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“Heteronormativity. H-E-T-E-R-O-N-O-R-M-A-T-I-V-I-T-Y. Heteronormativity.”
The judges nodded.
“That’s correct, Phillip. You’re moving on.”
Phillip stepped back to the line of chairs at the back of the stage. He was four contestants away from being the Thessaly County Regional Spelling Bee champion. As long as he didn’t slip up on any words, he had a real chance this year.
Since he was in fourth grade, he’d been a star student in grammar and English, consistently excelling past his classmates. He’d always hoped to find some sort of recognition through his talents with words, but there were limited options. The spelling bee was the first opportunity he’d had to show off his ability.
Phillip felt a nudge in his ribs. His friend, Ixie, was in the seat next to him. Ixie was also representing Lapith Middle School; the tie between the two at their competition led to them both qualifying to move on to regionals.
“Good work, Phlegy. Just a few more words and one of us’ll win it.”
Phillip smiled at Ixie. Suddenly, the buzzer went off. A kid had spelled ‘quintessential’ with only one ‘s,’ and was eliminated. Ixie smiled at Phillip, and then got up to take her turn. Phillip blinked, wrinkled his nose, and rolled his shoulders in anticipation. Shifting his weight, he listened to the judges speak to Ixie.
“Okay, Ixion. Your word is ‘lackadaisical.’”
Ixie closed her fingers into her hand.
“Could you use it in a sentence?”
“No,” said the judge, “it isn’t a word.”
The crowd laughed. Ixie smiled nervously.
“The man’s lackadaisical attitude toward his work demonstrated an absent interest.”
“Could you spell it for me?”
The crowd laughed again. Ixie smiled confidently, her fingers relaxing. Phillip got a chill.
“Lackadaisical. L-A-C-A-D-A-I-S-I-C-A-L. Lackadaisical.”
Phillip flinched. The judges shook their heads in turn.
“I’m afraid that’s incorrect. Please come down and sit in the audience with your parents.”
Ixie looked stunned for a moment. Then, she gathered herself and left the stage, looking dejectedly at her feet. Phillip’s eyes followed her as she sat by her parents, her eyes showing the very start of tears. The judges called up the next contestant, who spelled his word correctly. The next did the same. Phillip and the other contestants competed in a circle, everyone getting their words correct, until one of Phillip’s opponents misspelled ‘flamboyancy.’
“Phillip, your word is ‘ventilation.’”
Phillip spelled it out correctly and sat back down. He rolled his shoulders and squinted at the other contestant. Phillip imagined being the regional champion. He imagined it as a dream coming true, being the best in the area at the ability of which he was so proud, leading his school and being recognized, at last, for his talent. It was all he had. His only notable attribute was his excellent skill for spelling and grammar, and he was finally going to shine.
Then, unbelievably, it happened. The contestant was buzzed out. She’d spelled ‘anthropomorphic’ with an ‘a’ rather than the first ‘o.’
Phillip had won.
A smile pulled at one corner of his lips, and then the other, until Phillip was grinning widely. Tears began to collect in the corners of his eyes. He looked out to the audience, to his parents, and found his mother sobbing. His father had a pained look on his face. They seemed neither happy nor proud – they looked simply scared and upset.
Phillip’s elated state was broken as a judge called his name and approached him with a gold medal.
“Congratulations, Phlegy. You’re this year’s regional spelling bee champion.”
The judge took Phillip by the arm and led him out the back door. Putting the medal over Phillip’s head, the judge informed him that Phillip’s parents would be right out. Then, he went back inside, and left Phillip waiting. After a few moments, a different judge and Phillip’s parents, still looking solemn and upset, emerged from the back door. Phillip smiled at his mother, too proud to recognize her state of terror. The judge and Phillip’s father ushered him toward a path through the woods behind the building.
Phillip didn’t bother to question where they were going. He was far too proud of his medal and his achievement to pay any attention. He kept reaching for his father’s hand, but he was ignored. Eventually, they reached a cove on the other side of the trees. A man sat in a boat, his back turned to the group, waiting.
“All right,” said the judge. “This is it. Say your goodbyes.”
Phillip’s mother broke down crying.
“Hey,” said the judge, “you knew this was coming. You agreed to this. Phlegy has to do this, for the rest of us.”
Phillip’s parents nodded, quietly, and bent down to say goodbye. Phillip was confused at this point.
“Why aren’t you coming with me? Where am I going?”
“Don’t worry about it, Phil,” said his father. “It’s all right. You’ll see us soon.”
Phillip trustingly smiled at his father.
“All right, it’s time to go,” said the judge. “Go on into the boat, there.”
Phillip climbed into the boat. His mother was on the ground, screaming for him, but the judge held her back. His father nodded to the ferryman, and they pushed off from the shore.
Fog quickly overtook the boat. The muffled sounds of Phillip’s screaming mother were dampened and eventually smothered by the thick air. Several minutes passed.
Phillip, playing with the gold medal, looked up at the ferryman, who was paddling smoothly.
“Why are you wearing two eye patches?” asked Phillip.
“Cause I used to have two eyes,” said the ferryman.
His voice was deep and smooth, nothing crackly or dry about it. It seemed as though it couldn’t be coming from this man, who was short and very, very thin. His hair was mostly missing, and the grey bits left over showed his failing health. Several of his teeth were missing as well.
“Don’t you still have your eyes?”
“No. They’ve both been removed.”
“How can you see where you’re going?”
“I don’t need to,” said the ferryman. “I’ve been this way before.”
Phillip sank lower into the boat, bending his knees to squeeze down into the limited space.
“What’s your name?”
The ferryman wrinkled his nose, rolled his shoulders.
“Charon. Call me Chuck, if you can’t remember it. Or don’t call me anything.”
Phillip squinted at Charon. He could barely make out through the fog that part of his ear had a bite taken out of it. He decided not to ask.
The boat began to slow, and came to a smooth stop as it bumped the shore.
“All right,” said Charon. “This is it. Get out.”
Phillip stepped from the boat carefully, trying not to get his feet wet. His fingers wrapped around his medal, he turned to thank Charon.
“Thanks Cairo- er, Chori…”
But the ferryman was gone. The boat remained, but the ferryman and the fog for a few yards around the boat had vanished.
Phillip turned back around. The only thing in front of him was a large mouth to the opening of a cave. He stepped in, glancing around the dark uncomfortably.
“Hello? Is anyone here? I won the spelling bee!”
Phillip’s voice cut back to him from the walls of the cave. He stepped farther into the darkness, hoping to find someone. Curiosity and fear both aside, he felt compelled to step into the cave. As his hand slid over the wall, his feet felt a ledge from the solid floor to an abyss.
Phillip reached out to see if there was another ledge he could reach without falling to the hole. His hand touched the corner of a wall, and then slipped. Losing his balance, Phillip fell.
He hit the water below with great force, the cold rushing over his skin and seizing his lungs, and he kicked to reach the surface.
Phillip breathed in, and nearly retched. The smell and taste of the air was horribly pungent, and smelled strongly of decaying meat and fecal matter. He splashed his way through the water, and eventually, his eyes having adjusted enough to see a few feet in front of him, he found a place to stand. He shivered and rolled his shoulders, the cold and wet disappearing as a warm air came in. Phillip enjoyed the moving air, and it blew out the horrid smell, replacing it with a nice scent. Slowly, Phillip began to fall asleep, with no control over his body.
A stabbing pain jolted him awake. Literally a stabbing pain, as there was now a hole in his abdomen. He felt something slip back out of the new puncture wound. Phillip screamed.
“Well, that woke you up.”
Phillip screamed again, terrified by this dark, scratchy voice.
“Spelling bee champion, yes? Congratulations. I’m your prize.”
A lantern was lit a few feet from Phillip, giving off a small amount of illumination. It was just enough for him to make out his assailant: a tiny, ghoulish figure with long, pointed finger and a twisted face. The hairless, green skinned thing licked blood from its thumb. Phillip squirmed, and realized he was naked, but couldn’t do more than give quick jolts from each joint, causing his limbs to flop without real movement.
“Don’t bother,” said the thing. “You ingested some water from my lake. You’ll be paralyzed for several days before you can possibly move again.”
It stuck another finger through Phillip’s navel, and blood sprayed upward.
“Call me Pirithous,” it said. “We may as well lie to one another…”
Pirithous turned and leapt back into the darkness. Phillip heard his feet tapping softly on the wet ground.
“How about ‘sanguine,’” Pirithous asked, his voice resounding off the walls and through the dark of the cave. “Can you spell that? Sanguine?”
“S-A-…” Phillip squeaked. “N-… G-… U-I-N-E.”
“Hell if I know. Let’s assume that was right,” said Pirithous.
Phillip turned his head a bit, but horrifying pain shot through his body. He saw Pirithous stepping back toward him, blood and puss dripping from his hand. Pirithous reached a sharp claw to Phillip’s throat.
“So… can you spell ‘carving’?” asked Pirithous.
Phillip screamed as Pirithous sank the claw into his throat. As Phillip gasped to breathe around the obstruction in his throat, Pirithous stuck a second finger into his larynx.
His voice was gone.
“Oh, darn… was that your voice box? I took away your fun! No more spelling?”
Pirithous grinned with yellow and black, pointed teeth.
“You won’t be able to sleep until your body forces itself to shut down… so you’ll have to live with the pain. And there’ll be no more screaming, no more spelling…”
A tear rolled down Phillip’s cheek. He caught his breath, at last, through the pool of blood in his mouth. He swallowed hard, the pain as though someone had forced a golf ball into his throat. Pirithous knelt down by his side.
“I’m sorry, Pleghy… This is what I have to do. If I’m not fed each year… well. It’d be even worse.”
Pirithous stripped a long section of skin from Phillip’s belly and ate it. Licking the blood from the wound, his cat-textured tongue scratched the open skin. Phillip wondered how this thing knew his nickname, knew anything about him…
“I don’t like my food cold. I have to keep you lasting as long as you’ll last… And over the years, I‘ve perfected the art of keeping you little sacks of flesh alive until every rib was plucked from your body.”
As he said this, he reached into the deep gash and pinched the muscle around one of Phillip’s ribs. The pain of having something sharp slice through his muscles was unbearable. Phillip’s vision clouded completely as the pain caused his eyes to roll back. Pirithous found and prodded the rib, sending searing pain through Phillip’s chest and down to his pelvis.
“These things are so fragile… your bodies are so easy to break. Weak creature.”
Pirithous pinched the rib, slid his fingers around the bone. The horrible pain caused Phillip to scream a voiceless cry, the blood shooting from his throat and spattering all over the floor. Pirithous took hold of the rib and pulled, cracking it at the base. Instead of pulling it through the gash, he took the sharp end of the bone and pushed it through the other side of Phillip. A new hole created, Pirithous wrapped his lips around it and sucked out a good amount of blood. The bone had pierced the lining of Phillip’s stomach, and acid began to spill into his bloodstream. The acid also spilled out into the open wound, cauterizing and dissolving the weak skin.
Pirithous stepped on the area with the missing rib. Phillip couldn’t withstand the pain. His heart rate rose higher and higher, he could hear it pounding against the walls of his chest.
“Hmm… looks like we’re done for the day. I hope you’ll sleep well… we’ll continue tomorrow.”
Phillip watched as Pirithous disappeared into the darkness. The wind started up again, and the clean air left the cave. That horrid rotting smell returned to the cave. Phillip began to retch, but the failure of his nerves to communicate with his body caused all of the acid and blood to catch up in his throat. Phillip began to choke. ‘This is it,’ he thought. ‘This is my way out.’
Phillip’s tears turned to those of relief as he felt his heart slow down. Unable to breathe, he choked, he retched, his blood burned. The pain shot through him again and again, but slowly, his life left his body.
The fog from above settled into the cave as night crawled through the forest and off the lake. Phillip’s body was dragged by Chuck into the fog, which lifted them both up to the entrance. Chuck threw the body into the boat and stepped into the lake. He disappeared into the waves.
When Phillip woke up from his unending sleep, he understood what had happened. He was no longer Phillip. He was no longer Phlegy. He was Charon, the ferryman of the river. And he waited for time to tell him when to go to pick up the next winner of the Spelling Bee.