Tommy stood still, head cocked to one side, listening to the night-time noises of the playground. By day these places were full of the sounds of children squealing with delight, maybe crying at some mishap – a fall, or a bang to the head or knee, perhaps an argument with a friend or a tussle with a bully. But overall playgrounds were happy places, full of joy. Even their name showed that to be true.
Night-time was different. By night the only sound was the wind moaning through the creak of the swing’s chains and the whispering of the leaves on the trees – the slow sigh of the night’s chill as the playground waited for morning to come and banish the darkness. That was all the noises could be, he decided. He’d listened to, and catalogued, each of these sounds, one by one, until he was satisfied, huddled as small as he could make himself: a small dark shadow on the last swing on the row.
He sighed, wishing it was earlier. There was no-one left to play with – all had gone home for their dinner, full of the day’s adventures and ready for sleep to claim them; only to release them in the morning, eager for more. Their mothers had come for them, reducing their number by degrees until he was the only one left. He eased his weight back and kicked off with his feet, letting the swing carry him gently backward – he wasn’t sure where his mother was; and it was late. Shouldn’t she be here by now? his mind whispered, and he told it to shush. She’ll be here. She’ll come.
He tilted his head at a new sound – one unexpected at this hour. There it was again, the high-pitched tinkling of a girl’s laughter. He craned his neck to look behind him into the bushes, then scanned the rest of the playground, but could see no-one. Digging his heels into the earth below him, he brought the swing to a standstill, quieting the creak of the chain against the crossbar. A sudden gust of wind whispered through the trees, and errant leaves danced in the air before him. Tommy…Now he knew he was imagining things, because the wind couldn’t know his name. Footsteps skittered off to his left, and he whirled around to see what was there. The sodium light guttered fitfully, barely illuminating a small circle around it, but it was enough. A shadow was cutting off part of the lit circle – a girl shaped shadow, from what he could see. Boys didn’t have pigtails. Maybe it’s not pigtails, his mind whispered again. Maybe it’s horns! He whimpered, and this time the laughter wasn’t just in his head. It rang throughout the playground, and Tommy saw a light come on in a house behind the park.
‘Silly, girls don’t have horns.’
Tommy gasped – and felt icy fingers play his spine. The voice – and the pigtails, apparently – belonged to the girl standing at the edge of the light, staring at him as if he’d said something stupid. He hadn’t, had he? He was only thinking.
The girl grinned at him, then, and he knew, he just knew, that she could hear what he was thinking – even if she said nothing about it.
He took a deep breath before asking, ‘Who are you?’
‘Who do you think I am?’
Tommy frowned. ‘That’s kind of a stupid question,’ he said. ‘How am I supposed to know that?’
The girl moved back a little, so that all he could see was her eyes. The rest of her stood in darkness, but her eyes glowed with yellow light, and oh, how they danced.
‘I guess that’s true.’ She moved a step closer to him, and the wind screamed. ‘My name’s Mary.’
‘You’re out kind of late, Mary.’
‘So are you,’ she retorted, and she inched a step closer, twisting the cloth of her dress in her fists. ‘Shouldn’t your mother have come for you by now?’ Her skin was pale, her mouth pinched – she looked so cold.
Tommy looked around at the gate on the far side of the play ground, and sighed. No one was there. ‘Yeah, she should.’ He looked at Mary once more, his face hopeful. ‘Maybe she got delayed, met someone…you know, got talking.’ It wouldn’t be the first time his mother had been a little late, delayed by another mother who wanted to chat; but it was never more than a few minutes, and she always ran so fast to get to him, so he wouldn’t worry. He looked towards the gate once more, hoping he’d see her racing towards him, her red hair flying back in the wind, showing him her relieved smile when she saw him waiting. There was nothing.
‘Kinda late, though,’ Mary offered. Her voice shook, and Tommy wondered just how long she’d been waiting here. ‘I mean, it’s dark.’
‘Yeah, it is,’ he replied. He took a closer look at the girl, her eyes were huge with fear. ‘You’re not scared…are you?’
‘Who, me?’ She laughed, but he wasn’t convinced. ‘Nah, not scared.’ She looked around, seemingly bored, and when her gaze came to rest on Tommy again there was something there that hadn’t been before. ‘You get used to it.’ Yep, it was there, all right – it was anger, bleeding into her voice more with every second.
‘How long have you been here?’
‘I don’t know.’ She wouldn’t look at him now. ‘Long time, I guess.’
Tommy tried to think if she went to his school. She really didn’t look familiar, and it wasn’t that big a town. He should know her, if she lived nearby. ‘Where did you say you live?’
She grinned at him, then; her small teeth almost too white in the darkness. ‘I didn’t.’ She moved a step closer. ‘What’s the matter, Tommy? Scared?’
‘No, I just wonder where she is, that’s all.’ He inched back from her, wary of allowing her too close even while calling himself stupid for letting a girl rattle him like this. ‘It is late.’
Mary stood back suddenly, turned and walked towards the roundabout at the edge of the playground. ‘You’re going to freeze if you sit still like that.’ She started the roundabout turning, pushing at the ground with her foot as if she were on a scooter. ‘You might as well play while you wait, it’ll keep you warm.’
Tommy hesitated. His mother would see him clearly while he sat on the swing, he knew…but the roundabout wasn’t that far away, was it? She should still see him…and he’d definitely see her. The roundabout squeaked as it turned, and Mary giggled. That decided it. At least if he played with Mary for a while he’d be warm, and – more importantly – he wouldn’t be alone any more. He cast one more glance at the gate and then ran to Mary, yelling: ‘Wait up! I want to play!’ The two children laughed as they played, and the darkness crept up and wrapped them up in its embrace.
Sarah Warner stood impatiently at the playground gate, trying to stop her hair from getting too messy in the wind. This wasn’t the kind of day she’d have picked to go to the park but then her sister wasn’t her – that much was painfully obvious. Sarah checked her watch yet again, as if catching the minute hand in the act of moving would magic Lauren into existence.
‘What are you doing?’
The voice was unfamiliar, and it took Sarah a moment to realise the words were meant for her. Looking down, she saw a small girl, maybe eight or nine years old, wrapped in a shabby coat and with her socks rolled down around her ankles. One knee was scuffed, but she didn’t seem to mind. The girl waited patiently, and Sarah forced herself to be polite. ‘I’m waiting for my sister.’
‘Is she coming here to play?’
Sarah suppressed a grin. ‘No, honey, she’s not. We’re going shopping.’
The girl frowned, thinking hard. Her question, when it came, was so obvious Sarah could have kissed her. ‘Then why meet here? Is she leaving her kids here to play?’
‘No.’ Sarah didn’t want to talk about that. ‘No, she isn’t. She just likes to see kids having fun, I guess.’ No need to involve this child in the misery of her sister’s life; the emptiness.
The child said nothing, just stared at her, and Sarah found herself getting nervous. Why, for God’s sake? This was just a kid! Someone called Sarah’s name, and both of them looked down the hill – Lauren was bustling towards them, her dark hair unruly and a big smile plastered across her thin face.
‘Hi! Who do we have here?’
Sarah didn’t know what to say. The little girl looked Lauren up and down, her face serious – Sarah stifled the urge to laugh. Then she grinned, and her face lit up.
‘I’m Mary. I was just saying hi.’ She looked from Lauren to Sarah, and then back to Lauren. ‘You two don’t look much like sisters.’
Sarah took Lauren by the arm, not wanting to prolong the hurt for her sister. ‘No, we don’t, but we are.’ She grinned at Lauren. ‘Sometimes we even act like it. Come on, hon, time to shop.’
Lauren followed her, then turned and waved at the little girl, who grinned and waved back before disappearing into the crowd of children. ‘Cute kid, huh?’
Sarah searched the playground, but saw no sign of her – she’d melted from view completely. ‘Yeah, she was great. You hungry?’ She urged her sister forward when she nodded, and tried to listen to the prattle – ignoring the feeling that the little girl was still watching them.
The clatter of cups on saucers and plates on trays in the heat of the café was almost painful after the quiet of the park in the cold. Sarah felt her face flush in the heat, and managed to get herself out of her coat without having to stand up, which was a relief in this small space. Lauren looked as pale as ever, and Sarah envied the way she never flushed. She took after their mother, pale and dark; while Sarah favoured their father, a man of far ruddier complexion and chestnut hair. She even had his freckles.
The waitress pushed mugs of hot chocolate in front of them, then trudged over to the next customer, already gesturing impatiently. Sarah took a sip of her drink, wiped the foam off her lip, and looked up to see her sister staring at her, deadly serious. ‘What’s the matter?’
Lauren had the good grace to look abashed. ‘Another kid went missing last week.’
‘Another one? Really?’
Lauren nodded, her enthusiasm escaping now she knew she had her sister’s ear. ‘From that playground.’
‘From the one I met you at this morning?’
Sarah sighed. ‘Is that why you were so keen to meet there?’ Lauren’s face fell, and Sarah fought hard to stay kind. She didn’t want to frighten her off. ‘Honey, this isn’t healthy.’
‘What do you mean?’
Exasperated, Sarah blew her fringe out of her way, a habit Lauren knew only too well. Her chin set, as she grew stubborn in return. Sarah sighed. How long was this merry-go-round going to keep running? How many times were they going to end up right back here? ‘You can’t keep obsessing about kids that go missing.’
‘I’m not obsessing!’
‘You’re scoping out the playgrounds where they disappear! How is that not obsessed?’
Lauren stared into her mug, her face solemn. A single tear spilled over onto her cheek and cut a track in her make up as it fell. ‘It’s not fair.’
Sarah reached for her hand. ‘No, it’s not. And I’m sorry, honey, really I am.’ She squeezed her sister’s hand and handed across a tissue. Lauren ignored her, wiping her eyes and focussing on her cup. ‘Lauren, kids go missing. All the time. Sad but true.’
Lauren glared at her. ‘That doesn’t make it right!’
‘No, it doesn’t. But it doesn’t make them yours, either.’
Lauren flinched at that, but Sarah pressed on, hating herself – and hating Lauren for making her do it. ‘There are ways, Lauren, we’ve talked about this. Adoption, fostering…’
Lauren was shaking her head, vehement in her refusal to listen. Sarah grew exasperated. ‘Why on earth would you think hanging around playgrounds is a way to get a kid? It’s creepy!’
‘I don’t know.’ Lauren’s voice was low, choked with grief and self-loathing. ‘I just like being near them, okay? It makes me feel less…’
‘Redundant. Alone.’ She glared at her sister now, fierce in her contempt. ‘I know how that sounds, you don’t need to tell me.’ She wiped her eyes, stared out of the window, at the people wandering by with no idea how hollow her life was. ‘It just helps.’
There was nothing to say, thought Sarah. There were no words that could help here, it was just sad, and raw, and hurtful. And that wouldn’t stop anytime soon. She joined her sister in gazing at the world as it passed, blurry in the steamed windows; and perhaps better for it.
Lauren sat staring out of her living room later that night, watching the first snow of the winter. The flakes danced out of the sky as if they were bestowing a gift upon the earth – and Lauren thought maybe they were. All the usual ugliness that surrounded them was buried under a pristine, white blanket. Everything was clean and new, just for a little while. She raised her fingers to the glass and traced the shape of a heart, touched her lips to it and smiled.
The smile died, nascent, as tiny, unseen fingers echoed her movements on the outside of the window; leaving icy trails around the outlined heart, setting it hard.
The playground looked different tonight. It was colder, thought Tommy, but that wasn’t it. The place looked deserted, forlorn – as if kids had stopped coming here. The chains on the swings screamed, and Tommy realised that was because they were rusty. How long had they been here, anyway?
As if called into being, Mary ambled past him into the middle of the playground, her gaze disinterested. ‘Don’t worry about it, they’ll come back.’
‘Sure, they always come back.’
Tommy didn’t like this. ‘Why did they leave?’
Mary smiled at him, then, and Tommy cringed. He’d learned to be wary of that smile – the real Mary came out when she smiled, and she wasn’t the same. Tommy wasn’t even sure if she was a real little girl, when she smiled. He thought that she might be some thing that just wanted to play the part of a girl, or even lived inside her. But if there was a thing inside Mary, where was the real Mary?
The girl scowled, her voice rougher this time. Deeper. ‘I’ve told you. Best not to worry about that. It’s not for you to know.’ She cuffed him, and he stumbled. ‘Let’s play.’ He followed her, too scared to say no – wondering, not for the first time, where his mother had gone. And why hadn’t she looked for him?
Lauren stumbled in the snow, her breath coming in harsh gasps, her lungs burning with the cold. As she trudged up the hill, she searched for the child that must surely be out here. Who else had drawn on her window? Such tiny fingers, they’d die out here if they didn’t get warm. Such thoughts buzzed in her head as she homed in on the playground, sure that whoever was lost would find their way here – in the hope that their mother would find them. She hoped that Sarah would find her soon, would help her find whoever was lost. What would she think, when she heard her sister rambling about lost children and icy fingers on her answer phone? She almost laughed, then realised she’d probably given Sarah enough ammunition to make a doctor listen. And then what would she do?
She realised she didn’t care. Throughout her life, all she’d wanted was a child – and the one time that had been imminent, her chance had been taken away in an instant: her unborn child crushed by the steering wheel of her car as she careened into a wall to avoid an accident. There would be no more chances, not after that. There’d been too much damage, they said. It hadn’t taken Dan long to leave after that, although in all fairness a lot of the blame for that lay at her door. She couldn’t look at him, knowing what she knew – and he grew tired of promising he didn’t blame her and it didn’t matter.
Too late now to worry about all that. A cry in the darkness energised her, and she moved forward more purposefully as the park’s gate hove into view.
Mary turned her head as she pushed her heels into the ground and halted the swing. Tommy, still in mid-swing, followed her lead as soon as he was able. He’d learnt to listen to her, to do as she said. It was less painful that way.
‘What is it?’ His voice was shrill in the night, his breath plumed out in front of him like morse code, staccato evidence of his fear.
‘She’s here.’ Mary smiled, and stepped off the swing, her mood suddenly light.
‘You’ll see.’ She was making for the gate, eager to find…what?
Tommy raced after her, not wanting to be left alone. Not here. ‘Mary, wait!’
She took no notice, just skipped down the path, humming tunelessly as she went. She threw a glance over her shoulder, just once, ‘Come on, Tommy,’ and then she was gone. The lights went out suddenly, and he was alone in the dark.
The temperature dropped.
Lauren reached the gate, almost sobbing with pain as the cold air burned its way into her lungs. The sound had gone. Just for a moment, she’d thought she heard a cry – but then maybe she’d just wanted to. There was more light, suddenly – just by the gate, but Lauren couldn’t see where it came from. And there she was. A little girl had stepped into the light, and stood gazing solemnly at her. As Lauren ground to a halt, she smiled, and watched delighted as Lauren sank to her knees.
‘You’re real,’ she sobbed.
The little girl nodded, her face wise. ‘Of course I am. We both are.’
Again she nodded, and Lauren became aware of someone standing just behind the girl. A boy, this time. Hadn’t she seen his face somewhere before? Recently?
He edged forward, his face shy, hopeful. ‘Do you know my mum?’ he asked.
‘I’m sorry, love, no. Are you lost?’
‘No.’ The boy grew mournful, and stepped back. He seemed to fade a little. ‘She is, though. She never came.’
The boy’s face clicked into place for Lauren then. Tommy Ryan. He’d gone missing from the playground only a week ago, and his mother’s body had been found just outside the gates, her throat torn open.
The little girl broke in, cross at no longer being the centre of attention. ‘She didn’t want you, Tommy. Remember? She would have come if she did.’
‘No, honey, I’m sure that’s not true.’
‘It is!’ The girl stamped her foot, and the world darkened. Something grated underfoot and Lauren sat back, stunned. ‘I told you, Tommy. No one wanted you, just like no one wanted me!’
Tommy’s face fell, and as he stared at Lauren she felt her heart break. ‘Tommy, it wasn’t your fault. You have to know that.’
The boy shook his head. ‘Mary’s right. If she’d wanted me, she’d have come to find me.’
Lauren had to at least try to help him. ‘Maybe something stopped her.’
Mary growled at her, and she recoiled. ‘Careful, you’ll frighten him.’
‘I just want…’
‘To what? Make Tommy think he belongs? He doesn’t, anymore than I do.’ Mary took a step closer, and a cruel smile twisted her child-like features. ‘Any more than you do. You’re alone, too, aren’t you?’
Lauren nodded, bereft.
‘They left you, didn’t they.’
Again, Lauren nodded, dumb with grief.
Mary sidled closer, and Lauren felt a small hand worm its way into her own. She clasped her fingers around it, feeling a warmth grow inside her. ‘We’re alone too.’
Lauren looked up at that. ‘You don’t have anyone?’
‘Just Tommy.’ She looked back at him, and he attempted a smile. The effect was repulsive – he looked like he was facing Hell itself. Mary beckoned him closer, and he reluctantly took a step closer, then another. ‘Tommy and me belong together.’ She ruffled his hair, and he cringed. His eyes remained locked on Lauren. ‘Don’t we, Tommy?’
Tommy said nothing for a moment, then nodded, all hope lost.
Lauren reached for his hand, took it into hers and squeezed. He moaned, and wrapped his arms around her in a hug. He whispered: ‘Please stay with us. Don’t leave me alone with her any more.’
Lauren hugged him tight, tears blinding her. ‘I won’t, I promise.’
Lauren’s mobile phone shrilled into life, breaking the spell. For a moment she saw Mary as she really was, wizened and old, and needing their warmth to survive. No child, this, rather a creature that might have been a child once, but had been corrupted into this parasitic monster, eager for warmth to keep her here, and for other lives to keep hers going for a little while longer. This creature was hungry, and was prepared to kill to keep her playmate, Lauren saw. The vision of Mary going to Tommy’s mother for a hug floated into Lauren’s mind, and she cringed as she saw the woman wiping her tears away, and holding her close. Close enough for little teeth to rip into her throat, and tear it wide open.
Mary laughed, softly. ‘Aren’t you going to answer it?’
Lauren stared at the display. It was Sarah. As she clicked the button to take the call, Sarah’s voice rose into the night, frantic. ‘Lauren! Thank God, where are you? Listen…’ Lauren dropped the phone, and the tinny notes faded from her mind. She looked at Tommy, and she made up her mind. What did life hold for her, anyway? An empty house and an empty womb, for ever and ever, Amen.
The mobile phone dropped to the ground.
Lauren stood, and took both children’s hands. She tried not to cringe from the touch of the little girl, but the child didn’t seem to notice. Tommy hung on, pathetically grateful for her affection.
‘Come on, kids. Time to go.’
Darkness fell, and when the lights came back on they revealed an empty playground, save for a red scarf puddled in the snow; cradling a mobile phone, its volume fading as the battery died.
The sound of children laughing rang in Sarah’s ear, as her sister sang a nursery rhyme.
Then they were gone.
©2010 Marie O'Regan
© Marie O'Regan - 2001 - 2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.