She Bit First
by Kirsten Hubbard
Ruby didn’t know where she’d first heard it.
“From another friend?” Arlo asked. Ruby just laughed and braided her legs through Arlo’s.
It was about a boy with rough hands, and a girl who saw a shimmer around the edges of things, and their walk together in an orchard. The girl found an apple that shone like a prism, but only she could see its light.
“She bit first,” Ruby said.
But then the boy took a larger bite, even though the girl asked him not to, and the light dimmed and died, and so did everything, everyone.
“He didn’t listen,” Arlo said.
“Do boys ever?” Ruby asked.
Arlo shrugged. At thirteen, she didn’t know much about boys. They just starred in all the stories.
“Probably he was doomed anyway,” Ruby continued.
“Because of the poison.”
Arlo giggled. Their mothers had warned them about the poison in their blood. At thirteen, they barely felt it. But soon it’d come over them like a virus: burning limbs, aching teeth. Ruby’s were already sharper when they grinned in the mirror to compare.
“We’re the most dangerous of them all,” Ruby said.
Then she kissed Arlo in that joyful way of hers, like giving. Like apple juice instead of poison.
Then they turned fourteen, and Ruby moved away.
At least Arlo had the story. A dark story by any measure, but because Ruby had given it to her, Arlo saw its light.
It became a sort of solace. She’d hurry home after school, her back still angled from the rigid seats and her ears stinging from teachers’ voices, and spend entire evenings curled around it. The boy and the girl and the shimmering orchard. Sometimes, Arlo could almost feel the apple her hands, and Ruby’s legs braided around hers. Savoring the twist in their middles when everything, everywhere went dark.
Then Arlo turned fifteen, and sixteen.
So did Ruby, on some far-off shore that pictures couldn’t capture. “Come visit!” she’d write (when she remembered to), as if it were something Arlo could control, as if turning sixteen gifted you the freedom you longed for instead of more awareness of the walls.
Walls that closed in more every year. For so long, the story had been a prism, casting light into the corners, loosening the edges.
But Arlo was starting to forget the way it felt in her hands.
She was sixteen and her teeth ached.
One morning, Arlo woke up with glass on her tongue.
It frightened her. She ran to the bathroom and spit out nothing. Double-checked her mouth in the mirror. She had nobody to compare her teeth to, she realized. Her hands were empty. Her unbraided legs felt hot.
“It’s because of the poison,” she said out loud.
She was sixteen and she had nowhere left to hide.
“I have to find him,” Arlo wrote in a letter Ruby never answered.
The boy, she meant. The rough-handed boy who bit second, whose larger bite turned off the light.
Arlo knew the story like breathing. The boy was the star of the story, like all the others. But other stories had happy endings. Maybe Arlo could change her story’s ending, she decided, if she could get the boy to listen.
She just wished it felt more like hope and less like surrender.
At sixteen, Arlo didn’t know much about boys. She thought finding him would be a matter of simple seeking, now that she’d widened her eyes. But the harder she looked, the less she saw.
The less she saw, the more she felt the poison.
Day after day after day, Arlo sat in her classroom, where the edges looked straight and still. So did the other students. Rows of forward-facing faces, clasped hands, legs crossed. Boys, girls, they were all the same. They had no fire in their blood.
“Arlo,” the teacher would say.
Ears stinging, Arlo would face forward. Clasp her hands. Cross her legs. Try her best to think about stillness as her fire grew. She’d try until it burned too much and she’d twitch or jerk, knock over her pencil or worse, her book. That’s the only time the other students broke their forward gaze, to turn and stare.
“Arlo,” the teacher would say, even louder.
It’s because of the poison, Arlo wouldn’t say.
One day, her foot kicked out into someone else’s, a boy’s. “Oof,” he yelped.
Arlo jumped to her feet, so crookedly her chair fell over. A bedlam of snickering sent hot darts into her cheeks.
“What’s the matter with you?” the teacher yelled.
“It was an accident,” Arlo said. She stumbled through the gridlock of desks, out the door.
Outside, she sat on the sidewalk, in a starscape of spat-out gum. Her searching hand found a patch of weeds, a wildflower. As the stinging in her ears shifted to her eyes, she thought she saw a quick shimmer before the world blurred.
“Are you okay?”
Arlo wiped her eyes, then looked up. It was the boy she’d kicked. A boy she’d barely noticed, like all the others. Arms, face, shoulders. She couldn’t see his hands. “It’s no big deal,” she replied.
“I asked about you,” he said, “not it.”
“Why’d you flip out? You’ve always been a weird one.”
Like he knew her. Arlo ran her tongue along the spurs of her teeth. “I’m just no good at—all that. All that nothing.”
“Yeah, nothing is right.”
She felt slightly encouraged. “It’s probably because I’m filled with poison.”
“Want to find a place to talk?”
“I guess.” Arlo wanted to ask if he’d heard her about the poison, but then he caught her hand and pulled her to her feet. His palm was rough.
“Follow me,” the boy said.
They walked together: down the halls, into the gym. But there weren’t any orchards, just stacks of wrestling mats greased with old sweat. As Arlo sat beside him, she realized she wasn’t sure what a star actually looked like. Not up close, anyway.
“You’re so hot,” the boy said, leaning in.
He kissed her like taking. Arlo didn’t know what to do with her hands, so she put them on his arms. His ropey muscles felt like snakes beneath his skin.
She had to say it twice into his mouth before he pulled away.
“What?” the boy asked.
“You said we could talk.”
“Okay, yeah, I guess. What do you want to talk about?”
Arlo wasn’t sure anymore. Her mouth had gone sour. She wondered if that was the way the boy tasted, or if he’d stolen all the sweet taste from hers. He was squinting at her now, like Arlo’s edges had gone out of focus. Her words came out in a panic.
“I have a story,” she said.
“A story? Like… about someone we know?”
“Not really. It’s just a story.”
He sighed, like he was doing her the favor. “Whatever. If it’s a quick one.”
“It’s about a boy with rough hands,” Arlo began. “And a—”
“Rough hands?” He swiped a sandpaper palm over her shoulder.
“Okay, quit it. Anyway. A boy with rough hands, and a girl who saw a shimmer around the edges of things.”
“Was she high?”
“High or drunk or crazy.”
Arlo sighed. “Can you just listen?”
“I am listening, obviously. It’s called active listening.”
In fits and starts, she told the rest of the story. The boy, and the girl. The orchard, and the walk. The apple the girl found. For the first time, the story kept moving away from Arlo, like wisps of a dream when you thought right at it. She had to chase it. Maybe she wasn’t supposed to share the story with this boy, she worried too late.
“And so did everything, everyone,” she finished.
“So it was the girl’s fault,” the boy said.
“Huh?” Arlo said. “No, you weren’t listening. Everything was fine until he took the apple. It was never his to begin with.”
“Why didn’t she just give it to him?”
“Because it was hers.”
“Then she was being a bitch,” she boy said. “She made him take it.
"He couldn’t help himself.
"She probably seduced him.
"Why does it even matter?”
Arlo’s legs burned from chasing. “You’re still not listening,” she said.
“Because you talk too much,” the boy replied.
He kissed her again, gripping her arms with his scaled-covered hands. Sliding them over, under. The poison was raging through Arlo now, but the boy didn’t even notice. His skin was flushed with stolen juice. Her juice, running though his veins. The apple was never his to begin with.
She wanted it back.
“Ow!” the boy yelped. He touched his mouth with a finger. It came away red. “Why’d you do that? What’s the matter with you?”
Arlo swallowed. She grinned.
“We’re the most dangerous of them all,” she said.
She didn’t feel bad about it, she told Ruby later.
Because he wouldn’t have listened, even if she’d warned him. That it’s not just about the apple, it’s about the sharp teeth.
That the boy isn’t the star of the story.
It’s the girl who bit first.
Kirsten Hubbard is the author of the YA novels LIKE MANDARIN & WANDERLOVE (Delacorte/Random House Kids), and the middle-grade novels WATCH THE SKY & RACE THE NIGHT (Disney-Hyperion), along with a forthcoming Disney series as Kir Fox. When she’s not lost in some far-flung desert, you can find her in Los Angeles, California.