To Mr. T. H., for whom I intended to bang out a cute story of no substance as a birthday present, and failed miserably by writing this.
Red and round and perfect on a low stone wall, the apple wobbled in the chill breeze. It was cold in my hand, colder still against my teeth. But the taste: tart enough to make the lips numb, sweet enough to fill my mouth with flowers.
I did not eat the apple because I was hungry; I was returning to my hotel after dinner, tongue thick from too many drinks and stomach curdled with gravy. No one who isn't desperately hungry eats food they find on the street, left waiting by chance.
No, it was that same urge we all feel for the split second we look out over the railing of a bridge and wonder what it would be like to jump and fly away. I was never brave or mad enough to fly from a bridge. I should never have been mad enough to eat that apple.
The Huntsman finds me in my hotel room, his breath hidden in the hiss of the radiator. Snow swirls against the window.
He straddles my hips and kisses my neck with cold lips. I smile at him, fingers winding up my sheets.
He cuts out my heart.
The first boy I kissed was my best friend, sophomore year of high school. He was my best friend because he wasn't my boyfriend. I learned to play chess so I could follow him to the club. Every girl has a boy like that once in her life. We give them our lunch money, hold their drinks while they dance with someone else, all the while smiling with shining, pathetic hope.
Even if I was that sort of girl, my best friend wasn't that sort of boy. He treated me like I was something rare and beautiful, told me secrets and laughed at my jokes. He gave me flowers on my birthday, fifteen roses. I looked at the cheery yellow petals, a few edged with the hint of a blush, and didn't know if I should smile or cry.
You can do both at the same time very easily.
One night after a late choir practice, we waited for our parents to come pick us up, watching snow swirl around the street lights outside. I took hold of his wrist, tugged his arm around my waist. He gave me an uncomprehending look with his warm brown eyes, one eyebrow up like he had a question but wasn't sure of the words.
I kissed him, expecting fireworks and a dramatic swell of music.
He went stiff, his lips dry and cold against mine, then shoved me away and ran out into the snow.
I told another friend the story before class the next morning, caught between tears and fury. She shrugged, snapped her gum, and said, "Yeah, no shit. He's a faggot."
Once upon a time, there lived a little girl who loved to wear bright yellow sundresses, and loved to draw. Crayons, chalk, pencils, pens, paper, sidewalks, walls, counter tops.
She drew her family and cats and trees. She drew beautiful things and breathed life into them with her laughter.
Her teachers thought she had talent. So did her parents. She won prizes.
The only ugly picture she ever drew was a portrait of her best friend, the day before he hung himself from his bed frame.
Knowing her art had become a knife, she cut off her hand and laid it to rest with his ashes.
There were two things I was good at in school: art and math. I met my best friend in algebra and we smiled at each other over polynomials. After he died, I pretended I could still find the light from his eyes in my textbook, imagined he still sat next to me as I studied.
Math was pure and beautiful, a world in which all of the rules made sense, in which there was an explanation for everything. Numbers were precise and real. I calculated the value of everything I ate. I learned safety statistics by heart.
I built numbers into a shield that circumscribed my life and kept the ghost at bay.
I run through the woods, snow swirling around my face until I'm blind with it. I bruise my shoulders on trees; lashing branches draw thin lines of blood across my cheeks.
The Huntsman is always at my heels, his breath loud in my ears. His face hides in the shadows of a helmet adorned with a stag's antlers.
I scramble up a tree, sinking my fingernails into the bark. Some days it's an elm, or a stately pine. Sometimes it's an apple tree, heavy with fruit even in the middle of winter. The branches sway in the wind, crimson apples gently bumping my hands, my thighs. The smell is intoxicating; for moments at a time I forget the Huntsman.
He sits on a stump a few feet from the tree and patiently sharpens his knife.
Days pass. He never moves. My stomach clings to my spine, whining with hunger. I tap the apples, so beautiful and close, with a fingernail.
But I never eat them, no matter how dizzy with need I become.
My college roommate liked to accuse me of being the only atheist nun. She never tired of inviting me to parties, ones she later stumbled home from, stinking of alcohol and stale cigarettes. But she always smiled, her hair shaken loose around her shoulders.
I was too busy, too afraid I might fall behind in classes that were far harder than anything I could have imagined in high school. The studying, the assignments were endless. I was even more afraid I'd see a ghost with brown eyes, laughing and drinking beer, dancing with his head thrown back like tomorrow might never come.
Because then I would have to admit that the real ghost was me.
Once upon a time, a financial analyst went to a business meeting in Frankfurt. She drank too much wine and danced like a woman who feared death.
A man with warm brown eyes danced with her.
She did something she had promised her mother she never would, and invited him back to her hotel room like only bad girls do.
They made a beautiful tangle of arms and legs, sweat and sighs. She called him by the wrong name and spilled secrets from her eyes. He laughed and kissed her blush away with lips that tasted of apples and absolution.
She offered him a knife and he cut out her heart.
I scream, thin and desperate, as the Huntsman pushes me down into the snow, sits on top of me. I am too exhausted to struggle. He presses one finger against my lips as I run out of air.
His knife punches through my sternum with a crack that sends birds fleeing from the trees, screeching with alarm. Blood steams in the snow, a fine spray of shocking points in a halo around us.
He turns the knife on himself. His hands come away from his chest running with gore, a lump of flesh the size of an apple cradled between his palms. He lays it gently down in the empty space between my lungs as a hot offering.
When he leans down to kiss me, there is a smile on his lips and his brown eyes are filled with tears.
Once upon a time, there was a boy and a girl, and they were best friends.
The boy drank secrets like poison until he drowned. For penance, the girl cut out her heart and buried it in his coffin so that he would never feel so alone again. But still the dead boy followed her, no matter how fast and far she ran from his ghost, until she was too tired to run any longer.
The truth: he had no need for two hearts. With hers to keep him company, he gave his own in exchange.
Because that is what best friends do for each other.
Because the story is always more complicated.
Because love means many things.
And the girl took her new heart, mad and brave and beautiful, and flew away.
I once drew because it was a hunger, something that I couldn't not do, filling blank spaces with myself. Viewed from one side, a drawing is a simple thing, lines and points coming together to make something far more complicated.
I drew my first picture in over a decade on hotel stationery, rough pencil lines to capture the sleeping face of a man whose name I did not know. I left the drawing on a low stone wall not far from the hotel, pinned down against the breeze with an apple.
He was beautiful.