I PASS their outposts on my way to work: teen-agers and children, communities of them, clustered around stop signs, or inside metal shelters, or at the ends of driveways.
The larger groups lean and laugh against one another, while the single children -- the only youngsters on their street or block, jiggle their thin knees for warmth. On very cold mornings I watch them rub webs of frost from the backs of metal street signs.
And from my cracked window, rolled down an inch for circulation, I can smell it: cold and certain, as crisp as milk from a metal cup.
Autumn smells like independence.
The children at the bus stops seem to know this, making their own societies. Their mothers know it, too. Unlike those first few weeks back in September, they now let the kids wait on their own for the bus.
Apart from the routines of homework and earlier bedtimes, I felt as a child that fall was the time made just for me.
I remember autumn nights on the farm with the harvest winding down. I think of those cramped hours of twilight that were mine and not my father's. That free time was all mine, and it made me feel old and responsible, in charge of something my own.
Fall is for children more than any other season, anchored in fear and fun with a holiday like Halloween. Halloween doesn't have the obligations that go with the other holidays -- no family dinners, no cards to give to friends, no services to go to, at least not Halloween night.
It was the night part that made it special.
I was scared to be outside by myself. Long wet monsters could twist paths out of the black muck that rotted beneath the leaves. I saw snakes dropping from the dying trees, wrapping themselves around my neck, choking me.
We used this fear -- my brother and I -- to make the scariest costumes, to be more frightening than the monsters that haunted our nights. And for this I loved Halloween: the strangely colored makeup, the shredded clothing that combined to make me into something I wasn't.
That is the freedom that runs through the thin days of autumn -- the chance to remake oneself.
There are more things to be frightened of for today's children, but what I see in their bus stop groups is the chance for new beginnings -- the opportunity to be someone or something else, something of their own choosing, something besides what their parents want or their neighbors expect.
Sandy Moser writes from Baltimore.