Disclaimer: The Sentinel was a Pet Fly Production. Not making any money, not doing any harm.

Author's Notes: Thanks to Pat, Ramana, Ceci, Laser 6, and Narabitz for helping me make Blair really obnoxious <g>.

Health Food



Jim had been having a rotten week, and all he wanted to do was pick up something to eat, and unwind.

But Sandburg was wearing Concerned Earnest Expression No: 28, and Jim knew he was in trouble.

"Jim," he began. "You're an educated man. You aren't economically disadvantaged. You aren't juggling a work/kids/school schedule that keeps you from cooking something decent. You obviously care about the bod, dude, you spend more time at the gym than I do at the library." He waved his hand, indicating the franchise of Wonderburger, whose drive-through line they were waiting in. "Why do you eat this crap?"

Jim wiped a smudge of dust off the dashboard. "It tastes good."

Blair blew a raspberry. "It tastes good," he mimicked. "So does chocolate, but you don't let a kid eat a whole bag of candy for dinner."

Jim gritted his teeth, trying not to point out that he was a grown man and there was a big difference between a bag of candy and a Wonderburger Whattameal. Blair only nagged because he cared. He'd been raised on tofu, wheat germ, and granola, and taught that red meat and fast food was close to poison; he was only preaching what he practiced.

"I wouldn't eat it 24/7, three times a day, Chief, but sometimes you get a craving."

"Addicts get cravings, Jim. Doesn't that make you wonder about the swill they're passing off as food?" Blair glared at the large plastic hamburger wearing a chef's hat that concealed the drive-through speakers. "Food should either be good for you, fuel for the human body, or cuisine, food as performance art. This... man, this is just filling an empty stomach with garbage."

"It's not that bad, Sandburg." The gray Jeep Cherokee ahead of them moved on to the pickup window. Jim put the truck in gear and pulled even with the speaker/mike and menu board. A bright and chirpy teenage voice asked, "Welcome to Wonderburger. Can I take your order?"

"I'd like a Wonder—"

Blair leaned in across the steering wheel. "Excuse me, is the beef certified as coming from cattle free of bovine growth hormone related tumors?"

Dead silence from the speaker, then a hesitant "... um..."

Relentless, Blair plowed on. "Do the cooks handle the beef patties with their bare hand or do they wear gloves? Plastic or latex? How often does a glove get left on the grill to melt? What temperature are the burgers when you consider them done? Are you aware of the higher temperature resistant E coli mutation?"

"Sir... I... maybe you should come in and talk to the manager. I just work here after school," the teenager said in a shaky, uncertain voice. "Is this part of a health inspection?"

"Sandburg, cut it out." Jim tried to push the younger man away, hearing the nervousness in the girl's voice. She probably thought she was going to lose her job, that this was a pop quiz from the home office. Blair wouldn't be moved.

"What kind of flour do they use in the buns? Are the lettuce and tomatoes organically grown? Is the cheese really a dairy product? If so, was the cheese aged correctly in a temperature-controlled environment? What's the amount of acrylic amide in the french fries? What type of oil do you fry in, and how often is it changed? How often do you boil degreaser in the fry vats to dissolve carbon build-up?"

"Sir." This time the voice was authoritative, male, and middle-aged. "If you aren't going to order anything, please leave before we call the police."

Somewhere behind them, a driver honked his horn. Jim gave Blair a murderous glare as the younger man sat back, smugly satisfied. Jim drove past the angry manager at the pickup window and pulled out into traffic.

Jim seethed silently as he drove to Blair's favorite place, Gaia's Garden, ignoring Blair's nutritional chatter. Blair hopped out and ran into the restaurant. Jim thought about driving off and leaving him there. He shook his head. Enraged as he was right now, the humiliation would pass and the incident would be added to his store of Strange Sandburg stories. He would end up telling Joel about this over a cup of battery-acid break room coffee, and the older man would laugh at the antics he put up with, while he groused that his life couldn't decide whether it was an action movie or a sitcom.

Funny. There were plenty of people he'd been happily hating for years with less reason, but he just couldn't stay mad at Sandburg.

Blair came out with two white paper bags. "Marinated free-range roasted chicken strips in a hand-ground flour pita with organic tomatoes and peppers. Jim, taste this and I guarantee you'll never go back to Wonderburger again."

Blair had a late lecture and some papers to grade. Jim dropped him off at the University with his politically correct sandwich, then drove to another Wonderburger and ordered his own supper. Three Wonderburgers, a large fries, small Coke, and a fried apple pie. Then he went out to the park.

Stray Dog seemed to enjoy the chicken pita. Jim sat on his usual bench, unwrapped his meal, and settled down happily as he lost himself in taste, smell, and memory.

The texture of soft bread with a fried patty in the middle, the resistance of the meat between teeth, a hot slippery slice of pickle.

Jimmy's arms tightened around his math book when he saw the red convertible waiting by the buses instead of the station wagon. Stevie ran forward squealing, but all Jimmy could think was that Sally had gone away from them, like Momma. Until Dad laughed that his meeting was canceled and he actually had free time. They ate Wonderburger in the car as Dad drove to the state park near the ocean, talking about what had happened at school, and then walked along the beach, the boys basking in the treat and their father's attention. He got sand in his shoes.

French fries, crisp and salty, chewed to a starchy mush. Contrasting with the icy sweetness of the soda washing it down.

Fort Benning Georgia. Graduation dinner was traditionally steak and shrimp, but Jim and his buddy Tom had been torturing each other for months, reciting the Wonderburger menu to each other while crawling through the mud all day. Given less than a minute to cram as much of an MRE down your gullet as you can swallow, sitting down to eat hot food seemed like a forgotten dream. They strode into Wonderburger, as out of place in their dress uniforms as tuxedo-clad teens stopping for a burger on Prom Night. They told jokes and tall tales of past conquest, and dreams of future glory. Threw french fries at each other and smiled at giggling high school girls. They shipped out next morning, and Jim never saw him again.

The crisp crust of the pie split under the slightest pressure from his teeth, releasing a molten caramelized syrup floating with soft chunks of cooked apple. He could almost drink the liquefied filling and eat the eggroll-shaped crust as an afterthought.

Early days on the force and dates with the cute red-headed forensic tech that neither of them were willing to admit were dates yet. 3 A.M., hunched over a plastic table under buzzing fluorescent lights, arguing over evidence, thrashing out theories. The first time he kissed Carolyn, she tasted like apples and cinnamon.

Licking salt and grease from his fingers, Jim wadded up the papers and containers in their bag and executed a perfect toss into a nearby trash can before standing to go. One day, if he was in a sharing mood, he might explain to Sandburg that Wonderburger was health food.

Mental health food.

~ End ~

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Page last updated 8/15/03.