H A Tasty Dish

Editor’s Foreword

“A Tasty Dish” is the short fiction winner in our 2005 Halloween Writing Contest.

Betsy–Stupid name for a dragon, thought Maria–had already bitten a chunk from the giant Jack O’ Lantern. And scorched the fluffy insides blood red with her fiery breath.

Perched on the pumpkin rim, pulpy slime seeping through her sawn-off jeans, Maria tried to block the sound of the crowd egging on Betsy, picturing, instead, the sign stuck into the pumpkin. EAT AT JOE’S, it read.

EAT AT MARIA’S, it would say. If she survived. And she would survive. Otherwise she’d be Joe’s char-grilled Halloween special.

The sledgehammer! I’ve got to reach the sledgehammer!

She lunged to her left, felt its smooth wooden handle. But Betsy was there, tail lashing.

Snap.

The sound of Maria’s ankle breaking was no more than the click of a gas hob igniting, miniscule compared to the boom of the cheering crowd, but the pain surging through her body would have drowned a world full of applause. Tears sprang to her eyes.

I won’t be beaten! I didn’t go to catering college for nothing! Pushing with her good leg, she dived inside the pumpkin–her womb. A bitter, burnt caramel stench filled her nostrils. Gritting her teeth against the pain in her left leg, she cowered into her womb and stared at her ankle. A bone stuck out at a peculiar angle, and her whole foot was swelling. Her skimpy sandals had afforded no protection.

Why doesn’t Betsy frazzle the whole Jack O’Lantern? she thought, glancing up at the fibrous roof. It seemed so flimsy. Because it’s not cricket, that’s why! Maria answered herself, as she grabbed a handful of blood-red flesh and smeared it over her ankle. The pain subsided slightly. When I win the franchise, I’m going to include a pharmacy and sell burnt pumpkin poultice. She yanked out the ribbon, regimenting her unruly blonde hair, and bound her throbbing ankle with it. Then she grinned. All I have to do is hit that sign before All Saints’ Day. Hit the sign and click the computer mouse. And the sooner I do it, the less I’ll suffer.

Outside, in the arena, the crowd screamed for her blood, increasing her determination. Why should Joe, Blind Joe as everyone now called him, keep the café for another year? Why should he rake in the dosh with his burnt sausages and soggy mashed potato when she could entice with mouth-watering steak and garlic mushrooms served by candlelight? Maria inhaled and almost smelt her cordon bleu delights. Every single day for four whole years Joe had been poisoning his clients. And Maria knew for a fact that he never washed his hands after using the toilet. She’d spied on him.

Earning a fortune with his disgusting slop. Rich. Joe wasn’t rich. He was indecently rich. He ran the only eatery allowed within ten miles of town. And all because no-one’s beaten Betsy. Until now. I’ll do it! I’m young and fit and strong! She ticked off the previous contenders. Sam: a heart attack before Betsy had even stoked her fire. Patrick: ate too many of Joe’s greasy sausages and ended up as boiled lard. Simon: a paraplegic within seconds. Even Joe had lost his eyes. Fried crispy prawn balls, they’d become.

Ankle now only a dull throb, Maria peeked at the audience. White tape separated her from it. Sixteen feet of safety margin. Betsy’s flames could reach no further than twelve, but audience arms and torsos could reach another three, maybe even three-and-a-half.

Sod the bloody spectators. They’ll be glad when I win. No more chewing gristle. No more fat-drenched spuds. She took a deep breath and, head first, tumbled into the arena towards the sledgehammer. Her hands grasped wood, and the air around her exploded into flames. Her hair shrivelled to brittle nothing, and the skin on her neck bubbled. Whiffs of burnt Maria sizzled into the air. She coughed. No more dumb-blonde jokes. No more fawning men. I won’t miss either. Not when I have my restaurant.

Hammer in hand, she dived for the pumpkin, punching a chunk of yellow peel into the air as she went. Panting, she braced herself for the crowd’s boos. They didn’t come. As she plastered pumpkin flesh over her blistered face and neck, a pain-modified grin spread across her features.

“MA-RI-A! MA-RI-A! MA-RI-A!” the crowd chanted. They wanted her cuisine. They wanted her pumpkin panacea. They wanted her. Now nothing would stop her.

She swung the sledgehammer at her pumpkin womb and a third of its wall shattered. Above her head, the Eat at Joe’s sign dangled precariously. Bong. It would make an ear-shattering sound when she struck it. She lifted the hammer again, swung–

And hit Betsy’s head.

Betsy roared and the crowd, suddenly quiet, shrank back behind the tape. Crackling flames broke the silence, as they gushed from Betsy’s mouth, tingeing dragon-sharp teeth orange. Maria ducked, saving what was left of her face. Everything was bathed in orange, even her, she guessed. Orange eyes that can make a dragon shrivel. She glared up at Betsy.

But Betsy didn’t shrivel. Betsy spewed forth another volcano’s worth of fire, and Maria’s womb cooked baked-Alaska style. Swinging the hammer, Maria rose from her baked Alaska like a phoenix rising from ashes. Betsy blasted more fire into the air, and Maria crackled as if she were a sucking pig.

Bong.

Instantly, Betsy froze, became a marble statue, a piece of petrified stone that wouldn’t revive until Halloween next year, and the crowd surged through the tape cordon.

“You did well, lass.” She turned to see blind Joe and his guide dog. “I’m glad.” He clapped her on the back. “Even I hate burnt bangers and soggy mash. But hey, what else can a blind man cook?” Laughing, he placed a hand on her elbow, supported her as she hopped to the mouse. Stooping, she left-clicked and a message winged its way across the ether.

EAT AT MARIA’S, it said.

 

About the Author

Gill Ainsworth, a British writer, is an Opinions Editorialist and co-editor for Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in print and in electronic format on both sides of the Atlantic. She may be contacted through the Apex Digest website.

 

Where to Find this Author

Notes:

A limited edition chapbook with this story and the runners-up in the short fiction category, plus the winners in the flash/poetry category, will be available for purchase soon. Please stay tuned to this web site for details...

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