Here is my latest story in the first round of the NYC Midnight short story competition.

Group 16, Horror Story, including a life boat and a bride.

A Promise

Every Christmas eve a boy must try and help his grandmother fulfil a promise. This year it finally happens.

The boy balances the stick carefully against the wall and holds it there. Tiny black ants at the edge of a puddle find the stick and, signalling the news of a bridge to each other, begin a single file line across it to the groove in the brickwork. The boy watches, head sideways on his knees, as the ants, hesitantly at first but then with a growing confidence, make their way along the wall, and around the corner and out of sight. He tries to count them but they slip through his mind. He would rather be here, on the steps in front of his Ouma’s house, than inside. He squints his eyes and looks at the tree at the edge of the yard with the last of the afternoon summer sun making the leaves look like waving hands. Without lifting his head the boy flutters his fingers and waves back at the tree. There are only two ants left on the stick. Suddenly the boy blows hard through his lips and the ants grab onto the stick and hold tight, hunkering down and curving their antennae against their bodies. Ants are good things to watch while waiting.

His Ouma is his mother’s mother he reminds himself. He is getting used to the idea that adults have mothers. He stretches out one brown leg and examines his knee. There is a scab forming from a fall yesterday but it isn’t ready for picking. It is still tender, and painful if he forgets and kneels on it. It is getting darker now and the scab is harder to see.

His Ouma’s house is on the edge of the fishing village. Like every other time, the boy counted how many steps it took from his house to get here, but now he can’t remember.

There is a noise from inside and the boy shudders. He listens harder. What is that sound? Again. It is a small noise, slow and scratchy. It is the sound of material dragging and catching on a wooden floor. Now the boy knows what will happen next.

The door opens and it is as if all the darkness in the world flows out of the house and into the outside. Also a smell. It is a smell the boy remembers as it comes to him, familiar and unsettling, old and dry. The boy stands and there is a small lump in his throat.

Seun? Are you there, boy?”

Ja Ouma. Yes. I am here. Ma said I must come. It’s Christmas eve Ouma.” His voice is a whisper, slow and unused to talking to this old lady, even though she is family. His eyes search the darkness beyond the door.

Ouma moves into the doorframe. She is wearing the white wedding dress and veil, and for a moment the boy is convinced she is staring straight at him. But Ouma cannot see anything. ‘Cat-or-rats’ the boy had heard his mother say. He thinks some animals made his Ouma blind.

“Come boy, come inside while I get ready. It is still so hot.”

He makes his way past her and stands on the wooden floor in the middle of the cramped main room of the house. The boards creak as he moves his weight from foot to foot. This is the fourth Christmas eve that he has had to come. The first one was when he was six and Ouma had asked for him. She had sent for his mother to bring him. Then she had made his ma leave him all alone with her in the house that smelled of old. The boy remembers exactly what she said.

“Look out the window, boy, and look at the tree.”

He remembers how he gasped when he saw the man with the rope around his neck that looped back into the tree like a snake. He cannot forget his cry of shock and then his Ouma saying, almost immediately,

“Ok, ok, ok, you the one. You will be my eyes for me then.”

He had asked, after catching his breath, and controlling his pounding heart, “Who is he, Ouma?”

“Ag, just someone from long ago.”

Ouma had used the hanging man to test the boy for the Christmas eve job of seeing. He knows for sure that his sister couldn’t see that man. She had come first, the year before his first time, and had returned home sulky, confused and cross. She said she didn’t know what all the fuss was about.

While Ouma moves, seeing with her fingers, grabbing a silk shawl off the back of a chair and unwrapping two peppermint sweets, the boy looks through the window. Will the man be there, swinging under the tree? No, but the whole world is still lighter outside. Inside, the house is almost totally dark, just the white cloud of Ouma in the wedding dress. Now she is close, with her back turned to him and her head cocked to one side, listening. She is so close he can see how the wedding dress is closed at the top near her neck, then gaping open until the bottom of her back where it closes again. Ouma’s body has changed shape since the dress was made, long, long ago; before the boy, and even before his mother were in the world.

Ouma turns to the boy and touches his arm, moving her fingers along and down and putting a peppermint in his palm. She is so close he can hear her peppermint knocking against her false teeth as she rolls it in her mouth. “Come, let’s go.”

She leads the way to the door, and then the boy takes over, helping her down the step, along the dusty path and out the squeaky gate. Then along the footpath to the sea they move, her hand firm on the boy’s shoulder. Outside the boy can see how old the wedding dress is, and where it is torn, and where it is dirty. Sand, pebbles and broken seashells crunch and skitter under their feet. Seagulls weave through the growing dark, and cry. A flicker of lights on the black horizon of the sea, and the boy knows that even on this night there are fishermen out there, taking advantage of the clear conditions. Strands of Silent Night, from a TV in one of the fisherman’s cottages nearby, come and go on the wind.

Then, from out of the gloom, “Hey, hey where you going?” a voice from the hill, the boy’s friend Marcus, waving, a red paper crown from a Christmas cracker perched at an angle on his fuzzy black hair. He is shining from the warm glow of inside house light behind him.

Ouma’s hand presses hard into the boy’s shoulder, a wordless instruction on how to answer Marcus.

“Just need to go somewhere in a hurry with Ouma. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas. Hey, your Ouma looks funny!”

The boy has already turned and his friend’s laughter sounds far away as the roar of sea wave noise rises up to meet them.

Over a flat sand dune, between sharp bunches of pricking grass and onto the shore with the sand sifting through the holes in the boy’s plastic sandals.

They stand still for a moment, breathing in the salt and cool. Ouma is listening and the boy is looking. White wave-tips lit by a moon and billions of stars. There is a trail of fairy phosphorescence where the wet meets dry sand. Small sand crabs scuttle across the shallows. The boy knows them from their sideward movement; it is too dark to see their little transparent bodies. He wishes it was day and he could see them and count them as they appear and disappear into their holes.

Then the world is pulled outwards. That is how it feels. The boy puts a hand to his chest, feeling his heart banging inside. Ouma starts shaking and lets go of the boy’s shoulder. They are at the edge of the sea now, with Ouma’s dress dragging into the water every time a wave pulls back. The boy is surprised by how he can’t tell the difference between the foamy water and the dress.

The fishing boat is suddenly visible in the sea.

“Is it there, boy? Did it come?”

Ja Ouma. The boat is here.” He has no idea where it came from.

It is always the same fishing boat. Just far away enough so that the boy cannot be certain of any detail, but close enough to see the familiar shape and size. The fishing boat, the boy thinks, is exactly in between real and not real.

Then there is a rush of tears, and another lump in the boy’s throat, as he longs for his father, a fisherman too, but not lost at sea, just lost in the world. Everything would be different he thinks, if my father were here.

Toe maar seun, don’t cry. Ouma isn’t crying, look.”

She has got it wrong thinks the boy. I am not crying for her, I am crying for me.

Now the fishing boat is moving and being still at the same time. And Ouma has started talking. The boy knows what will happen next, but not how it will end.

“What a beautiful young man. A tall man, with smooth, square nails on his big hands.” She speaks in the singsong voice that has told the story over and over. “We were sweethearts from the first day of high school when he saw me and I wouldn’t answer when he asked if he could carry my books. I still said nothing the next day and the next.” She giggles like a girl and the boy starts.

The movement on the fishing boat is now an electric current thinks the boy. Everything looks hotter, he thinks.

“He couldn’t stay in school, your Oupa. No, he needed to go to work on his daddy’s boat.”

Shadows move along the edge of the fishing boat and now there is a lifeboat in the water. Here it comes, thinks the boy.

“He would wait for me at the school gate when he came back after two weeks out at sea with his pa’s crew, chasing yellowtail, kabeljou, tuna. He gave me a diamond ring from a lucky packet, still covered in sugar from the pink sweets inside. I laughed, but his eyes were serious. The ring meant we were engaged to be married.”

The lifeboat is small compared to the fishing boat, but it gets bigger and bigger the nearer it comes. Its colour is blood in the moonlight.

“My ma made the dress and we were saving up for the party. A huge party on Christmas eve. For everybody in the village to come.” Ouma shakes her head and the veil slips. Her hair is too thin for the comb to take hold.

“I lay with him here on the beach, with the moon and the stars in his eyes. We made a promise to be together forever, and we made love.” She is no longer talking to the boy. Her hand moves back and forth, caressing the sky, the sea, the sand.

“He left the next day. The men talked about a huge run of snoek. But he made another promise that he would come back.” The lucky packet ring is caught in the veil netting; her hand is a trapped fish.

The boy shuffles his feet in the sand. He always finds this part of the story embarrassing. He keeps his eyes locked on the lifeboat as it bobs towards them. He tries to count the waves.

“A huge storm took them. I waited for three months. On my wedding day I put on the dress and came down here. I had a small bump.” She nods at where she thinks the boy is. “Your ma, pushing on the dress here.” Her hand rubs her belly. “All day and night I stayed here. And I came every Christmas eve. Tonight is…” she pauses and counts in her head, nodding for each number. The boy thinks it takes forever. “Thirty years.”

The lifeboat has arrived, hovering on the shallow water, and even more real-not-real than the fishing boat in the distance. The boy turns to tell Ouma but she is faster than he is.

“Is he there, boy? A beautiful, tall man? Can you see him, boy? I can’t see anything. Is he calling me to join him?”

The boy shuts his eyes.

“Nee, Ouma, the boat is empty.” This is what he wants to say. This is what he said before, the last three times, when it was empty. The boy is afraid. He opens his eyes. He sees that there is a man on the lifeboat this time, a man with seaweed hair and sharkskin coat, a real-not-real man, he thinks. He thinks, what if I say the boat is empty? Ouma won’t know. We can go back. Come again next year. On Christmas eve. He is stuck in fear. He turns and sees that has been quiet too long. Ouma already knows. She is wading, knee high in the water. “Ouma! Ouma wait.”

He hears her sighing out in a long moan. Now she is waist high, now chest high in the moon white foam. Her veil trails behind her and the wedding dress puffs up full of air, a cushion around her shoulders. Her hand reaches up towards the lifeboat. A lucky packet diamond ring glints faintly. Not-lifeboat, thinks the boy. The man’s seaweed hand reaches down. Everything moves out of the world. The lifeboat shimmers and fades. The fishing boat tips and melts and disappears.

The boy wails. The world returns. A dog is barking in short, sharp blasts. The breeze blows a chip packet along the sand and presses it against the boy’s leg. It repulses him and he tears it away. The boy is shivering; his face wet with tears. He wipes his palm across his mouth and tastes salt and peppermint sugar.

“I am only nine!” the boy yells out, so loudly his throat feels raw immediately after. Now he can’t remember why he said that, or what he was thinking. I am only nine he repeats inside his head, and kicks at the sand, which just moves out of his way.

He turns his back to the sea for the walk home and feels the wind drying the sweat on his t-shirt. His mother and sister will be waiting to hear what happened. He starts counting the steps. The first ones are stumbles. He pauses, shakes his head, makes a fist and continues. He knows how many steps to his house, but tonight he can’t remember. Over the flat sand dune and between the rough pointy grass which scrapes his legs.