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Bonus post! - Choose One
A short story
Surprise! It’s a bonus post!
It’s not Wednesday afternoon, but I did want to submit this story for the Lunar Awards, which is shutting its gates tomorrow to choose the winner of their very first season. If writing contests are your thing, check them out!
(Even if they’re not, check it out anyway. It’s an awesome concept, and I’m super excited to be part of the opening season!)
Without further ado… my tale!
His voice echoed around the steel-plated room, bouncing off the walls and ceiling. I winced as it came hurtling back, driving itself into my skull like I wasn't going to hear him, even though we were the only ones in the room.
I looked down at the table. Three spoons. One had something like white rice, one had wild rice, and one had some kind of green grains that seemed to be glowing. It didn't look like rice, but I never claimed to be an expert.
The man in the suit with sunglasses crossed his arms and glared at me. He stood behind the first guy who'd spoken, an older gentleman with white hair and wrinkles around his eyes. I was pretty certain they were called laugh lines, but he didn't seem to be easily amused.
"Don't ask questions. Just do it."
The older gentleman gave me a tiny polite smile. "Don't mind him. He's just anxious to be on his way."
"Going somewhere important?"
The bodyguard skewered me with another pointed look, and I shifted my gaze back to the white-haired man, who seemed to be in charge. He merely shrugged and directed me back to the table.
"One of these is a poison," he announced. He'd already told me this once, but maybe he'd forgotten. Or maybe he thought it would keep me on track. "One of them is a food. And one of them is a scientific matter that will kill you instantly."
"Two poisons and a food?"
"Not quite. The poison won't actually kill you. Make you sick, yes, have some adverse side effects. Let's just say your stomach won't be the same for a few days. The scientific matter, though, will kill you instantly. Like so." His fingers snapped for emphasis. "So fast, you will not even recognize it coming."
"So, one poison, one food, and one death trap."
His eyes lit up. "Yes, quite. Now you have it."
I sat forward and considered the three spoons of whatever they were. White rice always seemed so innocent to me, bland and boring, so that one was definitely suspect in this case. The wild rice seemed... okay. Not super suspicious, but easy to hide stuff in. I wasn't sure what the green stuff was, but everybody knows food shouldn't bring its own light source.
Process of elimination: no glowing food. One down, two to go.
The gentleman in the chair raised his eyebrows. "Because you're here."
‘Here’ being the penitentiary. The looney bin. The icebox. The place they bring you when they're done with you, whether or not you're ready to go. Most people don't have to do anything to get locked up. One wrong step, and bam - they just disappear. No crime or transgression necessary.
Me, in my infinite stupidity, actually tried to get in. Put effort into it. Wanted to get caught. Why? I thought they'd have more food than I could get outside. Maybe I could stop going hungry, like the rest of the back alley kids. I was wrong.
As if on queue, my stomach moaned. I slid an arm over my belly, wishing it would stay quiet while we had company. My last meal happened a couple days ago, and at this point, almost everything on the table would be great as long as it made my body stop aching. At least if I ate the lab experiment, I wouldn't have to worry about hurting ever again.
The bodyguard rolled his head around his shoulders, cracking several of the bones in his neck. I glanced up from my task and noticed him continuing to stare me down. I wondered if he'd had lunch today, and if so, was it meat? They said that stuff ran out years ago, but the bodyguard and his old man looked pretty well-fed. They must be getting more than scraps and protein shakes out there.
The older man tapped the table. It made a pinging sound that rattled around the room again. "What do you think?"
I considered. The three spoons, the two men across from me, my roaring stomach, the steel cage we sat in. Three months ago, it would have seemed ridiculous. Sitting here, with them, facing a decision that may or may not kill me. Back then, I would have grabbed anything that looked like food. Nearly died five times over during my first tests. Took me a little longer than most, but I learned.
Don’t trust anything. Especially if it looks edible.
I sat back in my chair, feeling the steel bars through my thin convict shirt. "Thanks, but I'll pass."
The bodyguard growled, but the old man smiled. "Oh? You don't want to play my little game?"
I shook my head. "Not today, man. Like I said, thanks, but I don't need any handouts. I'll just wait until the next meal."
"You'll have a long time until then. Won't it feel better to have something in your stomach instead of nothing?"
My belly moaned again, louder. I ignored it and shook my head. "Nope. You can take your poisons and food and go somewhere else that cares, 'cause I don't."
My forced bravado fell flat as the bodyguard moved. He stepped easily across to my side of the room, put one hand on my chair, and pitched it forward until my nose almost touched the spoons.
"How courageous," said the old many dryly, "But your previous insight was correct. We do have somewhere interesting to be. So if you'll just choose your medicine, we'll make our notes and be on our way."
"What are you, a masochist?" I asked, trying not to breathe in the tiny kernels of possible death. "Forcing your stupid experiments on the rest of us?"
"Not the rest of us," corrected the old man. "Just you. Now please, don't make me choose for you."
The bodyguard dropped my chair with a rattle that shook my whole body. I closed my eyes, willing myself to calm down as my heartbeat skyrocketed. Visions of death climbed through my head: the bodies sprawled on the rocks, being picked apart by birds. The empty eye sockets that followed me as I scavenged what was left in their pockets, telling myself they wouldn't be able to eat it, anyway. The tolling bell that sounded in the jailhouse hallways, announcing a new opening in a cell, and the scraping sound as they dragged the old inmate away, his feet still twitching, into a back room. The horrible gurgling that echoed through the pipes shortly after, making us all wonder what exactly they'd done to the poor fellow on his way out the door.
The cells must not be emptying fast enough, I thought to myself as I cracked my eyelids open again. We must not be dying rapidly enough for them. Now they've taken to testing us, using us as guinea pigs for their next big discovery. Now we'd have to die, just for the sake of science. It really was quite unfair.
I reached for the wild rice spoon and let my fingers close around it. A flicker of interest showed in the old man's eyes, and he leaned forward, hardly aware he was doing it. A bad sign. They always got excited when you touched a death-bringing device. I let go of that one and moved on to the white rice. No reaction there. Better. Maybe it was as boring as I'd assumed it was in the beginning. Then I tested the weird glowing stuff. That got a good response, too - leaning forward, eyes bright, almost salivating over that spoon. Of course it must be the science material he was talking about. That one was instant death. Definitely not today.
I eyed the spoon of white rice. All things considered, if I took it, I'd probably be home free. Something in my belly, without the side effects or dying. I’d walk away winning their stupid test. Stay alive. See another day.
But if I did, the next time they had something to test, I'd be hauled in here as revenge. They’d make a point to go after me. Keep hammering, keep testing. Keep making me choose between sickness and death. And eventually, they’d win. They always do. It’s only a matter of time. I needed to fail somehow. If I did, even mediocrely, they'd leave me alone. At least for a few days.
Without any further thought, lest I change my mind, I made my decision.
I grabbed for the wild rice, dumping the whole spoon into my mouth. It wasn't cooked, of course, but at least it made for a crunchy texture as I chewed, working it around my mouth. It tasted like nothing. They hadn't even given me a slip of salt to help it go down easier, and no drink to wash it down. I somehow managed to get it swallowed without it.
The older man's eyes glittered. "How do you feel?"
I shrugged. My stomach lurched, a lot more insistent than the normal hungry growl. Bile climbed up the back of my throat, burning into my neck. "Fine."
The bodyguard moved to stand behind his master again as the old man consulted a list before him. "So you had... the wild rice."
"And you feel?" A pen clicked in his hand, and he held it poised above the paper, eyebrows raised as he looked at me. I opened my mouth to answer, and instead of speaking words, I heaved.
A river of puke cascaded out onto the stainless steel table, green with flecks of yellow and orange and brown. It splashed over the man's documents, soaking his sleeves with a putrid-smelling concoction that could only be explained as last Tuesday's chutney and greens. The bodyguard jumped back, but the old man merely looked distasteful as he flicked a glob of vomit off his wrist.
I nodded miserably. The pressure in my stomach was already rebuilding. If I opened my mouth, it would be all over him again.
"Well, you didn't take the scientific matter. You did, however, end up eating all of the poison. I assume you'd figured out that much for yourself."
I nodded and tried to ignore my shaking hands.
"That was enough for an elephant." He raised an eyebrow. "Do you know what an elephant is?"
I shook my head, lips pressed together. I could feel it, just down my throat. Just begging to come out and play. No. Don't give him the satisfaction.
"A monster weighing several tons. Do you weigh several tons?"
Shook my head again. Jiggled my leg, trying to distract myself from the incoming tidal wave.
That weird tiny smile hit his lips again. "It means, dear boy, that you're in for a very rough night. Don't you think?"
The urge to open my mouth proved too difficult. I couldn't control the pressure any more, the pulsing at the back of my throat. The man at the other end of the table leaped lightly to his feet as another wave of puke doused the table, splashing the first round onto the floor. My shoulders shook as it subsided, an ominous dripping sound filling my ears as it slid off the table and onto the floor. Making room for the next one.
"Well. I think that tells me all I need to know." The older man quirked an eyebrow at me, a knowing smile on his face as I pressed my hands together, knuckles white in an attempt to not throw up my entire interior. "Don't worry, boy. It goes away soon."
I didn't have time to answer as another wave racked my body, but I could hear him laughing as his shoes clicked towards the exit. There was a whooshing sound as the door opened, and he and the bodyguard stepped outside. Then it closed, and I was left alone, fingers gripping the edge of the table as my face turned white.
Enough to kill an elephant. It was going to be a long night. At least I’d still be alive in the morning.
(Photo by Alleksana, Pexels)