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Invisible Smoke

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Serena felt uncomfortably out of place in the church that Marcus had chosen for Bernie's funeral. The venue was the complete opposite of who Bernie was, and she tried hard to fight down the urge to frown or yell or otherwise be a nuisance. After all, Marcus hadn't wanted her to be there in the first place, and it had taken Cameron and Charlotte strong-arming him to get him to relent. Still, she had put on her best suit and blouse, applied enough makeup to make certain that no one would see how pale her face was, nor the dark circles beneath her eyes, and tried to hold her head high as she was shown by Cameron to a spot in the very last pew, as if Marcus considered her to be beneath even sitting in close proximity to the family.

"I'm so sorry, Serena. If it were up to me, you'd be sitting with us. Charlie doesn't think it's fair, either, but we hope that you don't take it as a reflection on us."

"I completely understand, Cameron. And if there's not a wake afterwards, perhaps we could go out for a meal and drinks?"

"I like that idea better than following Dad back home. I'll convince Charlie to come with us, too. You were more important to Mum at the end." He grimaced a little and Serena nodded, reaching out to squeeze his upper arm lightly. "I need to get up there, Serena. We'll see you in a little bit."

She nodded and watched him head to the front of the small church, giving his father a small glare before taking a seat next to his sister, slinging his arm around her shoulders and visibly scooting away from their father as a minister approached the dais and the organist finished the song she was playing. To her shame, Serena found herself thinking about her time with Bernie, how much she had loved her, and how things had ended over a selfish, stupid, thing she had done. She thought about how her heart had broke the moment Bernie had stepped out of the doorway at Albie's, and she knew that she still loved the woman deeply. So deeply that she knew that this entire thing was a farce. There was no way that Alex was right, that Bernie was truly gone. There was no body, there never had been one found, just some body armour that supposedly belonged to Bernie, and only one military official coming to the hospital to inform Cameron that his mother was missing. They hadn't even bothered to send another official to inform them of the fact that Bernie had been declared missing, presumed dead. And Alex hadn't helped matters by informing Serena that Bernie had been engaged to her.

Her lower lip wobbled a little as quick tears came to her eyes. Still, she refused to cry, not in public, not when people who didn't understand her relationship with Bernie, or how she could still be in love with her, even after everything that had transpired between them. "Dammit," she whispered as two tears slipped out of her eye, and Serena reached up as surreptitiously as she could to brush them away without ruining her makeup.

Finally, the farce of a funeral came to an end, and Serena slipped out of the church to dart around to the side of the building, pulling out the pack of cigarettes she had broken down and bought before coming there. She hadn't bought a lighter, as if she knew that she shouldn't go through with the act of smoking one, but still, she wanted to have a physical reminder of Bernie in her hands. "I have a light, if you want?"

She looked up to see Charlotte standing there, a blank look on her face. "I don't really want to smoke these, it's just…"

"Mum smoked that brand, and you wanted to feel closer to her. I get it. I don't smoke often, but I picked up a pack of those the day Cameron called to inform me that Mum was missing."

Serena nodded as she slipped the cigarettes back into her purse before holding out her hand to the young woman. Charlotte shook her head before closing the distance between them and hugging her tightly. "I miss her so much, Charlotte."

"I can only imagine. Cameron told me that you were devastated when Alex waltzed into the hospital and declared herself as Mum's one true love. I hope you know that that is the furthest thing from the truth. Mum considered you to be the great love of her life."

She rubbed her lips together as Cameron ambled over towards them, that same flat look on his face as had been on Charlotte's, and she welcomed him over to her side, holding up her other arm. It wasn't surprising when he stepped close, allowing her to close her arm around his shoulders as well. Though they couldn't replace her sweet Elinor, they were Bernie's children, which made them an extension of her family. "And I think that she was the great love of my life. I just made so many mistakes, and now I don't have to opportunity to make it right."

Swallowing thickly, Serena once more tried to keep her emotions locked under control, knowing that there were still people there that she knew would judge her. "Let's head over to Albie's before we get roped into going home with Dad. That's the last thing that I want," Cameron said as he took hold of Serena's hand and tugged her over towards her car. Charlotte tripped along behind them, and then they were waiting on her to unlock the doors so they could climb in. Serena let out a long breath as she dug her keys out of her purse and let them in before she climbed behind the wheel.

"I'll be picking up the tab today. It's the least I can do," she said as she pulled into a parking space behind the pub. It didn't seem to be too busy yet, but that could change, and she wondered if she would see any of her colleagues there. Part of her hoped not, since she didn't want to see anyone in that moment, instead wanting to focus on Cameron and Charlotte and what they needed in that moment. "You know what I prefer to drink, Cam. Have the bartender start a tab for me while Charlotte and I find a place to sit down."

He nodded and went over to the bar and she gave him a tiny smile as she led Charlotte over to one of the more secluded booths in the back of the pub. "Do you think that we could get food, too? I didn't have the heart to eat earlier, but I don't want to drink too much on an empty stomach," the girl murmured as she took a seat next to Serena, leaving Cameron to sit across from them.

"Of course, we can do whatever you want, darling."

Charlotte smiled shakily at her and she picked up the menu to peruse it as Serena settled back into the bench seat. "I think I'll go up and order one of everything that sounds good to me, and I will definitely pay you back…"

"No, Charlotte, I have today, no matter the cost. Because I know that that's what Bernie would do for Jason and Greta, if it had been me." She nodded before leaning over and hugging Serena tightly and then joining her brother in line. As Serena waited for them to come back, she pulled out her phone and scrolled through the pictures she had of Bernie. Every one of them made her feel more and more heartsick, and she tried not to dwell on the fact that she would never be seeing Bernie's smile in person again. She would never feel her arms wrapped around her waist as she spooned her in bed. She would never have some of the best conversations she had ever had in her life again. There were so many things that she was going to miss about her Bernie, but the ability to just talk and be understood would probably be the largest hole in her life. Swiping at her eyes, she took a few deep breaths to try and calm her heart before Bernie's children returned to her.

"The bartender said that he'd space out the food, so that things won't get cold," Charlotte said as she slid in next to Serena once more, nudging her shoulder lightly as she looked down at the picture Serena was staring at. "I don't think I've ever seen that picture of you two before, Serena."

"Your mum was learning how to take selfies, and she wanted to practice," Serena replied softly, before turning the phone so that Cameron could see. He grinned sadly, to which she nodded in agreement before slipping the phone back into her purse.

"Mum isn't dead. I don't feel like she's dead. And I know so many people say that, but there were just so many inconsistencies in Alex's story that I just can't feel comfortable with burying her memory, since there was no body. I don't understand why everyone else can just accept it so quickly, like she never really existed. I don't understand how people are so quick to move on!"

Serena nodded again, picking up her glass of shiraz and taking a long sip as she thought about what to say. "I feel the say way, Cameron. There are so many holes in the story that Alex tried to feed to us that there has to be more going on than the story that's being pushed on us. But they'll label us as mad if we talk about that to anyone else. And what else can we do, but hope that Bernie turns up someday and walks back into our lives?"

"We could go searching for her."

That idea appealed to Serena immensely, but she didn't think that she should let on that that was exactly what she wanted to do. "Neither of us can afford to take time off, and I don't want to get my hopes up just to have them dashed once more. I'm sorry."

"No, I get it, it's a pipe dream, but I still wish that we could leave everything behind, the three of us, and head to Somali and find out what really happened." Cameron's smile wobbled a little before he picked up his beer and gulped at it, putting some space between them as a tender silence fell over the table. And all Serena could do was focus on the idea of leaving everything behind and tracking down the truth.