My name is Berni--short for Bernadette--which means “brave as a bear.” But I’m not a bear. And I’m not brave. Bella is my best friend. She should have my name because she’s the bravest person I know. She carries caterpillars in her pockets. (I scream when I see an inchworm.)
“Don’t you hate the creepy-crawly feeling?” I ask.
“No, they’re soft and furry,” says Bella. “I’m waiting for them to turn into butterflies and fly away.”
Bella will try any food. She even eats squid.
“Would you like some?” she asks, dangling a piece in my face.
My stomach does a flip-flop. “No thanks. I won’t eat any food that swims.”
Once, Bella got my lunch money back from Dirk, the meanest boy in third grade. She yelled, “There’s a bee on your head,” then smacked the invisible bee with her notebook, grabbed my money, and ran.
Bella is not afraid of the dark, or ghosts in the closet. I go to bed with a flashlight under my pillow and sneakers on my feet. Just in case. Bella pets dogs that are as big as a horse. (Well, almost.) I freeze like a scared bunny ’til they pass.
Once she had a tug-of-war with a bulldog and said to me, “Don’t be afraid. He’s a sweetie.”
But the bulldog growled, and I said, “No thanks. I’m good over here.”
Bella played Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz at school and remembered all of her lines. I played a tree and stuttered, “She w-w-went that w-w-way.”
Bella tried to teach me to be brave. At the park, she said, “Slide down the fire pole and I’ll catch you.”
I thought about it (for two seconds) and said, “No thanks. I’ll slide down the slide.”
Once I almost climbed to the top of the crooked maple tree after Bella. I reached the second branch . . . but needed a ladder to get down.
Then Bella got sick. One day she told me, “I need an operation. Don’t worry, you can’t catch it.”
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say, “I’m not worried, but what if ?”
Then she went to the hospital. It was the first time Bella said, “I’m scared.”
“You don’t have to be brave now,” I assured her. “I’ll be brave for you.”
“I know you will,” Bella said. “You’re Berni, brave as a bear.”
We both giggled. As I watched her drive away, I prayed: “God, please help Bella.” I watched until the tail lights on her minivan shrunk to pin-size dots and finally disappeared past a dirt hill. It reminded me of Mom saying there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Never made sense to me.
The next day, Bella’s mom called. She said the operation worked, but the doctor had to shave off Bella’s hair. What would it be like to have a bald friend? I wondered.
At the hospital, I handed Bella a bouquet of white and pink carnations with cherry lollipops and smiley faces peeking through.
Bella’s face lit up. “Thanks. They’re happy flowers.” She didn’t have hair, but she had the same smile. Her hand had a thin tube attached, but her nails still had chipped bubble-gum-pink polish. Bella covered her head with a white scarf sprinkled with yellow daisies. I tried not to stare.
“Thanks for being brave for me,” she said.
I didn’t feel brave. But for two weeks I watched black and yellow striped caterpillars crawl up the maple tree, and I thought of Bella. I sat on the first twisted branch every day after school, waiting.
When Bella came home she still didn’t have hair and looked too tired to climb, but that was okay. “Yeah! You’re back,” I screamed in a super-duper, louder-than-loud voice. Then I gave Bella a big bear hug.
A week later, we skipped to class wearing matching scarves tied on our heads. Dumb Dirk reached for Bella’s scarf, but I jumped in front of her. “You stay away from my friend,” I growled. Then I took hold of Bella’s arm, and together we turned and stomped away from Dirk—bear style. Maybe there is a light at the end.
“Do you want to hunt for caterpillars later?” Bella asked. “You could use a jar.”
I thought about watching one change into a butterfly. “Okay, but I don’t need a jar. I’ve got pockets.”
Bella smiled. She’s my best friend, and we’re both brave.