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.


Audio: "Bad Boy of the Spelling Bee"


Music: 'Guitars 2' and 'Guitars 1' stems from "I Feel Fantastic" by Jonathan Coulton, licensed under Creative Commons.

Are you still watching Dollhouse? That's what I thought.

Are you still watching Lost? Good.

I briefly considering inserting Jake & Andy into the end of this story, but then decided it would just be distracting.


I Love Bees

I was in a spelling bee once. I was, I don't know, in the sixth grade, maybe. I did well in my school competition and advanced to the next level. I was pretty excited. I knew I was a good speller, and I thought I might go pretty far.

My mother drove me to a drab municipal building where my English teacher and one of my classmates and I waited in plastic chairs across from three judges. The judges were all elderly women, sitting behind a long wooden table with a printed word list and a portable tape deck. The tape deck was there to record the proceedings and settle any potential disputes.

One of us would stand up, they would read a word, and we would spell it. No audience, no frills--just the words, ma'am.

I went out on "knapsack." I was surprised when they told me I was wrong, because I knew how to spell that word--it's just a silent "k," for crying out loud--and I was sure I had spelled it correctly. I asked the judges to play back the audio tape so I could hear it for myself. I didn't believe I could have misspelled such a simple word.

Well, the three little old ladies had no idea how to use that tape recorder. They must have spent five minutes trying to figure out which button did what, and after they finally managed to stop and rewind the tape, instead of playing it, they recorded over the section we were trying to listen to.

To this day, I have no idea what I actually spelled. Maybe I had a neuron misfire and did, in fact, leave off the first letter in "knapsack." Maybe I was nervous and didn't say it loudly enough for anyone to hear. Maybe I didn't enunciate well.

What bothers me the most--even more than the fact that I didn't win, or that the judges were incompetent, or that my teacher and classmate didn't back me up--is that I don't know what I did that day. I don't know if I made a mistake, and I don't know if I could have avoided it.

I was in a spelling bee once, a long time ago. I've never been in another.


08 April 2009

Meanwhile, in S-E-A-T-T-L-E

If you're coming to Norwescon 32 tomorrow (Thursday), stop by Cascade 5 at 11:00 PM for the Science Fiction Spelling Bee! This is VPXI alum Jeff Soesbe's crazy idea, and it should be a lot of fun:
Sure you know your science fiction words, but can you spell them? Straight from Putnam County, this game mixes difficult words, crazy definitions and off-the-wall sample sentences. Randomly chosen volunteers will have a chance at fun and prizes. Drop on in and see if you can win the Science Fiction Spelling Bee!

I'm currently reading James Maguire's American Bee, a great book with lots of bite-sized stories about various people involved with the annual competition. If you're into orthography, also check out the 2002 documentary Spellbound and the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. And, oh yeah, this Friday's 512 Words story, which is titled "Bad Boy of the Spelling Bee." You'll see why.