Author's note: This is my entry for Cornconic's Halloween 2021 story contest.
Ethan and John sat in the warm sand. They sipped their beers and stared out at the horizon, lost in thought. Waves lapped at the shore as the gray concrete pilings of the pier loomed overhead, casting long shadows down the beach.
Ethan broke the silence. “You seem better.”
“Better?” John said.
“You weren't doing too good after she died,” Ethan said.
John smiled and finished his beer. “Yeah. I feel better.”
“That's good.” Ethan pulled another beer from the cooler and passed it to him.
“You're not gonna ask why?” John said.
Ethan shaded his eyes to watch the wet-suited surfers bobbing in the blue-green water. John had been drowning in guilt over how he’d left things with his mom. They’d barely spoken the past few years, and in the end, John had refused to see her before she died. After the funeral, Ethan had watched from a distance, waiting to see if John would be strong enough to pull through or end up drinking himself to death. Caring about people makes you weak. Ethan shrugged. “Xanax? Therapy?”
“Nope.” John chuckled. “I've been trying to figure out if I should tell you. You won't believe it.”
Raising his eyebrows, Ethan said, “Try me.”
“After mom died, I spiraled. I took pills, I drank, but nothing helped. I lost my job. My stepmom finally threatened to kick me out if I didn't straighten out.”
“I remember,” Ethan said.
“Then I heard something from a friend of a friend—a way to change things. It sounded completely crazy, but I'd already lost my mind, so why the hell not?” John looked at Ethan. “Fuckin' thing worked.”
“What worked?” Ethan said.
Ethan blinked. “The doorway?”
“Look through the center of the pier. See how the last set of pilings looks like an open door into the sky?” John said.
Ethan squinted at the rectangular opening several hundred feet offshore. “Ok, sure.”
“If you swim in and out of the columns in just the right way at just the right time, and then swim out through that doorway, you end up in a memory.” John finished his beer with a belch.
“Uh-huh. Sounds like a lot of work when I can already see my memories when I want.” He tapped his temple. “In fact, it sounds like bullshit.”
“It’s not just seeing a memory. You can change things,” John said.
Ethan snorted. “Changing a memory. Pretty sure I've seen that movie.”
John sighed and glared at him.
“Fine, you pick a memory and change it somehow. Continue,” Ethan said, waving his hand in the air.
“I was told you can't pick what memory you end up in. Whichever one it is, you have to figure out how to change it to get what you want,” John said.
Ethan rolled his eyes but kept quiet.
“When I swam through the doorway, I was back at my eighth birthday party. That was the last year my parents were together. Things were falling apart fast and my mom pulled out all the stops for my party. At the end of the day, I remember I hugged her for what seemed like forever.” John smiled. “When I hugged her this time, I told her I was sorry we fought. That I was sorry I wasn't there when she died.” John stared at his hands. “I said goodbye.”
“Sounds like a hallucination.”
John drew a sharp breath.
Ethan put his hands up. “I'm not saying you didn't say goodbye or whatever. I'm just saying, you didn't have to swim around in circles and almost drown yourself. You could've just taken some shrooms or something.”
John laughed. “Maybe. The strangest part is when my stepdad called a few weeks back. I told him about saying goodbye, but I lied and said it was a dream. He got quiet for so long, I thought his phone died. Then he said my mom told him on her deathbed that I’d said goodbye to her at my eighth birthday party and she finally understood why. He'd never told me she said that ‘cause he assumed she was out of it from the pain meds.”
Ethan stared out at the doorway. “You think you changed something in real life through a memory?”
“Yeah. I thought maybe you'd wanna try.”
Ethan narrowed his eyes. I don’t need some superstitious bullshit to feel better. That’s for the weak. “Why do you think that?”
“Because I've known you forever. You've always been kinda quiet, but you went into depressed hibernation mode after that kid, Peter, tried to kill himself and ended up a vegetable. You snapped out of it eventually, but after Peter died, you started drinking a lot and barely leaving your room,” John said. “I didn’t realize you two were friends.”
“We weren’t. It’s just a coincidence.” Ethan opened another beer and took four big gulps.
John stared at Ethan. “If you say so. Whatever the problem is, you’ve already tried sleeping your life away. You’ve tried drinking,” he said, tilting his head toward the empty cans in the cooler. “What's next? Suicide?”
Ethan started and glanced at John.
John nodded. “I've been there. Try this instead. It works, I swear.”
Ethan scowled. A large seagull landed on the beach a few feet away and eyeballed the cooler. He tossed an empty beer can at the bird. It squawked and flapped away in a flurry of sand and feathers.
John grinned and looked out through the doorway. “I'll tell you exactly what to do.”
Two weeks later, Ethan sat in his room checking the surf report. It had been storming near Alaska recently, sending swells rolling into southern California. He sighed and looked at the instructions John had scribbled down. “This is either gonna be a near-death experience or suicide.”
Step one: there have to be big waves, at least shoulder high.
He glanced at the laptop again. Check.
Step two: the swim has to be done at night with a new moon. No lights allowed.
Ethan did a quick search for the lunar cycle for this month. There was a new moon that night. Check.
Step three: you have to weave around all thirteen columns on the right side of the pier. Start by swimming under the pier, then head outside between the first and second columns on the right. Swim back inside the pier between columns two and three. Continue through all the columns until you come back inside between twelve and thirteen. Then swim straight out through the “doorway”.
Bingo. Life becomes perfect.
When Ethan had asked why steps one and two were necessary, John had said the darkness and the waves make it difficult. Otherwise, any random guy swimming under the pier could go through the doorway. Ethan had also asked how in the hell you're supposed to swim between the columns if you can't see them. John had put out one arm in front of him and closed his eyes, saying, “You have to feel for them.”
Ethan rubbed his face. “This is stupid. You can’t change the past.” He sighed and reached for his beer, but stopped short of drinking it. I'm probably gonna die. He barked out a hollow laugh. I'm too weak to live. Who cares how I die?
Ethan stood under the pier as a brisk breeze blew in off the water. The waves crashed against the shore in regular sets. He kicked off his flip-flops and sunk his feet into the cold, damp sand. He pulled up and zipped his wetsuit before stretching to warm up. The dim sodium lights from the distant parking lot illuminated the outline of the first columns of the pier and the water's edge; everything else was hidden in darkness. Off to his left and about a hundred feet offshore, greenish lights shimmered under the water, as if UFOs were swarming beneath the surface. Must be night divers headed out to the canyon.
He walked to the edge of the water and waited for a lull. When it came, Ethan took several deep breaths and moved out into the chilly, dark water. As soon it reached his hips, he dove in and swam to the right, heading between the first two columns. One, inside. He reached out his left arm and felt for the rough concrete piling of column two. His fingertips caught the edge. Two, outside. He turned left, following it around to come back under the pier.
He made good time in the lull—he’d been on the swim team in high school and he still did rough water swims in the cove. As Ethan rounded column six (outside), the waves grew bigger. Finding his way while being tossed about was almost impossible. He managed to get around column seven (inside) but finding column eight (outside) seemed to take hours. His arms and legs burned and his breathing grew ragged.
At column nine (inside), his elbow collided hard with a piling. His hand went numb. He stopped and shook out his arm. Treading water, he tried to orient himself. Far off to his left, he saw the divers' lights glimmering before a wave crashed over his head. He surfaced, took a deep breath, and continued.
As he swam around column ten (outside), some of the tension left his shoulders. With only two columns left before passing thirteen and swimming out the doorway, Ethan caught a second wind and pushed himself with everything he had.
He was headed between columns eleven and twelve, when a monster wave slammed into him, pushing him away. He fought against the undertow. His shoulder scraped the sandy bottom. When he finally surfaced, he ground his teeth. Where am I? He bobbed in the waves and tried to catch his breath. A moment later, something bumped his leg. Hard. He gasped and spun around, searching the black water. His heart pounded. Shit! Don’t be a shark! Don’t be a shark! He took off swimming as fast as he could for where he thought columns eleven and twelve were.
His hand found a piling and he made it around (twelve, outside?) just as a wave crashed over him. It held him under. Then another wave came. And another. Ethan was tossed around in the wash. He clawed and kicked. His lungs burned. Even with his eyes opened wide, he couldn’t tell which way was up in the churning blackness. A piling collided with his head and back, driving the last bit of air from his lungs. His vision narrowed and faded to nothing. The sound of the waves became a ringing in his ears.
Ethan opened his eyes. A bright, full moon came into focus. He sat up and groaned. His body felt like it had gone through a washing machine. He rubbed the back of his head, expecting to find a large lump. His eyes widened. He felt fur—rough, plastic fur like cheap stuffed animals were made out of. He glanced down and saw pink fur from head to toe. Even his feet had bunny slippers complete with blue button eyes staring sappily up at him. Reaching up to the top of his head with trembling hands, he found two bunny ears. His mouth fell open.
He looked around. The deserted street was lit only by the moon. The asphalt underneath him was pitted and broken, the cracks filled with scraggly dead weeds. Long-abandoned one-story houses with peeling paint and toppled fences lined the street; the dark holes where the windows had been looked like empty black eyes watching him. Ethan shivered. Trees rose behind the houses with gnarled hands reaching toward the sky. The distant yipping of coyotes echoed through the woods, sounding like a wild party.
He stood up on shaky legs and almost tripped over a lumpy gray pillowcase. The world spun. He panted. Stumbling to a rotted fence post, he leaned against it. When the world steadied, he discovered his point of view was lower than it should be. “W-what the hell?” A young, trembling voice came from his mouth. “It's Halloween, isn’t it? This is where it all started... ” He broke out in a cold sweat. “Dear God, I'm ten years old.”
Ethan’s eyes followed the faded yellow line of the road as it curved up and around, ending in a cul-de-sac. Something stood in front of the house at the very end of the circle. He swallowed hard. Picking up the crinkling, candy-filled pillowcase, he walked toward the house. Drawing closer, he saw the figure was a small fidgeting cowboy. The cowboy’s eyes were opened wide and he clutched a yellow pillowcase in front of his chest with both hands. His hat was too big; it wobbled on his head as he kept turning to look behind him. He hadn’t seen Ethan yet.
Ethan snuck through the yards and ducked behind a garbage can near the cowboy. He waited a moment before jumping out. “Boo!”
The boy jumped and screeched.
Ethan laughed. “Stop shrieking, Peter. It's me.”
“I thought you were a ghost!” Peter said.
“A furry pink ghost?” Ethan chuckled menacingly and said, “I'd worry more about the coyotes.”
“Haha, yeah.” Peter's eyes darted around. He tilted his head back to see Ethan's bunny ears and his hat slid off onto the dusty remains of the lawn. He shook the dirt off and shoved it back onto his head. “I was worried you weren’t gonna show. What are you, anyways?” he said.
“The Easter bunny.”
“But it's Halloween,” Peter said with a frown.
Ethan smiled. “That’s the joke, dumbass. Let's go.” He pulled a small flashlight out of his pillowcase. Clicking it on, he moved between two houses toward the woods. He knew exactly where to go.
Peter scurried to catch up. “You sure this is gonna work?” He walked so close, his shoulder kept bumping Ethan's.
“Quit being a baby! And yeah, this is gonna work,” Ethan said.
Peter had been the shy kid in school. Over the years, Ethan had watched as he’d gotten bloody noses or black eyes almost every week without ever once standing up for himself. Peter had been weak. This year, when they'd turned ten, Ethan had told Peter he knew a spell to help him get stronger—ancient magic his grandma had brought from the old country. To do it, they'd have to go past the abandoned houses at the end of town to a clearing in the woods. It had to be done under the light of the full moon on All Hallow’s Eve.
“So what's the spell?” Peter asked.
“I told you, it's something my grandma did for me. That's why I'm strong.” Ethan pointed at Peter's pillowcase. “Did you bring the stuff I told you to?”
Peter nodded so fast his hat almost fell off again. He opened the pillowcase and said, “Chicken bones. A very sharp knife. Twine. Dried sage leaves. A lighter.”
Ethan nodded. His bunny ears flopped back and forth.
The woods were silent except for the sounds of their feet crunching dead leaves.
A large twig snapped somewhere in the woods and Peter jumped. He walked faster, his head swiveling around. “I can’t wait to eat all this candy. Where did you trick or treat? Did you do that math homework? It was hard. I’m getting hungry.” Peter chattered for several minutes.
“Will you shut up?” Ethan hissed.
Peter snapped his mouth closed and nodded.
After twenty minutes, Ethan reached out and grabbed Peter's shoulder.
Ethan rolled his eyes. “We're here,” he said, pointing to the clearing. He clicked off the flashlight.
With the moon almost directly overhead, they saw everything in sharp detail: tall weeds swaying in the breeze, a fire-charred canyon oak at the far end of the clearing, a large barn owl resting on one of its branches. The owl hooted softly and fluffed its feathers.
“Take off your shirt and lay down over there,” Ethan said.
Peter shivered. “It's freezing out here.”
“Fine. I'll just go home then.”
Peter jumped. “Don’t! I'll do it.” As he tilted his head down to unbutton his shirt, his hat fell off and rolled into the clearing. Eyeing the tall weeds, he said, “T-think there are rattlesnakes in there?”
Ethan sighed. He grabbed Peter's pillowcase and pulled out the magic items. He remembered his younger self had spent the week prior reading up on what was needed to cast a spell; bones, blood, and sage were used in lots of them.
Peter finally laid down.
Ethan used the twine to tie the large sage leaves into a bunch. He lit the end on fire and blew it out, watching it smolder for a moment. Walking a circle around Peter, he waved the spicy, thick smoke in the air.
“I hope my mom’s not mad about the sage. She was gonna use it for Thanksgiving,” Peter said.
“Shut up!” Ethan snapped. He made two circles around Peter and then picked up the bones and knife. He laid the bones in the grass around Peter's head like a halo. Then he grabbed Peter's cold hand and pricked his index finger.
“Ouch! What—” yelled Peter.
“Quit whining! You need blood for spells,” Ethan said. He squeezed Peter's finger until a fat drop welled up. Peter grimaced as Ethan used the blood to smear a red pentagram on his forehead. Ethan took the remaining twine and tied Peter's hands and feet together.
Peter's eyes grew wide and he quivered but stayed quiet.
Ethan stood up and dusted off his furry knees. “Now for the spell.” He raised his hands to the sky and said some words in Hungarian, repeating them over and over while waving the sage around. He bit his cheek to keep from smiling. He'd told Peter they were ancient words of power. They were actually the curse words his grandparents had hurled at each other whenever they’d argued.
“Almost done,” Ethan said. He picked up the knife again and sat on Peter's abdomen.
“Oof! What're you doing?” Peter said.
“This is the last part,” Ethan said as he raised the knife above his head.
Peter yelled, “Stop messing around! I don't wanna do this anymore!” He bucked, trying to throw Ethan off, but Ethan was too heavy. Peter cried hysterically. He feebly swung his tied fists at Ethan.
Ethan ducked and slapped him. He slapped him again. And again, until Peter's nose bled. Peter stopped fighting and lay sobbing. Ethan raised the knife as high as he could. He laughed and brought it down. Peter shrieked and squeezed his eyes shut. After a moment, he cracked open his eyes. Ethan's face was close to his. Peter glanced to the side and saw the knife sticking out of the ground next to his head. He could feel the cold metal touching his ear.
“This is how it ended,” Ethan said.
“W-what?” Peter said.
“The first time. You passed out and I left you in the woods.”
Peter squirmed and Ethan scooted up toward his chest to keep him still. He pulled the knife out of the ground and stared at the blade. “The spell was bullshit. You were always so weak and I felt sorry for you. I hoped a near-death experience would toughen you up.” Ethan sighed. “But it didn't.”
Peter's eyes were wide and focused on the knife. He cried again, the tears sliding down the sides of his face.
“The day we graduated high school, you hanged yourself. But you didn't even get that right—you were still alive when your dad found you and cut you down. You were a vegetable for two years after.” Ethan stared into Peter's eyes without blinking. “I visited you in the hospital a few months ago and ended your pathetic existence.” A fleeting smile passed across his face. “I still felt sorry for you.”
Ethan turned the knife blade until he could see the moon reflected in it. “I shouldn't have cared about you in the first place. You made me weak. You made my life miserable.” He moved the knife to the left side of Peter's neck.
Peter screeched and his eyes rolled back in his head.
Ethan said, “I'm not even sure if this is real. Maybe I'm dead.” He leaned down to Peter's ear, whispering, “Doesn't matter, though. I’m gonna do what I should’ve done the first time.”
He drew the knife across Peter's throat from ear to ear. Peter’s eyes shot open as a curtain of blood poured from his neck. He gasped, trying to scream. His body thrashed and convulsed. More of his blood flowed out with every pump of his frantic heart. His struggles grew weaker. Crimson saliva bubbled from his mouth. He stopped moving, his empty eyes staring up at the moon.
Ethan stood up on trembling legs and used his furry arm to wipe the blood from his face. Grabbing his flashlight with shaky hands, he moved around the clearing gathering up all the “magic” items and tossing them into his pillowcase. The skin on the back of his neck itched; it felt like Peter’s eyes were following him. He picked up the cowboy hat and placed it over Peter’s face.
Near the oak, he found some rocks. The owl watched with unblinking eyes as Ethan stripped off his blood-soaked bunny suit and stuffed it into the pillowcase along with several heavy rocks. He tied the pillowcase shut with a knot. On his way home, he would toss it off the bridge into the river along with the knife.
The coyotes cried again. They sounded close. Ethan took a long look at Peter's body and turned to leave. The moon went behind a cloud, plunging him into darkness. His ears were filled with the sound of churning, roaring water. He spun around, eyes wide. A torrent of cold water drenched him. His teeth chattered. His knees gave out and he fell to the ground. He tried to get up, but he couldn't move. He couldn't see. He couldn't breathe. His ears rang as his consciousness faded to nothing.
“Hey! Hey! Are you alright?”
Ethan opened his eyes and winced. His head throbbed. He rolled over and vomited what felt like a gallon of seawater. Frowning, he wiped his nose and mouth; his hand came away bloody. An older woman in a wetsuit hovered next to him with a flashlight. Behind her were several air tanks, masks, and fins. The woman put her hand on Ethan's shoulder. “My friends ran to the car to call for help. Are you ok?”
Ethan sat up and scanned the shoreline. The pier was nowhere in sight. A grin crept across his face and he laughed. “Yeah. I’m finally ok.”
Written by ExRwood