“Alphabet Games,” a short story by Brenda Scott Royce, is the Grand Prize winner of the 84th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. You can read an extended interview with Royce here and view a full list of winners here. For complete coverage of the 84th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, please check out the November/December 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest.
Charlisa Watkins held her breath as she scanned the back of the cereal box, looking for a j. It was a game she played with herself, trying to find every letter of the alphabet on a single side. When she was little, she’d use the whole box, but that was too easy now. The trick was picking the right cereal and choosing the best side. It wasn’t as simple as it seemed. The side panels were smaller, so you’d think they’d be harder—but the one that listed the ingredients was guaranteed to have most of the hard letters, in words like zinc, riboflavin, and maltodextrin.
The front of the box was practically worthless; it never had enough words to win. But the back—especially if it had a word search or a mail-in order form (the words zip code and P.O. Box made up for the wasted white space where people were supposed to write stuff)—stood a good chance.
The back of the box was Charlisa’s favorite.
The rules were simple. You had to find the letters in order, and once you started, you couldn’t change your mind about which side to do. You never did the same panel twice, ’cause even a dummy wouldn’t forget if it was a winner. Reading it first was cheating. Winning got you good luck for the day, and Charlisa sorely needed to win today.
She found the j near the bottom of the box—juice—and exhaled a rush of air. The next few letters were always easy to find, so she let herself relax while she continued reading.
It was still dark outside but she was already dressed, in black culottes and a pink turtleneck. She’d combed her hair but didn’t try to braid it yet in case she fell asleep on the bus and it got ruined. Instead she put her ponytail holders in her pocket, along with the quarters for the candy machine she’d taken from her grandma’s laundry money jar.
She could hear her grandmother’s wheezy breathing coming from the sofa. She wouldn’t bother waking her when the bus came. There’d been too much of a fuss last year, when she’d told the white lady who’d come to the door to fetch them that she’d changed her mind about going. Her leg had swelled up overnight and she didn’t feel up to the trip.
“My gramma’s got the gout,” Charlisa remembered telling the lady, hoping she’d understand it wasn’t her fault, wasn’t because of anything she’d done. “Can I still go?”
The woman had stood for a while, staring at Charlisa as though trying to make up her mind. Charlisa knew she was being judged, so she pushed her shoulder blades back and lifted her chin, the way Ms. Elgie always told her to do when lining up at school.
“We do bring unaccompanied minors,” the lady had told her grandma, who was still in her nightgown, sitting on the sofa with one leg propped up on a chair, “but we assign each one to an adult volunteer.” Charlisa had smiled then, thinking it meant she could go, but the woman kept talking. “It’s too late to find someone else to come along. If only we’d known…”
Charlisa had opened her mouth to protest, but what came out was more like the cry of a wounded animal than human speech. If she didn’t go today, it would be another whole year before she got to see her mama.
Both women turned and stared at her. Charlisa couldn’t stop the sound that was springing from somewhere deep within her. She couldn’t hear what the white lady was saying. Couldn’t hear her grandmother’s words either but understood the look in her eyes, a warning she’d seen many times when Grandma was fixin’ to slap some disrespect out of her. She pressed both hands over her mouth, trying to muffle the noise.
Then the white lady wrapped one arm around her, pulling her close, and the noise suddenly ceased.
“You’ll come with me,” the lady said, her voice soft as cotton. “I have another little girl traveling alone. You two will stay close to me.”
Charlisa nodded, afraid to speak.
“I’m Sister Rita,” the woman said. “Do you have a satchel?”
Charlisa stared at her blankly, thinking through the list of items she’d been instructed to bring, wondering what a satchel was.
“By the door,” her grandmother said, pointing at Charlisa’s schoolbag, which she’d packed the night before.
“Good,” the lady said, releasing Charlisa and heading for the pack. “I’ll need her birth certificate, Mrs. Watkins. And there’s some paperwork you need to sign. I’ll be right back with it.” She swung the schoolbag over her shoulder and left.
Charlisa shuffled over to her grandmother, bent and kissed her cheek. “Bye.”
“Good luck, child,” the old woman had said, as though knowing how badly she’d need it.
Charlisa stole a glance over the cereal box at her grandmother, still sleeping. She’d signed the permission forms already, glad to be excused from the trip ahead of time this year. “It’s my Mother’s Day, too,” she’d told Charlisa when the girl begged her to come, “and I don’t want to spend it at no prison.”
The wall clock read 5:53, which meant the bus would arrive soon. Charlisa sped up her search, finding k, l, and m in milk, n and o in nutritious, and p in prize. She felt her heart speed up when she got to q, which was always tricky. She found it near the bottom of the box—in quality, a word she’d misspelled on a quiz last month. Ms. Elgie had found the error so funny that she’d shown it to a bunch of the other teachers. Charlisa didn’t know what was so hilarious; she’d just written the word the way it sounded, the way Ms. Elgie dragged it out when pronouncing it for the test. “KOALA T.” After hearing them laugh at her mistake, she swore to herself she’d never get the word wrong again.
R and s made her think of Sari, her new friend from last year’s bus trip. She pictured the girl’s face, skin the color of pancake batter, brown hair that was super straight and shiny, eyes that looked like they could see all your secrets.
It was Sari who came up with the name “Slammer Van” for the bus that brought the kids to the jail every Mother’s Day. Started by a bunch of nuns, the program focused on kids like Charlisa, whose families couldn’t afford the long trip to Chowchilla, and Sari, whose father would rather let her mother rot in hell than allow her to see Sari.
She’d been thinking of Sari a lot lately, even though her grandma told her not to count on her being on the bus again. Charlisa crossed her fingers for luck and leaned closer to the cereal box.
She was all the way to x when the doorbell rang. Dang, she whispered, eyes flying over the box in search of an x. She already knew there was a z, having made note of it when she spotted the word prize earlier. And y was practically guaranteed, not even worth breaking a sweat for. But x could ruin everything.
The bell rang again, startling Charlisa. Her grandmother stirred, mumbling something she couldn’t make out. She hurried to the door, undid the chain and turned the knob.
She was greeted by Sister Rita’s familiar face. “Good morning, Charlisa. Are you ready to go?”
“Mm hm,” Charlisa nodded, glancing back at the breakfast table.
“Is your grandmother up? I’d like to say hello.”
By way of response, Charlisa pulled the door open wider and gestured to the old woman sleeping on the sofa, one arm dangling over the side.
“Oh,” Rita said, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Did you pack a snack and a sweater?”
Charlisa pointed to her backpack. “They’re in my satchel,” she said, waiting to see if Sister Rita would notice she’d learned the word.
The nun picked up the pack and turned toward the bus, which was stopped at the curb. From the open doorway, Charlisa scanned the faces pressed against the windows, wondering if Sari’s was among them. Her stomach felt funny.
The bus door folded open on Rita’s approach. She looked back at Charlisa. “Come along. We’ve got a few more stops to make.”
Charlisa knew everyone on the bus was anxious to get going, to shorten the gap that separated them from their mothers. But as much as she wanted to put miles behind her, too, she was afraid to board the bus with bad luck hanging over her head. Her mother had enough bad luck already, she didn’t need Charlisa bringing more.
She ran back inside the house, shouting, “I gotta pee!”
Her grandmother was sitting up now. “Don’t leave the door open. Flies’ll get in!”
“I gotta pee,” Charlisa repeated, grabbing the Cheerios box and taking it into the bathroom. She locked the door and stood at the sink, using one finger to skim the back of the box line by line.
She almost missed it the first time, but then backed up a bit and there it was, in the word mixed.
“X,” she said to herself, stabbing the word with her finger before moving on to try and prize, “y and z.”
The bus honked as she burst out of the bathroom. Ignoring her grandmother’s shouts, she ran through the house, leaving the cereal box perched on the edge of the sink.
It was magic, Charlisa knew. When she boarded the bus and saw Sari sitting there in the front seat on the right side, the side facing her house, she knew the girl hadn’t been there before. If she hadn’t gone back inside to finish the game, Sari wouldn’t be here at all. But Charlisa won, giving her good luck, and just like that, Sari appeared.
“Sari!” she cried, pulling herself up the last steep step that put her level with her friend.
Sari looked the same as last year; she was even wearing the exact same brown sweater with a sash that tied around her waist. Her hair was maybe a little longer, but that was it. She smiled and waved.
There were a few shouted hellos, and Charlisa looked down the aisle at the faces, some familiar, mostly new, all anxious.
Sister Rita was in the seat behind the driver. She patted the empty space next to her. “Have a seat.”
Charlisa had been so relieved to see Sari on the bus that it took her a moment to realize that the spot next to her was already taken. She’d assumed they’d ride together again. She stood rooted in place, even after the bus door closed with a loud hiss and the driver told her to move on back.
The woman sitting next to Sari, in her seat, had blonde hair and skin so pale it was almost see-through. She stretched a ghostly hand toward Charlisa. “I’m Judith,” she said. “A volunteer.”
“You got to sit here?” Charlisa asked.
“Why, yes,” Judith said, with a sort-of laugh. “I’m Sari’s big sister for the day.” She linked one arm through Sari’s. “We’re gonna stick together like glue, right Sari?”
Sari shrugged, her expression conveying to Charlisa that she wasn’t real happy about the situation either.
Charlisa slunk the short distance to where Sister Rita sat, grinning widely over sunglasses that had slid down to the tip of her nose. She plopped onto the seat and whistled through her teeth. Then the driver gunned the engine, leaving her grandmother’s house in the settling dust.
They only stopped once on the nearly four-hour drive, at a rest stop where everyone was urged to use the bathroom, get a drink of water, and stretch their legs, whether they felt the need to do any of those things or not.
They had all been given purple T-shirts with the program’s logo on it, which were supposed to help the prison guards differentiate the visitors from the inmates. Charlisa wondered what kind of dumb-asss guards couldn’t tell that a ten-year-old girl didn’t belong in prison, no matter what color shirt she wore. Still, standing in front of the ladies room mirror, she dutifully pulled the shirt on over her pink turtleneck and tucked it into her culottes.
When she climbed back on the bus, Rita was flipping through pages on her clipboard. “Aren’t you hot?” the nun asked. “Why don’t you take off your other shirt and put it in your bag. There’s still time.”
Charlisa shook her head, knowing that wasn’t an option. “I like it this way.”
Rita set the clipboard aside and faced her. “Your name is very pretty. I’ve never met another Charlisa.”
“Me neither. But I know a Charnessa.” Without thinking, she raised her hand to her neck, rubbing the scars hidden beneath her turtleneck. “That’s my sister.”
Rita’s voice went up a notch. “I didn’t know you had a sister. She didn’t want to come with you today?”
That was just about the craziest thing Charlisa had ever heard. “Her mama’s not in prison. Her mama’s dead.” And then, because Rita looked as if she was still sorting out the puzzle in her mind and was missing a few of the middle pieces, Charlisa filled in the gaps. “My mama kilt her.”
“Oh.” Sister Rita looked beyond her, through the open window. Charlisa turned to see what had grabbed her attention, but there was nothing special in view.
“I thought you knew.” She assumed everybody knew; at least all the grown-ups. They always knew. Some of the kids in school did, too; she could tell by how they looked at her—their eyes dancing between shock and fear and pity and never directly meeting hers. But Rita looked at her the same way she looked at everyone else on the bus—and the guards and prisoners, too—like it didn’t matter whether you were wearing a purple shirt or a guard’s uniform or an orange jumpsuit; she was happy to meet you just the same.
Rita put one arm around Charlisa, her hand resting on her shoulder. “Does Charlisa mean something special?”
“My daddy’s name is Charles, and my mama’s name is Lisa. They made my name from both of theirs.”
“Char-lisa. I get it,” Rita said, nodding. “And Charnessa?”
“Her mama’s name is—was—Vanessa. She’s six months older than me, but my mama was married to my daddy first.” Charlisa shrugged, having realized after she said it that it didn’t really matter any more who’d laid claim to her father first—neither woman was with him now.
“Do you see Charnessa much?” Rita asked. “She doesn’t live with you and your grandmother, does she?”
“Nuh-uh.” Charlisa stroked her neck absently, her fingers finding the grooves of the deepest of the lacerations that crisscrossed her throat. “She ain’t allowed to see me no more.”
Rita opened her mouth to speak but was distracted by footsteps clomping up the bus steps. Sari came into view first, followed by Judith, who was asking Sari about her “aspirations.” Charlisa didn’t know what aspirations were, and she didn’t think Sari did either, because she just shrugged and said something about frogs.
Charlisa sighed. She’d hoped to get a minute alone with Sari, without Rita or Judy around, but Sari’s “big sister” had shadowed her everywhere, like maybe she was confused and thought that they were prisoners, too, who had to be guarded so they wouldn’t make a break for it, hiding in a dumpster or shimmying out a bathroom window. At least Rita didn’t treat her like she had to be babysat every single second.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Rita was asking.
Charlisa shook her head, remembering they’d been talking about her sister. “Nuh-uh.”
“Maybe later, then.” Rita pushed her sunglasses higher on her nose and picked up her clipboard. “You stay put. I’ve got to do a head count.”
Charlisa watched Rita swoop down the steps and wondered whether she was fooling about not knowing about Charnessa. Maybe it was all in the paperwork her grandmother had turned in, but she was just acting polite. After all, what was she gonna say? I heard your sister wrapped a jump rope round your neck and tried to drag you up the stairs by it. And what are your aspirations?
Judith was ripping open a Snickers bar and handing it to Sari, who said yes, please and thank you, ma’am like she was at a tea party instead of on the Slammer Van. Judith held a piece across the aisle to Charlisa. “Would you like some?”
“Nuh-uh,” Charlisa said, shaking her head. “No, ma’am.” To busy her hands, she reached into her satchel and pulled out a comb, which she dragged through her hair, dividing it into sections. Her fingers made quick work of the task of braiding her hair; she didn’t need a mirror. When she was finished with one side, she reached into her pocket for her ponytail holders. She stuck one between her teeth and twisted the other round the end of her plait. When she started on the other side, she caught Sari staring at her.
Take a picture; it lasts longer, she thought, but she didn’t want to be mean to Sari, who was so nice to her last year. It wasn’t her fault they made her sit with snooty Judy. Instead she said, “I could do yours.”
Sari brushed her fingers through her hair. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Charlisa said, though she wasn’t sure she could plait hair as fine as Sari’s. She’d never done white hair before. Then again, she hadn’t really done anyone’s hair other than her own and a few neighbor kids. “You’d look real good, too.”
Sari looked pleadingly at Judith. “Can you trade seats with Charlisa?”
Judith wrinkled her nose before speaking. “For a little while, I guess.”
Charlisa threw herself across the aisle and before she knew it was squeezing Sari in a big hug. Best of all, Sari was hugging her back. When she pulled back, Judith was standing over her, holding out a hand. “You dropped this.”
Charlisa reached up and took the ponytail holder she’d didn’t realize had fallen out of her mouth. “Thanks,” she said, meeting Judith’s gaze and shrinking when she saw the old familiar flicker of fear and shock and pity there.
As the other kids and their companions filed back on the bus, Charlisa combed Sari’s hair. She’d only brought one set of ponytail holders, and neither Rita nor Judith had any barrettes or rubber bands to loan them, so Charlisa took the plastic wrap off the straws on the two juice boxes she’d packed. She slipped the ponytail holder off her own braid, handed it to Sari, and tied the plastic wrap in its place. Then she quickly plaited the other side and tied the other wrapper at its end.
Sari handed her the ponytail holders. “You keep these. You can use the straw thingies in my hair.”
Charlisa shook her head. “Your hair wouldn’t stay in place. It’s slippery. Like silk or something. Mines’ll stay even if I don’t put nothin’ in it, just twist it up real good.”
Sari touched Charlisa’s hair with one tentative finger. “Yours feels silky, too.”
On the bus ride home, forehead pressed against the window, Charlisa scanned billboards and businesses looking for lucky letters. She’d made it all the way to j before they even got on the freeway, thanks to a strip that had both Jamba Juice and Godfather’s Pizza.
k and l made her think of killer, a word that kept popping into her mind as her mama held her close. She didn’t want to be like that. But like her grandma always said, her brain had a mind of its own.
Sari was sleeping across the aisle, her head in snooty Judy’s lap like they were best friends. Didn’t matter now.
This would be their last year together on the Slammer Van. Sari’s mom was in jail for perjury, which was apparently a fancy word for lying. Charlisa didn’t believe you could end up in Chowchilla for lying, but she knew Sari was telling the truth when she boasted that her mom would be out by Christmas. “Two hundred twenty-eight days.”
She should have been happy for her friend, but every time she thought of Sari and her mother opening presents together, her belly felt funny. And her brain, with its mind of its own, started thinking mean thoughts.
She tried to focus on finding an m. The sky was dark, making it difficult to read the signs. She shouldn’t have started the game, should’ve let the morning’s win carry her through the whole day. But by lunchtime she’d known she used up all her luck just getting there.
It started when they first got to the prison and Sister Rita stepped off the bus with her clipboard to show the guard their paperwork. As they waited, one of the new kids asked another boy what his mother had done to get herself arrested. Soon they were taking turns, calling out “arson,” “grand theft,” or “assault,” as calmly as if they were discussing their shoe sizes or what grades they were in.
Sari slunk down low, not wanting to play the game. That’s when she told Charlisa that her mother would be released soon and asked, “When’s yours getting out?”
Charlisa had clucked her tongue. “My mama’s a lifer. She’s gonna be in this place till she dies.” It was the truth, and she’d said it a million times. But for some reason, this time was different. The look in Sari’s eyes made her feel different.
Sari didn’t respond. What could she say? Sorry your mama’s a lifer. And what are your aspirations?
Then Sister Rita was back on board, and the Slammer Van was rolling through the prison gates. Charlisa stared at the gray buildings, wondering which one held her mother.
In the visitors’ room, they made crafts, like always. It made no sense to Charlisa, gluing buttons onto construction paper like they were in kindergarten and the men guarding the doors were school janitors. But it gave her something to focus on when she ran out of things to say to her mama.
At lunch she caught a glimpse of Sari sitting with her mother. The girl’s silky hair was fanned out straight behind her. She’d undone the braids, or maybe they’d come loose on their own. Either way, she’d probably never get her ponytail holders back. She didn’t care. All she could think of was how she’d wasted her good luck wishing for Sari to be on the bus. She should have saved her luck for her mama. Then maybe she’d be the one counting the days till Christmas.
“Q,” Charlisa whispered now, tapping the window in the direction of a distant liquor store, “r, s, and t.”
She straightened up in her seat. Maybe she’d win again, after all. Twice in one day had to count for something special. She might wake up tomorrow and learn the jail had made a mistake: Her mother wasn’t a lifer after all.
This is it, she thought, new rules taking shape in her brain. The last game. Jackpot round. If she found the whole alphabet before the bus reached her house, she’d win it all: Her mama would come home.
She was all the way to X when the bus reached the freeway exit. Dang, she whispered, her heart pounding as her eyes scanned street signs in search of an x. She knew she’d get z; there was a pizza place on her corner. And y wasn’t even worth sweating over. Y was practically guaranteed.
But x … x could ruin everything.