“You need to eat your peas.” He can hear the smile in her voice, the calm insistence of someone who Knows What’s Best, even though he’s not looking at her. He’s looking anywhere but at her, anywhere but at the plate sitting in front of him on the dining room table, anywhere and nowhere.
“I don’t want to.” It’s a whine, and he knows it. Hates himself a little for it. He’s not a whiner. He’s a big boy, and big boys don’t whine. They obey their mothers when their mothers tell them what to do.
But. But but but.
“You need to eat them, Sammy. If you don’t, you’re not going to grow up to be big and strong like your father.”
“My father? My dad’s–” He bit his tongue, literally bit it, to keep the next words from coming out. If he didn’t say them, maybe they weren’t true. Maybe things would be better. He closed his eyes, shook his head. “I’m tired of peas. I’ve been eating peas forever.” And he hated when she called him “Sammy.” Sammy was his little kid name, and he was a big boy now. He started to say something, stopped. He was still whining. Winners don’t whine, his father would say, in his stupid dad joke voice. Sammy never laughed at all those stupid sayings, but that had never stopped them. So very dad.
His mother was silent for a long moment. He almost opened his eyes, but he knew what he would see: her standing next to the table, perfectly still, watching him closely with those bright blue eyes. And the peas. He didn’t want to see the peas. He didn’t want to see peas ever again, as long as he lived.
“You need to eat your peas.” The same invisible smile in her voice, like he hadn’t even said anything. Like everything was fine. But it wasn’t. It hadn’t been, for a long, long time.
“I’m done eating.” He sat up from the table, eyes still squeezed shut. Now he was thinking of it like a game: could he get back to his bedroom with his eyes closed without stumbling into anything? He could.
He knew every room, every corner, every shelf and table and cabinet and chair and he wouldn’t trip on any of them. He reached out; the wall was– there, no, there. A shuffle-step forward, then another, more confident, until he almost went sprawling down the two steps that separated the kitchen from the living room. A stumble, but he didn’t fall, and he didn’t open his eyes either. That would be cheating.
“But you didn’t take a single bite,” his mother said, her voice with just the faintest tinge of pleading. “You need to eat your peas.”
“I’m done!” he said, nearly shouting, as his fingers found the corner to the hallway–yes!–and then he nearly ran, ran down the smooth stone floor, socks skidding, fingers trailing on the wall. Past the first door, to the second, in, and slam!
He could open his eyes now, which was good, because he had almost stepped on his latest construction, the biggest one yet. Those pegs hurt even through his socks. And he had been working on it for weeks. He lay down on the floor, the stone cold through his thin clothes. Up close he could see the seams between the blocks, the places where he had to use pieces of different colors that didn’t quite match, although he tried to hide them as best he could. There just weren’t enough for what he wanted to build, and so he had to make do.
He always had to make do.
It was coming together, though. The shipwreck was nearly complete– if anything, he needed to take more of it apart, make it look more, well, wrecky— and the island was pretty simple anyway, just a bunch of yellow and tan blocks. It was the village that was giving him the most trouble. It used the same brown that the ship did, and there just weren’t enough pieces for it to look the way he wanted. He had tried this way and that, looked at it from every angle, and nothing quite satisfied him.
His stomach grumbled. He ignored it. It grumbled even when he ate his peas. He was used to it by now, although it hurt more than usual.
It was too big, the ship and the island and the village, too big for the floor of his bedroom, but he couldn’t build it anywhere else. The cleaning bots would just disassemble it as soon as he fell asleep, the pieces placed back in their little stacked bins on the shelf in his bedroom. His father used to be able to tell them not to do that, was supposed to show him how, but…
He shook his head. It was fine. He just had to be careful.
He dug through the bin of pieces, hoping to find just one or two more browns, knowing that there weren’t any but trying anyway. The blues were all gone too, but he had finished the water, didn’t need any more. Reds? Lots of reds, even after using a bunch of them on the internal structure, places that no one would ever see. Whites too. But no browns anywhere.
He sighed, stood up. He just wasn’t in the mood to work on it anyway. It hadn’t been very much of an argument– and hadn’t he won that? He didn’t eat his peas, after all– but he was still upset about dinner. Why did it have to be peas all the time every time? He could remember when it hadn’t been, kinda, could almost taste the sweet syrup that coated the peaches, sharp and tangy on his tongue. The grassy snap of kale, never his favorite, but right then he would have given his left arm to have some again. Anything but peas.
Maybe talking to his father would help. It didn’t, usually, but anything was better than feeling like this.
He turned towards the door. His mother could be waiting right outside, ready to coax him back to the dinner table, and that almost stopped him right there. He couldn’t face her, not right now. But, no, he would have heard her through the door, right? The whirr thunka thunka whirr of her busted wheel was unmistakable. She hadn’t been able to sneak up on him in years. Not that she did much sneaking.
Still. He pressed his ear to the door, like he had seen in movies. Nothing, no sounds other than the constant background thrum of the ventilation system and the thump thump thump of his own pulse like when he lay on his pillow in just the wrong way.
A deep breath and a twist of the handle. There was just enough room for the door to open without hitting the yellow-and-tan island. And his mother wasn’t out there waiting for him, waiting to guide him back to the kitchen table and those same damn– darn– stupid peas. He had been worried for nothing.
But he could hear her now, hear the whirr thunka thunka whirr coming from the kitchen. He sprinted further down the hallway, down to the big gray door at the end, sliding the last few feet in his socks. He thumped into the door, not hard, but the sound seemed loud in the quiet of the evening.
“Is that you, Sammy?” his mother called. “You need to come back and finish your dinner.”
“Stop calling me Sammy,” he yelled, confusion and frustration and hunger flashing over into anger. “My name’s Samuel!” Yank, slide, slam.
If she answered, he couldn’t hear her. His mother never raised her voice. It just wasn’t in her programming.
It took a moment, like always, for his eyes to adjust. His father liked it dark in his room for some reason, a sharp contrast to the bright lighting everywhere else in the suite. For the first time, he thought that maybe he understood, maybe it was because of all the brightness. It felt like somewhere else, somewhere totally different.
He had been holding his breath out of habit, and he let it out, a soft phh. Took a shallow breath, then a deeper one. He could barely smell the sick any more. That was good. That was real good.
“Hey, dad,” he said. “I… Mom’s mad at me. I mean, she’s not mad, she’s never mad–” he knew, somehow, that that was wrong, that mothers were supposed to get mad sometimes– “but I just. I just couldn’t.”
He sat down in the chair next to the bed. His feet actually touched the ground, now; he didn’t have to climb up into it like a little kid any more, legs swinging as he sat there. That made him smile.
“It’s just… the peas. I’m so tired of the peas. It’s peas for breakfast, peas for lunch, peas for dinner, and I just can’t eat another pea. I’d rather…”
He stopped before he said too much, went too far. It wasn’t true anyway. He wouldn’t rather die than eat another pea, even though it sure felt like that sometimes. He hadn’t finished the village, for one. And The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was just starting to get interesting.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice low. “I know you don’t like it when I whine. Winners don’t whine, right?”
He sighed, scooted back in the chair, so that his legs dangled again like when he was younger. Swung them back and forth a bit. Took a deep breath. “I wish… I wish Mom were here.”
There. He had said it, said something he had promised himself he’d never say. His memories of her were fuzzy, like one of the blurry photographs his father would sometimes get when the motion-compensation on the camera didn’t work quite right. He couldn’t remember her voice, could barely remember her face. Just her eyes, green and sparkling. And her smile.
“You told me that I banged on the outside door for hours, when we first came here. Crying for her. That I slept on the floor there for weeks. That you slept there with me.” He rubbed his hand across his face, wiping away tears. “I wish I could remember. Remember her more.”
His stomach grumbled again.
It was harder to curl up in the chair than it used to be, but he managed somehow. It wasn’t very comfortable, but there was something about it, something about the room, that made him feel more at peace there than anywhere else.
“I miss you too, Dad,” he said, half-mumbling, as he drifted off to sleep.
Most days, his morning shower was the best thing that happened. The splash of the warm water on his skin, the white noise of the spray, the feeling of getting clean. Everything felt new again, full of promise and excitement and adventure.
As always, he ignored the carefully-folded shirt and shorts and put his pyjamas and socks back on. Who would ever wear anything else if they had a choice? he had often wondered.
But then. He took his time brushing his teeth, rinsing and spitting and rinsing again, reluctant to leave the bathroom. Drank a gulp of water from the sink, then another, but that wasn’t enough to quiet the near-constant growl from his stomach.
It was time for breakfast.
He sighed, scuffled his feet as he went down the hallway, made the turn into the living room. Looked up towards the kitchen, the table.
She was already there, of course, her bright blue eyes glowing. And on the table, a plate, steam rising.
He could smell it from there. Peas.
His mother moved towards him, whirr thunka. “I’m sorry about yesterday, Samuel,” she said, her voice more grave than he could ever remember. “You’re right. You’re a big boy now, and I was wrong to treat you the way I did.”
“It’s okay,” he said, looking down at his feet. “I was whining. And winners don’t whine.” He gulped. “I’m sorry.” He couldn’t bring himself to call her Mom, not right then.
“It’s all right.” He heard her move again, closer still, thunka whirr. “Samuel. I need to tell you something important. I’ve been waiting to tell your father, but he hasn’t left his room in one hundred and ninety-five days. He hasn’t used any of the suite’s systems since then either. Is he all right?”
“He’s fine.” He wiped his arm across his face, shook his head. “He’s fine.” If he said it enough times, maybe it would come true. “You can tell me,” he added.
“The food stocks are critically low. We would have run out already, if your father hadn’t stopped eating one hundred and seventy-eight days ago. But even with that taken into account, there isn’t very much left.”
He gulped. “How much?”
“Assuming three meals a day, and accounting for your continued growth, there is only enough food for another seventeen days.”
“Seven– /seventeen days?/” He was whining, but he couldn’t help it. “Just seventeen days until I starve to death?”
“Yes, I’m afraid,” his mother said.
Then, after a moment: “You need to eat your peas.”
[Later edit: Notes about writing this short story can be found here.]