Bernice Blossom Bolton–Bernie–is a nine-and-a-half-year-old force to be reckoned with as she charges head-first into the 21st century. Feisty and fun, liberated and opinionated, she’s ready to take on the world.
Bernie is taking her first trip to New York City. Angry at the lack of Christmas presents she’s received, she decides to explore the city on her own. Eventually, she makes her way to Central Park, where she meets remarkable homeless man named Ellis Duncan. As evening falls, Ellis Duncan tells Bernie about a long ago Christmas and a wonderful and unforgettable gift.
GENRE: Midgrade Reader Word Count: 18, 178
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THE ULTIMATE WORST
If you asked any kid in the whole entire world to make a list of the worst possible things that could happen, you’d probably get a list that looked something like Bernie’s:
- Everybody forgets birthday.
- Everybody, including Santa, forgets Christmas.
- Father planning to marry a skinny lady with a four year-old son.
- Getting Miss Boggs for fourth grade.
- Getting breasts.
The ultimate worst part was that Bernie couldn’t do a thing about any of these annoyances at the moment. Actually, the truth was that number one on her list, the birthday party, had been successfully solved in June when everyone forgot her birthday, but then they all remembered, and she got her red mountain bike after all. That situation had temporarily restored her faith…until now.
As far as Miss Boggs was concerned, Bernie could not have imagined a worse fate. Miss Boggs was about a hundred years old, and looked a lot like a wicked witch in the scariest witch story ever written…and had a personality to match. Her father thought she was exaggerating when she told him how awful it was in Miss Boggs’s class. But then he met her at Open House and came home that night with ice cream from Ben and Jerry’s and said he’d never doubt Bernie again. Of course, Bernie knew he would, but the ice cream was Cherry Garcia and truly excellent anyway.
Bernie’s best friend, Emmy Holloway, really got lucky this year and got Mr. Soren. Everybody loved Mr. Soren because he did cool things with the kids, like making wooden jumpy toys in the shop, and reading stories out loud instead of workbook time. This was not at all like Miss Boggs who yelled in your face if your lips moved when you were reading to yourself.
Bernie Bolton’s long name was Bernice Blossom Bolton…a fact she tried to deny whenever possible. It wasn’t that she hated her real name that much, it was just that she figured people with weird names just had to grow into them…and thank goodness, she had a little growing yet to do. The bad part about that was, it seemed to be starting already with those awful bumps on her chest. Of course, being a pretty bright kid, Bernie knew that all girls eventually developed…but for now, she was totally convinced that breasts should only come on chickens. So, she just figured…if she thought good thoughts and continued to wear her Atlanta Braves baseball cap and dirty sneakers every day, then maybe… just maybe, she could hold off this disaster for a few more years.
And…as far as her new, almost stepmother went…well that was another story altogether. Just the thought of four-year-old Kirby Fitzgerald being her brother made her nauseous…and extremely angry.
Nine and a half-year-old Bernie Bolton thought about all of these things as she stood in front of the big, full-length mirror in the much too fancy bedroom at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. What she saw in that mirror was a sort of medium-sized, redheaded, freckle-faced girl with very thick eyeglasses. This person looking back at her was wearing an ugly blue jumper, a white tee shirt, and red bows at the ends of her braids. She thought she looked a little like a Raggedy Ann doll and a lot like the American flag…and this was not a pretty picture.
The only things that looked normal were her sneakers, which she rarely removed in favor of other shoes…and today she agreed to wear this stupid jumper ONLY if she could wear her sneakers.
Don’t misunderstand, Bernie Bolton was a force to be reckoned with and all the kids at Hope Valley Elementary School knew that. What’s more, she knew that this image she saw in the mirror was only temporary… but it annoyed her anyway. She also knew that she would look like her mother when she grew up, because her big sister, Lizzy, told her so, but that didn’t help much right now.
Bernie’s mother died two and a half years ago and that was one of the reasons that Lizzy and her new husband, Sam, decided to treat Bernie to a trip to New York City. Since Bernie’s father was going to Las Vegas over Christmas with his almost wife, Priscilla, the mother of yucky Kirby…and Lizzy and Sam were going to New York…all of the grown-ups thought this would be a much better way for Bernie to spend Christmas, than hanging around in Las Vegas. Bernie, of course, strongly disagreed…but since she was only nine, she was promptly out-voted. Her major fantasy was to go to Las Vegas and see where Elvis used to sing…but it looked like that wasn’t going to happen anytime in the next thousand years, at least. Elvis was her all time favorite human.
Well anyway…so far the vacation was pretty good. They all saw a show last night at a humungous theatre called Radio City Music Hall. It was the best show Bernie had ever seen…ever! There were lots of acts and lots of costumes, but the very best part was this long line of beautiful ladies who all danced the same steps at the very same time. Bernie couldn’t figure out how anybody could do that without messing up…but she was sure that she was going to put it on her list of possible jobs when she grew up. And for dinner…they went to this place called John’s, or something, and had the most awesome pizza in the entire universe. It had so much cheese on it, that when you picked it up, the cheese slipped off and you had to eat it with your fingers. It was truly amazing!
But…that was yesterday. Today was another story, and was shaping up to be the ultimate worst day of her life. It was nine o’clock in the morning, the rest of the world was opening their Christmas gifts, and Bernie was standing in the middle of a prissy looking hotel room in an ugly outfit, waiting to have breakfast in a restaurant where you had to keep your napkin on your lap and eat your pancakes with a fork… instead of a spoon, which was the way she liked to do it. But that wasn’t it…not by a long shot.
“What do you mean, Santa didn’t come?” said Bernie as calmly as she could, but it sounded whiny and bratty anyway. “You mean to tell me that he just happened to skip over the entire city of New York? He just missed all the kids who live here? Like he just totally forgot they existed?”
“That’s not what I’m saying at all, Bernie,” said Lizzy, trying to be reasonable. “It’s just that all the gifts are at home. They’ll all be there when we get back next week, but we don’t have them today.”
“Well, I think that stinks,” whined Bernie.
“Well, I think you’re being a big baby and a spoiled brat, Bernice Blossom Bolton. You don’t see Sam whining about not getting his gifts.”
“That’s because Sam isn’t nine years old.”
At that, Lizzy just threw up her hands and finished putting on her pink lipstick to match her fuzzy pink sweater that Bernie thought looked like someone skinned the Easter Bunny.
“Okay…have it your way,” said Lizzy. “There’s nothing we can do about it, so pouting and complaining isn’t going to change a thing. Now, either you just settle down and realize that you’ll have to wait ’til next week…or you can just wear that mean face and have a rotten day. It’s your choice.”
“Good…my choice is to have a rotten day. And I don’t want to eat in that fancy-shmancy restaurant either,” said Bernie in her meanest voice.
“Fine,” replied Lizzy, “you can just sit up here and watch television while Sam and I have a lovely breakfast. I’ll come up for you when we’re finished and then we’re going to the museum…so don’t go changing your clothes.” With that, Lizzy turned and walked out of the room with Sam following close behind.
The steam was coming out of Bernie’s ears. “Big baby…spoiled brat, huh?” said Bernie out loud to the empty room. “Well…I’ll just show them what a baby I am. If they’re gonna leave me alone and not feed me, then I’ll just have to go out and feed myself. And…I won’t have to use stiff white napkins that you’re afraid to get dirty, either.”
The first thing Bernie did was take off the ugly jumper, toss it in a corner, and put on her wonderful, old overalls. With a big sigh she fixed her baseball cap and went to stand at the window. She had to admit it was a pretty amazing sight from way up here. They didn’t have big buildings like this in Durham, at least none that she’d ever seen, so a view of New York City from the tenth floor was truly mind-boggling.
Down on the street she saw the big, beautiful carriages lined up at the curb. The horses were eating oats out of bags around their heads and the men, in their fancy coats and tall hats, were standing around and waiting for people to come and take rides in the carriages. She knew all about that, because last night she and Lizzy and Sam went for a ride in one. It was the most fun thing she’d ever done, except maybe for Hillary’s Halloween party where she went as a bag of jellybeans. It was the coolest costume there and even won a prize… and it hardly mattered at all that she couldn’t sit down all night.
The man who drove the carriage was named Mr. August, like the month, and his horse was called Fritz. Bernie thought Fritz would be a terrific name for a wiener dog, but not such a great name for a horse. Mr. August let her pet Fritz, and even let her sit up front with him and hold the reigns as they rode all through the huge park called Central Park. He said it was called that ’cause it was right in the middle of New York City…to Bernie that made sense.
As Bernie looked across the street, she saw the entrance to Central Park and thought she’d like to take a walk in that park and see what it looked like in the daytime. And, since there were no grown-ups around to object, that’s exactly what she decided to do. She noticed all of the people outside were wearing winter coats and gloves. Bernie figured they must know what they were doing since they lived here and she came from North Carolina where you hardly ever had to wear gloves. So, she put on her bright red coat with the purple lining, grabbed her mittens, and out she went, slamming the door to room 1033 behind her.
The first order of business was to get something to eat and since Daddy had given her a whole twenty-dollar bill to spend in The Big Apple, she figured she wouldn’t have any trouble finding something delicious. Daddy always called New York The Big Apple, which totally puzzled Bernie. She couldn’t figure out why a city would be called an apple when there wasn’t an apple tree to be seen anywhere. But then, since she really didn’t care that much anyhow, she just let that thought go out of her head, figuring she’d find out later.
Bernie pushed the elevator button and after a few seconds, the elevator came and was opened by a lady who looked a lot like Mrs. Holloway, her best friend Emmy’s mother. She had very short, curly hair and beautiful brown skin, and wore a red uniform with black and gold trim. Her name-tag said Mrs. Rosa Williams, and she seemed very happy this morning because she had a big, cheerful smile.
“Good morning to you, little sister. Looks like your goin’ out early this mornin’,” said Mrs. Williams.
“Yes, Ma’am…I thought I’d go check out that big park,” replied Bernie.
“Oh my, you’re not gonna go out there by yourself, now are ya’? I’m sure you must be meetin’ your Mama and Daddy in the lobby, right?”
Bernie thought about this a second and decided on a tiny, little white lie…just so that Mrs. Williams wouldn’t worry. “Yes, Ma’am, that’s right…in the lobby waiting…” said Bernie just as the doors opened. “Thanks for the ride. I’ll see ya’ later, I guess. Oh…by the way, Mrs. Williams, do you know why New York is called The Big Apple?”
“Why…I haven’t the faintest idea, now that ya’ mention it. You be good now and if I find out, I’ll be sure to let you know,” said Mrs. Williams as she smiled another big, cheerful smile and closed the elevator doors.
Bernie looked around the lobby at the big Christmas tree all covered with white and red and gold ornaments, and at the green garlands draped everywhere in sight, and…whoa!…how come she hadn’t seen that last night? Maybe she was too tired to notice, but standing right in the middle of the lobby was…a whole Christmas village…made out of chocolate. Bernie couldn’t believe her eyes. She moved in as close as she could get and looked over the whole fantastic work of art. Everything was there…the houses, and the church, and the people, and the dogs, and the horses, and the kids sledding down a big hill, and on, and on, and on. It smelled heavenly and Bernie had to shove her hands deep into her pockets to avoid the temptation of reaching out and grabbing a little sample. She stood there a long time just studying the model and memorizing every inch so that she could tell Emmy all about it when she got home.
As Bernie turned around to go, she noticed something else in the big lobby of the Plaza Hotel. It was a very large menorah made all out of colored glass. It looked like it was all melted together and it had enormous candles in it. Bernie knew all about menorahs because that was the holiday that Lizzy’s new husband Sam celebrated. It was pretty neat actually…’cause in Lizzy’s house, they would be doing lots more holidays every year and two holidays in the Winter alone. Bernie wasn’t too sure about why it was important to light candles on Hanukah, but, because she helped Lizzy and Sam light them this year, she knew that you lit one candle each night for eight days…and you got a gift every night for the entire eight days. What could be cooler than that?
When she started to get all sweaty in her coat and mittens, Bernie decided it was time to finally leave. On the way out of the door, she made a promise to herself that when she got home she would go to the library and get out a book about Jewish holidays. Maybe there were other ones where you got lots of gifts…and she wanted to make sure she didn’t miss a one.
Bernie Bolton walked out of the Plaza Hotel onto 59th Street and took a deep breath of the cold December air.
So…this was the Christmas day that came, but Santa didn’t. And as Bernie looked around at all of the wonderful sights, somehow she knew that because of that fact, her world was about to change forever.