The Promise: a short story

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: New Writers wanting Reviews
An old entry for a contest National Geographic hosted on Wattpad.

Submitted: August 20, 2019

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Submitted: August 20, 2019



His muscles tightened and protested against every move he made but the day had been an arduous one and Clark needed a cigarette. Below, through the gaps in the withered slats, Clark could see tomorrow's workload, bobbing on the undulating waters. He shook his head and sighed as his grubby fingers finished rolling his smoke. Even if he hadn't have glanced down he still would have known it was there; the thonk of the plastic as it hit the trestlework was evidence enough. Clark popped the cigarette between his dry, chapped lips and lit it, drawing in a deep plume of smoke and exhaling slowly. He closed his eyes and leant back against the wet, rust-flecked railings that lined the pier.
He thought of the incident that lead to his being here - in the middle of winter, dressed in second-hand clothes that were soaked through and caked in dirt. His son had come hurtling up the drive with his arm in the air and a sheet of paper flapping and bending in the wind. The boy came bounding through the front door - forgetting to close it behind him in his haste - waving that paper around like it was a golden ticket to Wonker's Chocolate Factory. Only it wasn't joy and glee that fueled his excitement. When Clark got up to greet him and see what the fuss was about, he was met by a pair of bright eyes that were as red and raw as a patch of sunburn.
'Hey, hey, squirt. What's the matter?' Clark knelt and embraced the boy, his tone soft and paternal.
'To-day we-,' the boy's chest hitched and broke every word down to syllables which were punctuated with the occasional whimper or sniffle.
'Calm down, Ryan. Take your time. Do you want a drink or something to eat?' It was useless trying to get any sense out of the kid now; whenever he worked himself into such a state, his body denied him the right to speak. Minutes past, and Clark had already read the letter and was none-too-impressed. He and his wife had both warned the school he was a sensitive kid; sensitive, but curious and easily affected by peer pressure. He could almost hear Ryan's classmates now:
You're not chicken,  are ya?
Yeah. It's only a picture, Ryan.
The letter was an appeal to parents and guardians from Greenpeace, a plea for volunteers to come forward and help clear Britain's beaches of plastic and other harmful waste.
Scare mongering was what Clark preferred to call it. You tell a kid that when the fish are all gone and bacteria starts taking over because the food chain's been broken, and they'll beg their parents to help with all the desperation of a man hanging onto the edge of a cliff.
Clark and Ryan talked at great length that evening, mostly re-treading the same ground, and Clark maintained as stubborn as a rock.
But that was before...
The memories were chased away by the squeak and thump of wellies on wood and the rustling and occasional crack of waste sacks as the wind tried to pry them from their carrier.
'You all right there, Mr Brent?' It was Bill "the yardstick" Patton, a Greenpeace representative and one of the event's overseers. He was a tall, cadaverous man of about 45. His hair was greying and his complexion looked as old and as battered as the boards beneath his filthy boots.
'It's getting late, son,' he went on, gesturing toward the twilight.
'Yeah,' was the only word Clark could squeeze past the lump that was forming in his throat. The delivery was soft, but old Bill wasn't hard of hearing, not yet anyway.
'You all right?' Bill repeated.
Clark nodded feverishly and attempted to clear his throat. 'Yeah. Smoker's cough, that's all.'
'You ought to quit. It'll kill ya, you know,' Bill pointed toward what was now a nub of white at base of a trail of drooping ash. The contents of the bag shuffled as it swung and almost caught Clark in the face. Red. Gulls with trash protruding from their ruptured bellies like some horrific bouquet, and fish trapped in 4 - 6 ringed beer holders.
Clark licked his dry, chapped lips and tasted salt; he was dehydrated and the tears struggled to form.
Bill, taking pity on the young man slumped before him with his head and shoulders sagging, knelt and said, 'look, don't you worry about tomorrow. There'll be enough of us to get by. If you don't mind me saying, you look like you've been put through the ringer and left to dry on the floor.'
Clark shook his head. 'No. It's okay. I'll have a soak when I get in and get an early night.'
'Honestly, we'll be fine, Mr Brent,' Bill persisted.
The exchange went on for a few minutes more before eventually Clark conceded.
'I'm coming back Wednesday, though.'
'That's fair enough. Now, come on it's getting late. You want a ride to the station?'

The next day Clark, every muscle in an ache, drove to the churchyard where memories lay that make all physical pain seem pedestrian. He walked through the decrepit wrought iron gates and passed extensive rows of moss-coated headstones, some of which were chipped or cracked from years of neglect. The cloth-bag in his hand emitted a soft rattle as he walked.
Before long he was standing before a fresh headstone with a plaque that shone in the light of the afternoon sun. At the foot of the headstone were miscellaneous offerings that recorded the passage of visitors. As his eyes fell upon the letters that formed his son's name, the lump clogged his throat, only this time he let the tears and the emotion flow. He put a hand on the curved head of the grave and slowly sank to his haunches with his heels touching his buttocks.
It had all happened so quickly. Ryan had rushed outside to catch one of his friends and...the driver didn't have time to react. He was rushed to the hospital, but his injuries were too severe. Before his son slipped from a world of ruin and destruction into eternal peace, Clark swore to him that he'd do it: he'd help make the ocean pure again.
'I love you, squirt,' Clark sobbed. He brought his hand to his face, planted a kiss on his index and middle fingers and placed them on the headstone. Then, before he said his goodbyes, he un-fastened the cloth-bag, pulled out a fan shaped seashell, and placed it among the other gifts.


© Copyright 2019 laurence1989. All rights reserved.

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