Life had been simple back then. There were no bills, taxes or jury duty. My responsibilities consisted of practicing the instrument I would quit in a couple of years and one page of homework.
I spent most of my time at a small playground. It was there I swung from the monkey bars, fearful of falling into the invisible lava below.
It was just a few blocks from my house. When I got home from school, I would grab my pink tricycle and head to my little sanctuary.
That place had been my childhood. It was where I met my ghost.
✸ ✸ ✸
The rainbow streamers pull against my handlebars. I cut through the wind with my front wheel, flying past the rows of identical houses. Most of the front lawns have wilted, changing to a yellow ochre. The few green lawns have tasteful white signs labelled Show Home in their windows.
I wish for the warmth of the sun, and looking up I make a sour expression at the sky. It is a dull grey, as if it wants to rain but can’t.
Over the past few weeks, the weather has switched from white fluff, to wet droplets. It’s my first indicator that the never-ending school year is finally coming to a close.
As I get closer to my destination, the green lawns begin to disappear. The houses get thinner and the sun seems to have stolen their colour over time. The shade of the day gives the street a cold, slightly serene appearance. I turn just before the sidewalk switches to a crosswalk. My training wheels groan from the sudden jerk.
A few kids in my class have already upgraded to a big kid bike, but the extra wheels on mine make me feel safer. Not to mention, all those bikes are bulky and none come in bubblegum pink.
After I pass a couple more houses, I see the small opening that leads me to the playground. My playground.
I turn into the opening. The park is just a few feet away.
The yellow and red paint covering the structure has started to peel away, showing the old wood underneath. It is not uncommon for me to come home with slivers clinging to the skin of my kneecaps and hands.
The metal that makes up the monkey bars and the slide is gradually rusting from shiny silver to a dull gold.
As usual, the park is vacant. Since I discovered the secluded area, I have never seen anyone else. It’s even rare to see someone on these streets. I have only ever met one character.
He is a grey-haired, wrinkled man who spends his time trying to keep the small garden in his yard alive. It’s doing about as well as his grass.
I’ve never talked to him, but I like to imagine he’s the kind of guy who would offer me lemonade and tell me all about his grandkid. He is definitely a grandpa.
In my head, he is the protector of my playground. He is the guardian. If someone wanted to attack my little kingdom, they would have to go through him first.
Still occupied by my train of thought, I climb up the slide’s ladder. At the top, I look down at my domain. My head is weighed down by a nonexistent crown. I push myself off the edge and shoot down the slick metal. I finish at the bottom, my feet planted in the dusty pebbles. Sighing, I wish desperately for some subjects to rule.
✸ ✸ ✸
“Intruder!” I drop my bike and run towards my kingdom. I was not expecting an attack.
He’s a boy about my age, maybe a little younger, with brown curly hair and a green striped t-shirt. He’s sitting on my favourite swing.
“What are you doing here?” Yelling as I stomp towards him, I try my best to look menacing. I know the ruffled skirt I am wearing doesn’t help. “This is my playground! Go away!”
His brown eyes pop out of his head. As I look closer, I notice his lips are quivering slightly as well. After a second, he composes himself enough to speak.
“Sorry.” He whimpers, slowly backing away. I compare his actions to someone retreating from a wild animal that will strike if they make any sudden movements.
I realize how beast-like I am acting and feel guilt roll through my stomach. “Wait,” Hesitantly, and a little awkwardly, I continue. “Do you want to play with me?” Slightly more at ease, he replies, “Ok.”
✸ ✸ ✸
“Do you really own the playground?” He asks me, awe sparkling in his eyes. His name is Oscar. He has a dog named Bruno and he wants to become Prime Minister of Canada.
“Of course,” I answer, sitting on my favourite swing, “who else would it belong to?” Satisfied with my response, he breathes out a quick, “wow” under his breath.
It’s nice having a play-mate. Oscar and I have met each other at the playground every day for the last two weeks. When one of us arrives at the playground, we leave our tricycle in the grass nearby. It’s a way to let the other know we have arrived. His tricycle is a fiery red.
“You know what?” I say to Oscar.
“What?” He answers, hanging upside down from a monkey bar. His attention is focused intensely on me. “I hereby make you the knight of my playground.” I smile at him. “That means you’re my second in command.”
“Thanks.” He smiles back.
I look at him skeptically. He isn’t one for words. It makes me wonder how he’ll run a country.
✸ ✸ ✸
Summer surrounds me. The warmth radiates on my face. It’s at that point when you start to feel the next school year creep towards you.
I lay on the grass beside the playground. Watching an ant crawl across my arm, I listen to the rhythmic creaking of Oscar on a swing.
After an eternity of silence, he tells me about the vacation he and his family are going on. Somewhere in Hawaii. He can’t remember the name. It’s something along the lines of Honalula. They leave next week.
I want him to stay, I don’t want to be here alone. My facial features betray me and confess to him my disappointment. Quickly he adds that he’ll bring me back a souvenir. It makes me feel better. “Thanks,” I say, acknowledging his statement. After a moment of thought, I add, “Anything but a T-shirt.” He smiles. “Sure.”
✸ ✸ ✸
I wear the only black dress I own. I blend in with the others around me. Tears streak most faces, but not mine.
The floor is beige carpet and the walls have no windows. At the front is a middle-aged man I don’t know. He is talking grievously about someone I do.
Behind him are three intricately decorated boxes. According to my mum, my best friend is in one of them. I still don’t know how he fits.
Everywhere there are pictures hung of him and two others. I’ve met those people a few times, they’re his parents. They had been very kind to me.
Sometimes, when I would stop by my friend's house, his moms would offer me a homemade cookie. Never chocolate chip, they said that it was too boring a flavour. Their names were Catherine and Martha.
I look down at the carpet, so I can’t see my friend locked in a cube that’s too small. I pretend I can’t hear what’s happening around me. This means I can’t hear them talking about Oscar as a “was”. I can’t hear the speeches of close friends and family or the sobs of others around me.
I think back to how I found out about this tragedy. At the start, nobody would tell me how he died, but my dad had forgotten that I was the one in charge of recycling.
I had been transferring the kitchen's recyclables into a big garbage bag when I saw the front page of that week’s local paper. It was laid underneath the pile of discarded paper.
The words of the story had been unnecessarily complicated, but I understood enough. The bolded title “Car Accident Three Dead” summed it up pretty well. I saw their names in the tiny illegible text and put two and two together.
Everyone made his death seem like it was something natural and peaceful. Getting crushed by a giant heap of scrap metal was the complete opposite of peace.
I ran screaming to my parents. I wanted them to tell me it wasn’t real. I wanted them to lie, protect me from the truth, but they didn’t. They told me everything.
Oscar never made it to Hawaii. Along the way to the airport, he had been hit by a drunk driver. The drunk had survived.
Taking my eyes off the carpet, I look around the room. For a moment I am caught stunned. I stare at a grey-haired, wrinkled man. The man I call my guardian.
Maybe I knew his grandchild after all. I see a tear roll down his face and almost envy him. I am not able to express my sadness. I have no more tears left to cry.
✸ ✸ ✸
My bulky, two-wheeled bike, sits in the grass nearby. I sit on the left swing because I can’t sit on my favourite.
Everyone has tried to comfort me. Most say Oscar is watching from the clouds. But that’s not possible. Not unless he can be in two places at once.
He is sitting beside me, on my beloved swing. He does not look like the ghosts in the movies. He looks exactly how I remember him. He has brown curly hair and is wearing his lucky green striped T-shirt.
He is not friendly like Casper. But not mean and scary like Casper's uncles. He doesn’t do anything. He sits there unblinking and motionless, staring into space. Silence creates a wall between us.
As I’m about to leave, too nervous to stay, he turns his head towards me and smiles nervously. “Sorry, I couldn’t get that souvenir.” Answering quickly, I respond, “It’s OK.” The absence of sound continues as we stare into nothingness together.
✸ ✸ ✸
It’s been two years. Oscar follows me everywhere. I see him in my mirror as I brush the food off my teeth. He watches me as I take out the recycling. He sits on my favourite swing.
He is not the Oscar from my playground. He is not my knight. He is the shell of my best friend. I look him in the eyes and see there is nothing behind them.
I know to keep him here is selfish, but I don’t want to be alone.
✸ ✸ ✸
It is time to let him go. I've had him for longer than I should. I don't want to be alone but my only friend can't be a shadow of the life someone lived. I promise myself that everything will be fine.
“Go away!” I shriek at Oscar’s shell. “Go! Away!” He turns toward me and nods. Wandering casually out of my view he doesn’t come back.
✸ ✸ ✸
I drive up the road of my youth. I almost miss the gap that leads to what I used to think of as my kingdom. I park in front of the entrance.
I pull out the key from my car and the metal beast goes silent. Looking at the rundown structure, my grip tightens on the steering wheel. The man beside me sets a comforting hand on my shoulder. I look at my husband and smile weakly.
We had driven for hours to get here, I couldn’t just turn around. The door makes a deep pop sound as I open it. It closes with a low thump.
My husband stays in the car, letting me do this on my own.
The snow crunches under my boots as I make my way towards the playground. The cold snowflakes create a cushion between me and the dusty rocks.
The structure has almost no paint stuck to its wood. Just a few little pieces of red and yellow hanging for dear life. The slide is twice as rusty and the swing chains look like they shouldn’t be able to hold my weight. After dusting off the pile of snow, I decided to sit on one anyways.
I leave my favourite seat open for the boy who used to be my best friend. I wait for him to appear. I wait for closure, a final goodbye. After all, I’m too old for imaginary friends.
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You've got amazing talent, and this story has awesome description! I can feel everything going on! Amazing.
Nice! It's sort of refreshing in the way that it's told from a child's point of view. I liked reading it.