There’s a basket of Honeycrisp apples rotting on the kitchen counter.
They sleep right in the middle of it, right beside the sink so they can decompose under the
sunlight streaming in from the window. A pop of color in a new, freshly-painted house done up
in beige and gray. They’re soft things, angled so the bruises darkening their red-green flesh don’t show, so tender to the touch that Ada’s nails leave little bites in them every time she picks one up.
She watches them when she can’t sleep. While Ezra snores in their bedroom, sprawled out in his boxers and kicking away the sheets when he gets too hot, Ada creeps out and drags one of the barstools over to the basket, and she sits with her chin in her hands to observe. Silent. Still. A bystander to the process of decay. There’s something beautiful about watching the slow death of a pretty thing, even if Ada can’t put her finger on what.
The Honeycrisp at the top of the pile is a big one. Round and shiny, like it’s made of plastic. Ada runs her finger over the smoothness of its surface, scratches at it until some of the skin comes off. As if startled by the disturbance, a maggot breaks through the apple to poke its head towards the light, and it’s stunning. Pearl-white and sightlessly wriggling. Ada’s stomach squirms just looking at it.
“It’s all right,” she whispers, lifting the apple with a gentle hand.
The maggot stills at her voice. Ada considers it, limp and full from chewing through the meat of a fruit. It’s a sad thing, really. Small. Helpless. A victim to her will. Maybe it’s only this still because it’s waiting to hear her verdict.
Ada tries for a smile. “It’s all right,” she says again, and she sinks her teeth into the apple for a bite.
She doesn’t taste the maggot. There’s the crunch, of course, and there’s the aftertaste when she swallows, but the taste itself is masked by sour-sweet fruit juice that dribbles down Ada’s chin. Her churning stomach settles, finally, finally, the relief sick and paradoxical and utterly intoxicating. The knots in her chest loosen to make room for the rotten things sitting heavy in her belly, the craving at bay once more to leave her clear-headed and sated. This is—good. Safe. Ada wipes her mouth and pictures the maggot burrowing into her organs, pictures falling to her knees in the dirt and letting it eat her from the inside out.
There’s something romantic about that, isn’t there? Something almost religious. From dust she is made, to dust she’ll return, and they’ll find her decades later as nothing more than a cracked skull in the ground, worms nesting in her empty eye sockets.
How perfectly circular to be consumed by the things at the bottom of the food chain. The thought is warm, woven in bright color through Ada’s ribs.
From the bedroom, Ezra calls her, sleep-slurred and thick: “Babe?”
“Coming,” Ada says, and she sets the apple back down in the basket, bitten side down.
In the morning, Ezra kisses Ada awake.
It’s this new thing he’s been doing lately, ever since they got everything moved into the house. When they have a lazy Saturday with no work or church to demand attention from either of them, he likes to lay in bed with Ada and press open-mouthed kisses to her lips, his arms snaked about her waist. Ada opens her eyes to an up-close view of the freckles on his cheeks, to his large, tanned hands stroking through her blonde curls and catching in the tangles. The sun makes the flecks of hazel in his eyes sparkle.
Ada supposes it’s nice. Romantic. It’s a normal newlywed thing to do; they’re supposed to be wrapped up in each other like this, aren’t they? Ezra’s affection is only natural, so Ada shoves the rotten thing curdling in her stomach to the side and smiles against his too-wet, too-warm lips.
“Morning,” he rasps, scratchy and low, and all Ada can think about is the foul smell on his breath. “You were up late. Sleep okay?”
He doesn’t say it like an accusation, but she knows what he means. He wants to know if Ada’s been taking her meds. If she’s got herself under control, or if she needs him to take her to the doctor and have her dosage increased. To him, it’s all perfectly black and white—to him, it’s her meds keeping her anchored to her personhood so she doesn’t go off the deep end trying to tear herself to pieces.
Ada knows better. The meds are as good as sugar pills. It’s up to her to make herself work right.
She gives him a nod. “I just got up for water. Slept fine after.”
Ezra hums, quiet and contemplative for a long moment. Then, wistful, almost as if to himself: “I had the dream again.” He steals another kiss from Ada. “The baby. A little boy named Isaac.”
Ada’s blood turns frigid against her will.
God, of course it’s the baby. It’s always the fucking baby with Ezra, always—no. She can’t think that way. It’s wrong. Immediately, she tries to kill the thought, guilt churning in her gut.
It should be her dreaming about babies. Ada knows it should. Normal women dream about things like gurgling laughter and tiny shoes. Still, she can’t help the wild panic that sets in when Ezra talks like this, when his eyes go soft and dreamy while she can only imagine gloved hands touching her against her will as she dies surrounded by flatlining monitors, a wailing pink mass lying bloody between her legs.
“Isaac’s a good name,” she says.
“We’d be good parents,” Ezra murmurs, and his smile is sweet, his upper lip catching on his crooked canine tooth. “He’d have your eyes. Perfect baby blues.”
His hands are roaming now, down Ada’s back and coming to rest at the curve of her ass. Cold terror skitters down her spine, but—no, no, that’s not right, she’s not supposed to feel like that. Ada is supposed to let him take. She tries to welcome the unwanted throb in her abdomen as a gift from God.
Ezra’s fingers creep closer and closer to the hem of her nightgown, his body flush against hers, and he’s kissing her harder, hungrier, his eyes dark and glowing like embers under ash. He kisses away the whimper she hisses through her teeth, kisses away the instinctive no forming on her lips because he knows she’s being ridiculous, and that this is what it means to be husband and wife, and that her body will eventually respond on its own because this is something that everyone wants even if they don’t know it yet—
Ada pulls away, scrambling back so Ezra can’t reach for her. Her chest heaves, her throat dry. When she swallows, it hurts, sharp like barbed wire. “I’m going to make breakfast,” she says, too rushed, her eyes burning. She picks at the bedspread, unwilling to meet Ezra’s gaze.
“Ada.” Ezra’s tone is colored by disappointment. His hand comes up to rest at her exposed knee, and Ada stills, half-expecting him to pull her back down and claim her as his anyway. “Come on. Don’t do that. We haven’t done anything in months.”
“Ez, we haven’t eaten,” she replies, standing now. She can’t stand the feeling of his hand on her leg, can’t breathe knowing he’s touching her.
Ezra levels a look at her, cold and unrelenting.
“Tonight,” she concedes. “We can try tonight, all right?”
A sigh. “Okay, Ada.”
While Ezra goes to shower, Ada makes for the kitchen. To get a start on the pancakes, she tells him, but she’s waiting more than anything. She waits until the bathroom door clicks shut, until the water turns on and Ezra is barely trying to disguise his grunt as he finishes himself off, and then she’s bent over the sink, dry-heaving and gasping curses at the drain. The world blurs. Her chest gives a dangerous squeeze, her breaths so shallow it makes her head spin, her entire body shaking—
“Stop it,” Ada hisses, her teeth gritted. Like a parent scolding a child: “Stop it.”
It’s fine. She’s fine. Ada shoves two fingers down her throat and retches orange into the sink, just to get it out of her and ease the nausea. The vomit stares back up at her for a long moment before she manages to straighten; as she runs the faucet, she imagines that she’s washing away the panicked creature that has taken root in her head, her exhale soft and shuddering.
The shower’s still running. Ada still has time. Slowly, she reaches for one of her Honeycrisps, her fingers curling around the unfinished one from last night. It tastes like control when she sinks her teeth into it. The flavor bursts on her tongue sharp enough to make her shudder. It just needs to settle, she thinks, her eyes squeezed shut. She just has to let her body settle down again.
Sometimes, she fantasizes about coming down with food poisoning from eating so many dying things. There’s an allure to the idea of forcing her body into submission. If she’s sick enough, maybe, then she’ll be able to handle it when Ezra tries to touch her, and they can be the couple they’re supposed to be. They can have everything: apple pie and church on Sundays and smiling, cherubic children. The craving for it gnaws at Ada’s chest.
Ada’s done with the apple by the time Ezra walks into the kitchen, his hair wet and his cheeks pink. She leaves the core to rot in the trash and tosses him a bright, cheerful smile. “Hey,” she says, reaching for a pan. “You want chocolate chips in your pancakes?”
Ezra doesn’t answer. His eyes are on the basket by the sink. “Those look like they’re going bad. We should throw them out, shouldn’t we?” he asks, tentative, a shade too deliberate for the edge to the words to go over Ada’s head.
It’s not something he should notice. Ezra doesn’t eat the apples. Ezra doesn’t even like fruit—his diet is all chicken sandwiches and protein shakes that probably taste like chalk powder. The apples are Ada’s, and this is an unspoken rule.
Her sickness. Her perfect poison.
He’s still looking at the basket. Ada’s fingers twitch. She imagines carving out his eyes with the spatula in her hand, imagines him sputtering and nodding frantically and choking that no, fine, he won’t touch the apples, she can have this one thing.
“No,” she says, instinctive, too panicked. Ezra’s brows furrow; Ada clears her throat and grips the edge of the counter to keep the tremble out of her voice. “No, we should plant them. We can have apple trees. I’ll put them by the back door and take them out.”
“Okay,” Ezra murmurs.
She can tell he doesn’t believe her. She wouldn’t believe herself either. But he drops the matter in favor of getting out the plates for breakfast, which is all Ada needs.
As she sets about making the pancakes, she steals glances at Ezra, letting her eyes linger on the freckles speckled across his nose and on his full lips in hopes of drawing out the right feelings. He’s handsome—But then Ada’s always known that he’s handsome. In college, it was enough of a reason to say yes when he asked her out. It had felt right, then, like puzzle pieces clicking into place, and it was what everyone else did in college, wasn’t it? It was the sort of love story she’d pictured having when she imagined a future for herself.
He’s always been like artwork to Ada, is the thing. Aesthetically beautiful, but never attractive in a way that has inspired the desire to have him. Not the way he wants her. More than anything, Ada wants to watch him sleep from the other side of a glass wall, him unmoving and unconscious and chained down, her the invisible observer. But that’s not the right kind of love. It’s not the love that God ordained for her, so she lets Ezra do as he pleases with her instead.
Ezra swoops down from behind her to kiss her cheek. “I was thinking we’d do dinner,” he says against her skin, moving down to peck at the corner of her mouth, at the underside of her jaw. His arms wrap around Ada’s midsection. She has to work not to go stiff in his arms. “Somewhere fancy. What do you think?”
“What’s the occasion?” Ada manages.
“No occasion. Just for fun.” His hands twitch lower for a half-second, and a whimper lodges itself in Ada’s throat. “I mean, it’s about six months since the wedding if you want something official to celebrate.”
Six months. The wedding feels like ten years ago. Ada remembers it in blurred shapes, a farmhouse wedding that her mother arranged because everyone else was doing the same theme. Her father walked her down the aisle two weeks before she graduated.
Ada cranes her head up to look at Ezra. He looks excited, and she owes it to him, doesn’t she? She doesn’t want the morning’s disappointment to weigh on him, and maybe she can make it up to him after dinner. She can sneak apple slices into her purse and mix the rot with wine. If she’s lucky, she won’t even remember giving herself over to him the next morning.
“Let’s do it,” she says, her lips curving upwards. “It’ll be fun. A six-month anniversary. Maybe they’ll give us free drinks.”
They whittle the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon away in broad, lazily drawn swaths of time. Ada cleans the bathroom and vacuums the house while Ezra goes out and grabs the groceries for the coming week, and when he’s not looking, she grabs two Honeycrisps from the pile and cuts them into slices that she seals into plastic bags. She shoves the browning fruit into the depths of her purse.
The sun sets, the Texas heat softening. Half an hour before they’re supposed to leave, Ada slips into the little olive green dress that Ezra bought her for her birthday, rings on her fingers, her heels strangling her feet. And with the rouge on her cheeks and the glitter on her eyelids, she’s—pretty. Pretty the way Ezra likes. Her gold cross pendant is cold against the hollow of her throat.
Ezra’s eyes spark with something like hunger when she emerges from the bedroom. He clears his throat, fiddles with his wedding ring. “You look nice,” he says softly. “That’s the dress I bought.”
“Yeah,” Ada says, bright. “Yeah, I just thought it would look nice.”
“You look beautiful,” Ezra says, flushing, and it should feel like a victory, Ada thinks, but it makes her want to hide instead. She’s showing too much skin, but—she’s supposed to show skin, right? Ezra will like that. She digs her nails into her palms and bites down on her tongue until she tastes iron.
She smooths down her skirt. “Right. Should—Should we go? You made reservations, right?”
Ezra nods, swallowing hard, and leads her out to the car.
The restaurant is, as promised, fancy. It’s one of those new, upscale places that takes thirty minutes of driving to get to, all dim light and waiters in suits and airbrushed gold accents. Ezra and Ada find a table in a secluded corner, right by the window, away from the big tables or the bar. An artificial candle flickers between them.
“I was thinking I’d order for us,” Ezra says, peering down at the menu.
Ada nods. “Okay,” she says, because she’s not planning on eating anyway. She’s got her Honeycrisps tucked away and ready for her to devour the second she can escape to the bathroom and snag a minute to herself. So Ezra waves over a waiter and orders the wine and the food, and Ada lets her attention drift.
Beside them, someone is laughing. High and charming, a woman’s laugh that draws Ada’s gaze over to the couple nearest them. They have to be a newer couple, she thinks, dating or recently married if they’re absorbed in each other enough to forget their surroundings. The woman’s eyes flick to meet hers, and her smile is apologetic; Ada smiles back, brief and cordial, and tries to stare more discretely.
It’s just—the woman looks like her.
Not exactly, obviously. She’s more willowy, for one thing, her fingers longer and more elegant, the line of her nose sharper. But she looks like Ada in all of the ways that count, her hair long and blonde and spilling down her back in tight curls, her eyes a glacial blue. Her dress clings to her form as if to emphasize the pregnant curve of her belly.
She probably got pregnant in one night, Ada thinks. No, better yet, she probably enjoyed it all on her own without having to rely on gorging herself sick. The baby was probably her idea, considering how perfectly self-satisfied she looks, like she’s not spitting in Ada’s face just by sitting there, just by being happy and making it look painless.
Ada looks to Ezra, and it clicks, sudden and terrible: he wants her to be the stranger next to them. The thought shifts underneath her skin.
And doesn’t Ada deserve to be? Hasn’t she fought for what this woman has? Hasn’t she prayed over it? It’s not fair that it gets to be easy for someone who hasn’t even earned it, not fair that it’s so fucking easy for everyone except for her, and she doesn’t want to eat whatever steak dinner Ezra has ordered because really what she wants is to sink her teeth into flesh and tear out whatever it is that makes this woman work right so she can claim it for herself. Ada curls her fingers around her butter knife until her knuckles are white.
The waiter’s setting down a wineglass before her. She forces a smile and loosens her grip.
Ezra tilts his head. “Something on your mind?” he asks.
“Not really,” Ada lies, because every bone in her body is screaming at her to lunge for this woman and peel the skin from her body so she can wear it as her own, to carve out her baby and shove it into Ezra’s arms, but she can’t say that, can she? He’d look at her funny if she did that. He’d frown and ask if she was sure she’d been taking her meds, backhanded but polite. Always polite. Never saying the quiet part out loud.
He wants her to be someone else. Ada can feel it.
Fine. If that’s what he wants, she’ll give it to him.
When they get home, Ada kisses Ezra first. It takes the entire drive home to work up her nerve, but when she does it, finally, it’s fast and hard like she’s trying to land a punch. Ezra makes a sound at the advance, startled, then hums low and pleased into her mouth, his hand coming up to cup her jaw. And that has to be right, surely, Ada thinks. Surely this is what she’s supposed to do, what she should have been doing from the start. He’s never looked at her like this before.
“Bed?” he asks, and Ada nods, the tense ache beneath her belly almost enough to drown out the nausea.
Before they left the restaurant, she ate every one of the overripe apple slices she’d packed away for dinner. She feels them now as Ezra touches her, tamping down her instincts and replacing them with familiar sickness. Good. This is what it means to be in control. Fuck the other woman. Ada’s better.
He’s gentle as he lays her down, heavy on top of her and kissing her frantically, feverishly, his hands and lips hungry. Ada keeps up with him as best she can, even as he strips away her dress and it sends a chill through her, even though his hands are too low and too close and she has to clutch at the sheets so she doesn’t shove them away.
“Missed this,” Ezra murmurs, peppering kisses down her neck, and God, Ada hates the way her body arches, hates the hard swell between his legs digging into her thigh, and Ezra’s palming her breasts with rough hands and it makes her want to scream even though it shouldn’t because she’s supposed to want it now and oh God why can’t she want it when she’s done everything right and why does she want to pull on her clothing and run to the kitchen and glut herself on her Honeycrisps until she keels over and dies—
Ada leans over the side of the bed and vomits, bile burning at the back of her throat.
“Shit,” Ezra says, and he pulls away like she’s diseased. “Shit, Ada.”
She can’t help the relief that trembles through her. It feels right for him to move back, to move away from her and take his hands off of her body, even if it makes Ada want to scream. Panting, she reaches for her discarded dress and begins to tug it back on. She doesn’t know why. She just knows she suddenly can’t stand being bare before Ezra any longer.
Ezra’s eyes flash with something Ada can’t parse as she begins to stand, his cheeks still flushed, his lips still kiss-swollen. “Did you…” He trails off, his eyes on the vomit. “Did you do that on purpose?”
Ada barks a laugh. “What?”
“Look, it’s just…” Ezra swallows hard. “Ada. I think you need to see a doctor.”
The air rushes out of Ada’s lungs. “I’m already seeing a doctor,” she says, her voice thin. The doctor has done nothing for her. She has stitched herself into a person all by herself.
“Something’s wrong. Can—Can you not see that?” Ezra asks. His eyes are softer now. Pitying. Ada shrinks away when he reaches out a hand to touch her arm. “We haven’t had sex since our honeymoon. That’s not normal, Ada. It doesn’t work if we pretend it is. I just—why don’t you talk to me about it?”
What is she supposed to say? That every touch from him burns like he’s stripping away another layer of her skin? Ada gnaws at her bottom lip. “I’m trying,” she rasps.
“Maybe it’s hormonal,” he goes on. “Or—Or maybe it’s part of…you know.” He gestures at her with his hand. “We could talk to someone. See if there’s something to fix it.”
Something that can fix her. As if Ada is a broken toy that’s not working right. As if she has not tried, has not killed herself time after time for him, as if she didn’t let him take her on their wedding night only to throw up in the early hours of the morning while he slept. As if it is not his fault that the only thing that makes her feel safe now is a dying apple in her mouth and carrion comfort wrapping loving arms around her stomach, as if she’s doing it on purpose, as if she is the problem.
It makes Ada want to tear something apart with her teeth.
“I need a glass of water,” Ada says, an aching lump thick in her throat, and she shuts the door behind her without another word.
An empty basket waits for Ada in the kitchen.
It makes her breath catch when she sees it, a spidery brown wicker crater darkening the counter like a spot of mold that shouldn’t be there. Looking at it makes her skin itch. There’s no way it can be empty when Ada is always so careful, when she always runs to the store for more the moment she can’t see her apples peeking over the top of the basket. She would have remembered eating through her entire stock; she would have felt the stomachache gnawing at her insides.
Her jaw hurts. Her chest constricts more with every passing second. Ada scans the kitchen for signs, looks in the fridge and opens all of the drawers, checks the sink and peers into the trash can only to find—
They’re nearly to the brim of the can, limp with their white underbellies exposed to the light. Ada nearly makes a sound upon seeing them, her Honeycrisps lying dead like a pile of bodies in a mass grave. Her fingers shake. Her stomach cramps.
Did Ezra throw them out like he wanted to? Did he do it while she pulled on her dress and did her makeup so she’d look nice for him? Did he do it to hurt her?
It’s too late to go to the store now. Ada’s eyes burn, and she won’t be able to think until she feels fruit dissolving on her tongue, and she needs them, needs to satisfy the hunger and the rot swirling together inside of her, and why would Ezra do this, why would Ezra do this to her, why, why, why—
Ada grabs a fistful of peels and shoves them into her mouth, instinctive, unthinking, already groping for more. The pieces squelch against her palm, cold and wet and the only things in the world that matter to her right now.
She doesn’t know how she ends up on the floor with the trash can upended around her, chewing and chewing like it will save her, chunks of fruit stuck between her teeth. It doesn’t really matter, though. There’s no distinction between Ada and the fruit and the bugs, and she is terrible and primal and so hungry that the feeling cleaves into her bone marrow. Around her, the world is a whirl of red and brown and green, and it’s perfect, perfect, nauseous and unending until Ezra’s voice cuts through the frenzy, sharp and alarmed: “Fuck, Ada.”
Ada looks up at him, dazed.
Has he ever been this tall? He looks like a god of his own making when he’s looming above her, the round lights shining from the ceiling casting a yellow halo around his head. The angles of his face are sharp and dangerous. His eyes, though—his eyes are wild. Frightened. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord—but he looks so startlingly human that Ada can’t see him as anything worthy of her worship. He’s just a man who can’t take anything more from her than he has already.
There’s a knife in his hand. One of the little kitchen knives from the drawer, its handle black as ink. “Ada,” he says, and his lip trembles, and Ada keens a low sound between a laugh and a sob. “That’s enough. Let’s go to bed.”
Ada recoils. “No,” she spits out, scrabbling at the cabinets so she can stand. He’ll touch her if she goes to bed with him. She’ll wake up with a screaming baby in her arms, and she can’t have that, she doesn’t want that, and she tried, okay, she’s sorry but she can’t make herself want it anymore—
“Then I’m going to call the police. The hospital. Someone,” Ezra says, the words punctuated by an awkward brandish of the knife. “You need help, Ada. Real help. You can’t stay here like this. I’ve done everything I can for you.”
Ada pictures a padded white room that sears her eyes, pictures pills mixed into her food, pictures a doctor’s hands ghosting up her inner thigh. An animal sound bleeds out of her at the thought. And Ezra’s reaching into his pocket for his phone now, and she can’t let him, he can’t put her in that kind of fucking cage after everything she has done to try and make herself perfect for him—
So Ada grabs the knife by the blade, and she slashes it across Ezra’s throat until all she sees is red, bright and shining like the skin of an apple.
He sags into her arms. Heavy. Boneless and twitching and looking up at her like he’s waiting for judgment. His skin blanches, pearl-white like marble, and he is clutching at her, blood bubbling on his lips. His chest heaves, perfect little wheezes snaking out from between his parted lips.
“It’s all right,” Ada says, and she smiles, gentle, brushing the hair from his face as his eyes go glassy. And God, but he’s so pretty like this. Like a portrait. Like artwork. Ada stares at him, her stomach still turning over and over and over with unfulfilled craving, Ezra’s heartbeat still beneath her hand, his body cradled in her arms like he is a child.
“It’s all right,” Ada whispers, and she leans her head down for a bite.