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The late September morning air still carried summer’s heat, but Trevor jogged along his route undaunted. His overpriced athletic wear was dark with sweat, and his side-swept hair clung to his skull as he slowed to finish the last reserves of his plastic water bottle.

Fewer than twenty paces to his left, a green bin displayed the words: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

Trevor tossed the emptied container to the ground instead, refusing to deviate from his route. Someone would pick it up. He had things to do today, and a single water bottle wouldn’t hurt anything.

A chill autumn wind rose up and caressed him, and he sighed at the momentary comfort as he returned home.

Yellow, pupil-less eyes peered from the branches of a nearby oak tree as it swayed in the sudden breeze. Red and orange leaves obscured the shadowy owner of the amber gaze as it waited for Trevor to enter his house at the end of the street.

The creature gazed down at the discarded plastic, and something like a hand made a sharp, beckoning gesture.

The wind changed direction, and the bottle rattled and rolled until it reached the base of the tree. Then it clattered up the trunk as the air thrust it toward the creature’s waiting grasp.

“Oh, come on,” Trevor protested as he beheld the garbage bags in his mother’s grip.

She shot him a deadly look, and he fell silent. “You want to keep living here? Then get rid of some of this clutter!” She dropped the bags at his feet. “Go donate all this stuff you never wear anymore. Someone else could use it, you know.”

Trevor rolled his eyes and sighed. “Okay, fine, but can I have some money for food on the way back? I’m starving.”

His mother scowled, but she handed him enough for an inexpensive meal.

He took it and carried the bags to the car, then paused, regarding the yet-unclaimed garbage at the end of the driveway. He checked the windows. She wasn’t watching him. He quickly stuffed the bags of clothing into the bins and pulled out from the drive before his mother might have gotten a good look into the backseat from the house.

The wind whistled between the bins, and a raccoon emerged from them, a single white sock clutched in its dextrous paws. It delivered the prize to the oak tree and the waiting shadow. Swift claws accepted the item, and yellow eyes gleamed among the leaves.

The sun’s last beams of light winked out as Trevor pulled onto the street once more, having spent the day with friends. Violet twilight rolled in as the young man spat his minted chewing gum out the car window and parked in the driveway.

A cold wind stirred, and the shadow of a larger man loomed upon the sidewalk.

“Uh, you need something, bud?” Trevor asked, tilting his head to peer at the man whose features he could not discern in the fresh darkness.

When the shadow spoke, its voice was hollow, echoing, and ragged, as though a scarecrow had trained itself to speak. “Trevor,” it said. “I have been watching you.”

Trevor tried to lift his legs to run from that terrible noise, but he found his feet stuck fast, as though he’d stepped in a thick adhesive. The harsh odor of spearmint gum struck his nose. He opened his mouth to scream, but he found it blocked with what felt like cotton cloth. The itch of laundry detergent irritated his throat. He panicked and tensed his arms to throw a punch, but cuffs of piercing plastic appeared upon his wrists and jerked his arms behind his back.

The inward spikes of a water bottle’s ringed seal dug into his skin.

The shadow rippled and swelled as it approached the silenced and restrained defiler. The creature’s golden eyes shone with ravenous fury. “Thrice have I witnessed your disrespect for the Earth, and thrice have I collected your detritus, mortal. Now, Autumn claims you for the Reaping.”

Something like hands clasped around the wordless, weeping man and hauled him to the base of the shadow’s oak tree. Trevor writhed in the bindings of his own making, eyes searching wildly for an escape or witness.

The stars alone had a view of the scene.

The wind howled, the shadow cackled, and the wizened oak tree groaned. Roots and soil parted to form a deep cradle, and the shadow lowered Trevor into it. The human squirmed as the roots of the tree enveloped him, then he began to thrash as they continued through his skin, his muscle, and his bones, until he could no longer move.

He could do nothing but stare up at the Autumn Courtier.

The shadow scoffed—a sound like shattering glass. “Humans. So concerned with energy, yet they often forget: a human is an excellent battery.” Its eyes were narrowed in something like a smile as it turned them toward the evening sky, then down to the human encased in the roots below. “Yes, I think I shall extract many years of use from you, my little litterbug.”

Where roots had not laid anchor, a thin sheen of plastic formed a seal around Trevor’s body, and then, at a simple gesture from the shadow, the earth and roots closed around the human forevermore.

Ariel Cross

Ariel Cross is a fantasy author and blogger with a love for representation and subversion. To them, happiness is a warm glass of mead on a cold day.

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