“Mallory, wake up. We’re here.” her father’s voice pulled her out of sleep as their car passed a faded yellow sign welcoming them into the town of Gillsboro; population: 457.
Their car jolted to a stop. Mallory opened her eyes, peered out the window, and froze.
“Is this… the house? You’re sure this is the right address?”
“Well, yes,” said Mrs. Evans, her mother, beaming at her through the rearview mirror, “Isn’t it wonderful?”
Before them stood a small house slowly being overtaken by ivy. The lawn was covered in dead grass and the chilly autumn wind blew dead, brown leaves like tumbleweed across the cracked driveway.
“Oh, cheer up Mallory. We’re only going to be here for two months,” consoled Mr. Evans, her father, “We’ll go right back to New York after your mother finishes her research.”
As her parents unloaded the car, Mallory tentatively opened the front door to the house. Instantly, a cloud of dust blew up in her face, and she started coughing. Her parents rushed over, concerned.
“You okay?” Mallory nodded, wheezing a bit.
“Tell you what, kiddo,” said her father, “Why don’t you take a walk around the neighbourhood while we vacuum all that nasty dust.”
“I saw a playground a few ways back,” suggested her mother, “The weather’s so nice today.” Mallory looked up at the grey, overcast sky and skeptically raised an eyebrow.
“Hmm, maybe not that last part,” laughed her mother, “Off you go now. Make some friends. But don’t come back too late!”
Mallory wandered around town until she saw the playground her mother must have been talking about. As she drew nearer, she saw a lone girl sitting on the swings, swaying back and forth in a gentle way that was almost hypnotic.
The girl looked up, and Mallory was surprised to see that they looked alike. They both had small brown eyes, unnaturally pale skin with a sprinkle of freckles, and curly dark hair. They were even wearing similar clothing. Mallory bristled ever so slightly at this coincidence; she preferred to be unique. “Identity is important!” she often told her parents.
The girl smiled at her and said in a soft voice, “Hello. Do you want to play?”
“Oh. Sure,” said Mallory, eager to make friends. “I’m Mallory Evans. What’s your name?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet,” shrugged the girl as if it were perfectly normal to be nameless.
Not wanting to be rude, Mallory smiled awkwardly and plowed through. “I live down that street. We just moved in, actually. Do you live around here?”
The girl on the swings nodded ever so slightly.
“That’s cool. Oh, you know I’ll be going to Gillsboro Elementary, starting tomorrow. I suppose that’s obvious, though. Since it’s the only school in town. Haha,” Stop babbling! Mallory thought to herself. “Maybe we’re in the same grade. How old are you?”
“Ten. Same as you,” the girl said so quietly Mallory had to lean in to hear.
“Oh, how did you know how old I was?” she laughed, a little uncomfortably. The girl shrugged with a strange smile.
“Are you going to sit?” The girl and Mallory sat on the swings in an unnatural silence occasionally broken by the tired creak of the swings.
After a few minutes, Mallory realized it was nearly dark, and stood up. “I should go. It’s getting late,”
“It’s only four o’clock,” murmured the girl, “It gets dark early here, because of the fog.” she added, seeing Mallory’s surprised expression. Sure enough, tendrils of fog were swirling around their feet.
“I should get home before it gets any darker, then.” Mallory gave an awkward little wave before speed-walking back to the house.
The next morning, Mallory and her parents, exhausted from the long drive, woke up at half-past-eight. Her father frantically drove her to school, and she stumbled into her classroom, an hour late on her first day.
A dozen heads turned around to stare at her, smirking at her rumpled clothes and oversized glasses, which were askew on her face. A sinking feeling began to take over Mallory’s stomach.
“Nice of you to join us, Mallory.” said a man, presumably her teacher, “I’m Mr. Peters.”
Mr. Peters had lines all around his face, as if he had spent his whole life scowling. “In the future, please remember to show up on time. Sit anywhere you like.” he said in a brisk tone.
Mallory scanned the faces of her new classmates, who stared back at her unblinkingly. She searched for the girl from the playground, but somehow Mallory had a feeling she wouldn’t be there. She sat at an empty desk, alone, at the back of the cramped classroom.
Mr. Peters had a droning, monotonous voice, and within seconds Mallory’s mind was elsewhere. Her thoughts wandered back to the girl on the playground. Why isn’t she at school? Mallory wondered. There was only one class per grade, and Gillsboro Elementary was the only school around. As these thoughts swirled around her head, Mallory’s curiosity grew. She decided that she would head over to the playground after school to see if the girl was there.
“Mallory Evans!” Mr. Peters snapped her out of her reverie. Her classmates snickered, and she realized that he must have been calling her name for quite some time.
“I do not appreciate daydreamers in my class. Please pay attention.” he fixed her with a glare.
After school, Mallory headed back to the old playground. She knew the girl would be waiting for her. The girl looked up from the swings expectantly at the sound of Mallory’s footsteps, and a small smile crept over her face.
“Hello. I’ve been waiting for you.” She and the girl sat on the swings for a few minutes before Mallory broke the silence,
“I didn’t see you at school today,”
“Oh, I don’t go to school,” replied the girl elegantly.
“How come? Are you homeschooled?”
The girl shrugged, then after a pause,“How was your day?”
“Oh, it was awful!” said Mallory, suddenly wanting to vent her frustration. “I was late on my first day, and my classmates laughed at me every chance they got. My teacher hates me already, and I’ve decided that I hate him too. I hate the school, I hate the fog, and I hate this awful awful town!” she finished, breathless, and looked over at the girl, suddenly fearful that she might have offended her.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” said the girl soothingly, and Mallory relaxed, “Do you want to ride the roundabout?”
The roundabout was a large metallic plate that, despite its rustiness, spun around on a screw, like a miniature carousel. Mallory lay on her back, gripping the handrails tightly while the girl pushed her around and around and around.
Mallory watched the sky spin above her until it was no longer blue, but the dark foggy colours of dusk in Gillsboro.
Each day, Mallory went to school, dreading the inevitable moments when Mr. Peters would pick on her, and her classmates would laugh at her like crazed hyenas. After school, she would go to the playground, and as strange as the girl was, being with her was often the only bright spot in Mallory’s day.
One afternoon, after a particularly horrible day at school, Mallory sat with the girl and to her horror, began to cry. Mallory wasn’t really the type to get upset at these things, so her sudden tears came as a surprise. She sniffled after a minute, and apologized.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. School is awful, you’re lucky you don’t go.”
“If you like, I could go to school for you,” offered the girl out of the blue. Mallory looked up, startled at this sudden suggestion. “Since you hate it so much… We look similar enough, and nobody cares enough to notice. Nobody in this town cares about anything apart from themselves…” the girl’s innocent voice developed a hard edge.
Mallory found herself nodding along, and without thinking, she said, “I suppose we could try.”
The next morning, Mallory woke up, waved goodbye to her parents, and walked out the door. The girl was waiting at the playground. Mallory handed over her backpack after taking out the extra lunch and water bottle she had packed for herself. She sat on the swings while the girl slipped on Mallory’s backpack.
The girl adjusted her posture slightly and said, “Hi, I’m Mallory Evans,” in a voice that was eerily similar to Mallory’s.
“Woah,” said Mallory, trying to shake off her uneasiness, “Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“I just want you to be happy,” the girl said with Mallory’s voice, which made her flinch. “Hmm. Give me your glasses.” Mallory obliged, handing them over. “That’s better, don’t you think? Wait here, okay? I’ll come back after school.” With that, the girl with Mallory’s voice left the playground, carrying Mallory’s backpack, wearing Mallory’s glasses, and walking with Mallory’s gait.
Mallory, the original one, sat on the swings, and waited. She ate the sandwich, and drank most of her water. Around midday, fog began to creep in, making strange, sinister shapes in the haze. The fog seemed to be reaching out towards her, its clawing tendrils grasping anything it could. She began to regret handing over her glasses.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” Mallory called out to the strange whispers in the wind. The back of her neck tingled, and she whipped her head around, certain that someone was there. Her teeth began to chatter and she swung gently on the swings to distract herself.
Eventually, the fog cleared away, and after an eternity, the girl returned.
“I don’t want to do this anymore!” Mallory cried. The girl looked surprised at the sudden outburst,
“Don’t you like being away from your awful classmates and Mr. Peters? You’re not afraid of the fog, are you? I thought you were different from the others. I thought you weren’t scared. I guess I was wrong,” she sighed.
“No!” said Mallory quickly, “It’s not that. It just, you know, feels wrong for you to take my place at school and do all the work,”
“Oh, that’s alright. I quite enjoyed it actually,” said the girl with Mallory’s voice, “I think today was a success. Let’s keep doing this.” There was a strange glint in the girl’s eyes that stopped Mallory from protesting. It’s only for one more month, she thought, and gave in with a tired nod.
Mallory and the girl began to switch places frequently; a few times a week at first, then everyday. After two weeks of switching places and enduring the awful fog, Mallory decided that it was time to stop. She didn’t like sitting on the playground all day, waiting for the girl, waiting for the fog to go away, waiting to get her identity back. So one morning, rather than going to the playground she went to school, as she should have been doing the whole time. She endured the derisive laughter from her classmates and glares from her teacher, but decided it was better than the fog. After school, she went straight home.
Mallory did this again the next day, and the next, avoiding the playground at all costs. She began to feel more like herself again, and became somewhat accustomed to her new life in Gillsboro.
A few weeks later, Mallory suddenly felt lightheaded and nauseous in class, and was told to leave school early when the nurse informed her she had a fever.
Mallory shuffled towards home through the fog, which was thicker than usual. She was staring at her feet in an attempt to dispel the nausea. Suddenly, the familiar sound of the creaking swings interrupted her thoughts and the blood drained from her face. Dreading what she would see, she looked up and recoiled at the sight of the playground.
The girl, sitting on the swings, looked up at Mallory with a cruel grin that was different from her usual small smile.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” the girl’s voice sent shivers down her spine.
“I- I don’t know you,” stuttered Mallory.
“Really? That’s not true,” the girl cocked her head, “We know each other very well. My name’s Mallory Evans,”
“N-no it’s not. I’m M-mallory,” she said. But she wasn’t quite so sure anymore.
“You seem tired, poor thing,” said the girl — or was it Mallory? “Come, sit on the swings.”
Mallory’s feet stumbled towards the swings, and she sat down, whimpering. Her head began to pound harder, and she leaned over, retching. She was aware of her backpack and glasses being taken, but she could do nothing to stop it. She glanced up, not feeling any better, and watched a girl with Mallory’s face walk away into the fog that promptly swallowed her whole.
She waited and waited for the girl to return, unseen and unable to leave the playground.
After what could have been a few hours or a few weeks, a familiar car drove by. A man by the name of Mr. Evans was driving, with Mrs. Evans navigating in the passenger seat. Behind them, next to their piled belongings, the child they believed to be their daughter waved through the window at a girl sitting on the swings.