My desperate search of the kitchen cabinets produced nothing more than a single can of low-sodium vegetable soup. Mama had stashed the rest of our nonperishable food items in the pantry and secured the door with a padlock.
“If you won’t listen to the doctors and take care of your health, I’m going to have to do it for you, Camille,” Mama told me before she left for work. “You weigh almost three hundred pounds. Do you want to die of a heart attack like your father? Do you want to eat yourself into an early grave?”
I felt faint with hunger. My jaw clenched when I thought of the nutritionist Mama made me see, a lithe woman with golden hair and an unwavering smile. “You’re not listening to your body’s cues,” she lectured me at my last appointment. “You’re not giving it time to tell you when it’s hungry or full.”
I was certain the nutritionist never had to settle for an allotment of three rice cakes for breakfast. She wouldn’t be so smiley if her food were locked up and rationed out to her in miniscule amounts.
The refrigerator offered a few bruised apples, and I grabbed one before heading out to the back porch. The summer morning was mild with a light breeze that ruffled my hair. A filmy haze cloaked the distant mountains, obscuring their peaks. Sinking onto the porch swing, I winced as it creaked ominously under my weight.
My salivary glands tightened with the first bite of apple I took. Its juice filled my mouth, causing my stomach to rumble in anticipation. I took another bite before I had swallowed the first.
Glancing to my right, I saw Mrs. Butler come out of her house with a basket of clean laundry. “Good morning,” I called to her.
She looked up and smiled. “Good morning, Camille. It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“It sure is.” I hefted myself up from the swing and leaned against the porch railing. Mrs. Butler wore a pair of faded jeans and a white blouse that hugged her small frame. “You need any help?” I asked as she went to the clothesline in her backyard and placed the laundry basket at her feet.
Mrs. Butler glanced over her shoulder. “No, but you can keep me company if you’d like.”
I tried not to grin, wondering if she knew how much I looked forward to chatting with her. She and her husband had moved next door a few months ago. They were in their late twenties, and Mrs. Butler stayed home and kept house while Mr. Butler worked at a law firm in the city.
“Wonder why they don’t have kids,” Mama once muttered, peering out the window at Mr. Butler mowing the lawn.
“He’s just beginning his career,” I said.
Mama made a noncommittal noise and shrugged. “They look like social climbers to me. They’ll be moving to Washburn before you know it.”
I ambled off the porch and plodded over the grass with bare feet. The green blades were still wet with dew. As I approached Mrs. Butler, I found myself wishing I wore something nicer than the shapeless housedress Mama bought for me last week. It was a faded pink, and I suspected it came from the thrift shop. “Since you’re going to be sitting home all summer, you don’t need any nice clothes,” Mama said when I wrinkled my nose at the dress. “It’s a pity you’re too fat for the pants you wore last school year, but don’t worry—after a couple of weeks on your diet, you’ll be able to fit into them again.”
Mrs. Butler never commented on my weight. I wanted to believe she didn’t see my layers of fat or hear how my breathing quickened if I exerted much physical effort. My neighbor wasn’t gorgeous like a supermodel, but she moved her long graceful limbs with an elegance I could only envy. “I wanted to be a ballerina,” she once revealed to me, “but I’m too tall.” She often wore her rich brown hair piled atop her head, especially if she was doing housework. Today it fell past her shoulders to the small of her back. She brushed it from her face, holding a clothespin between her lips. “And how are you, Camille?”
I shrugged and looked at the half-eaten apple in my hand. “I’m okay.” My stomach released a betraying growl, and I coughed to cover the sound. “You sure I can’t help you hang up the clothes?”
Mrs. Butler nodded. “My husband is very particular about his shirts,” she said, taking the clothespin from her mouth. She pinned a shirt to the line and stepped back, examining it as though it were a painting. “The forecast is calling for rain today, so I thought I’d get an early start on the laundry.” Satisfied with the shirt, Mrs. Butler reached for another one. “Are you enjoying your summer so far?”
“Yes,” I lied. I didn’t want to complain to her that I was bored senseless cooped up in the house while Mama was at work. “I’m taking honors English this fall, so I have a summer reading list.”
“What are you reading?” Mrs. Butler was as efficient as a worker bee, hanging shirts and trousers on the line. I noticed she never put any undergarments out to dry.
“Right now I’m reading The Grapes of Wrath.”
“I remember that one,” she said.
“Did you like it?”
“I thought it was sad.” Mrs. Butler finished with the laundry and turned to me. Her gaze dropped to the apple I held. “Is that all you’re having for breakfast?”
I felt my cheeks burn. It happened every time I tried to lie—I flushed and began to sweat and stammer. My mouth worked to form a reply, but no sound emerged.
Mrs. Butler frowned. “That’s not nearly enough, Camille.”
I stared at the grass poking between my toes. “Mama says I need to lose weight. She has me on a diet.” I was both mortified and relieved at this confession, as though I’d vomited up something foul in front of Mrs. Butler and felt better now that it was out of my system.
Mrs. Butler leaned toward me. “Tell you what,” she said. “I can make you some pancakes with butter and syrup, and your mother will be none the wiser.”
A drop of sweat slipped between my shoulder blades. The sun was too bright, its heat a heavy hand atop my head. “Oh, I can’t let you do that.”
Mrs. Butler grinned, revealing her slightly crooked front teeth. “Sure you can. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, you know.” She started toward her back porch. “Come on in. You can tell me what else you’re reading while I cook.”
I hurried to catch up with her, and by the time I reached the porch steps, I was out of breath. “Sorry,” I panted. “I’m pretty slow.”
Mrs. Butler’s eyes softened. “It’s okay,” she said. “Take your time.”
Her house wasn’t much larger than mine, but the kitchen had been remodeled with new tile and cabinets. The walls were a pale yellow, and white curtains wavered in the open window above the sink. The table had a centerpiece of fresh-cut flowers.
“You have a beautiful home,” I said. For once I was thankful Mama never invited neighbors over to visit. I would have been ashamed for Mrs. Butler to see our house’s shabby interior with its mismatched furniture and twenty-year-old carpet.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Butler said. “Please, sit down.”
I eased onto one of the four small chairs surrounding the table and prayed it would hold my weight. My bulk spilled over the sides of the seat.
Mrs. Butler flitted about the kitchen like a caged bird. “What would you like to drink? I have tea, orange juice.”
“Tea’s just fine, thanks.”
She poured me a glass, and I took small genteel sips. “So what other subjects will you study when you start back to school?” she asked while stirring pancake batter in a mixing bowl.
I ticked off the classes on my fingers. “Trigonometry, physics, government, psychology, and another year of Latin.”
“Sounds like you’ll have a full schedule.”
While she was busy at the stove, I peered into the adjoining living room. It was as tastefully decorated as the kitchen, with hardwood floors and area rugs.
“So do you have a boyfriend?” Mrs. Butler asked.
I gaped at her, sure I’d misheard the question. “A boyfriend?”
“Yes.” She brought a plate with four pancakes to the table and set it before me. Then she retrieved the butter and syrup from the fridge.
“Thank you,” I said. “This looks delicious.” Mrs. Butler handed me a fork and napkin before sitting down. She propped her chin on her palm, studying me as I took the first bite. I closed my eyes and sighed in appreciation. “These pancakes are fantastic.”
Mrs. Butler beamed. “I’m glad you like them. You shouldn’t be starving yourself.”
I looked down at my body. “I don’t think anyone would believe I’m starving myself.”
“If you’re not eating, you’re starving yourself. Simple as that.” Her stare was riveted to the fork I held. “Don’t forget the butter and syrup,” she said.
I slathered the pancakes with butter and drenched them in syrup. Despite my hunger, I was careful not to wolf down the food.
“You never answered my question,” Mrs. Butler said.
“About your boyfriend.”
I couldn’t help but snort. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
She straightened in her chair. “I find that hard to believe. You’re a very pretty girl.”
I ducked my head, finishing off the last pancake. “That’s nice of you to say, but most people wouldn’t agree.”
Mrs. Butler rested a cool pale hand on my knee. “Don’t you pay any mind to those people,” she said. “I’ll make you some more pancakes.”
Before I could protest, she bounded out of the chair and returned to the stove.
“You’re a great cook,” I said.
“I wasn’t always. When I first got married, I burned everything I made. My husband signed me up for a cooking class. Thankfully I’m a fast learner, because he was fed up with scorched casseroles and dry pot roast.”
She brought another plate to the table. My eyes widened at the stack of pancakes, and I started to tell her I couldn’t possibly eat it all, but her stony expression struck me silent.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, towering over me. Her voice had a sharp edge I’d never heard before, and I quickly shook my head.
We sat at the table as I worked on the second plate of pancakes. Every so often I offered Mrs. Butler a smile. She smiled back and leaned closer, not speaking as she watched me eat. When only one pancake remained on my plate, I heard Mrs. Butler’s breath grow shallow. She sat with her legs pressed together and began rocking back and forth in the chair, her hands gripping the edges of the seat. I tried not to stare when a low moan escaped her lips. The chair creaked with her steady rocking. As I chewed and swallowed, she closed her eyes, and a shudder coursed through her entire body. I wanted to ask if she was okay, but Mrs. Butler opened her eyes again and smiled. Her voice was husky as she said, “I’ll make you some more.”
I shook my head and pushed the plate away, unable to finish the last pancake. “Oh, no, I’m stuffed. I couldn’t eat another bite.”
Mrs. Butler blinked at me in confusion, and then her eyes darkened in fury. She slammed her palms down on the table, making the dishes rattle. I jumped and tugged nervously at the top button of my housedress.
“Is this how you thank me?” she said. “I invite you into my home and feed you so your mother can’t starve you, and this is how you repay me?”
Drops of sweat erupted on my upper lip. “Mrs. Butler, I’m sorry—”
She leapt to her feet and paced beside the table. “You’re just like my husband. Neither of you appreciate anything I do. Nothing is good enough.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “I really appreciate you making me breakfast. But I’m afraid if I eat any more, I’ll be sick.”
Mrs. Butler snickered. “You expect me to believe that? You could easily eat half a dozen more pancakes. I know you could.” She stopped and pointed a finger at me. “You don’t realize how lucky you are. You can come over here and eat anything you want. I can’t do that.” She trembled, her hands balled into fists. “If I gain so much as a pound, Steve knows it. He tells me he won’t have a fat cow for a wife.”
I cringed and looked down at my plate. Just the sight of the uneaten pancake made me nauseated.
Mrs. Butler grabbed my chin. Her nails dug into my flesh, but I didn’t struggle; I was too shocked at her transformation. “I don’t want you to live that way,” she told me. “I don’t want you to feel that constant gnawing hunger inside you.”
“I’m not hungry anymore, Mrs. Butler.” My voice was small and childish to my ears.
She brought her face close to mine. “I’ll tell you what you are,” she hissed. “You’re an ungrateful bitch.”
I recoiled as though I’d been slapped. Even at her most furious, Mama had never called me that word. The kids at school lobbed insults my way, but they didn’t curse me.
Mrs. Butler let go of me and took a step back. “It’s time for you to leave.”
My eyes stung with tears, and when I blinked, they spilled over my lids and down my cheeks, settling into the indentations Mrs. Butler made in my face. Grabbing my fork, I took another bite of pancake, swallowing back the acid rising in my throat. “I’m grateful,” I said, my nose and eyes watering. “See? I’m grateful. I’m still hungry.” I reached for the glass of tea and washed down the half-chewed mouthful. Mrs. Butler cocked her head to the side, her eyes full of suspicion. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Butler, I really am.” I shoved the rest of the pancake into my mouth.
Mrs. Butler’s smile returned, and her face grew as smooth as one of Mr. Butler’s shirts on the clothesline. “Would you like me to make you some more pancakes?” she asked.
“Yes, please,” I said.
Mrs. Butler led me through the living room and to the front door. I wasn’t sure how I would manage to walk home. My stomach felt like it was about to rupture. The pain was almost as unbearable as Mrs. Butler’s earlier fit of rage. I released a quiet belch behind my hand and relished the bit of relief it gave me.
“Thank you for the wonderful breakfast,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” Mrs. Butler replied, flashing one of her beatific smiles. “I’m so glad you enjoyed it.” She cupped my cheeks in her palms, holding me in place as she kissed me. My eyes widened, but I saw that Mrs. Butler had closed hers, so I did the same. She finally pulled away and opened the door. “Come back tomorrow after Steve has gone to work,” she said. “I’ll make you breakfast again.”
I nodded and stepped out into the late morning sunshine. Making my way down the porch steps, I clasped my hands over my belly. The walk to my own house felt endless. I was drenched in sweat by the time I slumped onto the porch swing. The day had grown uncomfortably warm, but I didn’t want to go inside. I thought if I sat very still, my misery would subside. Vomiting would be a blessing at this point, but I resisted the urge. Wasting all the food Mrs. Butler had so thoughtfully prepared for me seemed like a betrayal. As I closed my eyes and took deep breaths through my nose to ease the nausea, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling hungry again.
Miranda Stone’s work is strongly influenced by the setting and culture of the Appalachian Mountains. Her fiction and poetry have been published in numerous print and online journals, including Parable Press, Prole, and The First Line. Her short story “The Confession” was published in the anthology Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South. She lives in Virginia and can be reached at http://AuthorMirandaStone.com.