He stands in front of the bathroom mirror, adjusting his tie, thinking it would be so easy if he could simply adjust the droop of his eyelids, the mismatched colours of his scars, his uneven hairline. Is it too much, to put on a collar and tie for this? He has already decided that there is no point getting smart from the waist down for a Zoom interview and is still in his sweatpants, his feet bare as he pads around his penthouse.
Ten years, twelve books – he leans closer towards the mirror, turning slightly to the left, pointlessly examining the texture of his cheek. How badly, he wonders, will it show up on the screen? It is a live interview, the first he has done in years, and he is regretting agreeing to it, big time. But his latest book is about to be released in the middle of a national lockdown. He cannot let his publisher down, or his sweet plump agent who called him last night with her kids screaming in the background to make sure he was really okay with this.
He told her no problem, but today he wishes he had cancelled. He steps back from the mirror, his tie perfect, his stomach clenching at the thought of thousands of people looking at him, listening to him go on about why he moved from the Disney classics to the darker, northern European tales, how he has progressed from the first frilly romance, The Unbearable Whiteness of Snow, to this most recent work, Sweet Nightmare. No princesses and happy dwarves in this one – it’s about abandoned, abused children dropping crumbs in a forest, a predator lurking in wait, a gingerbread house with a sinister secret. He is not sure himself how it happens: all he knows is that in all this time he has never failed to be drawn in by the old stories, that opening the huge musty Hans Christian Andersen he has had since he was a boy never fails to inspire him with more ideas than he could ever turn into books. He spent months dreaming this story, living it as he lay in bed staring at the ceiling, as he walked miles alone through the city streets, as he prepared meals-for-one in his shiny kitchen. Then as he began to research the details became clearer: the little boy and girl swam into focus, the bleak landscape solidified, the awfulness intensified. He has not held back this time. His millions of loyal readers will buy this one, he knows, they will have things to say and comments to make, reviews to write both shredding it to pieces and calling him a master of suspense and gasp-inducing twists. He does not mind discussing it at all; in fact to write about his process is something he enjoys very much. It’s the being on camera that gets him, though, every time. He will share his mind with whoever cares to know what it holds; it’s his face he wishes he could keep to himself.
He feels nauseous and cannot eat his customary cornflakes, so when he finally sits in front of his laptop, strategically placed in front of a white wall hung with a framed black-and-white print of a dark forest, he feels a little light-headed. The interviewer pops up on the screen, smooth with make-up and perfect hair, a woman this time, young and blonde, pink-framed glasses perched on a dainty nose. She reminds him for a moment, as so many other similar-looking women do, of Isabella. Great, he thinks, plastering on a smile. Now he feels disturbed and sad as well as hungry and nervous.
At first it doesn't go too badly. He endures the introduction (Burn survivor Adam Best, entrepreneur turned best-selling author is with us today to discuss his latest novel) and begins to answer the questions, feeling like an idiot at first. He speaks about the software he uses, whether he’s a pantser or a planner, into what feels like a void. But he gets used to it, and although he is not exactly enjoying it he is managing. The worst part is seeing himself, seeing the wild hair that has escaped from his ponytail, the scars of course, the eyes that are still red despite the eyedrops, his uneven mouth. He has to sweep aside the thoughts: no one wants to look at this. This is not the airbrushed photo on the book jackets, this is the real deal, the actual face behind the name. This is him, at home, no make-up people or stylists, just him releasing a book in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s not pretty.
The interviewer does not seem to pay any attention to his appearance. To his relief, she asks no questions about the accident. She is enthusiastic, interested. She seems to have read all his books too, even Wolf in the Wings which only ever sold half what the others did. Her favourite is Jake and the Giant, but she has a soft spot for The Magic of Ash too.
“So … hauntingly romantic!” she says, referring to the almost-tragic Cinderella heroine. “And the way the prince turned out to be the humble one needing to be rescued – do you remember that idea coming to you at all?”
He nods. “I do,” he says. “I always look for a way to move beyond what the reader expects, within the constraints of the tale of course. That's the power of these retellings, I think – the readers know what must happen, they fully expect it to happen, but then I veer away when they least expect it. For that story I remember seeing a man stumbling in the park and his wife helping him up, and knowing immediately that I wanted her to be the redeemer, not the fairy godmother or the prince at all.”
“Fascinating. But you always come back, Mr Best, you always make sure the tale has a happy ending.”
“Of course,” he says, leaning back and forcing another smile. “It is always my intention to respect both the old stories and my readers’ expectations of a retelling. Within the tale I give myself freedom, but the end is not negotiable.”
“And you do that so well.” The Isabella look-alike smiles back. “I must say that I felt while reading Sweet Nightmare and My Beautiful Coma that I was on a terrifying roller coaster ride, but I always knew you would bring it back. I felt terrified … but safe at the same time.”
“Then I have achieved what I set out to do,” he says. “Thank you.”
She shakes her head a little and adjusts the glasses on her nose, looking down at her notes and then up again. “We don't have much time left, Mr Best – but I do have one more question to ask you.”
“Go ahead,” he says. This is good, he thinks. It’s almost over, and so far it has not been too bad. Perhaps he will be able to stomach his cornflakes when it’s done.
“You have retold so many of the classics, but your fans cannot help but notice that there is one fairytale missing. One of the most popular, I believe, especially with the recent release of the live-action Disney movie.”
He feels a chill suddenly, as if a blast of winter has seeped in under the door. No, please, not this question. He should have pre-empted it and made sure she knew not to ask it, dammit – his agent should have remembered! But it is too late now. He is no good at lying, especially not to pretty blonde girls with glasses, even if they are so damn insensitive as to ask a man with burn scars why he has not written a story about a disfigured beast.
He waits for the actual question, angry, sad and scared. She must think she is so clever to have noticed this, and he will not give her anything for free. Let her ask. Let her watch the recording and cringe at her callousness.
“So what about it, Mr Best? When will we see a Beauty and the Beast retelling? I heard you are working on a new book already and I am hoping I might have guessed what it is.”
“It’s not my favourite,” he says, hoping his voice is steady. “I just happen to find the story uninspiring.”
“That’s not what you said in an interview in 2015,” she says. Her expression has changed and he has decided she doesn't look much like Isabella after all. “You said the story, and I quote, hit a little too close to home.”
“What do you want me to say?” He knows he must sound blunt, clipped, rude even. “You think I should identify with the Beast, and be excited to write his story?”
“Oh,” she says, and he is pleased to see a blush spread over her face. “No, I didn’t mean that at all.”
“Then what did you mean?”
“Nothing. I am only curious to know why the story hits a little too close to home.”
“Perhaps it’s obvious, and we can leave it at that.” He says nothing more. Let her squirm.
The end is awkward but then it’s over. A producer thanks him and he is free to hang up. He gets up from the table, rips off his tie, lies down on his couch with his arm over his face. Beauty and the damn Beast. He will never be free of it. Later, as night sinks over the city, he is on his balcony with a tray of sushi, picking half-heartedly at it when his phone rings. An unknown number, but he answers anyway.
“Adam?” He knows who it is as soon as she says his name.
“Isabella.” Gosh, he has not said her name out loud in a decade. It feels so strange on his tongue.
“I saw the interview. Congratulations, I suppose.”
“Thanks.” He does not know what to say.
“I haven’t read your books,” she said. “Well I did that first one, the Snow White one. But it was too dark for me. I didn't like it."
“Fair enough,” he says. “Not for everyone.”
“My dad died a few weeks ago,” she says, flatly. “Covid.”
“I didn't know. I’m … sorry.”
“He was … a good man.” Oh hell that sounds so stupid, after what happened.
“I guess that makes one of you then.” Her voice is cold.
“Is that why you called?” He covers his face with his hand, rubbing at his eyes, hoping he can bear how much this hurts without embarrassing himself. He has spent years pretending she has forgiven him. “To tell me he passed away?”
“While he was dying he was still apologising to me, Adam,” she says. “We had him on the phone and he just kept saying it over and over. It didn't matter how much I told him it was your fault, that he did nothing wrong, he just kept at it.”
“It was my fault,” he says. “I know. It was awful of me.”
“I called because I wanted to say that if you ever write some dumb fairy tale about us I will expose you,” she says. “I won’t leave anything out. I’ll tell whoever cares to hear that you wanted my father to pay back his debt with his daughter.”
He is silent. He lives with this every day but it is always buried, like a disease in remission.
“Do you hear me? Don't you dare turn what happened into some twisty weird book that ends with me falling in love with you.”
“I wouldn’t dare, Bella,” he says. “I swear I wouldn’t.”
“You better be serious. And don't call me Bella.”
He looks up, at the sky and the stars, the phone still up to his ear. He knows there are tears on his scarred face, rolling uncontrolled out of his misshapen eyes over his crooked lips, into the patches of stubble that never grew evenly after the skin grafts. “I was lost, Bella,” he says, letting himself remember how he had loved her, how beautiful she had been, how he had determined to make her love him no matter what it took. “I loved you and I didn’t know how to make you see.”
“You desired me, Adam, that’s all.” Her voice is icy now. “If you had loved me you would never have used my poor bankrupt dad like that. He was tortured for the rest of his life over what he did! Love isn’t scheming and bribing!”
“You forgave him, I suppose,” he says. No, love is not scheming. He knows that now. He knows that it cannot be bought or forced, even when you look like a beast and think it must be the only way.
“Of course I did. He was pushed into it, by you.”
“Give me some credit,” he says. Her tone is hardening his sentimentality. He liked her spirit then, now she seems harsh and crass. Vindictive. “I cancelled the debt. And when I realised you couldn’t love me back I let you go.”
“I hate you, Adam,” she says. “You disgust me.”
“Bella.” He closes his eyes. “You are only hurting yourself by hating me. I will always be sorry. Forgive me and move on.”
She swears at him, and he wonders if he is the one who has turned her into this. Is it reasonable, to blame himself for her bitterness? He and her father came to an agreement behind her back, yes. The old man was weak, a terrible businessman, a reckless investor. And he was lonely, in pain, grieving for his old face, afraid to approach her in any normal way. A week away with him in return for cancelling a debt larger than the value of the man’s house – it had seemed fair then, and he had not forced anything on her. She had agreed to it, then spent the week in the beautiful house in the mountains not looking at him, saying practically nothing, waiting for it to end. He had a memory of a bunch of roses, discarded in a corner in the room he had given her to herself. Afterwards, when she was gone, he had swept up the petals and thrown the whole thing in the trash. He could still smell the pungent bitterness, still taste the humiliation of her disdain.
“I won’t promise not to write it one day.” He says it, surprising himself. The story is no fairy tale.
She swears again.
“If I do, I’ll write it as it was.”
“You won’t,” she says. “That’s not what you do. You’re a coward. You’ll turn it into some sick-inducing love story and go on pretending you aren’t a creep.”
He pulls the phone away from his face, then hangs up. He will give her the benefit of the doubt. Life must have been tough on her for her to have nurtured her anger and resentment all this time. She has just lost her dad, after all. But he is done with this.
He gets up then, after a moment, walks over to his desk, opens his laptop. He is 20 000 words into Golden Intruder but he closes that file and opens a new one.
His agent isn’t going to like it. His publisher won’t appreciate having to market something different, something that doesn’t apply the winning formula. But he is done fielding questions about the Beast, he is done trying to pretend it always works out happily ever after for the disfigured guy in his castle, done with make-up and pretending that the princess always has a heart of gold.
The hero is broken, walks with a limp.
He has bald patches. One of his ears looks as if it’s melted.
He has nightmares about being trapped in a burning car.
He’s rich, clever, successful. But people are scared of him, and he is alone.
In fact he is not much of a hero at all.
He makes a mistake and pays for his poor judgement with a decade of vitriol from a woman he once thought he loved.
It’s nasty. It’s his story, and it doesn't have anything close to a happy ending. Not yet.
Beast on the Brink.
He takes a breath, stretches taut skin over damaged fingers. And begins to type.