Rod Drake lives and writes in Neon City, better known as Las Vegas, although he grew up in the bucolic Midwest. He taught on the high school, college and university level for a number of years, and has worked as a writer in the areas of technical materials, publicity and public relations, advertising, website content and training instructions. But he enjoys creative writing the most.
Four tiny figures stood on the recently varnished auditorium stage of Hamilton Middle School, two on either side of the imposing podium. One of these sixth-graders would be the winner of the distinct finals of the Crowley National Spelling Bee. The air was heavy with anticipation and tension, and the crowd of parents, faculty and students all rooted silently for their favorite.
Zachary, a nervous and sweating young boy wearing thick glasses that distorted his eyes, such that his classmates called him ‘goldfish,’ puzzled out the word CEMETERY. Clutching at his belt loops on his pants, he breathlessly spelled, “C – E – M – E – T – A – R – Y. Cemetery.”
And then there were three. Summer, the most popular girl in the school, and probably the meanest too; Eleanor, “Ellie,” the self-conscious, overweight girl who was frequently caught in situations that pointed up her heaviness, so she always ended up as the butt of all the fat jokes; and Marley, small even for an 11-year-old, whom everyone, students and faculty alike, thought was odd and thus avoided if at all possible.
Marley had the palest skin, the darkest hair and large, inquiring green eyes that seem to bore into you. She was wafer thin, had no friends at Hamilton but didn’t really seem to care. Her parents had just moved here this school year. They moved a lot, Marley once said to no one in particular. She was a strange little girl.
Summer, on the other hand, was a pinup waiting to develop. Blonde, blue-eyed, golden skin, and a practiced cutesy smile and flirty manner that usually got her whatever she wanted. If it didn’t, she was ruthless to get what she wanted, and assumed she deserved, no matter who got crushed in the process. Her father was a rich, successful lawyer, and on the school board, so of course Summer made the finals of the spelling bee. In fact, it could be argued that Summer was getting softball spelling words while the rest of the students were getting words that sharp seniors would have trouble spelling.
In addition, most of the boys, including Zachary, had folded because Summer messed with their concentration by pouting, playing with her long hair or adjusting her training bra at a crucial point. As for the girls, she made them feel plain, and either flat chested or pudgy. Summer glared at dumpy Ellie, who stood next to her, cutting her down like wheat with a scythe. Ellie was shaking with nervousness at all this unwanted attention. Summer called her by the nickname that she had bestowed on Eleanor. “Hey, Ellie the Elephant,” she whispered, “I bet your word will be blubberbutt, and you’ll misspell it because you’re so fat and stupid.”
Marley heard her, and looking across the stage, behind the podium, fixed Summer with that penetrating, and unnerving, stare of hers. Summer felt her breath suddenly cut off, and she stopped whispering, gasping for air for a moment.
“Pterodactyl.” Ellie repeated the word, hoping she wouldn’t embarrass herself. “Um, P – T – E – R – O – D – A – C – T – Y – L. Pterodactyl?”
The audience applauded enthusiastically; Summer scowled. “That blimp is going down,” she muttered as she walked to center stage, bumping into Ellie as she returned to her place. Summer overemphasized the impact with Ellie, throwing herself backwards like a leaf in a big wind. Laughter erupted from the audience.
Summer pulled herself into beauty-candidate posture, and smiled a dazzlingly insincere but effective smile. “I’m ready,” she cooed.
No one was paying any attention to Marley. Which was just as well, or they would have seen her extend her slender fingers while her arms remained at her sides. Something like a low voltage of electricity sweep across the stage and Marley’s eyes opened very wide, and she froze for a moment.
“Amphibian.” That was a darn hard one, Summer thought to herself; what’s the deal? As she took a deep breath, she felt something in her throat. Something large and . . . slimy.
Her pretty pink mouth suddenly burst open and frogs, salamanders, toads and newts began pouring out, hopping up from the stage into the audience. People began screaming and those in the front rows rushed to the aisles, while the students broke out in explosive laughter. Pandemonium erupted in the small school auditorium.
Summer collapsed on the stage, and then vomited for real. Ellie had the trace of a smile, and a warm feeling of justice and confidence. Marley stared off into space, humming some long-forgotten Babylonian melody to herself.