Rana was probably fourteen before she saw someone cook on a stove, other than in movies and TV shows. Busy with two jobs and two kids, her mom’s idea of meal planning was to leave the kids her checkbook and the number for Pizza Hut. So it made perfect sense to Rana, when she was a little girl, that one of her favorite games was to go out into the woods behind her house and pretend she was an orphan alone in a jungle, kind of like Pippi Longstocking meets Little House on the Prairie. She would forage for “food,” collecting leaves and twigs she’d then season with dirt while mixing it all in an old plastic cup. Her mom had put her on restriction for a week after a neighbor had claimed that Rana forced her kids to eat mud, and then shortly after that a cute boy had moved in down the street, and that was the end of playing in the woods.
She hadn’t thought of it for years, not until she was on vacation and standing in a nearly empty kitchen, with a boyfriend who had a large appetite and the expectation that she would make him dinner.
“Can’t we just grab something out?” she asked him. Their vacation so far had consisted mostly of chilling at his cousin Walt’s house, away from anyone she knew, and she was going a bit crazy. Plus, her cooking skills hadn’t improved much since she was a kid.
“I got faith in you, babe,” Big Ed called from the living room where he was watching ESPN.
Rana sighed and looked through the cupboards again. Some ramen and a couple cans of tuna, a few hot sauce packets, and half a box of Frosted Flakes. The fridge contained Chinese food left over from God knows when, barbecue sauce, and a bag of shriveled apples. Her childhood forest food might be more appetizing — and digestible — than tonight’s dinner.
She peeked into the living room. Ed’s eyes were closed, his head lolled back on the couch.
“Ed?” she asked in a soft voice.
“Ed?” A bit louder.
She was met with a snore.
Two hours later, when Big Ed woke from his nap, Rana presented him with a chicken dinner, complete with sides of greens and mashed potatoes and gravy. They were starting in on the apple pie when his cousin came in.
“Something smells good.”
“Rana cooked us dinner,” Big Ed said as he served himself another slice of pie.
Walt looked around the kitchen, probably noticing the lack of anything useful, something Ed was blissfully unaware of. “Your girl must be Rapunzel.”
Rana and Ed shared a look.
“Excuse me?” she asked as she patted her shoulder-length hair.
“You know.” Walt grabbed a chicken leg. “She made gold outta straw.”
“You mean, the Rumpelstiltskin chick?” Ed asked as he also reached for a chicken leg.
“Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, whatever. This food is good.” He reached for another piece of chicken. “Kinda reminds me of — ”
“It’s an old family recipe,” Rana interrupted with a smile. “My mom’s favorite.”
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website.