Bernadette had scoped the school before she’d entered the administration office. She saw the groups to watch out for. Those dressed in the torn jeans and plaid shirts with leather jackets were the grunge group. They were all fashion and nothing to worry about.
A small group of kids dressed in black jeans, black t-shirts, and denim jackets with big boots looked tough, and scary. When she’d walked by she’d seen all eyes on her, checking her out; was she a threat? Could she be taken into their group or taken out?
Her goal was to keep her distance from them for as long as possible until she could find some allies. Someone to guard her back when this group came looking for her, and she knew they would.
Bernadette avoided the scary group and made her way out a back door to where she’d seen some girls playing cards. She’d been playing poker since she was six years old. Her dad, Dominic Callahan, had taught her the ropes and was astonished at how quickly she caught on.
She was a natural card counter and could read the tell on another’s face like a map. “She’s a natural!” Her father would call out to her mother as Bernadette once again bluffed with a pair of twos.
“Don’t make it look too easy,” her father would say. “You need the marks to think you’re sweating a bit, raise the stakes slowly, then go for the kill.”
Bernadette approached the girls on the ground. “Whatcha playing?”
A large girl with big glasses looked up. “What’s it look like, dumb ass. We’re playing poker.”
“Oh,” Bernadette said, “I’ve played poker a few times.”
“You wanna join us?” a small girl in jeans and sweatshirt said. She elbowed the big girl and said something to her. The big girl giggled.
“You want to play?” the large girl asked. She did it nonchalantly, as if it meant nothing to her, but there was a look around the other two in the group they’d found a mark.
“Sure,” Bernadette said, adding a shrug as if she had nothing else to do than get fleeced by these three. She sat on the ground, watching their eyes as they picked up the cards they were dealt.
Big girl picked up her cards. Her eyes narrowed to focus on Bernadette, “This is five card draw, it’s five dollars for the opening bet.”
Bernadette suppressed a smile. Most groups tried to reel her in slow, like a dollar in, and a two-dollar raise. These girls were greedy.
She let them think they had her for the first few hands. Huffing out her breath and holding her hand to her forehead in feigned concentration, she watched them as they become bolder with their bets.
When the pot had hit one hundred dollars, she drew a full house. “I think my cards are better than yours, am I right?” she asked in mock surprise.
“Goddam rookie,” the large girl said.
Bernadette made a weak smile and threw in a shrug to mask her surprise. The next hand she’d been dealt nothing. She took two draws and still nothing. This was now her main game, bluffing.
The other girls were watching her intently. Bernadette let her eyes grow wider at each draw, saying nothing but trying to mask her delight at some cards she supposedly had.
The other girls ran the pot to fifty dollars then folded. Bernadette didn’t let them see the cards she’d been dealt, she didn’t have to. But she also knew she was done for now with this group of marks.
“I need to go, girls, I’ve got to get my books before the store closes. Thanks for the card lesson. Hopefully I’ll come back and you can teach me some more.”
There were mutterings from the girls as she left the parking lot. Bernadette tried not to laugh out loud. They’d be good for a least a month before they caught on.
She ran back into the school, found the bookstore, and shelled out sixty bucks for the five used textbooks, a notebook, pencils, and a lock for her locker. A glance at the clock showed her she still how an hour to kill before she picked up her cousins.
The school needed some checking out. She stashed her books in her locker and decided to have a look around. She’d never been in such a large place before. After walking down the long hallways, she had an idea where her homeroom would be, then a trip to the ground floor revealed the gym, which reminded her she’d need gym shoes and shorts.
Bernadette decided she’d seen enough of the school and decided to walk back to her cousins’ school. She pushed through the big outside doors and ran straight into the scary group.
The hair on Bernadette’s neck stood on end. Her fists clenched. She continued walking.
“Hey, you, with the red hair and boots, I’m talking to you.”
There was no way she was going to get away from this group. There were five of them, three girls and two guys. Cigarette smoke billowed from their midst, their eyes glaring through the mass of hair hanging down over their foreheads.
Bernadette stopped and turned. “You like my boots? I got these last year at the Army and Navy store, pretty rad, huh?”
A stocky, dark-haired girl made her way from the group. She’d decided to be the challenger. “Don’t be smart with me, bitch.”
Bernadette smiled. “Sorry, but I don’t know you, so kind of wondered what the fuss is about.” Her first defense would be tact. Her father always said to try to reason with an “ijidt”, which was Irish for idiot.
“Fuss, you want to know the fuss?” the dark-haired girl said. “You’re wearing our colours. You got that? No one comes to this school wearing our rags without paying respect.”
“Oh, sorry. Look, I’m new here, just arrived, so I didn’t know the code,” Bernadette said.
“You better know it, bitch, and learn it fast, otherwise I’m like to be laying a whopping upside your head,” the dark-haired girl said. The girl wore tight black jeans, black t-shirt barely covering her midriff, and a jean jacket. Chains jingled on her black boots when she walked. Her face was broad with a ring in her nose and one above her eye. Bad make-up highlighted the blemishes on her face.
Bernadette suppressed a grin. This girl was trying to sound like a gang member from East Los Angeles; had no one told her she lived in Northern Canada?
“Okay, got it, thank you,” Bernadette said. She turned and continued walking down the steps and onto the sidewalk.
“Hey, waitaminute. I ain’t don talkin’ wiff you yet.” The dark-haired girl said.
Bernadette stopped and cringed. The girl was now acting out some gangsta rap fantasy in front of her friends. She could either play along with it or make a stand.
The girl came jogging up to her, out of breath. It annoyed her she had to catch up to Bernadette to berate her more. She looked left and right at her pack to see if she was doing the right thing. They were watching with interest—nothing like a girl fight to round out a boring afternoon of cutting classes.
Bernadette turned and faced the girl. “Look, I have places to go, I have to pick up my little cousins from school. How about we do this another time?”
The dark-haired girl’s head shot back. “What you saying? Do what another time? You want to mess with me later. No way, bitch, we do this now.”
How Bernadette had stepped into a fight with this girl she wasn’t sure. But unless she wanted to get slapped around, she needed to stand her ground. She dropped her backpack to the ground and put her arms by her sides in a nonchalant stance. She wanted to show disdain for the girl—not fear.
“What do you want to do now . . . bitch?” Bernadette said. She had her right foot poised. Ready to spring forward and kick her in the leg and follow with a quick shot to the nose. It was her best move.
The dark haired girl closed on her. “You should know better—”
The next thing Bernadette knew, she was on the ground with the wind knocked out of her. The girl had punched her hard in the stomach.
“Didn’t see that coming, did you, bitch,” the dark-haired girl said. She turned to her gang. “See, that’s what I wanted to talk to her about.”
“Way to go, Susie, you taught her,” a boy from the group laughed.
Bernadette lay on her side, her hands clutched to her stomach. The gang moved in on her. A boot landed in her back. She cried out in pain.
“All right. Back away. Now!”
“Ah, shit, it’s the cop, let’s roll,” Susie said.
A shadow came over Bernadette. “You can get up now.”
Bernadette looked up to see a policewoman standing over her, extending her hand. She got up on her own. Being saved by the police was bad enough; having one help her up looked even worse.
“Thanks,” Bernadette said. “I could have handled myself . . .”
“Yeah, I saw you had them where you wanted them. I was waiting for the moment when you were going to leap up all ninja style and take them out,” the policewoman said.
Bernadette dusted herself off, smiled at the policewoman. She was a little taller than her with sandy blonde hair and bright blue eyes. There was a presence to her, though whether it was her physique or attitude, Bernadette couldn’t tell, but it gave off a don’t mess with me kind of vibe.
“Thanks,” Bernadette said. “I guess I bit off a little more than I could chew with them.”
“Oh, yeah. My name’s Constable Linda Myers . . . and you are?”
“You new here? Don’t think I’ve seen you before.”
“Just arrived today. I came to live with my Aunt Mary and attend high school here. I’m from Lone Pine Reservation School near Fort Vermillion. Nobody’s ever heard of it, it’s kind of close to High Level . . . but then some people have never heard of it that place either . . .” Bernadette said. She had no idea why she was giving the officer all this information. Maybe it was the stress from the fight or she needed someone to talk to.
“Sure, I know Fort Vermillion. I was on a canoe trip up there, fishing for Arctic Grayling and Northern Pike. It’s beautiful country,” Myers said.
Bernadette stood there for a moment and realized how awkward it was for her to be talking to a policewoman. Other kids were stopping and looking. Across the street, in their cars, they were all watching her. Was she about to make a complaint? What was she doing talking to a cop?
“I gotta go . . . thanks for the help,” Bernadette said.
“You’re welcome,” Constable Myers said. She looked around; she could see the other kids watching and knew she didn’t have much time with Bernadette. “Look, you need to know something. Those kids will come after you again.”
“So. I can handle myself.”
“Not from what I saw.”
“Next time I’ll know better. I’ll defend myself better.”
Constable Myers shook her head. “I hope you got something better in your repertoire than your boots . . . if you lose the boots and change your clothes, they might leave you alone.”
“Here’s the deal, they’re a gang. They all dress in big black boots and black pants and shirts. To them you’re wearing their uniform. You either join them or they beat you until you change what you’re wearing,” Constable Myers said.
“You think I should play chicken. I should run?” Bernadette asked.
“No, it’s not chicken, it’s called being smart. No one ever said to wave a red cape at a bull that wasn’t in the ring. Why not give your bad girl look a rest? Come to school in some running shoes and jeans,” Myers said. She looked in the direction the gang was walking. “Then you can outrun them. The way they smoke, you’d outdistance them in the first fifty metres.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Bernadette said. She turned and walked away. She didn’t walk fast. There was a pace she needed, it showed she was leaving but at her own speed, still unbroken, not beaten. There would be another day. She knew it would be soon.
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