This story is by Emma Bradshaw and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It is well known that a magician never reveals his secrets. And Thomas’s father was nothing if not a dedicated magician.
He remembered being fascinated by his father’s magical world. He would watch in awe as his father perfected his sleight of hand in the dimly lit study, the air thick with the scent of ancient books and mystery. But despite Thomas’s curiosity, his father would never share his secrets. The magic, despite Thomas’s pleas, was always confined to the stage.
As a boy, Thomas wanted only to impress his father. At first, his boyish attempts to connect were apparent—endeavoring to replicate card tricks and illusions that would always go frustratingly awry. Inevitably, his father would right the magic-trick-gone-wrong with flourish and ease, and Thomas would feel both chastised and spellbound. Later, as his boyhood faded and his awe was replaced with apathy, he sought validation through his achievements, somehow still falling short of his father’s approval.
And now, regarding his father from the door, Thomas saw a man once a master of illusion, made too real by the stark reality of time.
His father opened his eyes weakly, taking in his only son. For a stupid moment, Thomas thought that he may be reading his mind.
Thomas cleared his throat and took a few steps towards the bed. “Hey Dad, how are you feeling?”
Silence hung in the chasm between them, a tension thick enough to saw in half.
“You came.” His father’s words a gruff whisper.
“I did.” Thomas responded, his mouth tasting like stale hospital air and years of swallowed resentment.
His father wheezed lightly, his chest rising and falling with effort. “My final disappearing act.”
Something hot pricked behind Thomas’s eyes—irritation, or perhaps, grief.
Thomas shoved his hands in his pockets, unsure of where to go from here. “I suppose you won’t tell me the secret to this one, either.”
His father closed his eyes. The seconds ticked by, his breaths growing shallower, each exhale a fragile dance between life and death. Urgency gripped Thomas’s chest, cold and sudden.
His father, a man he had needed all his life, was denying him once more. But he needed answers. What could have possibly been more important to him than his own son? Part of him wanted to deny his father the satisfaction of an audience, to let the secrets die with him. Another part longed to mend the broken bond, to find a sliver of connection in the waning moments.
“Why?” Thomas finally spoke, his voice quieter than intended. “Why keep it all from me? I looked up to you, wanted to be like you. And all you did was hide behind your damn lies.”
His father opened his eyes and regarded his son. Thomas didn’t know what he saw. Perhaps an exhausted, pragmatic man whose belief in magic had disappeared a long time ago.
“I didn’t want you to lose the wonder, the mystery of it all.” His father said finally.
Thomas choked on a wry laugh. Ran his hands through his thinning hair in exasperation. “The mystery is alive and well,” His vision blurred suddenly with frustrated tears. He removed his glasses to clean the lenses. “I will never understand how you managed to be such a great performer and such a disappointment of a father at the same time.”
Thomas averted his eyes but he felt the shot land in the quiet moment before his father cleared his throat. “A magician…never….” he began, his breath raspy but Thomas couldn’t, wouldn’t, let those words be the last ones.
“Still, Dad?! Still? Please spare me,” He collapsed in the chair next to his father. The plastic squeaked in protest beneath him. “I know all your bullshit.”
“Apparently,” His father said. “Not all of it.”
They sat there in weighted silence. It was inevitable, Thomas realized, it being like this. Compromise had never been a marker of their relationship and his father had never backed down from a challenge.
Slowly, his father lifted a finger from his chest, pointed to a small table beside him where amongst get-well-soon cards and bouquets of flowers, sat an old deck of cards.
“Dad, no, c’mon,” Thomas shook his head. “Just leave it.” But his father’s finger remained, pointing with such determination that he half expected the cards to levitate.
With a small groan, Thomas leaned over to the table and picked up the deck, handing them begrudgingly to his father. He supposed the least he could do was humor a dying man. It wouldn’t be long now anyway.
His father shuffled the cards with a deftness that should have surprised Thomas. But he had stopped being surprised by his father a long time ago.
The cards danced through the air, each movement a silent dialogue between father and son. His father pulled a card from the deck, revealing it to Thomas, and returned it to the deck, face up. A seven of spades. Thomas trained the muscles in his face into indifference and waited. His father would snap his fingers, the seven of spades would disappear and Thomas would only have lost three minutes of his life. His heart twinged and he rubbed his chest. Did his father have those minutes to lose?
But the snap didn’t come. His father raised his hand, fingers trembling slightly, but before he could snap them together, his hands shook violently. His father gasped slightly, a groan escaping his lips, and the deck of cards spilled to the floor.
“Dad? Dad! You okay?” Thomas was on his feet, hands on his father’s shoulders, attempting to soothe him but he didn’t know how to do that. Instead, he gently gripped his father’s shoulders and spoke in what he hoped was a comforting voice. “Hey, Dad, it’s okay. You’re okay.” His father’s tremors slowed and then stilled. His breath returned to normal, shallow but even.
Thomas sat back in his chair with a heavy sigh, tears stinging his eyes again, and looked at his father. His eyes were half closed, watching his son from beneath heavy lids. His mouth was open, his skin pale and translucent, his hands draped weakly over his chest.
Thomas looked at his father, his heart feeling too large in his chest. Maybe he had gotten it wrong all these years. Maybe his father had been searching for a way to close the gap between them the same as Thomas had been. Maybe he had never stopped trying to make his son proud, to show him life was about more than what you could explain with logic. That magic wasn’t in the knowing, but the believing.
Thomas gathered the cards from the floor and moved his chair closer to his father’s side. He shuffled the cards clumsily, feeling the weight of his father’s gaze. He straightened the cards, cleared his throat and slowly pulled a card from the deck. He brought it close to his father’s face so he could see without craning his neck. In his hand he held a seven of spades. Cautiously, he returned it to the deck, face up. A tear slipped down his cheek, dripped off his chin, warping the card slightly where it landed. He held the deck of cards in one hand and raised his other. He snapped his fingers, the sound seeming to echo in the silence.
For a moment, there was nothing. Thomas felt his stomach bottom out, afraid he had made a mistake. Then he heard his father take a small, labored inhale. His father tried to move his hands but they remained face down, shaking with effort. Thomas took his father’s hands in his own, helping him to flip them over so that his palms faced up. And there, as if by magic, lay a card as naturally as if it had been there all along. A seven of spades.
For a long moment his father stared at the card in his palm, his hands cupped by Thomas’s. Straining slightly, his father slowly lifted his eyes to Thomas’s and held his gaze with bright eyes. Like a boy who had witnessed magic for the first time.
His father smiled and a tear slipped out of the corner of his eye. Thomas had never seen his father cry.
“How…you…” His father said, his voice barely a whisper, more an exhale than words.
Thomas’s resolve crumbled then and tears spilled freely down his cheeks. He brought his father’s hands to his forehead, the seven of spades still clutched between them.
“A magician never reveals his secrets.” He said, his voice strained and watery. A bittersweet laugh escaped his lips.
They stayed like that, clutching each other and the card and Thomas listened to the silence between his father’s breaths grow longer. By the time his tears ebbed and he returned his father’s hands to his chest, he was gone.
Thomas sat there, alone in the quiet hospital room, holding his father’s hands and a seven of spades. The bittersweet melody of the moment played in his heart, a complex symphony of grief, and love, and farewell.
Afterwards, as Thomas left the room that had witnessed his father’s final act, he carried with him the weight of a complicated legacy, a seven of spades, and the knowledge that, sometimes, forgiveness is the greatest trick of all.