The old playground is usually empty this time of day, especially after Old Man Farthing hung himself with an extension cord from the swing apparatus a year ago last Tuesday. They say his ghost still haunts the swings on occasion, the village gossips do, Verena Stone and Jill Swingholm. The two of them sit on Verena’s porch most days regaling anyone who passes with stories, both factual and fictional, but even they don’t know which are which. Their favorite story is the one of Old Man Farthing, though, and the swings that still swing when there is no wind and no children on them to make them creak as they do.
And these days there are no children on the three swings that make up the playground’s west corner, or on the large slide to the east, or even on the merry-go-round that completes what used to be the meeting point for children from the three villages nearest to Atlanta, Idaho. Now people pass by Verena Stone’s porch, hear the tales of bloodless ghosts, of hangings and desperation, and they move on. Sure, sometimes they venture near to take photographs if they dare, but that is as close as they usually get.
But today is different, a feeling in the air that seems to shimmer with a new energy. It is so palpable that rumors have already started going around in and around Atlanta, that the ghost of Old Man Farthing might rock the swings tonight. Indeed, a vigil has been organized by none other than Jill Swingholm, to be started at ten o’clock in the evening, the alleged time of the grisly suicide. She is renting her folding chairs for two dollars apiece, and Verena is just slightly jealous of her friend’s one-upmanship. Just slightly.
He had a first name, you know. He wasn’t always Old Man Farthing. In fact, he had been quite beloved by the town as a war hero when he returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam. His name was Thomas, and he had been born to an older couple who thought they would never have children of their own. In fact, they had adopted several children before Thomas arrived. He was their miracle child of their old age, and they never let him forget it. Or anyone else, for that matter.
Thomas Farthing had lived a quite charmed life until he decided to go to “that godforsaken ‘Nam,” as his father always called it, for better or for worse. That one choice was seen by his family as a refusal to appreciate his miracle status, as a death wish of sorts, and eventually even though he returned physically unscathed, it drove a wedge between him and his father, who died mere months after the United States pulled out of the war. When Thomas’s mother followed his father to the grave after another year, the recently decorated war veteran became the village hermit, the Boo Radley of Atlanta.
And so began the stories, all of them elaborate, and every single one of them would have been unbelievable if they had been about anyone else. But Thomas Farthing was an enigma, a man who had become larger than life, definitely larger than the little village of Atlanta, Idaho, population 216. By holing himself up in the small house his parents has owned, and reportedly only coming out at night to do god knew what, he unwittingly confirmed every single one of the stories told about him. This went on for several decades, until that fateful evening when he left his house by the back door, leaving it unlatched behind him, walked to the playground in his owl-themed pajamas, and strung that extension cord from the now-infamous swings bar.
Two young boys found him there that next morning, Thaddeus Young and David Goudy, both twelve years of age. They had come to the playground early that following day to play on the adjacent basketball courts. Even though their ball was partially flat, they had no pin by which to fill it with air, so they did their best to play with it anyway, hoping to save money by mowing lawns to pay for a pin at the general store two villages over. In the meantime they got out early and did their best to at least practice shooting with it. According to Jill and Verena, the scene was so stark and grotesque that both boys vomited at the same time upon seeing the body.
By the time the sheriff and county coroner arrived, a crowd had assembled on the front lawn of a neighbor who lived across the street. Among those to witness the hanging body of Thomas Farthing were many children under the age of 10, a travesty indeed. While you and I know that young children should be shielded from such a traumatic experience, their parents believed it would serve as an object lesson of what not to do.
And so, slightly over a year later, they all gather once again across the street from the old playground, not to witness a man past the point of no return this time, but instead to observe what they thought would be a reckoning of sorts. As they arrive and purchase seats from Jill Swingholm, several people look over at the playground and receive a jolt because the playground is not empty. Two large streetlamps cast an ominous glow over the merry-go-round that is standing still as it always does. But on it sits a small, dark-skinned girl with Hello Kitty jeans and a bright white shirt that shines even in the gloom. She looks nonchalant, as if she has no care in the world.
She is not from this village, or from any of the surrounding ones, either. In fact, no one in attendance recognizes her in the least, but they all see her sitting there, an amalgamation of dark and light, both inspired by the scene and inspiring it at the same time. She closes her eyes and hums softly. At the far end of the playground across from her the swings start moving of their own accord.