Tall pines stretched towards the sky. The forest was thick in all directions, receding into darkness. A table was in a clearing between several towering trees. Three people were at the table for dinner. The man lifted a knife.
The knife sliced through the steak as if it were butter.
“I had Robreto Tabis program the steak today.” Thara smiled.
Jesk frowned at the meat on his plate. “The celebrity chef? Well, he did a terrible job. It’s over cooked.” He pointed to the cut end of the meat with his knife. “It’s supposed to be pink for two and three quarters inches, this looks pink for no more than two and half! I can’t eat this garbage.”
Thara held her smile. “Please try it, Honey. Robreto guarantees his work, but you have to eat it first. And please don’t throw it out. Steak is expensive.”
Jesk scrunched up his face and stared at his wife. “Expensive? I thought I heard you try to justify a 35-million-dollar pet not a half an hour ago!”
Thara’s smile held. “I’m sorry, Honey, I said that wrong. The problem is, steak has gone up by over 230% in the last year but our food budget hasn’t changed in over five years, since just before Adi was born. I’m sorry, I know you said not to discuss finances during dinner. I’m sorry.”
“230% is…” Jesk’s shook his head. It should have been easy, but his mind was blank. He had assistance to take care of silly things like math, but, what? Is it two times? No, it’s…
“The price has more than tripled in the last year and is almost 15 times more expensive than it was when we set the budget…,” Thara said, still with her “I’m here to please you” smile.
“Why is steak so expensive?” That domestic stuff usually didn’t concern him. He knew he had to keep the household budget under control and slashed it every chance he had, and yet he ate steak three meals a day every day. That’s why you get rich, isn’t it, so you can afford to eat like a king?
“The usual suspects. Calorie per acre of the land use is very low and the carbon foot print is…”
“I thought I said that that term is never to be used in this house!” He knew he was shouting. Adi looked up from her plate, her eyes big.
Thara continued to smile. “I am sorry, Honey. What I meant to say is that very few people eat meat these days for a variety of reasons. As less people eat meat, there is less meat produced and so after a while the prices skyrocket, which means even fewer people can eat meat and so even less is produced and then the prices go up again. It’s a vicious cycle.”
“I thought, given supply and demand, the fewer people who ate it, the lower the demand, so…” He was getting a little cranky. Thara rarely said anything more than “Yes, Honey” and “No, Honey” at dinner. When did she become an expert in economics?
“No, that would only be true if there was the same amount of meat available, a constant supply. As the demand dropped drastically, the producers of the meat did not want to cut profits, so the only way to keep profits up was to drastically lower the availability and raise the prices.”
Jesk thought for a moment before answering. “That still doesn’t seem right. I want a cheap steak and think I should be able to get one. I don’t care how much money they are losing. It’s their own fault.”
“I thought you told me that was the American way, pure Capitalism. All companies exist only to give the investors the maximum amount of short-term profit. That’s it, anything that goes against this rule is not allowed. Environmental restrictions, safety concerns, employee training, long term investments, aren’t they all against the Capitalist system?”
“Yes, of course, but this is different…”
“How? The big players in the ag-business are still companies owned by investors who are all trying to maximize their profits and short-term investments, just like you. It is how business is run and this is their business, making money by selling you steak. Thinking of steak, what did you think of the steak tonight?”
Jesk looked down at his plate and realized that he had finished the steak. He had been eating it without thinking as he talked to Thara.
“Uhm, good. Robreto Tabis is excellent, as usual.” He half smiled, but felt very self-conscious. He looked over at Thara’s plate. “Wait, that isn’t a real steak. What are you eating?”
“I’m sorry, my doctor told me to stay away from red meat.”
“Why?” He eyed her suspiciously. Was she playing him for a fool?
“Do you like the way look?” She stood, did a slow spin holding herself in a way that accentuated her curves while watching him from under her eyelashes in a very steamy, sensual, flirtatious manner, and then sat down again.
“I pay a lot of money for you to look like that. What does that have to do with your diet?”
“What do you think of Merji Strupl?”
“That old cow…”
“She is five years older than me and Jeorj Strupl pays twice as much for her treatments. To stay like this, I spend three and a half hours a day, every day, exercising and eat a very controlled diet. I’d look like a patchwork quilt by the time I’m 35 if I didn’t. My doctor tells me that if I don’t take care of myself and yet insist on continuing to look like this, I’ll be a very pretty corpse by 45. Merji’s kidneys are failing as is her liver. She spends almost as much time at the doctor’s office or the hospital as I do exercising. She says she doesn’t care because Jeorj likes the way she looks.”
She took a bite out of her soya-steak.
“Besides,” she said, looking up from her food, “I had to totally stop eating meat over three years ago because we couldn’t afford it on our food budget.”
She started eating her salad.
Jesk stared. He had never really paid attention to what others were eating. Why should he? He noticed that Adi had a soya-steak as well, and even there, she had more rice and greens than “steak”.
“And does Adi suffer because of our budget?” He tried to put a bite into his voice. This was his child! Eating plants, like a monkey or something, not meat like a human!
Thara stopped eating and glanced at Adi’s plate.
“Yes and no. You should research proper nutrition for children. She gets some meat to keep her diet varied, but… Anyway, I know it doesn’t really matter, but your meat is over 99.5% of our food budget and I often have to pull out of my clothing budget to feed Adi and myself.”
She shrugged then finished her meal.
This was all bewildering to Jesk. He had his routine. He worked all day, then came home. Thara kissed him on the cheek and asked how his day went. He told her a little fluff and sometimes complained about a client or government regulator while she smiled and nodded and then he relaxed for a half of an hour in silence to unwind from work. They had dinner with a little small talk about Adi’s day. After dinner he had his Scotch to relax while watching an artificial sunset, and then he watched a daily brief about business news that was tailored for his investments, political views and tastes, completely unspoiled by facts or views different from his own. And then he went to bed. There was no talk about household budgets, no talk about how the market works, no demands on his math skills, no talk about exercise, not a word about mortality, nothing that would challenge his world-view in any way and nothing that could upset his routine. Ever.
“Why didn’t you tell me that my steak was such a strain on the budget?” he asked.
“I did. Since you punished me when I brought it up, I have submitted all receipts quarterly along with a note explaining what we need and why for your review as you requested. I spend over 40 hours creating each of the reports for you.” She smiled sweetly, but Jesk began to notice an edge beneath her demur. He realized that there was a hidden tiger there.
When he thought about it, he did remember seeing her reports, but for the most part ignored them. There was a lot of math. It was just household stuff, not business, so he didn’t bother any of his accountants or assistants and he surely wasn’t going to waste his own time on it. Besides, there was a difference between math and meat.
“Yes, but why didn’t you let me know Adi wasn’t eating meat every meal?”
Thara was obviously having a harder time keeping the smile. “You eat breakfast and dinner with us every day, Honey, and so you know what she eats. Why didn’t you ask before? I would have been happy to show you the budget…”
Jesk sat back, stunned. Was she talking back to him? And yet, she was right, he never paid attention.
“Besides,” Thara continued, “as I said before, you won’t allow me to talk money at dinner, and that is about the only time we ever talk.”
Thara was no longer smiling. She had her arms crossing her chest.
Her attitude had crossed the line and he wanted to lash out at her as he usually did, but he had to admit that it was true. He had taken away all of her clothing the last time she had brought up budget and made her wear the same bathrobe all day every day for two weeks. Thinking back at the impertinence of her asking for an increase in their food budget while he was trying to digest made his blood boil. He could feel the heat of his face turning red as he sat there. And yet, his Adi was eating like one of the rabble, not a real American, because of the budget.
“Adi, Dear, you like to eat a nice thick, juicy steak with Daddy, don’t you?” Jesk asked.
The girl wrinkled her nose. “No.”
“It’s OK sometimes, I guess, but it is kinda gross. And it’s boring to eat the same thing all of the time.”
Jesk tried to stammer a few words, but couldn’t get anything comprehensible out.
“Look, Honey, I know that you feel you need to eat a lot of steak, I get it,” Thara said. “I know your background. Yeah, I know it’s supposed to be a secret, but I’m married to you, for goodness sake. It was tough. I know, with your dad and all. Yeah, I know about that, too.”
A disembodied voice entered said, “Are you finished, sir? Shall we clean up?”
Jesk didn’t say anything. After a minute, Thara said, “Yes, please clean up.”
As the robot gathered the dishes Thara said, “I talked to my sister-in-law quite a bit, even before she was sick and continued even more after the diagnosis. I loved Brey like my own sister, even though I only met her face to face twice. I’m going to the funeral with or without you. And I am going to bring Adi with me. She needs to go. And so do you.”
There was a steel edge in Thara’s voice unlike anything Jesk had ever heard.
Thara stood up. She smiled at her daughter. “Adi, let’s go play with Petunia for twenty minutes. The two of you can then watch more of your school lesson, but we have to start getting ready for bed at 8 O’clock sharp.” Her voice was sweet, if a little stern at the end.
The little girl ran over and grabbed her mother’s hand. As they were leaving the dining room, Thara turned to Jesk, “Think about it. We are leaving at 9 AM with or without you.” She turned with the child and left through a door that appeared in a tree when she raised her hand.
The forest switched off leaving normal dining room walls as the robots finished cleaning. Jesk just sat staring at the table in front of him.
“You can eat steak every meal when you are rich.” The words ran through the 12-year-old Jesk’s mind over and over again as he stared at his father’s photo that sat on top of the closed casket. He was sitting in the back row, even though everyone told him he should be up front.
It had been his 10th birthday party and he had a lot of his school mates over. He had told them that they were having steak and it ended up being burgers and hotdogs. He never felt so humiliated.
He continued to feel humiliated by it every day of his life. He imagined that everyone at school laughed at him behind his back over the steak fiasco.
His dad didn’t understand.
Of course, as he stared at the photo, Jesk realized that now he never would understand.
He looked down at his shoes. Why’d he have to be here anyway? He wasn’t needed or wanted.
And then there was Brey. Just shy of 16, she acted like she thought she was an adult. A good student, popular, he was his opposite in many ways.
Brey was sitting up front. She had been crying non-stop for most of the day, talking to and hugging almost everyone who came in. He frowned. Dad always favored her….
“My brother was a real bastard, you know?”
Jesk jumped. He hadn’t seen his Uncle Jorden sit down beside him.
Jordan gave him a half smile. “A real bastard, but too soft. You’re not soft, son, are you?”
Jesk just stared at the man for a moment, but then shook his head.
“Yeah, that’s it. You can’t show weakness or they’ll eat you alive.”
The boy and the man studied each other in silence for a few minutes.
“I visited your mom in the hospital,” Jorden said at last. “Don’t mean to sound callous, but she can read the cards and knows she’ll be next. She should have never made to the hospital and five years ago wouldn’t have. Anyway, Brey will go live with one of your mom’s cousins, but I told her I wanted to take you in. Do you want to come live with your Uncle Jorden? I’ll teach you how to succeed, like me.”
“They say you aren’t very smart.” Jesk winced. Jordan chuckled. “Yeah, they said the same thing about me, you know. Bah.” He half spit. “What’d they know? I know. For one, I know you’re a genius, like me. Maybe you don’t do good with math or writing. How many math or English geeks are billionaires? I’ll show you how to be strong. I’ll show you what it takes to win.”
“And I’ll eat steak every day.”
“That’s the idea, kid. They said your dad was wealthy, but that was only because he saved a lot of money. What good is a pile of savings to a corpse?” He waved a hand towards the casket. “You have it, you flaunt it, I say. And if you don’t have it, don’t let ‘em know, still flaunt it. Never admit anything that would make you look poor or weak. Eat steak every day, or every meal if you think that’ll make ‘em respect you. Only the best cuts for our Jesk. Right?”
Jesk smiled. Uncle Jorden understood. “Right.”
“Will you be needing anything else, sir?”
Jesk shook his head. “No. I think I’ll go get ready for bed. You can shut down the kitchen and dining room.”
The robot bowed and left.
Jesk got reluctantly to his feet and left the dining room as well.
It was going to be a hard night.
This is the second chapter of the story “When the Elephant Bumps the Mouse House” based on the image by Marianne Sopala that was off of Pixabay. The larger story is is in response to D. Wallace Peach’s February Speculative Fiction Prompt.