How Many Choices does a Can of Chicken Noodle Soup Cost?

Submitted into Contest #159 in response to: Set your story in a world where the currency isn’t money — or at least not money as we understand it.... view prompt


Speculative Fiction Sad

I stared at the blazon red of the Campbell’s label and tried to ignore the rumble in my stomach. If I bought the soup, it would have been worth the right to choose to linger a little longer and steal a few moments with my grandmother after my cousins left the potluck on Saturday. Sadly, inflation had made the act of grocery shopping a joke. Evan didn’t want to come with me, saying he spent too many Choices the night before with his work buddies.

Then he promised to pay me back.

     I caught a glimpse of a chip in my manicure as I put the soup can back and smothered my rage at the amount of Easy Choices it took to get them into that perfect squoval shape with the French tip, just how Evan liked them. With those Easy Choices I could have called my grandmother, or my brother, or Andrew for that matter, but I didn’t want to raise suspicion, which made the insult of a chipped manicure so much worse.

  I shook my head at the thought and headed to the checkout. I had bananas, which my grandmother always said was a smart Choice because of the potassium (but in the end might cost me an Easy Choice like wearing my pretty red shoes for Wednesday’s girl’s night out, or a nap on the couch Sunday at noon), a 12 pack of ramen (which I had already paid for with the appetizers Evan wanted at dinner two Fridays ago), a pound of rice, two cucumbers, one onion, one half head of lettuce, five tomatoes, a pound of dried black beans, and five Idaho potatoes (which collectively cost me a visit with my mother on Thursday night, but I had been dodging her for weeks anyway).

I paid my Choices and brought the meager groceries back to my 2007 Honda Civic. It had a transmission that was hanging on by a hair, and if I pushed the clutch too hard it might fall out completely – according to what Evan said anyway. My brother fixed it up as best he could, but my foot on the clutch made the whining of my engine sound hopeless.            

Putting off the inevitable, I sat in the silent car and squeezed my hands on the wheel as tight as I could and watched my knuckles turn white, then released them, letting the skin relax and turn a rosy pink. I took a deep breath and turned the key. The car started in protest.

Deciding to go to the bank might cost a pickle in my next Bloody Mary, or maybe a fry from McDonald’s, I would decide later. Funny how a decision to go to the bank was always so cheap.

I left the Aldi’s parking lot and drove past my block, past my dentist, past the library (which, thankfully, had regency romance novels that didn’t cost any Choices), and straight to Chase Bank. It was worth saving my sack lunch Choices for five years for the chance to opt out of Evan obsessively tracking me through my phone. If he had known where I was going, he would have spent all our Choices on a whim to trap me. Picking the maggots out of bread or skipping lunch altogether was worth the illusion of freedom.

I pulled into a spot in front of Chase that seemed evenly distanced from the ATM and front door. My hands gripped the wheel again, knuckles cracking from the flexing. My jaw clenched and I closed my eyes as tight as they could get until I saw stars.

A vision of my mom’s face was behind my eyelids, so I opened them hoping to keep the demons at bay. My mind conjured visions of my mom cutting onions anyway, some man kissing her neck.

  If Time is Choice, then why would a mother not save at least two Moderate Choices for some privacy?

But I knew that the thought wasn’t fair. When it came down to a woman’s Choice or a man’s Choice, there was no competition. And as every woman had learned, if a man spent a Choice on you, it was almost impossible to afford a refusal.

I looked up at the entrance to the bank, the day lilies lining the doors had to have cost at least seven Corporate Choices each.

When I entered, Hank (the village drunk) had Chosen to run his eyes up and down my legs even though it probably cost him something like 50 seconds of his last moments he’d have with his sister. What a thing to trade for a glimpse at a pair of kneecaps.

I shuddered at the thought of the Life-Altering Choice he lost during March Madness three years earlier.

I took a seat next to the Keurig cart (equipped with sugars, equal, and Starbucks Pike’s Place k-cups, which probably cost the CEO about 12 smiles to strangers) and pulled out A Scot in the Dark, by Sarah MacLean, from my beaten tote (which cost me nine lunch Choices in elementary school when I bought it at a book fair) and dove into a world where Choices would truly belong to a woman.

A guy named Todd ushered me into his glass-walled office. He was about 5’11” and was one of those men who could have had endless options but Chose to have a full head of hair instead of a full beard. Too bad, now in his old age he can’t decide to have stubble, but the hairline is hardly impressive with his jowls hanging off his chin like thick cuts of pork belly.

I swallowed a bitter mixture of panic and guilt, “I’d like to apply for a loan.”

Todd shifted his horn-rimmed glasses, which were a good Choice because they gave him a scrutinizing look, perfect for intimidating people like me.

“Oh, would you?” he said in a goblin-esque voice, “and what would you like the loan for?”

“I’d like to move to Maine and learn how to sail,” I admitted, but then quickly added, “I think crabbing, fishing, and providing alternative foods to the Midwest would be important to my small town. I would like to join a fishing rig.” I blinked and internally kicked myself, this wasn’t how it went when I practiced with Grandma. Girls can get incredible loans and options when they make a compelling enough request, and mine was just clumsy and panicked. I practically gave myself away.

I was desperate to leave and escaping to an open sea sounded too scary not to try, and I already had a plan to do it as cheaply as possible.

Todd grumbled and cracked his knuckles, his skin the texture of paper. I wondered how he could bend his fingers at all.

“Well,” Todd squeezed, “I suppose this may be a noble enough cause, if it’s something you’d really like to do?” He adjusted his glasses, “I can pull up your credit report, but it will cost you…” He adjusted his glasses again to look at the screen, and I noticed he had Chosen not to replace the glasses cushion, “…that heartbeat skip you do when you hear a matching number on the lottery,” he finished, his voice thick with boredom.                     

What’s a heartbeat skip compared to a chance to leave?

I agreed to the terms.

  Todd clicked a button, then apologized for how slow the system is, another ingenuine “sorry,” to add to the list of many that I have received in my life so far. Apologies were always free.

I closed my eyes, and Andrew appeared. He was a rare Obvious Choice, a stolen moment in time where his lips met mine, and I knew my younger Big Choices had been spent stupidly. I used to subscribe to the philosophy of, “what was I saving my Choices for if not for the chance to be scandalous, to take risks, to be happy?”

  Andrew was who I should have saved my Choices for.

His forehead touching mine, his eyelids lowered, his hands. His wandering, knowing, golden hands always made sure to tell me that I didn’t have to spend Choices on him. For accepting me and my idiosyncrasies and deciding that they were Choices he could spend too. Choices he could hold, and protect, and love without any selfishness.

The Choice to go to Maine, near him, was the cheapest Choice I could make that got me closer to him… And not risk knowing what he’d spend his Choice on if I were available and he didn’t want me.

But then it wouldn’t matter, because I’d have the sea.

Todd cleared his throat and brought me back into reality. His goblin voice asked, “What will you be offering as an asset?”

“Disguise your desires,” my grandma’s voice whispered in my ear as if she were in the meeting with me, “don’t let them see what’s important to you, or they will snatch it from you. Act like material possessions matter the most to you. It’s easy enough for empty-headed men to believe.”

  I tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear and took a breath.

“My car,” I offered.

His eyebrows raised and slid his ridiculous glasses down the length of his pointed nose, which would have made me chuckle under different circumstances.

  “You mean the,” he corrected his glasses and looked at his screen, “2007 Honda Civic?”

“Yes,” I nodded.

“With the… Questionable transmission?”

My heart sank.

“Well, I do need it,” I countered, “I use it every day. I live at the edge of town and wouldn’t be able to go to work without it, how would I get to the docks in Maine without it?”

Todd sighed, looking a little smaller after the exhale.

“Look,” he paused and too his glasses off to rub a papery hand over his face, “With inflation, you’re going to need something with a little more collateral.”

I blinked again. I knew the Choice he would take from me, from the look on his face, he knew too.

“Hold on, let me find the small print,” Todd clicked the computer mouse with his small papery hands, “There may be something in here that you qualify for.”

I sat silently, waiting for his response as my heart crushed ice through my veins.

“Okay, I have to ask you some personal questions,” Todd got up from his desk and dramatically closes the door. The clang of the clasp bounced off the walls with a sense of finality. “Have any of the parties in question harassed you, or put you in bodily harm in any way?”

I blinked, “I-I’m not sure.”

“Not sure?” Todd sat, adjusted his glasses again, and peered incredulously through his eyebrows at me, “Most people are pretty sure about the injustices brought upon them.”

“Mine are,” I shifted in my seat, “complicated.”

Todd sighed again, “It can be hard for humans like you and me to know those injustices, but the algorithm,” he gestured to his computer, “can accurately measure what a price this high will cost you, unless you meet one of the criteria.”

“Okay fine. Yes,” I blurted, “I’m in a bad situation, okay? But he hasn’t done anything violent.”

“Does he take advantage of you?”

“Of course, that’s why I want to leave.”

“But he hasn’t done anything violent?”

I paused in confusion.

“So why would you want to leave if this man is not violent?” Todd’s eyebrows raised again in incredulity.

“He’s taking advantage of my kindness,” I clarified, trying to keep the tears at bay, “In the beginning, he was so sweet, promising me things, buying me flowers for no reason, making me dinner. His lease was up, and he was at odds with his roommate, so he moved in with me. I had no idea I was isolated until I suddenly didn’t have the Choice to see my little brother get married. He had slowly taken Choices from me without me even noticing.”

I was unable to hide the venom in my voice as I continued, “He’s walking all over me, spending his Choices and forcing me to work and provide for him. I don’t want to put up with it anymore, but I don’t have enough Choices to kick him out because I’ve already spent them all on him.”

Todd leaned back in his chair, his face was unreadable.

“Isn’t that some sort of emotional fraud?” I asked, “He promised me time after time that he would change. All I want is to Choose something for myself.”

Tears betrayed me and I slumped back in my seat whipping my nose with my sleeve. Unfortunately crying was free. And humiliating.

Todd grabbed the Kleenex box from next to his computer screen and handed it to me, telling me I could keep the whole thing.

He inhaled through his teeth, “Please know that this is not personal.”

I nodded, of course it wasn’t personal to him.

Todd pushed his greasy glasses up his nose again and clicked another button. The printer erupted with a whine. As the paper slid onto the tray, he looked out the big glass window of his office and lingered his gaze outside. I followed his line of sight.

A surveillance camera was pointed directly at his window.

I looked back at him, and he at me. His beady eyes were tight with worry behind his horn-rimmed glasses. What he wanted to tell me might have been wrapped up in a Hard Choice between his oldest child not talking to him for two years or his wife of decades filing for divorce tomorrow. Either way, he decided I wasn’t worth it.

He cleared his throat for the millionth time and looked down at his stack of printed paper.

“I understand,” I answered. I took another breath exhaled a defeated, “It’s not personal.”

He nodded and gave me a tight smile of sympathy.

I had always heard that Maine was beautiful in autumn.

August 19, 2022 17:41

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L.M. Lydon
19:25 Aug 25, 2022

I enjoyed the concept of Choices and the limitations imposed on the narrator's world by them very much. And your line "And as every woman had learned, if a man spent a Choice on you, it was almost impossible to afford a refusal" was particularly scorching/pointed. Evan seems pretty awful in a low-key way.


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Jeannette Miller
16:04 Aug 21, 2022

I like your take on the value of choices and how they affect future choices. I also like how people are controlled in your story not only in preventing bad choices but also the flip side of even helping someone can cost you more than you're willing to pay. It's a bleak story you've created here. It feels futuristic yet in the present at the same time as social credits are currently being used in certain parts of the world and just within ourselves everywhere else. Good job!


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