Each year since 2004 I've had a story to share for Halloween, because it's a significant date for me. This year's is a short sequel to last year's Mellow Mists , although it can also be read as a stand-alone short. Thank you to A, for helping to tidy this up: all remaining mistakes are my fault.

Sunset Starts by Alex Draven

Karl's shift had been hectic, and the town centre was still crowded. The afternoon shoppers and after-school wanderers mingled with the first of the evening's diners and drinkers, and the streets were starting to get rush-hour busy with buses and cars. He tried not to notice the cyclists making their way through the traffic, sidling up alongside stationary trucks at the traffic lights, and making risky cross-traffic turns that made him tense.

Fortunately, the twitten that took him from the town centre to the tow path was quiet, and the noise of the traffic was soon muffled by the high hedges. Dusk was coming earlier and earlier, amplified by the clock change – not long now until it would be too dark for this short cut – but for another week or two, Karl was willing to brave the shadows and the brambles, in exchange for the quiet that settled around him as he strode away from the town centre.

He rarely listened to music on these walks, saving his headphones for road walking, and preferring to listen to the small sounds of nature, where it pushed defiantly into the urban space. Walking had become his meditation, helped him to sink in to the moment, his shoulders gradually sinking down, the regular rhythm of his steps easing the tensions of the day.

The twitten was narrow and densely shadowed – almost dark – but when he reached the end, and turned on to the tow path, the sky opened up above him. Karl took a deep breath and found himself smiling. The day had been mild for the end of October, and the showers had been few and light. Right now, the clouds were wispy clusters, tinted tangerine and gold and vivid pink. It felt like a gift.

It was a couple of miles to Aaron's place – not so far, but far enough that Karl's insistence on walking seemed somewhat eccentric to his colleagues. Karl settled his backpack on his shoulders, and kept walking, leaving his colleagues far behind, along with the tension of town.

The tow path was overgrown, and neglected. Along this stretch the far bank rose straight from the water and almost seamlessly into tall concrete curtain walls, topped with razor wire and faded signs warning trespassers of guard dogs and non-existent barges that there was no mooring here. Karl had looked it up on maps once – storage yards and a couple of warehouses, doing all their business by road these days.

On the side where Karl walked, the path was crumbling asphalt, potholed and more than halfway returned to packed gravel, flanked by lank grass on the water edge, and a mound of brambles and bushes, nettles and lilac hogweed the other. The blackberries were nearly over – for a glorious couple of weeks, Karl had filled an old ice-cream tub with fat, sweet fruit each time he walked this route, wading into the bushes and emerging scratched and bloodied but triumphant. His mouth watered at the memory of crumbles and the improvised muffins he'd shared with Aaron and the gang the previous weekend. This evening the few berries that were left were either stubbornly red, or dull and desiccated.

It wasn't often that he came to Aaron's place empty handed, but the plan tonight was for him to cook in situ – pumpkin and squid ink risotto was perfect for Halloween, but it didn't travel well, and he'd left the blackberry sorbet mix in the freezer there last week. His colleagues would mock him mercilessly if they knew he carried a knife roll and a travel pack of spice tins around with him, but none of them were folks Karl planned to cook for. Cooking was for close friends – people he cared about.

It was only fairly recently that Aaron had been added to that list – Karl couldn't remember when they'd first met, but the first time he'd cooked for Karl had been at Su's hopelessly optimistic birthday barbecue. The British summer had been in full swing, beating sharp grey rain against the window while Karl and Kate saved the day in Su's cramped kitchen, and he'd been so busy thinking about how to make the best of the limited ingredients and cooking space he hadn't even noticed Aaron walking up behind him, carrying a beer in one hand, one of Su's tequila sunrises in the other, and a Fanta in the side picket of his combats.

"I didn't know what you were drinking, but you definitely deserve a drink," he'd said, and smiled at Karl, with that eye-crinkling, crooked smile that Karl had never noticed before, but kept looking for since.

That's when Aaron had gone from being some friend of Su's that he occasionally saw around the place to being an actual person. He'd hung out in the kitchen – keeping them stocked with drinks, acted impressed when Karl flambéed the chops, followed Kate's instructions to go poking about in cupboards to see if Su had this or that, and claimed that he didn't know how to boil water himself.

Karl had seen the state of Aaron's kitchen since, so nowadays he believed the guy. At the time he assumed he was exaggerating.

It had been at the tail end of that party, after most of the guests had left, and the folks that were left were lolling about in the living room, when Kate had suggested starting up a regular gaming night again. It turned out that Aaron's place was reasonably central – way more so than Aaron's – and he didn't have housemates, so when he offered to host, the result was an easy yes, and ever since, Karl had been making the weekly walk over on Thursdays, and Aaron was more and more becoming someone he considered a friend.

So maybe he thought about what-ifs sometimes – what if it was more than that, what if he kissed that addictive smile – but they always had more possibilities hard on their heels that Karl didn't want to think about, and it felt somehow disloyal to Ric to dwell on the thought, so he reminded himself that just 'cos someone was gay didn't mean they were looking for a boyfriend, let alone a lanky, grumpy git with a scarred heart, a no-future job, and a secret cooking habit. Thursdays were a highpoint in his week, and he didn't want to gamble the warm glow of a gang of friends talking and laughing together, when that was such a solid good thing in his life already.

Karl kept walking. The sky above him was darkening like a bruise, violet and inky blues, with flashes of crimson and flame orange, whilst the shadows clustered around his feet. If he had been less familiar with the path it would have been getting hard to find its way: as it was, he just kept swinging along, enjoying having the route entirely to himself, mostly looking up to enjoy the technicolour display, and to keep an eye put for bats. The midges and moths that the canal supported made it a prime feeding site for swallows in summer, and bats until the cold drove them to hibernate.

The occasional turn offs that linked the canal path to the streets were marked by solitary street lamps, glowing a warm-up orange in the deepening dark, and that's where he got his first glimpse of the bats, diving and looping after the moths around the light. He paused, stopping to watch. They were active tonight – feasting on the gathered insects and taking every advantage of the Indian summer. They were small, and moving so fast it was almost impossible to follow their movements past the edges of the halo of light. He thought there must be at least three or four bats there, but each glimpse was so fragmentary. It was times like this he wished he hadn't given up on photography. OK, so you'd need thousands of pounds worth of lenses and light triggers, but …

Karl shook his head, and walked on.

It was full dark by the time he reached his turning, and he waited for a second in case there were more bats to be seen. Nothing he could make out against the night, anyway, and nothing to be seen zipping through the pool of light, so he turned towards the road and picked up his pace.

A few of the houses were decorated for Halloween - hall lights illuminating bats and skeletons on glass doors, and one with a row of grimacing Jack-o-lanterns balanced on the windowsill. No sign of any trick-or-treaters, Karl noticed, but he'd know which houses to pick out if he'd been one.

Aaron's place was at the end of a cul-de-sac, set back from his neighbours behind a long driveway and narrow front garden, and no porch light or lanterns were showing that might encourage kids in costume to brave the eerie street lamp shadows.

Normally Matt's moped and Kate's van would be parked up on the drive, tucked in behind Aaron's battered Clio, but this evening Aaron's car was alone. Matt was often later than Karl when Karl was on an early shift, but – maybe Kate had had a last minute job come up?

Karl ignored the doorbell, in favour or rapping a rhythmic pattern on the stained glass panel of the door. Aaron had never got around to changing the door chime, and apparently the previous owners had been hard of hearing, because the doorbell could wake the dead at the far end of the garden, and was pretty deafening when you were just in the living room.

The hall lightened as an internal door opened, and Karl could see a dark-clad shape moving, through the coloured bubbles of the glass, and then, there was Aaron.

"Hey, Karl." Aaron greeted him with a smile that Karl couldn't help but return. "Come on in."

Aaron turned his back, and padded barefoot back towards the kitchen, leaving Karl to follow. The house was quiet – music playing, but no voices from the living room, when normally any arrival was greeted by a chorus of yelled hellos.

Karl left his backpack leaning against the foot of the stairs, toed off his boots, and headed after Aaron.

"So, where is everyone tonight? Don't tell me I'm the first one here?"

Aaron turned around, leaning back on the counter and twisting one bare foot up behind his knee.

"Yeah, I, um, kind of cancelled on them," he admitted.

"Are you ok?" was Karl's immediate question, before he remembered his manners and added,"I can go, man – I didn't realise."

"No," Aaron said firmly. "I cancelled on them - you, I wanted to see."

"Me?"

"Yeah." Aaron nodded, "You. Although how this evening works out kind of depends on you – I have a couple of plans, but it's your choice."

"My choice?" Karl echoed, completely off balance. "I don't -"

"So, one option is that we just hang out together – eat your food, watch a couple of scary movies...." Aaron trailed off, and Karl noticed that he was biting his lower lip.

"And the other option?" Karl asked, his stomach a ball of nerves.

Aaron pushed off the counter, and closed the gap between them, bringing one hand to rest warm on Karl's arm through the sleeve of his hoodie.

"The other option is that we don't just hang out, and we find out if I was totally crazy to let myself daydream about kissing you."

Aaron's voice was even, like it was no big deal, but Karl couldn't help but notice at this close distance how he swallowed hard after he was done talking, and the slight flush along his cheekbones. Karl himself wasn't even sure he was still breathing, but he moved to grab Aaron's hand, pinning it between his own and his arm.

"That," he forced out, with sudden clarity. "Option two. I …." and then he gave up on words, and leaned in for their first kiss.

~ end ~




If you're interested in reading the previous stories I've posted as Halloween gifts they are:

Dream Come True (2004)
Thirteen Kisses (2005)
All Souls (2006)
Favour ($0.99) & two free snippets Soar and Raining Cats (2007)
Tradition (2008)
Everything changes (2009)
It’s not the dead that haunt graveyards (2010)
Here Comes The Rain (2011)
Mellow Mists (2012)

You'll find these and other seasonally appropriate snippets under 'seasonal : autumn' in the tags list

(If I was doing this as a promotional thing, I would have picked a less popular date, because there's an awful lot of fabulous fiction being released for Halloween - more of it every year - but I'm doing this because it's a significant date for me, so, thank you, everyone who reads this, and twice thanks to those of you who let me know that you did.)
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