“I thought you’d be an egg,” the cashier says. She looks down at my ID, one pierced brow arched.
“I get that a lot,” I say, shoving my hands in my pockets. Glancing back, I see the woman behind me has hair like Dolly Parton and a cart full of soda—twelve liters of Dr. Pepper. I almost ask her what they’re for. Probably a party. Only three items ride their way down the conveyor belt in my Wegmans basket: a case of beer, salt and vinegar chips, and super glue.
A fluorescent light blinks overhead, and with every pulse, the empty space behind my right ear throbs. The cashier’s lips move—they’re painted a soft shade of lavender—but I don’t listen. All I know is the throb and the light.
“Can you please check me out?” I ask. “I think I left the stove on.”
The cashier shrugs, hands me back my ID, and bags the groceries.
“Have a good night, Mr. Dumpty.”
I nod, but the motion makes me throb so much I think I’m going to be sick. I feel like a heart. I close my eyes. Try to breathe. What is it that Wolf always says?
Smell the roses, blow out the candle.
The cold air of November turns my breath white.
My gums ache, the roots of my teeth, the enamel. The handle of my truck is ice-covered, but I somehow manage to pull the door open.
I stay still for a while. I exhale. For a second, I wonder if the orange of the overhead lights will dye me orange, too. I’m not a real egg, everyone gets that detail wrong, but my skin is thin. Impressionable. Fragile. I’m prone to crack, to shatter. I howl when it happens. Wolf and I have that in common.
The piece of me that goes behind my right ear sits on my bedside table. Wolf will glue it back in when I get home, but I can feel its pull. The steady-sick ache. I put the car in drive and tear out into the night.
Spaghetti trails from Wolf’s fork. We met in a Fairy Tales group five years ago, and he told us in share circle that he didn’t eat Red’s grandmother. We’re the victims of old stories—sometimes that’s hard to bear alone.
“How was your day?” I ask.
“Fine. I took on a new client today. He was scammed by his phone company.”
I frown, and my fingers move behind my right ear, to the grooves of hardened glue. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“Nope.” Wolf’s smile is all teeth, but he’s partial to sweater-vests and chinos and believes walking on two legs is the only proper way for a wolf to walk. He’s the one who first brought up adoption.
“You’re amazing, darling.” I sip my wine. It’s white and sweet. A riesling? I get all the different kinds confused. I get a lot of things confused after something on me breaks.
For our first date, Wolf took me to The Cheesecake Factory. All I remember is the waiter bumping into me and the piece of my cheek screaming on the floor. Wolf was afraid. But only for me. He didn’t run or think I was going to be too much work to deal with. He looked at me with those wild eyes and brought his lips to mine. He made me feel like a prince.
Wolf told me, weeks later, that the waiter was actually a waitress. That the restaurant was Olive Garden. That I slipped and was never bumped into. It’s funny what memory does, what memory is. All of it gets scrambled when I get scrambled. Did the cashier yesterday have a pierced eyebrow, or did I just imagine it? Maybe there was only one liter of soda, not twelve.
“Earth to Humpty. Are you okay?” Wolf waves a paw in front of my face.
“Sorry,” I say.
“Nothing’s fuzzy, right? Do you know where you are? Who I am?”
“We’re in our apartment on Yellow Brick Road, sipping wine, eating pasta, and you’re the very handsome Big Bad Wolf.” He cares about me, really cares, and that’s enough to keep me going when all I want to do is stop.
Wolf leans in, and the lines around his eyes crinkle. “I can’t wait to be a parent, Humpty. Can you imagine it? One hundred years ago, they wouldn’t even let Fairy Tales marry.”
“And now we’re going to adopt a baby,” I say.
He doesn’t speak as he stands. He doesn’t speak as he crosses to my seat and lifts me up. My socks brush our bamboo floor.
“Bedroom?” Wolf’s voice is a cloak of stars thrown over my shoulders. My hips press flush against his. He smells of winter before a thaw.
I’m not a tragic nursery rhyme, and he’s not a wolf who kills. We are two stories twined. We are moans and gasps and pleas. A twist and tangle of blankets. We are new legends made of sweat and laughter. Pleasure.
We lie together after: my back to his chest, a paw on my stomach. His warm breaths break against my ear.
“That was amazing,” I say.
He licks over the nape of my neck. I feel the wet touch of his nose against my skin.
“I very much agree.”
The sheets on our bed are a deep red. When the sun streams through the windows, it looks like we sleep in dawn’s cupped hands.
Now, though, the sheets are as dark as blood—as dark as the scratches I left on Wolf’s hips. I close my eyes and smile.
And then I hear the ocean crashing. Wolf curses.
“Your phone,” I say.
When he stands, I watch the sheets fall away. I watch the way the muscles in his thighs work, how every single hair on his body settles back into place.
It’s incredible how someone can be so confident without any clothes on. He doesn’t even move to cover himself.
I try to tune out his conversation, to welcome the lull of sleep, but fragments drift toward me from the next room, messages trapped in bottles I’m too tired to get all the way open.
“I’ll be right there.” Wolf’s voice is low, courteous. It’s his client voice.
I hear him ruffle through the chest of drawers, the closet. I hear him zip up his slacks and pull on a sweater.
“Where are you going?” I mumble.
“A client. He said he’ll pay me extra if I come right now.”
I don’t know if I make a sound in response, but Wolf’s muzzle finds my forehead. A silent goodbye.
“Don’t forget anything,” I say. “You always forget things when you’re rushed.” But when I open my eyes the room is blurred, warm, and entirely empty.
I’m cold. Afraid. Sentences fly through my mind like larks, but I can’t make them mean anything. I can’t make myself move. I feel concrete and snow. Tears slice down my cheeks.
Once people figure out who I am, I’m always asked the same questions: “When you fell off the wall, what came out? Blood? Yolk? What’s inside you?” I never fell off a wall, I say, but there was an incident with all the king’s men that I’d rather not get into.
I see a purple sky tinged pink. I see old bags of Chinese takeout on the ground beside me. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to turn my head.
The second thing I say is that there is nothing inside me. Nothing that spills. No blood or yolk. I’m practically a ghost.
I see my shoe, and then its match a few yards away. I remember dinner. I remember what Wolf and I did after. I remember him leaving and me saying not to forget.
It’s funny what memory does, what memory is. All of it gets scrambled when I—
Parts of me are broken. Missing. There’s a dizzying, dazzling pain. A wound, breathing.
Lights shine in the windows of the diner to my left, and people eat in red patent-leather booths.
A man runs over to me from somewhere. He’s saying something, but I can’t hear. He’s wearing the jersey of a football team, or is it baseball? I don’t remember.
The man’s mouth is moving fast. He’s pointing. More people come over and surround me.
I feel hands on my broken edges. More pain. Black and slick, an eel in murky water.
Air blows through me, and the eel violates deeper. It’s in my head. The diner window bleeds away, the purple sky.
There are the shadows the bystanders make, and there is that raw, biting pain, and there is a body that holds nothing capable of mending what is broken.
The police have been to my room a couple of times now. The first time, Wolf tells me I told them I was flying. I vaguely remember laughing in their faces. The second time, the officers told me I was robbed and assaulted on the street, that someone picked me up and broke me. And I guess they had to explain this a few times. Their words wouldn’t stick.
My hospital room is gray. The bed, gray. The sheets, gray. The nurses are all gray, too, the lighting pulling the life from their faces.
Wolf sits by my bedside with his paws gripped in prayer. He’ll wear religion until its rags hang from his shoulders.
I don’t want to disturb him, but as soon as I shift and the sheets swish and the bed creaks, his eyes open and fill with tears.
“Fuck, Humpty. How do you feel? Do you want the nurse? Do you want water?”
“I’m okay. Sore. Water would be great.” It feels good to say that, and it feels even better to watch Wolf go to the water cooler in the corner of the room. To know that I still have some semblance of control over something.
I don’t want to remember the faces of the people at the diner. The way they stared at me. I don’t want to remember the pain.
Wolf sits with the paper cup held in between his paws. He leans forward to tip the water onto my tongue. It tastes like char. I swallow it all.
“I should have never left you,” he says. His voice is soft. “I just thought we could use the extra money for the nursery.”
Bits and pieces of the night come back as slowly as Baba Yaga scuttling through the sky in her mortar. I remember waking up, answering my phone. Wolf forgot his briefcase. Could I bring it to him?
“It’s not your fault, Wolf. You didn’t know I’d be jumped.”
He looks down, and his muzzle hovers above my thigh. “I feel like it’s my fault.”
I don’t have time to answer him. An older officer knocks on the door, and he writes down all I remember. He says we probably won’t see the stolen cash again. We should cancel our credit cards. He says they’re still looking for my fingers, but that my arms and right leg are in evidence. Someone will return them to me soon.
I say okay.
Wolf says okay.
And I think of our prospective baby.
After the officer leaves, I count the tiles on the ceiling, and I think of the life they’ll have with us. I see Wolf picking up our baby and spinning them around. Their laughter. I see myself in the bookstore trying to find books to read to them at night. Books that don’t boil fairy tales down to stereotypes and clichés.
I even see potential headlines: “Humpty Dumpty and the Big Bad Wolf Raise a Child in the Modern Age.”
I look over at Wolf nodding off in his uncomfortable chair. That patch of silver fur above his left eye that makes him look distinguished and wise and more likable than I could ever hope to be.
Will our child think we’re monsters? Will they be scared? Will they point and prod and ask questions we don’t have the answers to?
I feel these thoughts unraveling and getting lost in the same dark corners as my missing pieces.
“Wolf,” I say, unsure for a moment whether my voice is audible or a trick of the IV drip.
Will I be able to keep a child safe?
I say Wolf’s name again. I hold its weight in my mouth, on my tongue, for as long as I can.
“We need to talk about the baby.”
“The baby?” He rubs at his eyes, and I see happiness flare inside him. I see it so clearly. He leans down to lick a kiss across my forehead, ticklish and soft. “What about the baby, angel?”
I have to close my eyes. I close my eyes, and I say a prayer in this gray room with its gray sheets and gray bed, and gray walls. With morphine and fear inside me and Wolf above me. I’m unable to hurt him. Maybe this is its own answer.
“What do you think about sky blue for the walls?” I open my eyes, and Wolf smiles, and we talk, and we talk, and we talk while I put myself back together again.