She was asleep when you met her. Oh, she was talking, of course, and her eyes were open, but you could see nothing behind them, and her tone of voice was so unfailingly smooth and polite that it could only mean she didn’t give a shit. No sadness, though; she was used to living disengaged, barely aware of her own deadness. Needed someone to show her. She’d probably been asleep for years, you thought, and when Mike — her droning suit of a husband — showed up, you understood why.
Your touch seemed to wake her, slow and sure like spring thaw. Just a trickle at first, the edges running off the ice, and then a full flood of joy, laughter, conversation, plus a little bit of wickedness to warm your nights together. You taught her to enjoy life — to breathe deeply of the air outside that glass coffin of a marriage from which you’d rescued her.
That was what you thought then, anyway. Now, you second-guess yourself, wonder if all of that was a clever lie, or just a dream. If you were only seeing what you wanted to see. If, really, it was you who’d been asleep.
* * *
Sitting opposite you, now, she drains her wine glass, sets it down, and pushes her empty plate away. “Not bad, even if I do say so myself,” she says, with that cheeky little quirk of a smile.
You nod absently, and she deflates a little, which is satisfying. She loves to cook, and to watch you eat, colouring with pleasure at your compliments. You guess her husband never really appreciated her efforts — you can’t see him having much time for the sensual pleasures, really. You used to find the attention flattering, back when you thought it had only ever been for you.
After a moment, though, you smile. You don’t want her sulking and without appetite right now, after all.
“I made dessert, earlier,” you say. “Thought I’d give it a go.” You shrug, self-deprecating, and hunch forward. “Won’t be up to your standards, of course, but if you fancy some…”
She brightens immediately. “I’ll get some more wine out, shall I?”
* * *
“It’s dangerous trusting men,” she said, right before she told you about the others. But you’re different, she didn’t say. “But I’ve spent the last six years half-dead. So what have I got to lose, eh?”
The first solid hint of a distance you’d begun to suspect but hadn’t yet named. Her expression wavered between seriousness and sharp amusement as she looked at you, deciding whether to tell. Wondering whether she could walk this wire. Then she smiled.
She actually gave them nicknames, as though this were a laughing matter — though perhaps her whimsy sounded a little more forced than usual, a note of desperation in her laugh.
Dopey, the one who thought David Cameron had directed Titanic. They hadn’t dated more than once or twice. Grumpy, who’d roared off in his Audi after an argument about a hotel reservation, never to return. Not much of a loss. Bashful; sweet-faced, but so much effort required to get past his nerves, and in the end she’d decided she didn’t have the patience.
There was a wicked queen, too, of course — an actual stepmother, whom she thought she’d been escaping when she married Mike aged nineteen. She’d soon found herself stifled more surely than ever.
“I had to amuse myself somehow,” she said. “You understand, don’t you?” She was looking at you hard and bright-eyed, her grip on your arm too tight.
And you wondered, didn’t she understand how it was supposed to go? She was supposed to wait for rescue. Not get up out of her glass coffin, with the temerity of the undead, and start walking around. What kind of fairytale was this?
You didn’t know any more. And without your story, you didn’t know who you were supposed to be. She’d cheated you out of your role, and something darkened inside of you.
“Yeah,” you said. “Of course I do.”
She melted against you. “And then you came along.” Smiled. “My handsome prince.”
* * *
You wash up while she hunts out a bottle of Madeira. No use leaving behind any more mess than you have to. The glass pipette, you’ve already disposed of, carefully cleaned and dropped into a neighbour’s bin. You wash and dry the chopping knife, which gleams like a hunter’s smile beneath the spotlights, the teaspoon you used to measure out sugar, and then the apple corer.
She waltzes back through the door with two glasses and a smile on her face.
“It’s only fruit salad,” you say, dishing it into two bowls. “Nothing fancy.”
“Simple pleasures are sometimes the best kind,” she smirks. “Anyway, I can see you made an effort. You even went out and bought almonds!”
She raises a piece of apple to her lips on a silver spoon. Its skin stands out, the colour of old blood; its flesh is white as snow.
Then, she hesitates, eyeing your untouched portion. Her gaze is sharper than it was a moment ago; the corners of her eyes crinkle. “Well,” she says. “After you.”
Jessica George is a PhD student from Pontypool, South Wales. Her fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Friction Magazine, and The New Flesh.