The Birthday Lunch Box – by Heather Bartos

We all knew the new kid was weird. Bowl haircut, buck teeth, backpack with a logo from some church instead of Strawberry Shortcake or Star Wars. Her arms and legs were long and moon-colored, like they were already practicing being skeletons, like glow in the dark stars on a bedroom ceiling.

At recess she stood alone, talking to herself. Although her clothes were clean, she smelled like cigarette smoke and ketchup and pee. The only thing she had going for her was that she wasn’t fat.

“Am I fat?” I asked Bethany.

“No,” she said. “You’re average. Not skinny and not fat.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. We watched the new kid. She studied the squares marked out for hopscotch. She did it wrong. We were not surprised.

“Hey, let me show you,” I said. I hopped through it quickly, alternating between one foot and two. “See?”

She stared back and didn’t say anything.

“Want me to do it again?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I do it the way I want to.”

Bethany tugged at my arm. “Let’s go,” she said. As she led me away she said, “I think something’s wrong with her.”

Back in the classroom, Mrs. Hart had put up a balloon on the bulletin board for the new kid’s birthday. It was the same day as mine, June 21, after the end of school, which meant that you didn’t get to wear the crown, or have your mom bring cupcakes. It was pretty much like not having a birthday at all. We were the only two summer birthdays in the second grade.

I had the only purple balloon until Lana came.

“Your birthday is the same day as Lana’s,” Mrs. Hart told me, as if she didn’t know I could read just fine.

“Yes,” I said. “That is patently obvious.”

Mrs. Hart laughed.

Other things we noticed about Lana:

She had yellow rain galoshes with the fronts painted to look like ducks, but she wouldn’t put them on. She wore sandals every day, even the day after we had snow. The galoshes sat in her cubby, and Brian poured some of his lunch milk into them and they got moldy and stank, as my grandma would say, to high heaven.

She already knew how to read, much better than Bethany or Brian or Alana, but she refused to most of the time. My mom came once a week to volunteer, and she was the only person that Lana would read for. If Mrs. Hart asked her, she scrunched her mouth up in a tight little zipper.

“Maybe she likes your mom?” Bethany asked.

I liked my mom. I liked her shiny long hair and her soft lap, and how she wore perfume and lipstick. Lana could go like someone else’s mom.

Lana had school lunch every day. She never had a snack. Bethany and I sat down and across from her, where we could watch but not smell her. She didn’t talk to anyone. She shoved pieces of sandwich into her milk carton. She twisted her straw into pointed, jagged shapes.

I had cupcakes, the storebought chocolate kind with white icing that looped across the top, with whipped cream in the middle. Bethany had a Twinkie. My lunch box was Star Wars and Bethany’s was Strawberry Shortcake. Bethany’s mom also put in baby carrots and trail mix, but Bethany only ate the Twinkie.

One day we had to draw our homes. I drew our house, our picket fence and the bay window where my cat waited for me. I drew our willow with the tire swing, and the patch of sweet alyssum we grew from seeds.

Lana didn’t draw anything, not even when Mrs. Hart offered her colored pencils instead of crayons, not even when my mom patted her on the shoulder. When I passed Lana on the way to second recess, I could smell my mom’s perfume. It didn’t hide the stink, but glazed the top of it, like oil on a puddle.

Lana took the big red ball every day at recess, every recess. It wasn’t fair but Mrs. Hart let her have it. She pounded it into the wall, again and again, over and over. If one of the kids asked her to share, she took it and ran without even answering them.

That year, Mrs. Hart decided to have a classroom party for kids with summer birthdays on the second to last day of school.

“Do you want to have a party at home too?” my mom asked. We were snuggled up together on the couch under the quilt. I had a big stack of new library books.

“Can Bethany come?” I asked. Bethany told me I had better cut out the cupcakes at lunch if I didn’t want to get fat. She sucked in her stomach and pulled up her shirt to see if she made herself skinnier. She still ate her Twinkie, though.

“Am I fat, Mom?” I asked.

My mom smoothed my hair.

“No, baby,” she said. “You’re not fat. What about Lana? Do you think you would want her to come, too?”

I shifted on the couch. “Do I have to?”

“You share the same birthday,” my mom said.

My vision got all blurry and my mouth got salty, like I was going to throw up.

“Do you…do you like Lana better than me?” I asked. “Why do you spend so much time with her?” I burrowed into my mom’s shoulder and smelled her perfume.

“Oh, honey,” she said. “Oh, no. You are my daughter, forever and ever. Lana doesn’t have what you have, that’s all. She needs more.”

“Needs more what?” I asked.

“Everything,” my mom said. “Besides, you don’t want me to be rude to the other kids, do you?”

“No,” I said. “But you have to like me best, okay? Or you can’t come.”

She laughed, a beautiful tinkling sound, wind chimes or a waterfall.

“If you promise to love me best, Lana can come to my birthday party,” I said.

The next day there were two cupcakes in my lunch box, wrapped in shiny foil. The rest of the lunch—juice, boring sandwich on wheat, and grapes—was unremarkable.

“She must have been in a hurry,” I told Bethany. “My mom never gives me two.”

“I wouldn’t eat both,” Bethany said. “Those things are loaded with fat and sugar.” She poked at her Twinkie.

I looked down at Lana. She was scowling at her lunch, pulling strips off her garlic bread. And I knew my mom had not made a mistake.

I took out both cupcakes and snapped my lunch box shut. I took a bite. When I was done, I dumped the other, unopened one in the trash. She was watching when I did it.

Afterwards, at home, I cried. I tried reading to take it away, but the words were too hard to see.

On the day of the class birthday party, we both stood up when the class sang “Happy Birthday”, but they got confused as to which name to use. There was only one birthday crown, so Lana got to wear it first, and then something happened, and it got wet, so I didn’t get to wear it at all. Mrs. Hart said we didn’t have time to make another one. There would be another one next year in third grade, maybe.

At lunch Bethany pointed at Lana. “Look.”

Lana didn’t have a school lunch. Lana had a lunch box. It looked like a normal kid lunch box, with bright cartoon colors on it. It could have belonged to any of us.

She opened it up. Inside was a cupcake like the ones I brought every day, and a thermos, and an apple.

When my mom showed up after lunch, Lana gave her the smallest hug, smaller than a handshake or even a high five, and whispered thank you. I couldn’t hear her, but I could see the shape of her words.

The last day was a crazy scramble of yelling and candy and an assembly where the older kids with big butts got awards for keeping their desks clean and learning their multiplication tables.

“All the older kids get big butts,” whispered Bethany.

We looked at them, horrified and also fascinated. That was growing up on the outside, big butted and bumpy skinned, but even that was easier than the kind of growing up that happened on the inside, which was even worse from the little we knew of it.

At snack time, Mrs. Hart called us all over to the table.

“We have some announcements,” she said, and I noticed her eyes were shinier than normal. “This will be Lana’s last day. She’s moving.”

Nobody said anything. I wonder now what that was like for Mrs. Hart, to watch a movie every day that would have no happy ending. Lana never made any friends. None of us would miss her.

Next to Lana was her lunch box. She opened it. It was empty. She closed it and opened it again. She closed her eyes.

“I brought a special treat today,” said Mrs. Hart, pouring tiny bear-shaped cookies into little paper cups. Brian grabbed his and knocked her arm. The rest of the teddy cookies spilled onto the rug. The whole class gasped. Mrs. Hart shook the empty carton, shaking her head.

“Five second rule,” said Brian. “We can still eat them.”

Mrs. Hart said, “No, we can’t.” Her eyes looked shiny again as she picked them up and a few of the kids helped her. “Thank you, Shannon. Thanks, David.”

The rest of us took out our snacks and Mrs. Hart retrieved the miniature milk cartons from the crate. Lana sat with her lunch box, not moving.

Next to me, Bethany said, “Here, Lana. You can have my Twinkie if you want.”

“That’s very nice of you, Bethany,” said Mrs. Hart.

She just doesn’t want to get fat, I thought.

Lana shook her head.

I opened my own lunchbox. There were two cupcakes again, and some carrot sticks and crackers. The cupcake was heavy. It felt like it weighed a million pounds.

“Do you want my cupcake?” I asked.

Lana’s lips parted and I could see her yellowing buck teeth. She nodded.

I held it out to her as if it was contagious. She took it as if it was a note passed between friends, fast and with a sideways glance to see if anyone saw.

Lana didn’t come to my birthday party. Bethany came, and so did Sadie and Erica. We smashed a pinata. We ate cake and potato chips and drank punch. We played stuffed animals and Bethany’s was on a diet. It couldn’t eat any of the pretend pizza.

Later, my parents took me for pancakes for dinner and I got to make a mask out of the kid’s menu. My mom let me wear lipstick to the restaurant.

And when she tucked me into bed, I asked why she gave the lunchbox to Lana. I wanted her to know I knew, that I was watching so that her love didn’t get bigger than it should.

“The school lunch was free,” said my mom. “She wanted to bring her own food from home.”

“But she didn’t bring any,” I said.

My mom didn’t answer.

“She couldn’t draw a picture of home,” I said.

My mom nodded.

“I threw away the extra cupcake the first time,” I said.

She kissed my forehead. “You’re learning, sweetheart.” She switched off the light, but my night light still glowed. “Happy birthday. I love you.”

“The best of all?” I asked.

It was almost dark, so I couldn’t see very well. Did she roll her eyes? Shake her head?

She laughed. “The best of all,” she said.

Heather Bartos writes both fiction and nonfiction. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Fatal Flaw, McNeese Review, HerStry, Baltimore Review, Relief: A Journal of Art and Faith, and elsewhere. She is pursuing an online MFA in Creative Writing, focusing on fiction, through the University of New Orleans. She lives with her family near Portland, Oregon.