The Seventh Apple - Part 1
“Would you like an apple, Snow?”
I watch as the fruit is handed across the table, seemingly so innocent. The skin is as red as my blood, and the white flesh as pure as my own and it has been tainted. I can smell the hint of bitterness sprinkled on the rosy surface, and I want to wretch again. I shake my head.
“You have to eat something… eventually,” my Stepfather purrs in a gravel-raw voice, “and apples are good for you.”
‘Not yours’, I think. The apple remains extended by his grim hand. I struggle to clear my throat. “No thank you,” I croak.
He grimaces and nudges the fruit closer. It rolls onto its side and collides with my arm. “In case you change your mind,” he says calmly, getting up from the opposite seat. It is well past sunset but no lights are turned on. Electric lights have been stinging my eyes recently, which might have seemed reason enough for him to turn them on. I sit in darkness except for one thin slit of moonlight falling in between the curtains. It slices through the room, cutting the apple in half, one glistening with pale light and the other dim and dull. The moon shines off the skin and I wince. I’m sure my eyes are getting weaker with every moment spent in this room. My Stepfather opens the door onto still more blackness. He pauses, smiles, and disappears behind it. The handle clicks and the lock snaps.
Now I sit alone with the apple. It is rocking gently with its stem pointing towards me. Cautiously I reach out to grab it but stop myself inches away. I have started to realise that everything bad comes in sevens. I was seven years old when Dad died all of a sudden, and seven and seven months when my Stepfather had appeared on the scene. I have seven scars where he hit me. Now I’m seventeen and have been locked in this room for seven days.
This is the seventh apple. If any apple is going to kill me, this will be the one.
All the others just made me sick. There is a bucket by the door where I have routinely emptied my stomach. The first apple I threw up over his waiting hand, for which I got a punch. The ratio hadn’t been right. The next five were experiments. This was the seventh apple, and this one would be right.
We looked too alike, or so my Stepfather said. I never thought about it until he pushed me under the photograph of Dad in the hallway. Our eyes are the same, dark brown and oval shaped. My hair is an identical shade of black. These features are from Dad’s country, a hot green island over a distant sea. Greece or Spain, I think, but I can’t remember properly. Only my fair skin shows any sign of my Mum, my snowy complexion. It snowed the first time Dad arrived in this country. He’d never seen it before, but he thought it was wonderful.
A few nights ago I thought I heard her breathing in the next room, then she and my Stepfather had a word. They had a lot of words in the past, words that swelled so big the neighbours called the police. He was taken away for the night, but he was back the next evening. Her words petered out and she lay elsewhere in the house, keeping quiet. We weren’t able to see each other, now he held the only key to my room. She wouldn’t have just forgotten about me. I screamed too much in that week for her not to have noticed. I tried to kick the door down and smash the window but neither worked. Now every scream has left me like it had left her. It feels like we’ve lost the battle.
I knock the apple further away and it falls off the edge of the table. My Stepfather is down in the kitchen below. I’m not sure whether the thought of food ignites my appetite or makes me feel worse. The apples are my only option. He makes sure of that.
The chair aches my back, so I stand at the window, and place my hot forehead to the cool glass. A light is shining in the yard, and it bounces up into my face. I catch sight of my reflection. The thing that gazes out at me is a gaunt spirit. “How ugly,” I whisper. I’m so ugly. My arm is made of bone, as if there isn’t skin there at all. My fingers are as brittle and pathetic as twigs on a tree branch. My skull is showing in my face like Halloween make-up that hasn’t quite been washed away. My eyes are red-rimmed. My hair hangs lifelessly in front of my eyes and is a depressing dull inky colour. At least it has finally grown out from the severe hacking it got the last time he was drunk. No wonder the kids at school laughed. Luckily he hasn’t drunk anything in months. He stopped mixing one poison to concoct another.
The light leaves the yard. His coat leaves the banister and he leaves through the front door. It’s tough luck if I need the bathroom in the next couple of hours. I’ll have to use the bucket. I feel my way to the door and cling onto the handle, its coldness grounding me to the earth. In the dark it is hard to tell whether I’m sleeping or not. I think I drift for a while. Any image that appears to me always returns to the apple resting under the seat. It tries to entice me, to trick me into believing in its juicy sweetness. “You don’t fool me,” I hiss at it. The apple’s venomous whispering stops for a second, just long enough for me to catch a distant sigh. I freeze and force my ear to the keyhole. Mum is close by. Her blankets are rustling, and her feet treading the floorboards.
“Mum?” I whisper, and the hallway light flickers on. I shrink back from the piercing beam of yellow, but put my mouth back to the hole, “Mum? Is that you?” I don’t know who else it could be; I just want her to say it aloud, so I know she is still alive. Her shadow covers the keyhole and she pauses just behind the bedroom door. I brush my body up against it to get as close to her as possible. She wears grey pyjama bottoms and she smells like a deep sleep. She says nothing, only turns to go down the stairs. “Mum!” I call out to her again, louder this time. She doesn’t stop. I slip back down to the floor. I wanted her to speak to me and we’d been so close. I squint my eyes shut. Stinging tears escape onto my cheeks. The power my Stepfather has over us both is a crushing weight, but surely she still has her instincts. I hug my knees. ‘No help will come from her tonight’, I whisper to my broken heart.
That is, until I hear her treading back up the steps.
I should know not to hope for much, it only leads to disappointment, but I still hope. I sit back from the door and hold my breath. Her feet stop again in the same place as before. The handle jerks and swings down violently. I wriggle backwards. The apple brushes my fingertips and I shove it away. My eyes widen.
She’s opening the door.
How did she get the key? He wouldn’t leave it behind.
The door shudders, groaning against the tight lock. There’s a loud thump on the wood. I think she found a hammer. A great weight is bending the hinges. I want cheer her on but my voice has shrunk inside my throat.
She drags her weapon out of the wood with a splintering sound, and at last speaks to me, “Get back.”
I scramble to my feet and duck behind the table. The door cracks down the one side and the joints swing free. I put my hand up to shield my eyes. My mother stands on the other side of the doorframe, a crow-bar clutched in her hand. Her short brown hair is a tangled birds’ nest and her face flushed pink; every breath shivering with the effort, or the fear that somehow she has miscalculated, that he’ll walk back in at any moment and discover her betrayal.
“Mum,” I whimper and run to her, desperate to get back into those arms.
She pulls me out into that lurid light and clutches my face in her hands. Horror lurks in her eyes as she whispers, “What has happened to you?” She brushes her fingers down my cheek. The other keeps a firm grip on my shoulder. “Listen to me,” she struggles to keep her trembling under control, “put your shoes on. Now.” She speaks as if I were a toddler being taught how to dress but I’m happy for it. I dart back in the room to where my shoes lie under the bed covers. They’re cold inside, unworn. I force my feet into them and they feel cramped. Mum goes to my wardrobe and pulls out one of my old jumpers. Her hands can’t quite stay still as she bunches it up over my head, over my thin t-shirt. “This should be warm enough,” she mumbles under her breath. She slides it down my arms. Her face is inches from mine and my smile creeps out for the first time in days. She stops again and hugs her arms around herself, “If there’s anything you want from here grab it quickly. We’ve got to go.”
I glance back at the apple as she leads me out onto the landing. I snatch the photograph off the wall; the one of Dad back home, standing on the edge of a white harbour wall and a brilliant turquoise sea. It looks so warm there. Mum hurries to get her overcoat on, suddenly it’s so much bigger on her than it used to be. I wonder if she’s lost weight since I last saw her in person.
“Good thing that he forgot about the spare,” she mutters at the front door. While the rest of the street sleeps we sprint onto the pavement, like we’re leaving for a secret holiday but with no luggage. Mum grabs my hand firmly, determined not to let go this time. Her pyjama bottoms are scrunched inside the tops of her boots. It’s autumn and our breath mists in front of us. We reach the park at the bottom of the road. She rattles the gates anxiously, but they’re always locked at dusk. She gives me a leg up over the wall and I pull her over. Once we are consumed by the blackened trees she breaks into a run. I tail behind. My legs have forgotten what freedom feels like. She halts next to a metallic park bench. I sit for a brief moment before she seizes my hand again, “Let’s go, Snow.”
“Where? Where are we going?” I gasp.
“Somewhere we should have gone ages ago,” she whispers. She gulps back her tone of guilt, “It’s across town.”
“We have to run all the way?” I ask.
She nods but adds, “It’ll be over soon, I promise.”
The streets are completely still. We race down the centre of the roads with no cars to honk us out of the way. The pavements are illuminated but no one walks on the path. I wish I’d thought to take sunglasses, my eyes are watering from the night’s electric chill. I miss seeing people. My Stepfather barely counts as human and he’s been my only occasional company this past week. As we hurry over the city bridge it feels like we’re the only two people left alive in the world. The flagstones breathe of them. They miss the trample of their feet.
“I don’t think I can run anymore,” I drop to my knees on the abandoned high street. All the shops went years ago and were replaced by bars and clubs. The gutters reek of alcohol, just like his breath used to. Mum says nothing, but tugs at my arm. She’s begging me to stand, if only to get off this one stretch of road. The hairs stand up at the back of my neck. Maybe it’s because he’s waiting in one of them. I thought he’d stopped drinking. I get back on my feet.
She links my arm in hers, and we rush up the hill. A homeless man in a doorway asks if we have any change. Mum quickly shakes her head, “Sorry.” I doubt she even thought to bring any money. I certainly didn’t, and I’m not about to hand him my Dad’s photograph, which is now worth more than any money on this earth.
Mum ushers me towards a row of tall Victorian terraces. They blend together, like pine trees blurring into a forest. This one has a steep set of front steps to climb, a heavy wooden door with a brass knocker, and buzzer on the wall. Mum lets me lean in the porch as she presses a button on the pad. Another lady’s voice crackles on the other side, “How may I help you?”
Mum barely breaths into the speaker. Her head bends closer, revealing her most precious secret, “It’s Ms White. We spoke earlier, on the phone.” She’s given them her maiden name. “I have my son with me.”
“I’ll let you in,” the speaker says and then it clicks off.
Mum places a hand on the wooden door panels and pushes. The door gives way easily, even though the lock on the other side is large and electrical. When it closes behind us the lock buzzes again.
The speaker lady comes out from a white side door. “May I take your coat?” she extends an arm. Mum warily slips hers off again and folds it over her elbow. The speaker lady takes it back into the white room, and comes out again. “We were expecting you earlier than this,” she says. She doesn’t sound annoyed, but concerned. I look up for a clock. There’s one very high up on the wall. It’s almost one in the morning.
“This was the only chance I had,” Mum answers. Her voice quivers as though she’s about to burst into tears.
“I’ll show you up to a room for now,” the speaker lady nods us towards more stairs, “We’ll talk more in the morning. I’m Faye, by the way.”
She walks ahead. I crawl behind Mum. We pass many rooms and climb at least three flights of stairs. There’s a small sitting room littered with children’s toys. Beyond an open door a TV screen hums with static. I hear soft snoring coming from the closed ones. I try my best not to look directly into the neon strip lights that run along the ceilings. I’m confused. Is this some kind of hotel? She takes us to the floor just before the attic level. Our door is next to the last set of steps that lead up to the attic door.
We’re put in Room 7.
She unlocks the door and lets us pass into it. It’s very plain and simple. There are two twin beds. A small shower room. A bedside table and a lamp. The floor is hard tile, but they’ve tried to warm it up by adding an old rug with a jazzy pattern. The same pattern hangs at the windows. There’s a radiator below the windowsill. I look out. I see the faint shapes of party-goers moving in the street below. Faye rushes over, “Don’t take up the blind,” she warns.
“Why?” I frown.
“We don’t want anyone seeing in from outside.”
Mum drops onto the end of one bed.
“Where are we?” I whisper to Faye.
She gives me a small, sad smile, “This is a safe shelter, sweetheart.”