“Today’s unhealthy food of the day is eggs! Not only are egg yolks high in fat, but they’re also high in cholesterol! So get that egg carton out of your fridge right now–”
I didn’t have to look to know the loud clattering sound in the kitchen was my sister throwing the frying pan into the sink. Nor did I have to look to know the immense cracking sounds from next door and across the hall were my neighbors tossing their egg cartons.
Such well-behaved citizens.
“I guess we’re not having scrambled eggs for breakfast, then?” I asked. “Dad’s gonna be disappointed.”
Cecilia scowled. “He should have seen it coming. Eggs are unhealthy foods of the day at least two times a week.”
“Mm,” I turned back to my little brother’s math homework. He had forgotten to do it – again – and if he handed it in blank (again), we’d get another phone call home.
If Sally eats a slice of bread that contains 110 calories, and Michael eats an apple that contains 80 calories, how many calories have they eaten altogether?
If Lola ate 800 calories one morning and exercised away 100 calories, how many calories are there left?
“Ryan forgot to do his homework again?”
I hadn’t heard my sister come up behind me until she snatched the paper from my hand. She skimmed over the questions and with an exasperated sigh, said, “Ryan’s so much smarter than this, too! He could answer these questions in a heartbeat!”
“I don’t think he likes the word problems,” I replied, taking the paper out of her hand. “They’re pretty different from the ones we got when we were kids – back then, it was all about counting how many cookies – mmph!”
Cecilia’s cold hand, clamped over my mouth, kept me from saying anything further.
“Are you insane?” she hissed. “You can’t say that word anymore!” She cast a furtive look around us, whispering, “What if our neighbors are eavesdropping on us? They’ll report you – ow!”
Cecilia ripped her hand away from my mouth, furious. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I guess I just miss coo– oh, fine, I won’t say it. Don’t want you dying of a heart-attack,” I muttered, swiveling back to Ryan’s homework. “What’re we having for breakfast, then?”
“Oatmeal. That’s never an unhealthy food of the day,” Cecilia said matter-of-factly, retreating to the stove.
I groaned, resting my forehead against the table. “But oatmeal sucks,” I mumbled. “Remember the flavored instant ones? I used to fight you for the brown-sugar and maple–”
“Watch your mouth!”
I rolled my eyes and picked my head up from the table, forcing myself to look at Ryan’s homework.
If Leah ate–
“We’re not having eggs for breakfast?” It was easy to detect the disappointment in my dad’s voice. It was his birthday, after all, and he couldn’t even have his favorite breakfast. “Why?”
“Government declared that it was the unhealthy food of the day,” Cecilia replied, carefully measuring out oats. “So we’re having oatmeal instead.”
My dad made a face. “I see,” he said, but I could tell that he was as unhappy as I was about the turnabout. “Well, I’ll just add more milk in mine.”
“Don’t talk to me about calories, Cecilia,” my dad said tiredly.
My sister shot me a venomous look. “You know, Dad,” she said, “I honestly get scared that you and Mattie over there will get caught by someone. Ryan’s already refusing to do his homework. What do you think his teachers are going to think? Or say? Or do?” She turned back to the stove, her hands trembling slightly. “One of my classmates already got taken away – and Mrs. Morales hasn’t been in school for almost two weeks now. One day, I’m going to come home and …” Cecilia angrily wiped a hand across her eyes.
My dad and I didn’t complain after that.
• • •
“Today’s unhealthy food of the day is bread! Not only are most breads simple carbohydrates, but–”
“Not today, Satan,” I muttered, leaning over to switch off the radio.
Ryan looked at me, his eyes wide in disbelief. “Does that mean I can’t have French toast today?” he asked.
“And ruin a perfectly good Saturday morning? Of course not,” I said, walking over to the fridge. “Get the bread!”
“Aye-aye, Captain!” And in only a few seconds, Ryan was back at my side, holding up the white loaf like it was buried treasure. As he watched me crack eggs into a bowl, he asked, “What’ll happen if Cecilia finds out?”
“Then we’ll just have to make her eat it with us,” I replied with a wink. “After all, no one can accuse us if they don’t see evidence – and we’ll need help to eat all of the evidence, won’t we?”
Ryan beamed up at me. “You’re my favorite sister.”
“Duh,” I replied lightly, but I didn’t face him. There was a time, I wanted to say, when Cecilia was the nicer one.
Do you remember, Ryan? I would ask. You were only a baby then, but when we were kids, Cecilia would always be the first one to help Mommy in the kitchen. Cecilia asked Mommy to teach her how to make pancakes, and then they’d make them for us on Monday mornings because we would always be grumpy then. Cecilia used to make the best egg salad sandwiches, too, but then mayonnaise was a forever-unhealthy food, and we couldn’t make them anymore.
I added the milk with the eggs, swallowing hard.
“Mattie? Are you okay?”
“Of course,” I replied. “I’m fine.”
• • •
“Today’s unhealthy food of the day are potatoes! Because it’s–”
“Carbs again?” my dad grumbled, shaking his head. “If we keep this up, I might actually fall asleep during work.”
“You could have toast,” I suggested, opening my laptop. “I mean, at least bread isn’t the unhealthy food of the day. If they truly wanted to torture us, then they’d ban all carbohydrates for one day.”
“Do you think they’d ever do that?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
My dad sighed, shaking his head. “I swear to God,” he said, rubbing a hand over his face, “it’s getting harder to keep track of these things. I can’t even concentrate during work anymore because I’m too busy remembering all of these damn can-eat/can’t-eat rules.” He looked at my laptop. “What’re you doing?”
“I have to write a paper for English,” I replied, scowling.
My scowl stretched into a grimace. “On the benefit of exercise, brought to you by Caroline Bingley and Elizabeth Bennet.”
My dad blinked. “Is that what school’s teaching you these days?”
I snorted. “Have you even seen Ryan’s Spanish homework? It’s all filled with words like, ‘fat’ and ‘calorie’ and ‘skinny.’ He won’t be able to ask for help in Spanish, but at least he’ll know how to translate the unhealthy food of the day!”
“This is getting ridiculous,” my dad said, shaking his head.
“When I was a kid, we wrote English papers on themes and that nonsense. We learned math with fun examples. And we definitely knew how to at least say ‘my name is’ in Spanish.”
“Back when school meant a little more than what it is now?”
My dad looked over at me. “You remember what it was like before too, right?” he asked quietly. “What you learned?”
“I remember a time when I actually didn’t mind going to the school, yeah,” I said, turning back around to my laptop. “I remember when schools weren’t filled with fat-shaming posters. I remember when I could actually go clothes-shopping with Mom without someone wanting to report us.”
My dad was quiet.
And then, “I remember that, too.”
• • •
“Today’s unhealthy food of the day is milk! High in calories and unnecessary to your bowl of cereal or oatmeal, today would be the best day to remove it from your diet!”
Ryan’s nose wrinkled. “But I thought the doctor said I needed more calcium. If I wanna grow?” He looked over at me, uncertain. “Right?”
“You won’t stop growing because you don’t drink milk just this once,” Cecilia said, draining the milk gallon into the sink.
“But last week, they said milk was bad, too,” Ryan said, sadly watching Cecilia wash out the drain. “And last month, they said milk was bad five times in a week. How am I supposed to grow?”
“You’ll find other ways,” Cecilia said, tossing the empty gallon aside. “Drink some water instead.”
Ryan’s bottom lip trembled. He looked at me for help, but I only shook my head. Sneaking away from Cecilia was one thing, but openly defying her was another.
“Stop looking at me like that,” Cecilia snapped. “You shouldn’t be drinking so much milk, anyways.”
Ryan’s eyes filled with tears. “Mattie says that I’m allowed to drink as much milk as I want,” he said, stomping his foot.
“Well, Mattie’s wrong.”
“No!” Ryan cried, stomping his foot again. “You’re wrong! You’re always wrong!” He ran over to me and twisted his arms around my waist. “Mattie’s nicer than you!” he shouted. “And she’s smarter than you!”
Cecilia gave Ryan a sickening smile – one that made my insides twist. “You say that now,” she whispered, “and then one day, you’ll get fat like Mommy. Do you remember Mommy, Ryan?” Her voice went an octave lower. “Mommy started off like Mattie, too. She said no to the rules, and she didn’t get smaller like the rest of us. No, she thought that she was better. She said it was genetics. She didn’t listen.” Cecilia stepped closer, and Ryan and I instinctively moved back.
“Cecilia, stop it,” I said slowly, holding tightly onto Ryan. “You’re gonna scare him.”
But Cecilia didn’t listen. Instead, she stalked closer and closer, adding, “And then Mommy was taken away, Ryan. Do you want to be taken away, too? You’ll end up just like her.”
“And what’s the alternative?” I snapped, placing an arm over Ryan’s shoulders. “End up a total witch like you?”
Cecelia glared at me. “Don’t you start–”
“You used to be nice,” I hissed. “You used to love baby-sitting Ryan whenever Mom and Dad went out on a date. You used to love grocery-shopping with Mom, even when you were too big to ride the cart. You used to love baking and singing and dancing and smiling.” I gestured at her. “And now look at you. You’re a mess.”
“You get angry too easily,” I interrupted. “You don’t laugh anymore. You don’t have the energy to even hold an actual conversation with us when it’s not regarding food. And for what?” I gestured to Ryan. “This isn’t worth it, Cecilia.”
Cecilia stared. For a moment, I thought I saw something flicker in her eyes, and for that brief, hopeful moment, I thought she understood.
But then she shook her head. “You’re out of your mind,” she whispered, and that was the end of that.
• • •
“So what happened next?”
I look down at the girl sitting across from me. My grand-niece is a bright, young thing, with her mother’s quick wit and her father’s smile. She has a tablet in her hands, her fingers moving only to take notes.
“Well,” I say slowly, clasping my hands on my lap, “Cecilia died a few years later. Heart attack, the doctors said, even though she followed all of those stupid government rules.” I bow my head. “Her body wasn’t strong enough to go through with the harm that she put it through for all of those years.”
My grand-niece’s eyes sadden. “Oh.” She straightens herself a little, then adds, “But Grandpa’s alive, so I’m guessing …?”
“He grew up just fine,” I smile. “There were a few close calls, but we managed to ignore the rest of those stupid rules until the system fell apart when I graduated high school.”
I shrug my shoulders. “Lots of strange things happened from there. Some refused to give up the rules that the government forced everyone to follow, while others liberated themselves without a second glance. Eventually,” I add, “people managed to find their own way. Schools went back to normal. We became more humane with each other.” I pause. “And the birth rate went up, while the death rate decreased. It’s amazing what proper nutrition does.”
My grand-niece types up a final note before asking, “Why do you think people followed this stupid rulebook for so long? I mean … eggs? Unhealthy? Seriously?” She shakes her head. “Seems kinda silly if you asked me.”
“This kind of talk about what foods were healthy and which weren’t had been going on for years and years,” I reply. “It didn’t take too much for people to get the extra push to stop eating those things altogether.”
“Huh.” My grand-niece shakes her head again. “Still sounds stupid.”
“Believe me, it was.”
My grand-niece put aside her tablet. “On that note,” she says, stretching out her arms. “It’s almost time for lunch. What’re you feeling up to?” She walks over to the fridge. “Actually, I can make killer egg salad sandwiches. Sound good?”
I smile, leaning back.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.