Ghosts On the Playground – A Inspirational Short Story by M.E. Lauder
The little yellow swing set groans and aches when you sit down, not from years of disuse, but because you are not meant to be there.
You aren’t sure what possessed you to come back, what stirred you out of an already restless sleep and dragged you here, but you’d gotten in your car and driven half-dazed to a schoolyard that had been collecting dust in the back of your mind. You feel a good kind of strange to be here again.
You realize you’ve never come alone before.
It’s late—close to 3 A.M., you guess—but the playground is lit well, illuminated by the orange glow of tiny streetlamps. As a child, you never stayed long enough to see them turn on. When you look around at the empty yard, small and contained, you remember it once seemed so endless. It used to dwarf you. You’d chase after your friends for what felt like years, from one side of your world to the other, until school called you back to earth. Your eyes sweep over it all now: shadows of playsets, rock walls, and plastic castles stretch across the fake turf, their silhouettes more opaque without the sun beating down, their surfaces lonelier without the kids scrambling around. Different, but the same.
You are thirty pounds heavier, half a foot taller, and ten years older than the last time you sat here. Though, for as much as you’ve changed, this place still looks as it always has. The paint on the swing set beams is perpetually chipped and faded, in places where children grab with sweaty hands as they weave between the frame during frenzied games of tag. More than the tips of your shoes scrape the ground now, but the mulch they drag around isn’t any different—dry, splintery, and muted brown. Administration had always waited too long to order fresh stuff, and you smile fondly at the familiar sight.
You can’t remember why you were so excited to leave. Jumping into the front seat of your older sister’s beat-to-hell Ford Festiva on the last day, you couldn’t wait to be just like her. High school. So mature. In your mad dash for the exit, you aren’t sure if you even hugged Jo and Kayla goodbye. You haven’t seen them in a while.
Kayla sent you a postcard a few months back, the first time you’d heard from her since college started. She’s touring Europe with some of her sorority sisters from Howard. She’s doing good—a lot better than you.
You kick your legs out and fold them in, back and forth, until you are so far above the ground that the metal frame shudders with every peak of your arc. Because you are older now, stronger, you’re not afraid to be so high. The air is sharper up here, pinching your throat with its breezy winter chill each time you swallow a breath. Your heart thumps in your chest, something stronger than nostalgia trying to claw its way out of you.
It’s only then that you hear it.
At first, you mistake it for the quiet scuff of rusty, old chains against metal loops as you swing. But you hear it again, and again after that, and it sounds too much like laughter now for you to be wrong. You whip your head around to the dingy gate you jumped to get in, to the glass double doors you’d file through when recess was over—no one. Laughter, shrill and childish, floats into your ears, but there is no one around to have caught you.
When you look beside yourself, you finally see her: a little girl, barrettes in her hair and a too-big, navy blue sweatshirt tugged over her dress, swinging in tandem with you. Her eyes, shielded by thick tortoise frames, are shut tight, and her head is thrown back as she laughs with her whole body.
It should shock you, the sight of this girl, the way she snuck up on you, or the fact that she is alone, but it doesn’t. A warmth spreads through you, slowly then all at once, and you feel safe. Comfortable. You do nothing. You say nothing. You just kick your legs, back and forth, back and forth, and you watch her.
She wiggles her arms until the chains are out of her way, and you recognize the fearlessness in her loose grip, in her narrowed eyes: she’s priming herself to jump. You want to warn her, to tell her to slow down first, because you once broke your own glasses doing the same thing, but your lips don’t budge. She allows the momentum of the swing to propel her, and she soars into the open arms of similarly dressed girls—you hadn’t seen or heard them approach—and they topple to the ground. Their joy, wild and abundant, melts away the lingering cold in your bones. When she lifts her head from the pile of squirming, giggling bodies, you notice a thick crack in one of the lenses.
You jump after her.
Wiping mulch from your knees and the heels of your hands, you remember it used to hurt less. The chunks used to carve little grooves into your flesh, clinging to you even as you ran, slid, and jumped. They poke like needles into your skin now, and you grimace as you swipe them away. You were softer then. Not so much anymore.
You start to call after the little girl, but your voice dies in your throat before the words have a chance to live, because…they’re gone. Every trace of them—vanished. Not a dent in the ground, not a piece out of place; except, of course, where you had made your own mess. You use your foot like a rake, trying to fix it. Some part of you is still afraid of your old religion teacher, the one who picked your class up from recess and scolded you when you were too dirty. The image of her flying through the doors, ringing her horrible bronze bell, is more vivid in your mind than you realized. You wonder what she would think of you now, aimless and uninspired, her cruelest prophecy come true.
You begin to laugh, just as the girl did: eyes pinched shut, shoulders shaking—the full thing. You’re twenty-one. Twenty-one. And that lady is probably dead, anyway. You laugh, and to your ears it sounds like two voices instead of one, layered and mixed and interwoven, one inside the other. Yours is quiet and rumbling, frayed at the edges after so many years of use; The other is a squeal, high and innocent like a hymn.
Your feet carry you away, a hesitant jog giving way to a clumsy sprint. Rushing down the pavement, skipping over all the cracks like you used to, you run to where you know she’ll be. Your friends showed you this spot in fifth grade, and it was yours until you left.
When you duck under the plastic rock wall, you nearly slam into the ghostly group. You cling to one of the red metal poles that support the playset, holding your breath.
You watch the little girl take a pair of scissors—the kiddie kind with the rounded edges—from your friend Jo, who you now recognize by the bandaid on her nose she thought would peel the patch of freckles away if she left it long enough. Kayla’s there, too, the plastic charms in her braids clicking against each other as she plays lookout. The girl turns to the wall and starts to scrape into it. You lean in to get a closer look, not the least bit surprised when you move through the other girls as if you wade through fog instead. You know what you will see. You carved the same thing ten years ago. She looks back to smile at you, and, staring into your own eyes, you smile, too.
On the wall are a set of initials and the year 2011 beneath it.
You run your fingers over the markings. It was a simpler time, marked by simpler friends, simpler wants. In your mind, it has long been gone, buried under a decade of dirt and stones unturned, replaced by the life of the young woman born from its sacrifice. You always wonder if growing up has been worth it. You were fired from work last week, pulled aside after closing by the sweaty chef who owned the dumpy dive bar and given the chance to quit first. It wasn’t your dream to pour bourbon for old men who couldn’t keep their eyes up, but it was your chance to be adult—something the little girl in front of you had wanted so desperately. If you weren’t good enough to smile and nod, what could you do? Jobs to quit instead of homework to skip; moving to new cities, not changing your seat; and friends lost to distance instead of summer—every last bit of that time had disappeared. You feel so much like a little kid, alone and scared, but there is no room left for her.
Or, that’s what you had assumed. Here it is, though, living and breathing and laughing.
She takes you by the elbow, her tiny digits curled tightly against your skin as if she never intends to let go. You follow her out of the cave, your slow strides more than enough to keep up with her eager skips. Leading you to the center of the playground, she pauses, bouncing excitedly on the soles of her shoes and tugging your arm.
You do. You look up, and what she shows you takes your breath away. This place is a graveyard come alive, its ghosts risen from the dead to play and to dance for your eyes only. Clusters of children kicking soccer balls in the field, playing kings and queens on the castle, telling stories in the shade. How patiently they slumbered, out of sight but not truly gone, until you needed them again.
Not gone, she reassures, understanding your worries, because, of course, they are also hers. Only hiding.
You watch it all, unfolding before you as a phantom scene, as though through the eyes of someone who had not lived it. The little girl, bent at the waist, drags a stick of blue chalk against the cement and draws sloppy lines for hopscotch, a game she never fully understood how to play but enjoyed anyway. The little girl hangs from the monkey bars, her knuckles white and red with effort, and screams a laugh as she falls to the ground below. The little girl beneath the oak tree, nestled between gnarled roots, Jo’s head in her lap as she combs her hair with her fingers. Your own hands sting, almost burn, as the muscles relearn and remember the lives they have lived. Even then, in all these echoes of the past you see now, you didn’t have a clue what you were doing or feeling. The thrill, you understood later, was in the knowledge that it didn’t matter. You had all the time in the world to figure it out. You still do.
You aren’t sure how long you do this, or how long you stay, but she remains by your side as you run around like a child, her little palm against yours.
Wordlessly, she guides you to the gate you came through. She looks up at you with wide eyes, wise beyond their years, and offers you a sweet smile. The sky, now inky blue, begins to splotch with purples and pinks as the sun breaks the horizon. She isn’t making you leave. She knows you’re ready to go. You used to dream about this with your friends: jumping the fence during recess and basking in the freedom of the abandoned Chinese buffet’s parking lot next door. You would’ve had to come right back over—none of you knew the way home—but it was the principle of “reckless abandon,” however juvenile your version of it was, that kept the fantasy alive. You suppose it’s not too late to make it come true.
You put your feet in the rungs of the chain-link fence, one after the other, and carefully swing your legs over the barbed ends at the top. You jump from there, and your sneakers hit the asphalt on the other side, solid and steady. When you turn around, you realize she isn’t following you.
I don’t need to. She touches your hand through the fence.
You smile. There’s no heaviness or sadness in your heart as you walk away. You don’t look back as you head to the far end of the lot. It’s not your sister’s crappy Ford, but the freedom feels real this time.
From the driver’s seat, your view of the playground is obscured by branches and hanging vines. You can’t see her anymore, but you know she’s watching from somewhere. Not gone, you remember. Only hiding.