Tonight we have a charming Halloween Flash Fiction short from Urban Fantasy/Crime Fiction author Laura Anne Gilman. This story was inspired by this image…
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The Most Magical Time of Year
Halloween had always been Maggie’s favorite holiday. Her uncle used to go all out with his decorations, and her mother would walk them over to his house just before dusk, so they could help put the finishing touches on the lawn decorations, and watch while he built the dragon that coiled over the garage. The neighbors all thought he did it with lights and wires and a carefully-hidden smoke machine, or something.
She could still see it, if she closed her eyes; pale blue electric coils shot through with threads of gold and red, eyes glowing like coals, massive head leaning down whenever brave trick-or-treaters came up the walk. She would hear the kids in school talk about it, for a week after, and glow with a warm pride, that that was her uncle who did it.
But she could never talk about it. You never talked about it, outside the family.
Her uncle had moved to Florida decades ago. Her mother was in a nursing home, and her brother lived a three hours’ drive north, and they didn’t see each other very often anyway. It was as though the moment their mother disappeared, so too did the ties that had held them together.
Maggie sighed, pulling the curtain aside to stare at the street. The empty, lonely-looking street. In a normal year, by three p.m, the first of the tiniest trick or treaters would be on the sidewalks, clutching a parent’s hand or racing ahead, bags already opened before they stumbled up to the door. Across the street, a ghost swung forlornly from a porch railing, and pumpkins smirked in descending size down the steps, but there were no lights on in the window.
Covid might not have killed Halloween, but it had put it in the ICU along with all its other victims.
“Can I eat the candy?”
She shot a glance at her son, softening her glare when she saw his expression.
“You’re a brat. At least have the decency to wait until after dinner before giving up on them.”
Her husband was long gone, starting a new family in Long Island. A normal family, that did normal things. Who didn’t have strange herbs growing in window boxes, or have true dreams. Who didn’t talk about things like magic.
If it had been just her, it would have been less of a problem. No problem at all, in fact. But.
Her son made a face, but didn’t argue. “Are we gonna decorate this year?”
“I don’t know, hon. It’s a lot of work to do for no audience.”
Cory nodded, like he hadn’t expected any other answer.
“I’m gonna walk Doofus.”
She nodded back at him, though he didn’t wait for her answer, going through the swinging door that separated the kitchen from the living room, already whistling for the dog.
Cory was a good kid. No trauma from the divorce, no lingering passive aggressive teenaged bullshit — well, no more than she could reasonably handle. And even under pandemic restrictions he he did his homework, talked to his friends every day, and refused to clean his room except under duress. Pretty much practically normal.
But he loved Halloween as much as she did. Was as much a witch as she was.
Had been rejected by his father, as much as she had.
“Ridiculous to waste the energy,” she told herself. “But there’s no reason we can’t at least make an effort.”
Hearing the back door close behind Cory and the dog, she moved to the coffee table, a polished chunk of dark brown wood that had been carved in her grandfather’s time. Nine pillar candles took up the center, each one set in a silver disk, wax hardened in rivulets down their sides, their wicks blackened with use.
“Užsidekite,” she told them, and the wicks sparked into life, the flames bending and twisting as though alive.
There wasn’t any actual magic in the candles themselves; her family used them more as a focus, a reminder that magic illuminated…but also burned. That caution was a byword, for more than one reason.
But Halloween was a time people expected to see magic. Wanted to see it.
Needed it, this year, just a little.
She could give them that.
Shifting the candles slightly, she let the softening wax drip onto her skin, wincing at the warm sting before turning her hand to catch the next drop.
“Shhh.” He knew better than to interrupt.
She could see him out of the corner of her eye, draping the dog’s leash over the back of a chair, then crossing his arms over his chest, watching her. She collected more wax, letting it cool and firm against her skin, the reds and golds melting together, until both hands were coated, her fingers and palms heavy with it.
Only then did she turn to Cory, holding out her hands like a priest offering benediction. “You want to do the honors?”
“Me?” His voice didn’t crack, but his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed nervously.
“You feel ready?”
“Yes!” He stepped forward, arms uncrossing, as though afraid that a hesitation would mean she would change her mind. The wax was still warm and supple enough to peel easily off her skin, his nimble fingers rolling it smoothly into narrow cylinders. Two long, three shorter, tucked into the crook of his arm.
The urge to prompt him to the next step rose in her throat, and she swallowed it back down. There was time to be a mom, and time to be a teacher, and time to be silent.
His hands pressed and stretched each piece of wax, his face a mask of concentration. His breathing was steady, in and out through his nose, and she could feel the pressure building in the room as he drew on the power around them, imbuing it into the wax with each stroke of his fingers.
Uncle Poul had used the flames directly. But he’d been an engineer, with an engineer’s understanding of magic. She, and Cory, preferred things tactile, malleable. An artist’s instinct.
The only way to do it wrong was to hesitate, and doubt.
The wax figure was crude but quickly recognizable, a slender, elongated body bisected by two wings, the head shaped like an arrowpoint. It sat on the flat of Cory’s palm, fingertip to heel. Nothing artistic, nothing delicate, none of the fancy details she remembered from her childhood, that Cory had only heard stories about.
It was only wax, streaky and soft.
And then it moved.
The head lifted, barely a twitch. Then the wings flattened, lifted, moving slowly, as though uncertain of where they began or ended. She held her breath; the first movements were the hardest, where too much could break them but too little and it went back to sleep.
“Pabusk, driežiuk.” Cory’s voice was soft but firm, and in it she could hear her own voice, rousing him for school every morning for fourteen years.
The wax dragon flapped its wings once, slowly, then again, and again, with more confidence. Without legs, it couldn’t stand, but the upper portion of its body lifted off Cory’s palm, hovering briefly before dropping again.
“Not as easy as you thought it would be, huh?” He glanced up at her, eyes narrowed, but his mouth twitched in a half-smile, acknowledgement that yeah, he’d probably earned that.
Permission granted, she stepped forward, cupping her hand under his. They’d done this before, or variations, and he let the weight of his hand rest on hers, granting control to her.
“Pabusk, driežiuk,” she said, gathering the echoes of magic from around them and wrapping their hands in it, washes of shimmering air draping over the wax, disappearing into it.
The dragon’s head twisted on its sinuous neck, and two eyes the color of cold ash stared at her. It was disconcerting, even in miniature.
“Augk, driežiuk,” she told it, holding in her mind the size she wanted it to grow to, and hoping that Cory wasn’t imagining something much larger. There was only so much something this small could do, so they weren’t at any real risk, but two different commands could confuse the magic, and confused magic often did unexpected and unpleasant things.
Cory’s vaguely panicked through brought her attention back to the wax creature held in their hands. “Okay, upstairs,” she told him, dropping her hands away from his, as the dragon doubled its size, and then doubled it again in an eyeblink. “You’ve got this, go on.”
“Klausyk tik manęs, driežiuk,” she heard him telling it, as they went up the stairs to the second floor. “Listen to me, and only to me.”
It would listen to her, too; it was her magic that had harvested the wax, hers that had given it enough strength to grow. But she wouldn’t tell Cory that, wouldn’t use it unless it was necessary.
Dragon and boy both needed to fly on their own.
Smiling to herself, she went out the front door, then turned and looked up at the second floor balcony, waiting for her son to unleash Halloween.
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