Swans

By Grace Malinee

1st Place, Prose, Create | Encounter 2020


When Arianna Pena woke in the middle of the night with abdominal pain, she was sure that God was finally punishing her. She pushed herself up in bed, listening to the sounds their apartment made in the night, her heart beating against her ribs. She flattened a palm against her rounded belly.

Deep inside of her, there was a stabbing sensation. A sharp, sudden stitch, almost like what runners got when they forgot to breathe properly, but it wasn't in the right place at all. Arianna looked to where her boyfriend Scott lay, back to her, protected by a wall of pillows. The sharp pain didn't relent. Arianna rubbed small circles on her stomach and sucked in air between her teeth.

She slid to the edge of the bed and stood, a sense of apprehension crowding her mind and making her breaths come ragged. She stood and waited, not entirely knowing for what. Whether to drop dead or whether to feel foolish for having gotten up at all.

The pain persisted. Arianna allowed herself to make a soft whining sound, gripping the bed post with one hand, and sliding the other underneath her belly. Scott rolled over in his sleep but did not wake.

Scott slept as only a man whose girlfriend was eight months pregnant could, relatively undisturbed by her rising in the middle of the night. He must be used to it by now, Arianna figured, what with her getting up nightly, whether to pee or take more antacids, or simply to go watch TV in an insomniac's daze.

But something really was wrong this time. Maybe with the baby.

"Scott," Arianna whispered.

Nothing.

"Scott!"

Scott stirred slightly but did not wake.

Arianna picked up a pillow from her side of the bed and chucked it at Scott's head.

He jerked awake, his hair a mess, and his eyes bleary.

"Hey!" he said, blinked a few times, spied Arianna at the foot of the bed. "Babe, wassa matter? Why are you out of bed?"

Arianna looked at him helplessly. "Scott, something's wrong," She tried to keep the fear out of her voice. And failed.

Was this labor? She didn't know. She'd never done that before. Her water hadn't broken if it was. But she was only 34 weeks. Surely....

Scott sat up straighter, rubbed his eyes, looked worried. "Is it...is it time?" he asked.

Arianna shook her head, bit her lip. "I don't think so, but something...it doesn't feel right."

She let go of the bedpost and trusted herself to wander over to Scott's side of the bed. He was sitting up now, his feet dangling over the side. She came and stood between his legs and he too pressed a hand to her stomach.

But then the pain came again, and a pressure, a pressure at her tailbone, like something inside her might snap in two. Arianna gasped in surprise at the suddenness of it and grabbed Scott's hand, squeezing

hard.

Scott's eyes widened. "Honey, do we need to go to the hospital?"

Arianna nodded, her eyes filling with tears. Fear made her mouth dry.

"I think we do."

What if my baby is born dead? Arianna didn't know why the thought occurred to her as Scott sped down nocturnal Ohio streets, but there it was, creeping into her mind and taking root there.

In the beginning, the fear of miscarriage had been all-consuming. She hadn't told anyone about her pregnancy for several months. She wanted to be sure, she told Scott. Sure that this baby was here to stay.

After all, after what they'd told her that day, that day three years ago...

Arianna pushed the thought away.

Despite every ultrasound that had come back normal, despite every test that assured her that her baby was fine, she still lived in fear of failing somehow, of her child dying and God laughing at her misfortune.

She was waiting for a tragedy.

She didn't deserve this baby. She didn't. Not after last time.

The pain came again and she reached over and grabbed Scott's arm, tears making the street lamps blurry streaks as he began to speed faster.

The hospital received her quickly and though every nurse she encountered told her to 'relax and smile', Arianna felt like she was a domino poised, ready to be tipped.

After a nervous two hours, a verdict was reached.

Braxton-Hicks contractions mixed with indigestion.

Standard for the third trimester. Nothing to worry about.

When Scott helped her back into the car and she fastened the seat belt around her belly that still housed a healthy and growing baby, she couldn't help but feel like she'd dodged a bullet.

"Lookin' tired there, Ms. Pena." Rashida stopped by her cubicle around noon the next day.

Arianna was tired. She had insisted on going to work despite a meager five hours of sleep. She rolled her desk chair back and smiled, but said nothing. She took two fingers and massaged the place below her sternum.

"Mmmmm, well, you been sleeping alright at night, hon?" Rashida asked, head tilted, hands on hips.

Arianna decided on a vague truth. "Not really. False labor is a bitch."

Rashida laughed, loud and hard, throwing her head back in amusement. "Got that right."

Arianna liked Rashida. In an office full of women, it seemed that as soon as it became apparent that Arianna was pregnant, she was constantly assuaged with unsolicited advice, dietary suggestions, or worse yet, questions about when Scott would propose.

Rashida broached none of those subjects, at least not in the annoying way that the others did. When she asked questions, it seemed like she actually took personal interest in Arianna, and wasn't just catching the baby-fever.

"Your man getting excited?" Rashida asked.

Arianna nodded, gave a soft smile. "I think so."

~~~

In truth, Scott had been nothing short of panicked when she'd first broken it to him, just four months after they'd started living together. It had taken both of them by surprise. He had paled and sat on the couch for a long time, head in his hands, while Arianna stood opposite in the doorframe, holding the positive pregnancy test with a mixture of apology and awe, unsolicited tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. She was terrified that this would end like it had last time, terrified that this was the beginning of a betrayal.

But by the next week, he was already kissing her still-flat stomach and asking her how they should rearrange their furniture to accommodate a crib. She had felt she could levitate from sheer relief.

~~~

"Have you looked out at the lake today?" Rashida asked. "The swans are nesting."

Her excitement was infectious. Arianna pulled herself upright, hoping she didn't look as clumsy as she felt, and followed Rashida to the window.

The east wall of the office, composed entirely of windows, looked onto a sizable lake with a walking path circling round. From their position on the first floor, the water was a mere meter from their windows. When it rained a lot, sometimes the water would lap at the glass. But in the slim margin of grass between the lake and the window, a swan sat on what looked like a carefully woven nest of grass, straw, and other bits of nature. Rashida pulled out her phone to snap a picture.

"Looks like there are at least three nests this year," she said, craning her neck to look.

"Are there normally this many?" Arianna asked. She watched as a swan preened her feathers, beak hidden beneath lifted wing. "How long does it take for baby swans to hatch?"

Rashida tilted her head. "You know, I'm not sure. A few weeks, probably."

"Hopefully I'll still be here when they do," Arianna said. "I would hate to miss seeing the babies while I'm on maternity leave. You'll have to send me pictures---"

Rashida's face fell. "Yeah, it would be nice if we got to see the chicks, but they take the eggs away before they ever hatch."

Arianna turned to look at her. "What do you mean?"

"The groundskeepers, they don't let the swans hatch," Rashida repeated. "They take the eggs away soon after they're laid."

"Why?" Arianna asked, her tongue thick with trepidation.

"The swan population would get out of control if they didn't. They have to. It's all for the best in the long run."

Arianna turned back to the mother swan, sitting on a nest, readying herself to lay eggs she didn't know would never hatch.

All for the best.

"It really is sad, though," Rashida said. "To watch the mother and father in the days after the eggs are taken. They just kind of wander around, honking, confused and unsure about where their eggs went. It really is pretty sad."

Arianna watched as the mother swan adjusted herself, fluffing her feathers and then settling down again. It seemed cruel, she thought. To let them hope about all of their babies, only to have them taken away. She stayed at the window, watching, long after everyone else had gone back to work.

Arianna thought about the swans all day. She was still thinking about them when she stopped at the grocery store to get some butter and pasta sauce on the way home. When she pulled out her wallet at the cash register, the list of baby names she'd shoved in her purse flopped down onto the conveyor belt.

The cashier picked it up with a smile and handed it back to her. She tilted her head. "Why not Sophie?" she asked.

Arianna paused, her eyebrows creasing. She looked at the list. She had crossed out the name Sophie several times. Her cheeks flushed red.

That's when she noticed the cashier's name. Sophie.

Of course it was.

"Sorry," Arianna gave an apologetic smile. She put the list back in her purse. "It's just, my boyfriend doesn't like that name," she lied.

The cashier gave a light laugh. "No worries, I'm just giving you trouble."

Arianna gave a small smile and took her bag.

She breathed deeply in the car to calm herself.

Why can't people just mind their own damn business? She wondered.

She thought about the swans again.

And she thought about three years ago.

Really, she hadn't known what the gender was. The first time. She hadn't been far along enough to know. The first and only ultrasound she'd had when she was when the technician had done one to determine how far along she was. The only ultrasound she'd had was when she was lying on the table at the abortion clinic.

Months afterwards, when she still woke up crying most nights, she decided to name it.

The baby. Some websites had said that would help. With getting over it.

She'd decided on Sophie. She liked to believe the baby was a girl. And she'd always wanted to name her first daughter that.

Sophie.

She knew Scott hadn't meant anything by it, when he suggested it. It was just an honest mistake. And of course, he hadn't known.

No one did. Not even her own mother.

It was the only secret she guarded with her life. It was a secret she intended to take to her grave.

Sophie.

No, of course Scott hadn't meant anything when he'd suggested it, but she couldn't help tearing up. She'd made up some excuse as to why. She'd probably blamed it on hormones. Though they hadn't settled on a name for their daughter-to-be yet, Sophie was officially off the table.

Arianna blinked several times, took a breath, put the car into drive.

Scott came home about a half an hour after her. She was already at the stove, cooking dinner when Scott snuck up and hugged her from behind.

"Hello," he purred into her ear.

"Hi," she said, leaning into him.

"I like your shirt," he said. He fiddled with the button right below her breasts.

Arianna playfully swatted at his hand, pointed a spoon at him in warning.

"Watch yourself," she teased.

Scott gave her a cheeky grin. He went back to hugging her. He ran his fingers down her sides. "So soft," he muttered, twining his fingers in the fabric.

"Thanks," she said. "You can borrow it sometime."

Scott laughed into her neck. Kissed her.

She'd started stealing his flannels from their closet when she'd reached six months, at first she'd tried to be sneaky, but now she took them whenever she pleased, thankfully he didn't seem to mind. "How was work?" she asked, setting the kitchen timer. They were having pasta. The usual. Three years out of college and she still didn't know how to cook. She'd better start learning. "Oh, it was good," Scott reached his arms further around her, slid them down around her waist. Kissed her neck. He spun her around and she giggled in surprise. He cupped her face with one hand. Put the other hand on her belly. Kissed her again.

Arianna melted into him, her head on his shoulder.

"Did we get a package in the mail today?" Scott mumbled into her hair.

"No, I don't think so, why?"

"I talked to my mom today. She said she sent us a package of baby stuff."

"Again?" Arianna laughed softly into Scott's shoulder. "We haven't even had my baby shower yet. I swear, this kid is going to be so spoiled."

While it wasn't the ideal situation for Scott's mom, having her only son knock up his girlfriend of all of a year and a half at the age of twenty-five, she had been nothing but supportive. So had Arianna's parents in their own, quieter, way. She would never forget when she broke the news to her own mother, how she had seemed shocked, then promptly burst into elated tears, exclaiming how happy she was to be a grandmother.

Like this was the first time Arianna had ever been pregnant. Arianna let her believe that.

She let the lie manifest by her silence.

She had hated herself for a long time afterwards.

After a while, Scott let her go and he settled down at the kitchen table with a beer while she continued to stir the pasta. They talked about everything and nothing. It always felt so right when he came home. Little moments like these. She was so glad he was here. So glad he had stayed.

~~~

Once upon a time, she was naive enough to think that she was enough to make any man stay. But Liam had proved her wrong.

It was six months until graduation when the pregnancy test had come back positive.

Arianna had found out in the bathroom of her own apartment. Alone.

She'd cried about it for an hour before her roommate came home.

And then they'd talked about it. And they'd hugged. And she was just beginning to think that maybe it would be alright.

She was terrified of course, scared shitless. But Liam wasn't like the others. He cared. They were moving in together, as soon as they graduated anyway. They'd move to Chicago. They'd both get jobs. Get engaged. Get married.

They'd discussed it all before.

But hell, a baby?

She'd almost gotten used to the fact by the time she told Liam. She'd almost begun to plan.

She'd made sure to wear her best dress that night, to do her hair really nice. She'd taken the pregnancy test with her in her purse. She tried to think of the best way to tell him. Something that perhaps wouldn't be quite so jarring. She had been nervous as hell.

But you don't need to be, she'd told herself. They could handle this. Together.

It was a good night. He'd taken her out to their favorite Mexican restaurant. She'd made an excuse about not drinking her usual margarita, though she could have used some alcohol to calm the nerves. They'd talked, laughed, held hands across the table. Arianna barely thought about the pregnancy test in her purse after a while. Until they'd gotten to the parking-lot and she had thrown up against the car door.

Liam had rummaged through her purse to grab her some tissues----and that's when he'd found it.

She could still recall the feeling of crouching there helplessly, still doubled over, the taste of bile burning her throat, tears already gathering in her eyes. She watched as Liam's face had drained of color except for two splotches of red, one on each cheek, his shaking hands clutching that stupid plastic stick.

He hadn’t said a thing. He hadn't even opened the door for her. He’d simply dropped the test on the ground, got in the car, and started the ignition. Arianna meekly pulled herself in after him.

It was a long time before he spoke. He sat there behind the wheel, his jaw clenching and unclenching.

He lit a cigarette. Arianna cupped a hand over her nose. She normally hated it when he smoked, but now, with her sense of smell so perceptive it was positively intolerable.

She didn't dare protest.

"Please tell me I'm wrong." Liam said after what felt like years. "Please tell me you....please don't tell me you're...."

Arianna stayed silent. She blinked back tears.

"How long have you known?" he asked after a while longer.

"Four days," Arianna whispered.

Liam clenched his jaw. He asked the next question like he was afraid to know the answer.

"How far along are you?"

"I'm not sure exactly," Arianna said. "Around six weeks?"

"Six weeks?" Liam asked. "Like over a whole month?"

It felt like an accusation. A couple of tears slipped down Arianna's cheeks. This was not at all like she'd wanted this to go.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I thought my period was just late and---,”

Liam muttered something that sounded like 'bullshit'.

"You told me you were still on the pill," Liam said. His knuckles tightened on the wheel.

"I was!"

"A great fucking lot that did for us."

Arianna sank further into her seat. She wrapped her arms around her stomach. The tears were coming faster now. Black rivers of mascara snaked down her cheeks. She sniffed audibly.

Liam turned to look at her. His eyes softened. "Babe. Babe. Don't cry, okay. Shit. Just, just don't cry. We can get this fixed. It's okay, babe. I'm here for you."

And he'd reached across the car and took her hand. Arianna allowed herself a flicker of a smile.

She hadn't known then that he was lying.

~~~

"You never told me how your day was," Scott said near the end of their meal.

Arianna shrugged, poked at some of the noodles, felt a little nauseous.

"Fine," she said. She thought about the swans again. She wondered if she should bore Scott about it. She decided to tell him despite his lack of sentimentality. "So you know the lake out my office windows?" she asked.

Scott nodded.

"The swans are nesting out there."

He raised his eyebrows.

"But get this," Arianna continued. "They don't let the eggs hatch. They take them away before they're properly incubated. Something about 'keeping the population in check'."

"Hmmm" Scott said. He read a text message under the table.

"Don't you think that's sad?" she prompted.

Scott looked up, shrugged. "I mean, I guess so? They're just swans."

Arianna arched an eyebrow. He seemed to realize he'd given the wrong answer. "But I'm glad you care about them," he said. "Even if I've never really liked birds." He looked back at his phone. "Look, hon. I gotta call Trevor back. I'll clean up the dishes in a bit, promise."

And he leaned to her side of the table and kissed her cheek and disappeared through the kitchen door. Arianna sat there picking at her noodles for a long time after he was gone.

Arianna watched the swans for a long time the next day. She kept finding excuses to go to the window to watch them preen themselves, or drift lazily in the water, or sit on their nests. She wondered if somehow they knew. She wondered if the knowledge made them cherish the days they had now, or if secretly they were dreading what was to come. By watching their behavior, she couldn't be sure.

She shook her head. They're just swans, she reminded herself. They don't have feelings.

It took a lot of her willpower to step away from the window and go back to work.

Arianna closed the lid of the washing machine. She paused. She realized with mounting panic that she hadn't felt the baby move in a while. She hurriedly changed the settings on the washer and pressed 'start'.

Though she had been assured numerous times that there was no set amount of time your baby was 'supposed' to move a day, when time passed without her feeling a kick, she got more worried than she would ever admit.

She scaled the steps from the laundry room to their apartment, quicker than was prudent, and laid herself down on her bed. She rolled up her shirt and lay hugging a pillow. Then, gently, she pressed on the side of her belly, waiting for the corresponding movement from within.

One second. Two. Three.

There. Movement. The feeling, like a fluttering beneath her ribs. A visible shift of the taut skin of her belly. Movement. Life.

She hated herself for feeling so relieved. Like she had actually expected there to be something wrong.

You're fine. You're fine, she assured herself. You're fine, the baby's fine, it's all fine.

Now, if only she could make herself believe it.

~~~

She had expected to feel relieved afterwards. To move on like nothing had ever happened. At least, that's what they had promised.

That's what she had hoped, despite the dread that had been building, building for the days leading up. Dread that made it hard to sleep. Dread so heavy it had made her shoulders ache.

She'd thought that if she just went like Liam had told her to, he would stop avoiding her and yelling and he would stop throwing things and they would stop fighting all the time. So she had gone. She had gone to that clinic and laid on that table and spread her legs when they had told her to. And she had let them reach inside of her and steal something irreplaceable.

That night she sat on the bathroom floor in her apartment, the shower water running to block out the sound of her sobbs, with an aching emptiness in her womb, a chasm so wide and deep it might swallow all of her.

Some fucking fix.

~~~

Arianna pressed a few other places like the doctor had shown her at her last check up.

And that really got the baby moving. She lay and watched with muted fascination as her own body stretched and contracted by no will of her own. She didn't think she would ever get used to it.

~~~

It was not quite a month afterwards that Liam had left her.

There were many reasons. But Arianna told herself that all of them were her fault. He hadn't understood why she was scared to leave her apartment sometimes. He hadn't understood why she wanted to sleep with the lights on. He had told her that 'it was all behind them'. If only that were true.

After he left, she'd let her roommate think that all of her crying was because she was torn up about the breakup. She'd let her mom think that too. She'd let her professors and her advisors think that her sudden plummeting grades were due to severe senioritis and graduation-blues. She'd let people think whatever they wanted, really. Anything was better than the truth. She didn't