If summer is a magic spell -- a bit of sunny witchcraft that conjures more light, leisure and laziness into the harried lives of Washingtonians -- then Labor Day is a specter, the deadline for dread.

Vacations end, school starts and traffic clogs. BlackBerries buzz. Alarm clocks ring before dawn. Store aisles that once stocked swim goggles, fins and colored Noodles now overflow with the pens, pencils and paper of desk work. Saddest of all, toes go undercover again. Though putting away sundresses and shorts is an act of resignation, opening the sock drawer is a surrender.

And so it was last week that, while staying in Ocean City, 146 miles from her furniture-sales job on 16th Street NW in the District, Denise Avara went for a morning stroll down the boardwalk, basking in the escapist glow of her family's week at the beach. Though she had spent the previous half of her vacation checking e-mail and taking calls from clients, she had finally begun to relax.

Spending so much time with her boys, ages 1 and 4, she began wondering, idly, "Why do I do what I do?" She found herself staring at the umbrella stands on the sand and thinking, "I could do that for a living." And as she arrived at Edwards, the enormous Ocean City department store, she saw signs in every window.

"END OF YEAR SALE," they said. "EVERYTHING REDUCED . . . 20%-75% off."

Men's and boys' swimwear and shorts were 50 percent off, and for a moment Avara noticed the discounts happily, until it hit her: This was bad news. Their vacation was an idyll. The whirr and stir of life around the capital and its suburbs was about to churn again.

" 'Ohhhhh, this is so sad!' " she remembered thinking, one day later, as she sat on a red blanket on the beach while her younger son played with a sand bucket and a red wagon. " 'It's the end of summer.' "

Soon, a million Washington area students in kindergarten through 12th grade will be back in school, and tens of thousands of school buses and carpools will be shuttling them to and from classes. Even the highway gurus know -- and rue -- that this weekend starts the end of relative tranquillity on area roads.

"Enjoy the traffic you have now," notes Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, "because in a few days, it'll be horrendous."

After Labor Day, when the AAA-designated "Traffic Tuesday" arrives, the number of cars and trucks on the road will jump 10 percent to 15 percent, Anderson said as he spoke, hands-free, on his cell phone while breezing north on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. One week earlier, he had taken a cab from his 15th Street NW office to Georgetown and had congratulated his driver, "We got across town so easily!"

The cabbie, he said, laughed mournfully and said, "Give it a week and watch what happens."

With school starting tomorrow for many students across the region and along the Atlantic coast, students in Ocean City groaned over mention of classrooms again. King's College seniors Stacey Preambo and Sarah Genewski, both 21, arrived at their Wilkes-Barre, Pa., apartments Wednesday night, moved in and then, at 10:30 p.m., took off for the beach.

If they were sunning themselves, in navy bikinis and their hair in ponytails, then summer wasn't as close to ending, and it wasn't yet time to turn industrious again. And this year, their last, signaled the start of some serious seriousness.

"We're just taking advantage of all the time we can before we have to get a job," Genewski said. "I'm just scared."

"You want to succeed, but you want to be happy, too," she added, referring to the heavy, existential questions that accompany shorter days and longer nights.

Even those who live in what Washingtonians consider slower, lighter, calmer locales, such as on Kent Island, on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, were dreading the heart race of the end of summer.

"This is our last hurrah," said April Heim, 36, sitting at the edge of the waves in Ocean City watching her children boogie-board and swim. Tomorrow, she'll resume -- on top of her full-time job selling real estate on Kent Island, where she lives -- "packing lunches, getting them up. No more sleeping in on the lazy summer mornings." She paused, thinking, she said, about everything else that tomorrow would usher in: "PTA stuff and football and cheerleading and all the activities."

Her oldest son, Bobby, 9, "is going into fourth grade, and he's a little nervous. He'd much rather stay home and go fishing off his Pop-Pop's pier, and that's going to be hard for him."

And as the sun went down last week in Ocean City, Irina Belyaeva, 21, stood behind the counter at Sunsations, on the boardwalk, dreading the arrival of her boyfriend.

They had met two weeks earlier. He is from Belarus, lives in Northern California and was visiting Ocean City on vacation. She is from Ufa, outside of Moscow, and had come to Ocean City in June to work two jobs -- at the gewgaw and T-shirt store during the day and at a funnel-cake and candied-apple storefront at night, 16 hours a day, six days a week -- to earn money for her final year of law school.

They met at the beach's student center, where he had gone to check his e-mail.

"I saw him and, wow!" she recalled. She asked him, "You live here?" Almost immediately, they hit it off.

"We talk and talk and talk," she continued in her Russian-accented English, "and we go to the ocean, and we talk all night. And at 6 in the morning I go to my house. . . . At 8 I have to come to work." Soon, he showed up, too -- with breakfast.

She quit her job at the funnel-cake store to spend more time with him. "We go to the ocean. We go to the bar. We go to Phillips. . . . Every day we do something interesting." And every day, they asked each other, "Why just two weeks?"

Finally, a few days ago, she called her boyfriend in Russia. "Why haven't you called?" she said he had asked her. "What's wrong with you?" She answered, "I'm sorry. . . . I don't want to come back."

She was waiting, now, for the Californian to come to the store to say goodbye. He was taking a late-night flight home, and when her job ends Labor Day weekend, she plans to forget about her last year of law school -- at least for now -- and move to Northern California, too.

"I love him," she said quietly, her face both elated and terrified at how her life will be when summer ends.

Larry Marshall and his grandson Casey Burns, 5 -- who is still a little afraid of the water -- play in the surf at Ocean City.Children play in the sand on the shore, with the Ocean City boardwalk in the distance, as the new school year looms.Tay Golan manages Cool Topics in Ocean City, where the season is rapidly coming to an end and goods are deeply discounted.