Kendra always walked Sam down Birdwell street, past the tumbledown victorian houses with elaborate gardens, the pond that had ducks sometimes in spring, and the little park.
Sam thought it was a real park and not just a vacant lot between houses. Kendra let him believe it because it was not a bad place, as far as vacant lots go. No abandoned cars or skeletal mattresses. They had never had reason to give it a second glance until today.
In the little patch of grass a castle of wonder had sprung up, garishly colorful spires poking towards the sky. Slides poked like tongues from the structure, flags flew from the highest points. The bars were so fine it looked like they had been spun from sugar.
Sam climbed a little ways up the fence, reaching. “Can I? Can I?”
The lawn was still unkempt, thistles and nettles sprouting from the patchy grass. Kendra eyed it, frowning.
“Best not.” She collected Sam and they walked on.
On Tuesdays Sam’s mother had the historical landmarks committee and then yoga, so Kendra took Sam down to the library. Sam stuck a hand out at the lot, which had gained a geodesic dome of monkey bars. “Pleeeease?”
There were children on it, and adults half-watching as they stood off to the side. Kendra felt a little tug in her chest. How would she have felt, as a girl, if she’d had to walk past such a wonderful place without stopping?
…But there was no sand beneath the structures, no softness to arrest their fall. If Sam came away with a scrape, how could she look her employer in the eye again?
She tugged his hand. “Come along, kiddo.”
With tears budding in his eyes, Sam followed her.
The playground was even bigger that weekend. Sam’s mother just needed a few hours of relief, so Kendra took him for a walk. She knew, as the bright colors drew closer, that she would not be able to keep away this time.
There was a rattling bridge that swung as children ran up and down. There was a climbing wall with brightly colored rungs. And there were children who screamed in joy as they swung, ran, and swarmed over every surface.
The usual bevy of parents standing back, cupping smartphones, drinking from sport mugs, keeping a distant eye on their children.
Maybe it would be okay.
Kendra let go of his hand.
Sam ran as if thrown from orbit. Kendra had to smile as he mounted the first bars. The other children looked like ants swarming over a birthday cake. She could almost smell cake, if she held her head the right way.
A mother with a baby on her hip and dressed in culottes sidled up. “He’s a cutie. You must have been young when you had him.”
Kendra gave an embarrassed laugh. “Actually he’s—I’m a nanny.”
“Oh.” The woman visibly cooled. The baby was sucking on a plastic set of keys, drooling prodigiously.
“Great that this is here, isn’t it?” Kendra said brightly.
“Mmm.” The woman was looking off into the children.
“i mean, this is right out of nowhere. Who built it?”
The woman lifted a shoulder. She was looking deep into the throng of children, poised to move at any second.
“Maybe someone in the neighborhood? I know because—”
The woman gasped. She ran, as did several other parents. Kendra was frozen to the spot as she traced the journey to their target.
A little boy in blue overalls held onto one of the support bars and screamed. No, she saw as the other adults reached him, his hands stuck to the bar and he was trying to pull away. The boy’s father took a knee behind him and wrenched. The boy’s hands came away after too much time, palms completely red. Kendra’s heart hammered as she stormed into the fray and grabbed Sam’s hand. Over his protests, she dragged him home.
The next few days were quiet at the playground. Whenever she walked by(not with Sam, never with Sam) there were only a few, if any, milling around the bright bars. Word of mouth spread fast. Maybe it had been wet paint. Or glue.
The next few weeks were a blur. Sam’s mother enrolled him in an afterschool program, which meant a lot of ferrying him back and forth in the car. No long walks, not in that neighborhood. When at last she did go by, she saw that the numbers had nearly recovered.
One bright Saturday, Sam’s mother went to lay down for a nap. Kendra buttoned him up in a coat and took him by the hand.
It was nice, going past all the old houses. Sam called to people’s dogs, waved to the old woman sweeping her steps. It was just a lovely community, Kendra decided as they came up the sidewalk, a safe place where someone would build a playground out of the kindness of their hearts.
The place was even bigger now. It looked like a little city, with towers and bridges and children ruling over every entrance. She let Sam’s hand slide from her own as he ran, screaming.
The air smelled sweet today, something sugary and warm that made you feel safe. Sam mounted the steps to the highest tower.
Among the parents hanging about the lot, there was one woman frowning over her back fence. Kendra wandered over, smiling amiably.
“I guess they didn’t get permission from the whole neighborhood, huh?”
The woman gave her a puzzled glare.
Kendra stammered. “I-I mean, it’s nice that this is here, but I can see how living next to it is kinda loud, huh? Was construction bad?”
The woman looked her up and down. Finally she said, “it wasn’t built. It was just here one day.”
Kendra could hear the children screaming behind her. It was a droning noise that carried no emotional inflection. “That…that can’t be right.”
“If it were me, I wouldn’t let my kids on that. Wrong.”
There was a sudden pause in noise. It was wrong. Kendra could feel it in her bones. She turned and saw the the bright castles thrumming with children.
Then, as Kendra watched, the spires untwined and fluidly sank back into the ground, taking the children with them.