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One in Six

Jude lives in Scotland and writes in the narrow gaps between full time work, chasing after her kids and trying to wear out a border collie. You can hear some of her audiodrama work here: hunterhoose.co.uk.

Charmaine bites down on metal, and her breath catches in her throat. She risks a glance around the table--surely one of them must have heard?--as she forks up another cloying mouthful with a shaking hand, the warm metal pressing against her tongue like an unwelcome finger.
She has minutes at most.
The odds had felt so good at the outset. A five-in-six chance of walking away a winner had seemed close to a certainty when she had signed up the previous winter; even the full year it had taken for her turn to come around had only served to increase her sense of anticipation. When she'd watched the show as a child the prize--a council flat, a government factory job, the distant promise of a pension--had seemed paltry compared to the stake, but now Charmaine understands why there's never a shortage of people like her willing to gamble the nothing they have left for a chance at a better life.
She sneaks another sidelong look at her fellow contestants. They are seated around a circular table, six in total, none of them older than thirty. The company do get older volunteers, she knows, but it's rare that anyone's considered attractive enough for the Poorhouse after more than a few years on the streets. Though the styling of the show and its shelter is self-consciously Victorian, the rich food, soft beds and clean clothes the six of them have received over the past week are cutting edge. The pantries are kept well-stocked with alcohol, and there are plenty of private rooms where a couple can sneak away, unseen by all but the ubiquitous cameras. The producers love it when two contestants get together. It makes what's coming all the more thrilling.
Magid is looking at her. When their eyes meet, he flashes his quick, secret smile, and she can't help but return it. She hadn't intended to get close to any of them, but his warmth and clumsy kindness had been intoxicating after so long without either. The night before, in whispers so soft that even the microphones couldn't pick it up, they'd planned the future they'd build together, after the contest was over, after their prizes were claimed.
"But what if one of us is the one in six?" she had asked.
"What are the chances?" She loves the easy confidence in his words, that utter certainty that makes everything he says seem like a promise from God. "And if it is, we've got each other's backs. Right?"
And now the bullet is in her mouth, and the cameras are watching.
Silver cutlery scrapes across bone china. The rules at this stage are clear; contestants must remain seated until every morsel is consumed down to the last crumb, raisin, and smear of custard. The pudding is a joke, a reference to the old tradition where one dinner guest would bite down on a lucky silver sixpence promising good fortune and a long life. The surprise baked into this pudding signifies quite the opposite.
Charmaine tongues the bullet to the back of her mouth, the urge to retch rising in her throat with the sickly taste of brandy cream.
Magid has finished his portion, and he tips his bowl to the camera to show that it's empty. Charmaine can imagine the audience cheering at their TV sets. If this was a popularity contest Magid would be sure to win--the viewing classes adore his sort of cocksure confidence almost as much as the final spectacle.
One of the other women, Jazz, is next to finish, and Charmaine watches her scanning the room, measuring the distances between each of them and calculating, perhaps, how quickly she can get her hands on one of the weapons hung around the dining room walls. Charmaine wonders how the axe will feel as it splits her skull, the crowbar as it hooks into an eye socket, the knife as it punches between her ribs. However her death begins, it will end as it always does in the Poorhouse--five contestants standing in a circle around the sixth, feet finishing the job their hands have started.
"Let's get this over with," Jazz says, once all the bowls are empty. "'Fess up. Who's got the bullet?"
"How do we know you don't?" Magid says.
Jazz opens her empty mouth in a wide yawn. "That's how you know. Who's next?"
The bullet sits on Charmaine's tongue, heavy as guilt.
Magid grins, and for a fraction of a second light flashes off something metallic in his mouth. Charmaine hears Jazz inhale sharply--she is caught in a moment of stillness, poised at the eye of the hurricane. The metal is nothing more than an old amalgam filling in one of Magid's canines, Charmaine knows, and all it will take is a proper look for suspicion to pass from him.
"It's him," Charmaine says, pointing. "He's got it."
Jazz is quick. In one movement she's out of her chair, hand seizing a cricket bat from the wall behind her and slamming it down onto the table. Magid steps back, startled, but the others are ready for him. One grabs him from behind; the second throws a meaty fist into his face. Blood streams from his nose, and the eyes he turns to Charmaine are helpless with betrayal.
She swings an empty wine bottle into his mouth, its heavy glass base smashing away the words in a spray of blood and teeth. He crumples to the ground, and the fight goes out of him.
It ends on the ground. It always does.
"You all right, Char?" Jazz's bloody hand is on her shoulder. "You guys were close, yeah?"
Charmaine nods. "I just need to say goodbye."
If the words slur around the metal in her mouth no one seems to care.
She bends down to plant a kiss on Magid's ruined lips, and the bullet passes from her mouth into his like a breath.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 12th, 2020
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