“Susurrus. A soft murmuring sound.”
“He’s not going to get that one,” whispers Alan. “Just watch. He’s going to go with one too many s’s.”
“Susurrus,” repeats Ms. Shannon.
Francois Pat steps to the microphone and adjusts his cardigan. “Susurrus.” And he begins to spell.
“Damn,” says Alan during the break, over coffee in the hallway, “I guess the Pat’s practiced that one. Don’t worry, son. You’ll be fine.”
Jacob eats a cookie and has some orange juice. At the other end of the long table, Francois is laughing with his grandparents. “Maybe I should get a cardigan,” he says to Alan. “They look good.”
“They look gay,” returns Alan, who gets a dirty look from a mom at the coffee machine.
When it’s Jacob’s turn, he keeps his hands in his pockets. Ms. Shannon nods to him. “Demesne. An area or a territory. Demesne.”
Jacob loves words, but not saying them. He likes to draw them. He likes the way they have varying heights, and the way they make landscapes when he writes them out, peaks and valleys that he hikes over with a backpack and a walking stick. Words are shapes made of diamonds, he once read. He begins to spell.
“Demesne,” he finishes. The crowd’s silence tells him he blew it.
“Damn it Jacob.” Alan is sweating. “I know we never practiced that one, but it wasn’t that hard. The Pat’s may take the day if we’re not careful. Have to think of something.”
A few non-contenders go up next. The scoreboard changes, but doesn’t affect the top two positions. “Jenny?” Alan says into the phone. “Got a problem. Need some guidance here. Having trouble at the spelling bee. What? Can’t do that. What? Really? That’s against the rules. Yes, but that rules supersedes that rule, doesn’t it? Are you sure? Damn.”
“Lissome. Slender and graceful. Lissome.” An Asian asks for further definition.
“The Asians always do that,” murmurs Alan. “Jacob, listen to me. This is what we’re going to do. When it’s Francois’ turn, I want you to go up there and hit him.”
“Is ‘huh’ a word? You heard me.”
“That’s got to be against the rules.”
“I checked with Jenny, it’s not. He has to finish the word no matter what happens. Even if you hit him. He has a time limit and he has to finish. There are no excuses in spelling bees.”
Jacob protests but Alan is serious. “Fine,” he finally mutters. Francois goes up to take his turn.
“Imbroglio. A highly complicated situation. Imbroglio.”
Jacob slips out of his chair and walks up the stairs. He passes Ms. Shannon at the microphone. Francois is on ‘b’ when Jacob arrives and hits him in the stomach. The crowd is on its feet, and Francois’ family is streaming towards the stage. But Alan is waiting, warning them away. “You can’t go up there! Family members cannot go up there or he’s disqualified! It’s in the rules!”
“Mills, what is wrong with you?” cries Francois’ father Jocelyn.
“Rules are rules. Ask the moderator.”
Ms. Shannon is watching the parents and the children. Francois is bent over and looks as though he is going to throw up. Jacob is staring into the lights shining from above. “Mr. Mills is correct,” she says. “The child must finish the word. Any interference from family members results in disqualification.”
Francois’ grandmother starts speaking in French; someone in the crowd jumps up and down on a chair. But Francois steps to the mic. He rattles out three more letters before Jacob hits him again. This time he falls to his knees.
“I’m getting him out of there!” cries Jocelyn, making for the stage. But his family pulls him back. Francois’ grandfather is muttering in his ear.
Francois finishes the word and gets off stage. Jacob stays for his turn.
“Lagniappe. A type of special gift. Lagniappe.”
“Can you define it again please?” Someone mutters something about Jacob not looking Asian.
Francois shows up before Jacob can even begin the word. He has a bottle of water in his hand and smashes Jacob in the face with it.
“Get up, son!” cries Alan from the edge of the stage. “It’s just water!”
Jacob rises and ducks under Francois’ next blow. He gets out four letters before he’s hit again. The water bottle explodes in Francois’ face. Jacob takes the opportunity to finish the word.
“Here, dry off,” says Alan, handing him a jacket as he leads him back to the chair.
“Alan. This is dumb.”
“Do you think it would be a good idea to go home and tell Jenny that we didn’t win? Look, let’s finish up. We’re in the firing round now. Two words each. I want you to let him get through the first one, and when he’s on the second, hit him with this.” Alan hands him the car keys. “Stick them in your hand and hit him in the face. When he’s down, I want you to grab his cardigan and stick it over his head. Then I want you to hit him again. If he tries to come up, knee him before he can.”
“This is not what spelling bees are about, Alan. This is a competition about using your skill and determination, of expressing your creativity and proving yourself against your peers. It can’t possibly be about hitting your opponents …”
“The fist is mightier than the word, son. Remember that. And stop using your words on me, I don’t want to hear any soliloquy. Can you spell that, by the way? Go on, give it a try… Good. Well done. Now get in there and hit that bastard.”
Ms. Shannon is drinking water. Everyone is on their feet now. Francois has a black eye and is holding the microphone to support himself.
“Emollient. A softening agent. Emollient.”
Francois looks into the crowd, waiting to see what will happen. He begins to spell. When he finishes the word, he smiles at Ms. Shannon.
“Very good,” she says. “Your next word is insouciance. Nonchalance, casualness. Insouciance.”
Jacob appears on the stage. Alan is hollering. It hurts when Jacob hits the boy, the metal digging into his own flesh, but the momentum is with him, and Francois goes down in a heap. Jacob grabs the cardigan and pulls it over his head, ripping it in the process. He hits him again and sends him to the ground. When he tries to turn over to protect his face, Jacob kicks him.
“Mr. Pat!” says Ms. Shannon. “You have ten seconds remaining to complete your word.”
Francois gets out a few more letters between the next kicks. But he doesn’t finish, and Ms. Shannon tells him that he has to leave the stage.
“You got this, boy! Get these two words and you got this!” Alan screams. “That’s my son! That’s my boy!” He’s got the phone in the air so that Jenny can hear; the crowd is booing and cheering, and no one is sitting down anymore.
“Mr. Mills, are you ready?” asks Ms. Shannon.
“Your first word is pyrrhic. Successful with heavy losses. Pyrrhic.”
Jacob flexes his hand. It’s bleeding. He nails the word.
“For the win,” says Ms. Shannon, “and the championship of the twenty eighth Bella Sand Public School Grade 6 Spelling Bee, your word is sesquipedalian. The ongoing utilization of long words. Sesquipedalian.”
Jacob freezes. He has practiced this one before. But the gym is so loud and it was so long ago. He asks for a redefinition.
By the time that Ms. Shannon is finished, Francois is on the stage. His cardigan is ripped to pieces and there is blood flowing through tissues stuffed into his nostrils. His lip is torn. But his fists are clenched and he is murmuring something; his lips are moving in the shape of a word. It is sesquipedalian, and he is daring Jacob to try it. Jacob watches him come. The crowd is cheering, but not, he thinks, because of how beautiful that word is, or how far it can take a person. This is a different reason.
At home, Jenny has a selection of butter tarts and lemon squares arranged on the table. She gives Jacob milk, and swabs the bloody parts of him. “After you’re done, go put your gear in the wash, ok? And remember that we have an early morning tomorrow for practice.”
“Jacob,” she says, giving him a hug as Alan finally gets a hold of Grandpa to tell him what happened, “I hope you know that we’re really proud of you. Really really proud.”
“I know,” he says. The lemon squares are spread over a plate, but the butter tarts are arranged in a pyramid. Jacob tests the strength of the pyramid with a finger bearing a band-aid, then gets to eating. Today, he starts with the bottom ones first.