* * *
“It doesn’t mean death,” I told her.
I kissed her lightly on the lips and stepped through the door.
I shouldn’t be here. I thought this as I looked around the room. The steel walls, steel table and chairs featured many bolts. Everything in this room was for one purpose only: death. Four men enter and only one man leaves. I paid my three pounds of sugar and was led to chair number four. I had the largest buy in, so I got the best chair strategically. I winced as they applied the cuffs to each of my ankles. The seatbelt was tightened so I was immobile from the waist down. Six strawberries were placed on the table in front of me. My three opponents received the same treatment. I wasn’t the favorite, but no one knew of my secret weapon. It came from the same source as my sugar: Europe. The Europeans liked a good game more than they had use for the sugar or the hospital grade insulin I had fashioned into a delivery system. The insulin was more valuable than the combined buy ins of all of us, but it’s disappearance wouldn’t be discovered until after I was victorious. I looked to each corner of the room to see a video camera. This would be a show to see. After all, in this room people bet their lives to win something big.
The man in the number one chair reached for his first strawberry and ate the whole thing in a single gulp. The lights in the room were intense. Because of this, we all had pupils that were tiny dots. That was the clue, after all, the transformation was so evident when there was harsh light.
We stared at his pupils for a minute before he looked to the man in the number two chair. Number Two smiled and bit into the strawberry. The smile intensified as he ate the rest. A terse minute passed before we all looked towards contestant number three. He placed the strawberry into his mouth with only the stem visible. His neck muscles tightened as his jaw worked and he spit the stem onto the table. He leaned back and smiled at the three of us.
Secretly, I hoped he was the first to go. The blatant arrogance this man displayed was appalling. He didn’t seem to care he was gambling with his life. All eyes were on me now. I’d been preparing ever since the sugar and insulin came into my possession. I pressed the plunger of my improvised device hidden in my shoe. I felt the needle bite between my toes. It was now or never. I bit into the strawberry and it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted. I’m sure I ate fruit years ago, but I was too young to remember life before the outbreak. I closed my eyes to savor the strawberry and I was acutely aware of a trickle of juice run down my chin. I was in ecstasy.
A loud bang caused my eyes to snap open. Number Two banged his hand on the table. I scowled the best as I could and finished the rest of the strawberry. I twisted the stem and single leaf against my lips as my opponents watched my eyes intently. If I didn’t make it through this, I would die happy. The losers of this game paid for their loss with a bullet.
My minute passed and Number One took a deep breath. In a single motion, he scooped up another strawberry, popped it into his mouth and swallowed it whole. Number One was confidant, but not arrogant like Number Three. After the allotted minute, he let out the breath he was holding and pointed at Number Two. His smile wasn’t as big as it was in the first round, but he ate his strawberry quickly.
We all saw it at the same time: Number Two’s pupils dilated. He blinked twice and grabbed the remaining strawberries in front of him. He ate them so quickly and with such savagery, it looked as if he had eaten one of his fingertips. He, or now more accurately, it, struggled against the restraints. It was after the strawberries placed in front of the closest competitors. We all stared. I had known this would happen, but I had never seen the transformation happen first hand. A single stroke from a machete separated the head from the body. It was humane this way. The body would still feed on itself, but it would never eat again.
Number Three’s arrogance was gone now. Beads of sweat materialized on his forehead. This is no longer a game to him, I thought. He reached for a strawberry and simply froze – mid reach. He brushed his fingertips against the crimson fruit. It could have been longing, but I’d never know. He grabbed the strawberries and flung them away. He looked up at the ceiling and in the harsh light, a tear glistened on his gruff cheek. It was written on his face: he had lost and would never compete again.
I grabbed a strawberry and chewed furiously. I wasn’t sure how long the insulin would affect me. I wanted this ordeal to end as soon as possible. Rounds three and four went without incident. Round five started like each one before it with him plopping the entire strawberry in his mouth, but this time it was different. He coughed once and I saw his pupils dilate. His blood sugar triggered the virus and it was all over for him. I was a single strawberry away from my first win. I ignored the machete stroke ending my opponent and ate my last strawberry. I was sixty seconds away from paying off all my debts and getting myself smuggled out of America. I stared triumphantly at a clock on the wall. Twenty seconds. Ten seconds. Five, four, three, two, one. My plan worked. I had won and all my dreams would one true. She and I would be together at last.