"I'm telling you, Alice, it's haunted--"
"I don't believe you, Miles, you're just a little liar!" said the girl, tossing her long hair back over her shoulders.
"No, it's true! Andy Tanner at school told me. He said every night at midnight you can see him there, just walking up the path, and then--"
"And then what? He jumps out at you and yells 'boo'?"
Miles pulled his blanket tight around his shoulders. "I think you're just chicken, you are," he muttered.
Alice narrowed her eyes, then whacked her brother with a nearby pillow. "Chicken, am I? We'll see who's chicken. Let's go down there right now. It's almost midnight." She looked smug.
Miles hesitated. He knew he'd painted himself into a corner. "All right then," he agreed, hoping his voice didn't sound too shaky. "Let's go."
The two children put their shoes and jackets on over their pajamas, then crept out the front door, carefully picking their way over to the garden gate.
"Watch out, Alice, remember the gate squeaks--"
"Shh!" Alice lifted the latch delicately and ever so slowly swung the gate open.
Although the two children had lived in Millford Lane their entire lives, they'd never been out alone after dark, and the usually friendly red brick cottages looked oddly threatening. Clutching at each other, they made their way down to the bottom of the street, walked past the empty shops, and stopped in front of a small, wrought-iron gate.
"Ladies first," said Miles.
Scowling, Alice clambered over the locked gate and into the deserted playground.
"Over there," Miles said, pointing at an overgrown, flowering shrub. "Let's wait for him over there."
The two children scrambled over to the bush and crouched behind it.
Then they waited.
In the summer moonlight, the playground had taken on an eerie glow. Crickets chirped, owls hooted in the distance, and every little noise in the underbrush made the children jump. Soon, Alice's legs began to cramp and she said, "Let's go home, Miles, this is silly--"
Miles sighed. "All right. I should've known Andy Tanner was --"
"Wait!" said Alice, dropping back to the ground. "Look!"
She pointed to the side of the playground opposite where they'd entered. Down at the bottom of the hill, there was a small, silvery shape, which grew larger and larger as it climbed up the path until the two children could see that it was a man, a tall man dressed in a dark cloak. He had a long, thin face shrouded by curtains of dark hair and was carrying something like a stick in his ghostly hand. But he wasn't exactly a real man at all - he was nearly transparent, and on his glimmering throat was a horrible, gaping wound.
At the top of the hill, right in front of the rusty old swingset, the ghost-man stopped. He glanced around the empty playground, his eyes resting briefly on the bush where Alice and Miles were hiding, and they trembled in fear. But if he noticed them, he did not care, because he said nothing.
Instead, he crouched down in the gravel beneath the swingset. He flicked the long, stick-thing in his hand and a stream of pebbles rose into the air and fell, neatly and unnaturally, with a clatter back on the ground.
Then the man got up, walked to the nearest swing, and began to caress the chains lightly, as if they were some holy object he was strictly not allowed to touch.
"Look at his face," whispered Alice. "He looks so sad."
"I wonder who he is," said her brother. "He's dressed so funny."
Then, as the children watched, the ghostly man sat down on the swing. As he began to pump his legs, the grief on his face slowly transformed into something approaching happiness, but not quite getting there. It was as if he'd never been happy before, and wasn't sure how to do it properly, and was instead trying to imitate what he'd once seen a happy person do.
When the swing reached as high as it would go, the ghostly man spread his arms and jumped off, soaring into the air and disappearing with a faint flash of light, like a shooting star.
Alice and Miles, who had wrapped their arms tightly around each other, held their breath for a long moment, and then stood up.
"Where did he go, do you think?" Miles asked, his voice cracking.
"I dunno. But look! Look over there, by the swing."
The two children approached the swing, which was still rocking slowly, as if in a breeze. Beneath it, the ghostly man had rearranged the little pile of gravel to form a single word: