Author's note: Hey, guys! As promised, Part 2 is out.
Just wanted to say that this story actually has nothing to do with the prompt. It's part of a slightly long story I've written and I just wanted some feedback. Judges, unless you're looking for a fun read, please ignore this. It doesn't relate.
It mostly won't be approved, as it is unrelated, but hopefully you'll enjoy it.
I roamed around at the edge of the vineyard, counting the number of grapes in each bunch. I’d finished sixteen bunches when I got back to the group. Ranjith was standing near a crate. I sidled up next to him, partly because I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t intimidated by him and partly because he was the only person I could remotely claim an acquaintanceship with. He didn’t seem to mind.
He tilted his head when I greeted him. Then he picked up a bottle from the crate and cracked it open. He put his nose near the thin, glass mouth of the bottle and inhaled deeply. “Ah,” he said, “Chateau Branaire-Ducru, 1934.”
I was impressed. “You seem to know a lot about wines, too.”
He looked at me in a cold, funny sort of way, then turned the bottle so that the label faced me.
“Oh,” I said, hoping I didn’t come off as too stupid. “Anyway, I’m sure you could have probably said it without the label too. Maybe not a very obscure wine, but if you’re as good as Ranchod says you are, then I’m sure you can do it for food.”
He cocked his head, as if in acknowledgement. “You are not so bad yourself, are you? Ranchod spoke a lot about you too.”
“Well, I’m, uh, certainly a foodie, and pretty good, but I don’t want to blow my own trumpet.” I smiled, shifting from foot to foot uncomfortably; I never really enjoyed the conversation if it revolved around me.
Ranjith stared at me with those cold, dark eyes of his. Small and beady they were, and calculating, as though sizing me up, taking in every little detail about me; whether my shirt was untucked at the back, whether a strand of my hair was out of place (and I can assure the reader, plenty were), or whether a small bead of sweat was tracing its way down the back of my neck, causing an itchy, ticklish feeling. There was something strange about the way those eyes moved.
The pupils of those eyes were not ordinary either, I thought as I stared back, mesmerized by the movements of those inky, fluid-like spaces at the center of his irises. A normal human eye’s pupil, even though it is characterized biologically by an empty space, a ‘nothing’, as one might say, a glance will tell you otherwise. A normal human eye’s pupil looks solid. For Ranjith, though, it was a whole different story. His pupils weren’t just themselves nothing, they looked like it. It was like an infinite abyss delicately encircled by the safe walls of his iris. I feared that if I looked into them for too long, I would sink into them, to some fiendish, horrifying hell, never to return.
“It’s not so much as blowing your trumpet as acknowledging facts, Mr…” Ranjith suddenly said, interrupting my confused, continuous stream of thoughts on the terrors of his eyes.
“Abhishek,” I said, “and say what you may, I still consider it slightly egoistic.”
“Well then,” Ranjith said, the corners of lips slightly curving upwards into a deranged smile, “I am a narcissist. I freely admit it, and I’m quite proud of it.”
“Oh, no, Mr. Ranjith. I never meant to say that you are a narcissist. I just wanted to say that I don’t want to be one, and I don’t want to be secretly viewed as one as well, which is why I don’t discuss my achievements much in public.”
“You never said I am a narcissist.” said Ranjith, as a waiter approached him with a bottle opener and two glasses. With a sudden effort, that belied his unhealthily thin pale arms, he cracked the bottle open, causing it to fizz gently, but not spill over.
Just the right amount of foam let out, I thought, marveling at his precision.
“You never said I’m a narcissist, Mr. Abhishek,” Ranjith said again. “I was merely classifying myself as one, based on what I took your definition to be from our conversation.”
I stayed quiet, not knowing exactly how to respond. Ranjith poured the Chateau Branaire-Ducru into the two glasses the waiter had brought, and handed me one. I took it with a nod and sipped it slowly.
“Come, shall we go to the tour?” he asked, after a while, gesturing to the vineyard. There was a tour of the place beginning in five minutes, that covered everything from how the grapes were grown to how they were processed in the factory to how they were packaged.
I nodded in response and we went over to a tall lady in a flowing royal blue gown that swept the ground wherever she walked; she was calling out to anyone who wanted to take part in the tour.
As I sipped my drink, I tried to remember how Ranjith was in college. I had probably first seen him the first time I had seen Ranchod; in the college washrooms. He must have left after my first year, I thought to myself, as I didn’t recall seeing him in my second.
“All right!” said the lady loudly. “Is that everyone? Good. If you will all follow me, please.”
I glanced around. There were, excluding Ranjith and myself, about thirty people, all chattering excitedly.
The tour, I must admit, was extremely fun. Our guide, the lady in the royal blue dress, had a great sense of humor, and was also very knowledgeable. We got to crush some grapes for the future wines, which I enjoyed very much.
Also, the guide told us, the type and color of the bottle the wines were placed in mattered a lot, and subconsciously influenced the customers’ minds. A fun little tidbit of information that I stored away at the back of my mind. It’s always good to know trivia about food and drink.
At the end of the tour, as I was coming out of the factory, clutching a freshly bought bottle of champagne, I heard a voice calling out to me.
“Abhishek! My dear boy!”
It was Ranchod. He was red in the face, as he hurried over to me. He bent, his hands on his knees. “Just a minute. Let me… let me catch my breath.” he wheezed. Then he straightened and settled his suit. “Some of us are having a little premature party while the next tour goes on. Do you want to join?”
“Oh, I really don’t want to be a nuisance, Ranchod. I’m sure you guys will have a lot of fun without me.”
“Oh, stuff and nonsense!” he cried, putting on an exaggerated British accent. He slapped me on the back heartily. “Nonsense, I say! You’re coming with us. No questions asked. No buts and ifs.”
I shrugged and allowed myself to be dragged through the vineyard to one of the thirty-six small storage facilities spread across the vineyard. As we neared, I heard voices, laughing and talking.
They had put up a small wooden table, around which four people were sitting. There was Elena, on a high-backed armchair (where she got that I had no idea); Ranjith, who was smoking a large cigar; Mohan who was rocking back and forth on a rather unstable stool; and another lady I didn’t recognize, who was smiling and nodding every few seconds.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Ranchod announced, “I’m back! With our latest guest! This is Abhishek,” he said, pushing me towards the lady I didn’t recognize.
She was of medium height, and had tied her hair into an elegant bun. She looked like a foreigner.
“Abhishek,” I said, holding out my hand.
“Yes, Ranchod just said that,” she replied, smiling and taking my hand. I frowned; the accent was familiar, but I couldn’t place where I had heard it before.
“She’s Irina,” Elena said. “My sister.”
Irina laughed. “You didn’t see the resemblance?”
“I must confess, I did not,” I replied, laughing along. “But now that I know it, I can sort of make out.”
“Excellent!” boomed Ranchod. The man seemed like he was incapable of speaking softly. “Now that we all know each other, let’s start this party!”
Elena stood up and pulled out a single bottle of wine from an icebox in the corner. “The first bottle from this vineyard.”
Everyone cheered. She poured it, just a little, in each glass.
“To this vineyard, and its amazing future!” Ranchod said, holding up his glass. He tried to get up, but stumbled, sloshing the wine all over.
“Ranchod!” admonished Elena.
“To this vineyard!” Mohan repeated.
We all raised our glasses and tipped it back into our mouths. I sniffed it and took a careful sip; I didn’t like it too much. It was too bitter.
There was a knock on the door, and a waiter arrived, holding a large tray with some plates of food precariously balanced.
He laid the tray on the table, smiled at us and left. We stared at the food, each of us, somehow not making a move. The silence was only marred by the sound of the tour outside and Ranjith sniffing the food.
“Well,” Ranchod said. “Ranjith, my dear boy, can you try this? This menu is completely out of the ordinary. World-over cuisine.” He laughed. Elena glared at him.
“I can give it a try.” Ranjith shrugged, just concealing his irritation. He glanced at me. “What about you, Abhishek?”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t,” I said. “I’m not as experienced as you.”
“Nonsense!” Ranchod cried heartily. “Utter nonsense! You must. In fact, you know,” He wagged a thick forefinger at me. “You and Ranjith should have a little contest. Whoever gets the most number of ingredients wins.”
Ranchod’s boyish, sweaty face glowed with pleasure. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “Ranchod, I really think we shouldn’t.”
The words were from Ranjith. They were very softly spoken, but they issued a direct challenge. “Why not?” he repeated.
“Let’s just eat, guys,” Mohan said, grinning nervously at us.
“Yeah, let’s just eat,” agreed Irina.
I looked at Ranchod. The glow of pleasure had not quite faded from his face.
I looked at Elena. She was saying nothing; just staring resolutely ahead, lips pursed.
I looked at Irina and Mohan. They looked nervous and uncomfortable. I couldn’t blame them.
I looked at Ranjith. He was looking politely at me, but his eyes. Coward, they screamed at me. Be a sport and accept.
“To make this slightly better,” piped up Ranchod, “I’m going to gift whoever wins, a complete cask of wine.”
“Ranchod!” snapped Elena. “You are doing no such thing!”
“Ranchod, you can’t be serious!”
“Elena, dear, please stay out of this.”
She was about to argue, then probably realized that it was of no use. Ranchod had always been extremely stubborn.
I was surprised she hadn't divorced him yet.
“Are you up, Mr. Abhishek?” Ranjith asked softly. I shook my head. I wasn’t going to give in to the temptation. “Frankly, I think it’s a silly idea. We should just eat in peace.”
“Are you scared you will lose?” Ranjith said. He was staring right at me with those, unnatural, dark eyes. I didn’t want to accept that I could lose in front of everyone. Under different circumstances, I might have said it aloud out of general respect and courtesy, but the way Ranjith looked at me, the way his eyes taunted me, I was transported back to the college bathrooms where Ranchod and him first tormented me.
(Somehow, I didn’t hold it against Ranchod anymore, but I hadn’t forgiven Ranjith yet. It was probably because he had never apologized to me, while Ranchod had.)
“No, I’m not. I just don’t want to do it,” I said firmly.
“You say you’re not afraid to lose, yet you don’t accept.” Ranjith leaned back in his chair, looking at me with a superior smile.
That did it for me. Ranjith had been soft-spoken and polite since I had met him today, but suddenly, he was confident, supremely so, and almost arrogant. I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t stand it.
“All right, you’re on,” I said, rather recklessly. Ranchod cheered. Ranjith nodded.
“Hand me the first dish.,” I snapped. Ranchod passed it over enthusiastically, almost dropping it in the process. It was a soup. I grinned inwardly; I loved soups. I smelled the bowl, eyes working simultaneously, grasping all the visible ingredients. I will not go into details of my tasting; it was simple and uneventful. The food was exquisite, and I could make out fifty-two out of fifty-four ingredients from it. The main course was much more difficult, and I scored a shameful thirty-eight out of a possible sixty. In the dessert, a crème brulee, a special type of rasagulla, and a special dish that Ranchod called ‘Memorabilia’. I asked him why he named it that, and he said it was only because he liked the way it sounded. I did better there, scoring a respectable forty-one on forty-seven.