Authors: Kevin Richey
It’s not until that evening that I remember my wish. I’ve spent the afternoon napping and avoiding my mother. But then when waking up at dinnertime, I see the empty cupcake wrapper on my nightstand, and I remember:
I wish I were thin
I drag myself out of bed and make my way to the dinner table. I avoid eye contact, and dish out a portion of food for myself. We’re having fast food: fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy. I poke at the potatoes with a plastic fork.
“Something wrong with the food?” my mom asks, startling me.
My eyes dart up to see her staring at me. She’s wearing her glasses again instead of her contacts. Her eyes must be bothering her.
“I’m not feeling so well,” I say. I force myself to take a small bite of the mashed potatoes, but I nearly gag.
They taste so… unnatural. It’s like I can taste each individual freeze-dried flake, stale and soaked with unfiltered tap water. I cringe.
I try a chicken wing, but the crispy fried coating tastes waxy and hollow. The flesh of the chicken itself is better than the potatoes, but—and I don’t know how I know this—I can taste that it’s been killed some time ago, and that its flesh has been frozen. It just doesn’t taste
enough. I set the chicken down and wipe my mouth clean with a paper napkin.
“I think they did something wrong with this,” I say. “It doesn’t taste right.”
“Tastes fine to me,” my mother says, chewing the food and smacking it between her teeth.
“Maybe I’m getting sick,” I say.
My mom pushes back her chair and walks over to me. She places a hand on my forehead. “You’re icy! Maybe you had better stay home from school tomorrow, just to be safe?”
I nod. “May I be excused?”
I get up from the table and go back to my room. I feel frustrated in a way that I’ve never known before. I’m still craving food, but nothing tastes good to me. I fall onto my bed and mash my face into the pillow.
I feel so drowsy that I don’t even bother getting into my pajamas. With my last bit of energy, I reach for my phone and send Sarah a text.
“Feeling sick. Won’t be at school tomorrow.”
I set the phone on the nightstand, and don’t even bother looking over when I hear it vibrate a few seconds later. I’m already too far gone into sleep.
* * *
My mom is waking me up. The sun is up, and streaming through my window.
“Honey?” she asks. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I say, my voice scratchy. I struggle to sit up, and then press my hands into my face, trying to wipe away the grogginess.
“How are you feeling?” my mom asks.
“Better. I guess I needed that nap. But I still don't think I should go to school tomorrow.”
My mom is quiet. I look at her, and her face is wrinkled with concern. She’s not wearing her glasses. “Honey,” she says very quietly, “you already stayed home from school.”
“What?” I say, waking up a little.
“You’ve been in here since last night. I assumed you had gotten up when I left for work.”
I sit up all the way, turning so that my legs are hanging off the bed. I am running my fingers through my hair, and my mom puts a comforting hand on my shoulder. She tends to like it when I’m sick. It means I am forced to spend time with her.
Then she is quiet again. I feel her squeezing, feeling my shoulder.
“Have you lost weight?” she asks. There is surprise in her voice.
I gasp, getting up and walking past her straight to my bathroom. I don’t bother to strip naked this time. I place my bare feet on the scale, and wait while the numbers flicker under blue light.
It stops. I look with dread at my new weight.
My hands start to move down, to feel my body, but before I have any time to react, I hear my mother scream back in my bedroom. I rush back, and she is leaning over the bed, looking at something.
I walk up to the bed slowly, and look over her shoulder.
In the bed is a huge indent from where I usually sleep. In this shallow basin, there is at least an inch of fine grey dust. I know instinctively that the dust is from me. The weight had to go somewhere.
Still, I have never heard of a weight loss plan that involved producing more dust.
My mom turns around to look at me, and sits down on the edge of my bed. She looks up at me with horror in her eyes.
“Oh honey,” she cries, “it’ll be okay. I’ll make an appointment right away with Dr. Morris. We’ll get this fixed.”
I nod, glad that she’s going to help me take care of this. Her tears even seem genuine. Maybe this will bring us closer.
But I notice, no matter how comforting her words, that she keeps her distance. She is actively trying not to touch me now.
In case I might be contagious.
The doctor’s office is overcrowded. It’s Friday night, and my mom is sitting next to me in an uncomfortable metal chair while people cough, wheeze, and sniffle around us. It smells dank and sour, and I am trying to breathe through my mouth but it’s not helping much. My clothes are loose. My shirt, which was too tight a few days ago, is now flowing like a graduation gown. My jeans are so baggy that I had to borrow one of my mom’s belts to hold them up.
I can hear my mother’s heartbeat. I don’t actually think her heart is that loud, but I can hear it clearly because she’s right next to me. Her stomach also seems to be upset, or maybe it’s just making normal stomach gurgles. I don’t know. I couldn’t hear stomachs so clearly a few days ago.
“Blythe,” the receptionist calls out. That’s our last name.
My mom stands up. I stand up too, more easily than I used to. Before all this, getting up meant a sort of rocking motion to build up inertia, and then an awkward balancing act as I tried to center my weight on my legs. I can stand up the normal way now, by pushing up against the arms of the chair. I should be happy about that, but it’s hard to be happy when you’re not sure what’s wrong with you.
A male nurse leads us to a small waiting room, and my mom takes a seat against the wall while I sit on a padded table.
The nurse looks at her clipboard. “All right, Katherine. I’m just going to take a few quick measurements before the doctor sees you.”
I nod, and she gets to work. She takes my blood pressure and reads it off to me, but I don’t really understand what the numbers mean. She takes my temperature, and then asks me a series of routine questions before finally having me stand on a scale.
It’s one of those old-fashioned scales, with the counterweights that slide across the bars until they’re balanced at your bodyweight. I used to hate this part of seeing the doctor; now it just makes me afraid.
She smiles, and reads off the weight.
I look over at my mother to share my horror, but she is looking away. Her gaze is transfixed at a spot on the wall, and she stares at it unblinking.
“The doctor will be with you shortly,” the nurse tells me, and then exits the room. I sit back down on the padded table. I find my own spot to stare at, and my mom and I sit in silence for however long it takes the doctor to arrive.
There’s a knock at the door that makes us both jump.
“Good evening,” Dr. Morris says in a voice that’s much too jovial for the circumstances. He’s an older man, tall and boney, wearing glasses with round frames. I’ve been seeing him off-and-on since I was a little girl, which is why it surprises me that I’ve never noticed before how much his thin, smiling face make him look like the Grim Reaper.
He flips through the clipboard left behind by the nurse and adjusts his glasses. “I see Katherine has lost a little bit of weight.”
“A little?” my mother shrieks. “She’s like a balloon deflating!”
He looks up at my mother, as if seeing her for the first time. She is a mess: dark circles under her eyes, her frizzy hair wild and crazy. There are food stains on her blouse.
His face doesn’t react to the way she looks, and I can hear that his heartbeat doesn’t accelerate. There’s something deeply unsettling about a man who can look upon human misery with boredom.
He turns to me. “Well, Katherine, let’s take a look at you.”
He listens to my heartbeat with his stethoscope. He looks into my eyes, ears, and throat. I can hear the receptionist call out the next patient in the waiting room, and I don’t know if I’m the only one hearing it. I don’t know if it screws up my heartbeat when he listens.
“How much weight have you lost, Katherine?”
I consider his question as he taps my knees to check my reflexes. “About seventy-five pounds since last Tuesday.” It is Friday.
He pauses and looks at me. His heart quickens, and it makes me nervous too. He stands up and clears his throat, and then writes down something on his clipboard. Then he takes a seat at a desk in the corner of the room, and turns the chair to face me.
“I’m going to ask you a few questions, Katherine, and I need you to be honest with me.”
“Are you unhappy, Katherine?”
This question seems to come out of nowhere, and I’m unable to answer. What would that have to do with anything?
“Are you depressed?” he prods.
He won’t let me avoid the question. “I—I don’t think so.”
“She is,” my mother chimes in. “She doesn’t like herself.”
“Mom!” I give her a look to keep out, but she’s on a roll.
“It’s true,” she says. “I’ve read her diary.”
“Journal!” I snap. “A diary is for thirteen-year-old girls who want to gush about cute boys. I have a
.” The doctor is staring at us like we are insane. I regain my composure, smoothing my oversized t-shirt over my remaining stomach. “Okay,” I say, realizing there’s no point in lying. “I don’t like myself sometimes. So what?”
“Have you hurt yourself?”
My brow wrinkles in distaste. “No.”
“Have you ever forced yourself to vomit?”
“No.” The truth is that I have, once, but it was to get out of a test. I don’t think that’s what he’s getting at.
“Have you been sexually promiscuous?”
My mom sits forward on her chair, and I blush. “No,” I whisper.
“Are you sexually active?”
I don’t really know how that is different from his previous question, so it takes me a second to answer. “No,” I say, but he looks at me as if he doesn’t believe me, and in her chair, my mom begins to shake her head like I’ve been sentenced to life in prison.
“Have you had trouble sleeping at night, or experienced irregular sleeping patterns?”
My chest tightens. “Yes.”
He scratches my answer on the clipboard, and I’m actively not looking toward my mother now.
“Do you feel tired or run-down?”
“Do you experience any delusions or hallucinations?”
I think of my stupid superstition that it was a birthday wish that caused all this. I answer “No,” but it sounds like I’m lying.
“Do you put on a happy face to hide feelings of sadness?”
My face feels heavy. “Doesn’t everyone?”
He reaches what I assume is the end of his depression checklist, and flips the page on his clipboard and makes a few more notes. Then he starts on a new checklist, one that begins with a question that makes me want to jump out a window:
“Describe your relationship with food.”
After the surveys, he orders a bunch of tests—blood tests, urine tests, X-rays—and then asks to speak to my mother alone. He takes her out into the hallway and closes the door.
I can still hear every word.
“What’s the matter with my baby?” my mother cries, and I can picture her wringing her hands or flailing melodramatically.
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Dr. Morris answers.
“Is it cancer?” my mom asks in a whisper. “Because I don’t think I could handle that.”
“It’s too early to tell.” He clears his throat. “Is there any history of cancer on either side of your family?”
“Not on mine,” my mother answers with pride. “But I don’t know about her father’s.”
I sit forward. How could she not know about Dad? As far as I know, his family is all still alive and healthy.
“Can you contact him to find out?” the doctor asks.
“No,” my mother answers, and I nearly jump up to accuse her of being a liar. She could call him right now; his number is in her phone. But then she continues. “To be honest, Doctor, I don’t know
her father is.”
I sit back, the wind knocked out of me. What is she saying?
“It was not your husband?” the doctor asks.
husband,” my mother corrects. “And no, it wasn’t him. It was a man I had never seen before, and don’t expect to see again.”
The doctor is silent. There’s not much you can say to that.