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"Playground" - Philip D. Sweet

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                The rough, wooden play structures rose like an armada of pirate ships in a sea of mulch.  Ropes and bridges swayed and danced as children rushed across them, off on some wild adventure.

                It was just like Janet Walker remembered it.  She’d come to this playground with her parents.  When she was a child, she could spend countless hours losing herself in the labyrinth of tunnels and passageways.

                Whether she was running away from some imagined monsters and villains or exploring some strange and unchartered place, the hazy summer days would zip by in a flash.  They always ended too soon.

                Now she was benched, sitting in the wings.  An archipelago of octagon-shaped picnic tables surrounded the fleet, a haven for watchful adults.  She was one of them now.

                Every so often she would see Elana’s head, cute little pigtails bobbing up and down.  Then she’d see her light-up star sneakers running between the slats of the walls.  Other than that, she was off somewhere, disappearing into the great structure, making friends and memories.

                Janet sat back with an old paperback she’d read a million times.  It was a rundown dog-eared copy of an adventure book she’d loved as a child.  It was full of kings and knights and giants, and of course, a heroic princess.  Still, every few years she would read it again, losing herself in the wonder of it.

                “I’m sorry,” came a voice from behind her, “Do you have any hand sanitizer?  I think I left mine at home.”

                Janet turned to see another mom standing behind her.  She reached into her purse, rustling around to find out if she had any.  It was something she threw in the bottom of her purse and forgot about, so she was never quite sure if it would still be there.

                “I think I have some,” she said, still rifling through the disorganized bowels of the bag.

                She deftly rustled around receipts and fruit snack package, both full and empty.  Finally, her hand emerged with the small plastic bottle, which, thankfully, hadn’t popped open this time.  The woman smiled gratefully as she took it.

                “So which one’s yours?” the woman asked, squirting out far more

 than was necessary.

                “She’s somewhere around here,” Janet answered, “The one with brown hair and light-up shoes.”

                “How old is she?” the woman asked, cocking her head.

                “Five,” Janet answered, “She’ll be six in August.”

                “And you just let her run wherever?” she asked.

                “Elana’s pretty good,” Janet replied.  “She knows to stay in the playground and come when I call.”

                “That’s my girl, Hannah,” she said, motioning to a cute little red-headed girl about Elana’s age, “I always like to have eyes on her.  You never know these days.”

                “That’s nice,” Janet replied insincerely.

                The other mom threw Janet the most transparently condescending smile, before returning the hand sanitizer and returning to her island.  Janet ignored it, picking her book back up.  She scanned the page, looking for the last line she’d read.  Then, she peeked over the book, surreptitiously scanning the area.

                It hadn’t been that long since she’d seen Elana.  She was probably just off making some new friends.  She’d always been good at that, so open and friendly.  Who were these new friends anyway?  Janet always assumed the kids she saw Elana running with were like Elana and their parents like herself.

                The other mom’s words hung in Janet’s head.  Kids were different these days, less innocent than when she’d been younger.  Janet had never been much for watching what passed as news, but she still heard stories.  Those were rare incidents, though, and mostly overblown.

                Janet returned to her book, eventually finding her place.  The words bounced off her eyes, never quite penetrating.  It was suddenly hard to focus on the story.  She took another quick look over the pages, revealing nothing.  The other mom was waving to Hannah.  There she sat, playing happily in plain sight.

                How long had it been since she’d seen Elana?  It couldn’t have been that long.  Her eyes moved back and forth more frantically, scanning the towering spires that loomed over the twisting passages below.  Janet set her book down on the table, face down to keep her place.

                She was careful not to seem too frantic.  The other mom might be watching.  As silly as it seemed, Janet needed to check.  That was all.  She’d come around a corner and there would be Elana, flying on the swing set or rocketing down a slide.

                The last time she’d seen Elana was running along the swinging bridge, away from the central tower of the main structure.  Janet strolled, as close to casual as she could muster, toward that area.  She lazily eyed each fence, looking for a flash or a floating bunch of hair.  There was nothing.

                She began moving faster, nearly tripping over the serpentine rope that grabbed wildly at her ankles.  Catching herself on her hand, she popped back up.  There were scrapes, but barely any blood.  She kept pressing further.  There was no time to look back.

                The distance seemed to grow as she moved between the sheer walls of dark wood.  The opening ahead gaped at her, threatening to swallow her up.  Sharp angles jutted out towards her from both sides, like razor teeth.  She pressed forward through the menacing alley, out into the open.

                The swing sets were just ahead.  They stood forlorn, frozen in time.  All of them hung dead, not a sign of motion.  Despite her desperate attempt to control it, Janet’s pulse went wild. 

                She circled the fleet, now, hardly noticing the half buried tires.  They weren’t her daughter.  All she saw were the faces and haircuts of the children.  Several ran across her path, their laughter faded into a distant mockery.

                Now, she’d circled back to the entrance, a bustling dock, crammed with bodies.  She studied each face to no avail.  Her eyes returned to the tower, ominously pressed against the sky.  She could see everything from there.

                The other mom looked in her direction.  Distantly, she could feel the judgement in her eyes.  It was a brief glance.  There was no reason to panic.  Janet wasn’t panicking.

                Her pulse was only elevated from running.  Not that she was running per se, just walking fast.  At any rate, it would explain her heightened pulse.  The knot in her stomach was due to the fact that she hadn’t eaten yet.  Still she moved a bit too quickly towards the center of the playground.

                Soon, she was bounding up the steps.  The slats of walls rose like the bars of a dungeon.  She thought of all the stories of princesses locked in towers.  Now she entered one, open on all sides, looking for her princess.

                She felt foolish, a grown woman squinting out to see from the top of a playground.  She must have looked absolutely ridiculous from the ground.  Either that, or she looked completely desperate. She didn’t really care any more.

                A moment or two passed.  Janet had done numerous circles with no sign of Elana’s little round face.  She so loved that face.  Reality sunk in.  She could be gone.

                Thoughts of horror flooded her mind.  This thing was a monster, devouring without mercy.  All inhibition left her.

                “Elana,” she shouted, flying down the stairs.  Her voice was shrill and desperate.

                She was moving wildly now, staring into the dark crevices of the ungodly labyrinth.  She called out again and again.  Finally, in the center of the structure, she stopped to catch her breath.

                “Mommy,” came a raspy whisper from behind her, “I’m right here.”

                Janet turned around to see that face, pigtails and all, sticking out from a nearby hole.

                Elana shushed her, putting a finger to her lips. “I’m hiding from the monsters.”

                “Oh, well, you’d better be careful then,” Janet warned, a smile growing on her face.

                “It’s okay,” Elana replied, “They’re just pretend.”

                “Good to know,” Janet replied, “I’ll be back on the picnic table if you need me.”

                “Okay,” Elana replied, retreating back into her hole.

                The sky shone blue as the sea, as Janet made her way past the masts, reaching ever skyward.  Intrepid explorers braved the great unknown of the playground, oblivious to the dangers around them.  Sure there were stories.  There always had been, since the dawn of time.  But, as Janet returned to her haven, she could also see the wonder.