My writing is rusty, but I promised to share all of my unused submissions!  The Best Dish is my second horror story, EVER!  Please feel free to comment and critique.  The purpose is to build on my writing skills!  This was sent for consideration for an anthology that had no prompt or theme and I used a prompt from 1001 Horror Writing Prompts: That Will Help Motivate You Creatively by Christina Escamilla.

“After winning a cruise vacation a couple eagerly accepts and takes off time from work.  This is, as the note card reads, a once in a lifetime opportunity.  On the first night of the cruise, the couple is told by fellow passengers that they simply must try the famous “hoomin” dish.  Of course, they oblige.  From then on, it’s almost all they eat for dinner.  It is until one of them accidentally chances into the kitchen that they realize what the strange meat to this dish is – people.”

*****

The Best Dish

*****

The nights were long in the Whitaker household.  They had been for a while.  After the miscarriage eight months ago, Sylvia became silent and reserved.  When she did talk to him, it was about something else going wrong.  “The toilet isn’t flushing upstairs,” or “The bills are past-due.”  Roger was growing negative, and there was no way that he could help her.  When he tried to talk to her about what had happened, she looked at him with a face of pure evil.  Her long, matted blonde hair flowing like snakes off of her scalp and her brown eyes full of darkness.  This look scared him, not of what she would do to him but of what she may do to herself.

Roger suggested therapy a week or two ago, and Sylvia agreed.  He wanted to be relaxed around her again and recalled a time, not so long ago when they were effortlessly happy in their small townhouse making slightly more than minimum wage.  He knew that he was partly to blame.  Not that she knew, but he had recently taken to spending more of his time with Jennifer than at home.

Jennifer worked with him at the insurance office.  After a long day at work, he couldn’t bear to see the distraught, unkempt face of his depressed high school sweetheart.  He still loved her and would do anything in the world to make her happy, but she wouldn’t let him in enough to try.  So, instead of facing his harsh home life, he would spend the evenings with Jennifer in Tuesday’s Tavern or head to her house after work for something a little more intimate.

Today was day one of their therapy sessions with Dr. Wallace.  Roger headed straight home from work at 3 pm, hopeful that Sylvia would be ready to go.  Getting out of the car, he felt uneasy.  What was he going to do if she decided, once again, that she wasn’t ready?  He had attempted to get her to therapy on more than one occasion, and every time she would agree only to change her mind hours before their session.  He eased the front door open and called out to his wife.  No answer.  He headed to the kitchen and fixed a glass of water.  Sipping his water, he headed slowly upstairs.  He found Sylvia in the bedroom sitting motionless on the bed and facing the mirror that hung on the wall.

“Are you ready to go, Sylv?” he asked quietly, praying that he would get a positive response.

Sylvia said nothing, just turned to face him.  Dressed in a grey button-up top and flowing black skirt, she stood up, walked across the room, and hugged him.  He could tell she had been crying and was trying to hide her face.  He was afraid to ask her again, and just wrapped his arms around her frail body.  She leaned back and forced a kiss to his cheek.  Wiggling away from his hold, she reached for his hand before making it reluctantly down the stairs.  He could tell she wasn’t ready for this or at least thought she wasn’t, but she was willing to go.

Pulling out of the driveway, he tried to get her talking.

“How was your day?” he asked.

“Fine.” Was all she said.

This aggravated him slightly, but he went on.  “Anything exciting?”

“No.”

With that answer, he gave up.  Maybe she was worried about the session, or perhaps nothing happened today that was different from any other day.  Most of her days were dreary and repetitive.

*****

Sylvia seemed to be doing better after a few weeks of meeting with Dr. Wallace.  She was more talkative when Roger tried to start a conversation, actually responding to his questions and asking her own.  She was also brushing her hair and changing out of her pajamas each day.  Roger could only help but think that the degree of her depression was his responsibility.  If he could have found a way to make her start the sessions sooner, maybe it would have never gotten as bad.  If he would have gone home after work, perhaps she would have opened up sooner.  On the bright side, everything was looking up.

He headed to work, like every other day, after kissing his wife goodbye.  It had been ages since he had done that with her awake.  Occasionally he would sneak a kiss on her forehead when he could tell she was sleeping heavily.  He had broken it off with Jennifer the previous day and was expecting some tension, but not too much.  She knew that he had a wife and wasn’t looking for a serious relationship.  Apparently, she wasn’t.  As soon as he arrived, his boss, Jeffery Quiano, asked to see him alone.

Roger plopped down on the padded leather chair facing the paper filled, messy desk that belonged to his boss.  He always questioned how anything that made it to this office got done or found.  Roger was a tidy person with an organized desk and wouldn’t be able to function in the mountains of work that his boss was accustomed to dealing with.

Jeffery Quiano, the agent of the office, came in a few minutes later.  Roger was still pondering how Jeffery managed to get anything done with the piles of paper stacked on his desk and flowing onto the floor.

“So I’ve heard that you have been having some trouble in your personal life.” Jeffery started.

“Well, I talked to you when we had the miscarriage awhile back.  I’ve been able to cope, but Sylvia..” Roger’s voice trailed off.  It was hard for him to discuss his wife’s depression.

“I am sorry to do this to you Roger, but I have to let you go.  You see, I try my hardest to allow everyone the time they need when facing circumstances such as this.  In this case, however, your home life has come into the office and is affecting other employees.  Jennifer told me that you frequent the same bar as her and have repeatedly pushed the idea of a relationship.  This is not going to be tolerated in my office, and I hope you understand.  Maybe this will allow you some time to think about the consequences of your actions and work things out with your wife.  Jennifer agreed to drop everything, as long as you leave and stop pursuing her.  What you are doing is sexual harassment, do you understand that?”

Roger could not breathe.  It was complete bullshit, but he feared that if he argued the allegation, the news would make it to his wife.  If she found out about this, now, all the progress she had made would go to waste.  He had hindered her healing enough and left the office without a word.

*****

Knowing that he couldn’t go home this early without explaining to Sylvia, Roger got in his car and turned the radio to his favorite station.  He rarely got to listen to the morning show.  Sweet Home Alabama boomed through the speakers of the car.

Roger pulled out his phone and searched for jobs in the area.  A few insurance agents were hiring within a few miles of his home, and he decided to spend the day looking for a new job.  The bills were already piling up since Sylvia stopped working.  He pulled out of the parking lot and headed towards John Lovchuk’s office.  Lovchuk was an agent for a different company, and Roger couldn’t help but think that he should have done this a long time ago.  His office, or his old office, was rejecting people left and right, causing his commission to decline steadily.

As Roger pulled into John Lovchuk’s parking lot, he sat lost in thought about what he would tell his wife.  Even if she doesn’t find out why he was fired, he’ll have to tell her about his new job.  If he gets one, that is.

“Life got you down?  Do you need a break?  What about a break for two?  A break for two in the middle of the ocean?  A break for two with a free couples massage or all-you-can-drink?” the voice said through his speakers.  “Now is your chance to win a once in a lifetime vacation.  Call now, 788-9923, and tell us your favorite station.”

Roger picked his phone up out of the passenger seat and dialed the number.  Might as well try, he thought.  Thinking first and foremost of how a vacation might help his wife get out of her stoop.  Maybe some time away from home is what she needs, especially now that she is starting to recover.  Even if he doesn’t win, perhaps they could take a trip to the next town over.

Roger’s thoughts were interrupted.  “You’ve just won an all-expenses-paid vacation on the new Korowai cruise line!” Exclaimed the voice coming from the phone.

“Me?” Roger questioned, surprised that he won.

“Yes, you!  Now just tell us, what is your favorite radio station?”

Roger took a breathe, still not believing that he won the vacation.  He was so in shock that he had to look at the numbers in the middle of his dash to remember the station he was listening to, his favorite station.

After the lady on the phone told him how to get his cruise tickets and what packages he could choose from, Roger decided he could find a job after the cruise.  They had to be on the ship in just a few days.

*****

Roger arrived home, two hours after leaving for work.  Sylvia was still asleep in their bed upstairs.  Still unsure how to break the news to her about his job, he decided to surprise her with breakfast in bed.  He headed straight to the kitchen and flicked on the stove.  He grabbed the eggs, cheese, and bacon from the refrigerator and juggled them over to the counter.  Stuffing some bread into the toaster before cracking the eggs into the pan, he found himself lost in thought, again.  He pictured Sylvia, a year ago, cooking breakfast before for the two of them to share before they each went in their separate directions.

After finishing the omelet, he slid it onto a plate and pulled the toast out of the toaster.  Once he made sure everything looked perfect, he grabbed the plate and headed upstairs.  Sitting down next to her on the bed, he slid one arm under her neck and used it to massage her shoulder.  She groaned quietly, and then her eyes fluttered open.

“Good morning, beautiful.” He said, smiling at how attractive she was.

“What are you doing home?” Her voice was groggy.

He looked at her, still trying figure out what to say, and kissed her on the forehead.  He told her about the cruise and how he was looking for another job because of the commission decline.  She listened, focused, and seemed interested in all he said.

“Do you think it would be okay to take time off, though?”  She asked, concerned.

“I would take all the time in the world off if it made you happy.   After all, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Plus, it’s free.  How can we pass up a free ten-day cruise?  We used to talk about going on one and never had the money.  Now we don’t need it!”

“Ok.”  She agreed sitting up to grab the plate of food from him.

Taking a big bite of toast, she laughed.  It sounded a little forced to Roger, but he returned it with a smile.  Her laugh had been such a rare sound for far too long, and he could quickly get used to hearing it more often.  “You burnt the toast!” another loud laugh burst from her mouth, this one flowing smoothly without hesitation.

*****

They had two sessions with Dr. Wallace before it was time to board for their cruise.  He agreed that it would be good for them to take some time away from reality and spend time together.  So, that’s what they did.  Roger stayed home with Sylvia, and they agreed that he would look for another job as soon as they returned from the trip.  They spent the week planning what excursions they would do, which package they would choose on the ship, and what they would do.

An agreement was made on their excursions and package, just in time for the trip.  They would go snorkeling at one stop and hike at the other.  They decided on the spa package for the long days aboard the ship, both agreeing that the drinking package wouldn’t be good for escaping and keeping their mind off of things.  He wanted the live music package but gave in quickly.  The trip was meant for her.  He had his life back on track, for the most part, and was glad just to see his wife getting excited about something.

They spent the night before their trip packing.  He picked her clothes, and she chose his.  Of course, when it was time to check what the other had packed, there were quite a few disagreements.  They grabbed a few other items out of the closet and drawers and added it to their bags.

On the way to the cruise, Sylvia wanted to stop and get some of her favorite donuts from a bakery on the edge of town.  They stopped for breakfast and spent the whole time talking about what each of them was excited for.  He could get used to having his wife back, he thought, as she went on and on about how excited she was for the snorkeling and array of fish that was shown in the pictures.

By the time they arrived to board the ship, there were crowds of people making their way to the enormous ship.  Roger parked the car, smiled at his wife, and hopped out to grab their bags from the trunk.  After a second inspection to make sure he had all of their luggage, Sylvia weaved her arm around his, and they headed towards the never-ending line.

It didn’t take long for them reach the end of the line and to the picture booth.  They both smiled separately for the attendant to take their boarding-pass pictures.  Shortly after that, they were escorted past photo-ops with cut out faces and cruise ship backgrounds.

They were given a room on the bottom of the ship and educated on why that was best for people who have never been on a cruise, since the top of the ship rocks more than the bottom.  They took the stairs so they could take in everything going on and admire the beauty surrounding them.  One floor had tables for drawings and a table to purchase the “all-you-can-drink” pass.  Another level had tables with listings for the shows and menus each day.  Another floor offered assistance picking excursions and offering sign up for additional packages.  Once they made their way to the lodging, they opted for the elevator to get them the rest of the way to their room.

*****

The first night on board was used for exploring.  The Whitakers made their way around the ship quite a few times, taking pamphlets for each art show, free live performance, and contest.  They visited the spa to find out what was included in their package.  A couple’s massage, facials, manicures and pedicures, and acupuncture was all in their near future.  After leaving the spa, they made their way across the ship to the buffet.  They both engorged themselves with steak and potatoes, followed by all the soft serve ice cream they could handle.

After dinner, they watched the dance course offered in the main showroom while their food settled and then decided to take a walk on the treadmills while enjoying their view of the vast ocean.

Both exhausted from the walk and the excitement of the day, they went to their cabin and laid down.

“Did you have fun today?” He asked, lacing his fingers through hers.

“Yeah.  It was nice being away.  I almost felt like I used to feel, free and…and like you enjoyed being around me again.”  A tear fell down her cheek, and he quickly wiped it away.

“I still enjoy being around you.” He reassured her and moved his other and under her neck, pulling her closer.

*****

The second day of the cruise brought more excitement.  Sylvia wanted to start with their couples massage, so they did.  They laid next to each other, in nothing but towels, holding hands.  Roger couldn’t help but wonder if he was going to get some for the first time since the miscarriage.  They lay still while strangers massaged their tired muscles, Sylvia squeezing his hand tight when the woman would touch her lower back.  Following the massage was a facial.  Still laying still together, goop was slathered over their faces and necks.  Roger dozed, while his wife focused on the relaxing exercises she had learned at the therapy sessions.

Lunchtime came without disapproval.  Starved after their long massage and facial session, they went willingly to the long buffet counter on the other end of the ship.  Today’s meal featured food from the Caribbean.  Neither of them had any idea what they were eating, but they didn’t care.  They feasted on the tasty Caribbean delicacies that had made it onto their plates.

An older couple sat down next to them as they were almost done with their lunches.

“Have you eaten in the restaurant, yet?” The woman asked.

“Not yet.  We were pretty tired yesterday and didn’t waste any time making it to our cabin after a walk around the ship.”

“You need to go tonight and try the hoomin.  It’s got a taste of beef tips, but it’s a recipe from…Indonesia, I think it was….” She trailed off trying to recall where the dish originated.  “It is the best dish that I have ever had.”

“We’ll have to try that tonight,” Roger said, looking at Sylvia who nodded in agreement.

They finished their lunches and wished the elderly couple a good time on the remainder of the cruise.

*****

Sitting in their cabin, the couple discussed their plans for the next day aboard the ship.  They wouldn’t arrive at the first destination until the following day, which gave them plenty of time to wander the ship more.  They talked about their snorkeling adventure that they would go on and what they each were excited to see.  Roger reached his hand under the blanket and onto the top of Sylvia’s thigh, while she talked.  She grabbed his hand quickly, pausing mid-sentence to look at him.  She sighed and kissed his cheek before rolling off of the bed.

“We have to get dressed if we’re going to that fancy restaurant tonight.” She said reluctantly.

“Yeah, you’re right.”

Roger leaned forward on the bed and sighed.  He sat up and went towards his suitcase as she went into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.  He pulled out some slacks and a button up shirt and slid his clothes off to change.

Once they were both ready, they left the cabin hand in hand.  Headed towards the restaurant, Roger talked Sylvia into stopping by one of the clubs on the way.  Their reservation wasn’t for another thirty minutes.  They stopped into the club next door to the restaurant and headed for the bar.  Roger ordered a Rum and Coke, Sylvia had a screwdriver.  They both sipped their drinks quietly.  Roger thought of what had happened in the room.  Had he messed up?  Is it him?  Why isn’t she ready to move on?  Thoughts swarmed around his head about what had happened and why she reacted the way that she did.

“Did I do something wrong?” he blurted out.

“What are you talking about?”

“In the cabin.  Did I do something wrong?” He attempted to clarify.

“No…it’s just…no…you didn’t.” She answered, turning back to her drink and ordering another.

After they both finished their third drink, they stood up in sync.  She kissed his hand as she squeezed it tight and led him out of the bar and to the restaurant next door.

There was a small wait at the host’s stand, and they filed in line behind two other couples.  The host returned looking flushed from the main dinner rush.  He sat each couple one at a time, even though they all shared a table.  As soon as they sat down, another worker appeared from behind them to get their drink orders and to leave them with a menu for the main course options.  Roger, already feeling a little light from the three previous drinks opted to keep the fun going and ordered a beer.

Just as the older lady had said, hoomin was first on the list.  They both looked over the menu but decided to trust the woman’s judgment.  Roger ordered the hooman with a vegetable side, Sylvia with lobster macaroni and cheese.

*****

By the end of their meal, Roger was three sheets to the wind.  Sylvia was irritated with his obnoxious behavior throughout their dinner that included not only each other but three other couples.  Embarrassed by his child-like behavior, she was relieved when he informed the entire table that he had to use the bathroom and “didn’t have a moment to spare.”  She quickly apologized to the other couples, as soon as she was sure that he could not hear.

Roger drunkenly staggered around a few tables before making it to the only door in sight.  Falling into the revolving doors, he realized that he was not in the bathroom.  His blood ran cold, and a chill went down his spine.  Instantly sober, he froze.

Bodies.  Human bodies.

The bodies were hanging from the skin on their necks, dangling back and forth as the rotating hooks jerked an inch or two forward every few seconds.  The hooks were old and rusty.  Blood dripped steadily off of the beaten faces and slashed limbs.  The blood ran onto the floor, gushing into the drains meant for spills.  He wanted to run, needed to run.  Instead, he was still, looking at the faces that he had seen around the ship.  Some were nicely dressed and others still in swimsuits.  That’s when he realized all of the faces that were still alive and looking straight back at him.   The cooks were hard at work chopping pieces of meat from the bodies and slicing it finely to be cooked with sauces and vegetables.

He turned around and fell back out of the kitchen doors.  Running straight to Sylvia, he grabbed her hand trying to pull her out of her chair.

“What are you doing?” She snapped at him.

“We’re next.” He shouted, “Let’s go.”

Sylvia stared at him with no response and began shaking her head.

He yanked her arm, pulling her out of the chair.

“I said let’s go.  Now.”

She followed him, without much choice, out of the restaurant.

“Will you tell me what the hell is going on?” She yelled at him as soon as they were past the line of people waiting to be seated.

He continued pulling her down the hall and towards the stairwell.  Without answering her questions, he snorted as he picked her up and carried her down the flights of stairs and to their cabin door.  Reaching for the key in his pocket, he lost his hold, and her legs tumbled towards the ground.  He shoved the key in the door and pulled her inside.

“What does hoomin sound like to you, Sylv?” he muttered, slightly worried that everything he saw was only in his head.  “No, it was real.” He told himself aloud.

“What was real, Roger?  What are you talking about?  You’re drunk as hell and making an ass out of the both of us!  What has gotten into you?”

“I should’ve known.  Hoomin!”  He laughed.

“Roger!”  Sylvia grabbed his face, forcing him to look at her.

“Hoomin is human.”