“Ana! Dinner’s here!!”
“ONE MINUTE!!!!......ninety-four…. ninety-five.. .ninety-six… ninety-seven….. ninety-eight….ninety-nine….one hundred.
I fell flat on my back panting. The burning feeling in my abs and throughout my body made me feel a little satisfied. I stood up and stumbled over to my mirror. Not good enough. Satisfaction gone. I’m nowhere close, I need to do more sit-ups…..
“OH MY GOD WHAT?!?!” I screamed down at my Dad.
I swung open my bedroom door and shouted, “I’M NOT HUNGRY!” then slammed my door shut. I heard dishes breaking downstairs. Whatever. I don’t care. I don’t want whatever he ordered anyways. I laid back down on the floor, going faster and counting in my head this time, one..two..three..four..five..six..seven..eight….
“GO AWAY!” I screamed. What is he doing? He knows better than to come up here and bother me.
“Ana…..it’s me….open up please! My arms are tired!”
Oh. It’s just Paige, I loosened up a little bit.
“Paige, I want to be alone.”
“Ana, please! I need help with my homework! Pleaseeee! Open up! I can’t see! I have too many books in my hands!”
I let out an exaggerated sign and got off the floor. Of course she needs help, it’s not like Dad can help her. I opened the door and there stood little Paige, holding a pile of books and a plate of pizza at the top.
“Paige. I’m not. Hungry,” I started getting angry again.
“Who said you can have my food?” Paige gasped, moving her head to the left so I could see her short blonde hair and clear smiling face.
I relaxed again, giving her an apologetic look. I moved to the side to let her in, she made herself at home as usual. She carefully placed the books carrying the pizza down. She started grabbing blankets and pillows off my bed to make it comfortable on the floor. She laid on her stomach and started playing a song off her phone. Paige grabbed her pizza and one of her math books asking, “Do you remember how to do fractions?”
I think about fractions all the time.
“No.” I teased, shutting my bedroom door and joining her on the floor.
“How are you in high school then?” She questioned, giving me a weird look.
“Relax, I was kidding,”
Paige shook her head at me and started picking at her pizza, saying, “You’re not funny, Ana,”
“I’m just shocked you took me seriously. You need a sense of humor,”
Paige took a bite out of her pizza, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her plate. The pizza was covered in red sauce….pepperoni….cheese….about 300 calories. Maybe 400. Each. Easily.
“You’re doing it again, Ana,” I snapped my head back to see Paige giving me a disapproving look. It’s a funny look for an eight-year-old to have.
“What?” I asked
“You’re counting my food again,” She took another bite out of her pizza.
“No, I wasn’t,” I turned my head away from her and changed the song on her phone.
“Hey! I liked that song!” She yelled.
“You don’t like anything,”
It got quiet for a second, I looked down at her textbook chuckling, “I like math,”
Paige rolled her eyes, “You’re the only one,”
She took another bite out of her pizza, I looked away from her. It was quiet again. I hate this kind of quiet. Wow. She’s right, I don’t like anything.
“Do you want a bite?” Paige whispered. I immediately shook my head. Paige waited a second before saying, “It’s really good,”
“Does it taste like mom’s pizza?” I snapped.
Paige looked down at her food, she started peeling the cheese off her pizza. After a few painful seconds, she muttered, “No.”
I was about to snap again, “Then I don’t want any,” but I could tell Paige was getting upset, so I bit my tongue. I hate it when she does this. I opened her notebook and grabbed her math book.
“How many problems do you have?” I asked.
Paige looked up at me, shaking her head in a sassy way stating, “I have a million problems but a bitch ain’t one,” and bit a piece of her pizza.
I spat laughing so hard, she started cracking up too. Her humor always shocked me, an eight-year-old shouldn’t be that funny.
Set goals they told me.
It’ll help, they said.
Something to keep my mind off her.
Something to look forward to.
My goal is double digits.
The school counselor I'm forced to see every study hall told me I should write what I’m feeling. I wrote him a poem. I titled it:
I’m Not Hungry
All the food in my cabinets is for show,
the thicker the layers the less they know.
Don’t squeeze too much,
stop asking me out for lunch.
No, I don’t want any of that,
it’s covered in butter and fat.
Everything savors a sour taste,
I’ll shrink my memories along with my waist.
The world is the problem, I’m a calculator,
an internal disaster.
but, I’m not hungry.
They called Dad. They said they were concerned. Dad didn’t say anything to me when I got home. He was sitting in the living room staring at his wedding portrait. The TV played silently in the background. He hasn't moved from that spot in days.
I thought things were supposed to get easier, but instead, the void gets filled with more dread and hate each day.
Paige was eating chips and drinking pop while reading a book in the kitchen. Great dinner, Dad. I went back upstairs.
It’s the end of the school year, the counselor isn’t going to do anything.
I hate summer.
Summer is advertised as warmth, fun, happiness….billboards are the biggest liars. Winter doesn’t lie. Winter lets you know the world is dark, lonely, and depressing. The depression is still there in Summer. The loneliness, the darkness, it’s still there. It’s just hot.
Also, nobody questions why you are wearing a hoodie in July.
*Knock, knock* “Ana?”
“Leave me alone, Paige!”
“Ana, can you help me make cookies?”
She’s not serious, is she? You know what. I can’t do this anymore. Why doesn’t she get it? Why does she keep pushing me? I swung open my door, Paige was standing in the hallway holding mom’s cookbook. My heart plummeted to the bottom of my stomach, I thought I was going to throw up. I haven’t seen her cookbook since the last time we cooked….the last time she was here….we were making her famous chili….why does Paige….
“PAIGE, WHY? WHY DO YOU KEEP TORTURING ME LIKE THIS?? WHY?” My eyes started swelling with tears and I could feel my face turning red.
“But Ana…..you made the best cookies…..I ate cookies at camp today and they were awful. It made me miss your cookies. Maybe you...…”
“I DON’T CARE, PAIGE! JUST PLEASE! STOP!”
I slammed the door, it felt like the whole house shook. I left her alone in the hallway. I felt hot and sick like my skin was on fire. I took my hoodie off and curled up in a ball on my bed. I’m so sick of this. She never stops. She has no idea the damage she causes.
I assumed she walked away, she didn’t leave though.
“YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY ONE WHO MISSES HER! HOW DO YOU THINK I FEEL? OR DAD! JUST BECAUSE YOU HELPED HER MORE IN THE KITCHEN DOESN’T MEAN…”
I sprung out of my bed and swung open my bedroom door, “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME? I DON’T WANT TO MAKE COOKIES! WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LEAVE ME ALONE?” I screamed.
Paige didn’t say anything. I don’t think anything I said registered in her head, she just stared at me with her big brown eyes.
“WHAT?” I yelled at her. Paige looked me up and down. I looked down, I didn’t put my hoodie back on. I instantly lost my courage against this eight-year-old, she didn’t say anything.
I didn’t say anything either.
After what felt like an eternity, Paige shoved the cookbook in my hands, almost causing me to fall over. She shook her head and said, “You look like a dying ghost,” then walked away with her head down.
I stood alone in my doorway a long time before I went back to my room. A dying ghost. I placed Mom’s cookbook on my desk and laid back down in bed.
I must’ve fallen asleep because when I opened my eyes it was pitch black in my room.
And Dad must’ve helped Paige.
I can smell the burnt cookies from up here.
I reached my goal.
I was standing. Paige was talking. The last audible thing I heard her say was, “I wanna go to the park, do you wanna walk to the park with me?” Then she was mute, her lips were moving but I heard nothing. I started feeling hot and cold at the same time, that’s when the ringing started. It got louder and louder before a sea of darkness blinded me. It felt like I was falling down a hole. I felt a pair of tiny hands - then I was gone.
Beep... Beep... Beep...
I opened my eyes, everything’s bright and white.
How did I get here?
My father’s sitting next to me.
He’s been crying.
“Ana...Anastasia…..I don’t know…. I don’t know what to do……” He cried harder, “I’m sorry,” he choked out. He cried a different cry. A different cry from mom’s funeral. A cry that broke my heart.
Paige felt it too. She got up and started walking towards the door.
“Paige….where are you going?” Dad cried.
“She looks like mom!” She screamed before bolting out the door.
My heart broke again.
Dad didn’t stop her, just looked at me with his bloodshot eyes.
“I know everything has been hard….” He started, clearing his throat and trying again, “I haven’t been there….I should’ve been there for you more...but Ana listens, you affect her. Everything you do counts. Every word, every movement, every sound, everything. I can’t….I can’t lose you guys, too. Please Ana….please ....”
He was quiet again, then said in a sad whisper,
“She’s not eating.”
How many times can the heart break?
I haven’t left my room since I got home.
But I’m home.
I’ve been staring at mom’s cookbook since I got back. I haven’t talked to Paige. The car ride from the hospital was silent, Dad went through McDonald’s to get us cones.
I didn’t want one.
Neither did Paige.
Dad got one. His face turned beet red trying to drive with a cone in his hand. He was constantly blinking, trying to cover up tears. He licked the ice cream once then threw it out the window.
I hurt him. I hurt Paige.
I stared at Mom’s cookbook again. She would be so mad at me right now.
I got up, grabbed Mom’s cookbook, then headed downstairs to the kitchen. I’ll never forget Mom’s secret chili recipe, but I still wanted her cookbook with me. I placed the book on the counter and started flipping through it, there were food smudges on the pages from lost days. They are survivors of faraway memories, proof she touched these pages, proof she was once here.
I started cooking.
That familiar smell came back. A ping of sadness hit me - but vanished once I heard the sounds of small feet running down the hall. Paige bolted in the kitchen with her wide eyes.
“Ana! What are you doing!?”
“Cooking dinner, what does it look like I’m doing?”
“Chili?!?” Paige's face beamed. I just nodded and went back to stirring the food.
“I’ll be right back!” Paige said, spinning around like a ballerina to leave the kitchen. I already knew she was going to go get Dad, but she didn’t need to. Dad walked into the kitchen a second later, completely shocked and frozen.
We stared at each other for a long time, I felt like I needed to say something. I think he felt like he needed to say something too. But, we didn’t, we don't need to. I went back to stirring the chili, he walked over to the cabinets and started grabbing bowls. He looked inside the bowls then started laughing to himself. Paige and I looked at each other confused.
He turned to us and said, “I have to wash these real fast, they’re covered in dust,”
I don’t know why, but Paige and I started laughing too. Only us three would find that hilarious, that was okay with me. We kept laughing while he cleaned the bowls, Paige grabbed silverware and cups and placed them on the table. Once the chili was done, we filled our clean bowls and sat around the table. I put mom’s cookbook in her spot, where she always sat.
Paige dug into her food right away, “hmmm I missed this!” She joyfully shrieked. Dad chuckled as he started eating too. I looked down at my food, took a deep breath, then put a spoonful of chili in my mouth.
I missed this too.
I looked up and saw Dad staring at me again, I can tell he was trying not to cry.
“What?” I snapped. Irritation started to build up, I knew this was going to happen, the “I’m so proud of you for eating,” comments. I really really didn’t want to hear them.
But he didn’t. Instead, he said, “You look like mom,”
My heart melted. I didn’t know what to say, I looked over at Paige, she was smiling and nodding. I felt like crying, but I didn’t. I’m so sick of crying.
I kept eating.
I kept eating and looking back and forth between Dad, Paige, and Mom’s cookbook.
One. Two. Three.
Three. Where I should’ve stopped-
the three I can always count on.