One of the local mothers sat down on the bench next to her and K discreetly wiped her tears, keeping her face low. Children played in the distance, their laughter piercing the bright summer sky.
‘It’s beautiful weather today, isn’t it?’ K said. From the corner of her eye she glimpsed long black hair swaying as the stranger nodded in response.
‘Which one is yours?’ K asked and the woman pointed at a group of faceless boys climbing the monkey bars. K didn’t care enough to ask her to specify; her own daughter was playing somewhere too far for her to see.
The pair fell quiet again and K was left to wallow in her sorrow. After the events of that morning, there was no going back. She would have to leave her husband, move to a new town, find a new apartment and a new job. The idea of starting again filled her with crippling fear.
‘Have you ever thought about…’ K said, hungry for a connection ‘…about leaving everything behind? To leave your current life and start somewhere new?’
She didn’t have the courage to face the other woman directly, embarrassed by her blotchy tear-stained cheeks. But when the dark figure nodded, K felt braver.
‘When I was seven my mother…she left us. Packed her bags one night and when I woke up in the morning she was gone.’ K folded up on herself ‘It was so incredibly selfish. I hated her for so long, thinking she was a coward. But now, when I look back on it, wasn’t she actually incredibly brave? Leaving her whole life behind and never once hesitating, never once giving in and coming back. That requires courage. I don’t think I could do that.’
No. That wasn’t true. K froze when she realised that.
A small niggling voice in her mind reminded her that she did leave. She escaped her husband and her old life, many years ago. What she was experiencing now, it was a memory or a dream of something that had already happened.
She’d sat in this playground twenty years ago and made the decision to leave.
A sense of wrongness filled her stomach as K began to remember. Some memories came easy- her work as a marine biologist, the beautiful sights of exotic planets, faces of her colleagues and friends- while some remained just out of reach. How did she get here? Was she back on Earth?
With horror, K realised that she couldn’t even remember her own name.
But one thing was sure- that summer day on the playground when she made the decision to leave her family behind- there hadn’t been a stranger sitting next to her on the bench. She had been alone.
With slow careful movements K turned around and faced the thing pretending to be a mother.
At first glance the creature looked human; a tall skinny woman with black hair and long coat looking down at her with unblinking eyes. But the longer K stared the more the image shifted; like a flitting veil covering the creature’s true face, it moved back and forth, distorting the pulsing features.
‘What are you?’ she whispered. The inner voice tied to her memories told her that if she made any contact with the thing sitting next to her, something horrible would happen.
But even as the thought registered, K was overcome by a strange mix of attraction and repulsion. The creature very slowly shifted its arms, angling its elongated body to face her directly. It was almost as if it was offering an embrace. And when she realised that, K was swallowed by an illogical urge to bury her face into the creature’s pale neck, to press her cheek against its hair and let herself melt into the alien darkness. The urge was so strong that she grew light-headed and gripped the edge of the bench, leaning away.
There had to be a reason why she couldn’t touch the creature. The warning of no contact must have come from her colleagues.
It took enormous effort to disentangle herself from the creature’s gaze and look away. She didn’t have the energy to stand so K stared at the playing children instead, conscious of the pulsing foreign presence next to her. The running faceless shapes distorted each time she fully focused on them and K was beginning to realise that the playground wasn’t a memory or a dream but an illusion of some kind; a world that has been created specifically for her.
She struggled to locate her daughter and opened her mouth to call out her name, only to realise that she’d forgotten it. Twenty years ago she left the playground without that last glimpse, sparing herself the guilt of seeing her daughter’s crying face. And yet, as if summoned by her thoughts, a familiar face peeked from behind a slide, grinning at her. Her daughter’s cheeks were dirty, pigtails slightly askew from that morning.
Time stopped. Their eyes met and for a short surreal moment K felt as if she was both the mother abandoning her child and the child being abandoned by her mother. Then her daughter ran after the group of faceless children and the moment passed.
The brief glance stole all of K’s willpower. She collapsed against the back of the bench, turning her head towards the creature. The tall presence was watching her with kind eyes, its mouth opened into a grotesque black yawn, swallowing its whole face. Its arms were still open, waiting for K to move closer.
The thought of pressing herself against the creature filled her with syrupy bliss. Her whole life, she’d avoided contact of any kind, running away from anything resembling a lasting human connection. But when faced with this wordless invitation, K realised that there wasn’t anything she craved more.
Using her last remaining energy, K leaned forward and buried her face in the creature’s neck. Two arms wrapped around her and she was gone.