Hard to Please

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Done. Once-ler stood back and surveyed his work. Mashed potatoes, corn, fried chicken, and gravy...it had taken hours, but finally supper was ready. He was glad. Used to it as he was, shucking corn and plucking chickens was hard work. It seemed like a lot for just a Thursday night, but it was what his ma wanted. She wouldn't be satisfied if I wasn't the best that he could possibly give her. If he were to be honest with himself, she wouldn't be happy anyway. She'd find anything to pick at, whether the gravy was too thin or the chicken too soggy. She would complain and give him that unbearable, disappointed look she wore so well. "Well, you always was a failure anyway," she'd sigh and resign herself to eating her sub par meal.

Once-ler shook his bangs from his eyes, pushing the thought away. No sense in dwelling on what hadn't happened yet. Who knew? Maybe this time she would actually like it. Maybe.

The kitchen door swung open behind him as Ubb wandered in, stirring Once-ler from his thoughts. "Hey, where's dinner? We're starving out here waitin' on you."

"Oh, right. Right. Sorry," said Once-ler. He frowned as Ubb glanced over the fresh dishes and scooped the plate of corn from the counter before bustling out again. A swell of conversation rose and faded with his exit. The impatient tone of Once-ler's mother rose above the voices of the rest of the family. He carefully gathered up the rest of the dishes, unable to completely erase the frown on his face. She sounded like she was already in a bad mood.

His family was gathered around the old table that was the centerpiece of the tiny room. No one turned to acknowledge his entrance and Once-ler puttered around the room, setting things here and there on the table. They were a large family. As the chore of cooking always seemed to fall to Once-ler, he rarely managed to squeeze into a spot of his own around the table. His brothers had broken a number of chairs over the years, leading to the hodgepodge mix of furniture currently in use and somehow they had ended up just shy of having seats for everybody. Even if he had been able to establish himself at a free corner, there was nothing to sit on anyway. He didn't bother to try, normally. It was easier to wait until someone else finished and left the room.

Everyone set upon the food enthusiastically. Griselda and Chet squabbled over a chicken leg while Ubb set to work on his plate of corn. Trying to ignore the nervous shaking of his stomach, Once-ler stood back against the doorframe, waiting. His mother was the only member of the family who remained quiet. A critical frown creased her features as she poked and prodded at the food on her plate. Nothing yet. She wasn't making faces, but she wasn't eating either. Daintily she poked her fork into the potatoes. The tip of her tongue flashed out for a taste and for an incredibly long moment she worked it around her mouth.

"Oh, Oncie?" His stomach twisted and he sagged a little against the doorframe. "Can you come here? Just for a second?" Slowly he crossed the few feet between them. She looked up at him as he stood rubbing his arm. Of course, here it comes. He thought bitterly. It was always the same. No matter what he did it was never good enough. She sighed and made that face he hated. "Sweetie, what did we talk about?"

"When, Ma?"

"Yesterday, Oncie, it was yesterday." It came out in a snap, as if she were losing her patience with him already.

"You're giving up salt, right? For your diet?" He hated the uncertainty in his voice. He remembered the conversation well enough, but when she questioned him like that it always made him worry that he was mistaken. Thin lips pursed in irritation and he let his eyes slide away from her.

"That's right." The honey sweet voice pulled at him, stirring in him the familiar need to do well for her, to earn her approval of him. He always felt that he was falling short. "I'm just wonderin'. If you remember that, how come you can't do what I asked? Hmm?" He didn't answer, knew that it wouldn't accomplish anything. She wouldn't listen to him anyway. "It was just one simple thing, Oncie, was it really that hard? This food is so salty! I don't even think that I can eat it...All I asked was that you cut back a little bit and you can't even manage to do that."

"'M sorry, Ma."

"Well I certainly hope so. I swear, you can't even do little things like this, I don't know that you'll ever be able to make anything of yourself acting like this. You'll never amount to anything." She waved a hand dismissively at him, frowning down at her plate again. "Well, you always was a failure anyway."

It had gone just as he had expected it to, but that didn't make it sting any less. The truth was that he did remember their conversation the day before and he had taken great care to not include anything with high sodium in the meal, instead opting to let them use the salt shakers on the table. There wasn't a bit of salt anywhere on her plate unless she added it herself.

It mystified him that she was jumping on him for that. Was she making it up? Had something happened to the food? Whatever it was it had been no fault of his. She was impossible to please.

He nodded his head, acknowledging her complaint as he stared at his feet. "I'll do better tomorrow, Ma."

"At least try this time. I won't be expectin' much, though." His face scrunched a little and he persed his lips, hurt and annoyed. Without another word he turned and headed back into the kitchen to clean the pots and pans he'd dirtied in cooking. There weren't many. In the short time it took him to scrub them clean the next room slowly quieted. Once-ler frowned as he worked. He was hungry and tired. Really, all he wanted was to lay down and sleep until morning. Unfortunately there was still a lot of work to be done around the farm.

At least he could eat before anything else. It was a comforting thought, and he smiled slightly to himself. Satisfied that the kitchen was clean Once-ler hummed tunelessly as he went back to the dining room, a plate in hand.

It was a wreck. Chairs were left out in random places around the room. Spilled food littered the old table among high piles of dirtied dishes. He stood and stared at the empty plates, his own hanging limply at his side. There wasn't anything bigger than a crump left.

Again! He thought, his stomach giving a dismal growl. There was nothing left. Not a kernel of corn nor a shred of chicken. Nothing. They hadn't thought to leave enough for him. His eyes skimmed over the table top, just to be sure. Still, nothing. It hurt, but in a way it wasn't surprising. His family rarely thought about him.

With a quiet sigh he began to gather the dishes into his arms. The faint clink of glassware and the rumbling of his stomach were the only sounds to be heard.

This arose from a conversation on deviantart. Basically my headcanon for why Once-ler is such a beanpole. All the housework was shoved off on him and a lot of the time, by the time he was finished cooking and cleaning up, his family had finished off all the food and left him with nothing. Poor kid, no wonder he's so skinny!

...I'm open to title suggestions. I hate this one.

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