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The next night, Arianne leaves the window open and sits at the cherry-wood writing desk. She has brushed the tangles out of her hair and smeared some foundation onto the dark, bruiselike circles under her eyes. It is a long wait until the allotted time, but she does not read, nor write, nor sleep. She simply waits. There is a hope that burns in her stronger than any fire. She can think of nothing else.
She does not flinch when a swan lands on her windowsill, stretches its long neck forward, and steps into the room. It hops down onto the floor, scratches under a wing with its beak, then looks up at her.
Arianne kneels so that her head and the swan’s are close together. She pulls the head forward until her nose touches its beak. “It has to be you,” she breathes. “Tell me it’s you.”
And suddenly, she’s not touching feathers and down, but soft skin and the strong muscle beneath. “It’s me,” he says, and it’s not wings but arms that come up to enfold her and press her tight against his body. He feels so corporeal, she can’t help but run her hands up and down his back, along his arms. She touches his hair and shudders at the exhale of his breath on her cheek. So real.
When she tells him so, he laughs. “But I am real. Just for tonight, I’m real.”
“It was you, all that time?” she asks. He nods. She strokes his throat, looks for the pulse of life that used to throb in the well of his collarbone. It is the only thing missing in this otherwise perfect vision. “Why didn’t you just come to me? Why all the birds?”
He cups her face in one large hand. They were always soft, the hands of an artist. They were no rougher now. “There are rules,” he murmurs. “There are always rules. You had to realize yourself, and you had to want it, truly want to be with me again. And it can only be tonight.” He stands, and pulls her to her feet, then pulls her in again.
She has a million more questions – about how real he feels, about where he when he disappeared in the river, about what happened to him after he died – but instead she’s choking up and the tears are streaming down her face like waterfalls and all she can manage to say is, “Why you? Why did you have to go and leave me behind?” Then she is overcome, her voice falls to pieces and she can do nothing but sob into his chest.
He shushes her and strokes her back until she subsides. When she is a little calmer, he draws back and regards her. His gray eyes are kind but firm. “It was not something I meant to do. But life takes a strange course for all of us, Arianne.” He lifts her and she wraps her arms and legs around his trunk, holding on against tomorrow and the worlds that separate them.
He whispers into her ear, “Don’t lock yourself away here for the rest of your life. You deserve happiness and a future full of laughter and light and hope.”
Beneath the thin shift of her nightgown, she feels the steady thump of a heart. Is it his or her own?
“I can’t,” she says. “There are so many things – so many people waiting to say they’re sorry, to see whether I can make it, to watch me struggle on without you.” Her future feels like the house – it’s too big.
Maybe being dead gave him the ability to read her mind. Or maybe he just knows her well enough to understand what she’s thinking. He turns his head and kisses her, slowly and sweetly, the kind of kiss he always gave her. Her heart leaps at the touch of his mouth.
When their lips part, he carries her over to the bed. “The house isn’t too big,” he whispers as he sets her gently down. “It’s just the right size.”
By the time the sun has risen, he is gone. But so are the dreams, she knows.
It will still be hard. There will be tears and little stinging memories. And there will be questions when she starts to show, she thinks as she looks down at her belly. But she can weather them. And life will bring joy, in time.
And she’ll leave water out for the birds.