This story is by Terri Robinson and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sweat trickled down Cora’s face, tickled the edge of her chin, and dropped onto the floor. Her fear rose with the water which crested over her shoes, and then was up to her mid-calf. She couldn’t move; the water was like cement. She tried to lift her hands, but they were stuck in a bowl of brown batter.
Water continued to rise. The drizzle of sweat turned into a deluge, running down her face like rivers seeking the sea. Water was up to her chest and then to her chin. She tried to yell, but no sound came out.
A repetitive buzzer sounded in her ear.
“Time is up,” an announcer repeated in synchrony with the buzzing.
Mattie whipped out her phone and checked the time. 8:04 a.m.
Cora was late. Again.
“She had better show up,” Mattie thought, as her right toe tapped out her irritableness at her best friend and business partner. She had been at their shop, The Cake Walk, for 15 minutes.
8:12 a.m. Mattie shifted her weight and her left foot took up the staccato tapping.
8:20 a.m. Mattie’s thoughts drifted back to when they met in high school. After graduation, Cora went to culinary school while Mattie got the business management degree. Together they were a great team, except for Cora’s anxiety with deadlines. Apparently, that now extended to meetings with her. Mattie’s fingers drummed the counter.
The door chime jangled as Cora entered the shop.
“It’s about time,” Mattie scolded. “It’s 8:40. This is our last day before the Rise Up contest. I can’t believe…,” Mattie’s voice tapered off as she got sight of Cora. Black circles, intensified by pasty skin, surrounded Cora’s blood-shot eyes. Her hair hung as limp as her shoulders. Mattie’s heart crumpled.
“You had that nightmare again, didn’t you?” Mattie asked Cora, who gave an embarrassed nod. “How high did the water get this time?”
“I can’t do the baking contest,” Cora said. “I’m sorry.”
“How high?” Mattie insisted. “Up to your waist?”
“Over my head,” Cora capitulated. She never could stand up to Mattie’s interrogations and she didn’t have the strength to try today.
“Oh my gosh, Cora, don’t you realize what’s happening? You’re drowning in your own despair!”
“We’ve been preparing for Rise Up for months, Mattie. I just … I just can’t do it.”
“Yet. You can’t do this, yet,” Mattie corrected. “But you can, if you do two things. First, as I’ve said for three months, let go of the past. The baking contest last year was a fiasco. But it’s history. Let it go.”
“What’s the second thing?”
“You have to make the clock your friend.”
Mattie’s challenge staggered Cora. Deadlines were her death. The cakes she made for their shop sold as fast as she put them on the shelf, but she couldn’t fulfill an order if it was for a specific time, much less bake in a televised competition. When she tried the batter wouldn’t set, the cake crumbled, or the decorations melted. The whole time she worked to fulfill an order her heart beat twice as fast and blackness crowded her peripheral vision until she had to fight to see her hands. Breathing was impossible. Her mouth dried to the point her tongue swelled, and her lips were a cracked mess. She would end up throwing the botched cake in the trash.
Mattie took a package out of her purse and put it on the counter. It was a metronome.
“The clock is your friend, Cora,” Mattie repeated. She started the device and its steady ticking filled the kitchen.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Cora’s breath shallowed and quickened. Tick. Tick. Tick. Her heart pounded. Her palms slickened with sweat. She couldn’t do this.
“You can do this,” Mattie said, reading her thoughts. “Close your eyes and see the ticks of time.”
Cora complied and angry little dots of red danced around her. Each tick of the metronome produced more dots.
“The clock is your friend, Cora. Let time into your soul. Welcome it.” Mattie waited a few moments, and then told Cora to bounce her weight from one foot to another in time with the metronome. “Feel the beat,” she encouraged.
Cora rocked back and forth. In her mind’s eye, pastel ribbons slipped out from her and wove around the dots, now softened to a light pink. The dots and ribbons became long polka dot streamers. A peacefulness engulfed her as she focused on the beauty of her vision.
“Keep rocking and slowly open your eyes,” Mattie said. “That’s it. Can you still feel the beat?”
“I can,” Cora said with glee. “It’s beautiful.”
“Time is the heartbeat of the universe,” Mattie continued. “All things are created through and by time. It shapes us, defines us. It is our beginning and our end. Clocks only mark time, but by doing so allow us to align ourselves with each moment.”
Cora understood. She had fought what she should have embraced. For the first time in months, Cora was ready to take the next step.
“Feel the beat; move your feet,” Mattie said. “You have three hours to create a cake of your own design. I’ll play the announcer and give you the remaining time.”
A quiver of anxiety shook Cora as unbidden memories of last year’s disastrous contest filled her mind. She and Mattie had thought it would be great exposure for the Cake Walk, but Cora’s anxiety got so out of hand she forgot to put flour in the batter. She had planned to make a chocolate fudge cake decorated as an old-fashioned winter sleigh. Cora decided to make that cake for Mattie.
“Two hours, 50 minutes,” Mattie announced.
Cora calmed herself by envisioning her streamers. She quickly combined the ingredients, including flour, and got the cake in the oven.
“Two hours, 30 minutes.”
While it cooked, Cora designed the cake’s shape and made pine cones, poinsettias, and holly berries to decorate the sleigh.
“One hour, 30 minutes.”
Cora shaped the cake into her sleigh design without pieces breaking or crumbling off.
The frosting spread like silk and the decorations sealed to the fondant as if they had grown in place. At the 15-minute mark, Cora sat back. She had finished.
“It looks beautiful!” Mattie exclaimed. “How do you feel?”
“Fantastic! It was like I didn’t have a deadline at all,” Cora said. “Thanks for all your help.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Mattie teased. “We still have the contest!”
The next morning baking judge Harriet Crenshaw met Cora and Mattie at the TV studio door, producer Hank Billingham in tow. Crenshaw had fought their entry into the Rise Up televised competition since Cora, at Mattie’s insistence, put in her application three months earlier. Mattie battled her complaints. Cora met Hank’s eye, and he motioned her to follow him into the kitchen studio.
“Your friend is right, you know,” Hank said. “We can’t kick you out.”
“I know. And I’m sure you are as anxious as Judge Crenshaw after the last contest. Let me assure you, I can now bake under stress,” Cora said, and hoped it was true.
“I’m happy to hear that, because one more debacle and no one will take you seriously.”
Cora had her kitchen set up by the time Mattie joined her. Mattie was Cora’s second in the competition, although her real purpose was to keep Cora calm.
“Crenshaw got tired of yelling at me, so she went to find Hank. Sorry, but I don’t think you will get her vote,” Mattie said.
“It’s OK,” Cora said quietly, wiping her hands repeatedly on a dish towel. The action didn’t escape Mattie’s notice.
“Take a deep cleansing breath,” Mattie instructed. “Remember, the clock is our friend.”
Mattie was right, Cora thought. She could do this. She just needed to move to the beats of time, not her palpitating heart.
“Contestants. Please. May I have your attention.” Hank’s voice filtered through the sound system from the production booth. “Take your places and be ready for our studio introductions. Chefs stand in front; Seconds, three steps behind, off the left shoulder of the chef. The camera crew will focus on each of you individually. Put on your game faces and let’s get ready to bake!”
Sweat beaded Cora’s forehead. The worries nibbled on her confidence. What if she messed up, again? Could she hold it together for the whole contest? Just the first minute was proving painful. The camera crew moved to the station next to her. In a few seconds the camera would be on her. There was no turning back. Her limbs felt heavy. Her mouth dried. Then she heard it. A steady tap, tap, tap came from just behind her to her left. Her racing heart slowed and air reached her lungs. She began to rock back and forth, like a fighter ready for a bout, as the camera focused on her.
“Your time starts…Now.”