"Don't go out at night," Adam tells her the day they first arrive at the cottage. "Especially not alone."
She laughs, still enamoured by their new room. A place all their own. She opens the wardrobes and tilts the mirror just right and throws open the papery curtains and says, "Yes, I know, and don't eat the candy house either!" She lifts on her tip-toes to see as far out their bedroom window as possible. Forest, lush greenery and cloaks of leaves, as far as the light reaches.
"Eve...I'm serious." Adam takes her shoulder in his large hand and turns her gently to him. He really does have a serious face. She pouts to mock him, but it only inspires a half-hearted flick in the corner of his mouth. He usually loves her antics. He says slowly, "We're still in danger, all right? We have to stay together no matter what. Just in case."
"In case of what?"
A strange severity flickers behind his blue eyes. She always thinks she has every layer of those seas solved. Then the tide shifts.
She says, making her voice serious as well, "I'm kidding. I know." Seth. The scientists. She'll run to the end of the earth with Adam if she has to. She takes his hand off her shoulder and cards her fingers through his. "I'll stay safe. Safe from all the candy-house witches in the woods. And," she crawls her fingers up his arms, "from all the spiders, and the bats." She's grinning. Her smiles always make him smile. It's a good skill, and a good secret.
Eve continues, "And all the wolves," and snaps her teeth at his ear. She wraps her arms tight around him and snarls, "And all the bears – "
He grabs her around the waist and spins her, heaving her up so her feet leave the floor. She laughs as he theatrically growls in her ear, and spins her, spins her. Sets her gently on the edge of the bed. Eve blushes. He sits next to her and takes her hand; there's a breathless smile on his face. The look she loves to see, turned to her. Like she's not just a person: all the immensity of a star, sealed into something small enough that he can hold. Him, too: the entire night sky. She fits nowhere but in him.
But maybe this immensity is all too much. She feels it quite suddenly: this is a house all their own, a world all their own, and it's only them. It isn't supposed to be, is it? There's supposed to be something more.
"I'll be careful," she assures Adam. "I won't go far."
"No, you – you can't go at all, Eve." Serious again. She hopes this isn't becoming a trend.
She frowns. "You can't just decide that for me."
"Yes, I can," he says, and puts his hand over hers. Those intense blue eyes. Serious and yearning. How can she not listen? "Just for a little until I know we're safe. I can't let anything – anything – happen to you."
Eve swallows. She tugs on her hair. "I understand." She kisses him gently then stands. "Surely I can go to the kitchen on my own to make dinner, right?"
He chuckles softly, uncomfortable but defrosting. "Of course."
Over the months, Adam makes a garden in the front yard for her, and chops down the worst of the trees when she complains that their branches are clawing the windows. They stay warm before the fire, Eve curled up between his long legs, and his arms holding a blanket around the two of them. She reads the books Adam stockpiled from the town before they left. He runs his fingers through her hair, hypnotized. They cook together, feeding each other bits of fruit from their fingertips, and he helps her plant more vegetables in the dark, generous soil, and they finish every night curled together in the sheets, skin bare and warm, or shivering with the cold that tramples through the trees.
It’s enough to wake up to the sight of him, and enjoy the warmth of him all day: her sun.
But then he wants to leave.
“We can’t sustain ourselves alone,” Adam says reasonably, tying up his boots at the door. She hugs a cloak around herself. “Winter’s coming and we need resources.”
“My garden is growing so nicely, and we have lots of dishes, and spices that haven’t run out.” Eve bites her thumbnail. Watches the laces snap through his long, fine fingers. “And you can hunt. We’ll have enough to eat.”
“I’ll run out of bullets and working traps eventually, and the earth will freeze.” Adam tucks his trouser cuffs into the leather boots to keep out the encroaching cold. “And our clothing isn’t warm enough. I need to get enough money to buy us something better.”
“Oh…spit out that silver spoon,” Eve says lightly. “I can sew, and you can skin. We’ll make coats and blankets out of pelts.”
“And where will you get the needles if they break? The string when it runs out?”
Eve takes Adam’s arm and shakes her head frantically at him. “I don’t want to be all alone.”
“Only for a couple days.” Adam kisses her forehead, and lingers, his hand finding hers. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
“But I’ll be alone, and you said I can’t be alone!”
“I know. I’m messing everything up. But we have to do this.” He holds her face, eyes serious and warm. “You’ll be safe.”
Eve flings herself into his arms, and he hugs her tightly. She knows she’s being silly. The old Eve wouldn’t bat an eyelash at someone leaving her, especially not for something so important, but she isn’t that Eve anymore. This Eve doesn’t care for much else.
Of course she didn’t mind back then – no one back then was as important as Adam.
“I don’t want my life to be made of hard decisions,” she murmurs, wiping at her stinging eyes. “Leaving town…that was supposed to be the last one.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
His voice trembles through his chest. She holds him for a moment more, like to remember his warmth, then lets go.
She watches through the window as he walks down the dirt path, until he looks back at the edge of the trees and blows her a kiss and gestures at her to shut the curtains tightly. She does. And sits at the table. The immensity of the house presses in on her, and for once she is very alone.
Adam can’t step into the bedroom.
He hovers at the doorway instead. He’s holding warm soup that he’d spent far too long making – he’d been hypnotized by the swirl of it, the smell of the steam, and had sunk into the activity with a cowardice lurking under his skin. He’s been rather daring lately. He forgot that underneath it all, he’s always very scared.
And he’s scared of this.
“Eve?” he finally forces himself to ask. She’s lying in bed on her side, facing the wall, barely an inch away from them; they’re silent now. He drags himself into the room. Eve lifts her head; her hair is slightly mussed from how she’s been laying on it. Her face is a little flushed, shining with exertion from how she ran home. Almost the face of a woman who’s given birth; her breathless smile reflects that much, at least.
“Adam,” she says, her voice full of her heartbeat, “look at them.”
He deflects: “I brought you something to warm you up.” He sets the bowl on the bedside table. I don’t want to look at them. She moves over to allow him space to sit on the bed, but he just stands there.
This is exactly what he was trying to run from.
It caught up to him. Not as violently as he thought it would. He’s had nightmares of being wrenched out of sleep by Twilight’s goons, dragged by the hair to the laboratory, knife in his back. Eve, shrieking. Forced into things for the experiment that no poison could warp into sweet memories.
The nightmare has sunk its teeth into his ankle. And how it innocently coos.
Eve says, “Could you bring me the bottle for them?”
No. Starve them. Starve. Starve. Starve. Or I’ll have to kill them myself, before they hurt you.
“Of course, Eve.”
He does come back – after four days, just when the moon is bloated in the sky – and Eve throws herself into his arms. He drops the satchel he was carrying, but she doesn’t care about it, or what’s in it, or how it will help them, because she’s ruminated on it over and over and over and decided that if they were freezing and everything was falling apart then as long as she had Adam then it would be all right anyways.
He tells her about the town and the repairing jobs he did for some pocket money. He’s brought blankets and a new trap for rabbits like he said, and scores of flint and a new lantern since their old one was smashed, and a delicate unadorned iron chain that warms slowly against her chest when he puts it on her.
“It’s not much,” he says, but she shakes her head.
“It doesn’t even have a pendant.” He clasps his hands between his knees, as if suddenly aware that he’s made some sort of mistake.
“Then I can make my own. Or you can make one for me.” She smirks at him and kisses him on the mouth. The rest of the night tumbles away, them in each other’s arms.
After, she curls up next to him and lets him sleep. The iron chain drinks the heat from both their bare skin. She crosses her fingers near her stomach. Thinks, thinks, thinks, this time, please. This time let it work.
It doesn’t, and she’s crushed by the knowledge that maybe it never will.
Eve sits on the back porch in the middle of that night, clutching her cloak around herself, and stares into the dark. A part of her was left behind when they ran. They – other people, strange people – tore it out of her and made her watch like it shouldn’t matter to her, like this ache should never have afflicted her.
“It’s over, Miss Zvezda.” Turned away from her, to address those surrounding her, closing in, red all over their empty hands – empty hands. Where did they go? Who was holding them? “Her body has to recover. They were alive for longer than I hoped. Is it worth giving it another try, or should she be removed from the roster?”
Not for her. Never for her. Eve presses her hands over her stomach. The trees turn to her and open their hands. Whatever magic I have…please, give me my life again. Give it back…
He’s quiet about it, but Eve knows that Adam is grateful they made it through the first winter. There were many hard nights and they had to be careful about how much they ate and how high they burned the fire, but Eve knows lots about this kind of careful living. Finally, she can teach him something.
In the spring, Eve plants her garden again and flirts along the edge of the trees, touching the little buds and the tiny sprouting leaves. With the snow receding and the branches still bare like a lattice fence, the forest doesn’t seem so deep and terrible. Even from here, she can see the little pathway that Adam hunts down and where he fells the trees. He sells wood, dried and stripped, to the village. He says that by the end of summer, maybe they’ll have enough money to buy a horse, and Eve hopes that means that she can travel a little further.
Adam reaches her. Eve says, “I don’t think you were telling the truth. I don’t think there’s anything in that forest.”
“No. You always make it out okay.”
“Because I’m careful. Besides, I’m not that interesting to hunt, I bet.”
“But I am?” Eve draws her long teal hair over her shoulder. Her mind wanders far as she says, “I suppose I always have been of interest.”
“Come back inside.”
“For snarling, evil things.” She nibbles at her hair. “But for good things, too.”
He takes her hand. But it’s hers that grips his. She hurries through the trees and he’s, for a second, too shocked to stop her, and then when he pulls her back, she’s too swift to be trapped. Eve darts through the trees. The snow splashes at her ankles. It’s perfectly silent but for their footsteps, and she waits for a giddy childishness to take over, for this to be a race and a game, but it doesn’t, and she’s running, and running, and running harder.
He’s chasing her. She should stop to tumble into his arms, but something between the enormity of the forest and the adrenaline flushing into her veins makes her too afraid to even look back. They never chased her. When she and Adam escaped, it was done in secret. And when they – they – first found her in her village, it was with open hands and soft expressions. It would have been strange for her to run or to scream or even to refuse. She’d never really wanted to refuse.
The forest is vast and empty. Only their footsteps racket through to the sky. She stumbles, picks herself up. Stops. Where are they hiding? The evil things? The candy house, the witch? She’s far enough that he’s yelling for her instead of breathing down her neck, and she howls into the trees like a dog. Making all sorts of racket. They’d come calling, if they were here.
Adam breaks through the trees, snow in his hair and twigs in his coat. He drops his hands to his knees, panting. Here, she learns she’s a better runner than most people, because she has the breath to howl again.
“What – “ he gasps, “are you doing?!”
She cries, “Where are they, Adam?”
“The wolves!” She backs away from him. “The bears. There’s nothing here. It’s safe,” she says, and smiles like she’s assuring a child, “it’s all safe.”
“No, it isn’t.” He finds his footing and approaches her. She hops away. Something in his expression threatens to give way, deeply sad; he begs, “Please calm down. Come back.”
“No!” she screams. “You were lying to me!”
Shock crackles across his gaze. Eve clutches at her chest and cries, “Please stop lying to me!”
Now the exhaustion hits her and she fumbles to the forest floor like a ragdoll. She buries her face into her knees. Maybe this winter was harder than she thought, because she starts to cry, the emotion like a sudden thunderstorm breaking over her head: uncontrollable and icy and from a distance far, far beyond her understanding.
A moment passes, where it’s only her and her sobs. Then Adam sits next to her. They’re a good couple, they’re better than her parents – when one of them is upset they explain and work through it. Now she prays he won’t ask why she’s sad. Because she doesn’t know. Like something is pulling her marionette strings. She cries, and cries, and cries, and he touches her arm with a soft, “Eve.”
She flinches away.
He sets his hand in his lap. Birds swoop overhead. She’s shaking.
She realises it in a lightning-strike, and whimpers, “I’m afraid of you. Why am I afraid of you?”
He sinks his face into his hands and doesn’t answer.
He did this.
He knows he did, but it’s still painful to face.
Eve holds the blonde infants in trembling arms. She’s on the kitchen floor, where Adam last left her – he crouches before her with a damp cloth and wipes away the dirt and tears, and the little prickles of blood from the branches snapping across her face. Her mouth is open in quiet sobs; he can only hear the raw scrape of her gasps, a whine as pitiful as a fox whimpering in a trap. She’s shaking horribly. She’s hardly strong enough to hold the babies.
They’re quiet now that all the action has stopped. The door is shut on their old life. He ignores the dirty water dripping off the cloth and onto their little flushed faces. Eve is in pain, and for now, his world narrows to only that.
“They were supposed to be mine,” Eve wails, and the sound unspools, an awful cry so deeply defined by agony that it isn’t quite human. “Mine.”
“I know,” he says softly. Once upon a time, he had knocked tankards with Seth after he announced the success of the project. She was pregnant. They’d drank and laughed over their triumph, as if the best conquest in the world was tying this innocent girl to something so awful. He’d quickly learned the true depths of that cruelty.
Adam holds her face to steady her. “You’re freezing,” he says shakily. “I’ll get you to bed and make you something. You need to calm down.”
She nods faintly. He helps her to her feet.
He says, “Please give them to me.”
Eve jolts. She holds the babies close. Their little hands fist in her hair, and the look on her face is as if he’s just produced a knife. “No.”
“Eve, you need to rest.”
“They can come with me. They have to. It’s…it’s important, for them to know the warmth and smell of me, I know that.”
As if, like puppies, they’ll imprint on the nearest woman in their mother’s absence. Adam bites the inside of his lip and stops himself from answering. If he has his way, he’ll tear them from her arms and bring them to the town bundled in a basket. They can’t do this. They don’t have the money or the time. Eve isn’t – Eve isn’t stable enough. She used to make fun of him, saying that there was a witch in a house made of candy in the woods that would lure her to her death. Eat the children up. He isn’t sure how fantastical that may become to her, if she’s already losing her grip on reality this severely.
Eve says softly, lowering her head to press her cheek to one’s head, “What will I name them?”
He isn’t a strong enough man for this.
When he’s asleep, she enters the forest.
She bundles up in her cloak and grabs her basket, and strolls right into the trees. By this time, they’re full of leaves and that sweet scent again – at first she’s wary, but soon she’s comforted by the birds flitting along the canopy and squirrels scurrying up the strong trees. They are little, defenseless things, and they are fine here. She will be fine as well. After all, they once thought her the best witch in the land.
She looks through the underbrush for something interesting to take home. She wants to find something that could have come from just outside their house, but is strange enough that he won’t be sure where she actually got it – a flower that grows in the deepest depths of the forest, or a scattering of eggshells from an abandoned nest. She’ll set these things around the house like little gifts and will smile coquettishly when he asks where she got them. He’d never accuse her of disobeying. It’s why they work so well.
It’s a beautiful night, the moon washing white light over her hands. She closes her eyes and smiles up to it. When she was young, she chased the stars across the sky. Even though, so far away, they’re dead, their light still reaches her.
It’s over, Miss Zvezda.
Eve should have left for the forest while he was in the town, but she was still a little too afraid. She’s gotten this far trusting Adam, so why should she stop now? All of a sudden, she’s struck with a bone-deep fear, and the forest feels enormous, but she pushes forwards anyways. She is not so delicate.
She picks flowers and looks into the crook of branches and crouches next to fox holes, clicking her tongue like a young girl again, hoping that something will come crawling out and she can catch it. Soon, she’s so far that she can’t see anything beyond the leaves. She wrangles her fear in a fist and discards it.
In time, she reaches a clearer area, like one of the spots cut down by Adam. She pulls off her hood to admire the place.
At the base of a tree, something shines red.
Eve blinks. This forest doesn’t bear much food besides weeds and chestnuts and meat. But there, plain as day, are a pair of shiny, bright red apples, hardly scuffed in the dirt. She scurries to them and dips to her knees.
They’re like a spot of light in this dark forest. And they’re something to bring home. A little whisper, a little taunt. Staring at them, all the fear drains from her body, as if she’s been offered a trusted hand in the dark.
Eve cradles them in her arms and gets to her feet.
She doesn’t make it far before the forest thunders with something’s cry.
Eve presses her treasures closer. The sound scrapes violently up her back. She’s never heard something like that before. A wail of fury, a rock slide, a thunderclap falling out of the sky.
Adam, of course, was right.
A shadow rears out of the trees, and Eve runs.
He wakes up to a scream.
He immediately checks for Eve, and finds the bed empty. The scream claws at the walls from outside. His name. He’s flying down the hall before he even makes the connection.
“Adam! ADAM! Please !”
She’s pounding on the door from outside. Her panic is as vast as a flood, quickly pulling him under. The door, unlocked, slips from his hands and she crashes in – he slams the door behind her without checking what’s after her. Who’s after her. He has a shotgun – could he use it on Seth? With Eve’s screams echoing in his head, the question hinges on ‘could I grab it fast enough? Could I aim correctly?’ rather than ‘could I murder a man who was once a friend?’
Eve throws herself into his arms. He pulls her tight against him. “What was it?” Adam gasps.
“It – it was a bear, like you warned,” Eve answers. Her voice, at first, trembles with fear, then amusement.
She’s trembling in his arms, and, softly, starts to laugh. The sound mingles wildly with a twin cry that makes ice trickle down his spine.
He takes her at arm’s length. She’s cradling something in her cloak.
“Are you hurt?”
“No, no, I’m all right…”
He looks her over; there’s dirt and little scratches on her face, but otherwise she appears unharmed. A bear. Not Seth. Adam sighs, his shoulders folding in weakly, leaning on Eve.
“But look,” she says with the sweetest smile as she unfolds her cloak. “Look what I found.”
She can outrun Adam, she assures herself. She can outrun nightmares. But she can feel the earth rumble with the paws of the bear.
Holding the apples so close to her chest is throwing her balance off – she needs her arms to swat away the branches that strike at her face like vipers, and to hold up her skirt that trips her over and over. But she can’t let go. Not again. She can’t lose them like this. Never again will someone chase her into giving something up.
It’s over, Miss Zvezda.
But it wasn’t. It couldn’t have been. How could she have waited so long to only hear that? How could she have gone through so much pain, and ecstasy, and agony, and love, just to lay in a cot shaking from exertion and hear from a man that wasn’t even her husband –
She deserves a say in her life.
And now, she wants to reach home.
The bear roars. Tears sting her eyes, from the dirt and the panic setting her pulse alight. She holds the apples closer in her cloak. She only gets glimpses of bright red as she runs. Chest heaving. Pain floods through her, a crawl, an encroaching nightmare, but her pace doesn’t slow. Bright red. Bright red, seen through the blur.
They had been bright red.
She’d been in the cot, holding Adam’s arm. He was stroking her hair back from her face. Kissing her forehead. His hand shook where it met hers. Breathe, breathe, he’d told her, and she’d thought that was a little funny, because he was the one who seemed like he needed to steady himself.
It’s scary now, she’d said, but it’ll be so amazing soon. You just wait. I’ll make us both so happy. Just wait.
Adam had turned to Seth, who was putting on gloves, and said, If you lose Eve for this, I’ll kill you.
Seth said, I’ll do all I can. You need to leave.
I’m not leaving.
I’m very sorry, but you are. You’re crowding up the workspace and I have to hurry. There’s too much blood.
Adam held her tightly, like he could shield her from the words. She’d known, of course – there was so much blood, but she didn’t know what was right and wrong. She realised very suddenly that she didn’t know what was happening to her. She knew what instinct said, and what the chilly lab assistant woman had told her, but –
Adam, don’t go, don’t go –
Seth tilted up his chin. He was holding something sharp.
Adam kissed her on the cheek, the temple, and hugged her. He looked into her eyes and whispered, I love you. I’ll see you soon, okay? And yes – yes, it’ll be amazing.
But he’d left. Shook off one of Seth’s assistants, trying to corral him away faster. She was in a room full of people, but felt for all the world that she was bleeding in the middle of a street, all alone, not knowing if tomorrow would come, and every eye that examined her was uncaring.
Now, Eve runs. The bear swipes at her hair streaming behind her, but she takes a tight turn and skids down an embankment. Stumbles to her feet. Lands crookedly on her ankle, but runs, and runs, the red a blur in her arms. She’d begged to hold them. Begged and screamed. Those small, boneless red things. Shiny, too. They weren’t crying. They should be crying for her, shouldn’t they?
The doctors ignored her. Conversed amongst each other, while one frazzled nurse set the babies into a little box. They leaned over it. Poked and prodded. Took notes. Eve’s throat was already raw from screaming and her head woozy from the pain of the birth, but she pleaded and bargained and wailed, until their cruelty had her writhing in the bed, feet slipping in her own blood.
Seth finally looked at her. His eyes were steely behind his glasses. She didn’t know what words would appeal to Adam’s friend, but it didn’t matter – all she could do was cry.
Oh, for god’s sake. Just hand them over. I don’t need them.
She groped and clawed for her children. They were placed into her arms. Such tiny things, heads lolling. For all the prodding, the red still clung to their skin, brighter than she ever expected it to be.
She’d wanted, then, to run too.
She could vault from the bed and take them and Adam away, far away, where her part in prophecies or experiments or magic didn't matter. She would run very far away with her red babies and they would grow up at her side, real children like she always wanted, with Adam’s smile and her eyes.
Their eyes wouldn’t open.
In the forest, Eve can see the silhouette of home.
She crashes at the door. The apples are too hard to balance, slipping and writhing and kicking in her arms, so she can’t grab the doorknob. Eve screams at the top of her lungs. Kicking it and slamming her body against it. The footsteps are silenced behind her. But this is a different panic. In the birthing room, she’d just wanted Adam to hold the children too, and tell her he loved her, and that they were amazing. Now, she wants him to sweep her away.
Eve stumbles on the edge of the forest. She twists at the last moment so she falls on her back – she doesn’t crush her treasures but this makes it hard to scramble back up without the use of her hands. The shadow pours from the forest. Swallows her feet. For a moment, she is reminded of the doctors approaching in great waves and wrenching her babies away again. Okay, that’s enough, sweetheart.
It’s over, Miss Zvezda.
She holds them tight and finally, finally, they wail.
Eve scrambles to her feet. Trips again and barely catches herself. The house is so close.
She’s nearly there. Nearly there. She shreds through the garden, safety within reach.
Eve makes it into their yard. The door is across the garden. It seems like an infinite distance. The bear is gaining on her. Its roar shakes her heart.
Eve spots the pile of firewood at the edge of the house. And a little further away, the stump, and the axe buried within it.
She changes course, tucking the apples into her cloak and using the remaining strength of her one arm to hold them both.
There’s blood spattering her face. Eve digs her nails into the grass. She drags herself to the garden. Up on your feet again.
Eve wrenches the axe out of the block. It’s terribly heavy and she’s winded, but she lifts it, and feels the icy shadow of the bear fall over her – she whirls around and swings.
The axe buries into the beast’s head. It goes in easier than she expected. Eve fumbles back, dropping the axe, and the bear collapses to the earth with it in a heap. It doesn’t even stir. She touches her wet face, her collar. And nestles the apples back into both arms.
Eve stands at the window of the cottage, one baby curled up in her basket with a blanket, the other in her arms drinking from a glass bottle. He told her not to look, but she’s not very good at obeying, as they’ve learned: she twitches the curtain out of the way and peers through the window.
Adam is dragging the body into the forest.
Eve bites her lip, like that pain will swallow up all the pain of her actions. The muscle in her arm was pulled from the axe and it faintly aches as she adjusts the baby girl – it’s a strange, paltry reminder of her sin, somehow making it all the more unforgettable and yet so much more pedestrian.
“I didn’t know…” she murmurs, but that hardly worked on Adam. It rings even more false to herself.
She was just a woman, like Eve herself. Older than her, and maybe beautiful, but the axe ruined so much of her, and Adam wouldn’t let her get close.
Eve brings the baby to her cheek. Breathes in the smell of its blonde hair and delicate skin. The woman was able to have this moment, a hundred times over, a million times. She’d held the babies when they were still warm from her body, and probably cried with them, but it was a happy cry about the shock and joy of new life in the world.
Eve never had this.
And she deserves it.
She lets the curtain fall shut.