To Test Sea Lore/Ding-Dong

And now, a randomly generated scene…

… using words collected from fellow choristers…

… inspired by Mäntyjärvi’s setting of Full Fathom Five from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Nouns: Notre-Dame, funnel-web spider, congee, rust, jacaranda, charter boat, fatigue

Adjectives: shiny, backward, phenomenal, stupendous, evil

Verbs: decompress, inflate, grind

Adverb: atmospherically

Pearl

Ropes tossed and tied and anchor dropped, a party of tourists strolled from the charter boat onto the dock. The clouds above were evil and the sea more so; judging by the chatter, what was left of their day trip had been cancelled due to an approaching squall. Though some weren’t quiet in their discontent, most seemed perfectly cheerful, keen to join the labourers and sailors buying bowlfuls of congee for their supper from vendors scattered about the harbour.

Intent on escaping the dire weather as tiny raindrops began to speckle their coats and then plummet more steadily, and far too occupied by their own selves and stories, no one noticed the pair that walked in the opposite direction, onto the pier rather than safely off.

The two walked hurriedly, huddled together, the larger with an arm around the smaller. The larger—a man—seemed to have loaned his great overcoat to the other; barely any of their figure could be seen beneath its folds.

They walked past the stupendous charter boat—they weren’t forgetful tourists come to reclaim some lost camera or treasure, a shell or jacaranda blossom claimed from island shores. Instead, they stopped beyond it where there looked to be nothing to attract anyone, local or sightseer. On more careful examination, a tin dinghy, so alike to the waves in colour so as to vanish against them, floated there. A ladder descended from the pier alongside.

The man’s companion seemed reluctant to approach the ladder: they dug their feet into the pier’s wooden planks and refused to climb down. A sudden movement beneath the overcoat caused them to cry out, and they stumbled forward with the man’s push, just managing to catch themselves on a rung. Trembling, the man’s companion awkwardly descended.

A savage gust caught the coat’s folds as they did, so strong it lifted the heavy garment and it flapped, bat-like, in the dim.

That’s when we saw the zip ties locking their wrists together under the coat and the dark spot of blood staining the white of their shirt just below the ribcage.

No, his ribcage. He was a man, too, darked haired and young.

The man’s companion clung to the ladder, desperate not to fall, as he tried to board the dinghy in one piece. Above, the man inflated a life jacket—only one—and slipped it over his shoulders, fastening it at the waist. Then, with a light, but urgent step, he hopped down the ladder, joining his plainly frightened captive.

We saw the flash of a knife as the man slipped the blade beneath the overcoat, pressing it to the other’s side with warning words:  keep silent and still.

Once he’d flicked a funnel-web spider to damp doom—ferried far from its preferred habit, it had been spinning there, making itself a nice new home with sea views—the man tugged the motor’s cord and cursed as it pathetically spluttered. He ground his teeth in frustration. When the little motor at last puttered into life, he directed it into the storm, leaving the pier behind, his reluctant passenger huddled in the bow.

Lightning crackled as silver fireworks overhead, illuminating the scene while thunder rumbled atmospherically seconds behind; we’ll admit this storm impressed even us. It was a wonder the little boat wasn’t tossed about more than it was, pushed backward and tipped up almost to capsizing point. Battered and rust-flecked as the tiny boat was, the man knew how to steer. He had more the look of a businessman, though, than a sailor; his suit was pristine, shoes shiny and black. Perhaps he had the sea in his blood from his father or father’s father.

On they went, further from the pier, on and on until it was merely a blip in the distance.

He let the engine die.

Surrounded by roiling grey on grey, cloud, sea and sky, the younger man gave a small whimper.

Far from the eyes of any who might prevent it, the man took his captive by the lapel of his overcoat and hurled him overboard.

‘A drowned man,’ he muttered, fingers entwined in the other’s dark locks as he pushed his head underwater and held it there.

There was fatigue in his voice, no pleasure drawn from this act of violence. Only desperation.

‘Bells,’ he uttered next, and sat very still, elbow rigid, sleeve soaking through as his captive thrashed.

He spoke again, growing even more tense.

‘Bells!’

We held ours still in our hands, feeling no little regret. We would chime for this poor victim. But not for this. Instead, we swam closer.

‘Come on!’ the man shouted, growing angry as the struggles of the drowning man stilled. We felt life leave him through the water. ‘I’ll be no better than him if you don’t! Do us a favour!’

A few of us angled our wrists, prepared to ring.

Wait, we whispered, our voice one with sea and storm.

In the boat, the man had begun to pat frantically at his suit pockets. Curious, we watched his antics. He pulled free a slim, rectangular device and began to press upon it with his fingertips. He must have given it some command, for instantly great bells tolled, as mighty as Notre-Dame. The sound was phenomenal. Even the wind seemed to die with their power as sound erupted, lone and stark, from the small device.

Without our blessing, against our will, even as we swam, hidden beneath the boat, and took the drowned man’s hands, his body collapsed into golden sand. Bone transfigured into blossoming white coral and hair fell into thick cords of knotted black pearls.

Aboard the dinghy, the mood immediately decompressed, relief swamping the man as saltwater had swamped his victim’s lungs moments before.

‘Yes…’ he hissed with the reprieve, sea treasures drifting at the ocean surface on a bed of once-skin seaweed, ready to please any lover, pay any debt… whatever trouble had been worth the other’s life.

Hand now tangled with many strings of precious stones, the man dragged them from the water in elated handfuls, piling them into the dinghy. Then, taking a small sieve—he had come prepared with more than backup imitation bells—he scooped up as much gold dust as he could.

But two treasures beyond value, shining as moon-white orbs, had begun to sink—pearls were far weightier than any eye of flesh and blood.

Keen not to lose them to the deep, the man plunged both hands into the water, each reaching for a twin pearl. Fingertips just brushing the smooth sheen of their surface, he stretched even further, shoulders straining, knuckles popping with effort.

Rain pelted bullet-like upon his shoulders, driving him further forward, nose to the swollen ocean, its roar almighty.

The boat tipped.

We didn’t seize and draw him under; such savage elements don’t appreciate offerings, though we weren’t averse to seeing his knife find his life jacket once he tumbled.

Were he truly of the sea, this man would know more than merfolk lore.

The ocean, the wind and rain: they take what they please.

And as we carried the treasures that remained to rest quietly on the ocean floor, we held our bells ready.

Advertisements

On Our Last Day

And now, a randomly generated scene…

Nouns: soup, existence, discussion, guide, limit, trick, wine

Adjectives: glossy, nosy, witty, overjoyed, proud

Verbs: build, oversee, allocate

Adverbs: maniacally

Wine

‘Come on, Evie! We’re almost there! Just a little further!’

Evie panted behind her guide, struggling to keep her little legs churning as the ground steadily inclined. Eyeing the top of the ridge, her tiny, pattering heart sunk to her sneakers. It seemed a world away.

‘Where are we even going?’

‘It’s brilliant! You’ll love it…’

‘…just the strangest notions!’

Evie caught herself dreaming and quickly oriented to the conversation dancing flippantly between her circle of six. She sipped her wine, widened her eyes appropriately in faux interest, and smiled.

‘I know! I had this trainer once who I could never quite convince of the existence of soup. Stew and water, everything was to him! Just stew and water! He just would not accept that soup was real.’

‘Well,’ came a chortle from beneath a proud salt-and-pepper moustache, ‘he’ll be right come tomorrow!’

Laughter. Too much of it. Evie automatically joined in, but turned from the circle as a tray of stuffed olives passed under her nose, following the tasty excuse to escape. Mouth full and fingers oily, she took a tentative step towards the flung-wide terrace doors and freedom. One step later, she was absorbed into another circle of light discussion, allocated another group by the atmosphere as though seeking solitude were a sin.

But it wasn’t solitude she sought.

Why had she come? Why on God’s sweet green earth was she here?

‘Are you serious?’

‘Deadly so! I’ve seen it!’

No longer daunted by the hill that rose ever steeper before her, Evie positively raced to catch her guide – her friend. She’d paused halfway up, dancing impatiently on the spot, her own breath wheezes, but eyes glittering with anticipation.

‘Why’d they even build it?’

‘No idea. But it’s amazing!’

Evie’s guide – her friend – grabbed her hand as soon as Evie’s minuscule fingertips were in reach and tugged her along, helping her climb as loose soil crumbled about their feet.

‘Come on! We’re nearly there…’

‘Evie? Evie Tay, are you in there?’

‘Hmm?’

A pair of glossy pink lips spoke to her face.

‘How wonderful to see you! What have you been up to, lately? How’s that last act coming along? Did you ever finish? I suppose it doesn’t matter, now, but I was so looking forward to seeing you perform one last time. You look wonderful, by the way – someone’s been dieting. Grapefruit or slim shakes – you must tell me!’

What was the point in being nosy now? The habit, it seemed, could be broken by nothing.

‘Evie, this is Henry. Henry, this is Evie Tay. She’s the one I was telling you about, the spoken-word artist? I’ve met no one more witty, not in Melbourne or Edinburgh! Henry’s not so dull himself, you know, Evie – the tricks he can do! Let’s see if I can’t find a pack of cards. Two wits in a mansion-full of fools… you two will get on like a house on fire!’

Henry’s lips weren’t glossy, but, like the rosebud-pink example, smiled in plastic pleasure.

‘Suzanne, I don’t know why you’re insisting on introducing us now. It’s hardly fair – one needs time to enjoy such a lovely new acquaintance’s company!’

‘But I’ve been meaning to get you two together for years – you’re still single, aren’t you, Evie? And what time better than now?’

‘How about years ago, Suzanne? How about that?’

It took some time for Evie’s ears to stop ringing. She drank some wine, disinterestedly checking her glass for cracks. Those maniacally giggling lips released sound shrill enough to shatter.

‘Can you hear the music?’

‘I can hear it! I can hear it!’

The air grew crisper and cleaner with the altitude, and, the higher they climbed, the more divine, sweet smells that scented it – fairy floss, popcorn, and deep-fried, salted chips. Evie’s guide – her friend – her sister – breathed deep, filling her lungs with what Evie hoped would soon be filling their bellies.

‘I’ll buy you chips if you get the lemonade.’

‘Okay.’

Evie sighed, excitement tingling her every nerve, but little bones so weary.

‘Come on, Evie. Almost there…’

‘You could at least try to be social, Evie. To be nice. A lot of folks have reached their limit, you realise.’

Hadn’t everything?

‘Is that why the television’s off?’

The enormous screen on the wall was conspicuously black. Evie hadn’t seen a television switched off in weeks.

‘We’re trying to relax. Enjoy ourselves. Now, must I oversee your every move to see you do the same?’

Oversee her every move? To make sure she enjoyed herself?

Evie sculled until only a dribble remained at the base of her glass. Suddenly, breathing wasn’t so easy anymore.

‘I’m going outside.’

‘Jan and Tracy stepped out a moment ago – don’t mind them.’

On the terrace amid the roses, Evie tuned out in the fresh air and sank to a stone bench, warmed by the evening sun. There, her eyes found the sky.

‘Here we are!’

Exhaustion fled her, and Evie pointed wildly into the valley below, ecstatic.

‘There it is! Look!’

The Ferris Wheel. The merry-go-round. A tamely-twisting wooden roller coaster with bright blue, freshly-painted cars.

The scene spread magnificently before them. Evie and her guide – her friend – her sister – her Tanya – took it in together, out of breath and pink-faced from the climb, but shining. Overjoyed.

‘I told you it was here!’

She’d never doubted her.

Evie finished her wine and threw her glass away. It shattered among the petals and thorns.

The moon-wide meteor skipped ever closer, fiery tail of gas and debris like dark fireworks. Evie would have preferred scarlet and gold.

She should have called Tanya. They should have gone to the fair.

More Than A Monument

And now, a randomly generated scene…

Nouns: crack, flower, base, offer, mountain, committee, ray

Adjectives: solid, lively, hideous, maddening, freezing

Verbs: educate, copy, introduce

Adverb: self-assuredly

daffodil

Eyes on his shaking hands, Finlay slowly, carefully fed the stem of his daffodil into a crack at the base of the wall. At his side, his partner made the offer of a pale rose for their eldest. On the freezing ground between their feet lay a slab of grey stone. Their eldest’s name was cut into its side.

Once he’d tenderly rolled a tear-blotted note into a tiny spear and shoved it true, Finlay knelt. His partner and a young Operation Tower committee member  heaved the stone together and began to strap it to his back. Finlay grunted, angling his body to better distribute the solid weight.

The committee member made her customary offer again. ‘I can make the climb for you, sir. I would lay your stone true. ’

She spoke self-assuredly. Her legs would certainly stay lively longer than Finlay’s once their shoe spikes were digging between the stones high above the halo of flowers and final messages. But again, Finlay refused. While he could do this himself, he would.

‘Very good, sir, but I will climb beside you—please let me know if you require any assistance. We can trade your burden at a way station should you run into trouble.’

Operation Tower committee members often made these climbs for the bereaved. They were educated in the ways of the walls and the parents of slaughtered military men and women were generally too old to scale the still-growing structure. And every day there were more telegrams, more names and more slabs of rock to ferry straight up.

There was only one reason for the stones. One reason for this tower. One reason to even maintain a military force.

One hideous reason, its rank breath choking grieving climbers, short of breath as they imagined it, the mindless, gleeful gleam of its eye as they envisaged that which had violently introduced their children to a petrified death immobilising them so they were left frozen on the face of the tower in despair, clinging to a point higher than the nearest mountain.

Only one thought offered comfort enough to ensure they reached the pinnacle and laid their precious stones: this was far more than a monument. It was those they’d lost who would cage the terror. Once it was finally dropped in there, the tens of thousands it had savaged, leaving nothing to bury, would stretch so high it could never escape.

But two hundred years’ worth of sacrificed soldiers hadn’t left more than a pus-weeping scratch…

No.

Finlay beat away that maddening thought, the stone’s weight dragging down his shoulders as he rose. He tried to listen as his companion committee member demonstrated safe-climbing positions, and copied her as she bent her knees and flexed her tar-dipped fingers. But he couldn’t comprehend her warnings of height and ripping wind and danger. He could only focus on their eldest.

He couldn’t help but think …

No ray of light would touch the beast’s face again, Finlay swore on the tower, tears falling steadily – and they fell unnoticed, though cold air struck his cheeks – as he tarred his fingers and kicked the spike setting on his boots.

Their eldest hadn’t died for nothing.

Finlay’s partner took a soft handkerchief and brushed it against his damp cheeks – they had barely begun to wrinkle. Unable to utter a word, his partner then gently wiped his eyes, clearing them for the journey up.

The winter air went still. The way was clear.

The beast would rot in there.

Their eldest would see to it.

I Am Suzanne: A Dancer, Transsexual or Lookalike’s Story?

Started writing a randomly generated scene, but need to get back to editing.  Shall hopefully finish it tomorrow or on Tuesday 🙂 Remember, have a guess before Googling.

And now, let’s play Balderdash…

Category:  Movies

I Am Suzanne

a) A dancer gets mixed up with gangsters after falling in love with a puppeteer.

b) Based on true events, the emotional, occasionally awkward yet inspiring story of a young transsexual born into an aristocratic family in 1950s London.

c) An overlooked lookalike is mistaken for actress Suzanne Mills at a commercial casting call and is haplessly launched from obscurity to stardom, much to the real Suzanne’s displeasure.

The Pitchfork Option

And now, a randomly generated scene …

Nouns: bomber, craftsman, cucumber, patient, polo, sunshine, tyre

Adjectives: cowardly, sharp, nine, high-pitched, quickest

Verbs: compare, combine, contract

Adverb: madly

Tablets

Thunk

Mallet struck wood and the ball sailed down the field. Horses galloped, hooves tearing up grass as their riders pursued.

Another thunk and a cheer. From his armchair on the patio, Will squinted, but it was impossible to tell who had scored. Whether James or Clive, he now waved his mallet madly as his teammates thumped him on the back.

Nnnneeaaooooowww

Will’s weakened body tensed. His eyes flew skyward, raking the light cloud. The source of the propellers soon cut through the wisps. Bombers. Nine of them soared north over the estate.

A high-pitched gasp and a rattle sounded as Lottie nearly lost the tea-tray she carried.

“Are they ours?” she whispered, clutching her apron. “Theirs?”

“I’m not sure.” Will couldn’t make out the symbols on their rudders. He compared the bombers with pictures he’d seen in the papers, trying to identify them without success. On the shadowed field, the polo game had stalled, riders turning grim gazes to the sky.

To Will’s relief, the bombers flew on, taking with them their haunting shadows. Praying they’d hear of no raids on the evening news, Will collapsed back in his chair. The summer sunshine was cheerful, his friends’ laughter invigorating. He’d almost been enjoying himself, outside again after nine months.

“Nasty fright those bombers give, eh? How’s the patient?”

James, the quickest of them, was first to arrive on the patio. He sat up on the arm of Will’s chair and grabbed a cucumber sandwich.

“Fine, I suppose,” Will said with a shrug. He was alive, at least. Most who contracted tropical viruses died in a week; Will had his family’s wealth to thank for flying him home in time. “Boredom is my chief complaint.”

“There’s plenty you could do with yourself,” James declared, taking a platter of cold meats and cheese from Lottie. She was very pale; near as pale as Will. “You could paint, write poetry. Why not take up clock carving and become a master craftsman?”

“Well, I certainly have time to think about it.”

Will sipped his soup, listening to his friends’ talk of racing odds and enemy towns obliterated by their own bombers as they ate. His doctor then arrived, a signal for his friends to disperse. They left with encouraging farewells and promises to visit soon.

After he’d swallowed his medicine and his doctor went to speak with his parents, Will slowly rose, furtively checking no one was nearby. A cane to support his diminished form, with timid steps he made the short journey to the stables. He meant to return to the saddle as soon as possible now that he’d made it back to his feet. Then he’d be the one brandishing his mallet in triumph.

Ignoring his trembling limbs and the gentle sense his parents’ and doctor’s combined efforts failed to make him see as he petted her warm brow, Will had decided to saddle his mare and ride – slowly – around the back of the house when he heard a sob.

And another. Lottie was inside. All the stable hands were taking lunch. But there was definitely someone else there.

Frowning curiously, Will followed the sound to a back corner. A few massive, worn tyres were stacked there; he’d once liked jumping his mare over them. Resting a moment against the sturdy stack, he peered around them.

The young man huddled there didn’t notice his company straightaway, sniffing heavily to himself. When he realised his refuge was no longer secret he cried out and brought a pitchfork before him, levelling it at Will’s chest.

“Stay back,” he warned hoarsely, eyes very wet. “I won’t go back! You can’t make me!”

Advancing, his broad shoulder knocked a tyre askew. The stack wavered, throwing Will off balance. Feebly fumbling to catch himself, Will hit the ground, cane clattering out of reach.

“Get up and go,’ the young man ordered, desperate and frightened. “Don’t tell anyone. If you do…”

“I can’t.”

“Can’t what?”

An armchair was one thing, but Will realised he was stuck down there until someone helped him up.

“I can’t get up. You’re a deserter,” he realised with mingled pity and disdain – as much as he could feel of either with that pitchfork hovering over him. “Who are you?”

“I can’t go back,” he whispered, but eventually muttered his name. Michael.

“War’s a terrible thing,” Will agreed, thinking it best not to aggravate Michael, call him cowardly when Will would have taken his chances on the front line in exchange for his health in an instant. “But there’s still much to be thankful for. Be grateful you’re still healthy.”

“Be grateful you’re not,” Michael shot back.

“Easy!” Will exclaimed, Michael thrusting the pitchfork threateningly towards him.

“You know nothing!’

“I was there.” Despite his position, Will’s pride was hurt. “I’ve seen what war does to men.”

“How long?”

“I was taken ill barely a month after crossing the equator. They sent me home and now I’ll never be well enough to…”

“Nine times they’ve sent me back! Nine! I’ve had it!”

Eeeoooeeeooo

“No,” Michael muttered, quaking as sirens wailed. “No. They won’t take me.”

His frantic eyes bounced across the stables for inspiration. After a frantic search, they locked on Will splayed helplessly below.  Slowly, haunted by worse than shadows, his eyes burned with realisation.

Michael flipped the pitchfork and drove its wickedly sharp prongs down, aiming to cripple, pierce his own feet.

“Wait!” Will cried in alarm. “Stop!”

Michael froze, mindless resolve shattered by Will’s shout. The prongs floated tantalisingly close to Michael’s thin boots.

“Help me up and we’ll see what we can do.”

Will reached out his hand. It shook with weakness and fear for the other. What Michael must have seen for that pitchfork to even be an option… perhaps Will truly knew nothing.

“Michael.” Will tried to speak calmly as  sirens blared nearer. The pitchfork wavered in Michael’s hands. “Put that down and help me up. Help me.”

Eeeoooeeeooo

Clang

“Help me.”

A Small Reward

And now, a randomly generated scene …

Nouns: self, mass, damage, reward, growth, act, effect

Adjectives: low, relieved, heavenly, two, curved

Verbs: solicit, edit, extract

Adverb: doubtfully

Feather

One great mass. Two. Their growth was alarming, feathers unfurling rapidly as her friend’s shoulders slumped, vertebrae curved with the sudden weight. May gazed with wonder and want as Sarah gave a relieved laugh and the heavenly appendages carried her into the air with three easy beats, her radiance bathed in the white glow of the low moon.

“A small reward in anticipation of your service,” the slender angel-man spoke up. Their angel-man. He had come to them. For years he’d returned without fail, and now the day was finally here. He’d remained silent all through Sarah’s short transformation into her new self, as terrifying as it had been marvellous, but now May fancied their stern-faced guardian nearly smiled.

Now, it was her turn. But why did he say nothing? Why did he not extract her tightly-rolled contract from his trench coat as he had Sarah’s, letting her sign with a great feather that could have only come from one of his own powerful wings. He would not turn to May, nor look even as she tried in vain to catch his eye.

“What of May?” Sarah saw her silent struggle to gain the angel-man’s notice. “Where is her contract?”

“Yes, where is …”

May’s words stilled as the angel-man turned at last to look upon her. When before it had been almost a smile on his pouting lip, there was nothing uncertain of their set now, doubtfully frowning as he gazed straight through May into her heart and soul.

“There is too much damage,” he said, not unkindly, after an endless minute. “Every act you have done and has been done to you has a lasting effect. Dark acts tear rents and leave scars. I had hoped your purity would remain unscathed. You kept it safe for years, despite your hardships. Only last year it was intact…”

“That wasn’t her fault!” Sarah exclaimed, landing and gathering May in her arms, disbelief and horror melding hideously within.

Only last year she’d been pure…

“Her own acts have not caused this, no.”

“Please,” May solicited the angel-man from within Sarah’s protective embrace. It was all she could do not to beg. “This is all I’ve had to look forward to. Please, don’t take this from me.”

“You promised,” Sarah added accusatorily.

“You are scarred, May. You can protect no one.”

“Fix her, then!” Sarah exclaimed, her tears flowing freely.

Now it was sympathy the angel-man expressed. Beautiful as it was on his face, May wouldn’t look, not trusting her innards to continue functioning and keeping her well. She felt ill. Gutted. Worse.

Worse than last June.

“A soul cannot be un-scarred any more than the past that caused it can be edited and re-written.”

“If she cannot come, I will stay with her!”

May numbly listened to the angel-man’s gentle reminder of Sarah’s contract. Then Sarah gave damaged May a final kiss and fierce squeeze, and the angel-man took her reluctant hand, drawing them apart.

“What am I to do?” May managed to form words. Without Sarah, she truly had nothing.

“You have become one we are sworn to protect,” the angel-man said, reaching out to briefly brush May’s cheek in farewell. She would not see them again, the touch said. Not him, and not Sarah.

“Why didn’t you protect her before?” Sarah demanded, speaking over her new kin. “If you had, she would be with us now!”

“You will have our protection.”

“You will have my protection,” Sarah swore fervently as she and the angel-man lifted together into the night, leaving May alone on the hill. “I can protect you, now. I will protect you.”

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.’