Warren wrestles the grocery cart down the cereal aisle, scanning the shelves for something interesting. He ignores the boxes extolling the latest and greatest choco-sugar-bombs for kids and fixes his gaze on the old-fogey options.
Not that he’s an old fogey. He’s not, despite his thinning hairline. He’s just a guy who likes to feel as though he’s eating something healthy to start his day. Whether that’s true or not.
A box with a nature scene catches his attention. At first, he wonders if it’s in the wrong aisle. Or somebody’s idea of a joke. Its graphics look a bit like those scenes used for the inspirational posters in his office’s lunch room.
The text on the box says, “New Life! Same great taste as before, now with a full day’s supply of vitamins!”
He vaguely remembers some kid named Mikey hating everything but loving the old Life. He reads over the ingredients list. Lots of whole grain stuff mentioned, along with cinnamon, natural flavorings (whatever those are), and added vitamins. The cereal gets tossed into his cart, and he grapples the clanking cart toward the cashier.
The next morning, Warren opens his new box of cereal. The aroma when the plastic is unsealed smells a bit like spring. That mix of wet dirt, fresh mulch, and fertilizer. It’s not necessarily pleasant, but it’s not unpleasant either. Somehow, the odor makes him wish he was the kind of guy who grew vegetables as a hobby.
His dad had after retiring. Always sent a text with a photo of his largest tomato or zucchini at the end of the summer. The reminder of the texts he no longer received put a lump in Warren’s throat.
Swallowing noisily and coughing to fight his sorrow, he pours the cereal into his bowl. While it smells like freshly turned earth, it looks more like granola. Different nuts and flakes fill the bowl. A few dried berries of some kind roll around in the mix.
Warren lifts the bowl to his nose and smells it. It still has that loamy fragrance, and he’s a bit unsure about eating it. A glance at the clock shows he’s running late. He shrugs and pours some milk.
The first mouthfull tastes like a handful of grass and twigs. Its texture on his tongue feels like it tastes. He knows that taste from playing softball with his buddies. It’s the aftertaste of diving for a ball. That reminds him, he needs to see if they’re fielding a team again this year.
The cereal crunches with a gritty feel between his teeth. It brings back an older, deeper memory from when his older sister double-dog-dared him to eat a mud pie.
Warren chokes down the cereal, wishing he’d thought to pick up some other option in case this one didn’t work out. He’ll have to stop on the way home.
The next morning, Warren again eats his New Life cereal. A last-minute project kept him at work later than expected, and he didn’t feel like shopping on his way home. He grudgingly swallows the loamy-smelling, gritty mess and vows that he’ll get something new tonight. No matter how late he is.
For the third morning in a row, Warren eats his dirt cereal. That’s what he’s come to call it. His excuse for not stopping last night was that he met his softball team to talk about the upcoming season. They got boasting about past exploits, and he’d felt happy for the first time in the six months since his dad’s death. Breaking up the fun to shop for new cereal just seemed…weird.
Besides, this new version of Life is filling. He admits that much. Each day, he finds he needs to eat less at lunch and dinner to feel full. The doctor told him cutting back on how much he eats is key to weight loss, so this new development isn’t terrible.
He’s just not sure why he really craved steak last night. Usually, he’s more of a vegetarian or white-meat kind of guy. Again, watching that diet to stay healthy. But last night, he’d ordered the biggest, rarest steak available at the sports bar. He barely touched his loaded baked potato, salad, or steamed veggies, but he nearly licked the plate clean where the steak had rested. It was just…weird.
He shoves the thought from his mind and quickly downs a bowl of New Life. Somehow, he has an extra ten minutes before he has to catch his train. He sits still and meditates.
He’s never meditated before, and the decision to try is just…well, weird again. But he feels calmer after focusing on steady breathing for ten minutes. He also feels taller as though his branches are stretching their way into the morning sky to greet the sun.
Wait, branches? What branches? He doesn’t have branches. Does he?
For a long moment, he considers checking his reflection in the mirror. Just to be sure. But the clock says he’s running late now, so he grabs his bag and heads out the door.
Throughout the day, Warren avoids looking into mirrors. He keeps his gaze down each time he goes into the men’s room. He doesn’t look around when walking to and from the train. That way, he can’t accidentally catch his reflection in the glass storefronts that line the sidewalks in the city.
On the train ride home, he considers stopping for more cereal. The box felt light this morning, which means he might not have enough for breakfast tomorrow.
He stops at the store and wanders the cereal aisle with a small shopping cart in hand. For reasons he can’t fully explain, he loads it with three boxes of New Life cereal. And a gallon of milk. And three t-bone steaks. He dashes to the cashier to check out, unsure of why he’s buying more of the dirt cereal. But he must.
On the fourth morning, Warren studies the twig that’s growing from the top of his head in the mirror.