Randle lowered his Stetson and nodded. An after-image singed his retina as he crossed through the gateway to the back of the queue. Along a dusty road, a line of people snaked towards a diner with a neon sign blinking in the dawn light: “Free Food for All Time.”
Years of unwashed bodily odors wafted towards Randle from the ancient man ahead of him. Despite the nasal insult, Randle’s stomach rumbled like a thunderstorm. “Hey bud, how long’s this line gonna take?” he asked.
The man regarded him with vacant eyes and shook his head. “I don’t remember.”
The orange sun loomed large as it rose in the morning sky. Thankful for his sweaty hat, he dipped it lower.
“Love the hat, cowboy! When are you from, honey?” A scrawny woman stepped in behind him.
“What year is it where you are from?”
“Tough year, that. I’m 2180, and that old geezer ahead is 2210. He’s lived through thirty years of the Big Drought. I was lucky and joined this food bank scheme the first year it hit. Half the people in this line are from the BD.”
Randle didn’t care why they were here. Thinking of his starving twins and wife gave him all the impetus he needed to reach the diner.
A map of the world adorned the wall behind the counter. The geezer had pointed to Southeast Asia and was presented with a bucket. His head sank low as if sniffing the contents.
“Pick the city you want the food to come from,” the woman prodded him. “It’s all the same vegan slop, but they add different flavors.”
Scanning the map, one city caught his eye.
“What I wouldn’t give for an Aberdeen Angus sirloin.” His last visit to the steakhouse sizzled in his mind, the rare meat melting in his mouth, juicy and tender.
Randle held out his hand like a beggar.
“One. Must. Pay. With. Memories.” The robotic voice emanated from a speaker in the server’s chest. Its porcelain face remained unmoved.
Randle recalled the vacant vagrant ahead of him. “You mean I have to give up a memory?”
“Affirmative. First. Timer. Remain. Still.”
A large dome lowered over his head and his hair tingled as if a vacuum cleaner was sifting through his dusty brain. The juicy red steak came unbidden to his mind again. He licked his lips as the juice dribbled down his chin; his nostrils widened as he recalled the aroma emanating from the plate. His wife smiled at him as he devoured the last steak they could afford.
“Wait, I don’t want to give up that memory. Please, let me pick another.”
“This. Memory. Will. Command. A. High. Price.”
“No, I’ve changed my mind. Don’t take the… the…”
A large bucket of nutritious vegan mishmash dropped into his hands, sufficient to feed his family for a week. Randle nodded and sniffed the bucket of green slop. It was delightful; like nothing he had ever smelled before.
James Flanagan writes in London, UK.