The Contest: Child’s Play
The rest of the kids came around 8:05. There were twenty kids including himself, ranging from ten to seventeen. All of them came and sat down on the chairs and assembled into their friend groups. (One of the groups made it a big fuss for all of them to sit down together just to end up going on their phones.) Once Peter had finished frosting a few dozen cupcakes and put them on the display case, he sat down on one of the remaining chairs. The eighth grader to the left of him gave him a sideways glanced before slipping on some headphones. Over to his right was the ninth grade girl that could pass for a senior. Her dark brown eyes slipped off her phone screen to Peter. He noticed her immaculate makeup and curled strawberry blond hair.
She noticed his bland face and thought of it as a canvas for her makeup brushes.
Peter scanned the rest of the table for familiar faces: a handful of kids that used to be in his class, five freshmen, two juniors, and half a dozen fifth graders. Half of them looked genuinely interested. The others looked like their parents had forced them to get out of the house and do something with their lives.
“Hey,” the girl to his right leaned in, making him jump. “If we have to get into, like, partners or something, can you be mine? Cause I literally have noo idea what, like, any of this is…” She picked up the fondant roller and twirled it around her manicured fingers. “And my friends are idiots, so.”
He gave her a few blinks and nodded slowly.
She grinned, popping her shimmery pink lips. “Thanks!” She went back to her phone.
“Alright, everybody,” Emma announced in front of the table. She pointed to the kid left of Peter. “Hey, Alex, headphones! Peter, tap Alex, please. Okay, good morning everybody! Today we’re going to have a little contest.” She rubbed her brown hands together. “We will give each of you a recipe, and with your group of three—or a partner—you will have to bake the item in the given amount of time. My brother Jace and I will select four groups to continue on. The rest will be eliminated and have to work up front and sell to incoming customers. This means that we must be done by noon, when the shop opens. Any questions?”
A rising fifth grade girl named Noah shot her hand up. “What are we going to make?”
Emma smiled. “Glad you asked. You all will be given a standard white cake, fondant, and plain buttercream frosting recipe. With your equipment, you must roll and shape the fondant in order to create the theme of summer.” A few of the girls snickered—apparently one of them was named Summer.
“Everyone get into your groups and go to one of the ten stations we have set up around the kitchen. Get there in two minutes so you can have plenty enough time to bake. Let’s go, move it people!”
Nearly everyone leapt out of their chairs to assemble a team. Peter turned to his right before seeing the freshman girl walk off with two of her friends. Even the spaced-out guy Alex had found a partner and was walking over to a station. It wasn’t long until it was just Peter and a junior boy, dressed in all black, were sitting at the table.
“Hey, Miss?” The boy—who Peter now realized had feathers stuck in his hair—spoke in an exhausted groan. “Yeah, um, I gotta go. My snake died.”
“Well you can’t—”
“Yeah, thanks.” With that, the feather-headed boy slumped out of his chair and groaned all the way out the bakery.
Emma put her hands on her narrow hips. “Sorry, Peter. I’m assuming you wanted to work alone anyway. You can go the last station.”
Peter stood up, pushed his chair in, and kept his arms by his side as he walked over to the tenth station. He gave his pasty hands a wash and scanned his area. Bowls were filled with spoons and spatulas, electric mixers were plugged into their outlets, and the ovens were all preheated to 400 degrees. At the speed of light, Peter went to work. He began to heat two sticks of butter in the community microwave—even though he had been the last to start, he was the furthest of the other groups.
In the thirty seconds he was by the microwave, he gave the rest of the kids a look. A group of fifth graders were trying to mash the butter in a bowl so it would mix; three older girls didn’t bother melting the things and tossed it into the mixer; Alex and his bespectacled partner were staring into space.
A smile pricked at his lips before quickly failing. Why did he ever think he would fail?
He dropped his newly softened butter into the mixer with sugar, flour, baking powder, salt—all sifted, mine you—and egg whites alongside it. Peter put the mixer on a medium speed and let the batter be until it was perfectly mixed and smooth. He then poured the batter into two pans and placed them gently in the oven.
No one else had even measured their egg whites yet.
While the cakes were baking, for precisely 27 minutes, he began to make the frosting. He made that in ten minutes and began to prepare the fondant. He went back to the table to grab his fondant roller (most of the other kids had snatched them up without knowing what they were called). He dusted a small area with powdered sugar and kneaded the yellow, doughy substance with all his force. When he could no longer, he took the roller and smoothed it out till it was exactly one-eighth inch thick.
He stuck a toothpick in the cakes; he slipped on an oven mitt and placed them in the freezer. Peter would wait over an hour, till ten. And then he would frost the cooled cake with his blue buttercream and cut out suns and stars and other summer shapes he deemed fit.
And at ten o’clock, that was what Peter Johnson did.
Around the eleven hour, Peter was completely done. His cake was painted in blue, adorned with yellow shapes that most associated with summer. The others were sloppily picking at their fondants, frosting their cakes before cooling them, and (the already mentioned) some were still staring into space.
And around that eleven o’clock hour, Jace had walked in from the front door.
What’s the Use of Feeling Blue?
“Seriously?” Jace threw his arms up and he made his way over to the boy. “No one paired up with Peter?”
He placed his hands on Peter’s shoulders and smiled at his cake. “Well, it looks awesome, dude. I’m really proud of you.” Jace rustled his blond hair and walked away.
Peter hadn’t realized he was holding his breath till Jace was no longer gripping his shoulders. His cheeks then burned, furious that he couldn’t hate the boy that said that a life here was not enough. That a life here with the bakery and his family and his friends was something that he was all too eager to leave behind. With all the other things Jace would let go of, Peter would instantaneously become an obscure, distant memory.
He knew his existence didn’t mean much to the world or to many people in fact. But to mean nothing to the person he cared about the most—
“You’ve got thirty minutes, everyone!” Emma declared, clapping her hands. A few girls squealed at the limited time left.
Peter kept his eyes locked on his cake, now looking like a thing of utter disappointment.
The rest of the cakes were average. Green frosting and pink fondant pieces, yellow frosting and crumbled fondant pieces, and in one special case, no cake at all. Naturally, Peter’s cake was rated first. Alex and his partner were eliminated along with a group of fifth graders and two sets of high school girls. Throughout the tasting and observation process, Peter was motionless.
Noon had come soon, and sure enough the first flood of customers had come rushing in. The eliminated groups reluctantly went to the front of the store to serve the oncoming clusters of hungry people. The rest of the kids had sliced up their cakes and left.
Except for Peter.
He sat on the steps outside the bakery, letting the wind blow his hair around his face and diluted eyes. Peter had been sitting on these cold, shaded steps for over thirty minutes. He didn’t have any strength in his legs to walk back to the flat or to Clementine’s lake. There seemed very little reason to live, let alone walk.
Now, I know I complained to not have a purpose.
And I originally believed Peter knew his purpose in life.
But what does a broken twelve year old know?
The reason Jace was so important to the boy was due to the fact that, unlike his father, he genuinely seemed to care about Peter. He had been the one to teach Peter—at the mere age of eight—how to bake, how to chop, how to frost and create. Jace was the only person who had given Peter something to be passionate about. He was one being out of the tiny, tiny, tiny friend group Peter had that made him feel vaguely important.
His fondest memory of them together was when Peter was nine and Jace fourteen, just out of middle school. Jace had taught Peter had to make a Tres Leches Cake, which took forever because of the caramel-making process. Perhaps that was why Peter loved that day so much—he had spent over five hours with him, standing on his tiptoes to see beyond the counter before Jace found him a stool. The cake itself Peter didn’t really remember; that wasn’t what was important.
Suddenly, the doors behind him flung open. He whipped his head around to see bright pink shorts.
“Peter, you forgot to take your cake.” She cocked her head. “Why are just sitting here? Is something wrong?” She shut the door and sat alongside him. “Peter?”
Peter’s gaze travelled up to her eyes before subsiding back down to the ground.
Emma nodded. “You’re still upset about the whole Jace thing, huh? Peter, don’t listen to me. Jace is the most responsible and reliable person I’ve ever met. When he says he’ll visit, he will.” She gave Peter a gentle poke. “We were talking earlier, and he said that he didn’t want to move very far for college. He still wants to come back and help out this place as much as he can.”
She sighed and stood up. “I guess I was wrong. This place means a lot to him.” Emma opened the door and before stepping in said, “Peter, he cares about us, okay? Please don’t doubt that. You mean just as much as him as he means to you. Alright?”
Then she was gone.
After a few more minutes of pondering and sitting, Peter decided to stand. As he threw one short leg in front of the other and stuffed his firsts into his pockets, a song from a cartoon Clem loved popped into his swimming head.
Why would you want to be here?
What do you ever see here?
That doesn’t make you feel worse than you do?
And tell me, what’s the use of feeling blue?
He began to hum, an uncharacteristically thing of Peter to do. Soon, he was mumbling the words to himself, loud enough for passersby to hear. He freed his hands of his pockets and began to snap.
Yes, of course we still love her.
And we’re always thinking of her.
But now there’s nothing we can do.
So tell me, what’s the use of feeling?
What’s the use of feeling?
What’s the use of feeling blue?
Peter repeated the song until he reached his flat, which—so brilliantly—was completely empty.
The week was over much faster than Peter could ever hope. For once, the days didn’t drag on end. Friday came by and smacked him in the face before he could sing another song.
He had taken advantage of this week. He had went out and bought groceries for himself with the fifty dollars he still had, he went over to Clem’s and watched this beautiful thing called Netflix, and cooked himself a large dinner to last him at least two weeks. The sun was no longer a thing of blazing heat, but now more of a ray of hope amongst a small gathering of clouds. Not entirely happy, but nearly there.
Peter had walked into the bakery that Friday afternoon and let himself in to the back doors of the kitchen. He washed his hands and proceeded to make a frosting. He thought to himself, “What color?” Pink? Blue? Green? This time when a smile pricked at his lips, he let it take over his small, round face. Still smiling, he added in a drop of turquoise food coloring and two drops of sky blue. Peter stirred the buttercream mixture about and observed his creation.
Blue and green make cyan. And cyan would forever be Peter’s favorite color.
It was late now. Peter had greeted a surprised Emma, washed a few dishes, baked some meringue pies, and sat around until the sky was dark and the bakery was near closing hours. When the doors opened, Peter did not bother to look up. Emma had been going in and out the doors all day—
“Hey, Peter!” The voice that called him was not Emma’s. He looked up to see beautiful green eyes and curls and a dirty apron.
“Hi, Jace.” Peter nearly fell flat on his face from hearing his own voice. “How is it going?”
He laughed. “It’s going great. How about yourself?” He came and sat down by Peter.
The younger boy felt his tongue knock around in his mouth, similar to the words bouncing about in his brain. He gripped his hands together. “Good.”
“I’m glad, buddy. Hey, I’ve got something for you. Been meaning to give this to you for a while now.” He handed him a coffee-brown book, the cover a masterfully photographed chocolate thing. The book was firm, and as Peter flipped through the pages, a bit of money fell out. A couple Benjamins. He picked it up and handed it to Jace.
But the older waved it away. “No, keep it.” He smiled again—Peter loved how often he smiled.
“So…you like it?”
Peter was speechless.
Well, more speechless than usual.
So instead of speaking, he jumped off his stool, and hugged a sitting Jace. The older boy was stunned for a second (Peter had never said more than a few sentences at a time to him, let alone hug him at of nowhere) before embracing him back. Peter felt Jace’s warmth shift over to his cold body.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” he laughed again, a lovely jingly thing.
Peter nestled his head into the groove of Jace’s shoulder, letting all his worries and sadness drift away as he held the person he loved the most.
And it was always here I realized that my purpose was not to steal from the weak and the sad, but to observe their lives and see why they were the way they are. So now I breeze about, on moonlit nights and sunny mornings, letting myself fill hair and jackets and skirts and coats and anything else.
So I thank you, Peter Johnson.
For chasing your purpose.
And helping me find my own.