UNREAL CUISINE • by Christopher C.O.

Dashing through the aisles of the market, with neither cart or basket, I searched. Meats — no. Potato salad, beans fried in all their incarnations — no. I went down each aisle, scanning along the way. If it’s on a shelf, probably not of this earth.

My eyes fluttered across the canned goods. “Pow! Zip! Bang!” balloons touted “Fresh Cut!” on a dozen different lentils and legumes. They only described the style. My hands passed over the engineered products of dairy, fruit, and veggie matter. Their telltale artifice was immediately apparent. Among the crisp fall apples and the bright summer strawberries I found no relief.

An amiable tapping on my shoulder startled me.

I turned to see an angular man in a grocer’s smock looking up at me with squinty eyes. “Is there something I can do for you?”

I could sense corporate subjugates scurrying to erase my passing presence. I hung my head and raised my eyes to his. “I want something real,” I muttered.

The grocer brightened. “Ah!” He smacked the back of a memo pad with gnarled knuckles. “I think I have something that will put you at your ease.”

I looked at him with an air of apprehension that the grocer sniffed and dismissed. I followed him deep into the restricted employee area where he swung wide the armored door to a fallout shelter stocked from floor to ceiling with rations. “This has been at the ready since the first round of raids. Corporate wanted to make folks feel safe enough to come to work. We replaced everything in here years ago — the full synthetic has an infinite shelf life. Replaced everything, that is, except for the rice. It was only yesterday that the natural rice finally expired. Corporate sent word this morning to replace it.”

The grocer approached a lower shelf in disarray. A minor avalanche of broken rice bags spilled onto the floor. “Sadly, I cannot sell you this contaminated product. I did rather think you’d enjoy seeing the seeds of something — little grains of life and genetic blueprints all their own.” He paused. “If you’ll excuse me, since we’re down here, I have a few lot numbers to verify.”

The grocer found a page in his memo book and, once he had turned his back to me, I reached down and scooped a handful of the speckled rice tenderly into my pocket. As the grains tumbled down the ridges of my fingertips, I was struck by a vision of a fair and freckled teenage girl. She was selling homemade popsicles from a cooler she had bolted to the back of a bike. I could hear her hollering at people to buy them as she tore up and down the streets of a farmer’s market.

I returned to my senses. I poked the floor with the tip of my shoe and dawdled about.

The grocer turned from his goods and smiled up at me from beneath his eyebrows and ushered me, enlightened, out of the shelter and into the world.

I knew where I needed to go.

The sun hung low on the horizon when I finally stood on a high cement porch with no railing, knocking hard on a solid door.

A woman stepped outside. Her darkened freckles clouded the spirit of her youth.

“You might not remember me,” I began, a lump forming in my throat.

“I remember you.” She gleamed. “When you were a kid, you used to help my mom sell cookies at her stand. She would send you home with one.”

“She’d send me home with a dozen, but none ever made it there.”

I liked her mom’s cookies, but back then I was really there with the small hope that she’d stop and talk to me.

“Those popsicles… they were made of real, actual fruit, weren’t they? They had this… texture that I never had, either before or since. How did you do that?”

She laughed. “I put a lot of fruit through a strainer. Tell me, is that why you came here? To find out how I made popsicles twenty years ago?”

“No. I mean, maybe,” I hesitated. “I guess I’m here to recruit?”

“What does that mean?” I saw something close to understanding anchored deep in her eyes, masked by frustration — how could I force it to the surface?

“What about your mom? Does she still keep a garden?”

She winced. “Mom recently passed. But yeah, she did… before. When you could still plant a garden and tend it by hand. Eventually the weeds choked everything out though. That’s all gone now.”

She was retreating.

“Wait! There must be someone growing something?”

She recited without thinking, “Fields are for feed and fuel.” Surprised, she took a deep breath as the anchor came loose. “Everything is grown from patented seeds,” she spat. “Anything not chemically resistant gets wiped out by the herbi-drift clouds.”

“And that’s why I’ve come. To resist. To cultivate the caretakers.”

She held back tears. “It’s no use. You can’t.”

“I can’t. But you can.” I reverently offered her a grain of rice in my outstretched hand. “Use what she taught you.”

Her chin quavered and she placed her fingers gently on mine when she peered into my palm.

The sensation of her skin on mine rushed over me.

She plucked the precious grain and held it to her heart. “We’re going to need more.” She began to pace with enthusiasm. “More… recruits, good soil, clean water, and space — protected space.” She held the tiny grain to her eye and grinned. “And seeds.”

Christopher C.O. is a full-time father of four, husband, author, screenwriter, filmmaker, and scallywag. He is the co-author of the 2014 feature film You Are Not Alone.

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Every Day Fiction