“Oh no you don’t! Don’t come near me, Rufus Rutter! I’m not letting you kiss me when you’re eating an Atomic Fireball!”
Ellowyne’s giggles and shrieks were so loud that Freddy could hear them through the closed door of his upstairs bedroom. He rolled his eyes and sighed. It was bad enough when Rufus the Doofus moped around the house, pining for his sister, but once the two of them started actually dating, they became insufferable. They shared private jokes, stole kisses when they thought no one was looking, and had the most disgusting pet names for each other. Ellowyne called Rufus her “Rubear”, while he nicknamed her “Bae”. Freddy was so tempted to tell Rufus what bae really meant, at least in Danish, but for now he decided to keep it to himself and snicker whenever Rufus uttered this term of endearment. Ello’s squad thought that she and Rufus were perfect for each other and called them the Ellefus, a portmanteau of their first names. The whole thing made Freddy gag.
Freddy was thirsty and wanted a soda or an energy drink. But he would need to walk past the Ellefus on his way to the kitchen. He hoped that his sister and the Doofus would not notice him but of course they did.
“Hey, Li’l Bro! Want some?” Rufus pulled a couple of small red jawbreaker from his pocket. “Can you believe your sister is forcing me to choose between her and these?” He tossed the candy at Freddy, who popped one into his mouth. It was hotter than a wastebasket fire and he immediately spit it out.
Freddy moaned, “What’s in this thing?”
“It’s nasty,” Ellowyne answered, wrinkling up her nose. “It’s cinnamon and capsaicin.”
“Don’t listen to her, Li’l Bro. It burns a little at first but after you eat enough of them, they don’t seem so hot.”
“He’s lying, Freddy. It’s always that hot, even when it’s secondhand.”
Freddy was confused. “What do you mean, secondhand?”
Rufus grinned. “It means she’s kissing someone who’s eating a fireball!” With that, he leaned over to Ellowyne, who was giggling, and kissed her on the lips.
Freddy made a face, got a bottle of water, and went back to his room. He thought again about the hot red candy and the burning sensation it left in his mouth. He and Ellowyne subsisted on a rather bland diet at home since neither Father nor Grandmother Emily liked hot, spicy food. Ellowyne had been exposed to more diverse fare by going out with her friends and, of course, Rufus. Freddy also knew that his sister’s protests about the fireball kisses were just for show. Why, he watched Ello scarf an entire plate of nachos with jalapeños more than once, even when the Doofus wasn’t around! Freddy gingerly opened another fireball and put it in his mouth. His lips and throat burned, yet he swore he would not spit it out. But the candy proved too much for him. He spit out the fireball and took a drink of water, which made it even worse. Why would someone voluntarily eat something so hot, much less enjoy it?
Freddy got his answer a few days later when Ellowyne’s entire entourage came over. He usually ignored their banter but when he heard them talk about food, he decided to listen. Rufus, Penn, and Prudence were talking trash about each other and it became clear that they were engaged to do some kind of eating competition later that day. Intrigued, Freddy ventured downstairs, sat on the second lowest step, and listened.
Penn saw him first and called out to him. “Hey, Fred! Wanna watch me beat these so-called chileheads to a pulp?”
Rufus chuckled. “Yeah, right. You’re the one going down in defeat, Penn. And Pru, too!”
“As if!” Prudence shook her head. “Don’t listen to these two, Freddy. I’m going to prove that I can take down the hot stuff better than either of them. They’re so full of themselves…”
“And soon all of them will be full of blazing hot chicken wings!” Lizette exclaimed.
So Freddy joined his sister and her friends to witness the great hot wings contest. Lizette and Amber rode with Penn while Freddy and Pru rode in the back seat of Rufus’ red Subaru. It was kind of nice to sit next to Prudence because he had a slight crush on her.
The ride was over sooner than Freddy would have liked. When they walked into the restaurant, they were given a special table so that every patron in the place could watch the competition. Pru, and Rufus were seated together and were given glasses of beer, soda, and milk.
“Why the milk?” Freddy asked. “I’ve never seen any of you drink milk. Hot chocolate, maybe, but milk?”
“Well, Fred, the fat in milk counteracts the burn from capsaicin—that’s the stuff that causes the burning feeling.” Prudence said.
“Like in Atomic Fireballs?”
“Exactly,” Pru answered. “And that’s why water doesn’t work. There’s nothing in water to diffuse the capsaicin. Sugar helps sometimes and a few people like beer but milk is the best thing to drink.”
Freddy saw the server approach their table. “Oh, look, here come the wings!”
Three plates, each containing six wings coated with a devil’s potion of habañeros, Scotch bonnets, and the dreaded Carolina Reaper, the hottest chile in the world, were brought to the table. The goal was to get through six wings without drinking anything in ten minutes or less. The victors would receive t-shirts declaring they won the challenge, their photos on the Wall of Winners, and a gift card for another visit. The losers would also get t-shirts but they were emblazoned with a cartoon chicken and the words, “Dumb Cluck”. Their photos would also be put on display on the Wall of Wimps.
Freddy watched intently as the three tried to eat their wings. Pru’s eyes watered, Rufus’ face was flushed, and beads of sweat formed on Penn’s forehead—all before any of them finished their first hot wings. Amber nudged Freddy and whispered, “I heard that the kitchen staff has to wear gas masks when preparing the sauce for those wings.”
Penn finished one wing and put the second one down on his plate. He guzzled his milk and said, “I’m out. I can’t handle another wing.”
Rufus, who had also finished one wing, looked over at Penn and decided to admit defeat. “I thought I could do this but I can’t. Wall of Wimps, here I come.”
Prudence bested her rivals by eating two whole wings but she dropped out of the competition as well. “I’m done. But at least I finished two wings, unlike the two of you!’
“Just curious. Why do you torture yourself like this? It seems kinda silly to me,” Freddy said.
Rufus wiped the milk mustache from his face. “Do you know what endorphins are, Li’l Bro?” Rufus asked.
“Yeah, I heard about them in school,” Freddy answered. “Pain increases the body’s endorphins and makes a person feel—well—-high.”
“Exactly,” Penn said. “Have you ever heard about runner’s high? It’s the same thing. Eating hot food triggers the production of endorphins the same way running does. It can be painful to eat these things but the high is so good. It beats using a substance to get a buzz!”
“And it beats running,” Rufus added. Everyone laughed because they all knew Rufus preferred sedentary activities like playing video games or fixing things over athletic pursuits.
After the aborted competition, everyone at the table ordered wings and things that weren’t quite so pungent. Freddy got the mildest wings on the menu but even they burned his mouth. He started to cough and Prudence gave him her glass of milk. Freddy didn’t mind drinking from her glass! Alas, Pru rode back to Ellowyne’s in Penn’s car. Freddy was disappointed and, to entertain himself, he looked up capsaicin on his phone. He read about the Scoville scale and learned that the noxious sauce that felled Pru, Penn, and Rufus was hotter than some forms of pepper spray.
His interest piqued, Freddy decided to learn more about hot sauces and spicy food. His obsession with building wastepaper baskets and setting fire to random bedroom slippers ebbed as he nurtured his new passion—building culinary fires in his mouth. Sometimes he’d talk Rufus and Penn into letting him come on some of their man dates, especially if the were going to a restaurant or food truck that served peppery, piquant cuisine. Freddy quickly graduated from pico de gallo to roasted habañero salsa at Mexican restaurants and from mild green papaya salad to Crying Tiger at Thai places. He even bested Pru, Penn, and Rufus in a hot wing-eating contest, winning him the t-shirt as well as a placement of his picture on the Wall of Winners. He planted a small garden of various chiles, holy basil, and Mexican oregano. He watched cooking shows on television and YouTube and practiced cooking hot dishes for Ellowyne and all her friends. Even Father and Grandmother Emily were nudged out of their bland food comfort zone. They were thrilled that the only fires Freddy made anymore were on the big gas stove!
When Freddy graduated from high school, he went to a prestigious culinary institute and apprenticed at a Michelin-rated restaurant. He was on one of his favorite TV food completion shows. With his winnings and financial backing from friends, family, and a celebrity chef, Freddy started his own place, Pyromaniac’s, which quickly became one of the HOTTEST eateries in San Francisco. Pun intended.