That’s blood. Family. I don’t have to look in a mirror to see the connection. He’s got my eyes — olive green with an inner ring of brown radiating out from the pupil. I guess it’d be more accurate to say I’ve got his eyes. The realization makes me recoil.
He’s staring at me. I think he’s speaking. I know his hands are fluttering at the ratty hem of his denim shirt; I know his full lips — echoes of mine — are moving.
But I hear nothing.
I retreat on shaky legs, putting the splintered frame of the swing set between us. “You shouldn’t be here,” I finally manage to say.
And he shouldn’t. This abandoned playground is a sacred place. It does not belong to him. It is ours — Mama’s and mine. Being here today feels right. It’s more of a goodbye than flowers and tears could ever be.
Every breath he exhales into this place is wrong. A blasphemy. A betrayal. I half expect the horses and elephants to rock off their springy foundations and attack this intruder.
He raises his hands, as if to calm a frightened animal. But he keeps stepping closer, boots crunching through the thinning gravel and shoots of greenery. And he keeps talking.
All I can think of is Mama. This man broke her long before I could form lasting memory. He left the ghosts of his rage on her face. He didn’t take her life, but he stole something infinitely more precious — her spirit.
For twenty-three years, I watched her decline. She tried to go about living for me, but could barely drag herself from the safe shadows of her bedroom. I made dinner. I cleaned. Grandma visited every now and again, but never stayed long. Mama brought that life upon herself, Grandma said wordlessly. All with the slight raise of an eyebrow. She’d never meet my eye. I guess it was easier for her that way. She’d press a check into my hand, when all I wanted was an embrace, some kindness, a bit of guidance.
I received no guidance then, and I receive none now. I’ve retreated further, toward the tree-line framing this forgotten place. I feel a kinship to the rotted timbers that barely support a cracked and faded plastic slide. I feel a connection to the rusted merry-go-round that screams when you spin it — its merriment long since worn away. The trees and the grasses and trailing vines creep over the sunken two-by-fours framing the playground.
Maybe they’ll give new life to me as well as to this place.
“Annie, please,” the man says, and his voice ignites something long buried, long forgotten in me. “I’ve changed. I’m better. I just… I just want to make amends.”
I’m standing in the grass now, in the dappled shadows of the forest. He’s still moving toward me, his image blurred by the flames consuming me.
He steps easily over the beams that frame my old playground. He glances at the jutting nails, worked loose after years of disrepair, but too soon his eyes find me.
I want to tear them out.
Instead, my hands bunch in my black dress. I am caught between opposing instincts. Fight or flight?
He’s too close. He smells like aftershave. His face is penitent, eyes red-rimmed and filmy with tears. His hands reach out to me and I picture them wrapped around my mother’s throat.
He touches my shoulder.
I see her — broken, weeping.
He spills his apologies, moving in for an embrace.
I see her — pale, broken even in her coffin.
In a blur, my hands snap forward as I scream. I throw my whole weight into him. Time stutters, slows as he stumbles. Falls. His head strikes the barriers he dared to cross. Nails embed. I find myself straddling his chest, fists striking out.
He does not ward me off.
He is still. Still like Mama.
That’s when I see.
That’s blood. Spilling from his skull, marbling my hands, my fists, my face as I press trembling fingers to my mouth and begin to weep.
Alexis A. Hunter revels in the endless possibilities of speculative fiction. Short stories are her true passion, despite a few curious forays into the world of novels. Over forty of her short stories have been published, appearing recently or forthcoming in Shimmer, Cricket Magazine, Spark: A Creative Anthology, and more. To learn more about Alexis visit idreamagain.wordpress.com.