Yes, I said, waiting for her to take a seat. Caleb.
Yes, Mama? I say. My voice is almost a whisper.You can skip dinner tonight.
She offers it like it’s something good, but what she’s really saying is, I won’t be allowing you to eat tonight.That’s all right. I have my own stash, and there’s nothing in the cupboards anyway.I go to my room, and she locks the door behind me, pocketing the key. The lock on my door is the only working lock in the house, besides the one on the front door. My mother had it installed a few years ago. I though it was to keep me safe, until I figured out that my mother was stashing her money under a loose floorboard in my room. Her money is all there under my feet. She doesn’t spend it on clothes, or cars, or food. She hoards it. I skim money off the top to buy food. She probably knows, since I’m still alive and also fat.
I sit on my floor and slide a box out from under my bed. I choose wisely in case she’s listening at the door: a banana and two slices of bread. No noise, no crunching, no wrappers. The banana is black and sticky, and the bread is stale, but it still tastes good. I pull off pieces of the bread and squash it between my fingers before putting it in my mouth. I like to pretend I’m taking Holy Communion. My friend, Destiny, took her first communion. She said the priest put a flat piece of bread on your tongue, and while it was sitting on your tongue it turned into the body of the Lord Jesus. You had to wait for the Lord Jesus’s body to melt before you swallowed it, because you couldn’t very well bite the Lord Jesus’s body, and then you had to drink his blood. I don’t know anything about the Lord Jesus or why you have to eat his body or drink his blood to be Catholic, but I’d rather pretend to eat God’s body than stale, old bread.When I’m done with my dinner I can hear muffled thuds and the floorboards groaning under the weight of feet. Whose feet? The tall man? The man with the gray, curly chest hair? Or perhaps it’s the man who coughs so hard he makes my mother’s bed rattle.
The croup, I say to my limp banana skin. I read about the croup in one of my books. A library book I keep checking out because I don’t want to give it back. I slide it out from my school bag as I eat a Honey Bun, and look at the pictures while licking the sticky off my fingers. When I hear Mama’s headboard creaking against the wall I eat another. I’m going to be fat for as long as I live in the eating house. For as long as the house eats me.
I DON’T KNOW WHERE THE MEN COME FROM. How they know to drive to 49 Wessex Street and park their cars in the shadow of the eating house. I don’t know how they know to walk the three cracked steps to the front door and stand under the bulb that never stops flickering. Or how they know to take the rusted brass knob in their hands and let themselves in. They were, perhaps, men who my mother knew in her former life. The life in which she wore pleated skirts and pantyhose, and caught the bus to work every day.A chill runs up my spine.
Isaac, I’m afraid.He shifts closer, puts an arm around my shoulders. Me too.
When the house is warmer and our limbs feel like they can move again, we unlock the trap door and go downstairs. We sit facing each other at the table in the kitchen. Our eyes have the glazed vacant look of two people in shock. Though I have no doubt we’d spring, quick as cats, if we needed to. I touch the handle of my knife. Both Isaac and I have set our knives on the table in front of us; the knives are pointed in a face off. He doesn’t have to say anything for me to know that there is suspicion on his face. I wear it too. We look silly; abducted and locked in a house, waiting for whoever did this to return.Ransom, I say. My voice is raspy. It catches in my throat before I can say anything else. I swallow and look up at Isaac.