“Aren’t you a little bit curious?” Chuck asked. “No one would ever know if I had a look.”
Curled up in bed with a warm quilt, Bernie ignored her friend’s whispers, watching the trees outside cast shadows on her bedroom window. It didn’t feel like Christmas without snow but Mommy said it didn’t snow here, not even in the winter. They had to make an adjustment.
“Come on. One tiny peek,” Chuck wheedled.
Bernie rolled over to glare at him. “I told you, I want it to be a surprise.”
“Okay, don’t blow your wig.” Chuck wavered, his body going translucent for a moment before solidifying again. “But what if Shawna got you something stupid and educational?”
“Mommy always makes sure I have good presents. Even when I was in the hospital, she brought me my doll.” Bernie hugged the rag doll close. She didn’t like remembering the hospital, full of crazy people. It smelled in there, sweaty and stinky, no matter how much they cleaned the rooms. They were mean, insisting that Chuck was a figment of her imagination. Now Mommy and Shawna understood and Bernie didn’t have to take the horrible medicine that made her head hurt and her tummy want to throw up.
Her bedroom door opened and Mommy came in. “Hey, Bernie-pie. What are you still doing up?”
“Chuck is being difficult. He won’t let me sleep.” Bernie sat up in bed.
“I see.” Her mother sat down on the bed and ran her cool fingers through Bernie’s tangled hair.
“I’m not being difficult!” Chuck shouted.
“Are too!” Bernie shouted back.
“Hey now. It sounds like you two are having a fight. What’s wrong?” Mommy tucked Bernie underneath one arm. She was getting too big for cuddles, but it still felt good sometimes.
“He wants to look at my presents,” Bernie muttered.
“Chuck, that doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that friends do.”
Bernie giggled. Mommy was talking to the empty air by the dresser instead of to Chuck, who squatted near the window. He was making faces at her, twisting his mouth with his fingers and sticking out his tongue.
Mommy looked down at her, frowning. Bernie abruptly stopped laughing.
“We had a deal, Chuck. No more telling Bernie to do bad things and getting her into trouble.” Mommy lectured the dresser again.
“It’s not fair. I just wanted to have a look.”
Bernie told her mother what Chuck had said, adding. “But he didn’t listen when I said no.”
“I see. Can you ask Chuck to come here?”
“He can hear you, Mommy.” Bernie waited until Chuck moved closer. “He’s beside the bed, near my pillow.”
This time Mommy looked in the right direction. “All right. Here’s what I think is happening. It’s been a long time since you had a Christmas, isn’t it, Chuck?”
He nodded sullenly. He’d been dead for a long time. Bernie couldn’t quite remember how long, but he remembered still seeing horses on the street instead of cars.
“I bet you miss your family at this time of year,” her mother continued.
Chuck crossed his arms and pouted. Bernie looked up at her mother. “But his family was mean to him. They left him all alone.”
“Even when family doesn’t understand and even when they hurt us, we still miss them, Bernie-pie. Our hearts don’t shut off that easily.” Her mother’s hug wrapped around her. “But Chuck is forgetting that he’s not all alone.”
Mommy laughed, a light chuckle that Bernie hadn’t heard since she first started talking to Chuck. “There are the families we’re born into and then there are the families we find. Chuck is part of our family now. Which is why there’s a special present waiting downstairs for him to open in the morning.”
“There is?” Chuck started to flicker as if he was going to go peek.
“Stay here. You have to wait until morning. That’s the family rules,” Bernie scolded.
“She’s right, Chuck.” Mommy smiled. “And the other part of the family rules is taking care of each other. So you need to let Bernie get a good night’s sleep.”
Chuck went solid again. “Tell her I will.”
Bernie passed on the message.
“Thank you, Chuck. I knew I could count on you.” Mommy smiled again and blew a kiss at Chuck. He smiled back, his big mouth stretching even wider.
“Get some rest so that you’re both ready for Christmas morning.” Mommy tucked Bernie in and gave her a kiss. “Sweet dreams.”
After Mommy closed the door, Bernie let her sleepy eyes roll shut.
“Bernie?” Chuck whispered.
“What?” Bernie yawned.
“Do you really think I’m family?”
“Of course you are. You’re like my big brother. You’re annoying and sometimes we fight, but I still love you and I’d miss you if you were gone.” Bernie kept her eyes firmly closed and her hands tucked under the covers.
“I had a big brother.” Chuck’s voice grew closer and clearer. He was always easier to understand when he calmed down. “He worked at the clip joint down the street. He used to hum these jazz songs and Ma would get mad, sayin’ it was disrespectful devil music.”
Slumber plucked at Bernie with heavy fingers, lulling her mind into quiet.
“They didn’t wait for me.”
Bernie’s eyes popped open. Chuck sat at the end of her bed, staring toward the window. She sat up. “What?”
He turned to face her, his eyes dark hollows in his face. “After the fire, they didn’t wait for me. Ma and Pa moved to San Francisco and Billy got married with some kids. When they died, they didn’t come find me.”
She didn’t know what to say. When the bad people took her last year, it had been super scary and she’d been all alone. But Mommy and the others had kept looking and they’d found her. Daddy never tried to find you. He just left. Even before all the really bad stuff, he’d left.
“Would you wait for me?” Chuck asked.
That was a question she knew the answer to. “Sure. That’s what families do.”
“I knew I could count on you, Bernie.” He smiled and patted her shoulder, his hand passing right through and leaving cold tingles behind. “Your mom’s right. You should sleep. Tomorrow’s gonna be a big day.”
Car lights flashed across the ceiling and both of them froze. Chuck vanished and Bernie reached down to grab her backpack beside the bed. Before she could pick it up, he reappeared.
“Just a cab dropping off one of the neighbors.”
Her chest puffed and deflated in a big sigh. Having to run in the middle of the night sucked. And if they had to do it tonight, she’d have to leave all of her Christmas stuff behind. Then there wouldn’t be presents, or cookies for breakfast. Shawna wouldn’t sing her French songs and let them sneak butter tarts before dinner. And Mommy would stop laughing.
“Hey, don’t worry there, Bernie. I’ll keep watch and make sure nobody gets a drop on us.” He flickered from the bed to the window, staring out past the tree to the street below.
Bernie curled up under her covers and stared at him, a thin boy with too short pants and suspenders. In the moonlight, he looked as if he were made of glass. She could see through him but he also caught the light around the edges. He wouldn’t need to sleep or go to the bathroom. He’d stay there until morning, making sure they were safe. A big yawn crawled out between her lips and she closed her eyes, suddenly too exhausted to do more than whisper. “Thanks, Chuck.”
“Don’t worry about it, Bernie. It’s what families do.”
This story takes place between Metamorphosis and Inquisition, but you can enjoy another of Bernie's adventures in Rose on the Grave. Join me for Martha's story in Judgment, coming in 2018. Sign up for my newsletter and you'll be the first to see the new cover and know when Judgment will be released.