Dark Playground, The Replacement: A Christmas Story (2700 words)

December. The days are short and often grey, the nights long and cold. A month for spectacular lights, not only the human glimmer, but also the light the sun and the moon create as they chase each other on the firmament. A never ending darkness only to be broken up by short, magnificent moments of dusk and dawn.

A small town, with unusual darkness. Cozy houses with smoke coming from their chimneys. White frost covering the earth, the last leaves on the trees, the bicycle someone forgot out in their front yard, the dead knobs of flowers in the flowerbeds, the white picked fences and just about everything that’s been left out in the cold. A woman in a thick red coat with black gloves and high heels scrapes the window of her car and a man in a workers overall does the same a few streets down. White clouds emanating from their mouths as they breath. People inside their kitchens hugging their first cup of coffee, eating breakfast in the slight glimmer from the christmas lights in the windows, not bothering to put the lights on. Bleary eyed children, eating their breakfast in front of the morning cartoons.

An elderly lady still sitting in her bed with the nightstand lamp shining. Alone. She is reading something on her tablet, her glasses barely hanging on her nose. She looks content until she puts the tablet on her nightstand and climbs out of bed. There are slippers on the floor and she puts them on, along with a thick white rope. She waddles into the kitchen, holding a hand over her right hip. She pushes a button on the coffee maker and pulls cheese and butter out of the fridge. She makes a sandwiches while the coffee is brewing and then she sits down and eats breakfast while watching the colors of light appear in the sky. When she is finished, she stands up and gets dressed. This morning she chooses a pair of brown velvet pants, white cotton t-shirt and a thick, colorful sweater. She pushes her glasses up higher on her nose, climbs the stairs and sits herself in the comfortable chair by the window, where she can see the view over the town, but also, and more importantly, where she can see the playground.

She sits in her chair, knitting a sweater, staring at the window for over an hour without change. She has the ability to do most of her work without actually taking her eyes off the playground. She works quickly with her fingers, stopping only occasionally to look if she’s made a mistake or to look into the distance to see if someone is approaching the playground.

When that happens, she puts her knitting down in the colorful, bamboo basket by her chair and gets up. She goes down the stairs and puts her jacket on, her warm shoes, a pair of mittens she’s knitted herself, a scarf and a beanie to match. Then she opens the door and gets out into the cold morning. She walks determined steps towards the playground and she stays in its vicinity while there are people there. When the people leave, she goes back to her house, back to her chair and her knitting.

But while she’s there she keeps her hands folded behind her back, and she keeps her glasses firmly on her nose, looking around as if she’s expecting something. Sometimes she walks in large circles around the playground, but often she sits down on the bench beside the playground and pretends to be resting.

On cold winter days she mostly gets to rest in her chair, in her warm house. The playground isn’t very popular then, but the occasional parent with a young child come there to let the kids play a little, before heading home, and occasionally the neighbourhood kids gather there.

The kids call her The Creepy Playground Lady, as they have noticed that she frequents the place. She sometimes talks with them, but she never reveals her secret, though some of the kids know why she is there, and they appreciate her gesture by giving her drawings they’ve made or gingerbread cookies they’ve swiped from their parents.

She has a wall covered with drawings from the children. Wall to wall covered with drawings of the same thing. They all include her, the children playing on the playground and a dark thing lurking in the shadows by the trees. Some of the children can almost see it, others just know it’s there, but none see it as clearly as she does, with her enchanted spectacles.

During the summers her days are long, but she never complains. She does her job, and when winter comes and the hours are shorter she only worries about the teenagers who sometimes gather there in the dead of night. It’s not common, but it happens and however much she’d want to, she can’t keep an eye on the place twenty-four hours a day. She needs her sleep and although she can usually hear the noise emanating from the playground when the teenagers are there, she still fears the times when she simply can’t be at alert.

Those times faces appear in news papers, people get worried that madmen are lurking in the area and the bodies are never found. She has those faces on her wall, in the room that used to belong to her daughter. The same wall that is covered with drawings. She mourns each and every one of them, but at the same time she is happy that the portion of the wall that covers those who have been lost is small. Those faces aren’t many.

This December the weather is unusually harsh. The cold keeps most parents inside with their children and the neighbourhood kids don’t venture out in it either. She sits safely in her chair overlooking the playground, rarely needing to go out to keep the dark at bay.

This evening, however, she notices a young man sitting on the bench as she is taking off her slippers, readying herself for bed.

He’s sitting there staring at the swings, with his hands in his pockets.

She sighs and stands there staring for a little while. Then she makes a decision and gets dressed again, puts her coat and shoes on, along with her scarf, mittens and hat and then she is out the door with her spectacles on. She walks towards the playground and sits down beside the man without hesitating.

“It’s cold,” he says slowly, his voice raspy. He is young, but he looks troubled.
“It is,” she says.
“You’re still here,” he says a bit sharply, though not in an unfriendly manner.
“I am,” she says, “I remember you”. She smiles at the memory of the man. It’s been a while.
“I remember you too,” he says. “I have nightmares”.

She nods her head but says nothing, there isn’t much to say. It’s the way of things, grown-ups get nightmares about the atrocities that happened to them when they were kids.

“I’m sorry that had to happen to you,” she says at last.
“I wonder every day,” he says, “what would have happened had you not been there.”
“I wonder such things too, but I am, for now.”
“What will happen when you’re not here anymore?” he asks her.

She looks at him and smiles sadly, “I’m afraid that’s out of my control”.
“What is it?” he asks her, resuming a low, level-tempered voice.
“It’s an abomination, it’s a hole in the universe where dark creatures come out, vile dark creatures that don’t belong here,” she says.
“Do you see them?”

She sizes him up and down. She has never before spoken of the things she sees, never before confided in anyone but she knows that her time is short, sooner or later she will have to hand in the towel, give up to the thing and hope that is enough to keep it at bay for a while.

“I see them with these,” she says, pointing to her spectacles. “They allow me to see the dark beasts and fight.”

“You have an awesome ability,” he says. “When you stood there over the thing that had my foot, I thought you were god herself coming to rescue me. I remember it clawed at my leg, I remember I heard the slithering and some awful undertone that sounded like it was coming from another world.”

“You were lucky,” she says and pats him on the leg. “I know it doesn’t feel like it, but you were.”
“I know,” he says.

They sit in silence for a while, listening to the night. The woman looks around from time to time, as if to make sure they’re not being stalked. Then she sighs. The young man pats her hand and shakes his head.

“It can’t be easy for you,” he says. “What have you had to sacrifice?”

“Those were sad sacrifices, but the life of small children is at stake. This isn’t the kind of thing you go to the authorities with, they would put me away and believe me it was close, once, that they did.”

“Tomorrow is Christmas eve,” he says.
“Yes,” she smiles, “it’s my one day off”.
He looks at her and shakes his head. “Day off?” He sounds appalled.
“One day,” she says. “one day a year the place is bright and beautiful and the darkness isn’t there. It’s my day off. That day the kids can play there without fearing anything.”
“How do you manage, how do you live?” he asks.
“There is money, it comes with this job,” she says.
“I got the spectacles of an old man when I was about your age. He saved me when I was a child. I guess it comes with the territory. You need to know it, to be able to fight it. He didn’t have to tell me how important the job was. What he failed to tell me is that it’s almost impossible to have a life while keeping this up. My husband understood, bless his memory, but my daughter paid the price.”

“I’m sorry,” he says.

The old woman looks at the man and cocks her head. She’s quiet for a little while, fighting her inner demons, her hands are getting cold and she is sleepy.

“Are you here to replace me?” she asks finally. There is a little smile on her face, a star flickering in her eyes.
“I guess I am,” he says. “What do I have to do?”

The old woman sighs, it’s a happy sigh, a sigh of relief and she stands up. “Come with me,” she says and starts walking to her house. The young man follows her silently. When they enter the house the old woman offers him warm coffee and biscuits. He accepts and they sit for a while, quietly thawing their limbs.

“I will give you the spectacles,” she says finally. “And you need to put them on when I tell you to. They aren’t annoying, you will forget you have them after a little while. I’ve learned to look over them mostly. There are things you don’t want to see. But when you’re at the playground it’s important to keep them on, and keep sharp. Your work is twofold. You save the children and you keep the dark at bay. It’s not the most important job in the world, I’m sure, but it’s pretty damned important. You can never sleep on the job, you sleep and children get dragged into that place. I’m sure you know that’s a fate worse than death. You need to find something you can do while watching the place, and you need to find a way to be alert. You need to be there for them. Mostly it’ll keep at quiet, but you need to show it that you are the boss here now. It might be a bit of a struggle at first. The spectacles give you courage, they give you vision and the ability to fight it. You’re not a superhero, you’re just a handyman.”

He nods his head.

Slowly the old woman takes off her spectacles and puts them on the table in front of her. The young man doesn’t pick them up, but stares at them as they transform slowly. After a while they look nothing like the old woman’s spectacles, and more like a young man’s. The transformation is subtle, but certain.

“They are yours now, please do a good job, there is a lot hanging on it. And remember that the real agony of this job isn’t fighting the dark, or the beasts that come out, but accepting yourself when you loose someone to it.”

“You need to realise that despite all, you are alone and you are doing a great job.”

He nods his head, a lock of hair falling into his eyes.

“You will keep the house, it’s yours now. And you will never have to do another job in your life. That’s seen to”.

“By who?” he asks.

“I’ve learned not to pry too much. But you will never lack for anything material. This is your work and you get paid for it, quite handsomely.”

“But we don’t do it for the money,” the young man whispers.

The old woman stands up and ushers the young man to come with her. “Take the glasses with you but don’t put them on yet,” she says and then she goes to the room where she keeps the drawings and the faces of the kids who vanished. 

“This is my sanctum,” she says, “the place where I keep the memories. I have those who were lost,” she points to the small portion on the wall, “and I have those who I’ve saved,” she points towards another wall, a big wall. “And there you have the kids,” she says and points to the drawings. “The kids will call you creepy, and as a man you have to be very careful about how you stalk the playground, though I do suspect the spectacles will handle that problem for you. Just keep a low profile and the kids will learn to appreciate you. They will still call you creepy, but they will bring you their gifts of appreciation once they realise, though they never truly know the depth of it, what you do for them.”

The young man nods, puzzled.

“You can keep the sweaters as well,” she says smiling. “I have no idea what to do with them all.”

The man looks at the piles of sweaters on the floor. Thousands of sweaters, knitted in different sizes and shapes.

“I’ve given many away, but I can’t just sit and do nothing,” she smiles.

“Now come with me,” the woman drags the man towards the front door again and starts dressing again. She takes the young man to the playground and situates him in front of the bushes where the darkness is worst. She tells the man to put the spectacles on and he hestantly pulls them out of his pocket and puts them on.

A strange murmur goes through the area, as if the world is sighing with relief and the young man seems to change just a little. Not physically, but suddenly there is a form of agelessness about him, a sense of kindness and quiet calmness radiates from him.

The old woman is still the same, although maybe she is slouching a bit more, the cold getting to her.

When the transformation is over and the man has looked into every aspects of the playground, has seen the calm darkness waiting, abiding its time, chagrinned by the fact that the old woman has been able to do what the previous day had seemed impossible.

“Merry Christmas,” she says as they walk together towards the house. “If you don’t mind I’ll keep you company. I’ve been doing this for so long I don’t really know what to do with myself. Though if I make it to summer I might take a trip to Paris. I always wanted to see Paris.”

The man smiles and takes her by the shoulder, “Merry Christmas” he says.

“You are the best Christmas gift I ever got,” the old woman says. She takes one last look at the playground, and then she never looks at it again.

It’s within her rights, now that she has her replacement.

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