Marvin is half disappointed when he gets to number 12 Kroot Close, and Mbonisi is there. The dare is ridiculous. Their whole group, Mbonisi, Khulani, Nkosi and Marvin, agreed to meet here on Friday the 13th of December and take a sunset tour of the house. There are rumours that the house is haunted. Marvin thinks they’re silly, but why stick your head into a lion’s mouth?
Mbonisi puts out his cigarette and tells him that Nkosi suddenly had a family emergency. He also can’t reach Khulani on his cell. No surprises there. Khulani tends to be unreliable when it comes to group plans. The Econet recording confirms this when they try again and are informed that the subscriber they have dialled is not reachable.
Marvin gives Mbonisi a look and asks, ‘Are you ready?’
Mbonisi gives him the thumbs up and tries to look cool. It doesn’t work. His eyes are as large as table-soccer balls and they keep darting everywhere as if he hopes someone will show up and stop them from entering the haunted house. Marvin wheels his bike up to a disused telephone pole and chains it there. Then they both approach the gate like the Israelites approaching the Valley of Elah.
The gate gives a tired creak as Marvin pushes it open. It only opens halfway because the whole place is overrun with weeds, including what must have once been the driveway. All that remains of the driveway now are a few bricks that form two narrow tracks. These run all the way to the house. It’s not a long walk, but the diminishing light lends the scene a gloomy effect. Marvin must constantly remind himself that the shapes looming on either side of him are just overgrown trees. He can hear Mbonisi breathing loudly behind him. It brings no comfort.
The house is in ruins. From afar it looks intact but as the two edge closer, broken windows and cracks in the walls become more visible. They step onto the veranda, and Marvin looks at the tiny fissures running all over the concrete floor. An image of his mother diligently applying Cobra floor polish at home flits across his mind. This place could use some of her work. Both men avoid stepping on the cracks.
No sense in pushing your luck too much, Marvin thinks.
He reaches for the handle on the French doors and turns it. Locked. He turns to Mbonisi, who shrugs and suggests they try for a back door. They follow a concrete floor around the house to another door. This one is made of wood, and a huge cloud has been carved into the top half. Marvin reaches for the handle and turns it, hoping it will be locked so they can abandon the mission. The door opens with a squeal and his heart leaps. There will be no turning back now. He looks back at Mbonisi and part of him is glad to see the fear in his friend’s eyes.
Mbonisi and Marvin were both very young when number 12’s owner was alive. Gerald Mafu, who designed the house himself, died in his sleep in the winter of 2003. None of his neighbours knew him very well, and so the stories they told were mostly speculation. He never attended Residents’ Association meetings. He didn’t talk to any of his neighbours if he could avoid it. Marvin’s mother used to say that apart from two young men who came interchangeably every few weeks, Gerald did not entertain any visitors. He seemed to have no friends at all, not to mention relatives. If he met you on the street he would give you a brusque greeting and be gone before you had a chance to acknowledge it.
He died alone in this house. His death was discovered by a work colleague who, worried by Gerald’s uncharacteristic absence from work, came to the house and found the poor man in bed, curled up in the foetal position with his blankets tucked tightly around him. The medical examiner later determined that the cause of death was hypothermia. There was a short wake afterwards. Many people came just to get a glimpse of who the man really was. Disappointingly, the only relative present was his brother, who said in his eulogy that his brother had made some unfortunate choices in his life and as a result he wound up alone. No one ever found out what those ‘unfortunate choices’ were, but there was a rumour that among his photographs were found a few questionable ones involving at least one of the two young men who visited him. On this, Marvin’s mother simply told him that every man had a right to live his life the way he chose. After the funeral, people simply forgot about Gerald Mafu and his house. Year after year it sat there, unoccupied. The brother had taken away all of Gerald’s earthly possessions.
The kitchen is empty save for a built-in kitchen unit. It is white with red lining on the edges of the drawers and cupboard doors. The handles for these are also red. Mbonisi declares that these are old products from the company his father works for. These particular units have not been in production since the late 1990s. Mbonisi promises to show Marvin an old catalogue later. Meanwhile they open all the drawers and cupboards. All empty.
Two doors lead out of the kitchen. One is completely blocked by a tiny acacia tree. Behind it seems to have been a pantry of sorts and the tree has used up all the available space in it such that now the branches are beginning to poke out into the kitchen. The other door is completely clear.
It leads into the living room. There’s a huge fireplace on the other side of the room. It looks as if it has been used recently but they can’t get close enough to confirm this. A Jacaranda has grown in the middle of the room. Its branches have grown around each other and formed a very thick barricade to the rest of the room. The floor is littered with old branches and pods. The tree itself has breached the ceiling, and by Marvin’s estimate in a few years it will have caused the whole thing to collapse. Mbonisi nudges Marvin in the ribs with his elbow. When Marvin looks at him he points at the wall behind them. Right above the door there’s a word written in large black letters, as if scribbled by a child who is just learning to write.
The boys look at each other and shrug. Mbonisi pulls out his phone and suggests they take selfies.
‘To prove we actually came, you know?’ he says.
They take one with the Jacaranda behind them, and another with the graffito behind them. In both pictures, Marvin grins like it’s Christmas.
There’s an arch to the right of the door they used to access this room and they step into it. Mbonisi leads the way, looking less nervous. The arch takes them into a hallway. Marvin thinks it looks impossibly long for this house, but the thought is gone almost as soon as it enters his mind. There are two doors to their left and one door right at the end of the hall. The boys approach the first door on the left and it opens with ease. They’re about to step in when a loud moan fills the hallway. They both freeze in their tracks and Mbonisi lets out a tiny cry of surprise.
Then it stops and once again the only sounds to be heard come from outside. Crickets chirp and, occasionally, a frog croaks. The two look at each other with questioning eyes. Marvin mouths the word ‘wind’ and Mbonisi shakes his head. There’s no way that could have been the wind. Marvin knows it too. But they’ve come this far. And besides, this place is creepy enough to mess with anyone’s mind, right? His heart hammers in his chest and his scalp is tight. But he still wants to see it through now that he’s here. Raised hackles or not. In for a penny, in for a pound, right?
They step into the room and find it bare as well. The doors for the built-in wardrobe are gone. There is a small acacia tree near the window. Its leaves are bright green and it has magnificent, thick, white thorns on its branches.
‘Wow,’ Mbonisi whispers.
‘Wow,’ Marvin echoes.
Acacia trees are everywhere in Manningdale, but this is the most beautiful one they have ever seen. To Marvin it seems to almost shimmer. This time he is the one to pull out his phone. He snaps three pictures then puts the device back into his pocket.
‘Time to move,’ he says to Mbonisi.
Mbonisi looks at him as if he is just waking up from a dream. He rubs his eyes and then looks at Marvin again.
‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘let’s go.’
They get back in the hall. Marvin stops and looks uneasily down the hall. Mbonisi seems to be seeing it too because he has a confused look on his face. The hallway is definitely longer. They look at each other, each hoping the other will suggest leaving. There is an awkward silence. Then Marvin sighs and walks towards the second door. Each step seems to draw the door further away from them. Mbonisi’s breathing is shaky. Marvin feels as if his heart might just burst through his chest. He is thinking of the moan again and trying in vain to convince himself it was just the wind.
This time the sound is louder, bigger. It fills the hall and vibrates in their heads. It sounds as if whoever is producing it is standing right in front of them. Instead of silence what follows is a single stuttered word. An unmistakable word.
The duo turn and run. It feels like it takes forever to reach the entrance to the hall.
Mbonisi flies into the living room with Marvin behind him. They take a quick left back into the kitchen and bolt out through the main door. Mbonisi flees through the weeds, ignoring the path. Marvin screams at his heels. They run out of the gate and onto Kroot Close. But neither stops. They sprint towards Elliot Drive. They both turn left and keep running until they get to Manningdale Road.
Here they stop and catch their breath. Mbonisi suddenly bursts into laughter. Marvin joins him. They look like two madmen in the dim light of the early evening. Shrieking with laughter even though fear is printed on their faces. The laughter dies down and their heartrates return to the neighbourhood of normal.
‘Shit,’ Marvin spits.
‘Shit,’ Mbonisi agrees.
This gets them going again and they laugh until their sides are sore. Eventually they stop and Mbonisi pulls out his phone. He goes to the gallery and then throws Marvin a confused look. The picture they took is now completely black. Marvin checks his own phone and finds the same has happened to his pictures. They look at each other, and though they seem to have read each other’s thoughts, Mbonisi is the one to speak.
‘Man, I’m not going back there for anything.’
Then Marvin looks down Elliot Drive and his eyes open wide.
There, in the middle of the road, is his bike. It’s a green Shimano that he got as a present for his 15th birthday. There is no one on it, but it is pedalling slowly towards them, like an obedient dog. It jigs slightly to the left, as if whatever is riding it is struggling to keep the balance, then the handlebars turn and it overcorrects. Now it veers to the right. The bars turn again and this time the course is true. The bike makes a beeline for Mbonisi and Marvin.
Marvin’s screams fill the night again.
Image by ArtTower from Pixabay