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Second-place winner: The kid who ate paste 

"Nourishment unencumbered by flavor," Alexis said, serving me disquietingly large portions of brown rice and steamed broccoli.

I had Aunt Laura's bizarre dietary restrictions to thank for this. Two days ago, the eggshell-thin veneer of civility crumbled into uproar after Aunt Laura arrived for Thanksgiving and demanded barley buns. She claimed to be allergic to wheat, of all things. So, to bring the shouting and wailing back down to standard family-festivity levels, I offered to go out and pick up some barley buns, for crying out loud. This was a considerable sacrifice on my part, because for the first time in my life I needed to go into a health food store, an oddball practice I'd taken great pleasure in avoiding. I made my way to Gloria's Natural Foods, which luckily didn't close until 3. I nearly got my eyeballs poked out with free samples of Tofurkey that I declined as unequivocally as possible.

Finally, I brought the awful barley buns to the counter, and who was working the register if not Alexis Casertano. It had been 10 years since I last saw her, at that sickening moment in ninth grade when she told me her family was moving to Columbia the next day, and I had to reply, with all seriousness, "South Carolina or South America?" That was the kind of family she was from. It turned out she'd been back in Asheville three years now. We hardly had time to catch up, with Aunt Laura waiting and crabby and famished and all, so Alexis invited me over for lunch on Saturday. And here I was.

I opened my mouth to ask for salt, but I figured that any salt around here was probably some sacred sea salt wiped from a dolphin's ass. My mouth was still open, so I scrambled for something to say.

"Smells great," I lied. It smelled kind of like glue. Of course, that reminded me of eighth-grade art class with Mrs. Boettcher. She caught me trying to paste Ed Minkley's glasses to his oversized ears. She warned that if I misbehaved with the paste a second time, she'd make me eat it. Sure enough, she caught me trying to paste bits of construction paper to Ed Minkley's greasy hair.

"I warned you!" she raged. "Now you gotta eat it!" And so I did. The room was silent as I dipped a finger in the jar of paste and smeared it like cream cheese on my outstretched tongue. At first, a lot of the other kids mistook my cunning for stupidity and teased me pretty harshly until I gave them a couple good slams into the lockers. It wasn't until after Mrs. Boettcher consequently got fired that I was justly regarded as a heroic liberator.

I noticed that Alexis was mumbling with her eyes closed and her hands hovering over her broccoli and rice. I wondered how she ended up this way. Come to think of it, there were probably some indications even back in ninth grade that she was going to turn out funny. When Mr. Spradlin put a battery-powered air freshener on the wall of his classroom, Alexis told him that it gave her a headache. He told her that she gave him a headache. Her neck tightened in fury. At lunch, she tried to recruit the rest of the class to join her Glorious Army for the Sabotage of Stinking Yuck (GASSY). No one would help her, so one day she mashed some bubble gum onto the nozzle of the air stenchener, as she called it. She was hoping it would blow a bubble. Instead, the thing just broke. The funny part was, Mr. Spradlin didn't even notice until the following year. He blamed it on his 8 o'clock class and gave everyone a detention when no one confessed. Some glorious army.

Now Alexis had completed her demonic incantations, and she took a small forkful of broccoli. I shoveled in some rice. Pasty! Though not as bad as the barley buns, to be honest.

"So, what else do you cook?" I asked. Was that rude? Too late to take it back.

Alexis chewed, eyeing me with that same smirk of superiority that had never ceased to infuriate me. As my jaw sank in bewilderment, she continued her relentless chewing. What in the name of all that is sacred was taking her so long? It was like watching a quadriplegic mime. I glanced around her kitchen at the row of buddhas like they have in Chinese restaurants and the Harry Belafonte poster, curling up at the corners. Circling plaintively was a scrawny fly on a hopeless surveillance mission to locate something good to eat in this kitchen.

Finally, she said, "Sorry, I try to chew each mouthful at least a hundred times."

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