10 April 2009

"Bad Boy of the Spelling Bee"

By Curtis C. Chen

"You're cheating," Laura Barson said, frowning, her freckled nose reminding Roger Danivey of pebbles on a sand dune.

Roger flipped up his middle finger at his only remaining competition, then bit his tongue before he said anything he might regret. Laura twirled and stomped off.

Roger watched her hair flapping and thought about shampoo and barbershops and scissors and accidentally cutting the tip off his thumb. That had happened decades ago, but he could remember every detail as clearly as if it had been an hour ago. He couldn't stop remembering.

Mrs. Danivey came out of the bathroom and put a hand on Roger's shoulder.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"Fine," Roger said. "We're in the home stretch now, right? It's in the bag. Brown bag. Groceries. Cooking. Pasta boiling over. Hot coffee, scalding, burning, bitter." He squeezed his eyes shut. "Alkaline. Batteries. Pink rabbit. Easter Eggs. Crucifixion. Stop! Resurrection! Stop it! Transubstantiation! Molestation!"

He thumped his fists against both sides of his head. Mrs. Danivey took the music player out of her purse, jammed the earbuds into Roger's ears, and pressed play. She watched until he lowered his arms and relaxed, then sat him down in a nearby chair.

Jennifer Danivey hoped there would be no long-term brain damage. She had argued with Mark, but in the end, he and Roger had convinced her. She had agreed to do it for both of them, her husband and her son, the two most important men in her life. She hoped they hadn't all made a dreadful mistake.


Laura Barson went first in the next round. She spelled involucre correctly. Roger got psyllium, and waited until the warning bell sounded to start spelling.

Almost everyone thought he was just stalling. Jennifer knew he couldn't help it. Mark had predicted some impulse control problems due to the poor limbic interface between his forty-five-year-old mind and Roger's fifteen-year-old brain, but he hadn't known how severely he would be impaired.

Roger got his word right, of course. Laura's next word was moline. She spelled it wrong, with an "h," and the audience murmured.

Roger's next word was Vichyite, which he spelled correctly after whistling a bit of La Marseillaise. A smattering of laughter and applause drifted up from the audience. The pronouncer explained that Roger needed to spell one more word correctly to win the championship.

"The word is phaeochrous," the pronouncer said.

"Phaeochrous," Roger repeated quickly.

Jennifer exhaled the breath she'd been holding in.

"Dusky," Roger said.

Jennifer's heart sank.

"Twilight," Roger said. "Hated that book. Books. Shelves. Library. Summer reading. Vacation. Island. That's where we met. Beaches. Pebbles. Sand dunes. Freckles."

The pronouncer tried to interrupt, but Roger couldn't stop talking. He fell to his knees as Jennifer ran up, holding out the earbuds. Roger heard the music and closed his eyes.

Someone shouted something about illegal equipment and disqualification. Jennifer picked up her son and walked through the crowd, into the nearest elevator. It was over. Mark's body was waiting for them upstairs.


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