Very Bad Things Page 1

“A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are they crazy?”

–Albert Einstein


Yeah, that’s not an easy word to say. Yet these often mispronounced staccato syllables have been ticking in my brain like the click of my piano teacher’s metronome for the past fifteen minutes . . . weiss-nicht-wo, weiss-nicht-wo, weiss-nicht-wo. I tapped my fingers to the beat.

This obscure word was coined by Thomas Carlyle in his satirical work Sartor Resartus, so it’s not surprising the organizers selected it for the Belltone National Spelling Bee. Even the best speller might be thrown off by it, maybe because the /w/ is pronounced as a Germanic /v/ or maybe they make the rookie mistake of forgetting to capitalize the beginning.

But four years ago, I’d made no mistake at that renowned spelling bee. I’d been perfect, since screwing up was not allowed in my family. In my last year to compete and at the age of fourteen, I’d nailed Weissnichtwo, beating out the pimply, homeschooled kid from Rhode Island in round six.

My IQ tested at 162 and most considered that genius level. Yet, I still had to work my ass off for the spelling bee, studying the two-hundred-page word list and thirty thousand flash cards for two hours a day, four days a week. For an entire year. In those days, I was quick to remind people that Einstein was a proven horrible speller.

My mother snapped her fingers in my face. “Nora Grace, please stop slumping and sit up. Good posture improves your overall attractiveness. You know this.”

I straightened my back.

“Mr. Cairn’s about to call you to the podium,” she said. “Don’t let me down.”

I nodded.

She twisted her lips as she scanned over my new dress and brown sandals. “That yellow dress was a very bad idea. It completely washes you out, and I’m surprised my assistant picked it out. She usually has better taste. Please don’t wear that—” she gestured at my outfit, “terrible ensemble again.” She sighed. “At least you didn’t wear those disgusting cowboy boots.”

I gripped the edges of my chair, refusing to acknowledge her last remark. Did she think I was stupid? I’d known to not wear my boots in front of her, not when I’d be wearing her handprint on my cheek later for the infraction. I pushed her from my mind and stared down at my note cards, concentrating on remembering everything my speech coach had taught me.

She continued her lecture as she focused her attention back on the headmaster of Briarcrest Academy. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you shop for an appropriate outfit. Now that Geoffrey has resigned, the station is in chaos, so I’ll be working more hours and staying at the apartment in the city. It can’t be helped,” she said, shrugging her impeccably suited shoulders. “I do worry about you though. Princeton is only a few months away, and you’ll never make it past freshman year if you don’t stop daydreaming. We expect big things from you, Nora.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She checked me out again, this time directing her critical gaze to my waistline. “Mona mentioned you haven’t been weighing yourself each day, and I’m concerned. You must never forget how fat you were.”

I peered down at my size five dress and sucked in. Mona, our housekeeper, reported everything I did. She probably kept a log that told Mother when I peed.

“Oh, and I do have some exciting news I’ve been meaning to tell you. Finn’s moving back to the house after Christmas,” she said with a smile. “Houston isn’t working out for him like he thought, so he’s going to work downtown with your father’s law firm.”

I swallowed down bile at what she’d said. Everything was always about Finn, my half-brother. Why didn’t she give a shit about me?

I glanced around her to peek at my dad, but he wasn’t even listening to Mr. Cairn or to us. He had his phone out, texting. He didn’t want to be here.

From the stage, Mr. Cairn was finishing up his spiel, “. . . to Briarcrest Academy’s Senior Registration and Open House Night. This fall marks our hundredth-year anniversary, and we look forward to celebrating this event all year. And now, to welcome our incoming seniors, last year’s junior class president Nora Blakely will be speaking to you. An asset to our Academy, she was not only the Belltone National Spelling Bee Champion four years ago, but she’s currently the editor of the yearbook, the co-captain of the debate team, and an early recipient of the esteemed James D. Gobble Scholarship to attend the University of Texas. She’s an exemplary role model for all of us here tonight.” Mr. Cairn smiled benignly down at us in the front row. “Without further ado, please give a hand for Miss Nora Blakely.”

Polite clapping ensued.

“Go get ’em, sis,” Finn said to me as I rose to walk up the wooden steps to the stage. Shocked to hear his voice, I turned to see that he’d obviously slipped in late and had been sitting right behind me the entire time. I felt myself draw up inside. He wasn’t supposed to be here, not when it was a week day and he lived four hours away. Deep in my gut, I realized Mother had told him to come. And he always did what she said. So did I.

As I looked at him, the shuffling sounds of people sitting in hard chairs swelled in my head and then shrank in the oddest way. Vertigo hit me, making the gymnasium spin around wildly, like I was on a merry-go-round. Freaked out, I gained control by fisting the sides of my dress and biting the inside of my cheek until I tasted the coppery tang of blood.

Seeing him had made me crack even more.

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