I always get sick the day before the talent show.
Some think it’s the Ghost of What’s to Come, because you know you’ll be sick the next day. All over town, stomachs turn over and twist when February 8th is around the corner.
Being the band-aid ripper that I am, I’m always the first to show up at town hall. Why prolong the inevitable? I put on my loosest jeans and my biggest sunglasses, and I report for duty.
Crystal is waiting with the clipboard when I roll up to the folding table that gets trotted out once a year for this very purpose. She barely looks up as I approach, and I’m reminded of the time we smoked weed together in the church bathroom and set off the smoke alarm in the middle of Easter service.
“What’s it going to be this year,” she asks me, knowing full well what the answer will be, “The devil or the angel?”
I put the box down in front of her. The dark chocolate of the cake contrasts nicely against the deep red of the cardboard background. Crystal sighs as she slightly raises an eyebrow and runs her tongue over her lipstick-stained teeth.
“Devil,” she says, “What a surprise.”
With that, I’m up the chipped cement stairs and through the heavy galvanized steel doors. I pass by the stretched blue fabric panels that block out the sound of choking and vomiting. Tomorrow, a team will come by with hoses and bleach to make the place presentable for the high school play next week. I hear they’re doing The Crucible.
Good for them.
I take my place in the third row, two seats in. Not exactly a lucky number, as I’ve never won a ribbon, but I’m a creature of custom. People start to file in around me, but nobody wants to sit in the row with the girl whose mother died at the talent show. It might not be back luck, but it’s certainly not good luck.
My mother and I have the same soft blonde hair and the same love of cheap make-up and big hair, but other than that, we’re nothing alike.
For one thing, my mother loved angel food.
I cannot relate.
When you lose your mother six days before your thirteenth birthday, you either become fascinated with the thing that killed her or you avoid it as best you can. There’s no avoiding the town talent show, so my only option was an embrace. I was sitting in the third row when my mother took her last bite of cake, coughed, and with a mouth full of vanilla frosting, looked out into the audience to find her daughter one more time before falling over right there onstage.
According to the rules, nobody could help her for a full five minutes. Later on, the doctor would tell me that the five minutes wouldn’t have made a difference anyway, but his daughter won the contest that year, so it was hard to take him seriously.
Nobody expected me to compete the following year, but there I was, standing in front of Crystal’s mother with my first box of cake mix to donate to the church pantry. She gave me a look of such pity that I was determined to make an impression. When I saw myself landing in fifth place due to an unfortunate bout of acid reflux, I took the remaining cake and smeared it all over my face and body. Some thought it was me making a statement or the behavior of a traumatized young woman, but it was neither. I just couldn’t imagine myself walking politely offstage still clean and pure aside from a few crumbs on my dress.
This year, I sail past fifth place, but when Mitsy Milano upchucks her red velvet all over the judges sitting in front of the stage, I look around and realize it’s down to me and Veronica Knickersauce, the three-time winner of the talent show and favorite to take home the blue ribbon this year. The woman could eat cake like nobody else in the history of the competition. She was a member of the famed House of Knickersauce, which featured a roster of some of the best cake eater’s in the world.
Despite what the editorials and opinion pieces might say about our town’s show being the downfall of civilization, eating is an art, and eating pastry is a fine art. Very few fine arts can also double as performance art, and that’s what we’ve turned into our little hamlet’s pride. Veronica is a demonstration of just how much talent it takes to look at something as simple as dessert dining and see the potential for it to be a showstopper.
We began eating our final slices at the same time. Veronica’s red velvet slowly disappearing into what seemed like a never-ending gullet. Her technique is famed. She turns the cake over first, and eats down to the frosting. It’s become the signature move of the House of Knickersauce. I stick to the hole-in-the-middle-and-work-around-to-the-edges way of doing things, because as I said, I’m a lover of custom, and that was how my Mom liked to eat her cake.
The cheers of the crowd as we reached our last bites began to shake the tables we were seated at. The plates in front of us trembled knowing that soon we would have a winner and a loser. If we both finished everything that was put before us, the judges would have to decide who won based on form and elegance. That would certainly mean a win for Veronica, and I placed the penultimate bit of devil’s food on my tongue feeling content that, while I would not win, I would be losing to such an esteemed--
It’s hard to describe what choking sounds like. That was the best I could do. But that’s what I heard. Choking. Deep in the throat. Air-clogged. Larynx in crisis.
Upon looking over at Veronica, I saw the same look of panic that my mother had painted on her face the day she left me with nothing but a tarnished legacy and a loathing of angels and their cake. Veronic knew she was going to die. I knew she was going to die. We both knew I would be the winner of the talent show. The new owner of a coveted blue ribbon. A legend who took down a Knickersauce. The woman who was intimately involved in the only two deaths in talent show history. Some participants had gone comatose over the year due to excess sugar intake, but only two had died--
First my mother, and now Veronica.
Except that wouldn’t be the story.
Because upon seeing Veronica begin to choke, slowly lowering herself to the ground, I decided to break one of the oldest rules of the Cake Eating Talent Show of Winnika Falls--
I did not wait five minutes before giving someone the Heimlich Maneuver.
Truthfully, the rule is five minutes before any assistance to someone who’s choking, but the Heimlich is far out of bounds, and that’s what I started with lifting my competition up in the air, and pushing my fists under her rib cage trying to save her life. Despite my best efforts, I saw that Veronica was still choking, the last piece of cake lodged firmly in her throat. I put her back down the ground and began jumping up and down her, intending to get enough air built up to blow that angel right past her lips.
The audience was hollering, wailing, begging me to stop. She was already dead after all. Why did I need to debase her body in this way?
But I knew there was more. I knew she wasn’t gone yet. I had watched my mother die on this stage. I knew what that looked like. The spectators didn’t remember, but I did.
How could I forget?
I hopped up and down on Veronica, threatening at the top of my lungs that if security or anyone else came near me, I’d stop jumping on her chest and move over to her head. That kept everyone at bay, but it didn’t stop them from screaming at me. The judges and the heads of the House of Knickersauce were at the lip of the stage, swearing they would cast me in jail for the rest of my life after this.
Deep in my gut, I felt the cake I had consumed wanting to come up. I knew if I didn’t stop jumping, there’d be no preventing it. I also knew that if I stopped, Veronica was a goner. I kept going. She couldn’t take much more, but neither could I. One last jump and up came the offending crumb out of Veronica and into the air where it landed square on my face. A humiliation if I weren’t so thrilled that I’d achieved my objective. I had saved her in the way nobody had bothered to save my mother.
I was a hero.
And that was when I threw up.
Silence erupted throughout the audience.
The crowd went wild.