It was a hot day in the drowsy weeks of early September, and Time seemed to stand still.
He wasn’t truly still, of course. Nothing ever is, except perhaps mountains (and even that could be argued and no doubt would be by Time himself, as he had a great deal to do with moving them). But he stood as still as one could, eyes closed and palms open, and the world around him followed suit. Flies flicked their wings lazily from verdant perches, too lazy to move much in the oppressive heat, and even the wind seemed to have taken the day off. All around the park the still trees drooped with heavy-laden branches, tinged red and yellow.
A whisper of cool air brushed across Time’s face—just a wisp of breeze, and then it was gone. Time opened his eyes.
A girl stood directly in front of him. She jumped when she noticed him looking, and laughed. “Oh—sorry,” she breathed with soft surprise. Her voice held so much movement, musical notes on the languid backdrop of the park. “I didn’t know what you were doing, I thought maybe I’d better make sure…” She ducked her face behind a sheet of auburn hair, smiling. “It was silly. I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
Time watched her begin to walk away, noting the strangeness of her. Despite the heat she wore a dark brown beanie and a long-sleeved shirt in a deep burgundy red layered with a open button-up plaid. Her dark jeans hugged her legs and just brushed the edges of her high-tops. She must be sweltering.
“I was meditating,” he said. He was eager, he realized, for some reason to keep her there. “Aren’t you hot?”
She turned back and grinned at him. Fading freckles dotted her cheeks. “Do you think I am?”
It took him a moment to get the joke. His eyes smiled, even when his mouth did not. It had been a while since he’d truly smiled, mouth and all. He could not remember how long.
The girl had come back to him now. She shifted her backpack from one shoulder to the other. “I’m very rarely hot,” she said, referencing actual temperature this time. “Actually I think I look pretty cool, don’t you?”
The skin at the corners of her eyes creased when she smiled. Time guessed she smiled a lot. She was right—she did look cool, in every sense of the word. Her pale skin was fresh, clean, like the heat of the day couldn’t even touch her. And somehow he couldn’t imagine an outfit that would better suit her than this one.
“I’m Autumn,” she said. She did not extend her hand, for which Time was grateful. Mostly because it was a ridiculous, peculiar gesture that only the very young seemed to find necessary, and also because his palms were sweating.
“Time,” said Time.
Something shifted in Autumn’s eyes, so curious and subtle that Time nearly cocked his head to look closer. With some restraint he managed to stay where he was, but he never stopped noticing her eyes after that. They were very ordinary hazel eyes—lovely, certainly, in the way that all eyes were. But there was something else there too, something nameless. It lent depth to the golden streaks and made him dizzy to look at.
“Strange name,” Autumn said, in a way that sounded very much like she didn’t think it was strange at all.
Time blinked. “Only to those who’ve never used it.”
Autumn nodded. Hesitated. Brushed a strand of hair from her cheek. “Would you like to go to lunch?”
Time found this the strangest of all. It was mid-afternoon, in that hovering hour between meals (for most people). Time did not mind this—of course he didn’t really need to eat either—so by way of answer he said: “We’ve just met. I’m very old, you know.”
Autumn smiled. Time liked that she kept doing that, it made him feel warm in a very different way than the heat of the summer day around him.
“I think perhaps I know you better than you think,” she said. “And you’re not too old for me. It’s just lunch.”
Time had his doubts. He looked the part of a young man—fit, flexible, ever-prompt, ever-watchful. Only his hair gave a any hint of his age; it was dark and combed back into place, reminiscent of the 1950s. Time was much older than that, but he liked how this particular style made him look and so he’d kept it despite the changing decades that had passed since. Still, when Autumn glanced over her shoulder to see if he was coming, he found that he was.
Behind him, the park seemed a little less drowsy.
The diner was crowded, particularly for a lunch-that-wasn’t-really-lunch hour. It didn’t surprise Time though—the peculiar pattern in which things changed never did. Besides, the diner’s air conditioner was blasting at full speed, and the cramped little building was markedly cooler than the world outside of it. An oasis of modern science.
Time was interested in the place Autumn had chosen. “Rosie’s, hm? Not where I would picture you.”
Autumn tipped her head to look at him. “Oh, really,” she said drily. “Where would you picture me, then?”
“A cafe. Or a sandwich shop.”
Autumn snorted good-naturedly. She didn’t seem surprised, either. “I go to those too. Like everyone. But this place is sort of…special. It reminds me of one of my sisters,” she said, and her gaze disappeared into a memory. “I never get to see her anymore.”
Time watched her and said nothing. A human would say he was sorry. But Time was not human, and Autumn didn’t seem sad. Just thoughtful.
They found a booth and slid into their seats. Time had been here before—he’d been everywhere—and once again he found himself pleased by the cleanliness of the place. Not many diners earned such a distinction. Time ordered pie—he liked the shape of it, even in slices. Autumn ordered soup.
The woman taking their order—not Rosie, but Deb, according to her nametag—raised her eyebrow at their choices but said nothing. She tossed her long braid behind her back and said, “I’ll have that out for ya in just a sec, mmkay?” before swaying back to the counter.
Time looked at Autumn, and Autumn looked back. For a moment: silence, perforated by the clanking of silverware on cheap porcelain plates and the low murmur of human voices that surrounded them in swells. Time found himself drawn to her eyes. Nothing new, he thought to himself, again. Even the plainest mortal’s eyes are captivating, even the youngest babe’s. Still, he looked at hers and found he could not, or rather did not want to, look away. Something shifted inside them with every glance, some ageless depth sat deep within their hazel hue, waiting and watching.
“You’re odd,” smiled Autumn.
“So are you,” said Time, lacking the same humor.
Their food arrived, slid onto the table with practiced finesse by Deb. “Here ya go,” she said, as the tail of her braid swung low over the tabletop.
“Record time,” said Autumn to Deb, though she was looking at Time. He felt the wink she did not give.
Deb swayed away. Autumn sipped on her soup. Time’s pie sat, a comfortable wedge on a white plate.
“How did you find me?” he asked.
Autumn lifted the spoon to her mouth again. Her lips were full, dusty red, with a cupid’s bow you could curl up in. Light from the window bounced off the spoon in her hand. “It wasn’t hard,” said Autumn, once she’d swallowed. “I didn’t do it on purpose. You’re not hard to track, though, you know? I could have if I wanted to, but that’s not me.”
Time sifted through her response. “You didn’t do it on purpose. But you know me for what I am.”
Autumn swallowed another spoonful and leaned back in her seat. The polyester squeaked. “Are you afraid of being noticed?”
Time considered this. He did generally prefer stalking around unseen, slipping in and out of humanity’s awareness with each tick of the clock. There was something freeing about it—people may curse him, may crave him, but he escaped them nonetheless. It was lonely, too. But that kept him focused. Usually.
“Yes,” he finally answered. “Aren’t you?”
“Afraid of being seen?” Autumn smiled. “Never.”
And, sitting against the dull red bench of the diner, she didn’t look like she was. She wasn’t flashy, but she was visible in a way that made Time feel faded around the edges, like he somehow existed less than she did.
Autumn’s soup was nearly finished, though Time’s pie sat untouched. She looked at a pretty little watch on her wrist and began to shuffle through her backpack. “Gotta go,” she said. “Got class in an hour.”
Time felt like his mind twisted in half at this information. She went to classes? At once he felt himself distanced by the difference between himself and everyone around him. She was just like them. Wasn’t she?
“Of course,” he said, standing.
Autumn waved a hand at him. Her nails were painted a dark gray. “Stay. Finish your pie—you haven’t even touched it.”
Autumn tucked a ten dollar bill under her plate and slung the backpack over her shoulder. She gave Time a long look, and then smiled. “See you soon,” she winked, and was out the door with a wave over her shoulder.
Time stared after her and wondered what she meant.
It was a cool day in late October, and Time was speeding by.
The other joggers on the trail moved aside to make way for him. He liked to run—fast, if possible, if allowable, if wise. The joggers he passed found themselves with new PRs at the end of their runs that morning and couldn’t account for it.
“Got somewhere to be in a hurry?” said a voice that winked with its words.
“You’re back,” said Time to Autumn as she jogged up beside him. Somehow her reappearance didn’t surprise him.
“Never left. Been busy. So’ve you.” She spoke between breaths, rhythmically. It was pleasant to listen to, like seconds ticking by.
Time didn’t answer, just looked over at her as they jogged. She looked the same and different. Her clothes were dark, muted, her nails the same gray color. She held her jacket sleeves tucked into her palms. Was her hair always brown? She must have had it colored, or maybe it just looked different with the black beanie she wore today.
Timee felt his cheeks shift as his eyes squinted in their almost-smiling way. Of course she would be wearing it, even during exercise.
It felt like he knew her better than he should. She’d said something like that, too, last time they’d met.
“Sorry I didn’t come sooner,” she said, breaking their companionable silence. “I wanted to. Of course, you could always have visited me too.” She giggled as best as she could through hard-working lungs, as if at some private joke.
“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know how to find you.”
Autumn stopped running, surprising Time. He nearly tripped as he jerked to a stop himself. He walked back to her.
“You know me, silly.” She smiled and brought both hands up to his face. “We’re very old friends.” She lifted herself on tiptoes and hovered with her lips mere breaths away from his.
Time froze. No one passed them on the path—no one was in sight. The ground beneath their feet was solid and present; hard, black dirt. Above them an ancient tree sighed and dropped a single leaf that drifted, edged with death, between them on its journey to the earth.
Autumn turned his head slightly and kissed him on the cheek. His skin warmed where it met hers, cool and smooth and intoxicating. She dropped back onto her heels, stepped away. Time bent toward her, pulled in by her gravity. Her eyes burned like lamps in front of him, more golden than he remembered from that day with the diner.
Her eyes. He knew, suddenly, as if remembering a dream. He’d seen them before, in a different face. In many different faces.
“Autumn,” he breathed.
She smiled a sunset smile: bright with brilliant color, beautiful and sad all at once. She looked up at the great tree that bent over their heads. Only a few leaves remained on its skeletal branches. The morning frost clung to its scaly bark.
“I have to go,” she said, and began, once again, to walk away. The trees framed the path she walked. A natural, living portrait.
“Classes?” said Time. He knew that wasn’t why.
Autumn laughed, a sound like wind dancing through a cornfield.
Time smiled, and this time it wasn’t just with his eyes. “You’ll come back?”
She looked at him over her shoulder. “I always do.”