By Monideepa Sahu

“Eat it. Finish it fast.” Mum’s words rat-a-tat like a power drill.

I stir the bowl in front of me. I used to make papier-mache bowls at school with such stuff. I painted one with yellow-orange sunflowers and brown bulrushes. It’s kept in the glass showcase in the Principal’s office. Only this gray gook isn’t scraps of newspaper soaked to pulp.

“Oatmeal is good for you.” Mum watches as I stuff another spoonful of pasty lumps into my already full mouth. The not-sweet-enough oatmeal sticks in my throat. I can’t close my mouth or move my dry tongue. The muck runs down my chin and onto my blouse.

“Stupid!” Mum mutters under her breath. I wince. My fingers and toes feel cold, and my forehead hot.

Mum keeps watching, a scowl on her smooth, oval face. If I finish the oatmeal, Mum will be happy, like when I walked up to the stage in the school auditorium to take the prize for the best essay, and then again to give a speech. I could see Mum’s face in the audience shining brighter than the spotlights. I want Mum to always smile at me. I can start painting my nails pearly pink like hers next year if I finish my food. Lisa is allowed to try out makeup. She’s my best friend and she helps me with Math and squeezes my hand for luck whenever we have tests.

“You’re lucky,” Mum tells me. “Some poor children don’t get food for days.” I want to send my breakfast to those starving children.

I manage to gulp down the last spoon of oatmeal. The school bus will arrive in fifteen minutes. The soft-boiled egg waits in the glass dish with the blue flowers in the border. Sunlight filters in through the lace curtains and makes the yolk glow. I want to look at it and not have to eat it. Anyway, the porridge is over. The runny yolk is easier to swallow. I hold my breath because if I can’t smell it, I won’t puke. I wash the stink off my tongue and throat with sweet-sour orange juice. What if I didn’t have to eat or drink anything but orange juice? What if? . . . I smile.

I get up. Mum frowns and points at the apple. She always buys those deep red ones with leathery skin and a strong, vinegary taste. I want a golden yellow apple. Their skins are thin and the soft, grainy pulp melts in my mouth. But it’s no use asking Mum when I know can’t have those. Mum says fruits and veggies with deeper greens and reds have more vitamins. They’ll make me smart and top in school and do better than my cousins and Lisa.

I nibble at the apple and watch Mum wipe her hands on her pink and white checked apron. She rises from the table and walks into the kitchen with the empty plates. I watch her through the kitchen door. I put the apple into my pocket, covering the bitten side with my hand so it won’t stain my beige woolen skirt.

“Finished your apple?” Mum calls out.

“Af. . . moft,” I say, with my mouth full. She looks out, sees my empty plate and nods.

I leave the table, walk off to the bathroom and face my round cheeks and double chin in the mirror. The oatmeal porridge is pushing up my throat. I will it to stay down because I want to be strong and smarter than everyone else like Mum wants me to be. I turn on the hot water and rinse off the tears from my face and the water running down my red nose.

The thick lumps are in my mouth now. They come up with the sweet-sour taste of orange juice. Something punches my guts. The porridge, egg and orange juice gush out and I try to spill it into the toilet without making a mess. My stomach is lighter. The dull ache has gone.

The apple feels heavy inside my pocket. I have to be a good girl and eat it. I want Mum to smile. But I don’t want to do better than Lisa because she always tops in our class. Lisa fights with Harry when he calls me ‘Fatty’ and pokes his finger into my tummy. I don’t want to make Lisa cry. I bite the apple into bits and toss the pieces into the toilet. They twist and turn and get flushed down with the porridge. I breathe easy. My skirt no longer catches at my waist. I wipe my face and race for the school bus.

Monideepa Sahu lives in Bangalore, India. When she isn't writing, she enjoys reading, painting, and making new friends.  Contact Monideepa.