Warning: Everything in this story has been extremely romanticised. It is just the direct result of my moodiness that came from a spate of recent happenings around the world.

Leaf in the Heart of Autumn

It is a school day like any other.

The boy walks out of school by himself. Vaguely, he notices some of the other children as they run laughing into their mother's or father's arms. He hears snatches of their conversations, and sees their delighted smiles. Many more other children are making their way home, rarely by themselves, and often with a good friend or two by their sides.

He walks past them all, and crosses the road in front of the school gates. The man is sitting on the low wall on that side of the road again, the way he always does. He is there when the boy comes to school in the morning, and he is there when school is over. Every single day.

Now the boy walks past the man, who smiles at him like he sometimes does. Today, the man is wearing a black shirt over a dark green tee, and a pair of faded grey jeans. Like always, his hair is black, and matted, and his eyes are dark blue. When the man smiles at him like that, the boy thinks that he looks like his dad, for they look about the same age.

The boy continues his way. When he turns around, he sees the man a short distance behind him, this time following him instead of watching him like he always does. The gentle smile still lingers on his face.

At the junction of the road is the ice-cream shop, and the boy buys a blueberry-flavoured snow cone in a paper cup. As he turns around to leave, he hears the bells attached to the glass door jingle, and the man enters the shop.

The man looks down at the boy's snow cone, smiles again, and points at the snow cone machine.

So the boy waits outside the shop for the man to buy his own snow cone. When the glass door opens again, he sees that the man's snow cone is bright blue, too.

He looks up at the man, a plastic spoon in his hand. "Do you like blueberry too?" he asks.

The man looks down at him, looking a little surprised. "Yes, in fact I do," he admits. For a long time neither of them speaks, then the man smiles at the boy. "It's the flavour I've always liked when I was as young as you."

– – –

At times, the boy does not like to go home right after school in the afternoon. There is nothing to do at home, and he has nobody to talk to.

Maybe, he figures, that is why he is here with this man right now, on a bench in the park.

The park is a pretty place close to the elementary school. There are stone statues of winged angels, and there is a fountain in the very centre of the park. The grass that was green in spring and summer is now full of red, yellow and orange leaves from the trees. There are a few adults sitting around and chatting, and groups of children running around and playing.

The boy props his schoolbag on his lap, and takes spoonful after spoonful of his snow cone. The man is halfway through his own, but now he just watches the boy eat.

"How old are you, little boy?" he asks.

The boy turns to look at the man. "Eight," he says, proudly. "I'm in third grade this year."

"I see." The man smiles again. Then he points to the boy. "Your school has a lovely uniform," he tells him.

The boy looks down at his own clothes. His uniform is a white shirt with a round collar, a black vest, a black tie and black shorts. On his feet are white socks and black shoes.

He has always taken pride in his school uniform, but this is the first time anyone has said anything about him in it.

"Was your uniform like this also?" he asks.

The man laughs at the question. "Kind of," he replies. "Except that my tie was white, and my vest was green." He pulls at the tee he is wearing inside his shirt. "This green."

The boy blinks at the tee. "I like this green," he says, honestly.

"Do you?" The man laughs again. He finishes his snow cone, and stuffs his spoon into the vertex of the paper cup. "You live nearby, don't you?" he asks again.

The boy wonders if he and the man are taking turns asking each other questions. But he nods, in response.

"You live nearby too, right? You're always there outside my school."

Now the man looks straight at him. His dark blue eyes seem to be always gazing into his own.

"I am," he says quietly. "I have been . . . watching over you all this while."

The boy looks at him with the plastic spoon in his mouth.

The man smiles at the innocent sight before him. "I . . . I don't know." His eyes seem to turn glassy just then. "You're such a sweet little boy, do you know that? Just like a little angel."

The boy wants to tell him that he does not have wings, like those on the statues in the park. But the man raises a hesitant hand towards him. He gently places it on the boy's head, and ruffles his hair affectionately.

The boy closes his eyes for a moment. He remembers how his mum and dad used to ruffle his hair like that too, when he was younger. Now, they only ask about school when they come home, and give him a quick kiss on the cheek during bedtime.

"Your hair is very beautiful," the man says. His voice is very soft, as if he is speaking to himself. "So fine, so golden . . . It's like honey. Like the autumn leaves in the trees."

Maybe, the boy wonders, this man has a son himself.

When he opens his eyes, he realises that the man still has his hand on his hair. He can feel the man's thumb circle gently against the side of his head.

But the man notices the boy looking at him, and he removes his hand, slowly and sadly. "I'm sorry," he says, in a quiet voice. "I shouldn't have done that."

The boy takes the spoon out of his mouth, deciding to voice his thoughts. "Do you have a son, sir?" he asks. "A little boy like me?"

The man smiles gently at him. "No . . . But sometimes I wish I do. A boy like you would be wonderful." He pauses in his words. "If you were my son I would love you with all my heart."

"Like my mum and dad?"

The man smiles again, and gazes straight into the boy's eyes. "More than that," he whispers. "More than that . . ."

And here, the boy suddenly realises, is a man — a stranger whose name he does not know, who would love him more than his parents do. The man ruffles his hair, and eats blueberry snow cones like he does, and wears a uniform just like his when he was a boy.

He wishes the man would ruffle his hair again.

But the man stands up all of a sudden, shoving a hand into the pocket of his shirt. "It's late, don't you think?" he says, looking at the sun peeping from behind the trees. The boy looks at his watch: it is almost three o'clock.

"You should hurry along home," the man tells him. "Your parents will be worried about you."

"They're at work," the boy says.

The man looks at him for a moment. "Then go home by yourself. Do you know your way back from here?" he asks, concerned. "Or do you want me to bring you to the main road?"

"I know the way," the boy replies. Then, for a strange reason, he asks, "Will you walk home with me?"

The man looks slightly surprised again. But he only shakes his head, and smiles. "No, I don't think I will. I have something else to do later." He takes the paper cup from the boy, and the boy drops his spoon into it. "Run along now. And —"

The boy looks up at the man.

"You . . . you mustn't tell your mum and dad about me," he says softly. "Understand?"

The boy sees that the man is smiling, but his blue eyes are sad. Maybe he really wants him as a son, the boy thinks. Maybe he doesn't want him to leave, after all.

But he will, since the man told him to. So he nods, and carries his schoolbag on his shoulders, and walks towards home.

– – –

The man is there again when the boy comes out of the school gates the next day. He is wearing his black shirt, but with a new blue tee under it.

They go to the ice-cream shop together, but the man pays for one blueberry snow cone, and gives it to the boy to eat. "I'm not hungry today," he explains, smiling.

Now they are sitting on the same bench in the park again, and the man is watching him eat, very carefully. He laughs when the boy accidentally drops a spoonful of blue ice onto his vest, but only gives him a paper napkin to wipe it off with, and does not do it for him.

And neither, the boy thinks, does the man ruffle his hair again today. He wishes the man would. But he does not ask.

"Why do you talk to me, sir?" he asks, instead.

The man smiles at him. "I don't know either. I just feel like I want to." He takes the stained paper napkin from the boy's small hand. "And talking to you makes me happy. Being with you and watching you eat snow cones make me very happy, too."

The boy realises that the man has a smile on his face most of the time — for both yesterday and today, and even during the times he saw him before and after school.

"Is it because I look like you when you were young?" he asks. "Did you always buy snow cones after school too?"

The man laughs. "No, not really. I was a really naughty kid when I was your age. I would take the girls' pocket money and buy a big snow cone for myself with that money."

The boy widens his eyes. "How big was it?" he asks excitedly.

"Oh, this big." The man spreads his hands, as if he were holding a beach ball. "But you shouldn't do that. You're a good boy, aren't you? A nice little boy like you shouldn't go around taking other people's money for snow cones."

"Wow . . ." The boy blinks at the imaginary snow cone, in sheer amazement. "Do they still have snow cones that big now?" he asks.

"I'm not sure. I bought that giant snow cone some . . . twenty years ago. Why don't you ask the lady at the ice-cream shop tomorrow if they sell it at that size?"

"Twenty?" The boy starts counting curiously with the fingers on his free hand.

The man smiles again. "Twenty is ten plus ten. I'm twenty-eight years old this year. You're eight. So I'm twenty years older than you are."

Now the boy is even more amazed by this new information — this man is two ten-years older than he is. "You're very old," he tells the man.

"Yes, I am an old, old man." He rolls his fists before his eyes, and pretends to cry. "Old enough to be your dad."

At the last sentence the boy thinks hard, and looks intently at the man. "But my dad kisses me goodnight every night."

The man stops his pretend crying. He looks at the boy, and his blue eyes are bright and sad once more. He bites at his bottom lip, and his hands clutch at his own knees. Then he turns his head away, and speaks quietly.

"I am not your dad, little boy. I am only a stranger to you. A strange, old man who only wants to watch over you, and talk to you once in a while, and nothing more. Only your dad can kiss you goodnight, and your mum. Because they are your parents. And they love you."

"Do you love me too?" the boy asks.

The man stares at him. His mouth is open in surprise, but his lips are trembling. The boy thinks that the man wants to tell him something, but all the man says is, "You should go home, child. Don't ask me any more questions . . ."

The boy does not understand. "Why?" he asks.

"No, please." There is a pained expression on the man's face. "Don't ask anymore. Go home now, be a good boy." He takes the paper cup from the boy's hands, and stands up.

"Will you be at my school again tomorrow?" the boy asks, lifting himself off the bench as well. "Can I ask you any more questions then?"

"I won't be there again," the man says, this time angrily. "I'm moving house. I'm moving out of town. I won't be there watching again, and you won't go looking for me again."

He squats down and looks straight at the boy, his eyes now hard and cold. "Don't tell anybody that you've been talking to me. Don't go around talking to strangers like me again. Be a good boy, stay with your parents, and love them. Understand?"

But the man does not wait for an answer. "Now go!" he says fiercely. "Go back home. Your mum and dad are waiting for you."

The boy wants to tell him that his mum and dad are at work, but the man wants him to go home, and so he does.

But as he walks along the path out of the park, he turns around and sees the man seated down on the bench again. His eyes are closed, his hands are holding the empty paper cup against his face, and his shoulders are shaking.

– – –

The boy stands at the open school gates, looking at the empty wall across the road.

It is Friday, and school always ends early on Fridays. He does not know if the man knows this. He wishes he could have told him yesterday.

The man has always been there, the boy thinks. Every day, in the morning, and in the afternoon.

But today, he is not there.

The boy blinks, sadly. Maybe the man really has moved away. Maybe he has gone to another town, to watch over other children from another school.

Or maybe the man is still here, except that he did not look for him carefully enough. Maybe the man has gotten hungry, and gone round the corner to buy a snow cone for himself. Maybe right now he is asking the lady in the shop for a giant snow cone. Maybe he will let him try that giant snow cone when he comes back to the wall.

At these hopeful thoughts, the boy smiles to himself, happily.

From somewhere behind him, the boy hears someone yelling in a deep, rough voice, then the screams of the other children. He turns around to look, and sees a strange man who is not a teacher or janitor of the school, and waving something big and shiny about.

All around this man, the children are screaming. The teachers are crying at the children to run away, and quickly guiding them away from the strange man.

A teacher with glasses runs over to the strange man, trying to stop him, but he pushes the shiny thing into her blouse, and she cries out. She falls onto the ground and stays there, as if she is sleeping.

The boy watches all this from the gates. He sees that it is a knife that the strange man is holding.

Now the strange man runs around, roaring wildly, sticking the knife into every child and teacher he goes near. Other people try to take the knife away from him, but the strange man only sticks it into them, too.

The strange, yelling man runs towards the school gates and, with an angry roar and a curious glow in his eyes, plunges the knife into the boy's body. A sharp pain erupts from the boy's chest. He utters a surprised cry, and falls to the ground on his knees.

The boy looks down. There is a big slash in his vest, and his white shirt underneath is now a dark red, like the water around the sleeping people behind him. The strange red water seems to keep flowing from him like the fountain in the park, and he crumples onto the ground, shivering.

He puts his hand to the slash, and raises it to his eyes. The red water on his palm is thick, thicker than tap water, but looks more like honey. A red-coloured honey that sticks to his skin. But it smells nothing like honey, and the boy feels weak just by looking at it.

All around him, there is a lot of noise. The man with the knife has gone, but people are still running about. The boy hears the sirens of a policeman's car, and lots of shouting. He is facing the road, and on the other side of it, even more people are looking at the school, and at him. They look scared. Some run forward to the school, to help his classmates and teachers who are flowing with red honey, too.

Then he sees the man — the stranger who has always waited for him — and he is running across the road, so quickly that he nearly runs into a car. The car honks at him, but he ignores it, and only continues running towards the boy.

But the boy smiles at him. The man did not go away after all. He has been there all the while, waiting for him, as always. And now the man is coming for him, the way he knows he would.

– – –

The man finally reaches the boy. "Oh god," he says. For a moment he doesn't know what to do. Then he puts a hand under the boy's head, and lifts him up gently. His whole body is trembling, and his blue eyes are wide and bright, as frightened as everyone else all around. His hand touches the slash in the boy's shirt, and the boy stirs.

"Oh god . . ." he says again, his voice breaking. "Are you all right? Are you all right, my boy? Can you hear me?"

The boy wonders at the crowd of little white stars, which are starting to float in the blue sky above his head. But he smiles up at the man, and answers his question with a nod.

"You'll be fine, my boy. You'll be just fine. It's . . . it's just a little cut, there's nothing to be afraid of . . ." the man whispers to him. He smooths the boy's hair over and over, even though his hands and shoulders are now shaking hard. "You'll be all right. The — the ambulance will come soon. The doctors and nurses will be here soon. They'll take you to hospital, and you'll be okay again. Do you hear me, my boy? . . ."

The boy wants to ask the man about the strange, yelling man with the knife, and why he stuck the knife into him like that. But the boy now looks up at the man holding him, and sees that his blue eyes are crying. The man's hand is still touching at his hair, pushing it out of his eyes, and tucking it behind his ears.

Somewhere, far behind the pain that comes from his chest, the boy feels happy. He closes his eyes.

"No!" the man cries, fearfully. "Don't go to sleep. For god's sake don't ever, ever go to sleep. Look at me, my boy, look at me." He places a gentle hand against the boy's face, and turns it towards his own. "Look at me, okay? Don't close your eyes. Look at me if you're feeling sleepy. I'll talk to you and everything will be fine, everything will be just fine . . ." He kisses the boy on his forehead, and continues whispering words to him, keeping him awake, keeping him alive.

The boy remembers, for the second time, how his dad kisses him goodnight. He remembers how this man has kissed him too just now. Now, he will not have to ask the man any more questions, and make him angry again.

The man cradles the boy in his arms, and soothes him. "You'll be okay, my boy. You'll be okay, really . . ." He looks around, and listens to the shouts and sirens, an anxious and afraid look on his face. But when he turns back to the boy, he is smiling once more, though very sadly.

"My dear little boy," he whispers, stroking the boy's face over and over again. "You're a good boy, aren't you? You'll be brave, won't you? You'll be brave for your mum and dad, for all your friends and teachers, and for . . . for me. You'll do that for me, won't you? . . ."

Now the boy remembers how, some time last year, he had fallen from a high chair in the kitchen, while trying to reach for a tin of chocolate biscuits on one of the top shelves. He had knocked his head and fainted, and woke up in a big, white bed in hospital. His mum had held his hand, and told him how she and his dad had found him lying on the floor when they came home from work that night, and how they had been scared that he was dead.

So maybe this is what is happening right now, the boy wonders. He is dying. He is going to die. But instead of his mum and dad, this man is right here with him. This man, who is twenty years older than he is, whose name he does not know. He is there with him right now, because his own mum and dad can only be together with him when they finish their work.

And suddenly, the boy knows there is something he must tell the man.

"M . . ." he starts faintly. It is difficult for him to talk, but he has to continue. He has to tell it to the man.

The man looks down at the boy, blinking away tears. "Shh," he whispers. "It's okay. You don't have to talk. Help will come very soon, all right? They'll come and make you well again . . ."

But the boy closes his fingers around the man's black shirt, and the new white tee he has underneath it. He is sorry that the red honey on his hand has dirtied the man's clothes, and he smiles weakly up at him. "My . . ." he tries to say, through the pain all over his body. "My name . . . is . . ."

And in his heart he whispers a word, the one word that he wants the man to hear. He hopes the man likes it. He hopes that the man is smiling, because now the man can call him by this name, instead of just 'my boy'. But he does not know if the man is smiling down at him, for his eyes are now closed.

And there is nothing more he sees. All he feels is the man's arms around him, and all he hears is a broken voice weeping hard into his ear. So he smiles, one last time, for he knows that he is loved, and always has been.