"The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last for ever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into autumn – the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change." (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web)
As the end of August drew near, so came the inevitable colorlessness that slowly seeped into the world. It washed out the summer with the approaching autumn, the air crisp with the oncoming chill, the leaves losing their green and the blueness of the sky slowly giving way to gray.
Eliot knew it wouldn't last - he watched the time pass, watching himself change in the mirror. His hair grew longer, falling over his eyes in loose brown curls. He grew taller, his face more mature, his limbs longer. The summer he saw in himself, the constant state of childhood he had always known, was fading away.
It filled him with a feeling of restlessness. The days felt stagnant, but the sky always seemed to darken too quickly, and he was always left wondering where the day had gone.
The beginning of school felt like a demand for the summer to be over.
His desk was covered in scratches, graphite traced deep into the crevices. It felt strange to him, staring at them - the signatures of previous students, ones that sat in his very seat. The time only passed, he supposed; but the scratches remained, carved into his desk - and would be for years to come.
Eliot picked up his pencil and scratched at the surface of his desk.
The day passed dreamily, like all other days before it. The creeping sense of dread that encompassed the changing of the seasons seeped into everything, as the sky didn't seem as blue as it used to be, and the air didn't feel as forgiving, and all Eliot could do was watch it go.
School felt like a constant, which never seemed quite right to him. It didn't seem fair that the world constantly was in change, the seasons gone one after another, the clock slowly running down the time forever. The school remained, however, immovable and ageless - always the same forbidding red brick building that was St. Augustine's Catholic School.
He didn't feel bothered to care about the words Mrs. MacDonald wrote on the blackboard, her writing was too small and didn't hold his attention for very long. He didn't care about the quizzes she would give them, or the marks written on them when she returned them. She seemed to have noticed his lack of interest. "Eliot," she said to him, one afternoon after the bell rang. "I've noticed your marks are below average."
"What's that mean?"
"Not as good as everybody else's." She gave him a long, measured look over her spectacles. "Why is that?"
"I dunno," he said. He wanted to go outside.
Mrs. MacDonald sighed, shuffling papers on her desk into a pile. "School is very important. You have to work hard to study."
Eliot didn't see all the fuss. He knew he shouldn't say so, though. He wanted to go outside. "Okay."
She didn't seem convinced. "Shall I assign you to a tutor?"
He paused. "Jane?"
Mrs. MacDonald looked baffled. "Mrs. Abram?"
She pushed her spectacles up her nose, disgruntled. "Jane Abram is a tutor. I presume you must have met her."
She was saying a lot of words he didn't quite understand. Eliot let his eyes wander to the window, at the sunbeams streaming through the glass. It was a sunny day for the end of August. "Uh-huh?"
Mrs. MacDonald was not impressed with his lack of interest in the conversation. She didn't have much patience for such behavior. "Eliot. I will be assigning you to Mrs. Abram to work after school hours."
That got his attention. "What?"
"She will be reviewing and reteaching classwork we have covered during school."
"What? More work?"
"That's right." Mrs. MacDonald leaned back in her chair. "I will be speaking with her today. You would do well to tell your mother."
Eliot bit the inside of his cheek, rocking back and forth on his feet. He knew there was a certain line he wasn't allowed to cross with adults, no matter how much he wanted to. "Okay," he managed to say.
The sun was out, but the wind brought the early autumn cold with it. Eliot breathed in, the cold air stinging his lungs. He liked to exhale exaggeratedly when it was cold out, so he could see the cloud of his breath billow out and dissolve.
The walk home from school was something he began to dread; not because it was long, or boring - he just hated watching the summer go.
"Eliot," a voice startled him. He turned to look at Mary, leaning against the wall with her cheeks pink from the cold. Her hands were stuffed in her coat pockets. "You take forever. Let's walk home together."
He blinked. "Why?"
She blinked, too. "Why not?"
He couldn't argue with that. "Okay."
The walk was, for the most part, in an awkward silence. He didn't know why Mary waited for him - he didn't know why she kept glancing at him, as if waiting for him to say something. They turned onto 7th street, and the poplars rustled in the wind, sighing all around them in long, melancholy breaths.
Mary's chin was tucked into a knit scarf, and her nose and the tips of her ears were reddened from the cold. "Where do you live?" Eliot asked her, watching her kick up dust with her shiny black shoes as she walked.
She walked like she was bouncing on the soles of her feet, bobbing up and down beside him. "Right above the bakery on Main Street. My papa works there. He makes bread."
"Oh." Eliot had watched his grandmother bake bread before. He liked watching her knead the dough. "I live-"
"In the Abercrombie house," Mary cut him off eagerly. "I know."
Mrs. Abercrombie was a woman who remained, outside of her Sunday church attendance, a mystery to the people of Philipsburg. It was nearly unheard of, a household consisting of only a woman and her son, therefore the subject of much gossip. Mrs. Abercrombie's late husband had been the topic of speculation among many; and her son's appearance only reignited interest in the secluded Abercrombie household by the neck of the woods.
Eliot did not quite understand the fascination they had with him - but he felt their curious gazes, and heard them exchange hushed whispers. "Oh," Eliot said again.
Mary giggled. "You don't talk much, do you?"
He thought about Jonah. "Sometimes."
She tilted her head to look at him. "Hey, what do you like to do?"
"I mean, who d'you play with? What do you do for fun?"
"Oh," he said, for the third time. "I play in the forest. With Jonah."
Mary huffed, apparently displeased with his answer. "Jonah? Really?"
"He's my best friend." Eliot frowned. She adverted her gaze. "What's wrong?"
The clouds had begun to blanket the sky as afternoon drifted into early evening. The cold had begun to prick at Eliot's exposed skin. Mary lowered her voice to an exaggerated whisper. "My papa told me not to talk to people like that."
"Like what?" he said, confused.
"You know - like him."
"Why not? He's nice."
Mary shrugged, pulling her knit scarf over her nose. The sudden further drop in the temperature seemed to have gotten to her, too. "I don't know," she replied, her voice muffled. "He's just different."
Eliot felt like he had swallowed an ice cube, a coldness settling in the pit of his stomach that he couldn't quite explain. "I should go home now."
She blinked at him expectantly. "Okay."
"Wait a minute." Mary grabbed onto the sleeve of his coat, just as he turned to leave. "Don't you - can I do something first?"
"Do - what?"
She pulled down her scarf from her face, standing up on her tiptoes and reaching up to press her frozen lips to his cheek. Before he could react, she giggled and pulled away, skipping away down the street. "Bye!" She called, still giggling. "See you tomorrow!"
Eliot pressed his hand to his cheek, motionless on the side of the cement walk. He watched her disappear as she turned the corner of 7th street.
The clouds broke for the sun, but the cold didn't quite go away.