Candice couldn't lose. The stakes were too high. A slew of ingredients covered the kitchen table: carton of eggs, sticks of margarine, sack of all-purpose flour, five-pound bag of sugar, the chocolate chips, everything the online recipe she'd printed said to use.
She grimaced at herself. Sixteen years old and had never so much as even boiled a pan of water. But somehow, she had to pull through on this. The timer was ticking, and she felt lost as a foreigner in a new land. Her frizzy, strawberry hair was already soaked with the same perspiration that made her rosy face shine under the interrogative light blaring down from the ceiling.
It wasn't the official prize, it was the unofficial prize which made her so determined to win first place in this stupid yearly bake-off.
She knew her opponent all-too-well: Lucia, an Hispanic girl who shared her age and her school. Lucia was much more beautiful and charming than she. Cute, dimpled smile. Thick, long black hair every bit as silver when the sun reflected off of it. Perfect turquoise eyes that seemed to cast spells on every boy who looked into them. Candice couldn't blame Royce one bit for asking her out.
"Oh, fudge!" she shouted.
The time on this practice round was up, and the entire kitchen was a stinky tornado aftermath of smoke, dripping yolks, greasy linoleum, and raw dough that had been slung everywhere in the fury of trying to appease a panel of imaginary judges with her overnight culinary expertise.
All she could think about as the family dog gave her the evil eye and left the room in haste to get as far away from the cookie/briquette she'd offered was the real panel of judges she'd face tomorrow. The moment which would decide her fate. Would she gain Royce or lose everything?
She cried over her plight in the form of text messages to Royce.
"There's just no way I can win this thing! I simply can't cook! It's gotta be in your blood, you know?"
"I didn't say anything about winning, did I? All I said was see to it that she loses."
"But how on earth?"
"I don't care! Just do it! Put salt in her sugar cannister or something. How hard can it be?"
Candice tapped at the kitchen table with bright-red tipped fingers, tilting her head to stare over at a can of iodized salt sitting on the counter below the pantry.
"What am I doing?" she asked as a shiver ran down her back.
Another text made the phone rattle, and she with it.
"You know the deal! Make her lose, I go out with you. Of course, if being the most popular girl in school cuz you're hooked up with the most popular guy in school don't interest you anymore..."
"I'll do it! I'll do it!" she had already typed and sent before reading halfway through his message.
A puff of warm breath shot from her lips. She went to yellowbook.com and searched under "Ruidosa" until she found the "Lucia" she was seeking and punched in the number listed. Several rings into the call, an older voice with a thick accent answered.
Candice cleared her throat. "Is Lucia there?"
A faint shout of the words for "sweet child" could be heard in the background. Then, Lucia's voice as she picked up the phone.
"They still use a landline?" Candice thought with her foggy brown eyes crossed.
"Hello. This is Candice."
Lucia was silent for a moment, then her voice picked up a notch in enthusiasm.
"Hola! How's it going, Candice?"
"Good. Look, I know we hardly ever talk and all, but are you free today by any chance?"
"Sure! Watcha need?"
Candice squirmed with contorted lips trying to dream up something.
"Well, I just thought maybe we could hang out today...you know...at your place. It's a Sunday and I'm bored."
"Okay. Yeah, that'd be great! Say, I hear you're entering the Bake-Off this year! Are you excited?"
"Mmm...not really. Not after the way these cookies went," she lamented with a short nervous laugh while gesturing a hand at the table.
"Oh? What went wrong?"
"Everything! The kitchen is a disaster now, and I'm seriously considering just withdrawing tomorrow."
"No no no!" Lucia exclaimed with a warm inflection. "Come on, you just need a few pointers is all! I'll be glad to help you out when you get here."
After jotting down the address with jagged scribbles, Candice sat with a blank face. The salt can magnified and shrank. Lucia really knew her stuff! She had won first-place the past two years in a row and was only one win away from being awarded that five-thousand dollar scholarship. She was a genius in so many ways. Candice supposed that was yet another reason Royce was so bitter. The smartest and prettiest girl says no to the cutest and most popular guy? No girl dared do that!
Royce had a driver's license/Candice didn't. So it was either bum a ride off of him or walk the four miles out of town. She sure as hell wasn't about to involve her mother in this!
He leaned toward her as they sat in his Mustang parked in Lucia's dirt driveway, softly pursing his lips together and bringing them within millimeters of Candice's before abruptly retreating his dreamy eyes from her presence and wagging his finger.
"Get it done or else," he warned as he drove away leaving her with nothing but a can of salt and her own wits.
She was so sick of being timed. He'd given her exactly thirty minutes before he'd be back to return her home. Mud caked the bottoms of her pumps as she stood rapping at the thin door of Lucia's travel trailer.
A travel trailer. Candice couldn't believe her eyes. "This beautiful thing lives here?"
She tried her best not to get overwhelmed with disgust as Lucia invited her in and offered her a cup of hot chocolate. Everything on the inside was as dirt-cheap as the trailer itself. No central heat, just space heaters; no giant kitchen adorned with stainless steel and marble, just a table more suitable for card-playing than preparing food. Yet this was the home of the apparently-most gifted chef in all of Santa Carla.
Everything Lucia said and did for the next fifteen minutes just sort of floated around Candice's ears, never fully absorbing into her brain. Even the delightful smell of the properly-mixed, formed, and timed chocolate chip cookies as they came to life in the toaster oven barely registered. Time was fast running out.
"Oh, thank God!" she thought as Lucia left for the back of the trailer to go dig for her favorite cookbook - the one that had inspired her obsession with the culinary arts in the first place.
Candice scurried as stealthily as she could with such unsteady hands to yank the salt can out of her purse. She hurled the contents of Lucia's sugar container down the kitchen's wastebasket and covered the sticky white evidence with some of what she assumed to be trash anyway, then refilled the container with the salt and slapped it back down on the table.
She continued scurrying in the guise of "helping" - her heart racing - as Lucia returned holding the cookbook in her arms like a baby and grinning brightly.
"Candice, you don't have to do that! I'll get it! But thanks."
As she gifted the book and reiterated all the key points about baking from earlier, she wished her the best of luck tomorrow, with a tone of confidence unlike anything Candice had ever heard in her life coming from anybody.
"You ding-a-ling!" Royce yelled on the way back home. "You put the whole freaking can in it? That was the dumbest thing ever! The judges are gonna know something's up now!"
"I tried, I'm sorry!" she sobbed with prospects of doom attacking her mind like a school of sharks.
"Look, sister! You're gonna have to go back there and do this right! If you screw tomorrow up, you're gonna get way worse than no date with me!"
Candice sat silent, her wet hands covered over her eyes. They were parked in front of a supermarket.
"Now you get your ass in that store and buy some more! It's not rocket science: A teaspoon of sodium equals one whole day's worth of sodium! Several times that amount is all it should take to ruin her cookies! You got that in your head now?"
Back in Lucia's driveway, he warned in a harsh whisper: "Shake it up real good too so it's mixed right!"
Candice opened the door of the Mustang to go pretend she'd forgotten something at Lucia's when she'd left. She wiped her face dry as best she could before knocking. Breath eluded her, replaced instead by a body covered in painful goosebumps. No one answered. The family's van was gone. She started to turn around to leave, but couldn't move.
"See if the door's unlocked!" Royce directed.
"Well, see if a window's unlocked then!" he declared with a forceful shrug.
He stomped through the mud and grabbed her by the waist as she clamored like a fish out of water to get through one that was, indeed, unlocked.
"Here!" he whined, hoisting her up high enough to crawl through and plop down onto the floor.
"You women are too much trouble." That was the form of "Thank you" Candice heard as she stood in the yard back home and the Mustang peeled away with a rubbery scream.
"Welcome all to the eighth annual Santa Carla Make-or-Break Bake-Off! This year's theme is: 'Cookies, Cookies, Cookies'. The rules are the same and most of you here today know them like the back of your hand by now..."
That last sentence alone was enough to make Candice shudder. It meant she was in direct competition with five others whom she knew to be yearly contestants, not counting Lucia.
The sound of the cap gun sent adrenaline coursing through all her veins. Fifteen minutes! Three for the prep work and twelve for the cooking. Tunnel vision ensued. Her arms became a whirlwind of flesh and utensils as brown sugar, organic applesauce, a splash of sour cream, and various other "special ingredients" all came together to form a dough. Twelve minutes later, when the time was up, she felt like collapsing on the floor.
"OK folks, the moment you've all been waiting for..."
Candice glanced at all the contestants as the two judges made their rounds sampling everyone's edible creations. At least she could see she wasn't the only one here visibly nervous. A middle-aged man in this motley bunch of hopefuls paced around in tiny circles, hands clasped behind his back, with not even so much as a sigh of relief when he saw the two pairs of eyes which had just scrutinized his designer shortbread cookies light up.
Several tastes later, the two stood before Candice and her "Feeling Chipper" cookies. She had no idea what the reaction was because she couldn't bear to watch. Instead, she directed her eyes toward Lucia, who was giving her a thumbs-up and smiling wide. Which was when she saw the judges approaching her prep station.
If heartbeats could pump out of her chest as nickels, she'd quickly be getting rich; unfortunately, heartbeats were just heartbeats as always. She couldn't resist turning to look at Royce as he stood among the audience giving her what she knew to be a subtle wink. The gulp of air in her throat wasn't so subtle.
And then she watched as his rounded eyeballs grew to match his opened mouth in size. Turning back to the judges, she already knew what it was all about. She couldn't help but stifle a giggle as the men nodded to each other with bright smiles and took another bite of Lucia's "Heavenly Pinwheel" cookies.
Second-place, as far as Candice was concerned, was super awesome even though it only came with a plastic trophy, considering how far she'd come just since yesterday thanks to Lucia. All three: The older man who'd placed third, Candice, and Lucia - who was now five-thousand dollars closer to a way out of poverty in the near future - bumped fists and headed for the audience to pass around the delectable treats after shaking hands with all the other contestants. Royce declined, flinging his hands in the air and storming out of the building.
"Fine. I'll eat it then," Candice mumbled at his departing figure with a grin as she dove her teeth into the beautiful first-place "Pinwheel", with its perfectly-contrasting shades of chocolate and vanilla. She thought back to that second visit to Lucia's trailer yesterday afternoon. Amazing what just the right amount of sugar can do for a recipe.