We walked to the store marked “Seafood” and placed our order. Eve swiped her wrist to pay and we all gathered under a large outdoor pavilion furnished with hundreds of tables. Families and couples were scattered about so we sat near the edge, far enough away that our conversation couldn’t be easily overheard, and ate.
“This shrimp is so good.” Eve wiped her face. “I was famished.”
“I read in history that people used to actually go hungry.” david spoke through small mounds of mush. “Centuries ago. There wasn’t enough food or something. Can you imagine? Being hungry and not having any food?” He shuddered at the thought.
“Can I try some of that?” Lina had ordered smoked fish, but looked curiously at my fried shrimp.
“It’s just mashed potatoes,” I said. She laughed—the birthday prank had been her idea—and stood up to slap my arm with the back of her hand before stealing a shrimp off my plate.
“Wow, this is actually really good.” Her mouth full, she grabbed another.
“Stop doing that.” david’s voice was stern. I looked at him in surprise. “don’t share. Just…stop, you’re gonna get us in trouble.”
“In trouble with who? The food police?” “No. Just the regular police.”
“Just drop it.”
Lina sighed and put back the shrimp she had stolen off my plate.
“Good.” I grinned, trying to play it off. “I didn’t want to have to stab you in the hand with my fork if you tried to steal my food again.” Lina rolled her eyes. “You could try. I’m fast as lightning.” She moved her hand rapidly in front of my face to demonstrate her powers.
“I’m like a shrimp ninja.” I laughed and brushed her away.
“You know what sounds good right now? Grilled squash and jalapeños. Fresh picked.” Lina wrinkled her nose as I knew she would, and I chuckled. She never could stand squash.
“That sounds disgusting. You know what sounds good? Fresh strawberries.” She looked at the food on her plate with a scowl as if it suddenly didn’t meet her standards. Then she remembered herself, smiled, and said loudly, “But this food is amazing!”
“Fresh strawberries?” Eve creased her forehead. “Where do you get fresh strawberries?”
For once I got to raise an eyebrow at her. I remembered, however, what happened the last time I used this word, and whispered so only the four of us could hear. “A garden.”
David’s head shot up to stare at me. Eve coughed and dug in her food. Lina frowned as she looked from one to the other. I rolled my eyes. I was sick of innocuous words eliciting absurd reactions.
“Someone explain,” I sighed. I rubbed my temple with my fingers. I was getting a headache.
“We’re not allowed gardens.” Eve’s words trembled. “Please stop talking about it. Someone might hear.”
I looked around, arms outstretched at the empty spaces around us. “Who’s gonna hear?” I was whispering, but it was loud. “And why can’t I have a garden? Why can’t I just say the word ‘garden’?”
Eve took a deep breath. “Just…keep your voice down, okay?” I propped my head on my fingers and sighed. This charade was getting old. “The government is in charge of all the food. They just want to make sure we’re healthy and get enough to eat. There was some bad seed a long time ago and a bunch of people got sick.”
“Bad seed? That’s not a thing.”
“I don’t remember exactly, I don’t like history class. They grow the crops so we don’t have to. It’s easier. Safer. No one gets hurt. They’re worried about people having their own gardens. They don’t want bad seed to spread. Or something.”
“I grew crops my entire life. We never got sick from it.”
“I don’t know, Zay.” My name was sour on her lips. “It’s just easier this way. Them growing everything.”
She looked at me as if the question had never occurred to her and she couldn’t believe it would ever occur to me. “Why not? You’re eating. It’s healthy. You’re not hungry. No one’s hungry. Why does it matter?”
I didn’t know how to put into words the feeling of watching a tomato plant go from seed to stalk. Of checking every day to see how big it is, picking it just as it’s ripe, cutting it up, building a fire and grilling it. There’s no word to describe the almost supernatural fresh taste of a wild banana. I stared at her for a moment, but sighed and shook my head. There was no way to explain what she was missing. Because she was right. She wasn’t hungry. Everyone was healthy. The food was good. Meals were easy. Why would anyone want it to change?