The next day wasn't any better. When he woke up, he could smell the glorious aromas of baked chicken, shrimp sautéed in butter, some kind of heavy sausage, and fresh, aromatic Jasmine rice. His mother always made the best paella in the world. And she was making it in his clean, low-calorie kitchen. He thought he might just cry.
Slowly, he forced himself to get out of bed and find some clothes. Even more slowly, he forced himself to leave the sanctity of his food-free bedroom and enter the warm, savory clouds that settled in his kitchen. When he opened the door, his mother was putting the meats in a casserole dish, presumably over the fluffy white rice. He wanted to taste it so badly he actually fell to his knees.
His mother was at his side in a heartbeat, helping him up, guiding him to the kitchen table. She stroked his head and asked why he seemed so weak. His reply was inaudible - he didn't want to tell her he was starving. She might take that literally, as was her nature. He sat at the table while she bustled about, heating water, pulling out brand-new mugs, pouring sugar into smaller containers, and making other preparations for tea. In a few moments she had a steaming cup of black tea, a small bowl of sugar, a tiny pitcher of sweetened condensed milk, some mint leaves, a teaspoon and a saucer of butter crackers on a little tray.
Steve frowned mildly when his mother put the tray down in front of him, but was relieved when she went back to her cooking. He pulled the tea bag out, though it clearly wasn't done steeping. He'd already decided he'd give in to something as innocuous as tea, but he wanted to save the tea bag for later, just to be on the safe side. He didn't know if tea had any calories, but if it did, he wanted to spread them out through the day. He dumped the crackers on the tray and placed the tea bag on the saucer. Then he looked at the crackers and wondered what the hell he was supposed to do with them.
Glancing around, he spotted a folded paper bag at the other end of the short table. When his mother turned her back completely, he reached out and snagged the bag, sneaking it under the table. He crumbled the crackers one by one, dumping the crumbs in the bag at his feet. Then he took two heaping spoonfuls of sugar, leaving a giant dip in the sugar bowl, and dumped the white crystals in the bag. He looked longingly at the mint for a moment, then ripped the leaves up and dropped them in the bag too. He looked at the pitcher of milk for a moment, uncertain of how to dispose of it. Then he decided to hell with it, and poured a huge glob of the syrupy stuff over the trash, making a weird, minty paste. He wiped the sugar off his teaspoon as if trying to wipe the teaspoon out of existence, then stirred his tea loudly with the spoon, clanking it against the sides of the mug.
When his mother asked how the tea was, he answered truthfully - delectable. It had been so long since he'd allowed himself to enjoy something as harmless as a cup of tea. He was in heaven. He forgot about the bag of trash next to his feet, lost in the pure beauty of flavored water.
When his mother asked what was in the bag, he nearly spilled the steaming tea in his lap. He stuttered some lame response about spilling the milk and sugar, knowing he was caught. To his surprise, she only laughed and called him her clumsy baby. She took the bag of evidence away, tossing it in the trash can outside. He breathed a sigh of relief and went back to his tea, truly able to bask in its warm, tinted glory.
He was completely unprepared for the bowl of chicken soup that materialized in front of him. He stared at it as if it were toxic - indeed, to his famished mind, it was. He pushed the bowl away, fearful of its contents. He'd weakened once already, twice if he counted the tea. He couldn't possibly give in to temptation this time. What if the weight he'd lost came back? He already was having one hell of a time with his gut. He couldn't bear to see the rest of his hard work go down the drain. He'd grown rather fond of the way his collarbone showed through all his shirts. He knew a bowl of chicken soup would cover it up in a matter of hours.
His mother asked him what was wrong with his breakfast. She came back to the table and sniffed at the bowl, then tasted the soup. She looked at her son and called his name when he didn't answer her. He told her he wasn't hungry and left the table. He didn't see the tears that welled in her eyes.
He got on his treadmill and set controls to alert him at mile five. He stepped on and started to run, trying to escape the bowl of chicken soup. He played with the controls, setting them to run faster and faster. He forced himself to run faster than able, ignoring the burn in his legs, the rasp in his chest, the pounding of his heart. When he knew he needed to slow down, he ran even faster, defying any and all sense of self-preservation. He made it to the five mile alert in less than ten minutes.
Twenty seconds after that he was in a heap on the floor, having fainted dead away.
When he came to, he was alone, still in his gym. He could hear his mother singing in the kitchen, completely oblivious to her son's semiconscious state. He breathed a quick prayer of thanks and struggled to his feet. He knew this was going to be a rough day, and he should ease up on the exercise. No more five mile sprints. He was going to have to cut the sit-ups in half, too. He looked at his gut and wondered dejectedly if 325 sit-ups would really be enough for the day.
He headed for the bathroom, pendant already in hand. He didn't want to take the risk of ingesting any extra calories, even tea, on a slow day. Without bothering to mask the god awful grunts and choking sounds, Steve proceeded to puke every last drop of the dirty, lukewarm water.
He wasn't particularly surprised when his mother came hurrying into the bathroom, all aflutter with worry. He pocketed the pendant slyly, even as he choked and heaved. She tried to rub his back, but he swatted her away, somehow managing to tell her he'd be fine between the retching and spitting. She backed off a little, but stood nearby and asked him a bazillion questions about what he needed or wanted or what could she do and how could she help.
He finally stopped, completely spent, and flushed the toilet against his mother's excited protests. He brushed his teeth and rinsed his mouth, ignoring his mother's demands to drink a little ginger ale or have some saltines or at least a piece of toast. He went to the bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed, trying not to snap at his still following mother. Finally, he very sweetly asked her to please bring him a little soda and some crackers, not too many, please. When she hurried out of the bedroom, he dashed back to the bathroom, grabbed his precious digital scale, sprinted back to his room and shoved the scale under his bed.
She returned shortly and gave him a glass filled with a chilled, golden, carbonated beverage and a saucer piled with saltines. She sat down on the bed and instructed him to eat everything he could. He sighed and tried not to scream murderously at her. Instead, he crawled under the covers and asked her to just leave the food on the nightstand - he was far too ill to eat right away. She frowned, but put the food where he indicated and left him alone.
As soon as the bedroom door shut, he hopped out of bed, dumped the crackers in a box of mementos in the closet, poured the soda over a plant in the corner, dropped to his hands and knees and fished out the scale. He ripped his clothes off and stepped on the scale, making sure he hadn't done any real damage with that tea.
Both eyebrows shot up as he tried to process that bit of information. A four pound loss after drinking and purging black tea...
He ran to his dresser and opened the third drawer from the bottom. He dug under the 'fat' clothes and found his special black notebook. He opened it up to the 'Tips' tab and scribbled down his amazing new factoid, underneath the one about the pendant. Then, less enthusiastically, he turned to the 'Eaten' tab and wrote about the previous night's chicken broth and the morning's cup of tea. But he smiled proudly as he moved to the 'Eliminated' column and wrote yes, then moved to the 'Method' column and wrote vomit. Even in his weakest moments he'd managed to avoid digesting anything other than his quarter vienna sausage for over two months.
Before he could hide his notebook, his mother came in the bedroom, carrying an opened bottle of ginger ale and a box of saltine crackers. She was explaining herself before she came all the way in the room, chattering on about how she thought he might like to have more snacks handy in case he need them. She paused slightly when she didn't see him in bed, and fell completely silent when she saw her son, cross-legged on the floor, naked, obviously uncomfortable.
Who could be comfortable while starving to death?
She blinked at him for several moments, apparently speechless. When she found her voice, she called him by his first christian name, a name he hadn't heard in years, a name she rarely ever used. Only when she was incredibly angry with him, or incredibly frightened for him.
It didn't take a genius to know it was both.
She demanded in no uncertain terms an explanation as to why in the hell her only son looked like a Holocaust victim. She wanted to know why he wasn't in a hospital if he couldn't keep his food down. She wanted to know if Stephen was dying.
Steve just sat there staring at his angry mother. He wasn't that thin. He knew that. So he could he see his ribs. Big deal. So it hurt to sit on the floor too long. That's nothing new. He always had a flat ass. But his gut - that was another matter. He had to get rid of it. How could she possibly think he was too skinny? Even if it did startle him a little to see so much space between his thighs.
He replied the only way he knew how, the only sensible way. He didn't know what in the world she could possibly mean by all that. After all, he could afford to loose a couple extra pounds.
She dropped her care package and stormed over to him. She dropped to her knees, grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him so hard he couldn't see straight. She screamed at him to wake up and look in the mirror. She yelled at him for never buying food. She hollered about the missing refrigerator and the heirloom dining table collecting dust next to his sports car in the garage. She shook him the whole time, ignoring his pleas to let go, to not shake, to calm down, to not punish him.
She stopped suddenly. She was looking at something over his shoulder. Something on the floor. He realized what she saw and reached for the power button, but it was too late. She shoved him out of the way effortlessly and pounced on the digital scale by his bed. She looked at the display and grew calm. Too calm.
She went back to him and helped him to his feet. She walked with him to the bed and turned her back, waiting for him to put his clothes back on. She decided he'd had enough time and turned to face him again. She pointed at the scale and asked him if that was his current weight. When he didn't answer she turned to the place where she'd found him and picked up the notebook he'd been writing in. He lunged for it, but she just side stepped him, and began reading.
It wasn't long before she was crying hysterically, flipping through the loose-leaf in anguished disbelief. She could hardly comprehend how he son could do this to himself, how he could pretend there was nothing wrong, how she could have let him suffer so long all alone. She gave the book back and promised that she would never be so distant again, that she would be there for him from now on, that she would do everything in her power to help him get better again. She would make sure he never had to go hungry again.
He put the book on the bed and told her to get out. When she didn't move he went to the closet and got a baseball bat. Without warning, he swung in the general direction of her head. She ran out screaming. He closed the door and put the book back in its proper place. Then he sat down on the floor and cried, convinced he was the worst person in the whole goddamned motherfucking universe.
A few hours later he came out of his room, looking for water. He saw his mother sitting on the bench press machine, riveted to the television. He looked at it, and saw his tape playing. The woman was eating ice cream in the grocery store. She was abandoning her cart. She was headed for the door. She was behind the store, swallowing a LifeSaver on a string. She yanked it out and disappeared behind the trashbins, gagging. Steve laughed.
His mother jumped, then asked what he could possibly find amusing about that. He chuckled and explained that it was art imitating life. His mother grimaced and asked what in the world made him think someone could actually do something so utterly disgusting.
His smile faded, and for the first time he thought about the stuff he'd been doing in the name of dieting. He dug in his pocket and pulled out the pendant he'd used earlier for the tea. He took a deep breath and told his dear, sweet mama that he thought someone could do those disgusting things because he did.
She stared at him for several moments, then asked if he'd made himself sick earlier in the day. He didn't answer. He didn't want to be looked at like he was sick or crazy or anything like that. He just wanted to lose some weight. Nothing wrong with that. He wanted everyone off his case. Even his mama.
She begged him to talk to a doctor, told him she was afraid for him, he was so... emaciated. He whirled on her, tearing into her, screaming about his hard work, the stomach that wouldn't go away, everybody in his business, everyone trying to control him, every person he dealt with trying to interfere with his right to loose weight. It might seem nonsensical, illogical, irrational, but he believed every word he said was gospel truth. He would defend it to his death. He told her so.
She said that should only take a minute.
He recoiled, shocked at his mother's callous statement. She wanted him dead?? What did she mean by that? He couldn't get his brain around it. He began to cry, something he'd been doing a lot of lately. He wailed that she didn't love him anymore, that she never did.
It shocked the hell out of him when she slapped his face. He was silent when she growled dangerously that she'd better not ever hear him say anything like that again. He was fearful when she stood right up against him and told him she would take his life herself rather than let him hurt himself, then accuse her of not loving him. He was relieved when she began to cry, when she begged him to tell her where she went wrong. He stroked her head the way she always stroked his and told her he would start eating again, that everything would be alright.
They both knew he was lying.