I heard a song on the Sixties on Six on Sirius Radio the other day (I am a die-hard fan of Phlash Phelps)- it’s by Gerry and the Pacemakers and is called Girl on a Swing. The lyrics inspired this story that I hope you will enjoy. You can listen to it here.
Thornton Flannery stood to the side of the playground in the park near the Vulcan statue in Birmingham, Alabama. He waited patiently for the dark-haired girl he’d first seen the week before. It was Saturday again and he hadn’t been able to talk his mother into driving him to the park until now. He hated being only fifteen and still dependent on his parents for transportation.
The week seemed to last forever and he hoped she would be back today. For some reason, he’d been drawn to her smile as sat on the leather sling-like seat of the swings. Initially, she approached the large structure with slow steps as if she were afraid.
As soon as she sat on the seat, though, she smiled in such a beatific way that it took his breath away. She appeared to be around his age, maybe a bit younger. She sat in the swing for a period of time with that smile on her face but only moving her feet slightly to turn the seat to and fro. Her shoes scuffled around in the dirt pit as she turned herself back and forth.
Thornton wanted to approach her to say hello but found himself so transfixed by her that he couldn’t move.
Eventually, the girl pressed her feet into the dirt and pushed off the ground to start the swing moving. Once she was slightly airborne, she pumped her knees to make herself go higher. Her blue and white skirt flapping around her ankles as she moved her legs, she went higher and higher into the air.
A delightful laugh tinkled on the air as she soared above the park in the early morning air. Thornton smiled and whispered, “I want her to share that laugh with me.” He knew it was impossible, but he already thought he might be half in love with the girl and he didn’t even know her name.
Now it was a week later. A week he’d spent in classes daydreaming about what he would say to her and how he could meet her. He sure hoped she would show up. He had no idea who she was or where she came from and if she didn’t come today, he was afraid his heart would wither from the loss of her.
The park was quiet and peaceful this early in the day. The dew still stood on the grass. Thornton decided to take a stroll up to the Vulcan while he waited for the girl he’d begun to think of as the girl on the swing.
He ambled up the steep hill and when he arrived at the parking lot for the visitor’s center, he stopped to catch his breath. The October early morning sun shone down on the massive statue and glinted off the Vulcan’s shiny naked buttocks. Thornton smiled up at the creation and recalled a conversation he’d once heard between his mother and father about her concern about the indecency of the statue. Only his mother would think of such a thing.
Snorting at the memory, Thornton turned to make his way back down to the playground. He hoped the girl would be there soon. His heart seized and fear suddenly gripped him. What if he’d missed her while he was making the trek to see the statue? He increased his pace.
Thornton staggered the last few steps into the clearing leading to the swings and play area. He tilted his head. Sure enough, he heard the sound of the tinkling laughter he knew belonged to the girl. His heart leaped to his throat and he darted quickly to the place where he watched her the week before.
When he saw her again for the first time in seven days, she was as exquisite as he remembered. He knew he had to meet her and determined to make a good impression, he pulled a package of gum from his pocket and opened a stick. He wanted to have fresh breath when he introduced himself.
The girl kept swinging as he approached the set of six swings. They were the only people in the vicinity. Thornton stood beside the metal bar closest to the swing she was in and shading his eyes from the sun that was now a bit higher in the sky and blocking his view, he tried to get a good look at her. She appeared to have on the same skirt she’d worn the week before and it fluttered and snapped in the crisp October air.
She seemed to notice him and slowed the pumping action of her legs to allow the swing to come to a stop.
As soon as the swing was still, Thornton approached her. She smiled at his out-stretched hand. “I’m Thornton Flannery. I saw you last week—”
She paled and shook her head.
“It’s all right. I don’t want to hurt you.”
She seemed so scared, he wanted to comfort her and let her know that he meant her no harm. He pulled out the package of gum and holding it out to her said, “Evergreen”—he smiled at his own nervousness—“I mean wintergreen—gum?”
She shook her head again and shuffled her feet in the dirt.
Concerned that maybe she was mute and unable to speak to him, he asked, “Can I help you communicate? Can you understand me?”
The girl’s smile was sad but she still didn’t say a word.
A loud sound behind him startled Thornton and he spun around to see what the clatter was about. A group of ten or so boys as well as a few girls came barreling into the play area followed by what seemed to be a series of mothers as well as several older women who might be grandmothers. Great. Now there would be no chance to get to know the girl since the swings, slide and merry-go-round would soon be crowded with kids.
Thornton looked back to say something to the girl and was startled to find that she was gone. He turned his head quickly to scan all corners of the playground. How the heck did she disappear so fast?
A bit bereft that now it would be another week before he could come back to see the girl on the swing, he dragged his steps over to the closest bench and flopped down next to one of the women who appeared to be the age of his own grandmother.
“Why so sad on such a glorious fall day, young man?” the woman asked.
“There’s a girl who I want to meet who plays on the swings. She has the most marvelous laugh. It seems to dance on the air.”
“Ah, you’ve got a poet’s soul.” The woman patted his hand. “I hope you get a chance to meet her today.”
“She was already here and left when I had my back turned.”
“I’m sorry. That must make you sad. I confess, I get sad here, too.”
“Why does this place make you that way? You seem like you’re okay right now and you came with your grandchild, I guess, right? Shouldn’t that make you happy?”
“That’s true but what makes me want to cry is that I lost a friend here when I was a young girl.” The woman eyeballed him. “I was probably about your age.”
“Lost a friend as in got in an argument?”
“Oh no, dear. She died.” The woman waved at a young boy who Thornton presumed was her grandson. “In fact, you stating that your girl that you like plays on the swings and her laugh is magical makes me even sadder.”
Fear clutched his heart. “Why?”
“My friend had such a laugh.”
“How did she die?”
“The poor thing fell from the swing. She was so high, higher than any of us had ever gone. She seemed to be flying. I swear she touched the sky a few times that day. She laughed and laughed, she was so happy.” The women had a small smile on her face as she recalled that day in the past.
The smile disappeared and the look on her face was pure grief as she said the words that froze Thornton’s blood in his veins. “The chain broke on one side of swing and it plummeted to the ground, almost like a bird does when it’s been shot from the clouds. My friend landed hard and broke her neck. She never knew what happened. She was dead as soon as she hit.”
“Oh God.” Thornton wiped his mouth with his hand trying not to vomit. “When was this and why do you come back here after such a tragedy?”
“Like I said, I was about your age so it was over fifty years ago. I come back for two reasons. One is to make sure the authorities keep the equipment maintained so no one ever dies here again.”
“What’s the second?” Thornton still felt ill but he had to ask.
“You’ll think I’m crazy.”
“No. I won’t. Tell me.”
“I also come because I sometimes swear I can still hear her laughter wafting on the wind and often, when I do, I can almost see her in that blue and white dress with the skirt fluttering in the breeze.”
Thornton knew then that what he feared was true. He was fifteen and in love with a ghost. Unshed tears blinded him for a moment as he looked at the woman. “I believe that you do see her and hear her. I believe it.”
“Absolutely.” Thornton stood and staggered out of the playground to wait for his mother. As he reached the parking lot, he swore he heard the girl’s laugh again.