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The Playground

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In this short story, Alice and her mother live in a small house outside a small town in a place that grows more cloudy with each passing day. Every week, she and her mother walk into town and pass the houses and playgrounds that mark the path. The playground nearest her house is almost empty but will fill with children soon enough, Mother says. One day, Alice sees a familiar face in the empty playground and realizes that she may soon get to play, too.

Scifi / Horror
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

It’s a cloudy day–more cloudy than the last–but that is okay because today we are going into town.

I love going into town. I play with my doll and her cat while Mother finishes up in her study. I am not allowed in her study, but that is okay because my doll is eating her favorite cake and playing outside with Mittens. Mittens loves to dig holes even though she is a cat. She is very funny like that.

I leave my room and walk past Mother’s closed door toward the kitchen. I love the kitchen because Mother keeps a small book of recipes in the cupboard under the sink. My doll loves to look at the drawings of strawberry tarts and candied persimmons and walnut truffles and beautiful chocolate pastries, but she can’t look at them today because she is still eating cake and collecting stones while Mittens digs holes in my room. Funny little cat.

The study door opens and Mother takes her shoes from their place by the door. She sits at the kitchen table and laces them up.

“How was your morning, Alice?”

“Very good. My doll is eating cake and Mittens is playing on the playground.”

“How lovely. Are you excited to go into town?”

“Oh, yes!”

“Get your things, then.” She grabs her coat from the stand in the corner.

I put on my shoes and coat and things and wait by the door for Mother. She gently puts out the candle, wraps her scarf around, and opens the door. I leap out in front of her and run down the steps.

“Not too fast, silly!” Mother calls. I laugh a little and kick a pebble into the grass while I wait. She locks the door and I follow her to town.

Mother and I do not live too far from the main street in town, but it is still a fun adventure to walk there. We cross the wooden bridge over the creek and the playground that only ever has a few children because it is farther from town. Someday it will be full of children, Mother says, but not right now.

We start to see more and more houses as we near town. Some look nicer than our house, others do not. “Each house has a family,” Mother says, “just like ours.” I hold her hand and watch the houses as we pass them, imagining inside of each one a little girl playing with her doll and cat. Do their kitchens have a recipe book under the sink?

I know we are getting closer to town because we pass two more playgrounds, each one busier than the last. We’re always in a hurry so Mother never lets me stop and play, but I wouldn’t want to even so because there are too many children. That’s one nice thing about living where we do, Mother says. The playgrounds aren’t so crowded.

The road is paved with stones now and that means we’re in town. It’s a small town, but the storefronts are always decorated and there are always people about. The bakery is especially busy this time of year, but Mother pulls me past the window of chocolate cakes and we enter Mr. Edwards’ grocery store instead. “Welcome!” he calls from behind the case of deli meats and sliced vegetables.

Mother takes a basket from the stack by the door and lets me carry it as we move throughout the store. She unfolds the piece of paper from her pocket and we fill our basket with eggs and flour and canned meat. I am in charge of holding the basket while Mother inspects egg cartons and weighs bags of flour in her hands. The basket gets a little heavier with each shelf we pass, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. Mother smooths her hair, folds her list, and returns it to her pocket.

Mr. Edwards removes each item from our basket, punches in the numbers, and wraps them in paper. Mother places the wrapped items in her bag. The basket was so heavy as I carried it, but it does not take long to ring everything up. While Mother counts her money, Mr Edwards smiles and presses a wrapped hard candy into my hand. I stuff it in my pocket to show my doll and Mittens later.

“Goodbye, Mr. Edwards,” Mother says, and we leave the store.

We stop at the library next, and then the hardware store. I am responsible for carrying the baskets every time, and every time I am rewarded with small sweets pressed in my palm before we leave. The people in town love to hand out little treasures, and I love to receive them. It is a pleasant exchange, and now I have a pocket full of things to show my doll and Mittens.

Mother takes my hand and I know that it is almost time for us to leave town because she leads me into Ms. Patters’ diner. We always end our trips with a visit to Ms. Patters. We take off our things and hang them on the hooks by the door.

“Come in,” Ms. Patters waves from behind the counter, “come in!”

I climb onto a stool in front of Ms. Patters and Mother sits down beside me. She places her bag of eggs and flour and books and matches on the floor at her feet. “How are things?” she asks.

Ms. Patters pushes a cup of coffee in front of Mother and a cup of warm milk in front of me. I do not like warm milk very much, but Mother says to always be grateful so I wrap my hands around it and take a sip and make sure to feel very grateful for Ms. Patters while doing so.

“Oh, you know,” Ms. Patters says. She smiles and sighs. “Same old business, same old place, just trying to figure out what to do with this little guy,” and she nods behind her.

Simon Patters is my age and sits on a stool behind his mother. He reads library books while Ms. Patters pours more coffee and restocks the display case with pastries.

Mother laughs and shakes her head. “Don’t I know the feeling.” She takes a sip from her mug and I lift mine to my lips, too. The milk is not very warm anymore, but I remember to still be grateful.

Simon looks up from his book and makes a face. I giggle into my cup and put it back down on the counter. Mother looks at me, but I know she’s not upset.

“We passed the playgrounds on our way in,” Mother says. “It’s a shame how crowded they are these days.”

Ms. Patters nods, arranges some cookies on a plate. “Something really ought to be done. Children need space to run and play. We really ought to do better.” She looks up at Mother, and Sam turns the page in his book. I wonder what he is reading. “Did you hear that they sent another team to finish fixing up that new place? It’s supposed to be quite nice.”

“How long?”

“About five years.”

Mother laughs and takes another sip. I swirl my cup around in my palms so the milk makes a white tornado in the center. “That’s not nearly soon enough.”

“I know,” Ms. Patters says, “but it’s something, right?”

I put an end to the milk tornado before I make a mess.

“Mother, are there playgrounds in a place like the one they’re fixing up?”

“Oh Alice,” she laughs, “I can’t imagine there’d be a need,” and pats my head. Ms. Patters smiles and pushes the plate of small cookies across the counter. I’m not too fond of soft cookies but I take one anyway because she offered and I am being grateful. I pretend it is a beautiful chocolate cake in the bakery window and eat every last crumb.

Mother finishes her coffee and I take one more sip of room-temperature milk before sliding off the stool and lifting up Mother’s bag with both hands. “Well, aren’t you my little helper today?” she says. She smiles at Ms. Patters, I wave goodbye to Simon, and we take our things from the hooks by the door and leave.

We walk past the two busy playgrounds, the houses with little girls and dolls and cats, and the almost empty playground before we cross the bridge and I run up the steps to our house. I set down Mother’s bag and reach a hand into my pocket to make sure that the hard candy and the silver coin and the wrapped lollipop are still there. Mother unlocks the door and we put our things down inside. I run to my room and place my treasures on the floor. My doll has already finished her cake and Mittens is done digging holes. They are both very impressed by the items I brought home.

I stay inside for the rest of the evening until Mother leaves her study and calls me for dinner. She lights the candle on the table and I climb into my chair while she places a plate of flour cakes and eggs and runny chicken in front of me. She sits down across from me with a smaller plate and I dig in, remembering to be grateful.

“Thank you, Mother.”

“Why, you are very welcome, Alice.”

I clean my plate in the sink and run to tuck my doll and her cat into bed. I change into my pajamas and brush my teeth while Mother finishes up in the kitchen, and then I crawl into bed and wait.

Mother sits down next to me and we read one of the new library books that we picked up in town. I carried the library basket the whole time and the librarian handed me a shiny coin for my trouble. My doll and her cat were very impressed by that coin.

The story finishes and Mother stands up. “Now be a good little girl and lie down.”

“Yes, Mother, I’ll make no noise and be very calm.”

“That’s a good little girl. I love you, dearest.”

“I love you, too.”

She takes the candle from the table by my bed and closes the door behind her. I fall asleep and dream of cookies and chocolate cake in a great big tornado while Simon laughs behind the counter.

It is another week before we go into town again. Mother and I lace up our shoes and put on our coats and gloves. She wraps her scarf around her nose and mouth and helps me adjust mine, and then we are ready to leave.

It’s more cloudy this week, but that’s okay because we are going into town, and I love going into town. I wonder what sweets I will bring home to my doll and Mittens today.

Mother holds my hand as we cross the bridge over the creek, and I peer into the nearly empty playground. I stop and Mother looks at me.

“Simon!” I shout. He turns from where he is playing and waves.

“Look Mother, it’s Simon.” I tug on her shirt.

“Ah, yes.”

“Can I go play with him?”

She smiles and sighs, “Not right now,” and pulls me away. I kick a pebble with my shoe and wonder if I might have chocolate cake after dinner. We walk past the houses that are nicer than ours and those that are not, and I imagine the little girls inside reading library books and eating small cookies that are not too soft. I cough because it is so cloudy, and Mother bends down to fix my scarf but it is already over my nose and mouth. She pats my head and we keep walking.

The road is paved now and we are in town.

Today is different because Mother does not take me into Mr. Edwards’ store or the library or the hardware store that sells matches and candles and beautiful long boxes. Instead, we turn toward Ms. Patters’ diner and I run inside, excited at the change.

We hang our scarves and coats and gloves by the door and sit at the counter. Ms. Patters smiles at Mother and hands her a coffee. No milk today.

Mother takes a sip and looks at Ms. Patters. Simon’s stool is empty because he is at the playground so I look down at my hands instead. My fingers are soldiers and they explore the rough terrain of my skirt.

“We saw Simon at the playground near our house today.”

“Yes, I decided that today was the day. It’s a bit far from town, but I figured that’s preferable to the crowded ones.”

“When did you drop him off?”

“This morning.”

“And have you checked on him since?”

A soldier tumbles down a mountain of fabric and lands in a paisley-patterned ravine.

“No, but he’s okay. His sister is there, too.”

“Oh, right.”

I hear a plate slide along the counter and look up from the adventure below. Ms. Patters is smiling and I see the little donuts in front of me. Donuts are much tastier than cookies. I am truly grateful this time and don’t have to pretend.

I pop a donut into my mouth. Ms. Patters looks at Mother. I offer Mother a donut because it is the polite thing to do and perhaps that is why she is looking at me, perhaps it is because she would like a donut too. Perhaps she knows that little donuts are better than soft cookies.

She takes a bite from the donut and places the uneaten part on the saucer next to her coffee. “Alice,” she says, but she is looking at Ms. Patters now. “I think that today is a day for chocolate cake.”

I jump off the stool and forget about the donuts and the soldiers. “Really? Do you mean it?”

“Yes, dearest. We will stop at the bakery before we go home.”

I run around in a little circle because today is a very exciting day. Today we saw Simon at the playground and went to the diner before our errands and I ate little donuts and now we will buy a chocolate cake just for me. Ms. Patters follows us to the door and puts on her coat and gloves and scarf while we put on ours. She closes up the diner behind us and we walk to the bakery together.

Mother and I have passed the windows of this bakery on every trip into town, but today is the day that we finally go inside. There are other families in there, too, and I know that the children are just as excited as I am. It’s not every day that you get your very own chocolate cake.

When it is our turn at the counter, I smile up at the man behind the register and remember to be a good little girl.

“Hello, sir, I hope you’re having a lovely day. I would like that beautiful chocolate cake with the raspberries and the icing swirls, please.”

The man looks at Mother and then turns around to place the cake in a charming white box. Mother hands him a card and he looks at it and hands it back.

“You make sure to enjoy this cake,” he says, and I nod because I definitely will. “It cost your mom a pretty penny.”

Mother takes my hand and leads me out of the bakery; Ms. Patters follows behind with the white box and we pass the playgrounds and the houses and I wave to Simon who is still at the nearly empty one.

We cross the bridge and enter our house and Ms. Patters places the white box on our kitchen table.

“Thank you,” says Mother.

I don’t have any treasures to show my doll and her cat today, but that is okay because I have my very own chocolate cake and that is even better. Mother sits at the table and I climb up across from her. Ms. Patters stands by the door. She is still wearing her coat and gloves, but her scarf is down around her neck now. It looks funny when it’s not covering her face.

“Now, Alice,” Mother says, and I turn to look at her. “Are you ready?”

“Oh, yes, Mother!” I say, because I have never been more ready for chocolate cake in my life. I lift the lid from the box and look down at the beautiful white swirls dancing around the raspberries in a sea of chocolate. It was the most beautiful cake in the shop, and now it is sitting on my kitchen table. It is even prettier than the drawings in the recipe book under the sink.

“Wait.” I look up at Mother, and she smiles. “Can I bring my doll and Mittens? My doll has always wanted her very own chocolate cake.”

“Of course,” Mother says, and looks behind me at Ms. Patters.

I slide off my chair and run to my room. “Today is a very exciting day,” I tell my doll and her cat. “Today we are eating our very own chocolate cake!” My doll is very happy to hear that, and Mittens is, too. She wants to dig a hole to celebrate, but I tell her that we have to eat the cake first.

I am back at the kitchen table with my doll and her cat and there is a plate in front of me with a single slice of my very own beautiful chocolate cake. “Now?” I ask Mother, and she nods.

It is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted. Better than soft cookies and warm milk and flour cakes with egg. Even better than little donuts that you pop into your mouth. It is rich and smooth and not too sweet, but perhaps that is why it is so tasty.

I make sure that my doll eats some, too, because there is a lot of cake left and I know that no one else will eat it.

When I am done with my slice, I lace up my shoes and put on my coat and gloves. I almost forget that I don’t need my scarf anymore. I leave it hanging by the door.

Mom puts on her things and leans down to hug me. “Are you ready?” she says in my ear, and I nod.

The three of us walk down the steps and cross the bridge over the creek. Mother stops at the entrance to the nearly empty playground and I see Ms. Patters take her other hand and squeeze it.

“Come on!” I say and pull on Mother’s arm, because I already see Simon inside and want to play with him.

We step through the gate and Mother leads me to a beautiful hole in a long line of beautiful holes. Each one is marked with a beautiful stone. I see that mine already has my name on it, and I feel very proud. I will have to show my doll and her cat later, I think to myself, and yawn because it is even more cloudy now than it was this morning and I am tired already.

“Look Mother. It’s my very own stone with my very own name. Isn’t it the most beautiful stone you’ve ever seen?”

“Yes, dearest.” She rubs her eye and smiles. “I’ve never seen a stone more beautiful. Now come give Mother a hug.”

I do as she says, but quickly because I am already quite sleepy. There is a group of men standing in front of us, and beside them is the most beautiful box that there ever was. I have seen plenty of long boxes lining the walls of the hardware store, but this was by far the most special one, and it’s mine. I smile even though I am tired.

I look back at Mother, who is holding Ms. Patters’ hand, and then I climb into my very own box and the white cloth is a pillow that wraps me up and tucks me in.

“Now, remember, dearest,” Mother says. Her eyes are shiny. “Be a good little girl and lie very still. Be very calm, now. I love you.”

The men place the cover over the box and I rock like a baby as my box is lowered into its place. I am really very sleepy now. I am being a good little girl. I am lying quite still and making no noise and being very calm. I close my eyes even though the world is already black and listen to the earth as it falls onto my box.

It is like rain, I think. Like great big chocolate raindrops falling onto my very own box beneath my very own stone and I am really quite sleepy, but I am being a good little girl.

The world is still black but fuzzy now and I forget that my eyes are still closed.

I am so very close now, I think. I must be.

It is a little hard to breathe but that must be because I am so very tired. I am grateful that Mother made me practice every night because if she hadn’t, I worry that I would be quite afraid right now. But I am being a good little girl. I am being very calm.

Simon, are you almost ready? I’ll be outside soon, are you ready to play with me?

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