Today was Cooper’s fifteenth birthday, and the day of his Water Wish. For breakfast, his mother made toast with plenty of sticky jam, and snuck an extra spoonful of honey into his tea.
“For luck.” She winked at him and he tried to smile back, but his stomach wouldn’t settle. By ritual and by custom, no one talked about their Water Wish, but everyone knew it took a price. The bigger the wish, the bigger the price.
Cooper’s wish would be enormous.
The village gathered by the cliffs that overlooked the grotto. The day had a festival air to it and at least half the town had turned out. Mr. Page brought his mouth-watering spiced potatoes and Ms. Baker was already playing a zippy tune on her fiddle. To celebrate both Cooper’s birthday and his wish, they’d dance and drink all afternoon. His sister had gone last year, and when she came back up, she had a garish streak of white in her hair and one less finger, but her stutter had vanished.
Sometimes, you didn’t have to ask what people wished for.
Cooper swallowed and couldn’t stop licking his lips. His grandma gave him a proud hug, and he wiped her sloppy kiss from his cheek, trying to locate the only person that mattered.
He spotted her by the fire, waving away gossamer sparks that threatened to land in her long braids, wearing a sideways grin. When she saw him approach, that grin blossomed further.
“Hi Janey.” He knelt beside her wheelchair so he’d be level with her.
“Hi Coop. Happy wish day.”
Jane was his dearest friend. They’d grown up together, hatched schemes and plans, and made promises with intertwined pinkies about forever. He couldn’t imagine life without her, a world where he didn’t love her. Her wish had been three months ago, and she was still unable to walk. But her father had stopped drinking. No one talked about that, either.
Ritual and custom.
“Yes.” They never lied to each other.
“Don’t go too big, okay? You’re stubborn.”
They’d talked about this endlessly. Part of the trick was coming up with a wish big enough to make a difference, but not so big it would ruin you.
“I can do this.”
She sighed and punched his arm, but he wouldn’t give her any more details. He leaned closer, taking courage from her friendship.
When the sun crested the cliffs, it was time. He gave Jane a hug that he wished could last longer, said goodbye to his parents, and started down the winding paths that led to the ocean.
This was the only time he’d make this trip; there was no taking a second journey to the water, and he tried to bathe in the experience. He let his hands run over the damp, salt-crusted cliff walls as he descended into the grotto. Breaking waves echoed off the rocks, making it impossible to hear. The briny odor of seaweed permeated everything as he neared the bottom. Grey clouds melted into the livid water, obscuring where one started and the other ended.
He picked his way down the steep descent, finding handholds among the rocks. When he got to the bottom, he was panting and had to pause to catch his breath. The cave entrance was on the other side, and he’d need to cross the water to get there.
No one would talk about their experience in the cave, but it was well understood that showing respect couldn’t hurt. He took off all his clothes and folded them neatly in a pile, feeling self-conscious despite being alone. The freezing water burned his skin and broken seashells pierced the soles of his feet. Within moments, he had to clench his teeth to stop them from chattering. Chattering would be disrespectful.
It was a short swim to the cave, only about twenty feet, and his long strokes covered the distance in seconds. He dove under the water, letting it surround him, and when he emerged, he didn’t wipe it from his eyes. He paused at the entrance, cupped his hands, and swallowed a mouthful of water for luck. It was briny and bitter and burned his throat going down, but he didn’t cough.
Inside the cave, the noise from the crashing waves lessened and his ears popped in the sudden calm. A tiny strip of sand at the far end seemed like the right place to wait. Now that the moment had arrived, he was surprisingly calm. One way or another, it would be over soon. How heavy could the price be?
The creature appeared almost immediately. It rose from the water, towering above him, like nothing he could have ever imagined. He groaned in terror, unable to move, unable to think, unable to scream. Its black serpent body was the size of a tree and writhing tentacles tested the air, flickering this way and that. A human head leered at him, only with two gaping black holes where eyes should be. Its mouth contained sharpened teeth.
The tentacles approached him and he wanted to recoil, but couldn’t. Faster than thought, one lashed out and attached to his bicep, and now he did scream. He couldn’t stop himself. With the attachment came pain, a searing heat that ripped through his body. The thing moved closer, putting its horrible, inhuman face directly in front of his.
“What do you wish, Cooper?”
The voice that emerged was deep and mocking. Of course, it knew his name. It knew everything. It ruffled through his memories, and Cooper was splayed before it.
“Jane,” he gasped. “I want her to walk.”
The tentacles caressed his body, raising goosebumps on his arm, leaving cold, viscous slime wherever they passed.
“I will have my price.”
“I know. You can take my legs if you want. I’ll give you pain. Or a limb.”
“And what would I do with that?” It gave him a sharpened grin and Cooper mewled. “I will take my pound from you, but the sweetness is in the choice. Will you hear my bargain?”
Cooper nodded, too terrified to answer, only knowing that he wanted this over, he wanted his whole Janey back and would do whatever it took. The creature leaned forward and whispered in his ear with seaweed-drenched breath.
“I will take your love for her.”
“Wh… what?” Cooper had imagined dozens of scenarios. Hundreds. He’d never imagined this. He could hardly understand what it meant.
“Her legs will carry her body, but you will carry indifference. You can never tell her why. She will understand what you wished, but only see your resentment. She will never know it was a choice, freely given. She would have been sustained by that.”
Cooper gaped, unable to form words. The creature’s tongue lapped at his cheek.
“You polish your love for her like a jewel,” it hissed at him. “It sustains you, I think, more than her love for you. Your love for her is your everything. That is my price.”
Cooper tried to pull away, but the tentacle held him close. He suffocated in his indecision. Jane could have everything back. All it would cost was his favorite person in the world, his forever friend that he swore on pinkies with. The best part of him.
Jane, able to walk.
He decided, and the monster fed.
The climb back up to the village was cold and lonely and focused on the rise and fall of his feet on the wet rocks. His arm ached where the demon had grasped him. At the top, his parents hugged him and he cried into his mother’s chest. They inspected him, could find no damage, but he wouldn’t stop crying. Couldn’t.
Then, Jane was there.
“Cooper?” A single question. A cautious grin. He knelt beside her chair so they would be level, although they would never again be even.
“I love you, Janey. I’m so sorry.”
He drowned in his choice.
Michael is a Canadian writer with publications in Cossmass Infinities (forthcoming) and Reservoir Road Literary Review. His work has been featured in several anthologies, including Executive Dread by Jolly Horror Press and Horror Library v7 by Dark Moon Books.