It had been three weeks since the game had started. Jack paced across the kitchen floor like a zoo lion who can smell the zebras and antelope in the neighboring pen. The tantalizing aroma in the next room was almost too much. But he couldn’t give in. Not when he thought about the source of those smells.
Just that thought was enough to stop his stomach from growling for a little while. He had to win. It wasn’t just the money on the line, although a million smack-a-roos would change his life, his sanity precariously teetered like a playground seesaw. Even the smallest nibble would send him over the edge.
Hell, he thought he’d go crazy just smelling the barbecued flesh next door. He’d seen the spread. They had showed all of them on the first day. A buffet table ran the length of the long room, piled high with meat cooked in every manner possible and replenished daily. Stews, steaks, ribs, hamburgers, fajitas, cheesesteaks, chili…
Jack crouched and leaned his too thin frame against the kitchen cabinets with his hands over his ears. Like that would stave off the hunger. He rocked back and forth and tried to focus on something else. Anything else.
His stomach rumbled. He thought of roaches and maggots crawling through the meat. Of the food floating in slimy green cesspools. He thought of where the meat came from. It was enough…for now.
Then he heard footsteps and the sound of breaking glass. Someone was in the next room. He tried not to listen but the groans of pleasure were too loud. A lion had breached the fence and snacked happily on a gazelle.
Without realizing it, he’d risen to his feet and approached the door. His hand touched the knob. He forced himself to retract it, to wait. He had no idea how many others had given in to the temptation. They switched rooms every day. Some were closer to the dining room than others. Since he’d been in the kitchen, he’d heard two other people dining on the disgusting spread.
How many were left?
How much longer would he have to hold out?
How much longer could he hold out?
Jack knew humans could survive a long time, weeks, months even, without food. But how long could they make it knowing food was just next door? His stomach growled again. He grabbed the knob. If he turned, if he looked, there would be no going back.
Just as he twisted the knob, a scream erupted from the other side of the door. The most pathetic, horrific, insane scream Jack had ever heard. He released the knob like it was on fire. Loud crashes followed. Something hit the wall and clattered to the floor.
Jack stumbled back and fell on his rump. A glint of silver shone through the crack under the door. Beside it, a chunk of meat stared at him. Tested him. Tempted him.
He lay down and looked at it. The explosion of sound had ceased in the buffet room. The contestant must have been carried away, losing more than just the contest.
Jack inched closer. Smelled the meat. He could almost taste it. Surely one little lick would be okay? He wouldn’t really be eating it, right?
The buzz of the loudspeaker interrupted his thoughts.
“Congratulations to contestant number twelve, Jack Kreacher! Winner of the tenth annual Tantalus Contest!”
The door burst open and a man in a sleek suit appeared.
“Mr. Kreacher, you’ve just won a million dollars! What do you have to say?” He shoved a microphone under Jack’s nose.
Jack looked past the mic to the room beyond the man. At the smashed table and the scattered human flesh. It was over. He couldn’t believe it was over.
“Mr. Kreacher?” the man asked, a nervous twinge to his voice. “You just won. What do you have to say?”
Jack turned to the man, and sighed. “I think I’m a vegetarian.”