I am perched awkwardly on the sofa of my living room, my mother and father crammed on either side of me. No one speaks. Distantly, the sound of something buzzing cracks a hole in the silence. My mother looks up, her face sagging like she's about to unload the weight of the world. "Is that a fly? I'll have to catch that before your Grandparents come, Ethel."
This is news to me. I'm so blocked up with my own selfish life, that I ignore or avoid anyone else's. My tongue wets my lower lip, and then I speak in a voice that verges on nervousness. "I - I didn't know Grandma and Grandad were coming."
Oh," mumbles Mother. From across the settee, my father makes a noise that could be confused with scathing. I smile across at him, trying to bridge the rift that's somehow sneaked between me and my family without anyone noticing. Well. How would I know if anyone else had noticed, locking myself in my room every time I'm not out?
Without warning, my father stands, clapping his hands together as he does so. His lips are locked in a straight line of determination, and his legs do not quiver as he begins to pace back and forth. He stops, and then he turns to face me, his fingers tap, tap, tapping against his leg. My mother, in contrast, stays absolutely still, as if she's about to witness the end of humanity.
And then. And then it comes, all in a rush - in one big gust of air. The bomb is dropped: my father talks. "Ethel, you're going to have a holiday."
I blink. "What?"
Exaggeratedly sighing, he starts again. "Ethel. Ethel, you're going to have a holiday. Away from myself and your mother."
"What?" I say again, my brain stuttering on the same note as I struggle to process this information. "Why? When?"
"Look, Ethel..." He turns towards my mother, his hands opened pleadingly. "This is going to be harder than we thought." My mother nods her head, acknowledging, her face grim and stony. It's not the expression which usually haunts her features, and it looks wrong to see it there, stealing the warmth and hopefulness from her eyes and mouth and face. She looks over at me to smile reassuringly, and yet the smile only makes me panic more.
"What's happening? What's going to be harder than you thought?" I fire, my heart pounding out a fast paced rhythm in my chest. It's a rhythm of names, and it goes like this:
My mother speaks, cutting into my own, personal music with a voice like blades. "Ethel, don't be worried darling. It's just..."
"Just what?" I half beg, half shout, the room spinning circles around me. I'm scared of my parents, I realise. Right now, I'm terrified, and it's my parents making me like this. My father places a hand on my shoulder, his fingers running over my visible collar bone with a horrible precision. Absentmindedly, I remember that Arianna has her collar bone pierced, and wonder if it would be a cool thing to do to my own.
It's funny, really, the train of thought. Even now, when I'm feeling woozy with worry, I can't help but be sidetracked by collar bones and cars full of ponderings. Even when my father begins speaking, in a voice like chalk, I'm still thinking back to how I didn't even know my Grandparents were visiting. Like a switch is flicked in my head, I turn my attention towards Father and his looming, snaking, curling words.
" - It's just... Ethel, dear, we love you. You need to know that. But darling... You're ill. Ethel, we think you're seriously ill," my father says solemnly, one hand covering his face. My heart shudders, and then goes into overdrive as I flood my parents with excuses and pleas of not understanding. If there's anything I expected to hear, it was anything but this. "So... You're going to go on a holiday, like I said before. It's - well, it's like a hospital, but the staff are all lovely, and the people there are just like you. We'll just take you there to get checked out, and you'll come straight back home afterwards. You'll be in a week at most. Maximum." His eyes beg me to understand things I can't even begin to fathom, while he towers above me, directing the order of my fate.
I blanch, milk pouring over my face till I'm the sallow, pale white colour that I use fake-tan to avoid. "But... I - I don't understand. I'm not ill! I'm fine. Look at me! Healthy. Completely. I'm not sick, don't worry. What's going on?" I say, blood throbbing in my ears as I speak in a breathless torrent. My mother looks at me, sighs, then edges closer on the sofa.
"It's not that kind of illness. You look -" she gestures to my body, "Thin."
I stop still, shocked into submission. "What?"
She closes her eyes slowly, willing herself to go on. She doesn't want to say it; I don't want to hear it, and yet she feels it must be said. My body seems to wilt as I hear her speak, feel the pain she must be going through to tell me this. The pain I've been putting her through, without even realising.
"Ethel," she tells me shakily. "You're not well. You're clearly not well. There's nothing wrong with being skinny, baby, but since you started at that new school you're a bit... More than skinny. Your bones stick out everywhere - you're like a walking skeleton, Ethel. A walking, talking skeleton. Oh, I know -"
I cut her off, just as she starts talking faster, finally spotting out the words she's been aching to say. "Hang on. Mum." I turn to my father. "Daddy. Please. You're... You're not seriously saying I'm anorexic or something, right?" My father begins to answer me, but I stop his words short, talking over them in a high pitched, quavering mockery of my own voice. "No way. No. Way. I'm not, like, stopping myself from eating! I don't weigh myself on the scales all the time, just to check if I'm fat! Lord, I'm not even that thin, Mum. You can't just tell me - What the hell, Mum? What the actual hell! No. No..." I hug my legs, as if squeezing myself small enough will make this entire conversation go away. As my voice tails off, a new voice inside my head resumes, nagging at me, poking holes in my refusals.
Before we moved, and I made friends with the unlikeliest of the unlikely - the popular girls - I was pretty average in stature. A little puppy fat, maybe. I wasn't thin, but I wasn't full on bloated either. Ashlin, Arianna, and Kiera are thin. Thin with a capital T - they've probably been that way their entire lives. Destined for popularity from birth. In my transmission from new-girl-freak to pretty-popular-diva, I've been on a diet (recommended by Ashlin, naturally). Have you ever seen a Prom Queen with an ounce of body fat? Exactly.
Still, a diet's a diet. It doesn't lead to anorexia: if it did, not so many girls would be on them. But then, I haven't always stuck to the diet. I've skipped meals entirely, day in day out. Not because I have anorexia or anything. I just have more... Important things to worry about. Greg, for one thing. Lysander. Homework, although I'm falling behind at the minute - looking pretty is a full time job.
It's not like I excessively exercise though. That's the only other symptom I know, and I definitely don't have it. I tell my parents this with a plastered-on, saccharine smile, my eyes glazed over with a hazy worry.
My father dismisses this with a hurried flick of his hand. "Listen to me Ethel, please!" his voice is uncharacteristically impatient, his words spoken complete with jagged edges. "You just fainted, my girl. You know one of the reasons people faint? Significant weight loss that they just. Can't. Handle. Losing enough body fat can make you hallucinate. It can screw you up in the head until you just can't cope any more." He pants, his face painted a startling red. "That isn't going to happen to you, understand? Your mother and I - and you, too - we're not going to let that happen to you." He takes a hold of my shoulders at this point, his grip firm, nails digging into my skin so hard they form half-moon craters. "You are going to be fine, Ethel." My father's voice breaks, cracking into two as he looks down at me with sad, sad eyes. "Everything is going to be okay."
For a moment, the room is a deathly quiet as when I first entered. In front of me my father shakes, controlling his uncontrollable emotions with a fist like fire, and a sorrow worse than Hell's. I breathe: in and then out, again and then again. Wondering what will happen to me? What my friends will think - what anyone at school will think - when they find out I'm going to some kind of hospital. Because of anorexia. My parents think I'm anorexic. I steady myself in much the same way as my father is steadying himself.
"So," I offer, in a voice like broken nails, "When am I going to this... Hospital, then?"
My mother presents me with a feeble smile, her own voice yearning for rest. She seems tired - oh so tired - with worry, and agony, and a fine-tuned sense of lamentation. It's me who's making her this tired, and I loathe myself for it, down to the very depths of my avaricious soul. "We should be leaving now," she replies, and it is in that moment that I feel as if I am tumbling down a deep, black hole and know that I