Spelling Day

She’d been thinking about it since Friday night, but now it was Monday, a school day, and she had to keep it out of her mind. So as the bus rattled down the highway, Sadie made herself focus on math and science and the fact that today was a spelling day, her favorite kind of day: ten new words and a test to study for. Last week it was “pencil” and “please” and a green star on her paper. When they’d gotten them back, she’d looked at her seat partner’s grade. Ryan had five red X’s on his test, the words “SEE ME” written at the top. Mrs. Barrett never wrote “SEE ME” on Sadie’s papers. She could at least be glad for that.  

She kept it away for the whole ride, past fields of broken corn stalks peeking through the snow, past the gas station where Grandpa bought lotto tickets and sprinkled donuts, past Morris Park, where Sadie once saw two teenagers smoking a cigarette. But when she got off the bus and saw Chrissy on the playground, her pink snowsuit a bright flash against the dirty snow, Sadie could feel it once again at the edge of her mind. She chopped at a patch of ice with the thick heel of her winter boot and watched as Chrissy turned to Elizabeth, a girl who’d just moved to town, and whispered something in the new girl’s ear. Sadie could tell that Chrissy was talking about it. Her heart beat faster and she tugged at the straps of her backpack. Today is a spelling day, she reminded herself. P-L-E-A-S-E. Ryan had gotten that one wrong.  

But then, a surprise: Chrissy looked up and began waving, her hand flying in a wide arc from right to left and back again. “We’re playing house!” she said. “You and me are sisters and Elizabeth is the mom!” She jumped a few times and then ran to Sadie, grabbing her hand and pulling her past the monkey bars as if nothing had happened, as if it were any other day. 

When they got to Elizabeth, she was kneeling on the ground, packing snow into discs and setting them on top of one another. Without looking from her task, she scolded them for being up so late and told them to get to bed.  

Chrissy curled her hands into fists and stomped the ground. She yelled that she wanted to stay up later. Sadie giggled and copied her.  

Elizabeth stood and brushed the snow off her pants. “Oh for goodness sake! I’m in the middle of making lunches for tomorrow, and I still have to iron your father’s shirts,” she said. “You’ll have to tuck yourselves in.” Elizabeth gestured to the space under the slide. “The beds are ready for you.” 

“But I’m not tired!” Chrissy crossed her arms in front of her and stuck out her lower lip. 

Elizabeth put her hands on her hips, her brown mittens clashing against the lime green of her snow pants. “I’m going to count to five,” she said, a blade in her voice. Sadie clambered under the slide, and when Chrissy followed, they huddled into each other, pretending to sleep while Elizabeth ran off to fill make-believe brown bags with make-believe sandwiches.  

Chrissy poked Sadie.  

“I got in trouble,” she whispered. “Did you?” 

The memory of the sleepover came back then. Sadie couldn’t stop it. Her hands felt the weight of the red gown she’d found in Chrissy’s dress up box after they’d both taken their pajamas off, its sequins glittering in the cold light of Chrissy’s basement. Chrissy had grabbed Sadie before she could slip the dress on and they’d spun in circles in their underpants, both of them laughing, squealing Let go! No you! until they landed in a heap of pillows and blankets, the dress thrown off to the side. Sadie had gotten up on her hands and knees and moved toward it, but Chrissy tackled her and pinned her to the ground. Sadie had felt her heartbeat in her ears, could tell her face had grown pink and hot, but she laughed and tried to wiggle out from underneath Chrissy. The stiff carpet burned the skin of her elbows and Sadie said that they needed to get dressed but Chrissy wouldn’t let go until Sadie said Uncle, so Sadie said it once and then twice and then three times, but each time she said it Chrissy yelled No, louder, and so Sadie screamed it with her whole body and then used her might to push Chrissy off her. Sadie leapt onto her friend’s chest, pushing Chrissy’s wrists into the ground with arms that were suddenly stiff with rage, and it was then that the basement door opened and they heard the crush of Mr. Mason’s footsteps down the stairs. He yelled Christ and hell and then picked Sadie up, pinching the underside of her arm between his thick fingers. He pointed to their nightgowns. When they were dressed, he walked back up the stairs and slammed the door so hard that a picture frame hanging in the stairwell fell and broke into three sharp pieces.  

They’d sat on the basement couch in silence until Mrs. Mason came downstairs in her robe and stood in front of them. Sadie pushed herself into the back cushions as Chrissy told her Mama that they wouldn’t do it again. But Mrs. Mason sent Chrissy to her room and called Grandma to come pick Sadie up.  

Under the slide, Chrissy pushed her stocking cap out of her eyes and asked Sadie again. “Did you get in trouble?” 

Sadie had not gotten in trouble. When Grandma drove home from Chrissy’s house she said that Sadie ought to know better, but she also said Chrissy’s dad was making a mountain out of a molehill. And when they got home, Grandma didn’t say a thing about it to Grandpa. Even still, all weekend Sadie heard the boom of Mr. Mason’s voice in her ears and felt her body grow clunky and strange when it was time to hug Grandpa at bedtime.  

Now, with Chrissy, Sadie shook her head. “No,” she said. “I didn’t get in trouble. Not really.”  

“Lucky,” Chrissy said, and she began slapping the metal slide, beating a slow, rumbling rhythm until she turned to lay on her side and stare at Sadie.  

“What?” Sadie asked. She almost wished Chrissy had left her alone.  

“My parents fought when you left,” Chrissy said.  

“What about?” Sadie asked.  

Chrissy leaned in to whisper into Sadie’s ear. “You,” she said.  

Shouts exploded from the mountain of snow that lined the teacher’s parking lot. Two older boys, fifth graders maybe, had flung someone into a snowbank. Sadie’s mouth tasted like tin.  

Chrissy had eavesdropped outside her parents’ bedroom, she said. They had argued loudly.  

Sadie looked at the smooth underbelly of the slide, her bulging reflection staring back at her. “What did they say?”  

“That your mom is wild,” Chrissy said. “That’s what my dad thinks.”  

Sadie looked at her friend.  

“He actually said a different word.” The corner of Chrissy’s mouth jutted upward before she pulled it into a thin line and asked if Sadie wanted to hear it.  

Sadie tried to shake her head, but Chrissy spoke before she could say no.   

“Freak,” Chrissy said, the sharp final syllable a jab to Sadie’s belly. 

Chrissy giggled then and turned once again onto her back. “It’s different than freaky,” she said, drawing out the sound of the y. “It’s not like scary like a ghost is freaky. It means wild.” 

Sadie asked her how she knew, and Chrissy said her older sister had explained it: “She said your mom is wild and our dad thinks you make me wild.” 

Wild was how Grandma talked about the Schmidt kids at church. Sadie pictured the youngest girl, Jenny, running around the fellowship hall with a purple Kool-Aid mustache, knocking over the big box of crayons at Sunday School. Sadie did not want to be wild.  

“I told my mom you’re not bad,” Chrissy continued. “And I said wrestling was my idea, and she said that we can still be friends at school and maybe one day try a sleepover again.” 

Sadie said that was good but could not look at her friend. Chrissy hummed to herself for a moment before letting out a long sigh and saying that she was bored and wanted to play tetherball. Sadie watched her run across the playground and then turned back to her reflection in the slide. 

She did not like to think about Mama at school. But Chrissy said that her dad thought Mama was wild, and now Sadie remembered the time last spring when she still lived with Mama and the sky turned purple. Mama had wrapped Sadie in her slicker and held her hand as they walked outside and listened the swells of wind that shook the oak tree next door. When a slap of thunder hit the ground, Mama squeezed her hand and said, “touch it,” and Sadie lifted her other palm, the cold rain biting the inside of her arm. She pulled it back and looked at Mama. “It feels nice,” Mama had said, and Sadie had nodded. 

Maybe that was a little wild. Not wild like Jenny Schmidt, but Sadie knew that Grandma would never stand in a rainstorm. And there were other times that might’ve been wild, too: Mama dancing in the hallway with the man and the lady from out of town, their feet pounding fast and slow on the floor until Mrs. Weston the landlord came upstairs to complain; Mama asleep at the kitchen table in the early morning, a burnt up cigarette still in her hand; Mama cutting off her long blond hair and dying the rest of it red as an apple. And then there was the night not long after Sadie had come to stay out in the country with Grandma and Grandpa, when Mama pounded on the back door and screamed Please, please. Sadie had cried and said Mama needed to come in, but Grandma said no and sang songs until Sadie fell asleep. Mama was still lying there with no pillow or blanket when Grandpa took them to church the next morning, but she was gone by the time they got back. Sleeping outside without a blanket, screaming into the door: that was probably wild, Sadie thought.  

Sadie twisted her knees into her chest and thought again of the storm. It made her ache to remember Mama in the rain, the drops falling down and down. The picture of it made her feel light as a balloon and she thought she might float out from under the slide and fly up to the sky and into the clouds.  

She was huddled in a ball and crying into her coat when Elizabeth ran to her yelling Rise and shine! When she saw that Sadie was alone, she clicked her tongue and asked where Chrissy was.  

Sadie shook her head into her pant legs and said she didn’t know, the words dampened by her thick winter clothes. 

Elizabeth sighed loudly and said she would ground Chrissy for five years for sneaking off. Then, crawling under the slide, she wrapped her arm around Sadie. “Are you crying?” 

Her voice was soft and quiet, like the voice Mrs. Barrett used when she read the end of a sad book to their class. Sadie nodded. 

Elizabeth rubbed her back and said it was ok, that Chrissy couldn’t have gone that far. “And besides,” she said, patting Sadie’s shoulder. “You should be proud. You didn’t run away. You’re a very good girl.”  

Sadie wiped her nose and asked if that meant they could have pancakes for breakfast. Elizabeth nodded. “You bet,” she said, rolling out from under the slide. “I’ll get the skillet.”  

Elizabeth stood up and told Sadie to hurry, but Sadie remained still. She knew that she was going to get up, she could see it in her mind. She was going to get up and pour imaginary syrup on imaginary pancakes and Elizabeth was going to pretend to fry bacon. And when the bell rang, she was going to walk into her classroom where Mrs. Barrett, whose breath always smelled of wintergreen gum, would be writing today’s schedule on the board, the chalk clicking against the hard black surface. Later, Sadie would get new words, eat lunch, go to gym, and tomorrow do it all over again. 

Sadie burrowed her arms into the snow, her coat sleeves snaking past her wrists, her mittened hands grasping for something to hold. Get up, Sadie told herself, the cold ground a shock against her bare forearm. Get up, she said again. Today is a spelling day.

Photo by Joran Quinten on Unsplash.

Cori McKenzie

Cori McKenzie (she/her) is a writer and an assistant professor of English Education at SUNY Cortland. By day, she writes about the role of affect in the secondary English classroom and teaches courses on composition pedagogy and critical literacy. In the early mornings (and sometimes late at night) she writes fiction that unfolds on the rolling hills and suburban streets of her Midwestern youth. She splits her time between Ithaca, New York and St. Paul, Minnesota. Find out more on her website.