In my mind out of time, it's morning pushing up through night, and I'm dreaming, waking, sinking back to sleep, not caring about the wrong sounds so early, the knocking on doors, the stomps on the stair, and the rustles of Uncle Howard getting Theodore out of bed because Mother can't wake herself up. There's the sharp smell of Uncle Howard's soap and the thunk of his shiny shoes. "Theodore, time for school!" in a whisper that isn't a whisper, and the warm growl of Uncle Howard's car driving away. It happens when I'm not looking.
Alone, I get myself ready, walk to Westwood Elementary. At recess, it's Stacy first and then Kendall for hopscotch. Kendall throws her hopscotch bracelet with the yellow pink orange rings. Plink. It lands on the middle square. "My birthday party was so fun," Stacy tells Lisa. She turns to face me. "Christy, why didn't you go?"
I don't remember an invitation.
Lisa laughs. "It's probably because she couldn't afford a present!" She says the words into her white sweater sleeve and her hopscotch bracelet slips down. It has yellow pink pink purple rings.
"Is that why?" says Stacy. "You couldn't afford a present?"
"No," I tell her. "We were just really busy."
Mother misplaces the mail half the days. Probably Stacy's invitation made it to the fridge, then slipped off. It happened when I wasn't looking.
After school it's Gilligan's Island. Theodore's home first on the junior high bus. Mother's in her brown bathrobe. On the table is her pillbox and a glass of water, see-through, and half full.
"You don't have to take all those pills, Mother," says Theodore, twisting around in the TV chair. "Why do you take all those pills?"
"Prescriptions," says Mother. She picks two red pills out of her palm. She puts her other hand over her mouth, throwing pills in.
"Since before you were born," she says. "Off and on before that. Different medications. I can't remember the details. My memory is bad because of the shock treatments.”
“Respect,” says Mr. Boggs, at the start of Language Arts. “Fortune, discovery, create, bombard.” Each word is a small neat insect, complicated, and buzzing. We take turns in two lines. I like how the letters land in my mind. I like how the words "Spelling Bee" sound friendly and yellow-orange.
Talitha Ekeya’s hair is tight and smooth around her face. On top of her head is a ball of black curls. She has eyes dark and smart like they know a joke. She wears red plaid and blue plaid skirts and walks home fast. Talitha Ekeya is the only person left in her line.
“Piano,” she says. “P-I-A-N-O.” Her voice is a small breath through cracks in a door.
“Correct,” says Mr. Boggs. His bald head shows over the top of his paper. His glasses slide halfway down his nose when he lowers the paper to look at me. I’m the only person left in my line. “Beauty,” he says.
I look for it in my mind. “B-E-A,” I say. I wait for the letters but they don’t come. “T-Y.”
Talitha Ekeya stands straight, hands behind her back. Her fingers are folded by her plaid waist. She leans forward. “B-E-A-U-T-Y." Her voice is a strong wind coming through a window. She looks at me. I’m the joke that was in her eyes.
“Nice going, Ekeya,” says Mr. Boggs. “You are the Room Spelling Winner!” He puts his hand on Talitha Ekeya's shoulder.
A Spelling Bee can sting you.
Mr. Boggs turns around. “You too, kid.” He gives my head one pat. “I’m selecting two winners.”
He hands us papers. There’s a Spelling Bee certificate, and dotted lines to show the Spelling Bee zipping around. There’s a letter about a Championship. The letter has the time, or date, or directions. All the rules for later.
I climb the apartment stairs and my knock makes an echo all the way down. The floor creaks. She’s walking slow.
The gold chain clinks when Mother unlocks it.
“Hello, dear.” She hugs me and the papers fall.
I pick up the Spelling Bee certificate, feeling ruffled by the smell of Jergens hand cream and oily bobby pins. “I’m a Room Spelling Winner.”
“Wonderful.” She pats my back, and sticks the Spelling Bee certificate on the fridge. The smiling Spelling Bee is striped black and white. You’re supposed to have your own yellow-orange, for coloring it in.
“I spilled grape juice on my gray blouse,” Mother tells the sink. She sighs. “I hope it washes out." She's not good at grownup things.
Walking out Room 12, Talitha Ekeya says, “See you tonight.”
Tonight? I don't know anything about what happens tonight.
She’s already out the double doors. I have to go to the bathroom bad. I'm still shaking wet hands as I run clear across the field. There she is, past the tire swing and the new blacktop.
“Talitha." I put my hands on my knees and go down for my breath. “What time is it?”
“Three-eleven,” she says.
I shake my head. “Tonight.”
“Six,” she says. Her dark eyebrows are long and thin as lady eyelashes.
“Where are we supposed to go?”
“The school library.”
“Okay, thanks.” She has five brothers and sisters, and they're all happy. She walks fast because she can’t wait to get home.
“The Championship's tonight," I say. "For Room Spelling Winners."
Mother's flipping through the phone book. Her purse is open on the table, and there are food stamps and paper scraps with scribbled phone numbers scattered around. Her see-through pill box has a letter for each day of the week. There are three green pills and five blue ones. There are three round fat pills, yellow orange, like bees. There are no pills for Tuesday.
“Good for you,” she says. “I don’t feel well." She waits. “I don’t have anything to wear. I need to wash my gray blouse.”
“It’s okay, Mother.” The letter didn’t say anything about parents. ”I can go by myself.”
“What time is the appointment?”
“Will you make it on time?”
“It’s no big deal.”
The rain is cold on my legs. There are cars but no people in the parking lot. I go through the gym doors, down the hall. It’s quiet. Probably there won’t be parents. I open the door to the library.
There are parents and parents and parents and grandmothers and grandfathers and brothers and sisters all sitting in chairs too small, looking straight in front at the Room Spelling Winners. There’s Talitha Ekeya’s parents and her five brothers and sisters. All the Room Spelling Winner boys are wearing pants with creases, and the girls are wearing dresses. Teachers are sitting too.
Bonk, the door shuts me in. I didn’t wash my hair. I have on a yellow T-shirt and tan shorts. Parents and teachers turn heads.
The principal stands by the Room Spelling Winners. “These are the brightest minds in school,” he says.
The people turn back to face the principal. If I don’t move, they won’t look at me again. Their eyes can sting.
Mother is at home with Theodore, and neither of them understand what you do for a Room Spelling Winner. I don’t know where the letter went. One of the brightest minds in school.
There's the smell of lilacs, someone's perfume. A hand touches my T-shirt. “You need to be up there,” says a whisper that whispers. It's a lady in a hopscotch pink dress who helps at recess. “Come on, I’ll take you.”
I spell bountiful right. The word I miss on is silhouette. I go real quiet, out the back door. It happens when nobody's looking.