The leaves crunched underneath her feet as she walked along what should have been a hiking path, but was, instead, covered in rich golds, oranges and reds. She pulled her scarf a bit tighter around her neck as a sudden gust picked up, leaves dancing in the sky. Days like this were what she lived for. The air was crisp and cool and it felt wonderful when she inhaled and filled her lungs with it. The sun hung high in the sky, shining brightly, but not providing much in the way of warmth. The air was the perfect shade of blue and what clouds there were seemed fluffy and light, with just a hint of gray, as if they were thinking about raining, but were still undecided.
Finally, she arrived at her destination; a large maple tree in the middle of a small clearing. She walked over to the trunk and sat down, her back against the rough bark. She looked up and noticed that there weren't many leaves. In face, from where she was sitting, she could only see a single leaf yet to fall. She smiled. She wasn't late after all. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.
The first time she had come to this clearing, it had been a day much like today, though much colder. It was a few years ago, after having Thanksgiving dinner with her family. She wasn't much of a family person and really hated the mindless chitchat and the football games that always followed the turkey dinner. So she went on a walk instead, a scarf wrapped around her face and a heavy jacket on. She had walked these paths often as a child, but when she went away for college, she didn't have much of an opportunity to come back and visit. When she did, she always made it a point to take a walk in the small woods behind her family's house.
She thought she knew all the twisted paths and turns and so she was quite surprised when she came upon the clearing. Even after two decades of exploring the woods, she was happy to know there were areas that had been hidden to her. She smiled widely as she entered the clearing, her heart filling with peace and she felt as if she could really relax while she was here.
She sat against the tree and smiled, looking around the clearing. It looked as if no one had even been there, since the leaves looked as pristine as if they had just fallen from the tree above. She looked up and saw a single leaf still on the tree.
"Excuse me," came a muffled voice.
There was a young man standing next to her. He hadn't been there when she sat down and she would have heard someone approaching. He had a scarf wrapped tightly around his face so she couldn't identify who he was, assuming she had even known him.
"May I sit here?" he asked, indicating the spot right next to her. His eyes were piercing and a the same color as the tree's trunk, with flecks of gold. She didn't know how to reply, so she just nodded. He sat down next to her, adjusting his scarf so it no longer covered her face. She felt her face get warm and was glad that her own scarf was covering her blush. He was gorgeous. He had a strong jaw and lips that looked gentle and soft. She definitely would have remembered seeing someone like him before.
"So... do you live around here?" she asked nervously. She had never been very good around other people, especially good-looking people.
"Mmhmm," he said leaning his head against the tree and looking up. "I've lived here as long as I can remember."
"Really?" she asked, sitting forward. "I lived around here when I was a child. How strange that we've never run into each other before. This isn't that big of an area."
She grew extremely self-conscious as she felt his gaze on her again and her face grew red again. She felt her face grow hotter as he reached up and gently pulled her scarf from her face. His face lit up as he saw her full-on. He moved his hands from her face.
"Oh! I remember you," he said, happily surprised. She looked back at him.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "I certainly would have remembered someone like you."
"Mmhmm. You used to walk through these woods all the time. Then you suddenly stopped coming. I had wondered what had happened to you," he remarked.
"Well, I went off to school," she started, then realized something. "Wait a second. How did you know I used to take walks around here?" She was starting to get suspicious of his behavior. After all, how could he have just appeared next to her without her hearing a sound?
"Oh, um..." he stuttered. He scratched at his cheek, a nervous expression on his face. She started creeping away from him, ready to bolt if he tried anything.
"I'm not suspicious or anything," he told her, not doing anything at all to reassure her. "It's just... I used to walk around here a lot, too. And I saw you. That's where I remember you from."
She raised her eyebrow at him, but relaxed. It made sense that she wouldn't be the only one walking these woods, but the thought of that seemed to make them lose their magic. She had always thought of these woods as "her" special spot where no one could harm her, no matter the circumstances.
"But this is your special spot," he said quietly. "And no harm will ever come to you here. Not as long as I'm watching over you."
"How did you...?" she started, but was cut off as she felt his lips press against hers. They are soft, she thought, closing her eyes. She felt him pull away, so she opened her eyes and he was gone. Looking around, wondering if she had even really seen him at all, she saw the last leaf fall from the branches above...
So she had come back to this clearing every year since then, hoping to meet the mysterious man again. And every year, he never failed to appear. She talked to him about everything; all her insecurities, her goals, her failures, and her triumphs. She trusted him to the core of her being. She never felt safer than when she was in the clearing with him. It was as if the woods themselves had sent someone to look after her. Someone who could be everything she needed. And it made her feel good whenever she thought of him.
"Excuse me," came a voice from beside her and she opened her eyes and smiled.