“How’d you do this year?” she asked.
He didn’t jump. Just like all the other times, he knew she was there just before she said anything. Her visits never scared him. Unsettled, but never frightened. She didn’t work that way.
“Okay,” he said, as if such a bland non-answer could hold any meaning. “Not as well as I wanted.”
She chuckled. It was a light sound, empty of derision. She had never laughed at him. Sometimes she just seemed to find him amusing. “How many times has it ever gone as well as you wanted?” she asked.
He stared down the length of his slouched, seated body and let his eyes focus on nothing somewhere near his knees. “Always.”
She leaned forward from her seat next to him on the park bench. Dark hair fell in wispy strands around her face as she did so, glowing like incandescent filaments when they caught the fading sunlight. Her eyebrows turned up in a look of sympathy and concern, the corners of her mouth quirked up in perpetual wry amusement at life itself. “You set awfully high standards for yourself.”
He shot her a sidelong look out of the corner of his eyes and shrugged deeper into his wholly inadequate jacket. Clear though the sky was, the sun had done nothing to dispel the winter chill from the air. “I have to.”
“I know.” She did. She studied him for several moments and he continued his oblique observation in return. Everything about her smacked of impossibility. Her features were severe and soft, her eyes huge and shrewd, her lips full and thin. As ever, she wore a light, breezy gown that would have been at home in the height of summer or climbing into bed at night, but she paid the frigid weather no mind. “What will you do next year?”
“The same,” he said, “only better.”
She turned to look out across the pond, staring into the waning sunlight. It should have hurt her eyes, but she didn’t work like that. “Nothing different?”
He shook his head. “Nothing different. If I keep piling on new things, I’ll never finish the old ones.”
She nodded, her head rising and falling in time with her deep, even breathing. “You’re learning.”
He chuckled. “I’m shocked myself.”
Her eyes came back to him and the smile she now wore was that same strange, distant but knowing smile he’d seen so many times before. “I’m not,” she said. “It was only ever a matter of time. You were always going to get here eventually.”
“At least one of us thought so,” he groused. He shook his head immediately after, dismissing the reaction. “No, I knew it too. You’re right.”
“I think you’ll make it this time,” she offered. “Maybe, just maybe you’ll even go farther than you think.”
He arched an eyebrow at that. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
Her smile changed again, becoming an impish grin. “Spoilers.”
The wind kicked up and she was gone.
“Spoilers,” he grunted.