One Down in the Ground

And now, a randomly generated scene …

Nouns: handicap, jellyfish, lace, rate, resolution, screwdriver, shorts

Adjectives: puffy, long, irritating, goofy, kind

Verbs: stage, perform, calculate

Adverbs: gladly

Muffin

A front runner already, Holly calculated her chances of success, folding gently while her neighbours who shared the same long work bench stirred at a feverish rate. Both would have gladly traded their batters, lumpy on the left and runny as diarrhoea on the right, along with all future prospects of freedom for the smooth concoction in Holly’s mixing bowl. Being an experienced home baker, she had begun the week’s handicap a full half hour behind both Gregor and Tess and without the benefit of self raising flour, as had been bestowed on most of her competitors. She could see the shorts of the young man baking in front of her clung to his sweaty thighs beneath his apron.

They had begun as 16. One week in, they were one down.

One down, one down …

A more ominous than irritating little voice sang at her, overpowering the list of ingredients and methods in her mind.

One down in the ground …

They had been made to watch. She knew they would be – Holly had seen a dozen seasons before being unexpectedly whisked off to the dreaded kitchen herself. She’d known what was coming. Still, she’d been unable to distance herself from the small girl’s scream and the smell of blood mingling with the citrus-infused meringues they had been made to whip up.

The girl had never baked a day in her life. With only the barest instructions, her meringues had emerged colourless, wobbly as a sleep-deprived jellyfish. Holly’s were as puffy and crisp as those she’d called to mind to emulate from her mother’s ancient magazines, and the others’ bakes had at least resembled meringues. Holly could still see bulky Judge Wagner’s screwdriver-like index finger, stiff and cruel, trailing across the line up of nervous competitors before pointing squarely at the hapless girl. She’d been seized where she stood, toes uprooted from the linoleum beneath their feet.

‘Holly,’ Gregor moaned  as she peered in her oven and straightened, cupcakes baking nicely. Tess eyed the sugar lace that Holly wove as decoration, trying to emulate the technique and poorly staging confidence with a flick of her hair and flourish of her fork. Her cupcakes were now baking, too. Gregor, however, still gazed helplessly into his runny mixture.

‘Holly, help … I have to perform, this week. If Shelley had known which end of a wooden spoon to hold, I’d be gone already.’

It was true. Wagner had made a point of ridiculing Gregor’s goofy-looking meringues before spitting out the first bite and smashing the rest into his bench, meticulously scrubbed for the sweets presentation ceremony.

Holly pressed her lips together, nervous in indecision. She sympathised. But front runner or not, Holly wasn’t truly safe, either. Disasters happened – sometimes they were made to happen. If she helped Gregor – kind Gregor, who’d spoken to her those awful, tension-laden weeks they’d already spent in and around that kitchen while the rest of the field avoided her, forming their own segregated cliques of support – Holly would jeopardise her own chances, the firm resolution she’d made to win. To live. She’d sworn to her mother that she would.

‘Please, Holly …’

She felt like a villain for even thinking to refuse Gregor’s plea. Hadn’t she always delighted in sharing her secrets, freely distributing advice on how to best melt chocolate and knead pastry?

This is different, she tried to insist.

But despite her hefty self-preservation, Holly’s humanity refused to be ignored.

Down, down in the ground …

Holly busied herself weaving sugar into delicate strands, leaning close to her work to hide her face from Wager as he stalked up and down the aisles of benches. Internal debate raged. Gregor deflated with her silence, seeming to sink into the speckled linoleum, already feeling the iron grips that would be about his arms in a little over an hour, wrenching him out of line.

Down, down in the ground …

Finally, Holly spoke, whispering from the most minuscule corner her mouth could produce.

‘Wagner can’t see. No one can know. Do exactly as I say.’

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