A Late Afternoon at the End of Autumn

by Grace Jackson


Javi gazed at the white page, pondering everything it could become. Licking his lips, he grasped the red crayon with conviction and touched it to the paper. “Dinosaur,” he thought as he drew the lines to build his prehistoric subject and then lifted the crayon off the paper with a tiny, waxy click. The image was there in his mind, perfect and complex. He made a few adjustments, then leaned back, frowning. It wasn’t right. He started again in an uninhabited corner of the paper, and the crayon quivered with concentration. Again the image in his mind failed to replicate itself. He abandoned the attempt, drawing the crayon aimless across the paper in expansive, reverent strokes. He pushed harder and the color became more intense. It leapt over the page. Red, red, red.

“What’s this?” Kaylee asked, her voice outlined with the hard edges of a demand. Startled, Javi looked up and saw her in the shadow of the hall, holding his jacket up from where it had lain, puddled on the floor.

“Not put away,” he thought, sheepishly, but there was no need to point this out in case it wasn’t what she was going to say.

“My jacket?” he said, taking the safe road, then to appease her, “Chaqueta?” making three peaks in the word as she had taught him. Her lips turned in the corner of a smile that just as quickly faded and was gone. Her fingernails were painted a bright, flat green, chipped.

“What is it really?” she asked, coming toward him, and her voice was tight like the hand that pulls a child out of the way.

“Blue?” Javi asked, puzzled, careful. Kaylee was chocolate chip cookies and broken glass. The
lines around her eyes were stained with black. There were hollow places between her the bones in her hands. She held up a corner of the fabric.

“C’mon, Javi. Look closer. What is it really?” Kaylee repeated.

Javi shrugged and looked up at her. “I don’t know.”

She dropped her hand and cast about the room, her eyes like a wild thing leaping across the space, then grabbed a photograph off the coffee table. “What’s this?” she asked.

“A picture?”

“What of?”

“Us?”

“What’s us?”

“What do you mean?” Javi asked, feeling nervous under the glare of Kaylee’s strange, desperate questions.

“What’s us?” she repeated, which, though no more clear, Javi did not dare to question again.
“A family?” he guessed.

“Right. What’s this?” She pointed to the image of him, several years younger, smiling at thecamera.

“Me.”

“What are you?” Kaylee asked, then after a moment. “What are you to the rest of it?” The rest of it?

“Oh,” Javi, “Son. Brother.”

Kaylee’s mouth turned in the corner of a smile, a welcomed guest that lingered and still left too soon. One by one, Kaylee pointed at each person in the photo, frozen behind the glass, and Javi named them, named what they were to the rest of it. She replaced the photo on the table, and the frame made a slight clunk against the glass.

“So what’s the jacket, Javi?” she asked, holding it up for him to see. “What are its parts to the rest of it?”

He looked at the fabric, blue, creased where her fingers held it. It wasn’t one piece though; he could see the tiny rows that formed it, parts to the rest of it.

“Threads?” he asked, then frowned. It seemed wrong to him, and he searched for a way of saying it. “But how’s it really threads when it isn’t just threads?”

“Put it on,” Kaylee said, with the serene, mystic smile of one with superior information, “and I’ll show you.”

Outside it was the kind of cold that embraces you if you are the right sort of person and eats you if you are not. It was the sort of cold that senses fear. The wind will rob you blind, and you can only be safe if you can get inside. Javi knew how to get inside the cold.

“What’s the porch?” Kaylee asked.
“Boards,” Javi answered, catching on to this game.

Kaylee walked down the steps, and her feet were three clunks on the hollow wood. Javi jumped down after her, landed running a few steps to catch up. They walked across the yard, the ground raw with cold and not yet snowed, crunching dryly beneath their feet. The wind caught in Kaylee’s long hair as they made their way down the driveway, pushing the dark locks too heavy to lift. Her smell had the overt, straight edges of an object. The last leaves of autumn fluttered in the street, rasping and scraping against the curb. Javi looked down at his feet as they walked. Step, step, then over the crack. Step, step, then over the crack. Weeds grew up through the broken places in the sidewalk, despite the cement, despite the sort of cold that senses fear. They walked long enough to fall into a rhythm on familiar paths half-seen by the mind, only confirming memories of what was. Kaylee crossed her arms against the cold, or perhaps the world. The street opened onto a larger road out of it, where the cold air was raw and sharp-edged where the cars broke it. Kaylee reached down for Javi’s hand in the same moment he offered it, a vaguely begrudging tribute in a ritual preserved by habit. Her hand was hard and dry in his. With the sort of waiting, look-both-ways tension everyone has, they crossed the road in a rush of breath. Javi noticed his sister’s hollow, unthinking hands, the smooth, long–practiced, almost weary way she came to the world, checking things. She was like a grown-up that way, he thought, only with thinner walls, less wooden, brighter somehow. They were in a small plaza now, a few fast-food restaurants and other, square places. Construction equipment hunched, dirty yellow, on a nearby hill, the ground beneath it churned with tire-scars, marked by stakes with plastic ribbon that fluttered in the winter wind, and the filth of building things. Scaffolding stood, bare against the sky, a metal skeleton in a backwards sort of decay.

“What’s that?” Kaylee asked, indicating the unfinished structure.

Javi thought for a moment. “Metal,” he said, “building bones.”

The wind blew cold through them they stared at the gaunt, unfinished structures for a moment before continuing on. Cars rushed by in the midst of their own haste, their own wind. The air and ground shook with their passing, their huge sound. The wind blew and they continued to walk into it, flattening against it so its icy, bony, hands could find no finger-holds, nothing of theirs to grab on to. A row of softly neglected shrubbery beside the sidewalk, bright against the cold, heralded the entry to another plaza, more winter-dirty construction. The buildings here were mostly fleshed and close to finishing, recognizable as their future selves and purposes.

“What are those?” Kaylee asked, and something unsaid clung to the edge of her words.

“Buildings,” Javi said “wait, um, metal and stuff. Walls.”

“What makes them different from the ones back there?”

“They’re…” Javi thought for a moment. Then another. He could feel the shape of the reasons in his mind, their weight, but had no words to clothe them in.

“Where do the,” Kaylee smiled, “building being bones stop being bones and become a building?”

Javi shrugged, looking up at her.

“Look at them,” she said, indicating a menagerie of buildings hunching against the sky in various positions. “What do they all have?”

Javi looked. “Windows and doors and walls. A lot of bricks.”

“So they have, like, the same parts, even though they’re all different, right? And at some point the parts stop being parts and become something together?”

Javi nodded, emphatically.

They walked on a little, and Javi kicked a piece of gravel. With each kick it skipped ahead of him, bouncing to a stop as if waiting for him in a strange game of tag. He wondered if it would feel abandoned it he left it behind.

“What if somebody came and destroyed all the buildings?” Kaylee asked, after a while.

“Like a Yvetal?”

Kaylee smiled. “Right. Like if it came and destroyed all the buildings, what would happen to them?”

“They’d be…gone?”

She laughed. “Well, kind of. What about the parts?”

“They’d be broken. Maybe into a thousand, million, jillion little bits if the Yvetal really wanted to.”

“What about the parts’ parts?” Kaylee asked. “The thousand, million jillion little bits?”

“Even they’d be broken,” Javi said, feeling a little stubborn about the true extent of the destruction they were discussing. This was a Yvetal, after all. They had awesome powers of destruction.

“What about the pieces of those pieces?”Javi thought for a moment. “I guess they’d be fine,” he conceded.

“So all the buildings are made of a thousand, million, jillion little parts that would still be there, no matter how much you broke them?”

“I guess. But actually a Yvetal could probably break them into the even smaller pieces, if it really wanted to,” Javi clarified.

What Kaylee had told him were like pieces in his mind, individually he understood them, but together they were heavy and hard to fit together, hard to hold. He didn’t complain, though.
Kaylee was rarely at home anymore, and when she was, she had her own ways of still being gone. It had been a long time since they had talked like this, and not just the kind of long you
don’t want to wait for. The kind of hungry, emptying long like the rooms of a house where you used to live, a space that seems to close but really gapes wider and wider as time passes.

“I’m hungry,” Javi stated, realizing this was so. It was just an observation, made undemanding as only a child can, half-knowing in the most innocent way that the mere utterance of their needs is enough to see them addressed. “Let’s go get a treat,” Kaylee said, mischievous and almost imperceptibly indulgent. The thing about that was, it wouldn’t be any fun if she wasn’t in on the conspiracy, a partner in crime.

The coffee shop was warm as Kaylee and Javi stepped inside, and it was a pleasant, superfluous sort of warmth to them, for they had not been really cold, and they did not crave it. The smell was rich, with a dark, baritone sweetness. People clumped here and there is the room, and they pressed shyness in the way it seemed they did not want to be disturbed. Javi inhaled deeply and his fingers seemed to swell in the sudden warmth. He followed Kaylee as she walked across the shop, feeling rather wrong-footed, and lost despite its smallness. She turned subtly, to glance behind herself and see him, slightly pausing for the breath of distance at which he followed. She let him pick a pastry (“whichever you want, Javi,”) from the glass display case, and when he pointed at one, after some deliberation, she ordered it for him, and something for herself, with a braced, colorless smile for the aproned stranger behind the counter. Javi looked down, shyly at the rough, lacquered floor-boards. There was a chalk board with things written on it behind the counter, and as they waited Javi marveled at the expanse of it, pondering everything it could become. His hand starved for chalk and he saw how it could become a whole world. Then their food arrived, a cup of coffee and a pastry sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, wrapped neatly in crinkling paper, with their hot, immediate scents. Kaylee paid for these things, and handed the pastry to Javi, and they escaped outside. They ate there, on the icy chairs and shifting metal table, although the wind blew cold, blew leaves and forgotten things in the street. Javi ate his pastry too fast, and Kaylee sipped her coffee and told him stories about the pigeons on the sidewalk, braving the cold like them, and let him add his own parts where he wanted to.

Javi looked regretfully at the slightly crumpled paper with its two spots of grease, all of which remained of the sweet, flaky pastry now. A quiet, waiting sort of moment settled around them like a light snow, and Kaylee disturbed it as she stood to go. Javi threw away the greasy paper and skipped after her, and she turned her shoulder and slowed, slightly, to let him catch up. She wore the sad smile, as she did these subtler things, of someone who has lived long enough not only lose something, but to really feel its absence as well, rather than charge on, unheeding and without regret. They were cold where the wind blew against them, warm where the sun touched them. Where the light caught in Kaylee’s hair, it looked like spun gold.

Leaves flocked more thickly on the sidewalk at the edge of the park. Evening approached and cast long shadows of the trees that grew there, lean and silver now. A paved path wound among them, and Kaylee and Javi walked there. A few people went by with their dogs. Even the
scattered runners, who passed them, with their footsteps and heavy breath, did not disturb the hush that gathered in the shadows and amber moats of late-afternoon light. They stopped by a bench that overlooked a small lake. A few geese clustered nearby the water, gray against the gray hill. In the middle of the lake a fountain threw a tossing white spray into the air, and the wind of a cold afternoon at the end of autumn gusted, and blew away the falling water. Kaylee sunk down onto the bench, and Javi sat beside her, swing his legs. The bench was cold through the fabric of his pants.

“Look at the water today,” Kaylee said. “What do you think it’s made of?”

Wind ruffled the surface of gray lake, fracturing the reflections there into a thousand, thousand splinters.

“But water is all on piece,” Javi said. “It doesn’t have parts like other stuff.”

Kaylee stood and walked toward the lake. The perimeter was surrounded by large stones, and Kaylee stepped from one to the next to reach the water’s edge. Unsure, hopping stone to stone, Javi followed her. The rocks were very big, big enough to stand on, and gray, with shiny, silver specks in them. They had sharp, straight edges rounded by time, and though the space between them was too small to step in, leaves and shadows collected there. Kaylee knelt on the edge of the water and dipped her coffee cup, empty now, into the water.

“I can take the lake apart,” Kaylee smiled holding up the cup of lake water. “See how I broke off a piece? How does it not have parts?”

Javi thought, dipped his fingers into the water of the lake. It was very cold. All these things seemed obvious until he tried to explain them.

“If you put the water back,” Javi said slowly, then with more conviction, “It’ll just go back together with the rest, like if you never had it. Other stuff isn’t like that. It stays broken.”

“There’s no such thing as broken,” Kaylee said, “everything in the world is made of smaller pieces. The smallest pieces are called atoms. They’re so small you can’t even see them, but even they are made of smaller pieces called subatomic particles. How small do you think they are, Javi?”

“Really, really, really, really, really, really small. Small times googolplex.” Googolplex was the largest number Javi knew of. It usually won arguments.

“That’s right. And everything everywhere is made of them. They’re like those bricks; even though they’re all the same, the buildings they make can be totally different. And these subatomic particles are so small, nothing can break them apart.” Kaylee’s eyes glistened sharply
in the late-afternoon light. “So nothing was really ever broken, Javi, just the particles were rearranged. They can make anything, be anything. When things fall apart, nothing is really lost. They’re just becoming something else.”

Kaylee and the wind sighed in unison. She leaned back against the bench, crossed her legs.

“We are the just the same, you know, Javi,” she said, “All the time we’re afraid of falling apart, but really we’re just becoming something else.”

Javi swung his legs, slowly. He and Kaylee sat for a long moment in silence, and the shadows of trees stretched long, and a thin wind blew that was the wind of a late afternoon at the end of autumn.

“But if everything is made of the same things,” Javi asked, after a long time, “how are they so different?”

Kaylee smiled. “C’mon,” she said, “I’ll show you.”

So they walked out of the park on the winding path among the trees, where there was less light and more shadow now, though the sinking sun caught among the branches, on the pines needles and what leaves remained so late in the year. They walked on the sidewalk where cars rushed by, breaking the air, desperate to be elsewhere, and weeds pushed up through the cracks, desperate to survive in spite of everything. They passed the café which smelled of rich, dark things and sweet, greasy bread in crinkling paper. Shortly thereafter Kaylee’s patience expired for Javi’s ever-slowing shuffle. She crouched in front of him, and, unprotestingly, he put his hands on her shoulders and hopped onto her back, and she wrapped her arms under his legs. His cheek pressed against the fauxe fur of her jacket collar. It was warm and soft, and slightly sticky when his breathe made it moist. They continued on, and reached the second construction site, though the ear-bud woman was long gone now. They reached the first construction site, where the bones of buildings rose sharply out of tire-churned earth. A car passed them as they turned onto their street, going home now. Kaylee set Javi down in the driveway, and they walked up it together, and the front steps where their feet made three hollow clunks on the wood.

Kaylee pulled her keys out of her jeans pocket, turning them in her hand. She unlocked the door and pushed it open with an automatic motion and Javi stepped into the lukewarm silence of the house. She closed the door behind them, locked it, turned on the light. It filled the empty house, dark now as the day faded, as the scuffling of their coming filled its silence.

“You have to check if they’re not bad,” Kaylee said, as she cut a corner in the bag of chocolate chips. Javi maneuvered three chips out through the small hole and sucked on them, sweet and a little bitter at the edges.

“What do you think?” she asked, and smiled a smile wry and crooked with mischief. “Not fit for human consumption?”

Javi grinned with chocolate-stained teeth and reached for another handful. This was evidently Kaylee’s method for explaining how the whole world could be made from the same materials and still so different, and while Javi did not understand how this was, he did not complain. You had to be careful when almost anyone could tell you what to do, taking nothing for granted. Kaylee did not need the instructions on the back of the package, but she made Javi read the list of ingredients anyway, even the ones he had to sound at one syllable at a time, while she pulled them from the pantry, refrigerator and cabinets. When he mangled a word beyond recognition, they laughed and Kaylee told him what it was.

“Take the smaller cup and use that to dump into the bigger one,” Kaylee demonstrated, and a fine dust rose from the flour and swirled like pale smoke, “so it doesn’t get packed down.”

Javi repeated this sequence, licking his lips with concentration as he used the back of a butter knife to scrape away the excess that mounded on top of the cup like snow. He eyed the white surface of the flour for perfect smoothness, then dumped it into the bowl with a soft clumping sound. Salt, one teaspoon, and baking powder, which fizzed strangely in his mouth after he dipped a moist, inquisitive finger into the small, red can. The butter had begun to soften, though only just in the still-cold kitchen. Kaylee and Javi cut the butter into cubes, and scraped it off its paper, greasy now, and into the bowl. Granulated sugar, three quarters cups, which Javi, at some prompting, realized was not really three of anything, but two; one half and one quarter cup. Granulated sugar piled in the bowl like a fine, sweet sand, but brown sugar, with its more complex sweetness, clung to itself, remembering the shape of the cup, even after leaving it. One teaspoon vanilla extract, and little besides, when the dark, glistening surface rounded and broke unexpectedly, spilling over the pale butter, staining it. Kaylee said it was fine. One teaspoon, vanilla extract, traitorous in its fragrance, its bitter taste. Javi held an egg in his hand. It had a small, round weight and the surface was smooth, and cold. The edge of the bowl was thin and blue, ceramic of some kind. There was a narrow line around the rim where the glaze hadn’t formed, revealing the pale brown of the bowl beneath. Breaking the egg against it, cleanly as he knew this should be done, seemed improbable to Javi. He looked uncertainly at Kaylee, who was beating the butter mixture with a loudness that seemed vaguely to violate the atmosphere of the kitchen. She noticed him and stopped, the sound of the electric mixer dying away.

“You gotta just,” she tapped the egg once, lightly, against the rim of the bowl, “go for it.” Kaylee’s motion was both delicate and careless as she broke the egg against the rim of the bowl, as her fingers divided into two teams to that pulled the eggshell neatly apart. The yolk opened yellow and glistening to the light, breaking softly across the butter rough with sugar. The next egg was Javi’s. He tapped it tentatively against the rim of the bowl, one too many times, but the
shell opened unchipped, though the yolk was already torn and spilling, and the egg fell into the bowl. Kaylee and Javi took turns beating the mixture, and when the electric mixer was in his hand, he felt the vibrations all through his arm and in his teeth.

“Is this cookies?” Kaylee asked, indicating the bowl with the butter and sugar. Javi dipped his finger in, disregarding the raw eggs. It was lovely, sweet and slightly gritty, but certainly not cookies.

“Nope,” Javi said.

“What about this one?” Kaylee asked of the bowl of flour.

Javi shook his head adamantly.

“The thing is,” she said, “It’s the combinations of things and the order you combine them that makes stuff different. Like, neither one of these things are cookies, right? It’s all of them together, in a certain order. That’s how the same parts can make different stuff. Thing is though, those same parts are all the time changing and coming back together different. Most of the time, there’s nothing we can about it.”

Javi nodded, seriously. He wished, as he often did, that he could say something more sincere, that would do more to show his understanding of everything that had been said. The gravity with which grown-up people sometimes spoke could defy response.

Kaylee held the beater, her knuckles over the handle sharp and sudden hills, and Javi lifted the bowl, which felt heavy, and large in his small hands.

“Javi, Javi, stop!” she exclaimed when he poured the flour in too quickly. “What part of gradually do you not understand?”

“You always have to eat the dough,” she said, one finger in the bowl, “you never know how everything will turn out.”

But it wasn’t true. Kaylee’s cookies always turned out perfectly, and after an agonizingly long wait, and five more minutes, they came out of the oven like something from a picture, and pictures are not always honest. Heat rushed out of the oven when they opened it and removed the cookies at last. It rushed and bled through the kitchen, cold with the pinched cold of waiting. Javi nibbled the edge of a cookie that was still too hot, and when it was cool enough to eat in earnest it was crisp and delicate, and the chocolate soft, like you can’t get from any store. Kaylee took a bite, breathing in through her nose, her eyes closed and chewing as slowly as though she might never eat again.

Later, lying on his stomach beside a red plate flecked with crumbs, Javi molded a piece of playdough, stubborn with cold, into the shape of a dinosaur. He coaxed head, legs and a tail from the stiff blob, pulling them out bit by bit. When it was finished he held the figurine on its sides in the palm of his cupped hand and considered it. Using the crescent-shaped impression of his finger nail, he textured the dinosaur’s body with scales. It could not stand on its own, borrowing life through him, through the warm thumb and index finger that held it, gently. After a moment he closed his making hand over it, crushing it, folding it back into itself. The playdough, warm and supple now, squeezed between his fingers. It collected in crescent beneath his nails, its color staining his palms. The wad, ribbed with the impression of squeezing fingers, had barely any weight in his hand. The last of the light fell through the window, thin, the light of a late afternoon at the end of autumn. It was nearly evening now. A dinosaur could only be a dinosaur, but a wad of dough, if it could give up its dinosaur-ness, had the ability to assume any form in its lack of form, free from itself. Javi pinched a bit of dough, thoughtfully, a head, or a leg perhaps.

Author Biography: Grace is a 9th-grader who likes adjectives, horses, and Lord of the Rings way more than she should (especially the adjectives). She struggles daily to achieve enlightenment and keep her goldfish alive.