by Professor Q
An entry for the "A Moment in Time" contest, Feb. round.
| The lights might as well have been off for all that she could see. A curtain of bright haze blinded her to the sympathetic faces of her family; she could just barely see the shadow of curly mop that was her older brother's hair, a pantomime shadow in the audience. Next to him would be her father and then her mother, she knew, but no matter how she squinted, they were nothing but vague smudges on the other side of an incandescent wall. She would just have to do this all on her own.
Counting every breath—in through the nose, 2, 3, 4 and out through the mouth, 2, 3, 4—she took measured steps forward, toward the edge and the abyss. Her best shoes, shined to perfection and topped with bows just like she liked them, tap tap tapped on the hardwood of the stage. Brown curls bounced as she walked and her hands pounded against her thighs, scrunched into fists tight enough to cut off blood flow.
Could she do this? Ahead, maybe two more steps, a man was adjusting the stand down for her so she could speak into the microphone. The knob squeaked as he turned it and, unconsciously, she timed her steps to match the sound. She blinked rapidly—one, two, three, four—and shivered, the lace on her black and white polka dot dress waving just slightly with every minute shake.
Ichthyologist. I-C-H-T-H-Y-O-L-O-G-I-S-T. Ichthyologist. If she could spell the last word, she could spell this one, right? A nest of butterflies—no, bees—swarmed in the pit of her stomach and it felt like something was climbing up her throat, desperate to escape. Maybe whatever it was had a point. Maybe it would be better to turn around and go.
She turned her head, staring at the row of metal fold-up chairs stretched out in two, neat rows. All but three stood empty—well, two now that she headed for the microphone—and she reminded herself that she was too close to fail now. Too close to mess it all up and lose. Months of study had gotten her here and it would not fail her now.
"Contestant 27, your word is codeine." A voice came out of the cavernous light, disembodied; like the voice of God, almost. Whispers from the shadow crowd suddenly silenced as she opened her mouth to speak.
"May I—" Her voice cracked. "May I please have the word in a sentence?" She squeezed her hands in a rhythmic pattern, keeping time to Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The tune waltzed through her head as she desperately tried to slow the spasmodic trembling of her arms and the pounding of her heart.
"Of course. The Doctor prescribed some codeine for the coughing child." The voice spoke dispassionately, as if reading off of a pre-written list, which no doubt it was.
She thought. Codeine. C-O-D-E...wait. Is it E or I first? I think it's E. She rocked back and forth, lifting first the back and then the front of her shiny shoes, and closed her big doe eyes, seeking the darkness of her mind. But the rule is I before E except after C, isn't it? So it must be I first. Ok...here goes... She took a deep breath, counting four on the inhale and the exhale as her spelling teacher had taught her. "Codeine. C-O-D-I-E-N-E. Codeine."
There was silence for a moment and the girl felt the first stirrings of victory, the quiescence of the bees and the butterflies within. She allowed herself a sigh of satisfaction, a small smile of anticipation. It was done. She was moving on to the next round; she was—
"I am sorry, that is incorrect. Contestant 27 is disqualified."
She blinked eight, no, nine times in succession, first from shock and then to hold back the tears looming dangerously close to eruption. She had been wrong. She had failed. Slowly, each foot dragging along the wooden paneling of the stage, she turned around and headed for the stairs. Her shoulder stooped, the bow in her hair falling forward as her head dipped in shame and disappointment. Everything she had worked so hard for was done. Nothing had been worth it. She was a lose—
"Excuse me miss, you don't need to leave the stage. You've won third place!"
She turned, brows furrowed in confusion. "What?"
The girl, blonde hair bound into a braid and dressed in the polo shirt and khakis ubiquitous at this sort of event, smiled. "The top three spellers get to go to the state competition, honey. And since you're third place, you get to go to the capitol in three weeks and compete for state champion."
The girl took her hand and led her back toward her seat. There, sitting, staring into the fiery brightness of the stage lights, she smiled broadly. Failure, she thought. S-U-C-C-E-S-S. Failure.