Author's note: This story has been pulled to publish and can be purchased in its entirety on Amazon.

I've posted the revised version of chapter one here as a sample. :)

Chapter One



The man in the cell was called Itachi Watanabe. In Japanese, Itachi meant weasel. He looked like one. Greasy hair. Pinched, rodent-like features. Slanted black eyes constantly shifting, never meeting one's gaze. On the security monitor he paced like a caged animal, pausing periodically, restlessly, to stare in the direction of the camera with a pleading expression.

I'd read his file. He'd built up quite a thick one over the years. He was a Japanese programer, thirty-eight-years-old. Attended school in MIT, as an international student, until he was kicked out for hacking into the administrative system and changing the grades of his ex-girlfriend and her new lover. A series of similar transgressions resulted, from various insults both actual and imaginary, causing his subsequent firings at various technological institutes. Following his expulsion from Apple for leaking corporate information to competitors — for a price — his public career went under and he disappeared underground like the rat he was, where he continued to hone his skills. Antisocial, but highly intelligent. Insecure and possibly schizophrenic. They say that genius is closely linked with insanity. Allegedly, Watanabe could hack into even the most sophisticated of firewalls. Including ours.

It had been a silent entry. A silent escape. If he had kept his mouth shut, he might have even managed to remain undetected. Watanabe had made a fatal error: he'd bought a round of sake bombs at a sushi bar in San Francisco and then, hungry for praise, made drunken boasts to his new-found companions. One of those companions had been an ex-client of ours. Out of a duty-bound sense of honor, he made an anonymous call from a local payphone. My men came for Watanabe that night.

I stared at the pathetic man on the screen, at the mess he had been reduced to over the last twenty-four hours. I'd seen men lose their backbone before, in his position, but Watanabe had nothing to lose; he was spineless. The computer was both his shield and his sword — and it had also been his downfall.

Yesterday morning a handful of computers in L7 had crashed, all of them part of the same network. One of the technicians immediately discovered the cause: a computer virus in an e-mail, opened and released by one of our employees. The infected computer transmitted the virus to every linked computer, rendering the entire network unusable. Pandora, the e-mail read, She's a curious girl. There hadn't been a sender. L7 was chiefly responsible for the archival of our weapons database. The network that had been targeted by the virus cataloged the imports that had transpired between 2000 and 2009. The items and their prices were encrypted, but Watanabe managed to crack some of the code.

Our IT people had checked out his home computer, which he had been stupid enough to use. In addition to a couple megabytes of porn stashed on various flash drives, they found several of his current hacking projects, including the encrypted import logs he'd been deciphering using pirated software called Skeleton Key that worked by implementing several thousand different decrypting algorithms a minute until one that fit the code was found. Before wiping his computer clean with a high power magnet, they had managed to determine that the e-mail had been sent from his e-mail account but not from his computer. And, since he hadn't installed a time-release, that meant somebody had helped him.

I was going to find out who.

On the monitor his lips were moving as he spoke with a wild-eyed desperation that implied he was ready to talk. Or just begging again. The video had no audio; I couldn't be entirely sure. He might be a nut. I swung around in my chair to face the hovering technician. "What's he saying?"

"I'm not quite sure. From what I've been told, he's been babbling for a while."

"Coherently?" I wanted to know what I'd be working with, whether he'd be delusional.

The technician shrugged. "I don't know. I manage the audio-visuals. Probably as coherent as can be expected given his current situation. One of the psychologists evaluated him earlier, I think. He's terrified, but sane."

Good. "Give me the computer read-outs. I'll speak with him."

"Last guy didn't have much luck," he warned me as he handed me the papers. They were still warm from the copier.

"Who was the last guy?"

"Ricky Morelli."

Ricky Morelli was a thug, with inside connections to the Italian mafia. His sister was married to one of the dons. They were old friends. Went way back. Morelli had helped the don dispose of some evidence implicating him in a major drug bust. The don was grateful, so grateful that he had made some debt collectors mysteriously vanish, and introduced him to my boss — yet another friend who had been kind enough to help him in his time of need and just so happened to be searching for another operative.

I love happy endings.

Morelli did not like me. I had the habit of making him look like an idiot; something that wasn't difficult to do. I was pretty sure he'd tried to have me killed — I hadn't stopped to chat with the hired goons that had tried to shoot me after one such humiliation. The bullets they fired spoke for themselves. Subtlety isn't Ricky's style, nor mine. I left the spent bullets on his desk along with a condolence card that said, "I'm sorry for your loss…" He never said anything about the card, but it was gone the next day. So were the bullets. He focused on his other competitor instead — Adrian Callaghan — which was like abandoning a fight with a mean dog for an even meaner dog with a taste for human flesh: further proof he wasn't the brightest bulb in the box. Callaghan was amused and all too eager to play along. Morelli was hoisted by his own petard; how could he get Adrian to back off? The solution became clear when a notebook filled with dirt on Callaghan, and his ties to the IRA, magically appeared in his locker. Their power play ended in stalemate, and Callaghan searched elsewhere for victims.

I like to think that Morelli and I have reached an understanding.

Shaking those thoughts off, I grabbed the papers. "I don't need luck."

I took the elevator down to B1. Unlike the upper-level rooms, which were virtually indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill office cubicles, these underground rooms had steel doors with key cards. I swiped mine through the requisite slots and entered Watanabe's cell. Except for a wooden table, a chair, and a cot, it was empty. A strong, pungent smell hung in the air. From the way he avoided my eyes, I knew the man had soiled his pants.

I set his file down on the table and rolled up my shirtsleeves. The smell was foul, but I'd been through worse. "Sit down."

After a wild look around the room, he plunked himself down in the chair. I pulled the computer printouts from my coat and set these down, too, ignoring him for the moment. One was from the IMA database — it showed the page he had accessed, staying up half the night to decrypt like a kid with a fucking decoder ring. The second printout was a copy of the infected email. When I looked up his eyes were locked on the pages, his face pale.

Schooling my own expression, I held up the first printout. "Look familiar?"

He stared bleakly at the page for several seconds before shaking his head no.

I had anticipated the lie but it still pissed me off. My interaction with the inept technician and the burden of Callaghan and Morelli had eaten up what patience I had; I didn't like playing second fiddle, or cleaning up after others' messes. Before Watanabe could get any further denials in, I shoved the desk forward, knocking him out of his chair. With a cry of alarm, he landed in a graceless sprawl on the floor. "Do you consider yourself an honorable man?"

"I…" He trembled like a leaf. "…why — what do you…?"

"You're protecting someone." Watanabe opened his mouth. "Don't lie to me. I know you're protecting someone. Hackers rarely work alone, as I'm sure you're aware. Do you honestly believe you are the first to have attempted to gain entry through our firewall?"


"So you're not a complete fool."

Color rose in his face. "I do believe that I am the first to succeed," he muttered.

"Then you should be more cognizant of the level of trouble you are in." I knelt down. "Would you put a price on honor? How much is your allegiance worth — your life, perhaps? The life of your…associate?"

I saw the gears turn in his head as he began to understand. The blotches of red in his cheeks receded, as though sucked into a vacuum, rendering his face even paler than before. "Honor is worth more than blood money."

"No, I'm afraid honor is worthless. Honor won't save you now, and whatever pathetic comfort you derive from it will do little to ease the pain I am about to inflict on you. Maybe you fear your associate will retaliate. Maybe you think he can save you. He can't." I paused. "Do you know what we do to liars here?"

He swallowed with visible effort. "No."

"In the next room there is a man waiting to show you. The prisoners at our internment camp call him el tiburón — the shark — because they say the scent of blood excites him. He takes great pride in what he does" — I paused again, indicating a small, hand-held radio — "do you want me to call him?"

No response.


He managed to raise himself to a slumped, seated position on the floor. "No…"

"Then I'll ask you one more time. Do you recognize this? Does it look familiar?"

He nodded wearily. "It's the code."

"The code to what?"

"I don't know. I'm not sure." He stared at the paper, as if willing the encryption to reveal itself before his hungry, desperate eyes. "I swear."

I shuffled the papers, revealing the second printout of the e-mail. "And this one?" He frowned, leaning closer. I held the paper just out of reach. I didn't think he was foolish enough to make a lunge for it, not with me armed, although he was spry enough — and desperate enough — to do so, but there was no need to tempt him. I let him take a good look before prompting him, "Yes or no?"

He started to speak, then closed his mouth and shook his head. "No."

I pressed the button.

His eyes shot open so wide I could make out the yellowed whites of his sclera under the track lighting. "Wait! What are you doing? I am telling the truth!"

"You have lied to me twice already. I will not be lied to again." To the radio, I said, "Get Callaghan on the line — "

"No!"Watanabe made a wild lunge for the radio from across the table. I kicked him in the diaphragm. He hit the ground like a sack of cement and started sobbing. "Please — "

"Subject is being uncooperative."

"No," he wheezed, "I'll talk. I swear — "

"You'll lie."

"No! I'll tell you anything you want to know. Anything!"

I held my thumb off the button. "You have a minute. Starting now."

"But — "

"Fifty-three seconds. Do not argue with me."

For a moment he looked like he was intent on doing exactly that. He wet his lips, then spoke in a rapid burst, "Okay. I — I might have come across something similar to this once, a few years ago — though I swear I've never seen that one before!"

"This?" I brandished the second printout.

He flinched. "Not exactly. But they're similar, ah — the other e-mail I saw also made references to Greek mythology, and it also contained a virus."

"I never said it contained a virus."

"It's obvious. There is no sender, and just the way it's laid out…" He shook his head, not repentantly but in admiration. "It's quite intricately done. The message provokes curiosity. If the user acts upon their curiosity, it becomes their own undoing; it's a clever homage to the myth of Pandora. There's so many layers to study and analyze — " slowly, unconsciously, he reached out toward the paper

"That's enough." I folded it away. "Tell me about the other e-mail."

He drew his hand back as though he'd been bitten. "I-it was about Hephaestus. The god of technology. I don't remember much more than that. It lacked the same level of sophistication, but there was a similar trap, also based on myth. I-I remember it contained a form of malware — called Alloy, I believe. At first it seemed to improve the computer's performance speed, but at the same time it was infecting other, less frequently used, files." He paused, scratching at the inside of his wrist. I could see the reddish imprint of rope bindings. "I believe it was supposed to be an allegory to the arsenic added to copper to smelt bronze. It seemed like a cheaper substitute at the time but caused serious health risks from repeat exposure to those who used it."

"Who is he? Where does he live?"

"I don't know. It was…speculation."

"You seemed pretty sure a moment ago," I growled.

"He's from America. I think he's from the west coast. He doesn't quite have the right...mentality for a southerner, or someone on the east coast. And the weather — what he mentioned of it — fits the description of Oregon, northern California, or southern areas of Washington. Temperate. Damp. I notice these things. I like to know who I deal with." Watanabe paused, thinking hard. "If he is who I believe he is, he goes by Hephaestus. It's a pseudonym."

"Where does he live?"

He blanched, wary again. "I-I don't know his address. We were never close, only acquaintances. Distant ones. But we moved in the same circles. I respected his work. We chatted, on occasion. Shop-talk mostly, or chit-chat, like the weather or — or our…" His face scrunched up. "I can give you his name. His real one. At least" — he frowned — "I think it is. I was surprised he introduced himself…so forthrightly. I gave him a fake name. In hindsight, it seems likely that his was fake, as well."

"I'm losing patience." I stepped toward him. "The name."

"Parker. Rubens Parker."

As the doors whooshed closed behind me, I pressed the button on the radio once more. "Get Mr. Watanabe some water. If he remembers anything else, inform me at once." I waited until the woman on the other side of the line assented before shutting off the device for good. When he discovered that no food accompanied the drink, he might have another bout of hypermnesia.

I'd managed to get through to a difficult subject, establishing my reputation as a great field operative and investigative agent. I was feeling pretty satisfied, cocky even, until a familiar voice stopped me dead in my tracks. "All work and no play makes Michael Boutilier a dull boy. Just where do you think you're going, hmm?"

Adrian Callaghan was one of the few men I had to look up at — 6'7" at his last physical. He was also a sadist, a sociopath, and our chief interrogator. And he reported to me: a fact I had to remind him of constantly.

Like now.

"What do you want? I didn't think you had clearance for this sector."

Callaghan smiled, revealing slightly crooked teeth. He came to this country too late to lose his both his accent, and his overbite. The violence he'd wreaked in his home country against the English had earned him a death sentence, making him an expatriate at eighteen. I knew far more than I liked about Adrian Callaghan and his personal life. Like Morelli and his don, we went way back — but our relationship was far from friendly. I'm pretty sure he knew who had revealed his shady origins, and he had never quite forgiven me for breaking his nose.

"You called me."

"I no longer have need of your services. You're dismissed."

I resumed walking. He followed. "The weasel decided to talk then?"


"How disappointing. Oh, well. I prefer them stubborn, anyway." At my silence, he continued, "It's a bit like a game. You played Battleship when you were a lad, right? Choosing random spots, never knowing when — or what — you're going to hit. Guessing their weakness is like getting that hit, Michael; in that instant, you own them. And they know it."

The holding cells were separated from the main building by a steel-doored elevator with an access panel: a kind of fail-safe should a prisoner manage to do the impossible and escape from his or her cell. I punched in the code and could not hide my annoyance when Callaghan tagged along. "Don't you have something you need to do?"

He lifted an eyebrow. "No use trying to get rid of me. I'm your backup in this assignment. Your business is my business, Michael, my boy."

What?The doors parted with a hiss of air. I stormed out of the elevator.

"Why the hurry?" he mocked, keeping pace with my brisk stride. "Did Richardson forget to tell you?"

Goddammit. This was beginning to seem an awful lot like punishment: the last couple of cases I'd had were complete rot. Traitors. Petty thieves. Cases nobody else wanted, which gathered dust in the filing room until Richardson could find an appropriate stooge to do the field work. But maybe it wasn't the personal attack I was taking it as. Maybe Richardson hoped that we would monitor each other more closely than two more amiable colleagues.

And maybe pigs would also grow wings and perform aerial fucking cartwheels.

"Hennessy," I snapped. "Get me everything you can on Rubens Parker."

She looked at my face, then at Callaghan, nodded, and raced out of the room.

"Parker, hmm?" Callaghan mused, watching her leave. "Anyone I know?"

"Doubtful." I did a double-take. "Wait. Didn't Richardson debrief you?"

"Maybe." He grinned, pleased that he'd caught me off-guard. "However, a second opinion never hurts."

Bullshit. He just wanted to annoy me. "He's the hacker that caused the network to crash if Watanabe isn't lying."

"You mean you aren't sure? If I'd had my way, there would be no uncertainty."

"You would have destroyed him. Richardson wants to keep him. He may be a blubbering imbecile," I added, "But he's useful behind the keyboard. I can see why a waste like him might be considered valuable enough to keep alive…for the moment."

Callaghan shook his head — but didn't argue; we both knew I was right.

The mousy woman returned a few minutes later with a sheet of paper. "Here," she said breathlessly. "Everything I could find about Rubens Parker. As you asked."

"Thanks." A glossy eight-by-ten color photograph topped the stack. My target was the middle-aged man. His wife and daughter sat on either side of him like bookends. The wife appeared Filipino — or maybe Latino. So did the daughter. Hard to tell. I wasn't sure if this would be relevant or not, but I filed it away just the same.

Rubens Parker. I was sure he'd do anything I'd asked him to.

The wife, on the other hand, could be a problem. There was a fierceness in her expression, drawn in the lines around her cheeks and eyes. I'd have to find a way to get her out of the picture so she couldn't influence her husband.

Callaghan craned his neck to look over. "Oh look, fun for the entire family. And they've got a kid." He smiled. "I love kids."

I gave him a sharp look. "You stay out of this. You're backup."

"Yes. I'll be right in back of you. Watching your every move." The smile hardened. "Oh, I know about your understanding with Ricky Morelli and the others. Don't you know, Michael, that everyone is just as afraid of you as they are of me? They're glad to help you now, but if you fall…" His voice dropped to a whisper, "Unlike you, all they say about me is true. Deep down, you're soft…weak…and so very inferior to me."

"I'm your superior officer, Callaghan," I snapped. "This is insubordination."

"Would you kill her?" Callaghan asked, running his finger down the image of the girl. "She ispretty, isn't she? And so young. Could you kill her for no reason, other than getting in your way? Could you hurt her? Could you do it with your own two hands? You might. But you would hesitate. And that, Michael, is the underlying difference between us. Because I wouldn't."

"Get out."

"I wouldn't," he repeated. His mouth smiled but his eyes remained dead. Callaghan lied about many things but this wasn't one of them. "Don't get into pissing contests you can't win, Michael Boutilier. Especially not with me."

"Get outand let me do the job that Iwas asked to do."

He clapped me on the shoulder. "Well. Don't screw up, then." For one brief instant, as his arm drew away, his hand closed around the back of my throat and squeezed — not hard enough to cause any pain, but there was power behind it. I whirled around, my hand on the butt of my gun, just in time to see his shirttails disappear around the corner.



In pop science, there's this phenomenon called the butterfly effect. You know, that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. Well, on the day that my life changed — forever — it all started with me not doing my Spanish homework.

It was stupid, careless — completely unlikeme, in other words — not to have finished it the night before. I was responsible. On top of things. The kind of child parents were referring to when they told their own offspring, "You should be more like so-and-so." I spoke Spanish fluently. It would have taken all of ten minutes.

But I hadn't done it.

I looked down at the text that had woken me up. It was from Renee. The message remained the same, taunting me: What did you get for number six on the Spanish homework?

Had the instructor even mentioned homework? He had spent the entire class period on Friday blathering on about the subjunctive and its uses. I remembered that much because I had been staring out the window at the empty soccer field, bored to tears, wishing futbol was in season because at least that would have given me something to focus on.

Havent done it yet. Maybe l8er.

The response was quick. What? You? Not doing your homework?

Please. If I was a good student, I wouldn't have teachers breathing down my neck, waiting for me to make a mistake. I was just…predictable.

Maybe too predictable.

I stared at the window and sighed. The icy light glazed the windows like a thin layer of frost, casting my room in a pale blue glow that turned the walls the most delicate shade of lavender. My room always looked best in the early mornings because the walls were baby pink — a color whose true hideousness was best revealed, like that of most horrors, in broad daylight.

I tried to complain about this, but most of my friends were unsympathetic; they couldn't understand why I was making a big deal over something as unimportant as the color of my walls. Sometimes, if they were feeling petty enough, they called me spoiled. My friends didn't get that it wasn't about the walls, not entirely. It was about what they represented — and that was my mother's determination to have control over every conceivable facet of my life. I called it myroom, but that was just a formality. It was really my mother's room.

Oh, there were traces of my presence if you knew where to look. The books were mine — Don Quixote (in English), the Oz books, a signed collection of Julia Alvarez (in Spanish), The Phantom Tollbooth, and Harry Potter — as were the baseball pennants, and the collection of plush owls on the window seat. If you were really determined, you might find my trading card collection (hidden underneath my bed in three thick binders), some programming manuals (stolen from my father), my grandfather's chess set (missing a rook), and a couple of old game consoles from when I was a kid. My tomboy proclivities were otherwise banished from the household, as if my mother believed she could eradicate them by sweeping them beneath the pink rug. It wasn't my room she was trying to change. It was me.

I dressed quickly, avoiding the mirror. I'd pigged out on a bag of open chips someone had left on the counter last night and I could still feel the fat clinging to my thighs. I didn't want to see the evidence, as well. I hid the bag in my room because I was pretty sure that my mother snooped in the rubbish bin to spy on what I ate.

"Happy thoughts," I muttered, grabbing my bag from my desk chair. It was a pretentious thing — the chair, I mean, not the bag; an early twentieth century dining chair that had been reupholstered and repainted. It was so uncomfortable, I kind of suspected that it wasn't meant to be sat on. In that sense, the Victorians and my mother had a lot in common: they both believed that furniture, as well as women, were better suited for display purposes only.

This was how deeply my mother had insinuated herself into my life. Like a serpent, her venomous criticism lingered long after she had departed. The bible says to honor thy mother and father but how many times can you turn the other cheek before you start feeling like a patsy? Why isn't it important to honor thy children, as well?

I found Mom in the kitchen. Her long black hair was pulled into her loose, trademarked chignon, secured with a jeweled clip. She was wearing a Chinese dress, real brocade, that made her skin glow. Wispy strands of hair fell into her face as she looked up from the sink, fixing on me the coal-black eyes that had made her the darling of the Dominican Republic in the 1970s, and my father fall madly in love with her.

With a surge of irritation, I resisted the urge to check my own hair. I wondered why she was so dressed up. Sometimes I suspected she did it to make me feel bad. "You're doing the dishes?"

"Rosalind is sick today."

Rosa was the maid. The only reason my mother knew her name was because she had to write the checks out every month. "You know she doesn't like being called that."

"Don't speak to me in that tone of voice, Christina Maria."

I backed down and said, "But it's true, mamá. It bothers her. It's what her ex-husband calls her." My voice sounded whiny to my own ears; I couldn't imagine what my mother made of it.

She sighed. "What have I told you about talking to the maid, Christina? It's fine to be polite, if you must, but she's a bit coarse. I don't want her influencing you. And besides, you know perfectly well how much I abhor nicknames. Not only are they gauche, they trivialize your God-given name. Rosa is very cheap-sounding, don't you think?"

"No." I knew a girl at school named Rosa. Her father owned a vineyard.

"Imagine," my mother said, with a grimace, "If we called you Chris."

I glared at her, opening the fridge. Why was she dragging me into this? "There are plenty of girls called Chris."

"And they are also probably lesbians, darling, which I am sure you do not want to be." The condescending smile slipped. "You're going to school in that, Christina?"

That was leggings, a blue knit dress, and flats I had bought on sale from Target for ten dollars. It was cold, so I'd put on a crocheted cap, which I'd secured in place with a couple of discreet bobby-pins. I thought it'd looked fine the other night when I'd laid it out. Standing here, in the pale, washed-out light of the kitchen, though, she made me feel hideous.

I set down the grapefruit I'd picked up. "There's no school on Fridays," I said. "I don't understand. This outfit was in a fashion spread in one of my magazines."

Annoyance flickered over her features at the comparison. When mamá was my age, she had been a model — good enough for the Dominican equivalent of Seventeen Magazine. Sometimes higher-end stores at the malls would hire her, too, for the glossy advertisements of their spring and fall sales. Now she was retired and designed clothes. We had the same eyes, the same cupid's bow mouth, the same dark hair. I was tall, too, and of swarthy complexion — just like her.

Strangers always said we looked alike but they were just being polite because that was were the similarities ended. Even in her forties, my mother was still far slimmer than I would ever be. She took my size — 5'11", 16 in juniors — as my personal attempt to spite her through self-destructive behavior, for the same reasons that other girls my age pierced their tongues, consumed alcohol, and dated men like tattooed Swiss Army knives. "If you lost that weight, you could be a model," she was always telling me. "You were so precious when you were younger. People were always telling me you looked like a porcelain doll. I called you my muñequita." Then she would sigh and shake her head. "When I was your age, I was a size four. Four, darling. And I was considered one of the heavier girls." She launched into this now.

I waited for the spiel to end, knowing that arguing would make things worse. I think she was mad at me because one of her friends had recently remarked that it was "a pity your daughter won't be able to wear your creations" with the same sort of sneering self-satisfaction women half her age had. The Lord also says love thy neighbor…but Mrs. Thompson lived all the way across town, so I didn't consider her my neighbor and felt free to loathe her at will. I couldn't imagine what my mother saw in her, or why she valued her opinion, but she did, and I was suffering all the more for it. When mamáfinished bemoaning the embarrassment of my appearance, I said, "Why don't you just make your clothes bigger?"

This annoyed her, as I knew it would. "Because this is fashion. And with big models, you don't get to see the draping of the clothing to its full potential. All you see is the girl."

"Adopt a mannequin, then," I said icily.

"That's not the point. The point is, you've been gaining weight. Haven't you?"

I flushed. "No!"

"What have you been eating?" Her tone managed to achieve the perfect balance of sympathy, criticism, and moral superiority. In other words, she sounded like a preacher, which wasn't too far from the truth. My mother's religion was thinness; it was her false idol, her golden calf — and she was determined to convert me.

"What I eat is none of your business." I could feel the heat creeping down my neck and knew I looked like the very portrait of guilt. I wondered if she had noticed the empty bag of Doritos beneath my bed, with the bright red foil that was almost as incriminating as the blush staining my cheeks. The thought of her snooping around my room made me even angrier.

"Of course it's my business," her accent thickened, "I am your mother."

"Legally, I'm an adult. I can do whatever I want."

She let out her breath, all at once. It smudged her lipstick — something else for her to hold against me. "I just want you to be healthy. Is that such a terrible thing for a mother to want?"

What a joke, coming from a woman who worked for the fashion industry. Really. Starving yourself to fit into a size zero — why did that size even exist? Zero referred to the absence of something, but what did it mean in terms of a model's measurements? Her fat? Or her presence? How much could you cut away before the person herself vanished? It was hypocritical, that's what it was. I said as much, adding, "If you're so keen on me being healthy then you should have no problem accepting me for the way I am. That's what's healthy, Mom. Not being focused on all this freaky weight-loss stuff."

"What do you want from me?" she demanded. "Permission to be as fat as you want? Fine. You have my permission" — with a dismissive wave, like Marie Antoinette asking the common people why they didn't just eat cake if they were out of bread — "Eat, then. Eat nothing but pizza and ice cream the whole time your father and I are gone this weekend. Will that make you happy, puerquita?"

Tears burned in my eyes. I picked up my bag and left the room before she could utter another scathing remark and before she could see me cry. Just before I slammed the door shut, hard enough to rattle the windows in their panes, I screamed, "I hate you!"

Mr. Next-door startled from watering his lawn and stared at me with an alarmed expression before retreating inside. A couple of dogs barked and howled back at the echo of my shout. I was humiliated. God, I hated this. I really did. Fighting with her. Each meal. Every day. It made me so sick, I wasn't even hungry anymore — so in that sense, I guess she won.