The spotlight glowered from above, and sweat sieved through the upright hairs on the back of her Gina Kytes' neck, droplets clinging to the stray black hairs that protruded from the tightly woven French braid. The burgundy curtains loomed over her, ready to crush her nine-year-old body. In front of her mouth, a microphone jutted from its stand, the yellow foam cover glaring at her immobile lips. Beyond it sat a dark plain of faces, peering at her in silent detachment. Her parents and older brother were out there, somewhere, lost in the darkness.

A deep voice suddenly boomed over the stage.

"Miss Kytes, please spell the word 'porridge.'"

Gina closed her eyes, trying to picture the word against the back of her eyelids, but the darkness found a way in, waiting impatiently for a response. She opened her eyes, and repeated the word, but that did not satisfy the darkness, which crept up as if to choke her. Her voice trembled.

"Will you please use it in a sentence?"

Gina recognized the word from a fairy tale, but she could not remember which one. All she could see was the Big Bad Wolf in the front row, raking his tongue over his jagged, polished teeth. He spoke.

"All I had for dinner was a bowl of porridge."

So he's still hungry and wants to eat me next, just like Red Riding Hood and the Three…Little Pigs.

She beamed as she put together the connection.

"This porridge was too hot. This porridge was too cold. And this porridge was just right."

Chuckles floated to greet her onstage. Gina looked out over the plain. The wolf was gone, and the darkness was only a veil preventing her from seeing the smiling faces, like her father's hands prevented her from seeing her present at her last birthday.

"Yes, Miss Kytes," the voice announced, "that 'porridge.' Now please spell the word."

"Porridge, p-o-r-i-d-g-e, porridge."

Gina grinned. Her heart did back flips inside her chest.

"I'm sorry, that is incorrect."

The corners of her mouth drooped like a poisoned flower. Red blotches burned the surface of her cheeks. The boy next in line pulled on her sleeve, and Gina stepped aside and shuffled dejectedly behind the stage. She had mastered her stage fright, only to be defeated by 'porridge.'