Bernadette woke from a deep sleep to see two pairs of brown eyes peering at her. Abigail and Amber stood over her smiling. “Mom said you’d get us breakfast,” they said in unison.
She rubbed the sleep from her eyes, made her way to the bathroom and then to the kitchen. After much discussion they settled on Eggo waffles and fruit.
Bernadette found herself some bread for toast and made tea. She surveyed the small apartment, shaking her head at how grim it looked. There were few pictures on the wall, the furniture was old and looked like it had been recovered from garbage bins. She wondered just how bad off her aunt was.
She made sandwiches for the girls for lunch and one for herself, then threw her stuff into a small backpack and got ready for school. She dressed in black jeans, a black t-shirt, and pulled on her big boots with the heavy toecaps. At the last minute she threw on a denim jean jacket.
“You look tough,” Abigail said.
Bernadette smiled. “Yeah, you never want to look like the weakest wolf in the pack on your first day.”
“What does it mean?” Amber asked.
“It’s just something your Grandma Moses says,” Bernadette said.
They marched to the girl’s school. Bernadette dropped the girls off, making sure to introduce herself to the teachers so they knew she’d be picking them up after. A concerned look from the teacher had Bernadette giving them her aunt’s name and work phone number in case they wanted to check on her.
Fifteen blocks later Western High appeared. Her aunt had been way off about the distance. It was big, much bigger than Bernadette had ever attended. A large track and field bracketed the three-story brick structure surrounded by high fences. Bernadette had seen some better-looking prisons.
Cars and trucks stopped in front, jettisoning high school kids in various states of dress and attitude. Bernadette walked up the front steps, found her way to the administration office, and announced herself.
An officious looking lady with large glasses and a home dye job turned a strange green shade listened to Bernadette’s story before saying, “You’re transferring from where?”
“Lone Pine First Nations High,” Bernadette said in a confident tone. She didn’t expect anyone had ever heard of it or the little town of Fort Vermillion some twenty minutes’ drive from it.
The officious looking lady’s name was Ms. Shibanov, and she scowled at Bernadette. “Just a minute, let me get the school counselor.”
She was ushered into a small office with a trim-looking lady, approaching late thirties in a polyester pantsuit and a blonde ponytail stretched back so tight it looked painful. Trendy, wire-rim glasses with square lenses and a mild tint shaded her eyes, no ring adorned her finger; she tapped a pencil in her left hand. Bernadette had her pegged as a hopeless unmarried type with three cats at home.
Her desk plate read Ms. Blacksburg. “Do you have transcripts from your last school?” she asked.
“Ah . . . no . . .” Bernadette answered, “my transfer was kind of sudden . . .”
“You in some kind of trouble?” Blacksburg asked.
“No, you can check with Sergeant McNeil of the Fort Vermillion RCMP, I have no record, and I’ve never been charged with anything,” Bernadette said. She recited it almost as if she was a lawyer for a defendant.
Ms. Blacksburg jotted down the names of the school and Sergeant McNeil. “Please wait outside, Bernadette, I want to make some calls.”
Bernadette sat in the outer room. She sat as close to the door as she could to try to hear the telephone conversation. A faint murmur of conversation came through the door, but she couldn’t make anything out.
Numerous scenarios rocketed through her brain. Had the Cardinal boys convinced the RCMP to file charges? Did they find some kids from town to go along with their stupid story? Should she run? Head for the bus station? Where would she run to, who would hide her?
The counselor opened the door. She had a smile on her face. “Come on in, Bernadette, everything’s fine.”
Bernadette came in and sat down across from the counselor. Relief washed over her. It almost made her feel dizzy.
“RCMP officer McNeil explained the situation,” Blacksburg said and then paused. “You do seem to have a penchant for trouble, young lady—you think you’ll continue it here?” Her eyebrows knitted into an accusing frown with the words.
“Ah, no I don’t think so, there were some problems there . . . some of the people there . . .”
“—Didn’t like you because you weren’t a true first nations status Cree?”
“Yes, I’m Métis, my mother was Cree and my father Irish. Some people on the reservation didn’t like my mix . . .” Bernadette said.
“And both your parents have passed away?” Ms. Blacksburg said. The way she said it, Bernadette knew she’d gotten the complete low down from her old school.
“Yes, my grandma took care of me on the reservation after my parents’ . . . ah . . . death, and I’m living with my Aunt Mary now, her last name is Landry.” Bernadette said.
Ms. Blacksburg made notes, having already produced a file folder for Bernadette with a student number. She looked up at Bernadette, her eyes going into her already-familiar frown. “You realize how difficult it will be transferring from a first nations school to a Canadian public school, don’t you?”
Bernadette smiled weakly. “I’ve been transferring to and from first nations to public schools since grade four. I realize there’s a big difference, and I’ve been able to keep up. I was in public school in 94, taking my grade ten. Here are my marks from that school.”
She took her marks from her backpack and handed them to Ms. Blacksburg, who perused them before finally saying, “You did very well there. An A student; it’s too bad you moved around so much.”
She didn’t want to explain how many times she’d moved from town to town with her parents. Sometimes they’d settle in a town, and then her father would drop her off at grandma’s house for a year or so while he “sorted things out,” which meant he went on a massive drunk, while her mother tried to get him sober.
“Here’s the courses you’ll be taking,” Ms. Blacksburg said. “You shouldn’t have a problem with these; however, math will be tougher this year. Decide on your electives, and we’ll get you started tomorrow.”
Bernadette studied the list. There was Math, English, Social Studies, Chemistry, and French. She’d have to fill in some Physical Education and an arts course to round it out, but it was doable.
“Did your aunt or grandma give you money for books?” Ms. Blacksburg asked.
“Not as yet . . . I’ll have to get it,” Bernadette said. She didn’t want to meet her gaze. Her grandma had the money for her bus fare. Aunt Mary was barely keeping the squalid apartment over their heads.
“Well, here’s a list of the books. The bookstore down the hall has some used editions on at a reasonable price. If you need assistance you come back and see me. We do have a student aide program.”
“Thanks, I won’t be needing the aide.” Bernadette said. She’d already seen her source of income on the way into school.
“Fine, here is your temporary student card. You’ll need to get your picture taken for your permanent one, your homeroom is with Ms. Prefontaine in 3011, and you’ll start tomorrow morning. Any questions?” Ms. Blacksburg said.
“None at all,” Bernadette said. She smiled and walked out of the office, winking at Ms. Shibanov. She had her class schedule and book list. It took her a moment to orient herself in this big school, but she made her way towards the parking lot and found the thing she was looking for. A poker game. To her it was better than a bank machine—it gave out unlimited cash.
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