Sami had never seen a garden so beautiful and lush. The rooftop space was like something out of a vid, but even more amazing because he could smell the dank greenery and touch the plants, if he wanted to. Nearby tables were heaped with food, a lot of it made from what grew around him.

The rich incredibleness of it all made him feel sick.

On the far-distant Latutal colony where he’d spent all ten years of his life, he’d mostly lived on engineered nutrient blocks in familiar silver packets. There had been times when harvests had actually been good or food supply drops arrived from Earth, but those moments had been more special than Christmas.

Mom approached. “How are you?” she asked, her words almost lost among the jabbering voices. There had to be 30 people here, all of them relatives through his mother, all of them strangers who were digging into foods that were stranger still.

Sami shrugged, not sure what to say without sounding ungrateful. “You showed me rooftop gardens like this in vids, but … wow.”

“My parents were early adopters, but these are becoming more common everywhere. The potable water catchment system saves them during drought years.” She smiled as he reared back, blinking. “Earth has droughts and famines, too, and in some places they can be as bad as …”

She stared into the distance, into space, unable even to put a name to the place Sami still thought of as home, even though he already knew they’d never go back. Their colony was a failed experiment. The investors had pulled out. The seals on the dome wouldn’t have survived another season. Here, Mom already had a new job. He could go to school, make new friends, try new foods — and he so wanted to try them! Everything smelt intriguing, but even as his mouth watered, his stomach twisted.

“It’s nice here,” Sami said, trying to act like everything was fine, trying to act like an Earth boy.

She studied him for a moment. “This is a lot to take in, isn’t it?”

He shrugged again as he fought a sudden flare of tears. “It’s just, it’s not … home,” he finally managed, even though he knew the confession would wound her. She flinched. He expected her to snap back that they’d sacrificed everything to come back here, that this was their home, but instead tears filled her eyes, too.

“It takes time,” she said slowly, “for a place to be more than a place, for it to become a home. No one is expecting you to make that transition in an instant, or even in weeks or months.”

“But … but I want this to feel like home!”

Mom smiled. “That’s good. That makes it easier, but it’ll still take time.” She tilted her head to listen as a knife and fork clattered together at a nearby table. A disturbing yet tantalizing meaty aroma filled the air. “You haven’t managed to eat anything yet, have you?”

Sami shook his head in misery. “I’m sorry. I know this is our ‘Welcome to Earth’ party, and Nana was nice and even labelled everything so I’d know what was what, but everything is weird, and some things, I don’t even know how I’m supposed to eat it.”

“I should have stayed closer to you to talk you through more. I’m sorry.”

He shook his head fiercely. “I don’t need a babysitter!”

“There’s a difference between needing some help and needing a babysitter. This is a lot to take in.”

“I don’t know if I could eat anything, anyway,” Sami mumbled. “These smells make me feel sick.” He pressed a hand to his gut.

“Let’s go over here.” Mom placed a guiding hand on his shoulder to walk with him through the garden rows. Laughter and clatter faded. An overhead sprinkler turned on nearby, sending a soft shower onto a bin of purple and green lettuces. The faint mist felt good on his skin. “Do you feel better now?”

He nodded. He hadn’t been in the colony greenhouses much but the vibe here was at least somewhat familiar.

Mom reached into her pocket and pulled out a nutrient packet — no, two nutrient packets.

His jaw dropped. “But we can’t — there’s all that other food —”

“I haven’t eaten anything yet, either. I wondered ahead of time if I even could. I haven’t seen a full picnic feast since before you were born.”

“But you know these foods! You’ve told me about them.”

“It’s still a lot to take in,” Mom said softly. “For both of us.”

“Nana won’t be mad if we don’t —”

“She labelled everything to try to help you, remember? She’ll understand if you’re not ready yet — if neither of us is ready yet — and so will the others. This is your first family get-together on Earth, Sami. There will be many more. You’ll have time to try these foods in the future.” She handed him a bar.

In the future. Yes. He had a future here on Earth. He and Mom mouthed a countdown together, as they had for years, and at zero, they opened their packets at the exact same time. Sami grinned. So much had changed, but some things had not.

“Everything’ll be OK,” Mom said, and Sami believed her.

The story behind the story

Beth Cato reveals the inspiration behind Family get-together.

Trying new foods can be exciting. And terrifying.

I explore the subject of food quite often within genre fiction. Many of my stories along that theme have been published here in Nature (Bread of life, The right cornbread and Welcome home); my forthcoming high-fantasy novel with 47North even explores the concept of food as magic. For me, food is more than a daily necessity. It’s a major interaction with flavour, texture, culture and history.

This is a straightforward story, really. A child can’t eat, but he’s not merely a ‘picky eater’. He’s on a new planet, a place he wants to call home, but he doesn’t understand the food: its smells, its textures, the very ritual and procedure of the meal. He’s probably been overwhelmed by many things since his arrival on Earth, but here, the focus is on food. This is where we witness his struggle, but also the love and support of his family.