My older brother and I sit on the playground swings. It’s night and the icy wind shrieks, cutting through us. Tree branches rattle like bones, withered autumn leaves cling to twigs, rustling like dry skin.
Around us translucent children play.
My brother and I sway to and fro in time with the rhythmic creaking of the swings’ rusted chains.
One ghost child wears a Luke Skywalker T-shirt. It is our brother, also called Luke, and my heart breaks when he weeps. I long to reach out to help him, but my older brother tells me to stay on the swings.
“We’re safe here. She won’t find us.”
And so I dream endlessly of my baby brother’s shuddering sobs.
* * *
The playground in my dream is the same raggedy playground I played in as a child in a large, depressed city a world away, living a less-than-idyllic childhood.
There is a park at the end of the street where I live now too, established on farmland gifted back to the city that grew up around it. The paintwork on the playground equipment is new. Soft artificial turf lines the areas around the climbing frames. Wood chips, rather than the gravel pits we grew up playing in, mark out the paths. Everything gleams new except for one out-of-place relic.
As a tribute to the park benefactor, Farmer Wilton, an old tractor is fixed in the corner of the playground. Children clamber on to it to twist levers and flick switches. There is a local petition to have it removed because of the danger it poses. The mothers in this suburb are not keen on old farm equipment scratching knees. Nor are they fans of tetanus vaccinations.
My ex-husband lives somewhere more tropical with his much more presentable new wife. Unburdened by children, their immaculate, architecturally designed house is nowhere near a playground. I am inclined to think that is in no way an accident.
His leaving unwound me into a tangled mess. He communicated his loathing and dissatisfaction not just for me but for the life he felt he’d been trapped into. When he was through I was fragmented and broken, without the resolve to glue myself back together.
We coped because my brother Jimmy moved in with us.
Jimmy’s rehab counselor was under the illusion we provided Jimmy with support, but all I gave him was a place to sleep and sank back into guilt and the panic that I was now alone with three children. Jimmy made sure we were fed and washed, and walked the boys to school. At night he would pad around the house with the baby, who echoed my grief at our abandonment, howling relentlessly. Jimmy patted her back and reassured the two of us that it would pass.
He looked after our basic needs, giving me time to duct-tape my psyche together again. We never discussed how long Jimmy would stay, but it was understood he would be there for as long as we needed him. Jimmy filled a chasm for my children, who felt their father fade away from their lives.
It is a lie that children are more resilient than adults. Jimmy understood that.
I’ve cheated Jimmy of his own family.
Or maybe he assumes it is safer not to invest in a family of his own. Advice I would have taken, had he shared it. Jimmy has taken care of me since he was a teenager and by now it is habit, and, regrettably, Jimmy tends to succumb to bad habits. Sadness woos him like a lover, so perhaps he has no room for anything else.
Survival is my suitor. That is why I accept my brother’s support without guilt at what he has given up.
If I was in a lighter mood, I could imagine this living arrangement as the bare bones of a hilarious sitcom. I kiss my sleeping children good night and whisper “sweet dreams” outside Jimmy’s room.
There is not much humor to be found in this material, but all the same I imagine a laugh track over my sad life. Pouring another shot of vodka to take to bed, I hide the bottle from Jimmy and hope for more restful sleep than the dream ghost children will allow.
* * *
Somebody told me once there’s nothing sadder than a beach resort in winter. Galveston excepted, I would argue a children’s playground at night is still more depressing.
During the day I have no issue walking past the playground on my way to work. Usually, at that early hour, there is just one boy at the playground, Oliver. He is severely autistic and the thing that brings him joy is to run barefoot from his house to the playground. He scrambles up the climbing frame with the grace of a cat, but his favorite piece of equipment is a spinning spike. He stands on a disc-like platform, spinning it in synchronicity with the Earth.
I raise my fist to the sky and Oliver whoops a greeting. More power to you, honey. It gives me a small jolt of happiness to watch this boy every day, disconnected to the world, oblivious to everything but the pleasure it gives him to reach the height of giddiness.
On my return journey I choose a different route, so I approach home in the opposite direction of the playground. I tell myself it is because my Fitbit counts more steps, not that I might be too scared to walk past a playground at night.
I am not the only person who senses tragedy haunts all playgrounds when darkness falls and the ghosts of children play. I sometimes hear Oliver’s mother calling him in at twilight to make sure he is safely inside by dark. I have also taken steps to ensure my children know better than to chance fate in the deserted space of a playground at night.
At least I thought they understood this. But no, Jimmy stands anxiously at the end of the driveway, waiting. My daughter stands next to him, dressed in her Wendy Darling nightdress, eyes sleepy, clutching a teddy bear in her other hand.
“The boys aren’t here.” Jimmy’s panic spreads to me. His fear is cold, freezing my being; my heart stops beating. “They downloaded an inappropriate movie, and when I wouldn’t let them watch it, Jayden got angry. He ran off and Conor followed. I’ve lost them.”
Jimmy searched all over the house and the yard. His guess is they are hiding out at the playground.
“They wouldn’t go there,” I say with such firm certainty, he could take it to the bank.
The bedtime tales I told Jayden and Conor when they were children usually involved tales of ghost children luring live children into playgrounds where the child catcher lay in wait.
In the best tradition of German fairy tales, I described in detail how the child catcher’s long, sharp fingernails clawed flesh from little bones. Arriving each night in a death-black carriage drawn by fire-breathing stallions, her carriage was filled with runaway children by dawn. The final destination for those lost boys and girls was most certainly not Neverland.
Jimmy has always been a little judgmental of my hands-off mothering, but he makes no effort to hide his disapproval when I explain why Conor and Jayden would never go to the playground at night.
“Jesus, you couldn’t just read them Winnie the Pooh?” His expression is aghast.
“Uncle Jimmy,” says Daisy very seriously, “you must never go to the playground at night. Everyone knows that.” She recites the poem I read them so often they know it by heart now:
“You must never go down
to the end of the playground,
if you don’t go down with me.”
“James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree,” says Jimmy, recognizing the A.A. Milne poem “Disobedience” because I copied it out for him when I was in grade school, thinking he was the James Dupree of the poem.
“Little Luca-Luke took great of his mother though he was only three,” I respond.
Although she took little care of him and even less of me.
Luke died when he was only three.
A.A. Milne is dark, no question. It’s not all about Pooh and Piglet and control-freak Rabbit. If you read carefully, you hear that the man is still in the trenches at Somme.
“Jayden’s not frightened by ghost stories,” says Jimmy.
“He should be,” says my clever girl, Daisy. “They are real.” She nods emphatically. “Yessir, you don’t want to mess with ghost children.”
“I’ll take her to a neighbor,” says Jimmy firmly. He uses the tone that big brothers get when they are bossing their little sisters around. “You go to the playground and I’ll catch you up.” I shake my head resolutely. “Go!” he says. “Jayden is nearly thirteen. The teenagers have secret drinking parties there.”
Jayden is nearly thirteen? He was nine when my husband left. Has it really been that long? That explains the surliness, I suppose.
“I’ll take Daisy to the neighbors. You go to the playground and I’ll meet you there.”
“You don’t know any of the neighbors,” says Jimmy. “And Jayden won’t listen to me. You have to be the one to go get him.”
“Of course I know my neighbors,” I snap. “Down that driveway is the lesbian couple with the dog. Jude and Liza.”
“They moved six months ago. Reuben and Natasha live there now. And incidentally, Jude was the dog’s name. Liza’s partner was Molly.”
He only knows this because he keeps a spreadsheet of the neighbors’ names so he can pretend to be a good neighbor and greet them by name.
“I’ll meet you at the playground,” Jimmy says. “Go. Jayden won’t do a damn thing I tell him these days.” He pauses. “It’s a different playground. You don’t need to be afraid.”
“Yes, she does,” murmurs Daisy as Jimmy leads her down the driveway to whoever lives next door to us now.
* * *
Oliver stands barefooted at the end of the street, waiting for me. He leaps onto a small retaining wall and recites:
“LOST or STOLEN or STRAYED!
JAMES JAMES MORRISON’S MOTHER
SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN MISLAID.”
It turns out Oliver is quite articulate when he chooses.
“Bad.” He jumps down from the wall. He hugs himself and sways back and forth. “Bad, bad, bad, bad.”
Yep, buddy. I am certainly picking up that vibe.
His mother calls him to come inside now. He cocks his head and scampers toward his house, pausing at the gate to let loose a yodel of encouragement.
The empty swings creak as the wind blows them to and fro. The spinning rod rotates against the Earth’s axis, turning, turning. Things are most definitely falling apart. A rumbling engine noise comes from the decaying tractor. The anti-vax mothers haven’t succeeded in having her towed from the playground yet, but as ghostly mist spreads from the antique exhaust pipe, I have half a mind to sign their petition tomorrow.
I call to Jayden and Conor. The wind whips through the trees on the hill behind the playground. The leaves rustle and fat black birds perch in the branches. An aroma of dead leaves—dead birds?—wafts downhill.
The playground is lifeless. Even the homeschooled teenagers who gather here to rebel have found an alternative location to spray-paint graffiti and drink cheap red wine. Nobody is foolish enough to go to the playground at night. Jimmy is wrong.
You ripped your shirt. You messed up again, you dumb ass.
The child catcher shouts and screams and bellows. Her rough hand heaps heavy blows upon small heads. Sometimes she uses a belt. Once she swung a baseball bat at me, but I hid under a neighbor’s house until Jimmy came home.
The knot in my stomach swells.
This is not my life now, I remind myself until the world comes back into focus.
“Mommy.” Jayden scrambles down the hill and flings himself toward me. His voice is deep. He really is nearly thirteen. His face is covered with dirt. Dirt. Not blood. My stomach knot twists tighter. He hasn’t called me “Mommy” for years.
“Where’s Conor?” I demand.
Jayden’s voice slides between boy and man. I cannot follow his words. My stomach churns with impatience. I grip his shoulders tightly.
Jimmy vaults the playground fence. Horrified, I step back from Jayden. What have I done to my baby?
“I’ve hurt him,” I stutter. “I’m just like her.”
“No, no,” Jimmy says. “You just squeezed a little tight, you didn’t harm him.”
But I might have. Jayden is trembling. I tentatively reach out to him, and he throws himself into my arms.
Jayden’s words finally take coherent form. “Ghost children. Look.” Still clinging to me, he points wildly. Twins sitting on the seesaw, solemnly soaring up and down. Their heads turn toward us as they continue seeing and sawing in metronomic precision. Another child sits at the top of the slide, watching us intently.
Luke is suddenly beside me. “Conor’s easily scared, like me,” he ghost-whispers.
Jimmy’s eyes bulge. He is looking right at Luke. He sees the long, ringleted hair and wide brown eyes with an expression of constant surprise that just when you think the world couldn’t get worse, it does. It’s unmistakably Luke, he’s just a little faded now. The ripped Star Wars T-shirt confirms it.
“You see that too?” I ask.
“No,” Jimmy says with the certain tone of somebody who has spent some time in rehab convincing themselves their demons do not really take form. Then he groans, “Yes,” because our mother appears.
A murder of crows caw a warning as she approaches from the woods, dragging Conor behind her. He is bruised and scratched and bleeding.
Jayden squeezes my hand fearfully but his voice is strong. “Leave my brother alone.”
The same words Jimmy used. Like an evil spell has been cast, we’re back in her vintage ’60s kitchen.
The room is a nightmare palette of lime-green countertops and saffron diamond floor tiles. Behind yellow frosted glass pantry doors, she stores fake crystal glasses and an ugly, heavy dinner set missing a couple of plates that she flung in my direction.
Luke stutters so badly sometimes he’s incoherent. He is frozen to his mark. His nonresponsiveness drives her to a state beyond anger. She grips his shoulders tightly and shakes him hard. Your teeth really do rattle if you are shaken hard enough. Seizing the chance to run, I sprint barefooted to the basketball court at the end of the block, yelling for Jimmy to help us.
“Leave my brother alone.” He bursts through the door.
Mother aims her wrath at Jimmy for disrespecting her as he shields Luke from her blows, shepherding him out of her reach.
I see it before he does. I try to warn them, I really try. Horror dries out my throat, and I can only manage a whimper. Mother snatches the knife, slashing at Jimmy’s face and arms until he finally retreats, bleeding from the cuts she inflicts.
She mutters about ungrateful piglets and hits Luke in the chest. He takes the blow silently, as he’s learned to do. Jimmy folds his bleeding arms across his chest and screams the kind of shriek that heralds the end of the world.
I can’t deny what my eyes are seeing but my brain won’t process. She stabs Luke again and again.
It’s our fault. Always our fault.
Jimmy picks me up and runs out of the house to the park, making for the area where kids have smashed the streetlights throwing rocks to relieve boredom. He shoves me under a bush and covers me with his body, telling me for God’s sake stay quiet.
I hear her calling to us, just like the other mothers in the neighborhood call to their kids to come in after dark. But she is not like other mothers. Jimmy’s breathing hard and I wonder how she doesn’t hear him as her footsteps pass right by us.
“We’re safe here. She won’t find us,” Jimmy whispers to me.
He tells me to close my eyes. Waiting to be sure she’s gone, we huddle together like stray kittens until dawn. By the time we venture out it’s too late for Luke, and Mother has gone.
We left Luke behind. I dream of our betrayal every night now.
Conor whimpers and the sound of his brother’s terror triggers Jayden into action. I try to hold him back, but he marches up to Mother and wrestles Conor away from her. Mother grabs him by the shoulders. She tries to shake him, but he stands his ground and shrugs her off.
“You are a bad boy.” It was always her words that wounded us with more lasting effect than any of the beatings. “No wonder your father ran away from you.” She stares at me, although her eyes are dead, devoid of light. “He ran away from you too. You two are no good for anyone.”
I burn with anger at the expression on Jayden’s face. I push her away from my boy. He runs to Conor and Jimmy. Jimmy puts his arms around their shoulders and pulls them close.
I summoned her with my relentless nightmares and resurfacing fear. This is my fight and I’ll deal with it.
She is unchanged. The same raspy voice, dripping with nicotine and vitriol. Her hair stretched into a tight bun, facelifting any wrinkles. Ageless.
I realize she looks the same because she is a bad memory. A nightmare taken form. She isn’t real and she doesn’t belong in my world. Her time is over.
“You have no power over me. Or my kids. Lady, they don’t even know who you are.” I gesture toward Jayden and Conor. Jayden stands tall, hands on his hips, backing up my claim that her words can’t hurt him as they did me. “You died years back, forgotten, and you deserve to suffer just like you hurt Luke.”
“And the others,” murmurs Jimmy.
The ghost children close in on her, and she releases a high-pitched wail. Long overdue.
“Time to melt, witch,” I tell her over my shoulder as I walk toward my family and home.
My home is furnished in warm colors, reds, browns. No imitation mahogany. Certainly no lime-green counters. Wooden floors, not saffron-yellow tiles. My crystal isn’t fake and we eat off plates the kids have painted in community art classes.
Jayden is too old to share a bed with his little brother, but he makes an exception for tonight, and they hug each other as they sleep in my bed. Daisy curls up in my lap as I watch over the three of them. Daisy purrs like a kitten when she snores.
Jimmy brings me my not-so-secret bottle of vodka.
“You know I’m in recovery, right?” he says. “You shouldn’t have this in the house.”
“I’m a bad sister as well as a bad mother.”
“You are a good mother.” His words warm me more than a slug of straight vodka. Perhaps tonight I will pass on the booze. Maybe I’ll pour it down the drain tomorrow.
“I thought I’d grow up to be our mother. I worried one day I would be her,” I tell him the secret I never told anyone. Not even my husband when we were married. In retrospect I am kind of glad I didn’t tell him. He would have only used it against me.
“She wasn’t our mother. She was our foster mother,” Jimmy says, although she was the only mother I knew. He had several by the time he was unfortunate to have his case assigned to her. “We were just three of I don’t know how many kids she took in. They lost count. Luke wasn’t the first kid who went missing.” He shrugs philosophically so I guess he’s had a while to process this. Maybe he researched it. I, on the other hand, turned my memory rock over and made sure never to turn it over again. The occasional nightmare still managed to crawl out from under it, but I would not revisit or research that time for anything.
“There were other kids who disappeared before Luke,” Jimmy says warily, as if he knows not to share too much.
The other children visited me night after night with Luke, so no surprise to learn that.
“You’re a good big brother,” I tell him, and I should tell him that more often. Jimmy was only sixteen but his birth certificate was lost, and he convinced the social workers he was old enough to look after me. Nobody argued because I was one less kid to worry about in an overburdened system. “Is she really gone?” I ask.
“Texas has the death penalty, and child killers aren’t treated so well in prison,” Jimmy shrugs. “You’re safe.” Just as he promised that night.
All the same, I plan to take the longer route home, avoiding the playground at night.
* * *
The others are still asleep when I leave for work the next morning. The sky is clear and the sun is too bright. Oliver is already in the playground. This morning he’s not scaling the climbing frame. Instead he is in the midst of a light-saber battle with another kid.
I squint into the sun and blink. It’s just Oliver galloping around the playground alone, barefooted, doing a hundred happy things before bedtime.
Just as children should.
Maria Wickens’ work has been published or is forthcoming in Allium,
Apricity Magazine, Cobalt Review, Press Pause Press, and Slab. She won
the 1993 Reed New Writers Fiction Award with her novel Left of Centre
(Secker & Warburg 1994). She lives in New Zealand with her husband and
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