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2020 Summer Flash Contest Winner: “Tonight We Eat”

Rani sweeps around the curve in the buffet tables, her dark hair trailing at least 3 feet behind, covering her lean legs and small buttocks. Wasn’t it cruel enough to have the Secondaries play this infernal game without the extra handicap of long hair, Meg wonders, watching as Rani’s scores continue to climb up the charts.

Rani’s tan skin contrasts starkly against the colorful delicacies heaped on the buffet tables: pastel petit fours, fluorescent green tropical fruits, deep pink salmon, and shining red meats. Meg’s mouth waters. Like Rani, she hasn’t eaten for days. Living out on the sand flats, they are the lowest of the Secondary Citizens in the harshness of this hell they call home.

What with Meg’s immune intolerances, it was a good thing Rani won the draw. She was Meg’s best hope. And only friend. After the great desert had claimed both their families, they’d stuck together, learning how to maneuver the new world together, a place where the old oligarchs ruled absolutely.

The evening air flows into the grand tent, cooling Meg as she shifts from foot to foot. She’d have nothing to eat tonight if Rani didn’t win. As if on cue, Rani gives Meg a sideways nod, her hands tied behind her back, as she bends to neatly eat from a silver platter stacked with banana slices. Bold move, Meg thinks. Leave it to her friend to stock up on the most nutritious but lowest-ranked food on the table. How will she make up the points? Meg watches enviously, fondly remembering the sweet taste of the ripe fruit. Rani spends a good ten minutes at the banana platter while Meg wonders if they haven’t misjudged the other contestants. She turns her gaze from Rani and scans the competition.

One lanky man with short blonde hair had been eating mainly from the vegetable table, seemingly unconcerned that the food would not weigh in high on the calorie count score. But he is trim and well-groomed. Meg blushes as she assesses his form from navel to crotch. She has a feeling many of the judges will assign extra points for his impressive asset.

Meg turns to the other man in the competition: short, square, and muscular. He’d been eating exclusively from the meat table, making a big show of tearing into the rare beef with his bleach-white teeth, then licking the juices seductively from his lips. Meg hates the blatant sexuality of it all, mostly because pandering to it often wins the game.

Come on Rani, she silently cheers, sex it up.

The other woman in this heat is average build and playing by the numbers. Meg knows how many nights are lost thinking up strategies to answer critical game questions, like what is the best calorie combination? Or what is the most nutrient count? After all, those criteria accounted for 75% of your final score. If one believes a corrupt system like this can be trusted to follow the rules, Meg scoffs. Not tonight. They need a win.

Meg chews on an errant hangnail. She’s pushed in on either side by potential contestants, but all remain silent. Cheering from any Secondary will be cause for disqualification and, even worse, the disqualification carries to all family and friends present at that game. Everyone knows Rani and Meg are a team. So she keeps her cool as Rani walks lithely away from the bananas to the seafood table. With pursed red lips, she wraps her tongue around a shrimp, flicks it decisively to the side, and casts off the crustacean’s shell. It plops on the tablecloth as the men in the grandstand murmur excitedly at her dexterity. Such a tongue; Meg overhears the comment and stifles a laugh. As soon as they won, they’d be back on the high desert and working the circuit. It never proved well to stay too long in any of the fiefdoms that dotted the landscape.

Meg glances at the clock. Fifteen more minutes. Will Rani forego the dessert table completely? It is a risky move. Some might say it is daring; others would think it shows a lack of closure to the dining experience.

Rani tosses her hair, so it falls cascading down her left side to expose one perfectly round breast as she bears down on the cheese table. Meg can almost hear the judges’ thoughts: excellent first move, but will she choose fruit next or the decadent cake? Meg sighs. She longs for sugar.

With an alacrity that surprises even Meg, Rani sweeps up a soft cheese with her wide tongue and deposits it royally onto a cracker. She demurely nibbles like a small animal, finishing the cheese cracker with only a single crumb falling to the side of her lips. Meg feels her pulse quicken. Rani’s next move will make or break the game.

Two contestants are working their way through the dessert table in a coarse plebian way. Rani joins them in two strides, slurping up a pear slice from the fruit table on her way. Undaunted by the chocolate fountain’s complexity, she stands in front of the syrupy waterfall and picks up a melon slice with her two front teeth, dips it in, and swallows the slice whole. Meg gets chills watching how her friend’s calculated move affects the judges: mouths slacken, eyes glint, hands shake with excitement. Meg fears this may be the time she won’t be able to get Rani away fast enough from their greedy, hungry hands.

The cool breeze dies off for the final five minutes as Rani picks up a strawberry, dips it in chocolate, and twists the fruit away from the stem with a single deft flick of her tongue. The crowd hushes, the anticipation thickens, and Rani casts a sideways look of triumph at Meg: tonight they eat.

 

—V. Bray has been a writer since childhood and still has a box filled with her first “books,” usually illustrated with markers and bound with yarn. She writes in many genres, from speculative and historical fiction to poetry. Learn more at authorvbray.com.

 

Interview with the author: V. Bray

What was your inspiration for “Tonight We Eat?”

I had a dream about a bizarre food competition where you had to eat without using your hands AND were naked. I woke up thinking, “Why on earth would someone participate in a contest like that?” I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.

What was your revision process like for this story?

I approached the story slowly and didn’t overthink the structure. The first draft centered around Meg and Rani. I added the details about the game and descriptions of the other contestants while revising.

All of our judges commented on the stunning amount of world-building in this narrative – a true feat for a work that falls under 1,000 words. Do you have any tips for other authors on how to successfully balance world-building with plot and character in such a short space?

The fact that the food competition is the main event in the story made world-building easier. Everything the characters did, said, or thought revolved around that one event.

Do you think you’ll revisit Rani and Meg and the world they inhabit in any future work?

I don’t know. I have to listen to see if there is more to tell.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing thus far?

Don’t give up! When I was younger, I became frustrated when the writing process wasn’t easy or a piece I loved was rejected. The worst thing I did was stop writing for years and years. Just keep going.

What’s your best advice to fellow writers interested in pursuing speculative flash fiction?

Read everything you can, from science magazines to YA dystopian books to speculative poetry. Even the local newspaper can supply a tidbit for your next story.