Name: Jen Hill
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction (Ghost Story)
Title: Secrets Of The Upside-Down Treehouse
A girl wearing a striped tie and a very un-sixth-grader-ish hairdo sat alone on the stage. Her head buzzed with the vocabulary words she had been mastering over the past year. B. Lee Banks had a special Spelling Bee Day deal with the janitor of the Palindrome Academy for Learning Arts: she brought him coffee, he let her in before the bell rang. She was lucky that he'd agreed to the arrangement, because being first was very important to her.
Just a few more precious moments, she thought to herself between words. Winning this spelling bee was crucial to her continued success at Palindrome Academy. She had a perfect academic record and was an all-time spelling bee champion. Neither of these things made her very popular with her classmates, but the exchange was one she could live with.
The bell rang, and any minute now the other students would start to arrive. She fished a filigreed barrette out of her canvas tote bag and held it tight. She knew good luck charms were ridiculous, but today she made an exception. The barrette was a family heirloom, passed down on her mother’s side. It wasn’t for wearing: the barrette was far too fancy for her taste and, besides, it wouldn’t work with her hairstyle. The bun she wore every day made B. Lee feel like a shrewd business woman. It was a serious hairdo. It was also the opposite of cool, but B. Lee wasn’t destined for being cool. She was destined for a greater purpose.
As the footsteps of her competitors filled her ears she retreated into a peaceful inner world. Closing her eyes, she entered into an imaginary conversation with Christopher Palindrome, the boy for whom the school was named over one hundred years ago. He congratulated her in that old-timey voice she imagined him to have, and gave her a friendly punch in the arm. “Catching up to me, I see,” he said playfully. B. Lee smiled. “One more win and we’re tied,” she said with a wink.
The sound of giggles and the smell of bubblegum jarred B. Lee out of her fantasy. She didn’t need to turn around to know that Ramona Romano and Dot Diddy had seated themselves behind her. She clutched the barrette tighter and bent her head down, hoping they would ignore her for a change. Of course this was folly, and she knew it.
“Are you looking forward to the trophy you’re going to add to your trophy shelf?” teased Ramona. Dot giggled.
B. Lee folded her arms over her chest and craned her neck ever so slightly to the side “Can you please not antagonize me for a change?” returned B. Lee in a tone she hoped would convey attitude while hiding her insecurity.
“Antagonize? Seriously B.Lee, why do you always have to show off with your fancy words? Jeez.” Behind B. Lee’s back Ramona rolled her hazel eyes so high they seemed to skim her thick black bangs. Dot giggled again.
The surrounding seats had begun to fill up and B. Lee hoped Ramona would find another person to bother, but Ramona was having too much fun. “Did you play ‘coffee shop’ this morning?” she pressed. The laces on her sparkly sneakers were making a "tap tap tap" sound as she swung her feet under her chair, and it annoyed B. Lee.
“I didn’t ‘play’ coffee shop– I run a coffee shop. And yes, it was very busy this morning, thank you,” said B. Lee, turning around this time to deliver an intimidating look into her adversary’s eye. For a bold moment she held her gaze, then turned back around to face front. Why was it so hard for people to understand that she had a side business? No one ever questioned little kids having lemonade stands. And duh, lemons cost so much more than coffee. Lemonade stands don’t earn money, they’re just cute. And B. Lee was interested in making money. Adults drink coffee like fiends, which was why the coffee stand she set up in front of her house each morning was such a success. It was genius, she thought.
But that reminded her: she’d skipped her usual trip to the bank to deposit the sales money because it was more important to be the first one at school than to risk not getting her favorite seat. She clutched her bag nervously, and snuck a peek in to make sure the money was still there. Of course it was. Phew. The idea of carrying around so much money made her edgy; she’d have to get to the bank right after school.
“Got a cheat sheet in there for me?” smirked Ramona, placing her head just above B.Lee’s left shoulder. B. Lee scrunched the bag to her lap. “None of your business,” she warned with a sideward glance. “Seriously, Ramona, can you please just stop?” She let go an exasperated sigh. Why couldn’t she just ignore her, like everyone else did?
“Fine,” Ramona sat back, faking a bored yawn. “Well, have fun being valedictorian or whatever. The rest of us normal people will be doing fun things, like doing our nails and having parties. You ever been to a party, B. Lee?” Dot giggled on cue.
B. Lee dug her short, unpolished nails into her black pants and hung her head, her face beginning to burn. Ramona really knew how to push her buttons. B. Lee had zero interest in parties, but that was the lie she started telling herself when she realized she was the kid no one ever invited. Which was one of the reasons why her sole purpose in life was to be the best student ever– better, even, than the legendary Christopher Palindrome.
Seats shuffled and microphones were checked, and B. Lee heard Ramona talking now to Fred Dish. Good, she thought, relieved that Ramona had finally tired of pestering her. She scanned the room. There were others she needed to watch out for, and knowing where they sat was very important. She didn’t like surprises.
Chief among them was the new girl, Maud Brindlebee, whose tall tales really irritated B. Lee. She also dressed oddly and got terrible grades. Worst of all, she dragged a tin can around on a string. Why? “It’s my pet,” she’d explain in her weird baby voice. Weird. And she wore her hair in funny curls: what did they call those– ringlets? B. Lee thought Maud looked just like a girl from an old black-and-white movie singing about lollipops she’d seen on the internet once. Above all, Maud was distracting. How many times had B. Lee lost her train of thought on account of Maud’s humming, whistling, or foot-tapping? Countless.
But the yellow-haired girl was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she wouldn’t show up. The thought eased the tension in B. Lee’s jaw. She relaxed into her chair.
A lanky man took the stage. “Attention students!” boomed the merry voice of Principal Grimaldi. “Welcome to the hundred-and-sixteenth annual Palindrome Academy Spelling Bee!” The audience cheered.
“Let us give a warm round of applause for all the brave students who have chosen to compete this year. Competitors, please stand and take a bow.” Principal Grimaldi turned to the children on the stage, offering them a mustachioed smile as they bowed for their audience. He then took his place at the podium at the side of the stage.
First up was Isobel Antler, who misspelled the word “crumb”.
One after another approached the mic, some sighing with relief after a correct spelling; some crumpling with defeat. Her name was called, and, hoping for a really difficult word with which to dazzle everyone, B. Lee approached the microphone.
“Please spell the word ‘fidget’, as in, ‘Please do not fidget in your seat.’”
Not as challenging as she'd have liked, but it was only the beginning.
“Fidget,” she began confidently, “F-I-...”
But before she could continue a clanging sound came from the back of the auditorium.
Everyone turned to see a disheveled girl who was dragging a tin can on a string. The black beret she wore over her curly hair gave her the air of a mime or old-fashioned artist. People snickered at the sight of her.
Ugh, thought B. Lee, she pursing her lips in outrage. Of all times to interrupt, Maud Brindlebee had to choose the exact moment when B. Lee was about to shine in front of the entire school. Typical!
“Miss Banks,” prompted the principal, “please finish spelling the word ‘Fidget.’ ”
B. Lee began to sweat. She could not remember where she had stopped. Did she get to d yet? Yes, she must have- that was always where everyone else messed up. She tried to relax and continue where she had left off, for starting over would disqualify her.
“...G-E-T. Fidget.” She smiled at the principal, flouncing off to her seat.
“I’m sorry, that is incorrect. Please take a seat in the audience.”
No, no this could not be, there must be some mistake. How could she have been wrong? She knew that word inside and out! What had she missed? Oh, NO! Horror washed over B. Lee in a cruel wave as she realized she had indeed forgotten the ‘D’. Then the magnitude of this error truly hit her.
Her perfect record was ruined. Not just this year’s, but forever. The title of all-time Spelling Bee Champion was no longer hers. All because of Maud Brindlebee and her disruptive entrance. Humiliation, rage, and contempt screamed in B. Lee’s brain.
Mrs. Toole, her teacher, met her with a sympathetic smile. "I'm so sorry my dear," she crooned, and led her to a seat in the audience. She was dazed, she was numb. How could she be expected to sit and watch someone win the victory which should have been hers? B. Lee banks did not lose– EVER. She could feel everyone staring at her. Their whispers were a swarm of mosquitos around B. Lee’s ears. This couldn’t be happening. The ache in her heart rose up through her eyes, and B. Lee struggled with all her might to keep herself from sobbing audibly.
The blur of her tears momentarily saved her from one final insult. Blinking them away, she almost screamed when she saw that she'd been seated behind the frizzy head of Maud Brindlebee.
“You and your horrible can!” she hissed at Maud through sobs.
“His name is Poppy,” corrected Maud.