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art by Ron Sanders

Measures and Countermeasures

Beth Cato's debut steampunk novel Clockwork Dagger will be released by HarperCollins Voyager in September 2014. She's originally from Hanford, California, but now resides in Arizona with her husband and son. Her short fiction, poetry, and tasty cookie recipes can be found at bethcato.com.

This is her fifth publication in Daily Science Fiction.

The other girls at camp had warned Colleen about what to look for, how her family would try to save her when she came home. Sure enough, through the fluff of the bedside rug, her toe traced hardness the size of an old credit card. A remote weight sensor.
Hot anger seared through her chest. She hadn't even been home for two hours. She hadn't had a chance to betray Mom's trust, to break that stupid promise the camp made her sign before leaving: "Weight has nothing to do with beauty. I promise to be healthy, and in my health, be beautiful."
When Colleen was little, she used to say she'd be an actress when she grew up. She put on the best performance of her life as she signed that paper--real pulp paper--and thanked all the doctors and cabin moms. With every step, she had felt her thighs rub, and she shivered in revulsion.
The clatter of dishes carried through the walls along with Mom's wavering singing voice. Colleen grimaced. Mom said she'd had anorexia as a teenager, too, that she knew how it was. Bull crap. Mom didn't know--she couldn't know. She'd weighed about 180 as long as Colleen could remember, and never made any attempt to exercise or look better. Like she was happy or something.
180. Colleen weighed half that when she arrived at camp.
She looked around the room and wondered what else was hidden there. Cameras? A music player that'd recite affirmations during the night? Chemical scanners in the toilet, to make sure she wasn't bulimic as well? Mom thought she was so smart, but Colleen already had a plan.
The contents of her suitcase scattered around the room like the aftermath of a tornado. She dug in a pouch and found her contact cases. The blue case held a prescription for her sight. The white one, she'd bought from another girl. For the money, Colleen had straight up thieved from a tip jar during one of the campers' outings into town. Thinking of it made her empty stomach twitch. Once she picked up a new part-time job, she'd mail that coffee shop a wad of cash.
"Colleen!" Mom's voice pierced the wall. "Supper!"
Colleen dashed to her dresser to switch out contacts. Everything was blurrier with the new contacts in; she'd need to be careful not to trip or try to read at a distance.
She headed towards the door and at the last second remembered the relay. She found the dime-sized disc in her pouch and tucked it deep inside a pocket. The contacts wouldn't be any good without accessible data.
Candles illuminated the dining room. Seriously? Was this supposed to be romantic or something?
"Hi, kiddo." Mom carried in a steaming platter. It had that particular nutty smell of health food. In the dim light, Colleen squinted to see what it was--quinoa, mixed with bits of broccoli.
Through the contacts, sharp white numbers flared into existence over the platter--estimated nutritional values broken down by calories, fat, the whole bit. Colleen bit her lip to conceal a grin. It worked! The data chip was supposed to carry a million food visuals to cross-reference with reality. It was the same tech the government used to scan for criminals in public places. Sure, the accuracy might be off-kilter sometimes, but this would grant her a necessary edge.
"I have salmon--baked, of course--and rolls." Mom set down more dishes and motioned to them like a game show hostess. Something was missing from Mom's face. Colleen leaned forward to see better and realized Mom's headset was missing from her brow. Weird. That thing was practically glued to her skin.
Mom continued, "Your favorite dessert's in the fridge, too. Strawberry cheesecake!"
Colleen's mouth watered at the thought. She clenched and unclenched her hands. The numbers sobered her. She swallowed the saliva. No way could she have dessert, not unless she took up bulimia--and she hated throwing up.
"That's great, Mom," she said, her voice tight. She sat down. The clock was missing on the opposite wall. Probably so she didn't count the minutes she suffered through this.
"I know this isn't easy for you, kiddo," said Mom. Colleen grimaced. Great, here was the lecture. "I know you're not trying to kill yourself, but you had a close call." Her voice cracked. "I know how it goes. It's hard. It's a battle every day, every meal."
Colleen managed a smile. "Yeah."
Mom tapped her wrist.
The numbers vanished from the food. Colleen gasped.
"There are cheats out there," Mom murmured. "If you tried to use one, it's dead now." Colleen blinked frantically, as if she could turn the contacts on again. "I just used a localized electromagnetic pulse. It's confined to this table. This way you can eat without data streams or whatever."
Rage almost caused Colleen to lurch to her feet, to scream. How could Mom take away the numbers? Tears filled her eyes. She froze in place, knowing that if she moved, her stoicism would shatter.
In a few steps, Mom was there, her arms braced against Colleen's shoulders. She wanted to shove Mom away but she couldn't.
"You don't have to eat much," Mom whispered. "Just eat. Every trick you try, I'll find a way around it. I know it's hard. I know, but I will fight to keep you alive."
For the first time, Colleen believed her, but instead of feeling angry, she felt empty.
Dinner smelled divine, but everything was blurry in her sight, as if there was no food at all.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, March 17th, 2014

Author Comments

I'm a foodie. I love baking and trying out new recipes, and every Wednesday I post something new on my blog. I also spent most of my adult life as obese. As a teenager, I was tormented in school and those horrible words still echo in my head. My weight is down now--and I fight to keep it down. Eating disorders manifest in all sorts of ways. As technology evolves, I see those disorders shifting, too--for positive and negative.

- Beth Cato
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