The warden’s stooges frog-marched the former prisoner to an uncertain freedom. Johnny Hotpocket stood outside of Massive State Penitentiary, blinking in the early morning sunlight. His manila folder contained only his watch, a gaudy orange flyer and a bus ticket in lieu of the state’s usual cab fare. Johnny couldn’t believe his luck. He grinned stupidly while he strapped on his shabby watch and withdrew the flyer.
“Goddammit, not again.” Johnny sat down on the curb, suddenly weary. Cheer and good humor fled his newly unshackled soul, replaced by a bitter lozenge of frightened despair that drained his mouth of all saliva. Leaning back on his elbows, he marveled at the mocking invitation of the imposing prison behind him. Johnny closed his eyes.
As the lone survivor of the recent Game of Souls tournament, Johnny had faced down the devil’s Twisted Trio–Lurchin’ Louie, Amblin’ Amber and Trapeze Tommy. He’d won ten million dollars but had been arrested on trumped up charges of embezzlement–the devil was a sore loser. Now, Lucifer was back with a new challenge. Johnny dipped his hand into the envelope once more. The good ol’ devil apparently had wrangled a full pardon and wrapped it with a one-way bus ticket to Sin City.
The six-hour ride from Los Angeles to Las Vegas manifested the dichotomy between the metaphorical endpoints. Shiny, concrete freeways disintegrated into dusty, desert back roads. Johnny was starving as he shambled off the urine-scented Greyhound bus. As dirty as he felt, he still cringed when a filthy, toothless old woman came up to him, palm outstretched. Johnny saw bright little candies dancing on her wrinkled flesh.
“Get out of here, old bat. Unless you have burgers and fries, I ain’t buyin’.”
“Have them, too,” the old lady croaked. She reached into the folds of her rags and produced a greasy bag.
Johnny was about to snatch the food and run when he sensed a chilly shadow behind him. Hastily retracting his hand, he spun around to come face-to-face with the biggest, blackest human he’d ever seen. Light seemed to be sucked into the center of the giant man’s body. His features were indistinct, shaded as they were by the dense nothingness cloaking him. Johnny shivered.
“You'd best leave my mom alone, Johnny. You don’ want none of that fast food, anyway. Gilda’s just about ready for you!” The man waved his arm, indicating a taxi just beyond the Greyhound berth.
Johnny shook off his trepidation and, thinking of the seven-course meal ahead, walked with purpose to the gleaming cab. He squinted at the logo on the door. The leaf was undulating, looking quite sensual to Johnny in his deprived state. “Virgin Valley? What’s with the wiggling leaf? Looks like a girl's…”
“Get in, Johnny.” The big man climbed into the driver’s seat. He turned around to glare at his new passenger. “Not another word, Johnny, or you will forfeit. I will throw your ass out into the desert. Wiggle on that.”
“Ladies and gentlemen! Place your bets. Who will be the last one standing after Gilda serves her ghastly gourmet? Check the bookmakers’ odds and get your bets in! We’ll be starting in five minutes. Capital One cardholders, we have a special offer if you bet at least two thousand dollars. See your brochure for details!”
Johnny and the other contestants were in a boxing ring, milling about aimlessly as they waited for the action to start. After the big man had directed him to the hotel and told him to climb into the ring, he had received no further instructions. The contestants were sizing each other up but Johnny knew better. This wasn’t about them. It was about tap dancing with the devil and getting to keep your shoes when it was over.
Johnny had lost his brother and best friend in the Game of Souls. He wasn’t sure he could repeat as champion cheater of death. But, what else did he have going on? Once lost, a man never really buys back his soul–he only gets to borrow it while enjoying heaven on earth. Johnny believed the devil owed him a little heaven.
Finally, the time had come. The lights dimmed. A dazzling white spotlight snapped on. The contestants shrank away from the circle glowing in the center of the boxing ring. White smoke began to rise within the circumference of the light. For a moment, it swirled hypnotically in the blinding beam. Abruptly, it condensed and solidified into the form of a Rubenesque female. Gilda Gastrimargia, a demonic siren, wore a chef’s hat and nothing else. The remaining smoke dissipated to reveal not only Gilda’s hideous countenance but also a long, oaken table covered with foodstuffs.
A contestant looked too closely into Gilda’s eyes, gagged loudly and vomited. Immediately, two green lizards climbed into the ring and licked up the mess. Moments later, they gobbled up the contestant, leaving only a severed toe. With the proper tone established, the tournament got underway.
“Step up and get your chicken soup! It’s good for the soul,” Gilda snickered.
Each contestant approached the table and grabbed a bowl of soup. Gilda described what they were about to consume:
“Each chicken has been decomposed exactly 13 days in two hundred-degree steel containers. Meat came right off the bone, I’ll tell ya!”
Two more contestants gagged, earning them an early exit. Johnny frantically strained to reach his core. He knew that controlling his reflexes was vital. He was concentrating so hard, he never heard the rest of the ingredients, which cost five more contestants their guts and lives.
When Johnny felt ready, he took a sip. Surprisingly, the soup was rather tasty. He tilted the bowl to his lips and drank it down in three gulps. He gargled the last mouthful, swallowed and smacked his lips in mock appreciation. Gilda glared at him, as she was still describing how she’d squeezed eye of newt to thicken the broth. Some of the other contestants, encouraged by Johnny’s bravery, took timid sips and discovered that Gilda was just trying to intimidate them.
Gilda retaliated with a steaming vat of panther piss. She offered the vile libation to her guests. The bluffing phase was over.
Four courses and seventy dead challengers later, Johnny Hotpocket and two hardy contestants remained. The three otherwise anonymous players had forged a bond by anticipating and disrupting Gilda’s syncopated spiel. Working in tandem, they had managed to deflect the psychological barriers to consuming the disgusting delicacies. Johnny was grateful for their assistance. Still, it was every man for himself. Johnny mentally distanced himself from Rock-head and Blondie.
Though Johnny had been focused on his allies rather than the food, he’d realized that none of the courses was nefarious. Johnny found this to be slightly disturbing; there had to be a catch. He tried not to overthink this contest, but he knew the devil wasn’t going to give away ten million dollars to just anyone with a cast-iron stomach. That’s when it hit him. He was full. “Oh no …”
Gilda conjured up a bushel of corn on the cob. She beckoned to the contestants. “Gather 'round. My cornucopia runneth over and that makes me plenty horny. Satisfy me or eat an ear of raw corn. Your choice.”
Rock-head sauntered over and began to undo his trousers. Gilda stopped him. “Put that away, you nasty man! You want Gilda? You do me like this!” She grabbed an ear of corn and began demonstrating in exacting, masturbatory detail, how to satisfy her needs. It was too much for Rock-head. He gave a mighty hurl and puked all over Gilda.
Blondie opted to chew through an uncooked cob. She lost a tooth but kept everything else down. As she retreated to a far corner, she winked at Johnny. Johnny was in no mood to eat any more food. He felt degraded as he approached Gilda and slowly buttered her corn.
“Thanks, Johnny. I feel wonderful!” Gilda cackled as she loosened her grip from his neck. She waddled around her table, gathering ingredients for the next course.
Johnny’s arms were trembling violently. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to lift them again. Worse, he couldn’t look Blondie in the eye. He commanded his mind to decipher Gilda’s movements. She was stacking utensils, cups and small containers into two piles. One of the piles had a knife and spoon, while the other had just two spoons. He guessed that he and Blondie were about to do some cooking.
Gilda arranged the final items on the table–a pair of blenders filled with ice. With her usual flourish, she ordered the two to the table. Johnny roughly nudged Blondie toward the pile with the knife, earning himself a glare from his former partner. As he got closer to his pile, he could see vanilla beans, sugar and honey. He glanced over at Blondie's ingredients. A quiet snicker escaped his bruised lips at the sight of lemon peels, worms and strange bean-like things on a plate. They waited.
“Welcome to the seventh course. Before you consume it, it’s time for a little intercourse, since you’re so lovey-dovey now.” Gilda cackled.
Blondie gasped. Johnny jumped at the chance to reestablish rapport with her. He turned to Gilda, “You mean intermezzo, dumbass.” Blondie’s shoulders sagged with relief. She gave Johnny a hopeless little smile.
“Right you are, Johnny,” Gilda tittered. “I meant intermezzo. Italian is Greek to me. So…the intermezzo shall be prepared, one for the other.” She pointed to the piles and instructed them to blend all the ingredients and serve it to their opponent.
Blondie smirked as she eyed his pile. She quickly emptied the worms, cardamom and lemon rinds into her blender. A quick hit on the frappé button and she had a pungent sorbet ready for Johnny.
Johnny was fuming as he threw his ingredients into the blender. He’d forgotten, for a moment, that this wasn’t about opponents. Now he’d have to pay. He pushed the top speed on his blender, promptly liquefying the cloying mixture of sugar, honey, vanilla and ice. He poured a cupful and handed the slush to Blondie. He grabbed his sorbet and scarfed it down.
Meanwhile, Gilda quietly prepared the final course. A goat’s head lay on a platter, stuffed to the eyeball sockets with its own cheese. Since neither of the two contestants had choked on their palate-cleansing treats, she called them over to the goat.
“Head cheese, my lovelies.” Gilda handed each a giant ladle. “Eat up! Not one crumb of cheese must remain.”
Blondie, who had regained her composure, quipped, “I’m glad it’s not really headcheese. I hate that stuff.”
“Oops.” Johnny shook his head frantically. Too late.
Gilda overheard Blondie and waved her hands over the goat’s head. “Ask and you shall receive!” She laughed maniacally as the goat morphed into a wooden bucket of warm spit. “That’s not headcheese either. Since you hate it. I suppose the ladles are a little more useful. Slurp up, chickadees!”
Blondie threw up.
The warden's stooges shook their heads. Less than 48 hours after getting out, Johnny Hotpocket was back in jail, charged with murdering a cocktail waitress in Vegas. One looked sadly at Johnny, “You want us to notify anybody about picking your stuff? That's a mighty fine Rolex.”
This gruesome story is adapted from my original submission on CreativeCopyChallenge.com.