Bernadine had red hair. Red hair and blue eyes. Blue eyes like water, so light and translucent, you could almost see her brain. Her mom used to say, “What are you thinking, Miss Molly, I can see the gears whirring inside that pretty little head of yours!” And then she would laugh. Her mom’s laugh sounded like bluebells and warm summer days and chickadees.
Bernadine would stare at herself sometimes in the mirror with her eyes open wide while she thought about the hardest math problems she knew to see if she could see the gears whirring. She thought about how to spell encyclopedia. She tried to remember all the names of the provinces in alphabetical order….backwards. But she couldn’t see anything but her own reflection in the glass and then her eyes would start to water and the Bernadine-in-the-mirror would look all fuzzy and weird until she rubbed her eyes tight.
When Bernadine was 7, her mom got a ticking heart. A clicking, clacking, misfiring ticking heart that sometimes would get all balled up. Her mom said that she was like a piano – a little out of tune, that’s all. She said her heart was banging when it should have been beating and clanking when it should have been thumping. It didn’t hurt her, she said. Nothing could hurt her, she said. Good golly, Miss Molly, your mom is just fine! Her heart is just a little finicky, that’s all. Now go outside and play…but don’t go into those woods.
It was on a Sunday that her mother’s heart was the finickiest of all. Bernadine’s mother was making supper – the kind of supper she always made on a Sunday…roast chicken with crispy crunchy skin and hot melted-buttery mashed potatoes. There were always turnips and carrots, which Bernadine hated but had to eat. Bernadine knew a special trick though. She put a forkful of disgusting turnip into her mouth and then quickly took a mouthful of Kool-Aid at the same time to kill the taste. It almost always worked, but it never made them taste good.
This Sunday was different though.
This Sunday, her mom put the chicken in the oven but then said she was a little tired and thought she might go and lay down on the couch for a bit. Dad was going to watch the chicken and if Bernadine was quiet, Mom said she could help mash the potatoes later and maybe they would try putting a little brown sugar on the turnips like Bernadine’s dad said Nana used to do for him when he was little.
Dad had made a face at Bernadine behind Mom’s back “Blech. I hated turnip!” which made Bernadine giggle.
Bernadine’s mother never got up again.
She was gone. Forever and ever.
Bernadine was in her room building mansions for her dolls out of some old boxes her mom had let her have. She was sticking pretty paper in the master bedroom so it could have the fancy wallpaper when she heard her dad saying her mom’s name. “Marie…Marie…Marie? Marie! What…why…Marie!!” His voice was getting louder and he sounded worried which made Bernadine feel scared in her stomach in a way that she had never felt before. Her tummy turned cold and jumpy and her throat felt like no air could come in or out. She started to go into the living room but then she saw that her dad was kneeling down on the floor beside the couch where her mom was sleeping and he was crying.
Her dad was crying.
And her mom wasn’t moving. “Dad?” It came out as a whisper, a whimper, a barely there breath. “Daddy?” She sunk down to sit on her bum with her back against the wall in the doorway to the living room and she put her head between her knees. In her mind, she started to count backwards from 100…99…98…97 and when that was too easy, she tried to count backwards by 5’s. That was harder. Don’t think about Mom, this isn’t happening. 95. Everything is going to be ok. 90. Dad will fix her, her heart is just throwing a tantrum. 85. Good golly, Miss Molly, don’t think anymore…just count.