The day that Bernadine ventured into the woods across the street was the same day that she said no to Charlotte. The morning had started off the same as any other for Bernadine. She had been dreaming about her mom. That happened a lot ever since that day her mom went away forever and ever. Bernadine didn’t mind though. It was kind of like Mom was visiting. Most nights, Bernadine could not wait to get into bed and fall asleep and hope that Mom would be there, waiting for her. Sometimes they did funny things, like make snowmen out of whipped cream and sometimes they just walked in the park or rode bikes (which was kind of funny, because Bernadine didn’t even know if her mom could ride a bike) but the dreams always ended the same way. Bernadine was always a little panicky at the end of the dream, like she sensed morning was coming and that Mom would float away again. The end of the dream was always like a game, a scary game because there was always something she had to find to give to Mom so she could stay but Bernadine could never find it in time. One night it was a red balloon but all the balloons kept floating away as soon as she went to reach for them. Another night it was a smooth pebble on a beach full of sand. Every time she would see the pebble, the sand would shift silently and take the pebble further away from her. This time, it was a leaf…a golden leaf but it was high up on a maple tree. At first, Bernadine was happy because if there was something Bernadine was good at, it was climbing trees. Good Golly Miss Molly you must be part monkey girl her mom would say. Bernadine looked up in the tree and saw the gold leaf glittering at the top, standing out amongst the reds and yellows of the fall leaves. It didn’t even look that high. Bernadine had felt a thrill of excitement in her belly. She could do this one. She could get that leaf. Then Mom could stay here forever and ever.
Excitedly, Bernadine had wrapped her skinny arms and legs around the trunk of that maple tree and started to scurry up it. Hold on tight, scooch up a bit, hold on tight again. She was going fast. She looked down, she was so high…she could feel the rustle of leaves all around her, she would be at the top any second now…she looked up…but suddenly the top was so much higher than it was before. It was like the stupid tree was growing as fast as she was climbing. In fact, it was growing faster than she could climb it. BUT THAT’S NOT FAIR she said. You are not playing fair. The bark was scratching her bare arms and the branches were getting tangled in her hair, slowing her down. She was trying her best not to cry and trying so hard to climb fast, she was running out of time…and then she woke up in her own bed, tangled in her sheets and her pillow was wet from crying.
And her mom was gone.
Bernadine got out of bed and pulled out her clothes. Her mom used to set her clothes out for her and knew what she needed for each day. On gym day, she would lay out her gym clothes and she always remembered that the third Friday of every month was pj day so she would lay out Bernadine’s favorite pajamas with the princesses and frogs. Her dad did not remember what day was which though. Sometimes he forgot Bernadine even had school that day. Ever since Mom went away, her dad was quiet and liked to sleep a lot. He slept on the big chair in the living room. He never slept in his bed anymore. Bernadine thought maybe it was because their room made him think of Mom. It made her think of her mother. The clothes in the closet still smelled like her. Sometimes Bernadine would just sit on the floor of her mom’s closet, close her eyes tight and breathe her in, remembering. But she didn’t do that a lot. She only did that when she was really sad. She was scared that maybe there was only so much of Mom’s smell left in the closet and she didn’t want to breathe it all in at once. She needed to save some of it for the really bad, really sad days.
So on this bright, sunny morning, Bernadine got dressed all by herself and headed out to the kitchen. There were no happy smells of bacon frying or coffee percolating in the pot. Percolating was a funny word. The whole house was quiet a lot of the time now. Her dad was up already, sitting at the kitchen table, a glass of water in front of him, his hair all messy and just woke up looking. He smiled sadly at Bernadine and then looked back at the window like he was waiting for someone to come.
Bernadine poured herself a bowl of cereal with just a smattering of milk. She hated milk. It made her throat sticky. Her mom would say not to put sugar on that cereal, it was already called Sugar Puffs, Good Golly Miss Molly, her teeth would rot out! Bernadine poured a heaping tablespoon of sugar on her cereal. She glanced over at her dad but he was still looking out the window, tapping one finger on the table quietly, busy not noticing her. She took a second big spoonful of sugar and dumped it on the cereal. The sugar crunched in her teeth and made her happy for a second or two.
The bus would be coming soon. Her mom used to come outside and stand on the front step to watch her get on the bus. Her dad doesn’t though. He just waves from the window…or at least, that’s what Bernadine pretends when she gets on the bus and finds a seat. She doesn’t know if he really waves from the window. She’s not sure if he even notices that she left the house, even though the door always slams behind her. Bernadine liked the big yellow bus with its rumbling sounds and big slippery smooth seats. She loved that she didn’t have to wear a seatbelt on the bus. Her best friend Ollie always saved her a seat because he got on the bus before her. Bernadine would get on the bus and he would shout “Bernie! Bernie!” and then she would see him perched on the outside edge of the big bus seat, waiting to slide his legs to the side so she could sit by the window. The best part of the bus ride was when the bus went around a corner sharp and fast and Bernadine and Ollie would slip slide all across the seat, running into each other and squishing up against the window, giggling. But the very best part of the bus ride was if the bus was going fast enough when it hit the big bump outside the Ballem’s house and everyone would fly up into the air and come down with a thump. Some of the bigger kids even hit their heads on the roof of the bus!
All of that was still fun, maybe not as much fun as before Mom went away, but…still fun.
When Bernadine got on the bus that morning, she looked for Ollie but she didn’t seem him. She listened for Ollie but she didn’t hear his squeaky excited voice. There were no skinny legs sticking out of the bus seat waiting to let Bernadine in. The bus driver called out “C’mon Bernadine, find a seat now” and Bernadine realized she was going to have to sit all by herself. She slid into an empty seat and pushed herself over to the window. Ollie must be home sick today. Bernadine hoped he didn’t have a ticking-clicking heart like her mom.