Poking her head out from behind the bedroom door, Kaitlyn surveyed the hall. All clear. Holding her breath, she took a step, paused, listened. The only sounds were the low rumble of the TV in the family room and the rush of blood in her ears. They thought she was studying AP Calculus and honors English, her excuse for being separate. When she was holed up in her room studying, hiding, did they pretend she didn’t exist? She didn’t know who was more relieved, herself or them. Three perfect specimens, instead of three perfect plus one, what, damaged? Broken? She tip-toed down the hall, quick and quiet. The fabric catching on the holes of her jeans’ inner thighs shouted in the silence. The irony of her athleticism in the pursuit of sugar was not lost on her.
The kitchen was cool and dark. The lingering scent of dinner hung in the air: creamed tuna on toast, sweet peas from a can. Sneaking across the linoleum to the cupboard for a bowl, she paused. Was that her sister getting up or the cat jumping from the back of the couch? The utensil drawer was tricky. She slid it out, left hand beneath, supporting, to keep the spoons from rattling. Now, over to the freezer, the carton of ice cream beckoned–the flavor didn’t matter. One scoop, then two, then what the hell, three. The carton back in the freezer, she was fifteen steps away from her bedroom door, and freedom, but she couldn’t wait.
The spoon was in her mouth, cold sweetness rushing over her tongue. A sigh escaped. Swallow. Breathe. Forget. The spoon in her mouth again, and again. Her heart rate slowed, tension rolled off her back.
The light flicked on. Her mother stood in the doorway, eyes widening while her shoulders sagged.
“Do you really need that?”
All Kaitlyn could see were her nine-year-old feet climbing a staircase, yet again. The brown and orange carpet had a shiny ripple pattern. It had been years since she’d first tread those padded, silent steps, but it felt like yesterday. Yes. I need it.
She leaned against the counter, mouth full, still holding the spoon in front of her face as a shield.
“Kaitlyn! I’m talking to you!”
“Sorry.” She spun and dumped the rest of the bowl in the sink and turned on the hot water. Studying the melting milky white as it swirled down the drain, she could feel eyes on her back, on her body, crawling like ants. She couldn’t look at her mother. Did her mother know? How could she not? How could a mother not notice the difference, the loss? The silence vibrated. Kaitlyn put the bowl and spoon away and all but ran to her room. She closed the door, leaned against it and listened for footsteps.
Please let this be over. Let this be yet another time she doesn’t have the energy to deal with me.
What she ate and why, her expanding waist and doubling chin, was not a conversation she wanted to have. It was why she ate alone. Tears pricked the inner corners of her eyes, her throat felt too small. Turning the light off, she shed her clothes, crammed her pajamas on, and curled into a ball under the blankets. Her tears wet the sheets.
Her mother’s obsession with thinness exhausted her. Diets of cabbage soup, milk and bananas. Counting calories, carbs and points ruined every birthday. Her obligation to participate in sports, in teams, in group humiliation was renewed and reinvigorated every time the weather necessitated the purchase of new clothes. She was probably the only girl in her class who didn’t want a new fall wardrobe.
I didn’t choose this. I don’t want this.
Fat made her invisible. The truth yanked on her arms, pulled her chest apart. Fat separated her, protected her, from what she loved, but also what she couldn’t survive. Though it destroyed her, it was the only thing that would save her.
A quiet knock and then the door opened. Kaitlyn squeezed her eyes shut and tried to even her breathing. Maybe if she thinks I’m asleep.
“I know you’re stealing food. You might not think that I notice, but I do.”
Pain, bright and sharp pierced her ribs. This wasn’t the conversation she was expecting. This wasn’t about what happened, those moments that she worked so hard to forget, the incident that she lived in fear of facing. Her mom was pissed about the food. She’d never thought of her snacking as stealing. She thought the food was for everyone. She wasn’t a thief. She just needed to eat.
“Your father and I are concerned. For six years now you’ve been getting bigger and bigger. You’re too sedentary to eat like you do. Why do you think we bought the rower? So you would use it! But all it does is sit there. We’ve talked about our family history, Kaitlyn. About how I used to be like you. About what you can do to break the cycle.”
At the mention of her father, Kaitlyn couldn’t breathe for the shame. She wrapped her arms around her knees and buried her face, her cheeks hot with embarrassment. Her parents were talking about her, about how fat she was. She wondered if they laughed about it. Giggled about how breathless she was after climbing the stairs, how her shirt rode up over her belly. She’d fixed that problem recently by burying herself in huge sweaters, but sometimes on laundry day, it couldn’t be helped. The weight was supposed to make her disappear.
“I wish you’d say something. Don’t you want a boyfriend?…”
A boyfriend was the last thing she wanted. She just wanted to be left alone. She bit her nails, focused on the clicking until her mother got tired of talking and left.
Being a disappointment tired her. Being misunderstood sucked every ounce of energy out of her. Kaitlyn was exhausted. She had nothing left. When her eyes closed she was entering the room at the top of the stairs. It had the same shiny ripple carpet. He told her to lay on the bed, she was always the patient. Auntie said the lights had to be on in the room, but he put a towel over her eyes. Pinpricks shone through the scratchy, over-washed terry. He unbuttoned her pants and pulled them to her knees. He pushed her top up. She wasn’t old enough to wear a bra yet. Goose bumps covered her chest. It was always so cold in there.
Cousins, they were supposed to be playing. The adults were so pleased with how nicely everyone got along, congratulating themselves on what terrific parents they were.
He leaned on her stomach as he pulled down her underwear. To restrain her or get a closer look she didn’t know… the effect was the same. She couldn’t move. He was six years older and stronger. She was helpless when he started inserting things. The worst part guessing what they were. A dime? A washcloth? A pencil? Her face burned under the towel.
The memory made her nauseous. Kaitlyn opened her eyes and gagged.
She thought about chocolate, silky sweetness melting on her tongue. She thought about chips, the satisfying crunch and how she would find nuggets of flavor in her teeth for hours if she didn’t brush. She reached inside her pillow for the hidden bag of candies. She put one in her mouth and she could forget.
In her bubble of sugar, the cocoon of calories surrounding her, she felt brave. Maybe in the morning, maybe after breakfast she could talk to her mom. She wasn’t a thief. After all that had been stolen from her, she needed them to know that.
Meagan Lucas’ work can be found in a variety of literary journals including: Four Ties Lit Review, The Santa Fe Writers Project and The Penmen Review. Her story “Kittens” is the 2017 Winner of the Scythe Prize for Fiction. Her story “What She Lost” was the runner up in SNHU’s 2017 Fall Fiction Competition. Meagan lives in Asheville, NC with her husband and their two children. She teaches undergrads the joy and pain of writing. Family life, the grey space between right and wrong, and the dark underbelly of the American Dream figure prominently in her work. Read more at www.meaganlucas.com.
If you enjoyed reading this short story and would like to know when more true stories, essays, and poems will be posted, please sign up for the mailing list. We don’t sell emails and we don’t engage in spam.