It was the day of my twentieth birthday, and I was feeling a little sick to my stomach, nerves pinching at me. I had finals coming up and a paper due in European History II. I should’ve been agonizing over the pile of library books that smelled like body odor sitting on the end of my bed, interlibrary loan tags jutting out of them in a pattern like stairs. I should’ve been bent over my chemistry text book, tracing my finger over the diagrams of compounds, burning their image into my brain. But mostly I was thinking about that old Jessie Wilcox Smith painting of Little Red Riding Hood and wondering if I was going to live to the end of the day.
I had never liked the story of Little Red Riding Hood, because it was full of plot holes, even as far as fairy tales go. I mean, first the mom lets her little, edible daughter go through the woods on her own. Then the little, edible girl meets a wolf, and despite the fact of her being tasty and good with or without ketchup, he doesn’t eat her right there. Apparently the little, edible girl holds a conversation with the wolf, which leads to her picking flowers so the wolf can hightail to grandma’s. Then he eats grandma, which really should’ve satisfied the wolf unless the wolf had a tapeworm. But instead he waits for the little, edible girl in the grandma’s bed. Why wouldn’t he just jump on her at the door and be done with it? And where the heck did the woodsman come from?
I’ve thought about this a lot, ever since my vaguely magical fake-aunt Moira told me I was Little Red Riding Hood. Moira was not really my aunt, but rather a family acquaintance we all called aunt. The adults seemed to think she was sort of sketchhy and possibly pagan and definitely in early menopause. She’d crashed my oldest sister’s seventh birthday party. I was only four, so I don’t remember it, but I’d heard the story lots of times.
“Where are you going, Izzy?” Helen, my roommate, looked up from the desk by the window. “Euro’s in, like, ten minutes.”
“Would you get notes for me?” I asked her. “I just need to take off for today. I’m going to crash at Starbucks, if you need me.”
Helen shrugged, unconcerned. She knew I’d pass my exams anyway, because that’s what I did. I got my laptop and my backpack before heading out of the dim dorm into the brilliant May day. I checked, automatically, to make sure I wasn’t wearing anything red.
My mom told me that Moira busted into Jennifer’s birthday party and swore that she was bestowing a blessing or a curse on each of us. Mom said it went like so:
MOIRA: I am bestowing a blessing or curse upon each of your girls, Megan! These shall come to pass on their twentieth birthday!
MOM: Moira, have some cake. Here’s a piece with a balloon on it. That’s more icing.
MOIRA: Jennifer shall be Snow White!
JENNIFER (crossly): I was Snow White last year.
MOIRA: Emily shall be Beauty and the Beast!
MOM: Here. I got you a whiskey, just like you like it. Why don’t you go sit in the other room until the guests go?
MOIRA (looking at me): And Izzy shall be Little Red Riding Hood!
MOM: That’s great.
MOIRA (as an afterthought): And probably the Three Little Pigs, too.
ME (bites Moira).
I was a big biter back then. After the excitement died down, no one really thought about Moira’s break-in, until they came true.
By the time I got out to my car, a sweet little Miata convertible, Jason was standing beside it, running his fingers absentmindedly over the red paint. “Take me with you,” he said. “I can’t stand dead European monarchs another day.”
So, first, Jennifer became Snow White. But not in a really obvious way, so by the time that she figured it out, it was too late. By the time I got to the hospital room, she’d already died after a massive allergic reaction brought on cough syrup the color of a candied apple. No prince for her.
“I’m just going to the Starbucks,” I said to Jason, getting into the car. “Nothing interesting.”
By the time Emily turned twenty, wee were wise to it. She was looking out left and right for anything vaguely beastly. She changed her career plans from veterinarian to planetarium and was found strangled by a heavily-bearded astrologer who lived in a tudor home behind a maze of roses. Her killer was transformed to something almost human looking when they shaved his beard at the prison.
“I will make it interesting,” Jason said. He flashed me a smile that said that the interestingness might involve tongue.
“At a Starbucks?”
“Anything can happen in a coffee shop,” Jason replied.
Which left me. Little Red Riding Hood. And The Three Little Pigs. By the time I was nineteen, I knew those stories in and out, every single permutation of them that had ever existed. And most of all, I knew what the common element was between those two stories. But my stomach was still churning today.
“I need my alone time today,” I said. “Sorry, kiddo. I’ll call you later.”
I felt only a little bad leaving him behind in the parking lot, because really, in the great scheme of Jason vs. my life, he lost.
At Starbucks, I found a parking spot in the shade and headed inside to one of the corner booths. I’d already made up my mind that, after Jennifer, I wasn’t going to eat anything. And after Emily, bearded strangers were out too.
I flipped open my laptop and pulled up my e-mails, lulled into comfort by the familiar sound of the cappuccino machine and the hum of people talking. My inbox hosted a bunch of spam, an e-mail from my grandmother asking when I was coming by, and a new one from Jason. I stared at his last name. I’d never noticed it before. Well, never really paid attention to it, though I should’ve seen it right off, given my history. Jason Loup.
Someone’s fingers brushed my elbow, and when I looked up, I saw Jason.
“I thought you might have changed your mind,” he said, “and wanted some company.”
He smiled at me.
I maced him.
Author’s Note: in case one hadn’t noticed, our weekly prompt this week was Little Red Riding Hood, whom I despise.
The art is Jessie Wilcox Smith’s Little Red Riding Hood.