There are thick pieces of toast, but his mother is absent, even though she did place the plate in front of him and now leans against the counter watching him eat. In fact, she is waiting for him to ask for something: more butter, another flavor of jam, cinnamon, a different knife—one without these small flecks of orange corroding the teeth. She had not noticed these spots when she set the table, but she can see them clearly now, very clearly. Everything blurs but that burnt orange rust on ridged stainless steel.
He does not ask for another knife. He picks up the knife he has been given and slices through the butter, which is pale yellow and more liquid than solid, because the butter lives in a glass container on the kitchen counter, and the fall has been unseasonably warm, and the kitchen has many windows. The jam—strawberry, more solid than the butter—spreads easily across the toast, except for three thick lumps of strawberry, preserved almost in their entirety. These will not spread and when he looks at them on his toast, he imagines biting into them, something tough, then a soft bursting between his teeth, and he knows he wants to avoid this feeling. She watches the edge of the knife scrape these chunks of strawberry onto his plate, where they lay mushy, small chewed up tongues, seeds like engorged taste buds. Inside her, the nausea rises quickly; she feels bile, hot and abrading, burst into her throat. He sees her smile, but she is looking through him to a spot in the future when he has left for school and she can lie down again.
At school, he has started to fall asleep during story hour and, when his teacher, Mrs. Dorothy, lets him, he stays curled up on his mat through the art period that follows, not waking when the other children rise and put their mats away, line up by the door and stomp loudly down the bricked hallway. Mrs. Dorothy has begun to meet him at his bus, where she leads him to the school cafeteria and feeds him spoonfuls of peanut butter from an industrial-size tub, or cores an apple, placing slice after slice in his warm, pink hand. When the bell rings, she shuffles them both, late, to the classroom where the other children see him enter the room with his teacher. He feels special for the extra attention, but when he told his mother, she cried and went to take a bath and listen to music, loudly. When he went to find her, she was lying in cold water, and the music had stopped. Now, when she says Mrs. Dorothy’s name, she says it with an edge to it, like a knife, he thinks, slicing through the soft butter of Mrs. Dorothy’s flesh, which rolls at her stomach and plumps up at the top of her dress; he has put his head there and listened to her tell a story. He does not sit on his mother’s lap when she tells a story, but sometimes he lies under the covers with her while she reads to him from long, sad books about animals that never stay safe.
And so, for the past two weeks, she has gotten up with him in the morning, placed two pieces of toast in front of him, and watched him eat, ready always to hand him a different condiment or melt a piece of cheddar cheese on top, or to serve him a different breakfast altogether: shredded wheat with three spoonfuls of sugar, bacon heated in the microwave on a piece of paper towel, French toast—bread saturated in a bright eggy mixture, pliable and weak and threatening to fall apart as she transfers each piece to the stove. Granola, scrambled eggs, waffles, oatmeal, pancakes, eggs in the hole, donuts, sour white yogurt with pools of water on top, blueberry muffins, which seem to her bruised and rotting even when they are freshly baked. Anything, she would make him anything, to ensure he leaves her house full.
Eugenie Montague earned her MFA from UC Irvine. Her short fiction has been published by Fiction Southeast and NPR. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is working on her first novel.