Six months after the disappearance of Dess Holiday, Noelle enters the Spelling Bee
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Noelle was a smart girl.
Everyone knew that.
Straight A’s since preschool– not that they really measured those types of things, but you could bet that Noelle’s name always had the most stars.
Her mother was always proud of her achievements. She had especially liked to weaponize them against Dess–
She obviously didn’t anymore.
Yep… six months since Noelle waved her sister goodbye for the last time… maybe.
Noelle was smart.
She knew her sister was more than likely dead.
Her father refused to believe it, and sometimes Noelle would too. His spirit was infectious, she couldn’t deny it.
And besides… sometimes it was just nice to pretend she wasn’t gone– comforting, even. If she focused really hard, she could pretend Dess had just gone out to hang with Asriel and didn’t tell her– or that she was just stopping by the gas station for some snacks.
…Sometimes she’d catch herself actually believing it…
It was something nobody warned her about grief– sometimes you just forgot. You’d wake up from your bed, and go and knock on your sister’s door saying ‘Hey, it’s tuesday which means you have to drive me so you better not hit snooze again,’ and you realize through the sound of the alarm that it is Tuesday– Tuesday May 18th and your sister has been gone for a little less than six months and suddenly you want nothing more than to climb into her bed and cry as you listen to that stupid alarm continuing to ring despite the fact that your dad told you you should’ve unplugged it but no matter what you couldn’t you just couldn’t and so you go into her room and you go to her stupid clock and you hit the button and you look at it and there’s dust that’s gathered on the top and on the desk drawer and you remember when your mom hired a maid to clean up her stuff to make sure it would be “good and ready for if– when she comes back” and you sit and think about how Dess never kept her room clean, and how even when you were a little kid you’d trip over her coats and jeans and sometimes Dess would even create an obstacle course for you and one time it spanned the whole house while mom and dad were out for date night and after you and Dess completed it you laughed and ate popcorn and icecream for dinner and then you watched Saw III and drink soda until you both passed out and then your mom would come in and yell to clean it all up but you and your sister never regretted it for a second– and you realize you’re still just standing there, looking at the dust that gathered on your sister’s old nightstand in her now perfectly clean room– jesus, if it wasn’t for you going to turn off the alarm every morning, it’d look like a museum photo, and lord knows it was just a velvet rope away with all those photos mom had taken of it, and god– you realize you’re crying too, but you know you can’t cry too much because it’s been six months and you have a spelling bee today and your parents and friends are going to be there and no one wants to deal with grief after six months and so you have to swallow your tears and the powerful ache in your heart as you slowly close the door.
They didn’t warn her the feelings didn’t go away after a timeslot– despite everyone’s expectations.
Her teacher had been very understanding at first, allotting a month of late and poor assignments but after that month the grades were more heavily judged and her mother suddenly started expecting everything to be normal again, but nothing was normal. Nothing would ever be normal again– not until Dess was back and able to press that stupid snooze button like she did every time she had to drive Noelle to school.
Noelle didn’t want it to feel normal…
Normal would mean permanent.
Normal would mean Dess was a thing of the past.
Dess wasn’t a thing of the past– she was–
She was somewhere.
Noelle had to do the spelling bee today. She had studied all week with her dad, though sometimes she felt he went a little too easy on her. He’d have the cards and whenever she was unsure he’d tilt his head and mouth the letter and Noelle’d pick it right up– though sometimes she scolded him too. She knew the list wouldn’t be exactly what would be in the Spelling Bee but her mother always looked up the previous year’s words to have Noelle be prepared for the difficulty.
Noelle never complained– she always won, after all. And– you know– blue ribbons are… pretty. At least her mother seemed to think so– she had a big display case ready for Noelle’s successes and future ribbons. Sure it could be… intimidating, but with her mother so busy all the time, it was nice to know she thought about her at least that much.
“You ready to catch the bus, Noelle? It’s gonna be here in about five minutes,” Rudy called for her from downstairs.
Noelle ran from Dess’ room to her own, quickly stuffing her backpack with everything she could need, including a hairbrush and comb so she could be video/picture-perfect for her parent’s ol’ camcorder (why they had one of those old relics, even she didn’t know).
“Ready!” Noelle shouted, zipping her bag and dashing down the stairs– though was stopped by her father’s arm.
“Have you eaten breakfast yet?” he asked.
Noelle pondered lying, but the hesitation was answer enough for ol’ Rudy, as he handed her a plate of eggs and toast.
“Nutrition’s important to get that big brain of yours to work right for the spelling bee,” Rudy said with a smile.
Noelle didn’t realize how hungry she was until she started eating– and she was sure to thank her dad for thinking about her before she had to slip on her backpack again and head on out.
Today was going to be a good day, she could feel it. Summer was starting to settle into Hometown, but still had that springtime coolness to it with the perfectly vibrant sun and sky that Noelle loved to feel. The air felt especially clear in her lungs, a refreshing reminder that she really should be going outside more and not always having her face in a book locked in her room.
The bus arrived just as she got there and she took her usual seat number five, and pulled out the big list of words before giving Kris a quick smile before returning to her studies.
…Kris hadn’t talked to her much since Christmas. Hell– they didn’t talk to much of anyone except their parents and Asriel. Noelle would’ve reached out more, but she was more focused on her studies now and Kris didn’t ever seem to return the smiles anyway, so whatever.
Besides, she had a new friend… she thinks. His name was Berdly and he was an “academic type like her '' and so the two spent their recess time studying by the tree in the schoolyard whenever they could. It was nice to have a kid who understood and didn’t judge her for preferring to read instead of playing tag and “human hide and seek”-- whatever that really was. Besides, Berdly seemed to also appreciate the company and Noelle appreciated feeling appreciated.
Berdly walked to school though, so Noelle sat by herself on the bus. It wasn’t a long ride though, as they pulled up in about five minutes and then Noelle went straight to the auditorium so they could all practice how everything would go down before all the parents and press (the town really had no news going on ever) got there.
“Hey Noelle!” Berdly approached her as she set her backpack down in the music room attached to the auditorium.
“Hey Berdly,” Noelle smiled. “You ready for today?”
“With all the studying we’ve done I better be!” He laughed but she could tell he was still very, very stressed.
“You’ll do great, I know it,” She assured him with a pat on the arm. They would’ve chatted more but the teacher called for the rehearsal and so they paid plenty of attention– even though they were seated right next to each other. They were studious like that.
The rehearsal passed in the blink of an eye and before Noelle knew it, she was sitting by the mirror braiding and rebraiding her hair over and over again to make sure she looked perfect. By the time they took their seats, she still wasn’t quite satisfied, but knew she had to go, and so straightened out her collar one last time before dashing off with the others and taking her place in the third row with the sign on her chest that read 24 in big bold numbers.
The first round of words were a breeze. Honestly it felt like just a warm up– though one kid accidentally added too many ‘na’s to banana. The words Noelle had to spell were honesty, sushi, serious, another, birthday and she watched as more and more kids slipped up and had to walk off. She was really proud of Berdly though– he was doing great!
Eventually, it was even just the two of them.
The next few words were excitement, champion, intelligent, clever, and then–
“Number 24, your word is ‘December’.”
Noelle had known how to spell that since she knew how to spell– how could she not, it was her sister’s name– it had been her sister's name– no it still was.
Noelle’s throat was suddenly very, very dry– it hurt to breathe as her chest suddenly had a mysterious pain deep within.
“Do you need us to repeat the word?”
No, no, Noelle heard– Noelle heard perfectly clear.
Dess Holiday was a teenager, T-E-E-N-A-G-E-R, she loved baseball, B-A-S-E-B-A-L-L, she disappeared in a bunker, B-U-N-K-E-R, she was missing, M-I-S-S-I-N-G—
December was gone, G-O-N-E
Her breathing got worse, and her knees started to shake– god, when did these lights get so bright? She wiped the sweat from her forehead– catching glimpses of her classmates, her friends, her family, the newspapers– Oh jeez, she was disappointing all of them so much right now– why couldn’t she speak–! She knew how to spell December!
Her mother looked on while her father lowered the camcorder.
“Fifteen seconds remaining…”
Noelle once heard her mother calling Dess that after she flunked her second English test. It had hurt Dess a lot. She didn’t even storm off to the Dreemurr’s, she just went into her room and cried– Noelle could hear her through the walls. She had set her book aside and knocked on Dess’ door. She didn’t respond, so Noelle went in anyway, and after stepping over piles of clothes she reached her sister’s bed and after asking what was wrong Dess just smiled sadly and looked at her, fluffing her hair as she said, “You’re going to make Mom very proud one day, Noelle. I can’t wait to see that.” and she hugged her and they cuddled and hugged for the rest of the afternoon.
A terrible chill crawled up her despite still feeling very very hot. All she could do was stare at the microphone and feel– this? until the announcer said:
“Number 24, take your seat. Number 15, you’re up.”
Noelle wasn’t supposed to, but she walked off the stage, going into the wings and collapsing onto her knees.
December. Noun. the twelfth month of the year, in the northern hemisphere usually considered the first month of winter. Used in a sentence: "the fuel shortage worsened during December". Latin in origin from the root decem, which means “ten”.
December. Noun. The missing sister of Noelle Holiday, lost in a bunker underneath Hometown. Used in a sentence: “December is gone, Noelle, and she’s not going to come back any time soon.” Latin in origin from the root decem, which means “ten”.
She could hear applause coming from the audience, and Noelle realized she was kneeling right in the middle of the wings where anyone could find her– she had to go– she had to run or dash off or something– she was getting the hell out of here.
She found a good hiding spot in the old hot air balloon prop from when the school put on “Wizard of Oz” and decided to hide in there, throwing a few poppy flowers on top to make sure she was buried and her cries were muffled.
…She sat there for a long, long time with her knees to her chest sobbing.
December. Noun. A disappointing older sibling who’s mother never really appreciated her. Used in a sentence: “December Jacqueline Holiday do not lie to me, you’ve never worked a damn day in your life!” Carol Holiday in origin, stemming from the root of misunderstanding, which means they never got along.
Noelle sobbed and sobbed some more, starting to worry that nobody would find her, and that she’d spend the whole school day in here.
December. Noun. A sister Noelle Holiday misses very, very much and wished she got to spend more time with. Used in a sentence: “December, I miss you– I miss you so, so, so much– just come home, please!” Noelle Holiday in origin, stemming from the root “grief induced prayer”, which means Noelle was kneeling on Dess’ floor praying for her to return home to her a week after her original disappearance. It obviously didn’t work.
Noelle’s head started to spin as she sat there, and soon she felt she had to lay down or else she’d just– well, she didn’t know but her head felt like air and led at the exact same time, so it was easier to set it on the woven basket than to try and hold it up.
On the ground she didn’t feel much better, her tears now leaking out of corners of her eyes and the straw was far from comfortable, scratching and poking her with every jerky movement. It didn’t help her breathing that the basket also reeked of sweat and that straw smell, and the tissue paper flowers weren’t that great either.
“H-hello?” A voice eventually called out, but Noelle couldn’t be bothered to try and stop her weeping. She felt sick as she gasped for air and shook– she hadn’t ever felt such strong emotions before, but now she was just– feeling all of them. All at once. In school. Now with a stranger.
Wait no– that voice was familiar…
“Noelle, is that you? I won! You wanna see my crown?!”
Berdly had won since she basically forfeited over a stupid, simple word.
December. Noun. A month and a sister. Both in the past. In a sentence: “It’s been six months since December, you have to move on Noelle…” Carol Holiday in origin, coming from the root “my public image”.
“Noelle, i-is that you? Are you– okay?! Where are you?” Berdly must’ve noticed the sound of her crying.
Noelle tried breathing again, but still hated that awful stench. Her weeps did calm to more like hiccups, and while her head still felt like it was a plate on a stick, she sat up, pink poppies falling as she lifted her head. She didn’t tell him where she was though– she was a mess…
“I… If it is you, I just wanted to say thanks. I don’t really win at things… ever, but you helped me study and now I’m the champion! And… it was weird for you to give up like that, but thanks anyway– I owe you.”
Noelle wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
“Y-you’re wel-wel-welcome,” She could barely get the words out coherently.
“It is you! Why are you crying? Losing isn’t that bad, is it?” Berdly’s voice grew more concerned.
Noelle raised her knees to her chest.
“I-it’s not– a-abo-about th-th-that– I-i-i–”
“You sound really bad. Are you okay?” Berdly still couldn’t find her, and she could tell he was searching now.
Noelle shook her head, but of course he couldn't see it. All that managed to accomplish was getting her cute braids all caught up and pulled from their proper place.
“Do you want me to get a teacher?” Berdly asked.
“N-no, I’m f-fi-ne,” Noelle thought about the invisible clock of grief. It wasn’t cute or responsible of her to drop the ball like this.
A bit of silence. “Are… you sure?”
“Y-yeah, I’ll be out soon,” Noelle took a deep breath, still shaking with a tight chest pain, but her tears were at least calming a bit now.
“Okay… I’ll grab some cookies for you,” He promised before she heard a door closing confirming he left.
Noelle laid down again, curling into a little ball and waiting to see if anyone else would try and find her. Goodness knows everyone was probably talking about her and her family– maybe even causing problems with the judges who gave the word– her mother certainly would.
“December is the name of my daughter who died! How dare you ask her to spell that!”
Noelle could practically hear it already. She couldn’t imagine what Rudy was thinking though…
He was probably angry too, and a little disappointed too.
He had talked about how proud he was of her progress– to slip up like this…
Noelle wanted to lay here a little longer… especially as her eyes started feeling heavier and heavier…
She wasn’t sure how long she had closed her eyes when she heard the door swing open again.
“Noelle? Honey– are you here?”
Noelle took a poppy– a red one (like Dess’ favorite color) and crumpled it in her hand.
“Noelle? Honey, it’s okay– I checked you out– we can go home.”
Noelle didn’t want to go home. She wanted to stay here. She wanted to be lost forever, just like Dess.
Maybe that’s how she’d find her.
“Honey, we aren’t mad, it’s okay– second place is still very good! ‘Sides, your mother’s out in the lobby talking to the principal and Mrs. Amy, so it’s just me.”
He didn’t understand why she was here.
She started tearing the tissue of the flower, now even easier since she crumpled it.
“If… If this is about Dess…”
Now he got it.
“I… I’m sorry– your mother is asking why they didn’t think to remove that word. I’m sure the faculty feel horrible.”
Noelle was sure they did too, but she didn’t have the energy for that right now.
A bit of silence, except the tearing of tissue paper.
“Here’s an idea: How about you and I go grab some lunch, hm? Just some you and your ol’ man bonding time, how’s that sound?”
Noelle should’ve had more sister bonding time, but instead Dess was gone and Noelle was tearing apart red tissue paper folded and stapled to look like a flower.
“...I know I’m no Dess, but I’m not chopped liver, am I?” Rudy laughed a little. It wasn’t like his usual ones though, it was a lot sadder.
“N-no,” Noelle croaked, her throat once again dry.
Rudy chuckled. “I’m glad to hear you speak, kiddo. Mind telling me where in this maze of props you are?”
“I-I’ll be out in a sec…” Noelle didn’t want to, but she had a feeling her father wouldn’t stop until she did, and hearing him sad made her feel somehow even worse.
Rudy waited quietly for her, meaning Noelle really did have to force herself to get up, which felt almost impossible. Her arms and legs felt like noodles, her head spun around like a penny on those coin spinner things for charities, and her chest still had that lingering pain (which was the only part of this she was familiar with). She forced herself up though, leaning extra heavily on the basket and slowly making her way to her father, eyes glued on the ground.
“Oh honey…” He said, opening his arms, meaning she must’ve looked like a scene from a disaster movie.
Noelle hugged him.
“You want to go to QC’s?” He asked her, stroking her half-undone braids.
He kissed her head.
He took her hand and started to go, when Noelle pulled back, staying still.
“Yes honey?” He asked, kneeling down.
She looked at the ground.
“I… I still really… really miss her…”
Rudy cupped her cheek, making her look at his sad, tearful smile.
“You wanna know something, bucko?”
“I miss her every single day. I think your mother does too, though she’s much better at hiding it,” He wiped away a rogue tear.
“B-but my teachers and them all–”
“I know… it’s… it’s hard. People expect you to always be one hundred– but… it’s okay to not, okay? Just know that.”
Easier said than done.
“I-I just… I want to make Dess proud too,” Noelle sniffled.
“Noelle, she’s always been proud, and I bet wherever she is, she’s beaming with pride right now.”
That made Noelle rush for another hug, her tears resuming once more. This time it wasn’t a weep or a wail though– just… tears.
December. Noun. A loyal friend, a sister, a daughter who went missing on Christmas. Used in a sentence: “December, wherever you are, I hope you’re okay– I miss you, but it’s… it’ll be okay one day.” Noelle Holiday in origin, stemming from a much needed hug from her father in the prop area behind the stage and also an everlasting love for her dear missing sister.
Noelle took her father’s hand and walked out, knowing Dess would be proud.