12-Year-Old Angry Vegan
by Lauren La Torre
The day Toby died was the day I became vegan.
Toby was my best friend. Okay, it sounds a little lame for a fish to be your best friend, but he was. We were exactly the same age, and I mean we were both exactly twelve. My parents told me that the day they won him at a carnival was the day my mom found out she was pregnant. We even grew at the same rates; as I graduated from bassinet to crib to bed, Toby needed progressively bigger tanks. Every day after school I would feed him and talk about my day. Yeah, I’d be talking to a fish. But the thing is, unlike my parents, he would really listen. He would fix his great globe of an eye on me and look directly into mine, opening and closing his mouth in exclamations of “oooh” and “oh.” He was a way better listener than my stupid classmates.
One day without warning I came home from school to an empty tank. Even worse, my dad had “disposed of the remains” before I had the chance to say goodbye. My parents told me Toby was buried in the yard, but I had heard the flush.
That night I ignored my parents’ calls to dinner; I was determined to stay in my room all night. Hunger won eventually, though. I trudged downstairs to find a glistening whole fish on the table, ribs exposed, fleshy strands hanging in sinews from the bones. But the worst part was the eye: the glistening globule quivering on my dad’s fork. I watched it jiggle as he gestured to me and said: “Glad you decided to join us, Max.” I immediately turned around and retched. Toby was all I could see.
My mom figured it out first. “Oh, Max, honey, I’m so sorry!”
I couldn’t see her, as I was hurling up the little food I had eaten that day, but I heard her clank the dish into the sink. I wanted to love her for that. But I hated them both now, those zombie parents. They lie and are cruel and eat the flesh of the living.
Without Toby I had to turn somewhere else for comfort. Thank goodness for the Internet. As I searched, I realized there were tons of people like me who didn’t want to be cannibals, who wanted to fend off the zombie apocalypse of mindless meat-eaters. I thrilled each time I crossed off my mental list a type of food that my parents used to serve me but I would no longer eat; fish, chicken, red meat, and turkey sandwiches were just the beginning. Did you know that chickens grow boobs with all the hormones they pump into them to make “boneless skinless chicken breast?” Or that they’re kept in diseased cages where they give birth to tons of diseased eggs? Dairy was out, too; who in their right mind injects antibiotics and hormones under a cow’s skin so they produce more milk? How about honey? No way. I mean the bees are dying off as it is. Tell this stuff to a parent, kid, or anyone and they try to avert their eyes and go back to their honey-barbecue chicken tenders. Toby would always look me right in the eye.
I barely ate anything but lettuce and ketchup sandwiches in the early days; I had declared war on everything and everyone in the house. That wasn’t what drove me out, though. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when my mom, supposedly concerned with my lack of fat for a growing boy, spread a layer of butter under my ketchup. As if I couldn’t taste the hormone-laden cow excrement floating underneath? I stormed out of the house, taking a sweater (synthetic, not wool), flip-flops (my sneakers had “leather uppers”), water purifier, and Boy Scout knife. I was heading out into the wilderness for the night. And maybe forever.
I hadn’t gotten far before my flip-flops snapped. Cheap plastic, I grumbled to the trees. I took them both off, because, really, what was the point of doing something halfway?
The polyester sweater didn’t do much to keep my body warm once the sun went down. The thought popped into my head that maybe the woman who used to be my mom had a point about nutrition—I didn’t have the muscle I used to. I ran my hand under my sweater and was surprised to feel my ribs. As the image of the fish carcass flooded my brain, though, any credit I might have given my parents disappeared.
As the twilight blurred my vision, I decided it was time to hunker down for the night. I chose a spot near a stream so that I could more easily purify water, cocooned myself in polyester, and waited for sleep. As I was closing my eyes I saw something glint off the water. It was a fish scale. I opened my eyes widely so my pupils would dilate and peered into the water. Yes, it was a fish. A fish not unlike Toby. He was staring me right in the eye. I smiled, then closed my eyes and drifted to sleep, feeling more at peace with the world than I had ever before or would feel since.
The next morning I woke to see that the sky was dark and the air foggy. Could I have I slept all day, and it was now night? But if I had, why was I still so tired? Something wasn’t adding up. Who did I see just then to cheer me up? That same fish. He stayed. Man, fish are loyal. There he was, looking up at me, just as Toby used to do. I lowered myself to his level and stared into the now-murky water. He really did look like Toby, I thought: the same speckled band under his chin. A similar scar near the fin. Weird. But cool.
I watched the fish dive and surface, dive and surface. It was calming at first, watching him swim in and out of focus, until I realized everything was swimming—the stream, the forest, the scales. Suddenly, a voice popped into my head. It was my science teacher’s. She had been teaching us about nutrition and the importance of all the vitamins in school, though I had only half-listened. “Some nutrients the body can’t make on its own,” she’d said, “so we have to get them from other sources. For example, vitamin B12 is found in meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, and eggs.”
I realized those were all the foods I had checked off my mental list. I was tired. And my vision was blurry. What if it had been sunny out this whole time and I’ve just been too cold to feel it? This would explain why I wasn’t hungry, why my stomach felt upset all the time, and, frankly, why I was hearing the disembodied voice of my science teacher. But what could I get to eat that would give me these nutrients and was vegan? I tried to move but couldn’t, so my scope was limited. In a moment of desperation, I reached toward the insects crawling nearby, but hastily recoiled. No. Animal. Flesh. If I was going to die I was dying vegan.
The fish stared at me throughout my turmoil, unmoving. A little fish swam near him. He looked at it peacefully. He opened his mouth gently, as Toby always did, and in a gulp, the fish was gone. Just like that. Surely I couldn’t trust my blurred vision. Fish are cannibals?
I suddenly felt more human and less human than I’d ever felt. In nature, death is everywhere, and my parents were just trying to shield me from death in all its forms—Toby’s carcass, the discarded fish dinner, the butter on my sandwich to combat malnutrition. They were not the zombies, it was I who had become the living dead. I grabbed my knife and stabbed it into the fish’s eye. Goodbye, Toby, I said, biting through his raw flesh. You gave your eyes so I could see.
Lauren received her Bachelor’s degree in English literature from Columbia University, and went on to pursue graduate study at Stanford University’s Ph.D. program in Renaissance English literature. She published an article entitled: “Dar la Luz: Illuminating ‘A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day’” in the John Donne Journal, Vol. 28 (2008), and completed her Master’s degree in the Teaching of English at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a licensed secondary school English teacher and substitute teacher who has taught at the elementary, middle, high school, and undergraduate levels, and has also written content for the educational website Shmoop. This past fall she began the New School’s Master of Fine Arts Program in Writing, specializing in Writing for Children, where she hopes to bring her love of teaching and writing together in writing books for young people.
Young Eaters is a series crafted especially for children and teens. This is Young Eaters‘s inaugural post.