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American Contemporary Fiction

“So now, for fifteen thousand dollars, what’s it going to be?”


Jamie stooped and squinted at the five objects.


“They’re all so real…”


“They’re as real as wrestlin’, Jamie,” said the host to a ripple of spontaneous amusement from the audience, “but which one is cake?”


Real as wrestling. Jamie knew real when he saw it. When Hulk Hogan hit The Macho Man Randy Savage, hit him square in the eighties (when fifteen grand would have bought a new Corvette), it was real. Really real. The Macho Man staggered like a blasted buck. Stiff legged and rake-in-the-face, reeling real. The reality of Randy’s savage comeuppance had been fiercely debated the next day at school. Its reality was ratified by a (second) real fight. No belt had changed hands, but reality was confirmed and Hulkamania (which gets a red line, Gates is obviously a Warrior fan) lived on.


Thirty-odd years later, the studio lights were bright and Jamie was sweatier that Hogan’s hair.


 “Fifteen seconds!” said the host to the hushed room.


A handbag, a games console control pad, a seashell, an apple and a raw steak. Jamie stared at each of the objects in turn.


Jamie had never scrutinised a handbag in his life. It was pink, some kind of patent leather, or plastic, or fondant? The leather/tempered chocolate strap was folded behind the perfectly stitched quilting of the body of the bag. Maybe. How could anything edible gleam under a studio light like that? Jamie saw the coloured lights of an arcade projected into the stick-bound cloud of candy floss he had carried on the last night of the first holiday he could remember. If a galaxy could be spun in sugar, pink icing could be made to shine like polished pleather.


The control pad. An easier object to cakify, surely? Matt, inert, but then, so precise in its ergonomic curves. How could they? The smooth horns of the hand-friendly shape that guided fingers and thumbs to trigger and stick, linking hand, eye and processor. A recipe for sweet, sweet endorphin release. But was it cake? Were all controllers a form of cake? Was cake a form of controller? Student Jamie had spent a lot more time procrastinating over games controllers than he had over handbags. Didn’t the military use them to control drones these days? Game controllers, not handbags. A man in fatigues rushed to the podium and snatched up the controller. Somewhere over Afghanistan a Predator Drone unleashed a payload of fudge sauce.


The sea shell must be the least likely. Frilled and folded, deeply creased like a Georgia O’Keefe. Ceramically smooth with the colours of a weekday sunset in a soft-focus tiger stripe. Unfakeable, unbakeable? Probably. Was the hermit crab’s mansion more or less difficult to simulate than the clacking plastic of the device that controlled a hermit teenager’s world? Jamie didn’t know, but the handbag was a distant memory.  


“If it’s the sea shell, I’ll marry the baker,” said Jamie. The audience gave a high buzz of appreciation.


“Ten seconds.” snapped the host. “Fifteen thousand dollars.”


Nothing was real in the studio. A Monday afternoon had been dressed up as Saturday primetime. The audience’s emotions were stage managed. The lights were coloured and angled to conceal the truths of mortality and make structures of flour and egg appear intentionally synthetic. The host was a weightless individual doing a meaningless job. The whole thing would be trapped in a loop of perpetual repeats and on-demand escapism. None of it real, except for today, the first time the events would play out, the fifteen grand was real. The bills it would pay were very real. It was a one in five chance.


The apple. Had a delicious piece of natural fruit been turned into a delicious piece of unnatural cake? Was cake unnatural? If you wanted to turn an apple into confectionary you waited until Halloween, stabbed it with a stick, dipped it in hot caramel and left it to go teeth-cracking hard on grease-proof paper. The resulting armoured fruit was as reflective as an expensive pleather handbag under hot studio lights. It had a mix of smooth curves and a perfectly flat plane, where the caramel had pooled on the paper, a combination similar to the games controller. But this was no toffee apple. What Jamie was looking at was a perfect red apple, the skin slightly mottled, yellow-green speckling making it all the more red. A single leaf clung to the stalk screaming of its authenticity. Screaming too loudly?


“Five seconds!”


Five seconds left to work out if a steak was made of cake. Five seconds left to win more money than the net annual earnings from several of Jamie’s previous jobs.


The steak was big. Eat for free, food challenge, get-your-picture-on-the-restaurant-wall big. It glistened under the lights. It had the marbling of mature meat and a sneaker-sole rind. Jamie was hungry. He had been at the studio all day and had been too nervous to eat any of the complimentary buffet. The steak was glistening, it must be moist, but the plate was spotless, not a hint of juice or blood. It wasn’t a real steak! The steak was cake! They had butchered a cake cow to get a sponge sirloin!


Jamie saw the world open up before him like a hot air balloon pilot. He could see the curvature of the Earth. The limits of reality frayed before they reached the periphery of his all-encompassing vision. He knew the truth. The sheen on the bag was too sharp, plus, if it was cake, the creator would have showed off the handle. The artisans on this show did not shrink from difficult details. The controller? An easy mould job. Don’t waste my time. The shell? Impossible. If it was the shell he would lose fifteen grand, but would propose to the genius who created it, would happily spend the rest of his life devoted the alchemist who could conjure such a thing, regardless of any trifles such as gender or any preexisting commitments. The apple? Was it too easy, small and unassuming, flying under the radar? He was tempted by the apple. A serpent of doubt slithered in. A twenty-four-inch-thick python of paranoia. What would Hulk Hogan do?


Hogan was all about protein. Hogan would be enraged that the steak was not real. He would hulk up on that confectionary cow, grab it by the cream horns and slam it through the ring ropes, slicing it into a neat stack of cake steaks.


“Time’s up.” The host moved behind the five objects. He held a large kitchen knife. “You’ve pressed your button, your choice is locked in. Tell us Jamie; what have you gone for?”


“It’s the steak, Mikey.”


The host gave a tic-tac grin, his heavily powdered face dry under the hot lights. Was he real? Was he cake? Cheesecake? He moved towards the steak, eyes twinkling, knife poised. In any other context first responders would have had him in their sights.


“Are you sure, Jamie?”


From the hot air balloon Jamie could see the sun setting over a folded pastel landscape. Lilies and blossoming apple trees surrounded a wrestling ring where an exhausted Hogan hoisted a small pink handbag in victory over a beaten Bill Gates. Jamie was sure it was the steak, but in the hazy distance a Predator drone circled.


“You’ve only had twenty seconds, Jamie. Hardly time to think about anything at all…”


Fifteen grand. The unnecessarily brutal knife hung over the very meaty looking steak.


“…but now we have to ask the most important question of all; is it cake?”


August 29, 2023 19:13

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28 comments

Nina H
19:34 Sep 06, 2023

As a kindness and courtesy to all readers, I’ve contacted the show’s producers and learned it IS the steak! He won ALL the money! And then, on the night before the first day of school, the baker wrote him a letter. She asked if he had feelings for her, which he did, and they lived happily ever after. Oh, but they had an unwelcome guest on their summer honeymoon vacation. So it goes 🤷🏼‍♀️ Reedsy mashup 😂 I’ll see myself out

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Chris Miller
19:58 Sep 06, 2023

I knew it! I was kind of hoping it was the shell though.

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Nina H
20:26 Sep 06, 2023

The romantic in me hoped for that too! Lol!! What a great story all around though! I love the way you took the fakeness of the cakes and then projected it onto the whole tv experience, including the host. That was brilliant 😄

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Chris Miller
20:33 Sep 06, 2023

Thank you Nina. So pleased you enjoyed it.

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00:08 Feb 07, 2024

I thought about a story based on the competition for this prompt as well. Loved your story. Well written. I never got my one written. I do love watching this show.

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Chris Miller
15:25 Feb 07, 2024

Thank you very much, Kaitlyn. Pleased you enjoyed it.

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Avery L
18:55 Nov 21, 2023

This was so good! I love the show and the narrative captured great detail into these 20 seconds of decision making. Very enjoyable to read.

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Chris Miller
19:00 Nov 21, 2023

Thank you very much, Avery.

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14:27 Sep 24, 2023

This is an excellent interpretation of the prompt. The way the narrator then brings the question of phoniness out to the show itself, wrestling, and hosts persona and makeup is a great exercise in embedding a worthwhile theme within whimsical fun. Very enjoyable.

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Chris Miller
17:10 Sep 24, 2023

Thanks Anne. I was all set to go down the AI/Blade Runner route but as we are already surrounded by questions about authenticity Sci-fi seemed a bit redundant. Really pleased you enjoyed it.

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20:54 Sep 06, 2023

https://exampledomain.com/?u=XXXXX&o=YYYYY please come in I beg you

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08:59 Sep 05, 2023

https://exampledomain.com/?u=XXXXX&o=YYYYY

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Jessie Laverton
16:37 Sep 04, 2023

My son loves this show. You can’t switch it off until he knows which one it is. You nailed the suspense they manage to create around this cakey question very well 👌🏻

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Chris Miller
16:40 Sep 04, 2023

Thank you very much, Jessie. Pleased you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.

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Robert Egan
21:47 Sep 03, 2023

Damn, I wish I had thought of this because it was the perfect choice for this prompt. The WrestleMania musings were awesome and went well with the cake (or not cake). I'm not even mad that you left us with the knife hanging in the air (guess you'll know whether someone from the show read your story if they have this exact lineup in a future episode). Very nice work!

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Chris Miller
22:23 Sep 03, 2023

Thank you very much. I really enjoyed writing the wrestling bits. I was tempted to go down a Blade Runner type sci-fi route but this seemed a bit more fun. Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave such encouraging comments.

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AnneMarie Miles
15:20 Sep 03, 2023

Bravo! 👏 This was beautifully executed! I love this show and you've captured the suspense of a 20 second decision in such detail. I particularly loved your imagery here: "A serpent of doubt slithered in. A twenty-four-inch-thick python of paranoia." Leaving the question unanswered is perfect. It's the commercial break ending. I love it. I mentioned this show in my story addressing this same prompt, but to no extent of excellency as you. Really well done!

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Chris Miller
16:17 Sep 03, 2023

Thanks very much AnneMarie. Pleased you enjoyed it. It's such a crazy idea for a show but the bakers are true artists! Of course I should have gone to commercials at the end! That would have been better. Thank you for reading.

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AnneMarie Miles
16:21 Sep 03, 2023

It is! I did not think I would love the show as much as I did 😂 And I did not mean to suggest changing the ending to commercials. Netflix of course doesn't have commercials but in this show, they insisted on cutting or pausing excruciatingly long after the host asked if it was cake, and I think your lending captured this perfectly 👌

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Kevin Logue
13:40 Sep 02, 2023

A cake cliffhanger! Well I never thought it possible. That was way too much fun from start to finish, stupid in the most intelligent way. Excellent job Chris!

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Chris Miller
18:38 Sep 02, 2023

Definitely stupid! Lots of fun to write though. Thanks for reading, Kevin.

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Michał Przywara
20:34 Aug 30, 2023

Ha! What a ridiculous and fantastic idea for a game show, and therefore a hilarious story :) The musings, the waffling, the deducing - all funny. Great voice on the narrator. "Is it cake?" is one of those absurd questions that seem like they have an obvious answer, and yet a skilled baker can shatter our confidence. "Matt, inert, but then, so precise in its ergonomic curves" - matte? "conjour" - conjure? Of course I want to know the answer, but leaving it as you did is a great ending too. There's some kind of lesson in that, in our q...

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Chris Miller
20:55 Aug 30, 2023

Hi Michal, Totally ridiculous! Glad some of the funny lines work. Always tricky. Matt and matte are both acceptable. Apparently 'mat' is fine too as a US variant, but I don't like that at all. You are right about conjure - thanks. Oops! Edited. Thanks for reading and the catches.

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Michał Przywara
22:07 Aug 30, 2023

Oh neat! I didn't know about matt/mat/matte - learn something new about English every day :)

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Anna W
03:16 Aug 30, 2023

Oh man, Chris! I gotta know!! 😂 In all seriousness, I love your phrasing and all the wrestling of the self-doubt/second-guessing of the narrators mind. Truly there was tension from the beginning, and it was just about cake (and cash)! Really well done. My final point is: what's the answer?!! lol

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Chris Miller
06:59 Aug 30, 2023

Thanks, Anna. It's one of the silliest ones I have written but hopefully it is fun. Was it cake? I don't know. For story potential, probably better if it was the shell. Thanks for reading!

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Mary Bendickson
02:53 Aug 30, 2023

You are not going to let us know? How cruel!🥩🎮👛🍎🐚💰⁉️

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Chris Miller
06:54 Aug 30, 2023

I can't, I don't know. Excellent emoji work! Thanks for reading, Mary.

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