A fiery queer short story by Vina Jie-Min Prasad.
The chillies on the table are innocuous things, gleaming in the fluorescent light like bullets. The organisers have arranged them in rows of five. Five is optimistic – no one in previous years has even made it past three. The Samsui Hat is a locally-bred chilli, a Singaporean cross between the chilli padi and the Scotch Bonnet. Small, red, deadly.
Kiat Wee examines the chosen chillies and starts to plan the battle. The hollow part housing the seeds is the most dangerous; extended contact with the membrane, and the initial burn becomes an explosion. Best to play keep-away, do the minimum to get the first one down and get to the next round. Two bites to make it swallowable, let it slide down without too much effort, starting from –
Someone whacks Kiat Wee between his shoulderblades, and he turns around.
"Hey, Kittykiat," Arun says, grinning smugly. "Like my outfit?" He motions downwards. There's a chilli-pepper earring on his right ear, gleaming against his deep brown skin, and he's wearing a Red Hot Chili Peppers shirt, paired with obnoxiously tight crimson jeans. He's obviously coordinated everything just for tonight, which is impressive considering his usual inability to even do laundry. Kiat Wee feels almost embarrassed to have this man as a rival.
"It's starting soon," Kiat Wee says, shrugging off the arm that Arun's attempting to sling around his shoulder. "Better get ready. You know what you're like with chilli, Aaron."
"Good luck," Arun says, sizing Kiat Wee up. "I'll try to get a seat near you." So I can see your face when you lose, he's probably thinking. Kiat Wee knows him too well.
He does end up getting the seat across from Kiat Wee, and spends most of the time waving at Kiat Wee, trying to make him lose focus. Kiat Wee ignores him. Instead he stares at the announcer, at the way her hand hovers over the bell, poised for impact. The place where Arun touched him still tingles, a burst of heat between his shoulders.
Kiat Wee shakes off the lingering sting, and gets ready to win.
Kiat Wee dips his spoon into the chicken rice chilli, testing. The taste is there, but it's far too mild. He asks the stall uncle for an extra soup bowl, scoops a good quantity of chilli inside, and saturates his rice with it, hoping that somehow it'll get hot enough for the fight to be interesting.
He's technically not supposed to be here, but the prospect of sneaking off to Ghim Moh Market while simultaneously being able to avoid school canteen food is tempting enough to be worth the reprimand. He almost hopes the discipline committee will come after him – it'd be the most exciting thing to happen to him since junior college started.
Kiat Wee pulls out Weapons of the Second World War from his backpack, and eats one-handed as he skims past diagrams of Brownings and Tokarevs and Mosin-Nagants to get to soldiers' recollections of the battlefront: the momentary relief of getting an approaching enemy right between the eyes, the thrill of firing off a perfect shot. He's about to savour a particularly detailed account of a building siege in Stalingrad when someone slams a backpack down onto the seat right next to him, ruining the moment entirely.
"Hey, Kitkiat," Arun says, setting down his own plate of chicken rice, and shoving his bag onto the floor. "It's your free period too? Oh, that looks interesting – do they talk about heat missiles in there?"
"Actually," Kiat Wee begins, "Heat-seeking missiles were only used in the –"
"Not heat seeking," Arun says, waving off Kiat Wee's pedantry. "H-E-A-T. You know, High-Explosive Anti-Tank, like the Brits used in the war? Shaped charges, makes steel flow like mud? Man, when I read how they worked I was so impressed..."
"Ah, right." Kiat Wee turns back to his food, trying to control his breathing, ignoring the rush of blood to the tips of his ears. He barely listens as Arun goes on about how the hollow parts of the missiles work to concentrate the detonation waves. Instead, he focuses on how very long the line for char kway teow is, ignoring how Arun waves his fork and spoon about haphazardly as he speaks, scattering rice everywhere like an uncontrolled explosion.
Arun finishes his chicken rice and reaches for his soup. He picks up Kiat Wee's bowl instead, absently bringing a scoop of chilli to his mouth as he goes on about his love for bazookas.
Kiat Wee avoids saying anything. The line for char kway teow is extremely long. Is the uncle just slow at frying, or is it really that good?
Arun shouts in pain and almost doubles up. His hands grip the edge of the table as he struggles not to scream. It's a fascinating sight to behold, especially since it's the first time Kiat Wee's seen an expression on Arun's face beyond "smug" or "annoyingly smug".
"Oh god," Arun moans helplessly, and beads of sweat are popping up now, trickling down his face like tears. "Oh god, Kiat. Do you have water?"
Kiat Wee passes his sports bottle over. Arun desperately squeezes it before giving up, unscrewing the nozzle so he can upend the whole thing into his mouth. Kiat Wee moves his book away from the impact radius as Arun douses the lower half of his face.
"By the way," Kiat Wee says, matter-of-factly, "Chilli isn't water-soluble. You only succeeded at spreading it around your mouth." He looks at Arun, ready to enjoy the thrill of a perfectly-aimed shot, but Arun just grins.
"Nah, it was worth it."
"Sharing someone's drink is an indirect kiss, isn't it?" Arun taps his lips with his index finger, puckering them up. He winks with mock flirtatiousness at Kiat Wee.
It's a sign of his self-control that he resists the urge to punch Arun in the face.
3. three hot minutes
"This competition is certainly heating up," shouts the announcer, placing particular emphasis on what she thinks are clever puns. "Twenty contestants out, and it's just the beginning! I hope everyone's all fired up for the next round!"
Kiat Wee would roll his eyes if he could, but it feels like his muscles are seizing up in a full-body clench. The contest isn't about speed; any chillihead can cram multiple Samsui Hats into their mouth and swallow before the pain hits. It's about endurance. One chilli per round, and three minutes to let the burn set in before the next round begins. The reward for riding out the pain? A brand-new dose of hell, continuing until only one survivor remains.
Two minutes to go. Someone breaks from the table, an instant disqualification, and dunks his head into the first aid squad's bucket of milk. A contestant fans her tongue with her gloved hands, a foolish waste of energy.
One minute thirty seconds. Arun makes a little sound. His nose is dripping, but he doesn't seem to care – his head is tilted back, his limbs lax. He's probably letting the endorphins transmute the pain into pleasure.
Chilli tricks the body into thinking it's overheating when there's no actual rise in temperature, forces a physical reaction to its lies. Surrendering to the illusory pain is a sign of weakness, and Kiat Wee refuses to succumb to the dictates of his body. Despite this, Kiat Wee's body seems to have the upper hand in today's battle – for some reason he can't fathom, he can barely seem to conquer the burn.
One minute remaining. He closes his eyes, tries to find a place, somewhere for him to ignore the pain, somewhere cool and safe, and there's only one place that comes to mind.
4. red hot
The roof of their junior college is the only breezy place in the afternoon. Kiat Wee's climbed up four flights of stairs to get there, hoping for solitude, and of course Arun's already there. He's using his backpack as a pillow, staring up at the blank sky, his earbuds leaking noisy bass.
"Hey," Arun says, getting up and pausing the music. "You all right?"
Kiat Wee looks down. His eyes are watering, probably because of the glaring sun. "Yeah."
"Look, I'll tell Mr Singh that you should go for the national quiz, not me." Arun doesn't even mean to be patronising; he genuinely would give up his place, just like that, in the mistaken belief that someone deserved it more. "You'll probably do better, anyway."
"No, it's okay," Kiat Wee swallows thickly. "Don't bother." I don't need my rival consoling me, he doesn't say, and thankfully Arun is perceptive enough to shut up.
After sitting in silence for a while, Arun begins fiddling with his music player. He passes Kiat Wee one of his earbuds. Kiat Wee gingerly places it in his ear, and the limited radius of the cable forces him to lie down right next to Arun. It's difficult to hear the lyrics, especially on Arun's tinny earbuds, so all he gets is an impression of an ebb and flow, every new layer of sound crashing like waves.
"What's this?" It doesn't sound familiar at all, possibly because Kiat Wee has been forsaking the radio in favour of Classical Music to Increase Your Brainpower Volume 2, for all the good it's doing.
"Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's their latest. If you like them, I have more of their stuff." Arun shifts position, and the earbud cable shifts with him. It's rare for him to fidget – maybe there's something digging into his back. "I'll... I don't know, burn you a mix or something. If you want."
Kiat Wee manages to choke out a laugh. "I'm surprised you'd do that for me."
"You'd be surprised," Arun says, "at the things I'd do for you."
5. dead heat
"And round three will start in, get this, three minutes! We're down to the last few contestants now, folks, and it won't be long till we know the winner! Finalists, we'll be moving you to another table now, so get ready!"
Kiat Wee shrugs off the organisers' helping hands and forces his legs to work, staggering over to the centre table. Every step seems to jostle something in his stomach loose. The diarrhoea-inducing effects of chillies won't kick in for a while, so he's at least safe from that humiliation for now.
Arun flops into the seat next to him, his whole body sweat-slick, looking like he's about to collapse. Even if they are lifelong rivals, Kiat Wee has to congratulate Arun on coming this far, considering that two years ago he couldn't even have chilli sauce with his McNuggets.
Kiat Wee opens his mouth to say something vaguely positive, but every movement of his tongue is sheer agony. His traitorous body's stepped up saliva production after the last chilli, but chilli isn't water-soluble, so all it does is force him to either swallow and feel his entire digestive tract scream in pain, or drool helplessly out the sides of his mouth.
"Hey," Arun slurs. "Hey, Kiat."
Kiat Wee swallows, and tries not to flinch. "What?"
"Uh, thanks. You too."
"Sorry about this," Arun says, and before Kiat Wee can even ask what he's sorry for, Arun slides straight off his chair and crumples to the ground.
6. grace under fire
Of course, the announcer manages to pronounce Arun's name wrong as she announces his retirement. He's been hauled off to the first aid area. Most of the contestants from previous rounds have gone home, so he should be getting exclusive attention from the coalition of volunteers. There's no real reason for Kiat Wee to check on him, especially when leaving the table means immediate disqualification.
Kiat Wee glances around, trying not to move his neck too much. Three stragglers left, none of them past winners. No real threat.
The bell rings. Kiat Wee forces his trembling hand to curl around the next chilli, chews, swallows. Technically he's already beaten Arun, but he can't bring himself to savour the victory when Arun isn't there, when he can't see the way Arun's lush lips jut out just a little in defeat. He could go to the first-aid area later, lord his victory over Arun, assuming Arun's still there and not in hospital because of a stupid chilli-eating contest he got goaded into, and why did he even join when he could barely even take chilli two years ago? Does his idiocy know no bounds?
The burn hits the pit of Kiat Wee's stomach, searing all the way down, and he can't bring himself to mitigate it. He lets the pain wash over him like a sacrament, and oh. He runs his tongue around his mouth, catching it between his teeth just to get more of the sweet sensation, and it feels like he could go forever now, in this spot where pain meets pleasure, the place where he can burn without heat.
Is this what Arun felt? How could he ever bring himself to stop?
Beside him, someone lurches off their chair, grabbing a nearby bucket and vomiting into it. Disqualified.
The bell rings again. Someone takes a bite and starts coughing and can't stop, spitting the whole chilli out and collapsing onto the table. Disqualified.
Kiat Wee takes his time to swallow the fourth chilli. He can feel his heart beating faster and faster with every second, and normally he'd try to calm himself down, but he can't quash the combination of excitement and nervousness and pleasure – only one competitor left, and soon this competition will be over, and he can see Arun, tell him... tell him something, and his train of thought is derailed by the sound of someone's chair screeching against the floor, and a loud thump. There's a commotion at the far end of the table; people are gathering around to peer at whatever just happened.
Kiat Wee doesn't move. The announcer's approaching him with a microphone in her hand, which probably means something important, since she's not in front of the bell. "–And how does it feel to have beaten the past record? Four Samsui Hats – that's more than anyone's managed before!"
"Oh." He absently picks up the remaining chilli, chews, swallows. "Make that five."
7. heat-haze days
Arun's never liked chilli. His grandma laments this whenever he visits, and he ends up frying eggs to eat with his rice whenever his family decides it's fish curry night, but there hasn't been much reason for him to change. Nasi lemak doesn't need sambal to be good, char kway teow doesn't need to be hot to be tasty – there are plenty of spices in the world that aren't chilli. It isn't a problem.
However, Arun likes Kiat. This is a problem, because Kiat likes chilli. No, Kiat treats chilli like a religion, spends weekends immersed in self-flagellating worship, seeking out food that's hotter and hotter just to prove he can, even if he has to miss class on some Mondays due to "stomach problems", which Arun mentally translates as the raging shits.
Kiat's competitiveness is charming in other aspects, like his eternal quest to beat Arun in Soul Calibur, the way he pumps his fist a little when he tops the class in quizzes, the way he treats everything in life as a personal challenge to conquer. Every time Kiat talks about his rivalry with Arun, Arun's been tempted to pull him aside, tell him...tell him something, at least, let him know he feels much more than that. But the words falter in his throat, burn in his chest, remaining unheard.
There are plenty of guys in the world who aren't Kiat, Arun knows. He's even dated some. But Kiat's the only guy who makes him want to be someone else, someone better, someone worthy of his affection. It's impressive what Kiat can do to him, especially considering that Kiat will only admit they're friends on a very good day. But even if that's all it ever amounts to, it's enough.
Arun gets Kiat a box of chilli-filled chocolates as an ironic Valentines' Day gift, and doesn't say anything.
Arun gives Kiat a gift-wrapped bottle of Sriracha for his birthday, and doesn't say anything.
Arun passes Kiat a potted chilli plant before their A-Level study break, and even if he could, it's much too late to say anything.
When Arun meets Kiat for study sessions at the library, he ends up sitting next to someone he can't even touch, burning with a constant feverish need while simultaneously knowing he can't do anything about it, he hasn't done anything about it, he didn't do anything about it and now he's doomed to feel this way forever.
After a particularly disastrous session where Kiat arrives wearing a track team tank top, Arun decides that if he's already in hell, it can't possibly get any worse. That night, he calls McDelivery to request a twenty-piece McNugget set with all the packets of chilli sauce they can provide. When it arrives, he gingerly dips the tip of the boot-shaped nugget into a pool of sauce, pops it into his mouth, and surrenders to the burn.
There's a certain point in chilli-eating where pain becomes pleasure. Gradually, Arun finds himself chasing that high, surfing waves of fire to find that sweet spot, the part where he passes through the fire and emerges unscathed. By the end of A-Levels, he's conquered chicken rice chilli. By A-Level results, he can participate in his family's fish curry night without wanting to dive into a bathtub of ice. By the time he starts National Service, he's burnt his tastebuds out enough to attempt Sichuan chilli chicken at Chinatown. He loses Kiat's number when his phone dies, and over mala hotpot with his army buddies, he tries to forget.
Then he meets Kiat at a class reunion and it all comes surging back, and he can't resist the urge to impress Kiat for once in his life. He's been doing his research on spicy food – the Sichuan grilled fish on Mosque Street should be good for a first date, but maybe Kiat would prefer the Godfire ramen at Bugis... he decides to think about it later, and make the first move for once.
"I can take chilli now," he says, waiting for a reaction.
"Oh yeah? Prove it." Kiat looks up and stares him straight in the eyes. "Annual chilli challenge at my university next weekend, no liquids allowed. I've already registered. Don't bother coating your mouth beforehand – the organisers will know."
He considers saying something along the lines of no, actually I was asking you out on a date, but Kiat is looking at him in anticipation, and maybe he can wait a while longer.
Just one more week, anyway. He can tell Kiat after he's proven his worth, after he's been through the fire and come out clean.
8. a different burn
After a very hazy recollection of an interview, accepting a prize from someone, and several medical checkups, Kiat Wee finally manages to stagger off. He finds Arun near the Milo van. Arun's had enough time to recover, but his clothes are still drenched with sweat, and even tighter than they once were.
"Hey, congratulations," Arun says, grinning. "Want some Milo? I'll grab some."
"That's not necessary," Kiat Wee says, snatching Arun's cup from him and gulping it down. He doesn't care anymore. It feels like he's burnt something out with all that heat, and if his self-control has gone haywire he's going to make the most of it for once. "You did well too. I was...very impressed."
"Oh, thanks," Arun looks away. "I've been practising."
The endorphins are wearing off, and Kiat Wee's legs are getting shakier the longer he stands. He hands the cup back to Arun, and manages to sit down on the floor before he keels over.
"You okay, Kiat?" Arun crouches down, pressing a hand to Kiat Wee's forehead. "Need anything?"
"Not really," and Kiat Wee presses his forehead against Arun's fingers, savouring the warmth against his sweat-flushed skin. "I think I'm good for now."
"How are you getting back, though?" Arun's brown eyes look concerned, and his proximity means that Kiat Wee can study his lengthy, thick eyelashes as he progresses to running his hand through Kiat Wee's hair.
"I was thinking public transport, but..." Kiat Wee gestures to his legs and their spontaneous malfunction. "Probably cabbing, I think."
"Oh," Arun says. "I'll take you to the taxi stand, then –"
"Want to come over?" Kiat Wee blurts. He silently congratulates the chilli for burning out his brain-to-mouth filter. "You can stay the night. Maybe play some Soul Calibur or something."
Arun suddenly looks very panicked. "Are you sure? I've never been over before..."
"It's fine," Kiat Wee says, extending his hand. "I have something I want to tell you, anyway. In private." He gives Arun his tried-and-tested seductive grin, which is hopefully working the way he wants, considering his lips are completely numb.
"Oh." Arun gulps, and helps Kiat Wee up. "Me too. What a coincidence."
The walk to the taxi stand is longer than expected, and Kiat Wee's knees keep buckling, so Arun ends up offering to carry him for convenience. Kiat Wee suspects that there are other reasons, but he's not complaining. Arun is warm against him, and every footstep intensifies the slow heat of their bodies against each other.
Kiat Wee presses his face against the crook of Arun's neck, and lets himself burn.
Vina Jie-Min Prasad is a Singaporean writer working against the world-machine. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Campbell, and Sturgeon Awards. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Uncanny Magazine, and Fireside Fiction. You can find links to her work at vinaprasad.com.