14th Annual Popular Fiction Awards Grand Prize Winning Short Story: "Night Surf"

Read "Night Surf" by David Burns, the grand-prize-winning short story of the 14th Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards.
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Announcing "Night Surf" By David Burns—the grand prize winning entry of the 14th Annual Writers Digest Popular Fiction Awards. This short story was chosen among 1,200 other entries to the competition. Read an extended interview with the winner here. For a complete list of winners and their short stories, click here.

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Night Surf by David Burns

The night surf crashed into the pier, sending gusts of spray into the chilly air. Mist drifted over the empty amusement rides, casting ghost-shimmers as it passed under the bare sodium lamps along the boardwalk.

The old man sat on one of the benches that rode the warped wood, the only figure in sight. Head bowed, he did not glance to his left or right but kept a stolid vigil by the dark, writhing ocean. In his hands, he held a small plastic bag, turning it over and over with the unconscious rhythm of long habit.

The old man’s sun-weathered features were clenched as he watched the waves claw at the beach, falling back in froth and defeat only to hurl themselves forward again and again. Once upon a time, he had imagined the noise of the sea to be soothing. Now it sounded only like the relentless pounding of some alien, implacable heart.

A light appeared to his left. The old man half-started, clutching at the rusted circle of metal that hung from a chain around his neck, but the light was coming up the steps from the street. The man sighed and settled back in his seat. False alarm.

As it approached, the light resolved into the beam of a flashlight.

“Evening,” said a voice.

“Good evening, officer,” said the old man.

“Boards are closed,” said the officer. He sounded young. “Season ended last weekend.”

“That’s all right,” said the old man, willing himself to pa-tience. “I’m just here for the air.”

“That so?” The officer stepped into the pool of light cast by the overhead lamp. He was young, probably just a junior lieu-tenant. Maybe Hempfel was on vacation. Or retired. He'd be old enough to retire by now. “Got some I.D. on you, sir?”

“Of course, officer.” The man fished in the breast pocket of his jacket and produced his driver’s license.

“Says here you’re from Warminster, Pennsylvania,” announced the officer. “What are you doing sitting on a bench in the mid-dle of the night in Seaside Heights, Mister, uh, Parker?”

A long pause followed. “Hold it. You’re … him, aren’t you? That Parker?”

“Guess I am,” said the man. “Your sergeant tell you about me?”

“Sure,” said the officer. “Everyone knows the old story about the guy who lost –” He stopped with a frown. Shifting his stance, the officer looked out toward the ocean.

“So … today’s the, uh, anniversary I guess, huh?”

“Yes.” The old man felt suddenly weary of conversation. “It was.”

“Mm hm,” said the officer. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Well, maybe it’s, uh, time you were heading home, sir. Seaside Heights isn’t the best place to be out after dark.”

No, thought the old man. Not for a long time.

“Thank you, officer,” he said aloud, taking back his li-cense. “I won’t stay much longer.”

“Okay, then.” The officer hesitated a moment longer, then tilted his cap slightly.

“Good night.”

The old man dredged up a wan smile. “Good night.”

The officer cast a troubled glance at the bag in the old man’s hands, then withdrew. After a few minutes, his flashlight was a faint gleam in the darkness down the boards. Then it was gone altogether.

The night closed in again, concentrating the chill around the old man. He shivered, drawing his collar against his throat. The old man checked his watch and sighed: dawn was not far off now. He’d come for nothing. Again. For a moment, the swell of despair made him want to weep. Then he clamped his resolve over the familiar pain. Maybe … maybe next year. If only he could risk sitting closer to the water …

He had just started to put the bag away when he heard a noise, at once both soft and startling. Just outside his circle of light, the nearby boards had creaked with a stealthy footfall.

The old man froze, his heart suddenly racing. There had been no hint of anyone’s approach. Without raising his head, he scanned the gloom. No one. No shadow broke the distant line of ghostly foam where the breakers thrashed in ancient fury; nothing moved against the twinkling lights of the far-off shorefront hotels.

But he had been told not to trust his eyes. Carefully, the man rested the bag on one knee and began to open it. Then he held himself still and waited, wishing he could quiet the throb-bing of his pulse in his ears. A minute passed, became two. The old man cursed the shifting breeze, which blew his stray white locks against his eyes and whipped away any possible scent from his bag. He wanted to sneeze, cough, and clear his throat. But he did nothing, holding on to the slender, taut thread of his hope.

A foot appeared within the circle of light. It was bare and dirty and small: the foot of a child. Its toes flexed against the board like a sprinter’s, ready to spring into instant action. Now the old man didn’t dare to look up. He focused on willing his hand to stop trembling as it held the bag.

Another foot entered the circle, carrying his visitor for-ward with the light step of a dancer. Abruptly the cloying salt smell of the ocean became oppressive, the air clotted with the reek of brine. The figure edged slowly closer and the old man, sensing the tension in every step, suddenly found a place of calm open up within himself.

So … she was afraid too.

He exhaled a ragged breath and the other froze, its lower limbs quivering. Bidding fear be damned, the old man slowly lifted the bag.

“I have jelly beans,” he murmured into the wind. “You’re welcome to some. The pink ones were always your favorite, I think.”

His visitor said nothing, but the old man did not look up. Caution held him. Wait until it eats of your offering, the woman had told him. Do not meet its eyes till then; else you are lost.

As though he could be more lost than he already was.

A quick movement, bird-like, and the other stole within an arm’s length. Fingers darted forward, down, and a handful of jelly beans vanished without transition. The figure retreated to the edge of the circle, almost out of sight.

Patience, the old man thought. Patience.

After he had not moved for another minute, the figure came closer, this time with a bolder step, almost a swagger. As it reached forward, the old man suddenly moved, snatching at the iron ring he wore around his neck. With a jerk, he snapped the thin chain and cast the ring at the ground.

Even taken by surprise, his visitor reacted with the speed of a striking snake, bounding backwards in the time it took for the ring to clatter against the boards. But as its spring carried it to the edge of the circle of light cast by the streetlamp, the figure seemed to strike an invisible barrier. It fell to the ground in a jumble of limbs.

“Circle without, circle within,” chanted the old man, breathing heavily. “Let no creature wander between the two with-out my leave, while my will holds.”

Steeling himself, he looked up. His visitor lay on the boards, panting hugely, face hidden from view by a thick mane of hair that could have been golden or green from the way it caught the light. She appeared to be a child, no more than eight years old. The man felt his chest tighten again, in terror or excitement. But then the child raised its head, and he saw her eyes for the first time.

They were green, but lit from within as though by ghostly lanterns. The old man sensed a cold, alien intelligence behind those eyes, separated from his own by a gulf so great that he knew at once that he could not have touched upon a mind more foreign if he had suddenly come upon a being from another world.

But even the terror brought on by this intuition was subsumed un-der the crashing wave of a greater emotion: a knife-like stab of disappointment, so penetrating that his sight dimmed and he nearly doubled over. He didn’t even notice as the girl cocked her head, then drew her limbs against her body like some giant praying mantis, and sprang up. With silent fury, she threw herself at the air, only to fall back again as she reached the perimeter of light. Each time she fell, she rose up again and renewed her assault.

“You’re wasting your time,” said the old man, when he observed this. “You can’t break the enchantment. That ring’s from the temple at Sounion, sacred to Poseidon. You know what that means.”

The child became still, except for the heaving of its chest. Its pale limbs were bare and it was dressed in what looked like a clotted mass of seaweed and rags. Its lambent eyes turned toward him, sharp as shark's teeth. When it spoke, the voice was a deep, guttural sound, unmade for a child's throat: “Pick up the ring.”

The old man shook his head. “No.”

The child crooked her fingers into claws. He had no doubt she could gut him like a fish with one swipe of them. Her dainty teeth gleamed like razors in her mouth. "Mortal man," she growled, "Release me or I will have your throat out."

The old man wagged the bag slightly. "You've shared food with me," he pointed out. "You're bound to do me no harm." If the gypsy had lied about that, he'd know it soon enough.

The child stamped its bare foot on the boards. The gesture would have made the old man smile, if he had dared.

“Human! Pick up the ring! Release me!”

“No.”

The child that was not a child cocked its head so that the billowing mass of hair hid one of its eyes. “I grant no boon to mortals.”

“I don’t want a boon. I just want you to listen to a story. Will you listen?”

The delicate, sand-caked toes flexed with agitation, its pale flesh shimmering like iridescent fish scales. Then a shudder went through the child, and it grew still.

“Tell.”

The old man did not hesitate. He had practiced these words so many times, they came to him without thought.

“Once upon a time," he said, beginning as the gypsy had instructed, "there was a little girl who loved the ocean. She loved it so much, she would cry whenever her parents took her away from it. She played in the tide pools when she was an infant, and rode the waves laughing as she grew bigger and stronger. She had blue eyes and golden hair like sunlight, and she was the joy of her mother and father. Her name --" his voice shook for only a moment, "-- was Cassie.

"For seven summers, her parents brought her back to the ocean, to swim and laugh and play in the water. Her mother used to joke that she would grow up to be either a lifeguard or a fish. Then, during that last summer, Cassie started talking about hearing voices when she was out on her board, voices under the water. She thought they were calling to her. She started filling her bedroom walls with drawings of singing mermaids and beautiful cities under the ocean.

"Her parents dismissed it as fancy, of course. How -- how could they have known how far she'd take it? But one afternoon, her board came back with the tide, and Cassie wasn't on it."

The old man cleared his throat. Even now, the grief was a raw thing, twisting, cutting at his flesh.

"They searched for her, of course. Everyone did. The Coast Guard, all the local boats. It was a national news story. For a few days at least. But they never found her. And then the story changed, and the people decided that it was the fault of her parents for losing her. They hounded the parents, until there was no place the mother could go that she didn't perceive an accusing glance, a face set in judgment of her failure. Finally the mother couldn't live with her pain any more. The father found her one afternoon in the tub, an empty bottle of antidepressants by her side. She was lying peacefully there, under the water. It was the first time the father had seen her smile in years.

"The father went a little mad, perhaps. He... spent some time in a place where they send you when you need to rest. So he missed the stories for the first few years after they started. It wasn't until he got out that he heard about the ghost."

The child wrinkled its nose as though in distaste or derision, but did not move.

He had her attention. They of the faerie cannot resist the lure of stories, the gypsy's voice echoed in his head. But now he was coming to the crux of it, and his heart hammered in his chest.

"It was just a local story, at first. Without the internet, the father might never have heard of it. But when he started digging, he learned the story had been going on ever since Cassie di-- disappeared." He took a deep breath. "It seemed that every year, on the anniversary of her disappearance, someone saw a lit-tle girl on the edge of the surf, on the same beach where Cassie had loved to play. She only came at night, and if she was approached, the girl would vanish. Some witnesses said she just seemed to melt back into the waves.

"But those who got a longer look at her said she seemed to be searching for something, sometimes wandering over the dunes, or even coming up onto the boards, though never beyond. A few said they could hear a sound coming from her, like keening. One witness said it was the saddest sound she'd ever heard, like a hole in the world given a voice. But the girl was always gone in a flash, before anyone could reach her.

"The father didn't understand how this could be, but he did-n't doubt. He knew the little girl was his Cassie. But when he searched, he could find no trace of her. And no one wanted to be reminded of the sad tale of the little girl lost at sea. The po-lice... no one would help him.

"Until he met the gypsy woman. She told him it was no ghost that haunted the strand but a changeling, for his daughter had been taken in by the song of the Nereides, forgotten creatures that still lingered beneath the waves of the sea. Bound to the place of her 'birth,' the little girl was doomed to return there, for all eternity."

The child stirred. "I am not doomed! I roam the waves where I please, and none may stay my passage."

"Yet here you are," said the man mildly. "Again."

The child's eyes blazed and she bared her needle-sharp teeth. "End your tale."

"That's it," sighed the man. He felt inexpressibly weary. "Except for my question. The question I want you to answer for me."

"Beware, old man," the child growled, "I have told you I grant no boons."

"This isn't for me."

"For the shade of your wife then?" sneered the child, the cold light bright in its eyes.

"I will answer then: I am not your daughter, mortal. Your daughter is dead."

The words cut like knives, left him gasping. He'd heard them so many times before, from the kindly sergeants, the pastors, the doctors­—from all the compassionate and well-meaning people who were oblivious to the bottomless well of his pain. But to hear them now, spoken with such casual disdain from this otherworldly creature's lips! Almost he let his concentration slip. But he sensed as much as saw the child flexing for a spring. It will try to wound you, the gypsy had warned him. To weaken your will. Do not let it deceive you. He winced but held to his purpose.

"That's not my question," he said after a minute.

The child's limbs quivered with violence. She shook her iridescent mane in suppressed rage. "What then?"

"Are you happy?"

The child froze.

The breeze had died down. The only sound was the distant pounding of the surf. Above the lamps along the boardwalk, a faint purple radiance had leached into the blackness, outlining the passing clouds.

"Cassie dreamed of palaces of light below the waves," he said into the silence. "Of beautiful creatures that would wel-come her and love her the way she yearned to be loved. She so wanted to be one of them. I just want to know if my daughter's wish came true. If she's happy now."

The child did not speak for a long time. Then she cocked her head.

“The night is almost done," she said in a muffled tone. "I cannot abide the first light. Release me.”

“You haven’t answered my question.”

She stamped her foot again, this thing that was so much like his Cassie. “Man, I am of the Nereid! We do not answer to the whims of mortals!”

"You come back," the man said, sensing this was his last chance. "Year after year. Why? What -- what are you searching for? Is there some part of you that remembers?"

Already the bellies of the lowering clouds were being suffused with a soft pink light. The child's toes scraped across the wood at her feet, leaving ragged marks. Her voice thrummed with tension. “I will be destroyed.”

“What does that matter to me? You’ve already said you’re not my daughter.”

"Release me!"

"No."

The first blush of gold touched the clouds. The child's chest heaved and she threw herself against the invisible barrier, clawing madly at the air.

"Mortal!" she howled. Then, throwing her head back, she wailed in sudden agony or despair: “DADDEEE--!!”

He couldn't help it. For a split second, he was not the broken and hollowed out thing the decades had made him, only the father of a little girl in pain. He reached out --

And the spell slipped from his grasp. Faster than his eye could follow, the child vanished. Without translation, he was alone.

More alone than he had been in all the years since his mad hope had first been born. The realization of failure felt like a mortal blow, driving his head between his knees. He hunched under the awful weight of it, barely conscious of the bag he was crushing in his hand as it spilled jelly beans at his feet.

Fool, he panted silently as the night surf roared its awful, alien laughter. Stupid, old fool...

Tears he had thought himself no longer capable of worked their way down his cheeks. He let them fall, wishing he could follow them into oblivion, into the final abyss of his heart.

The boards nearby creaked. At the same time, a shadow fell over him. The man blinked and raised his head.

A slim figure was silhouetted against the paling heavens. Long fingers reached forward for his throat. Despite the sudden braying of his heart, the man did not try to defend himself.

One finger grazed his cheek, drawing away his tear.

"Do not weep for the Nereid," the child said softly. Then she bent quickly and scooped the jelly beans off the ground, shoveling them into her mouth. Turning, she moved toward the stairs that led to the ocean, but then cocked her head back over her shoulder.

"Human," she said in a warning tone.

The man cleared his throat, caught between loss and triumph. "Yes?"

Was there the faintest smile on that beautiful, inhuman face before she vanished? The man was unable to be sure. But her words lingered in the predawn air, quivering in the space between them like a promise:

"Next time, bring more of the pink ones."