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the price we pay for love

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1. She dies in his arms. If he moves a certain way, he could see white in the space where her throat has been divided into two. He doesn’t move for hours.

2. She’d told him not to worry, that she’d be okay. The way her body went cold says differently.

3. First time he sees her after that, six months later and still grieving, he thought he’d gone insane. She sees him out of the corner of her eye and before he could call out, she was gone.

4. It was two weeks before she back. Every day when she was alive, she got tea from the same cafe. Lots of milk, two sugars. Her one indulgence to her sweet tooth. He should have known dying wouldn’t keep her from her tea. The scar on her neck was silver and faded so much it was almost gone. Like it had never happened.

5. She comes to him next time. It had been one year since he lost her, and he’d collapsed on a park bench outside the cemetery before ever reaching her grave. She sat next to him, took his hand, and said nothing. By the time the tears stopped, she was gone.

6-9. The next few times she visited, it was as though that moment on the bench never happened. He blinked and she disappeared. They don’t touch again. His hand burned anyway.

10. “You should be dead,” he calls out to her. The street lamp flickers. “Maybe I am,” she replies. And maybe she is. But what ghost appears in multiple places? What ghost visits their own grave? What ghost feels so alive?

11. She passes him on the street. She drops a piece of paper and makes no move to pick it up. She catches his eye and walks away. He grabs the paper. “To give back,” he thinks and doesn’t dwell on why he thinks that.

12. “I’m sorry,” it reads.

13. He finds her next time, tea cup cooling in her hand and early morning light shining off her hair. There is no scar. He places the note in front of her. He doesn’t touch her. He doesn’t think he can live with the pain if his hand passes through her.

14. “Come home,” he wrote back.

15. She doesn’t.

16. Another year passes. He makes it to her grave this time. He puts dahlias on the tombstone and stops by her cafe for tea. He hates the taste, always has, but it’s familiar in the same way she used to be. When he gets home, there’s a dahlia on his doormat.

17. Three weeks later, he goes for another tea. He figures between hallucinating her following him and learning to love too sweet tea, this one is at least emotionally healthier.

18. Or it would have been, if she doesn’t start coming back. He tries to will her away, force the delusion from his mind. He focuses on the way the tea warms his hands and is exactly what she drinks, even in death. But it’s not that simple. Now when he looks, she’s drinking black coffee. That was his drink. She hated it, always had. The two sugars don’t mask the bitter taste her tea leaves.

19. “What happened?” “Why did you leave me?” “Are you really back?” “Please be real.”

20. It all goes unsaid.

21. She answers anyway.

22. “I died and came back. It’s happened before and it will happen again.” “I wanted to protect you.” “Yes.” “I am.”

23. The first time he grabs her hand, she cries.

24. The first time they end up in bed, they do nothing but hold each other, press close enough together that the heat from her body soaks into his bones and her legs intertwine with his.

25. He wakes to find her watching him, something more than awe and closer to adoration on her face. She brushes the hair out of his eyes. “To think I almost gave this up." The words are whispered to herself but given freely to him.

26. Later that morning, he’ll realize that the tea’s gone cold and the coffee is long gone. It won’t matter. Her hands will be warm and she’ll taste of sugar and the jagged, bleeding wound on his heart that matched the one on her throat will finally start to fade.