Spelling Bee

Fiction by Kimberly Smith

Painted letters of the alphabet strewn on a table.

Beneath the stage’s bright lights, as a boy with a bright-red bowl cut tries and fails to spell magnanimous, Betsy sits on a hard metal chair, pushing a loose tooth back and forth with her tongue. Beside her, a girl named Yazmin kicks her sparkly dress shoes in the air and waves to the audience, waggling small fingers capped with tidy purple nails. Yazmin’s family sit in the front row, wearing matching t-shirts bearing slogans of support. They’re the only members of the audience wearing t-shirts; they’re also the only ones smiling.

A dark auditorium packed with the parents of high-achieving elementary schoolers is a kind of colosseum, only instead of thirsting for blood, forty-year-old women thirst for words like sanguine and descent and wrinkle navy blue blazers inside their fists. Beside them, their husbands interrupt daydreams of small-business management to growl at their teenage sons: “Put your phone away and watch your sister win.”

Betsy’s parents are probably near the back, so they can step outside and take phone calls in the lobby, where they can hear the sounds of their own voices better. Whether they sit in the front or back, it doesn’t matter. 

Betsy intends to win.

As the bowl-cut kid returns to his seat, crestfallen, Betsy prods her loose tooth a little harder. A brightly lit stage decorated with high-achieving elementary schoolers is a kind of pediatric dentist’s waiting room, except instead of waiting for the skull-shaking vibration of a semi-annual teeth cleaning, kids with butterfly hairclips and plaid bowties and obscure knowledge of Russian geography wait for words, and all the dental hygienists are lions in blazers who own small businesses.

When the judges call for the next speller, Yazmin jumps up and skips to the center of the stage. Her fan club cheers before she even gets her word. The newly vacant seat on Betsy’s left gapes. A library shelf missing its favorite book.

When Betsy’s older brother got braces, he cried in his sleep every night, until one night he didn’t anymore. For months, his crying was her alarm clock. She’d wake up around midnight, flick on the fish tank light, do a few cartwheels, and then spend an hour or two cutting words out of magazines and gluing them onto her homework. Her teacher didn’t like that very much, which is what made it so fun. Betsy hasn’t cut words out of magazines since the crying stopped; she still wakes up at midnight, lays in bed, watches her oblivious goldfish swim. She knows the fish will glide through the tank, blowing bubbles and rolling small green pebbles around in its mouth every night, until one night it won’t anymore.

Yazmin’s word is reciprocity. No need to ask for a definition. She repeats the word in a musical voice and spells it out, leaving a long pause between each letter, as though she’s waiting for an echo.

Betsy’s mom says she’ll have to get braces once her adult teeth grow in, so she better appreciate the baby ones while she has them. Her mom detests the way her incisors jut out at strange angles, the way light shines through her front two teeth, illuminating the red depths beyond. But Betsy doesn’t want a mouth like a white-picket fence. No, she wants an endless parade of teeth growing in and falling out, like sharks have. She wants to line up the molars on her dresser like soccer trophies. On the last day of school, she’ll leave a tooth on her teacher’s desk—a tiny, menacing apple of bone. And when the teacher asks if its hers, she’ll say, “No. It’s yours.”

When Yazmin finishes her word and the front row of the auditorium erupts with applause, she curtsies and strolls back to her seat, giving Betsy a thumbs up.

“Good luck,” Yazmin whispers as they swap places on the stage, but Betsy doesn’t need luck. She can feel her tooth hanging on a thread. When she inhales sharply, it swings back and forth like a punching bag.

“Your word is vanquishment,” a judge in a tweed jacket says.

Betsy slowly pushes her tortoiseshell glasses up on her nose. “May I have a definition?” She likes to make them wait.

“Complete and total defeat of a person or thing.”

Betsy takes a deep breath and releases it into the microphone, flooding the speakers with her exhale. An elderly woman in the front row covers her ears, only lowering her hands to her lap when Betsy begins to spell.

This word takes an extra-long time—longer than even Betsy expects. It’s hard to articulate around a loose tooth. When she’s finished, the room is so quiet that she can hear the rustle of the judges’ notecards. Finally, one of the judges leans in towards the mic and whispers the magic words.

“That’s correct.”

Betsy smiles, and her mouth fills with the taste of blood. Her own.

In the end, Betsy takes second place, losing to a fourth-grader on the word metamorphosis. In the lobby, she and Yazmin wait for their families together, next to posters advertising the high school’s spring musical.

“I’m going to be a Broadway actress when I grow up,” Yazmin says with a toothy grin. “What about you?”

Betsy shrugs. “My mom wants me to be a lawyer.” Later, she’ll wish she’d said a force of nature.

After Yazmin leaves with an entourage of adults carrying grocery-store flower bouquets, Betsy rolls her liberated tooth around in her mouth, sucking it clean.

None of the city spelling bee contestants will get into Ivy League colleges, which is okay because most of them won’t want to. In a few years, when they take the PSAT, some will know the correct answers and fill in the wrong bubbles anyway, savoring the feeling of a sharp pencil point grinding to dust. Most will give their parents and teachers a few more excuses for bragging out of mercy. Then, they’ll start getting Bs, smoking weed, summoning vengeful spirits, writing gay love poetry. In their poetry and summoning rituals, they’ll refuse to use words like sanguine and descent, but they’ll remember how they tasted as the wet vowels and consonants spilled over their tongues.

A red-orange evening sky burns above the auditorium’s vast parking lot. Betsy’s tooth is light and bloodless in her pocket.

“Can we get Dairy Queen on the way home?” she asks, though she already knows the answer.

Her mother pops a breath mint into her mouth and drops the tin into her purse. “Are you a queen?” she asks.

Betsy imagines replying, “Are you?”

Betsy’s older brother, Bret, sinks further into his sweatshirt hood and slips his hands into his pockets. Together, they watch as their father fumbles with the minivan’s high-tech key fob and curses.

“Tough luck, sis,” Bret mumbles.

Betsy traces a molar with the tip of her tongue and feels it start to budge. “I’ll get them next time. Don’t worry.”

If at first you don’t succeed, vanquish, vanquish again. She thinks that’s how the saying went.

Kimberly Smith is a writer and media enthusiast from the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MA in Professional and Creative Writing from Central Washington University, and her work has appeared in A VELVET GIANT, Homology Lit, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @Kimberly_363.

Photo by Surendran MP on Unsplash

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