I don’t know why I decided to go on the ferry ride tonight, especially tonight of all nights.
Perhaps it was because I’d always liked the water. It had carried me away from a horrible place. I can forget it also bore me to that horrible place.
I lay in my small cabin, my mind drifting, the sounds outside on the deck muted through the walls.
My eyes suddenly shot open as I felt the light momentarily dim, as though a shadow had passed over it. My eyes quickly darted around, looking for anything nestled in the darkened corners of the room.
There was nothing I could see.
Still, that prickling feeling remained.
I decided it was time to heave myself up and join the other people on the deck. Crowds often helped keep my thoughts from turning too dark, to stop any memories that threatened my waking moments. Perhaps that was why I chose tonight to be around people.
I walked over to the small mirror hanging on the wall.
Bloodshot eyes greeted me, dark shadows under my eyes, a five o’clock shadow adding to my dishevelled appearance and a pale face.
It was a far cry from the man I had been over a year ago.
I heaved a deep sigh and pulled off my old, ratty shirt to put on a new one, my dog tags jingling as I did so.
Then I left to go face the crowd.
People were always happiest at celebrations and holidays. Halloween was no exception, out on the river in the bayou. Everything was pumpkins and skeletons, witches and monsters.
Everyone was dressed up as something they weren’t.
Even I was, in a way.
I shuffled through the crowd of people chatting, avoiding the groups of screaming, playing children. I avoided children whenever I could. When they looked at me it almost felt like they could peer into my very soul. It was like they knew, they knew what I’d done. Children have a way like that.
I needed something to drink.
I found a punch bowl kept up high out of the reach of small hands and downed a few cups, watching the affairs of the night.
I looked up at the full moon rising in the blue-black sky, contrasted by the inky darkness of the silhouetted, twisted trees.
For a moment, I could’ve sworn the shadows moved.
“A beautiful full moon tonight, and on Halloween,” came a voice from beside me.
Startled, I looked around and saw that a young woman had sidled up closer to me. She was unmistakably dressed like a witch – a very attractive witch.
“Yeah, it’s a beautiful moon,” I replied.
“It’s a time for monsters and werewolves, mystery and magic, a time when the Veil between the Worlds is thinnest,” she said, taking a sip of her drink and looking sideways at me.
My skin prickled.
“Veil between the Worlds?” I asked.
“Yeah, the mythical veil of mist and shadow that separates our world, the world of the living, from the world of the dead. The Mexicans call Halloween ‘The Day of the Dead,’” she supplied.
“Day of the Dead?” I asked, trying to clear my suddenly dry throat.
She had my attention now.
“Yes,” she said, starting to look at me like I was an idiot. “Did you not pay attention in school? I’m sure they covered this at least briefly.”
“I went to school a long time ago now.” It seemed like another lifetime really. “So, please, enlighten me.”
I think I managed some semblance of a good smile, and some shift in my posture, so that she stopped looking at me quite so askance and assumed what could only be described as teaching mode.
“Well, every year on Halloween, the Veil between the Worlds is said to be the thinnest. Long before Halloween fully became a thing, the Mexicans built a traditional celebration called ‘The Day of the Dead’ and they used this day to communicate with those who have crossed over to the other side. It’s a time for them to speak with their ancestors, their lost loved ones, for just a little while. It’s actually a wonderful tradition, very moving,” she paused, obviously reminiscing.
I still knew my social cues, even if I didn’t care enough to use them anymore, so I could sense this was meant to be where I asked her a question.
“You’ve been to Mexico on Halloween?” I asked politely, wanting her to keep talking.
I needed to know if what she said could explain my growing uneasiness, my growing restlessness.
“I have, although we really shouldn’t call it Halloween. Their celebration actually lasts for three days from October 31st to November 2nd of every year. I was there for all three days. It was amazing! There was dancing and costumes and parades. Everywhere was so alive and rich with culture. And the food, the food!” she said, almost drooling at the memory.
This would be the part where I would normally make a joke about loving a girl who could eat, or inviting her to eat at a snack table or to dinner the next day. That would’ve been the old me.
But I didn’t think he was ever going to be coming back.
“And? What happened? Did they actually talk to the dead?” I asked.
She opened her mouth like she was going to make a snarky retort, but something in my face must have made her change her mind because she shut it again.
“I don’t believe in ghosts and spirits,” she said firmly, “so I don’t think they did. I mean, there were a few things I couldn’t explain, wispy shapes, strange wind and voices on the breeze. Family members suddenly crying and talking to the air, food disappearing from the altars, although perhaps clever people just stole the food when no-one was looking,” she said, laughing to try and lighten the mood.
My skin was really tingling now and I could feel sweat beading on my forehead as my heartrate sped up. I tried to control my breathing.
“Are you okay?” she asked, concerned.
I shook myself and forced myself back under control. That was something I’d learned to do well during military training. Emotion could get you killed.
“Yeah, probably just a bit tired,” I chuckled, trying to look nonchalant again.
“Well, it is almost midnight and if you aren’t a night owl, it’s pretty late,” she said.
I looked at my watch in the light of the orange, hanging lanterns around the boat.
“The Mexicans start celebrating the second day of their festival soon, after midnight strikes. El Dia de los Innocents,” she said.
“What does that mean?” I asked, slowly starting to relax because Halloween was nearly, technically over. Perhaps now my uneasy feelings and my darkened thoughts would vanish into obscurity again.
“Day of the Children.”
I turned to her, my face a mask of frozen horror.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
She grabbed my arm and then pulled hers back.
“Your skin is all hot and clammy. Are you okay?” she asked, her face a mask of concern.
“Day of the Children?” I rasped.
She frowned in confusion.
“Yes, what about it? Are you sure you’re not sick?”
“What happens on that day of the festival?” I asked weakly.
“Well, you honour children that have died – sisters, brothers, cousins, friends. It’s a chance to speak to them again, to imagine that they have a long future ahead of them instead of one as long-lost ghosts,” she stammered.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
Leaving the witch woman standing there, I bolted, heading towards an isolated area at the edge of the ferry where I could hopefully puke up my guts in peace.
I found a spot near the back and gulped in large breaths, trying to keep my stomach under control.
Day of the Children.
A day where dead children could speak to us.
I glued my eyes to my watch as it slowly, slowly ticked over.
Time was up.
My gaze quickly darted around the area, watching for anything out of the ordinary. There was nothing, just shadows and lights and the muggy, swampy smell of the bayou.
I stood there for a full five minutes, waiting for some spectre to appear.
When nothing appeared, I relaxed a tiny bit.
Lack of sleep probably just had me jumpy. Ghosts weren’t real, they didn’t exist. And really, they had no reason to haunt me. It wasn’t my fault he had died, that they had all died.
I rubbed my eyes, then my head, feeling a headache begin to appear.
As I turned, a dark figure emerged from around the corner. I tensed, ready for flight or fight.
It was a child.
He was dressed in black, tattered clothes with a ghostly white face and sunken looking eyes and he had a splash of red across his chest.
“What do you want!” I shouted, my voice not coming out nearly as strong as I wanted it to.
The figure just stood there, silently, then started moving closer and closer, making small, jerky movements with its arms as though it were a marionette being moved by a puppet master.
I bit back a whimper.
The figure closed in on me and I decided to try to tackle it. If it was a ghost, I’d go straight through and then I would know to run. If it was someone actually solid, well, it wasn’t what I thought it would be.
I gave a yell and charged towards the figure.
The sunken eyes widened in surprise, adding more life to the dead looking face.
“Hey, mister! Watch out!” the high-pitched voice said.
I slowed down and the kid managed to sidestep me.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“It’s Halloween. I’m trying to scare people. Duh,” he said, shrugging nonchalantly.
“Well, be careful not to scare the wrong people. I almost decked you kid,” I said, trying to remain calm.
Now that he had spoken he seemed normal again, but he was still a child.
“It’s okay. I’m a zombie ghost so I would’ve either gotten back up again or you would’ve gone right through me.”
“Zombie ghost? Sure kid. Now go back to your mother and leave me in peace,” I said, turning back to the railing to look out on the river again and the shadowy forest.
The kid blew a raspberry at me, cackled evilly then vanished around the corner.
A small smile wrung itself out of me and I felt myself relax a little bit more.
Everything would be fine.
I observed the slowly moving scenery for a little longer, still hearing the noises from the party on the main deck and considered rejoining them, maybe find that witch lady again and apologise for leaving her so suddenly.
I turned to go and then felt a chill wind flow over me. I swore I could hear an indistinct whispering
I quickly looked around, wondering if that child had returned.
I saw nothing out of the ordinary, but now that creeping, tingling feeling was back and wouldn’t go away.
Just as I was about to relax again, I saw a pale shimmering to my left. The more I focused on the spot, the clearer it became.
My blood ran cold. I’d recognize that face anywhere.
It was him.
Memories began pouring back, memories I had tried to lock away.
We were occupying a small village while I was serving in the armed forces. The people there were fine, for the most part, and just went about their days, almost oblivious to the war being waged in their country. Most just let us be, but the older boys of the town were almost completely enraptured by us. Everyday they plied us with questions, asked us to shoot our guns, tried to get us to play sports with them or train with them. Most of us soldiers played soccer with them, using it to keep ourselves fit and also for a bit of fun. The military was usually no place for games or light-hearted fun.
This one boy, whose name I could never quite pronounce, took a shine to me and I to him. He was tall and thin, like most of the boys, but he had this cheery optimism about the world and a searching mind.
He was how I would’ve wanted my son to be.
Everyday at sunrise we’d play ball and I’d teach him some combat tricks and he’d explain to me about his culture and how the people of his land lived. They were happy moments.
Suddenly, one day we came under attack. It was fast and sudden and while we defeated the enemy, the causalities on our side were high.
My commander, who was still alive, was outraged. He became convinced that someone in the village had ratted them out and began interrogating everyone in the town.
It caused a lot of tension between us and the villagers. It made them angry, including my young friend.
One morning, the commander began rounding people up. I felt a feeling of dread as I saw most of the squad with their guns out in the main square. My dread mounted as the commander began striding up and down, shouting and demanding answers.
When no-one came forward and spoke, the first gunshot seemed to echo across the whole village, causing all of us to jump at that casual brutality.
Immediately, my young friend and some other boys all stood up and began shouting and yelling. One even started to run towards the commander, fists raised.
A second gunshot rang throughout the square and another body fell.
“Stop!” I yelled, although whether to the commander or my friend and his friends, I was never sure.
The commander looked at me and glowered.
“Get back in line, soldier!” he barked.
I stood firm.
“You can’t just kill these people. They’ve done nothing wrong,” I said, trying to reason with him although my heart was pounding.
“If you’re with them, you’re against us. One of these people ratted us out to the enemy and a lot of good soldiers are dead because of it!” he yelled.
“I don’t believe they ratted us out. Besides, we have no proof of that. You can’t just kill them!” I shouted back.
The commander levelled his gun at me.
“You care more about these provincial nobodies more than your own people, your own country?” he asked.
I backed away then. The commander was accusing me of treason, threatening me with it. The military didn’t treat traitors well. Most often they wound up dead too.
To my great shame, I fell back into line, averting my eyes from the helpless people before me. When I finally looked up again, I locked eyes with my friend.
“I’m sorry,” I mouthed to him.
His mouth straightened into a hard line and I could sense that our friendship was over.
Once the commander turned from my friend to interrogate somebody else, my friend made his move.
As fast as lightning, he whipped out a small knife and charged silently towards the commander. Unfortunately, after being in the military for so long, the commander had developed a sixth sense and he spun around, blocking my friend’s attack and throwing him to the ground.
Before I could even blink, my friend was lying on the ground dead from a bullet straight through his chest – just a young boy trying to protect his home. Dead.
I let out an anguished cry and the commander stared at me heartlessly.
“They are all traitors. Show them what we do to traitors.”
The sound of the halo of bullets firing still echoes in my mind to this day, on an almost endless repeat.
I was returned violently to the present by the ever-increasing chill and the rapidly approaching spectre.
I knew it was him. He had come to get his revenge on me for not protecting him, his friends, his village.
“I’m sorry,” I found myself already babbling as I took in his pale, emotionless face, the only colour on him the splash of red from the bullet wound in his chest.
He just stood there, watching, waiting.
“What do you want?” I asked tremulously.
Slowly, a wide grin stretched across his face, his mouth dropping lower and lower to reveal a gaping blackness there.
I waited for him to speak, but he just continued with his silent, horrible yawn and then slowly closed his mouth and resumed grinning.
I could see other glimmers of eerie blue light begins to appear and I squeezed my eyes shut, not wanting to see the faces of the other innocents I failed to save.
I yelped when my eyes opened again and he had moved, standing only inches from my face.
He slowly reached out, resting his hand on my shoulder. It was icy cold then hot, icy cold then hot. I couldn’t help but sob as the memories continued to torment me. I knew I was babbling out nonsense but I couldn’t hear a word of it.
It was just me and the memories, the crushing guilt, the hate buried deep.
It went on for eternity and I could feel other hands joining the first, sending hot and cold chills through me.
Then suddenly, it was gone.
The absence of torment was sudden. I shot up and looked around for the ghosts.
There was nothing. He was gone, along with the rest.
I felt a slight breeze roll over me and I could just make out a cackle of devilish glee and words whispered upon the wind.
“Until next year."