Olive’s Holiday Story
by Jill Hand
Olive Nielander hated her new school. Richardson Elementary was a grim, sprawling red-brick building that resembled a medium-security prison. When she’d been enrolled there after her parents’ jobs forced them to be transferred to another town, she was appalled by how awful Richardson was. From the sunbaked playground where thorny weeds grew, to the linoleum-floored corridors with walls of shiny tiles that were the exact color of urine, its institutional look and feel completely demoralized her.
To make matters worse, she was promoted a grade, from fourth to fifth. This delighted her parents, who thought it reflected well on them to have such a smart child, but it had the opposite effect on Olive.
Her classmates had known each other since kindergarten. They didn’t take kindly to the interloper who was a whole year younger than they were, and who had a funny name and who got As on all her tests. It didn’t help that Olive had a tendency to sprinkle her conversation with words like ‘ambiguous’ and ‘contemptible’, giving her a reputation as a show-off.
Truth be told, Olive was something of a show-off, but that was only because she felt insecure among her larger, more boisterous classmates. She wished she could go to Wexford Academy, a private school that she found online one afternoon after coming home from school, a wad of bubble gum stuck in her hair by a girl she didn’t even know, who told her, matter-of-factly, that her breath smelled like dog farts.
Olive removed most of the gum with an ice cube pressed to her hair. When her mother asked how her day went she said it was fine, although inwardly she was thinking, How was my day? My day was hell. I’ve got to find someplace better to go to school.
Wexford Academy, she saw, was only five miles away and it looked absolutely wonderful in the pictures on its website. The main building was a graceful old Tudor-style house. It had a large, welcoming porch with white wicker chairs, rolling green lawns, and a stable that had been converted into a theater in which the students put on plays. Judging by its website, Wexford Academy was everything that Richardson Elementary was not. Olive longed for it the way a penitent longs for heaven, but when she asked her parents if she could go there, they refused.
“It’s too expensive. It costs a lot of money to go there and you can go to Richardson for free because it’s a public school and we pay taxes. Do you see, Olive?” her mother asked her anxiously. She knew Olive was unhappy at her new school, but she was sure she’d settle in, given time. Richardson was a good school; the realtor who sold them the house said so, and so did the neighbors, whose children had gone there when they were young.
Olive glumly agreed. She hated Richardson, but it appeared it was the only option available to her. Her classmates sensed her misery and decided Olive was not only a show-off, but a weirdo. As children have done since the dawn of time, they closed ranks against the outsider and gleefully proceeded to make her life miserable.
“Olive Knee-lander,” sneered Kyle Ricciardi during recess one day in October. The rest of the children were playing kickball or tag or red light-green light, but Olive was standing awkwardly by herself, as usual, looking like a fish out of water and checking her watch every so often to see if recess was almost over. Olive hated recess. She wished she could spend it in the library, reading, but it wasn’t allowed.
It’s pronounced Ny-lander, she thought dispiritedly. They can’t even say my name right.
The two aides who were supposed to be supervising the playground and keeping an eye out for bullying were busy tending to a sobbing first-grader who’d fallen off a swing. Seizing the opportunity to taunt the pariah, Kyle loudly chanted, “Olive Knee-lander fell out of a tree. She hit her head and started to pee!”
“She landed on her butt and broke it,” quipped Mark Norman, the class comedian. Mark had never read Hamlet, but he understood instinctively that brevity is the soul of wit. Everyone within earshot roared with laughter and Olive’s cheeks turned bright red. Mortified, she pretended to find something engrossing about the brickwork on the wall of the cafeteria.
Olive grew increasingly unhappy as the weeks passed. She had no friends. Not even Jazzlynn Spooney, who lived in a trailer behind the fish cannery and whose father was in jail for selling methamphetamine, wanted to be friends with her.
December came and their teacher, Mrs. Johnstone, gave them an assignment. They were to write about something they did over the holiday break.
“Not everybody celebrates Christmas, and that’s perfectly fine,” she assured the class. (The fact that she was wearing a red sweater with a Christmas tree on it that had tiny bulbs that lit up when she pressed the gold star on top made it clear that Mrs. Johnstone was among the ranks of those who celebrated Christmas.) She continued, “Some of you may celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanza or…” She trailed off, trying to think what other holidays might fall during that time of year. The student body was diverse and there might be something the Hmong or the Tamils did that she’d overlooked.
“Anyway,” she finished brightly, “whatever you and your family do over the holiday, I want you to write about it and bring it with you on the first day back. Make it at least five paragraphs. Remember to check your spelling and use lots of descriptive adjectives.”
As the dismissal bell rang and the children made a mad dash for the door, she raised her voice and added, “Be prepared to read it aloud!”
Olive smiled. She had an idea.
Olive’s mother liked to tell people that Olive read at an eighth-grade level, but that was untrue. Olive had taught herself to read when she was three, huddled under the covers at night with a flashlight and sounding out the words to The Poky Little Puppy and the other literary works that formed the foundation of the venerable Little Golden Books series. By now, she read at roughly the level of a college freshman. Her parents were unaware of this, as was Mrs. Johnson, because eighth grade was only as high as the standardized reading test went. Olive was not only a voracious reader, she was a skilled writer. Just how skilled her classmates were soon to find out.
Olive’s family went to her Uncle Jimmy’s for Christmas. Riding home in the car, Olive set to work on her holiday writing assignment, typing it on the little laptop computer her parents had given her for Christmas. She smiled to herself as she typed, her eyes shining, anticipating her classmates’ reaction when she read her story aloud. She doubted any of them would have anything half as interesting to relate as her story about what transpired at Uncle Jimmy’s house.
She returned to school after was termed (in a spirit of political correctness) ‘Winter Break’, feeling as despairing as a condemned prisoner trudging toward the gallows. She hated the place: the ugly way that it looked and smelled, the sound of the metal locker doors clanging and the cruel laughter of her classmates when they noticed her approaching.
“Here comes Olive Knee-lander,” sang Mark Norman in dulcet-sweet tones. He nudged his friend, Kyle Ricciardi. “Olive asked Santa Claus to bring her a boyfriend and he said, ‘What do I look like, a miracle worker?” That was the punchline to a joke he’d heard on television and stored away for future use. Olive tried to think of a witty comeback, but found herself unable to think of anything suitably scathing. She did her best to look haughty and above such childish japes, causing them to laugh even harder.
When it came time to read their assignments, the other children mostly described the presents they’d received, or the places they’d gone over the holiday. Amber Bessinger, the most popular girl in class, had gotten a pony for Christmas which she named Princess Sparkle. The other girls squealed excitedly and begged to be invited to come to her house and see it.
Looking around majestically, like a queen surveying her court, Amber announced, “All you girls are invited to come and see Princess Sparkle.” Shooting Olive a withering look, she added, “almost all you girls.”
Kyle Ricciardi reported that his parents had taken him on a cruise to the Bahamas. The highlight of the trip as far as he was concerned had been a lavish chocolate buffet aboard the ship on the last night of the cruise.
“Everything was chocolate. Even the flowers on the table were made out of chocolate. There were all different kinds of chocolate cake and candy and chocolate ice cream with hot fudge and chocolate-covered strawberries. I ate so much chocolate I thought I was going to puke,” he said rapturously, as his classmates groaned in envy.
Then came Olive’s turn to read her story. She walked primly to the front of the room, took a deep breath, and began to read, enunciating loudly and clearly.
“My father and mother and I arose early on Christmas morning to make the trek to Port Jervis, New York, to visit my Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Lucy.”
She glanced up and saw Kyle making a goofy face, his eyes crossed and his tongue hanging out. She determinedly continued, “Aunt Lucy just had a baby, a precious little girl named Casey. We couldn’t wait to see her.”
Mark Norman remarked, conversationally, “I bet it poops in its diaper.”
Mrs. Johnstone frowned at him and shook her head, saying, “That’s enough, Mark.”
Olive went on, “Uncle Jimmy is an orthopedic surgeon. That means he’s a kind of doctor who uses special tools to cut into people’s bones.”
“Gross,” said Amber. Several of the girls, hoping to curry favor with her, gave little cries of disgust.
Ignoring them, Olive read, “Uncle Jimmy was taking care of Casey all by himself. He told us Aunt Lucy had complications from having the baby and had to go back in the hospital. He said not to worry because soon she’d be all better.”
Jazzlynn Spooney spoke up, “My mother had complications after my brother was born.”
“Shut up. Nobody cares,” Mark told her rudely.
Mrs. Johnstone said to stop talking and let Olive finish her story.
Olive pushed her eyeglasses higher on her nose and continued, “Uncle Jimmy took our hats and coats and asked if we wanted a peek at the baby. She was sleeping, but if we were very, very quiet, we could look in at her. We tiptoed upstairs to the nursery, where Aunt Lucy had painted a fairytale castle on the wall over the baby’s crib. She made curtains, too. They matched the colors of the castle, turquoise and pale pink and sunny yellow. My mother said, whispering so she wouldn’t wake the baby, that it looked just like a nursery in a magazine.”
Mark pantomimed an elaborate yawn.
Resolutely ignoring him, Olive went on, “Casey was lying on her side, her back to us, wrapped in a yellow blanket. We could see tufts of her hair sticking up. It was a gorgeous shade of auburn, exactly the color of Amber’s hair.”
Amber proudly patted her hair and sat up a little straighter.
Olive continued, “We went back downstairs, where there was a mouth-watering aroma coming from the kitchen. Uncle Jimmy announced that he was making pork tenderloin. My father said he was so hungry he could eat a horse. Uncle Jimmy told him that if he’d known, he would have cooked a horse. That made us laugh. We had some cheese and crackers and soon my Aunt Liz arrived with her husband, my Uncle David, and their little girl, my cousin Becky, who will be five on Valentine’s Day.
“The timer went off in the kitchen, and Uncle Jimmy brought out the meat and vegetables. He made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Becky and me, because we dislike pork. The grown-ups said the meal was delicious. Uncle Jimmy offered to wrap up the leftovers for everybody to take home.
“Then he said he could hear the baby stirring. He’d go and change her, and bring her down so we could see her. Becky asked if she could hold her, and Uncle Jimmy said she could, but she had to be careful because newborns are fragile. Becky promised to be careful.”
Olive looked up and saw Kyle stretching and yawning. He asked, “Is this almost over?”
“Shush, Kyle. Let Olive finish,” Mrs. Johnstone told him.
Olive said she was almost done. Turning the page, she read, “Uncle Jimmy brought Casey downstairs, wrapped in the yellow blanket. He handed her to Becky and told her to support her head, so it wouldn’t fall off. Everybody laughed at that, except Becky, who looked nervous. Becky wrinkled her nose and said the baby smelled funny. Uncle Jimmy said maybe she needed changing again.
“Becky pushed back the blanket and looked at Casey’s face. In a tiny little voice she said, ‘Her eyes look funny.’ Aunt Liz said that was because Casey was a newborn, and newborns’ eyes are unfocused, but Becky started to cry. ‘There’s something wrong with her,’ she insisted. She went to hand the baby back to Uncle Jimmy, and what do you think? Her head fell right off! It rolled across the floor and came to a stop at Aunt Liz’s feet. Becky was right: the baby’s eyes did look funny. They were wide open but they were all sunken in and her skin was gray. Aunt Liz screamed and screamed.
“Now you’ve done it,” Uncle Jimmy told Becky. “Didn’t I tell you to support her head or it would fall off?”
Olive looked up. Her classmates were staring at her in shock, wide-eyed. Mrs. Livingstone’s mouth hung open. Her lips moved but no sound came out.
“That wasn’t the worst of it,” Olive said cheerfully. “My father called the police. Uncle Jimmy wouldn’t stop laughing. He laughed like Casey’s head falling off was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. He was still laughing when they put him into the back of the police car. A policeman said it looked like the baby had been dead for a long time. Aunt Lucy was dead, too. She wasn’t in the hospital like Uncle Jimmy said. He killed her and cut her up and cooked her. It wasn’t pork he served for Christmas dinner, it was Aunt Lucy. And that’s my holiday story. The end.”
“Jesus God almighty,” breathed Mrs. Johnston. Her hand went to her heart, as if she were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Did he kill the baby too?” asked Amira Patel in a trembling voice.
Olive paused; she hadn’t expected that question. “The police said it looked like he let her starve to death,” she said after a moment, as if she’d been in on the details of their investigation. “They think her head fell off because she was so decomposed; you know: rotten.”
At that, the room was in an uproar. Some of the children were crying hysterically, among them Kyle Ricciardi and Mark Norman, both of whom had lost any desire to make wisecracks. Amber Bissinger vomited all over her pink cashmere sweater.
Mrs. Johnson, her face pale as milk, escorted Olive to the principal’s office, where a phone call was made to her mother. Olive’s mother was surprised to hear about what Olive had said. Nothing like that had happened, she said. Yes, they’d gone to her brother’s house for Christmas, and yes, he and his wife had a new baby, but the baby was fine, and so was her sister-in-law.
“Olive has an active imagination,” she told the principal. “I’m sure she didn’t mean to upset anyone. I’ll speak to her about it when she gets home.”
When the principal said Olive would have to see the school psychologist and asked (very insultingly, Olive’s mother thought) if there had been any trouble recently in what she referred to as ‘the home environment’, Olive’s mother became highly indignant. Heated words were exchanged.
The upshot was that Olive was taken out of Richardson Elementary and enrolled in Wexford Academy, her parents deciding cost be damned, their daughter deserved better than a crummy public school where the principal had practically accused them of being child abusers. Olive was delighted. It was what she’d intended all along when she wrote her gruesome holiday story. Olive Nielander was, after all, a smart little girl.
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Jill Hand is the author of The Blue Horse, a science fiction/fantasy novella from Kellan Publishing based on a true story. It contains no zombies, moody teenage vampires, or young people forced to fight to the death in a post apocalyptic future. It does, however, contain humor and some lively historical facts.