At sundown one day, bathing in viscous red-orange, Polly and her friends come up to the entrance of a small neighborhood playground. The playground is mostly deserted, and most of the play structures are covered in a fine layer of dust, the tanbark devoid of footprints and unnaturally smooth.
Emma pushes Polly forward. “What are you waiting for? Go!”
Polly swallows hard. “Why am I the one doing this again? We didn’t even rock-paper-scissors this time!”
Mo sighs, resting a hand on Polly’s shoulder with the air of a long-suffering philosopher, to which Polly wishes to punch him. “Polly, Polly, Polly,” he shakes his head. “We’ve been over this already. You just have an unusual talent with the paranormal. Accept your fate.”
Polly scowls. Her friends are going through a phase of obsession with urban legends, and unfortunately for Polly their town is full of them. Just two weeks ago they’d visited the famous Ghost Tree, with Polly as the main communicator, and they’d gotten some… interesting results. Which only served to fuel her friends’ fanaticism, convinced Polly is some spiritual medium or something.
But this time—well. The Ghost Tree was creepy enough, but as the sound of a creaking swing set echoes in consistent intervals through the air, sending spiders down Polly’s spine, she find her body in fight or flight mode. And she chooses flight. But alas, her dumb friends’ senses of danger are broken, so they just keep egging her on.
“Come on, you said you’d do it!” Emma whines. “Or are you a coward, hm?”
Polly scoffs. She is many things—incredibly awkward, a rambler when she’s nervous—but she is no coward. She squares her shoulders and marches into the playground, stepping into the tanbark.
Immediately, regret flows through her body, which quadruples as she walks further in and can make out the figure of a little boy pushing an empty swing set. He had been obscured from their earlier position, but even as she comes into his sight he doesn’t acknowledge her, just keeps pushing his swing. Her friends creep into a good viewing angle some ten feet behind her, crouching at the edge of the tanbark.
Her pulse jackhammers. Polly takes deep breaths, remembering the few of her mother’s meditation classes she’s sat in on. She continues forward, slower and more cautious this time, until she’s standing next to the swing set. Still the boy doesn’t look at her.
Polly clears her throat. “Can I—may I sit here?”
She gestures towards the other swing. The boy makes no reaction. She nods to herself, offering him a tight smile, and then sits gingerly in the swing next to his. For a while, she just sits there, hands clasped in her lap and back rimrod straight. Then, after the silence becomes unbearable, she says, “Nice weather today, right?”
Immediately, she curses herself. Why? Why does she have to be like this? She doesn’t even have to look over to know that both Emma and Mo are face palming hard right now.
She tries again. “Don’t your arms get sore, pushing that swing all the time?”
She thinks that one was a little better, but still the boy gives not even the slightest recognition of her existence. She nods to herself again, looking away into the rest of the playground. It’s pretty standard, and she can imagine hordes of children and their shrieking laughter as they climb the monkey bars and push each other down the slides.
But, for as long as she can remember, it’s been empty. Not even the bravest of the children would dare come to this playground, and certainly she’d been absolutely terrified of it when she was younger too. She glances over at the boy next to her again, watches the swing’s arc, up and down again, the exact same path and the exact same angle every time.
Suddenly, the boy’s voice sounds out. “Do you want me to push you, Miss?”
She jolts, pulse beating out of her body and eyes wide at the boy. In all the stories of ventures out into this playground she’s read about on internet forums, the boy had never spoken before. Dang. Maybe she is some kind of medium.
The boy doesn’t look at her and doesn’t stop pushing. “U-um,” she chokes out, using her eyes to send an emergency signal to her friends, who just stare slack-jawed at the scene. Useless.
After a long pause, she says, “Sure.”
She holds her breath, but the boy still doesn’t stop pushing his swing. “Hop on,” he says after a period of sustained silence.
Polly sends a prayer up to the heavens, then stands up shakily. She waits for the seat to swing back to the boy, then slips on, hands grasping at the metal chains as she’s immediately swung up.
At this point, Emma whips out her phone and begins recording. Polly gulps, her body as tense as a wooden board. On the sixth swing, she decides that as long as he’s interacting, she should try to milk him for all he’s worth. “S-so,” she says. “What’s your name?”
“Billy,” he says.
“Oh. That’s a nice name.” She pauses, unsure of how to continue. “My name is Polly.”
The next swing is shakier; she doesn’t arc as high up as before. Polly almost twists in her seat to look at the boy, but then she’s up again, and his push is back to normal. “My sister’s name is Polly,” Billy says after a while.
“Really?” she asks. “That’s really cool. Crazy coincidence, huh?”
Polly’s mind flashes over what she knows about Billy’s story. His grandfather had been the one to build this playground, and everyday he’d come here and push his little sister on the swing set. Then, one evening, as he and his family were walking to the playground, a madman had darted at them and stabbed them all to death at the entrance. From then on, every evening the townspeople would claim they could see a little boy push a swing, which he would do starting from sunset until dawn the next morning.
Polly takes a deep breath. “Hey, Billy,” she starts, a strange calm loosening her tight muscles. “Why don’t you go be with your family?”
Billy replies immediately. “I couldn’t find my sister. I always push her on this swing in the evenings.”
Polly understands. Her heart begins to ache, pulsing a sad beat in time with Billy’s swing. Looking at the disappearing sun, she knows what she has to do.
“Hey, Billy,” she says. “Why don’t I be your sister today? Just for the evening.”
Billy doesn’t say anything for a long moment. When Polly’s sure he won’t respond, he finally says, “I’d like that.”
Polly can hear the smile in his voice.
He keeps pushing her for a long time, until the sun sets and shadows cast coolness against their skin. Some time just before the streetlamps flicker on, Polly swings down and there are no hands pushing her up again. She turns around, and finds Billy gone.