It's All Fun and Games until Someone Gets Hurt

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For years Catherine had been visiting the old, forgotten playground down the street without incident when, one fall afternoon, everything changed. The day started out like any other; she ventured to the playground in the hopes of being able to gather her thoughts. There was something about that place, whether it be the soothing noise of the nearby river or the fresh air, that always made her feel comfortable and secure. Catherine avoided the rusty, broken swing set, as well as the warped and dangerously tilted slide and found her usual spot under the elm tree. A brisk wind picked up, causing the sole unbroken swing to sway back and forth, back and forth. The rhythm of the movement made Catherine’s eyelids grow heavy; after each blink it took longer to reopen her eyes. As she opened them for the last time, her heart almost stopped in complete shock. Sitting on the once empty swing was a young, seemingly innocent girl.

It took a minute for Catherine to get her breathing under control and her heart rate back to normal. Nobody ever came to this place, and they especially didn’t appear out of thin air. As she looked closer, she saw that the girl was wearing an old-fashioned dress, one of the outfits with the built in collar and an apron tied around her waist. Her hair was long and brown, tied in a ribbon, and falling down to the middle of her back. There were bruises and lacerations crisscrossing the majority of the girl’s visible skin. Her eyes were large and scared, like those of a deer in the headlights. In a word, she looked utterly lost. Catherine rose slowly and tentatively stepped forward, as if to avoid scaring the girl away.

“What’s your name?” Catherine asked, in a tone that conveyed her kind and helpful nature.

“Matilda,” the girl answered, in a voice quite disproportionate to her size. It seemed to echo and reverberate around the clearing, causing Catherine to spin around in search of a second newcomer. Seeing no one, she turned her attention back to the girl who had not moved from her seat on the swing.

“Are you lo-“

“Do you want to hear a story? I’m really good at telling stories; at least, that’s what my mom used to say,” interrupted Matilda. At the word ‘mom,’ Catherine noticed the girl’s eyes beginning to fill with tears. How could she say no? The next thing she knew, Matilda had grabbed her hand and pulled her into sitting position on the ground.

“Well, it happened on this very playground about 50 years ago,” began Matilda. “A young girl was sitting on that very swing, the same place she always went to hide when her father came home. On this particular summer evening, thick, dark clouds were rolling in, indicating that a thunderstorm was on the way. The river was roaring, already overflowing its banks due to the frequent rain. However, even as the sky became black, the girl refused to move from her seat; anything was better than going home. A light wind picked up, causing the leaves to rustle in the trees. Out of nowhere, the girl felt chills go up her spine and sensed that someone or something was watching her. A twig snapped in the trees behind her; she spun around, her eyes wide with fear. She peered closely into the forest, but the darkness was impenetrable. As far as she could tell, no one was there. Just then the clouds broke open and the rain began to fall so fast and so heavily that she could barely see her hand when it was in front of her face. Getting home was the only thought on her mind. She ran to the edge of the river, with the intention of following it back to her house, when the sight of something pulled her up short. There, in the freshly made mud, was the impression of two footprints. The prints were large, and the pattern was that of a work boot, obviously male. The girl knew for a fact that the marks had not been there when she first arrived. Someone else had been on the playground, or possibly still was. She was so caught up in her thoughts that she nearly jumped out of her skin when a bolt of lightning flashed across the sky. The thunder that followed seemed louder and more ominous than ever before. In the quiet that followed, she heard it. A faint whispering that grew louder and louder with each passing moment, until she could finally make out the words, ‘Come with me. Come with me.’ Silent tears began to fall down the girl’s face; there was no denying the presence of another human being now. Another bolt of lightning lit up the sky, and in that momentary brightness, she saw it: the silhouette of a man standing no more than 20 feet away. She held in a scream of pure terror, not wanting her stalker to know just how afraid she truly was. The girl took a small step back to put more distance between herself and the man, but that was one step too many. Her foot slipped off the edge of the steep river embankment, and she fell into the rushing water below, never to be seen again…”

Throughout the story Catherine had been becoming more and more paranoid, so much so that she was shaking uncontrollably. Despite the bright afternoon sunlight, she felt cold. The playground no longer felt like a place of peace and comfort. It felt tainted. She repeated to herself that it was only a story; none of it was real. However, even to her ears the words sounded hollow. To calm herself down, Catherine stood up and took a walk towards the river. Looking over the edge, she contemplated the survival rate of a fall like the one in the story. She turned to ask Matilda if the girl had lived, but she was gone, as quickly and quietly as she had appeared.


***

A couple weeks later, Catherine was in the Honesdale Public Library researching a project. She was looking through records of older Times Tribunes’, attempting to find facts about life in the 1950’s. One particular section caught her eye; it was the obituary and missing person’s page. In large, bold print was the name Matilda Thompson and underneath a picture of the girl from the playground. She had gone missing more than 50 years ago, and no one had ever found her.





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