I was eating chicken nuggets and fries. At age four, chicken nuggets were my favorite food in the world. I ate them every day for lunch and though I would also eat other things, Mom knew I liked them best. She knew and she indulged me because I was her little girl and she figured it was a phase. And so I ate nuggets every day, with baked crinkle fries and sometimes green or purple ketchup, propped up in my booster seat on the back porch, watching the trees sway in the wind while mosquitoes and hornets tried to breach the screen's defenses. Mom was in the kitchen, washing leftover lunch dishes, and Dad sat next to me at the table, plate empty and tea glass full, scanner on and ever vigilant for trains.
They call them Foamers, these men that watch and play with trains for a hobby, and the joke goes that they foam at the mouth whenever they see these two-hundred-ton pieces of machinery. It was true for Dad – you could see his eyes light up whenever the scanner so much as blipped, and he would take off at a dead run for the back yard if he thought one of those steel beauties was headed his way.
I was munching on my nuggets and fries when his scanner began to squawk, causing Dad to sit up straighter. The scanner abruptly fell silent again and he frowned.
"What'd you say?" Mom yelled from the kitchen. I took another bite of my nugget and felt my loose baby teeth wiggle against the food. Dad rolled his eyes and sighed loudly.
"I said it figures."
Mom peered out the porch door, her faced contorted into a frown. "Yeah, what about them?"
"Well, they're never here when I am," Dad replied. "When I'm at work, I see probably eight trains a day, but when I'm home, there's nothing." Mom nodded and withdrew from the doorway, returning to the dishes.
"I don't know what to tell you, Lin."
"Yeah, of course you don't," Dad muttered just loud enough for me to hear. I said nothing and continued my culinary affair with the nuggets. Usually Mom got me regular ones because they were cheaper but these were dolphin shaped. I picked one up off the plate, pretending to make it swim through the air, before savagely biting its head off. Dad watched and smiled, but his face became hard again when he heard Mom speak.
"Maybe you should take a day off, go with Jim to Palmyra or something. See if you guys can find any trains."
"Well, you see, Dawn, I'd love to do that, but I have go to work and earn some money."
"You're not the only one with a job, Linwood," she snapped, appearing again in the doorway. "Take a day off and go. Otherwise, I'll never hear the end of your complaining."
Dad's eyes narrowed. "Now what the heck is that supposed to mean?" he asked, curbing his swearing for my sake.
"You know exactly what it means." Mom left the doorway again and I heard cupboards slam open and shut, pans and dishes rattling dangerously as she took her anger out on something less likely to defend itself. Dad chose not to answer her and sank back into his chair, every line in his face brimming with anger.
I quietly decapitated another dolphin and smeared its headless body with purple, ketchupy blood. Dad watched me as I slowly tore the nugget apart – first the dorsal fin, then the tail, before finally ingesting the rest of its body. I made a point not to look at him when he was looking at me, especially when he was mad. His face was a clear indication of everything he felt, and it scared me to see him angry.
Slowly, after a few minutes, the tension in the air relaxed and I could tell he was going back to normal. I chanced a look at his face and saw him smiling at me.
"How're those nuggets, kid?"
"Good, but I'm full."
"Aw, are you sure?"
I nodded. Dad shook his head and made a sad face.
"That's an awful shame," he said. My brow knit together.
"Well, because those nuggets know how much you like them."
"And they like you too, you know."
I smiled stupidly. "Really?"
"Yeah, but they're sad because you don't want to finish eating them."
I looked at my plate and felt my body flood with guilt.
"Yeah-huh," Dad said. "Look." He picked one of the dolphins up and made it stand on its tail, facing it towards me. "Oh, Stephanie," he said in a high-pitched voice, "why won't you finish eating me?"
I frowned sadly. "Because I'm full."
"Oh, but Stephanie," he continued in the dolphin voice, "we're so sad that you won't eat us. We love you, Stephanie, but you don't love us."
I felt my face screw up and before I knew it, I heard the rushing in my head that always preceded tears.
"Please, Stephanie, eat us," Dad said.
"Daddy, don't," I whimpered.
"Please eat us!" he continued. "We want to be in your tummy!"
All of a sudden, I burst into tears and grabbed the nugget from Dad's hand, forcing it down my throat even though I'd overeaten. Dad stared senselessly as I took a second and a third, eating them as quickly as possible, but I fell silent staring at the last one on the plate. With a shaking and unsure hand, I reached forward, grabbed the dolphin, and shoved the entire thing in my mouth, forcing myself to swallow despite the wave of nausea that hit me.
"There, was that so bad?" Dad said, settling back into his chair. I shook my head but my stomach felt terrible, like it was ready to regurgitate my entire lunch. I was quiet for a while before I heard Dad say, "Sweetie, are you okay?"
I shook my head a little, putting my small hands on my stomach. The question brought Mom back to the porch door and she came outside, checking to see if I was okay.
"Mommy, I don't feel goo-," I said weakly, but before I could finish my sentence, I felt the wave of nausea moving up my throat and I threw up all over the porch table. Dad leapt back to escape the spray while Mom came forward, putting her warm hand on my back. I started to cry again, only stopping to throw up three more times. I looked at the table and saw a sick mixture of bile, nuggets and fries, and I threw up one last time before collapsing weakly against my Mom.
"Jesus," she said, picking me up out of my seat to take me inside. I was sobbing on her shoulder, puke dappled around my mouth. "Lin, what the hell happened?"
I saw Dad's face over Mom's shoulder as she rushed me to the bathroom; his entire countenance filled with sadness and his shoulders hung loosely as sadness washed over him.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly, his voice fading away. "I was just trying to get her to eat."