Her left knee was creaky and sore, the new running shoes still stiff, but she liked the feel of the rubber cleats biting into the earth and the color: red. Warming up, she left the jogging path and headed into the forest, less-crowded and softer underfoot.
She saw the rabbit first, white and fluffy, large with floppy ears. It sniffed at the air then looked up with startled pink-rimmed eyes. Around its neck, a black collar tethered up to the man’s hand.
“Do you have a dog?” The man said in a petulant tone, “You have to leash him. I’ve got a rabbit.”
He wore a buckskin jacket and jeans, so neatly ironed that a white seam ran down the front of each leg. His hair was set in a thick, plasticine gel. Horn-rimmed glasses framed his face.
“Don’t have a dog,” she said.
She recognized him now. This man liked to take the bunny out on the lawn by the playground. Kids would abandon their play — mid-swing! — to squat down and pet the rabbit. Oh, how she envied their young and lubricated knees! They fed the animal morsels from their snack-boxes: gnawed carrot sticks and mangled leaves of lettuce, uneaten sandwich rinds.
The rabbit, she conceded, was a good gimmick.
She’d often sat there with her own strawberry licorice sticks wondering why the man seemed so familiar. Now she knew.
She bent down to pet the animal and winced at the sharp twinge in her knee. The man jerked at the leash and the rabbit hopped nervously back toward him. She picked up a thick and gnarled branch from the forest floor and used it to brace herself, lighten the load on her bad knee. She leaned upon the stick, as though settling in for a long conversation.
“Is that a killer rabbit?” she asked.
“It’s a Holland Lop-Ear,” he said primly. “Do I know you?”
She chewed at the inside of her cheek. A bad habit she’d developed when she’d first met him. When he was shaggier and toothier, she was pink-cheeked and smooth-skinned and utterly naive.
“Once upon a time,” she said, “but I got old.”
He stiffened. A neck tendon spasmed under his skin.
“I hadn’t realized,” he said. “Nice shoes. Red suits you.”
“Didn’t it always?” She smiled at him. “You cleaned up nicely! The glasses, the hair. The shave! Almost didn’t recognize you.”
His eyes darted around the crowding trees of the forest. It was getting dark. He scooped up the rabbit and retreated a step.
“And the bunny!” She continued, “Gingerbread houses just don’t cut it anymore.” She sighed. “Kids. So jaded by the YouTube. But cutesy animals, always a winner.”
“We settled this a long time ago, Red.” He said.
“Did we?” The question hung in the twilight alongside the curling vapors of her warm breath in the cold air.
“You lived to tell the tale, clearly,” he said, then jutted his chin out. “I was the one left for dead! Dragged through the mud. My future destroyed. After you, I couldn’t even get my hands on three little pigs!”
As the moon peeked through the trees, she could just make out the white tips of his canine teeth, a shadow of thick black hair poking through his long, shaved chin.
He took a deep breath and composed himself, drawing up to his full height.
“But. As you can see, I’ve changed,” he said. “Completely.”
“And yet, the appetite remains.” She shrugged. “I suppose it depends on which version of events you read. Disney took some liberties.”
He seemed to relax at this, as though they had come to some understanding. He allowed himself a sharp-toothed smile.
“What are you doing in this neck of the woods anyway, Red?” He said with more confidence now, stroking the fur on his flop-eared rabbit. “Why’d you stray from the path this time?”
Something about that sneering look on his face. His pressed clothes and tidy jacket. The coiffed hair and stylish spectacles. None of this could disguise his predator’s grin. He would never change.
She stared at her red running shoes and tried to keep her voice level, controlled.
“What do you think happens to little girls who get eaten by wolves?” she said, “What do you think they become?”
His face contorted into a confused frown but he didn’t have time to answer. She was fast for an old lady and she used both her arms to swing. The tree branch connected to his head, knocking off his glasses and cracking through his skull. His gelled hair, however, remained unruffled. The rabbit leapt from his arms and she caught it with one hand.
“A little fatter and younger is better for my health,” she said to the rabbit as she dragged the body home. “More collagen for the knees.”
As they got closer, the eaves of sugar icing twinkled in the moonlight and she smiled at the warm glow of her gingerbread home.
“But it’s wolf meat I prefer. Of the big and bad variety, of course,” she said. “Such a treat for an old witch like me!”