It was Ruan's turn to take the lunch racks to the kitchen. Ruan, and a classmate who sat beside her.
Everyday a pair of students would be on duty for various responsibilities. Other than sweeping the floor, taking the trash out and re-aligning the desks before going home, several times a day they also cleaned the blackboard after each class. She would go outside and smack the two board erasers together real hard until all the chalk dust disappeared. New chalks were placed in the groove for the teacher of next class to use. Sometimes the wind changed direction suddenly, and her hair and face would be covered with chalk dust.
Once a year everyone would roll up the sleeves and sweep, scrub, and douse the classrooms down with buckets and buckets of water until the place was sparkling clean. Students never thought of saying “that’s not our job,” and parents thought a little work did the children immensely good.
She put her own metal lunchbox in the racks after arriving in the morning, same as all other classmates. Now, during the first break, it was time to take them to the kitchen to be steamed. They believed cold food was harmful to one's health. Besides, cold rice just didn't taste right.
The racks were heavy for her, and she wished that she was strong like her classmate. She mustered all her strength and completed the first part of the mission. The second part of the mission--getting the racks back from the kitchen--would be even harder, as the racks would be hot from the steamer, and, with all the moisture-saturated lunchboxes and empty stomachs, felt even heavier than they did in the morning.
Starving classmates swarmed to the front of the classroom to retrieve their lunchboxes from the racks. She couldn't find hers. She waited until everyone got her lunch and checked the racks again. They were empty.
Someone had stolen her lunch.
A sympathetic classmate advised her to talk to the principal. It was a terrifying thought, but she had to do it. She never had any money, so she couldn't buy anything. A search was organized, and sometime later she was informed there was an abandoned lunchbox near the kitchen. She went there as told, and it was her lunchbox indeed--left open and uneaten.
The principal asked: "Is it yours?"
A pause, then she answered with excruciating embarrassment: "Yes."
He looked at it and, for a while, couldn't find a proper word. Finally he said: "Well, maybe you can still eat it." He left after an awkward second or two.
She sat alone on the vine-shaded bench, staring at the untouched lunch and wishing the person had eaten all of it.
She put the lid back on and took it with her to the classroom, avoiding looking at anybody after she sat down. The pain in the stomach was easier to ignore than the thought in her head. What would her classmates think if they knew?
The principal's announcement in the flag-raising ceremony next morning solidified her humiliation. He lectured the entire school on how someone's lunch was stolen, and how the thieve left it untouched because it was not to the person's liking. She felt the gaze from her classmates and wished she could simply vanish. Now they knew, she thought to herself. Nobody said anything to her, but her mind swirled downward to the bottomless abyss.
How could she tell them that she ate her lunch everyday using the aroma from her fellow students' lunches as the appetizer, or she would have trouble finishing it even with a growling stomach? How could she let them know that it was prepared by her step-mother, and she understood that she should consider herself lucky to even be fed? The woman's contempt of having to be a step-mother of two girls, and her reluctance in having to feed them, showed clearly in the lunches she carelessly prepared.
She always ate with the lid half on, away from others if she could help it. She didn't want anyone to see what she was being fed with.
The rest of them had their delicious lunches prepared by their loving mothers, whose only worry was their daughters wouldn't have enough food to their liking. The aroma was a daily reminder of how she was less than her peer.
Now the whole world knew that even a hungry thieve wouldn't touch her lunch.
Somehow the pain was easier to take when nobody knew about it. That shield was stolen from her. She was left naked, with the raw wound exposed in plain sight for everyone to see. She hated the person who took her lunch and left it in such a crude display. She hated the principal for making her pain public. She hated her parents. She didn't want a step-mother, but her feelings were of no consequences. She hated her mother for not being there.
Among all that hate, she hated being born the most.
Her head bowed lower when she walked, and she never looked at anyone in the eyes anymore. Her world closed in and wrapped around her like a tortoise shell, in which she found the only comfort she knew—a desolate existence that few noticed.