just inside a long iron fence. Miles and his father opened their doors and walked methodically down a familiar stone path. Long rows of standing white marble slabs passed on either side as they walked in silence. Turning, they left the path and stepped onto short, lush green grass. A lopsided arrow of geese honked overhead. They stood for several minutes, looking forward, hands held.
     The last streams of a dying sun reached forward and touched the scene. Glowing spots of light, vibrating in and out of existence, spun onto every surface. A sudden gust of wind pressed a low branch into the light, casting a trembling surge of brightness. The red and orange kaleidoscope pulsed quickly. Miles gazed forward in silence, into the wash of light and color. His limbs grew limp, and his eyes lost focus in a squint.
     "There she is!"
     "What? There who is?"
     "Mom, she's here. Coming towards us. She's just behind that branch."
     "I know she is son. She always will be."
     They walked away in silence towards the waiting car. Miles walked lightly several paces ahead of his father. He slept soundly under his father's coat, nestled in the back seat. His father wept quietly through the dark drive home.

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