When Mona Lisa LaPierre, aka “the girl who never smiles,” is sent to stay with Grumps, her reclusive grandfather, she is not exactly thrilled. Still, she slings her beloved guitar, Rosalita, over her shoulder and sets out to meet her destiny—which pops up, variously, as a blonde bear named Marilynn, a fellow musician named Del, and a green-flamed motorcycle that was last seen racing away from her high school the day a student named Mia Delaney disappeared eighteen years ago. Mona’s search for Mia’s murderer becomes a quest for identity, love and meaning, and she is guided along the way by Grumps and her dead grandmother, Bilki, whose spirit speaks to her in moments of need.
Mia Delaney Day
Some days you appreciate the dead; others, you don’t dare think about them. Today’s a bit of both. I push through the fist-dented double doors of Colt High, my guitar, Rosalita, bouncing against my back. The front hallway is a worn-out chessboard of cracked and broken floor tiles, set with students as game pieces. Diffuse light through the unwashed windows casts a sepia tone over their slack, wary faces, making them resemble old photographs. Most days, this is where you find them jockeying for position as kings, queens, and pawns. But today is the last day of school, the day we remember Mia Delaney, the senior who never made it out of here alive.
Cheer Captain Rasima Jones tries to lighten the mood, leading her bumblebee cheer squad in a practice routine at the center of the chessboard. Blond streaks whip through the girls’ matching raven manes, inky bras peek out from beneath their lemon chiffon blouses, neon yellow laces stream over their flipping heads like electric snakes. The bumblebees leap, turn, and revolve in unison, all sticking their landings. Most people clap. I offer a caveman grunt.
One breathless bumblebee overhears me and pokes a finger into my cupcake-pink tee shirt. “What’s this? Did they run out of black at the Goodwill?”
I tap my earbuds, pretending not to hear her insult. I’m not about to tell her that it was my grandmother who suggested I wear this shirt, or worse, that she’s been dead for three years.
The cheerleader lunges and yanks out my earbuds. Her foot slips on a broken floor tile, sending her crashing onto another square that is already occupied by Rasima’s foot. The queen bee screams. Her sympathetic hive swarms, buzzing about how this injury is all my fault.
I hustle away to homeroom, doubting my grandmother’s tee shirt selection. She suggested I wear it because she knows I want Beetle to notice me today. Beetle is short for Barrington Dill, or B. Dill. He has butterscotch bangs, licorice eyes, a switchblade smirk, and he wears pastel polos that seem to make him glow. I have mudwood eyes, tree bark hair, and I usually wear black band tee shirts that turn me into my own shadow.
Now do you see the problem?
I zip around the corner that contains Colt High’s sports trophy case and accidentally crash into a towering circle of basketball jocks. The circle parts to reveal Principal Millicent Dibble, holding up a third-place trophy. Her yellowed white suit matches her yellowed white hair. Everything about this woman carries a lifetime stain of nicotine.
She hands the trophy to the team’s lofty center then points at my tee shirt. Her words rasp, like she once swallowed a cigarette that permanently lodged in her throat. “I see that your tasteless behavior is reflected in your tasteless attire.”
Of course, she’s overreacting. My shirt is fine. It’s a tee shirt for The Dead Kittens band. The cupcake-pink front features a black line drawing of three dead cartoon kittens, lying on their backs, paws sticking straight up in the air, tongues flopping out of the sides of their mouths, and x’s where their eyes should be. For years, I’ve worn graphically violent tee shirts for bands like Mama Cannibal and Kiss the Corpse. Dibble never said a thing. Now, on my final day of school forever, this woman reprimands me for wearing a pink cartoon kitten tee shirt, picked out by my grandmother. I tap my earbuds again, and exit speedily. Everybody is edgy and unpredictable today.
A student whispers “uh oh,” and I glance over my shoulder. Principal Millicent Dibble is chasing me and rapidly closing in. I pick up the pace. My guitar, Rosalita, bounces hard against my back. I can’t go any faster and risk a fatal encounter between her and some bully backpack. She is a classic Gibson acoustic made of golden curly Sitka spruce, inlaid with a letter “R” on the soundboard in shimmering mother-of-pearl. I think of her as my good luck charm because she was a gift from my grandfather, Grumps, and grandmother, Bilki, when I turned ten.
A finger hooks the collar of my tee shirt from behind, and my neck snaps back. Rosalita’s luck has run out. Millicent Dibble’s eyes glare at me like two wells drilled into the arctic ice. She yanks out my earbuds and flips through a school rulebook, its pages fluttering like the wings of countless fallen high school angels.
“School policy 14B prohibits the wearing of inappropriate tee shirts. You are in violation. Follow me.”
I slump. “My shirt doesn’t violate any rules. It isn’t low-cut. It covers my stomach.”
A freshman girl struts by with half her boobs spilling over the top of a shirt boasting the words “Any Time.”
I toss a thumb in her direction and say, “Hello.”
Millicent Dibble curls her gnarled finger, summoning me to follow. The clustered girls’ soccer team snickers as we pass. I know what these head-butts are thinking. This girl got caught with drugs. All musicians do drugs. Dibble halts at the entrance to the basement stairwell, where a handwritten cardboard sign says “Principal Dibble’s Temporary Office” with an arrow that points straight down. A recent electrical fire in her regular office forced this relocation. Everything in this junk heap of a school is falling apart. She signals me to descend the stairs. How dare she force me into the basement, on today, of all days?
I take my first step down, and some kid behind me squeals. Over my head, the fluorescent lights strobe against the mortuary-gray cinderblock walls that connect to a ceiling laden with filmy cobwebs that a person less familiar with the dead might easily mistake for ghosts.
We reach the cement bottom. Dibble pushes a mop bucket and a canister of industrial-strength pesticide away from the entrance to the old janitor’s closet. I wonder why the janitor has left his stuff out. She turns a rusty key in his closet door. My cheeks burn. This closet is her new office. Being sent to the school basement is bad enough. Being forced to enter this closet is too much. I freeze and scream inside, begging Bilki for help, begging the universe for help, because this janitor’s closet is the spot where Mia Delaney died.
Everyone in Hartford, Connecticut, knows Mia’s story. She disappeared nineteen years ago on the last day of her senior year at Colt High, after being seen taking off with her boyfriend on the back of his green-flamed Harley. But they didn’t ride off happily into the sunset. The following September, the janitor discovered her starved shriveled body, locked inside his closet. The police never found her mysterious biker boyfriend. Urban legend has it that every year since then, one unlucky Colt High senior meets Mia’s unhappy ghost on the last day of school. Some claim she is looking for a friend to keep her company in her hellish high school eternity. Others argue she’s trying to bring her killer to justice. I won’t be the one to settle that argument because I don’t believe in ghosts. I know the dead are more than wispy spirits.
The door to the janitor’s closet opens with an unearthly screech, revealing a space much larger than I expected. Millicent Dibble beckons me inside. I detect the scent of dead mouse. My stomach heaves. She drops into a metal folding chair behind a card-table desk. A picture frame lies atop the desk beside scattered paperwork. The walls are bare and the only window in the room is the size of a lunchbox. I lean on a cracked porcelain sink in the corner of this cramped space, as far away from her as possible. Two spectral yellow eyes gleam at me from beneath the card-table desk. I stop breathing. Maybe I was wrong about ghosts.
Dibble tilts her head under the table and calls, “Come here B.B.”
Out strolls a potbellied cat with black and yellow fur patches and a zigzag grin. The creature tugs at Millicent Dibble’s ankle like a kindergartener. She is a cat-mother, and I’m wearing a tee shirt for The Dead Kittens Band. Perfect. I was better off confronting Mia Delaney’s ghost.
Millicent Dibble draws two fingers to her lips as though she wishes a cigarette were between them. “If you go home and change, right now, you can graduate without a mark on your school record. You need all the help you can get in today’s job market. Are we agreed?”
I say nothing because I can’t consider her offer seriously. It’s a violation of my right to free expression as a musical artist. Water drips from the sink behind me. I imagine Mia, locked in this closet, hearing this same torturous dripping sound, day after day, knowing she had all the water in the world and nothing to eat. Millicent Dibble’s hand fiddles with something small and rectangular in her crocheted handbag. Cigarettes. She’s clearly dying to go outside for a smoke. She doesn’t want a long argument. I can get out of this if I play my cards right.
“I believe in freedom of artistic expression,” I say. “This is a band tee shirt.” I point to the band members’ names drawn on the upturned kitten paws on my cupcake-pink shirt. “Scratch plays guitar. Big Cat plays drums. Mew is the lead singer. Get it?”
Millicent Dibble doesn’t respond. She lifts her cat and presses her fierce red lips to his zigzag mouth and nuzzles him. Her outdated lipstick smears across her face and the cat’s snout, making it look like she and her kitty just munched down a family of field mice.
Her bottomless well eyes return to my chest. “Freedom does not belong to those who harm others. That is why we have jails. Your shirt condones violence against animals. Animals are innocents. People who hurt innocents are criminals. Criminals lose their freedom. Do you get that?”
What I get is that Millicent Dibble is a psycho cat-lover. I won’t dignify her remarks with a reply. Her hefty black and gold feline flops off her lap onto the table and swats a paw at the picture frame on her desk, knocking it over. She doesn’t move. I want to smack this cat for his brashness. But I worry this impulse may represent a genetic flaw, inherited from my Mohegan Indian grandfather, Grumps. He always keeps his pockets full of rocks, in case he sees a cat. He once explained this habit by saying, “Mohegan means ‘Wolf People.’ Wolves are dogs, so we hate cats. We can’t help it. It’s in our DNA.” He claimed my mom escaped this tendency because her genes lean toward her mother, Bilki’s, Abenaki Indian side, and all they care about are bears.
I’m thinking these thoughts when I hear Dibble’s voice, like a faraway echo. “Mona, do you understand why your shirt is inappropriate? …Mona?”
Dibble tries to snap her poor rheumatoid fingers at me to hasten my response, but they fail to make a noise. Her cat lumbers over to lick her crooked hand and shoots poisonous yellow laser rays at me. I wish I had a rock in my pocket.
“I bet you wouldn’t bother me if this tee shirt had a picture of dead dogs on it,” I say.
A light flickers in her eyes, like a spark from a nearly dead fire. “WHAT! You must apologize to B.B.!” She pets her cat, protectively. “You can’t seriously compare him to a dog. Everybody loves it when I bring him in on the last day of school. He’s practically our school mascot.”
Regardless of the creature’s bumblebee coloring and not-so-subtle nickname, nobody at Colt High sees this cat as our bumblebee mascot. I conjure what I presume is a sensitive statement, minus an actual apology. “It’s a good thing old B.B. won’t need to remain our mascot for long—with our school slated for demolition and all.”
Millicent Dibble gasps and caresses B.B., as if I’ve just punched him. “I’m contacting your parents.”
She dials Mom’s cell number and asks her and Dad to come here immediately because their daughter has violated a school rule. Dibble doesn’t know it, but they won’t be here for some time. Ever since Twain College laid off Mom from her professor job and reduced Dad to part-time status, they lounge around our apartment in their workout clothes until noon. They’re definitely not dressed yet.
Millicent Dibble speaks smugly from behind her lipstick schmear. “Your mother is a volunteer at our local chapter of PETA. Surely she will be able to convince you of the inappropriateness of your tee shirt, Mona Lisa LaPierre.”
Mona Lisa! Now I have a real problem! Millicent Dibble knows my middle name. Nobody is supposed to know it. She better not write it on my diploma or call it out at graduation. I gave up that name in middle school because I’d had enough teasing about my famous Renaissance namesake. My parents officially removed it from my school record when I entered high school, or so they told me. You may feel inclined to laugh about my paranoia on this subject. DON’T. It’s not funny. I have the last face on earth that anyone would want to paint, and I never, ever, smile. The only thing I have in common with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa masterpiece is that we both wear black—until today, that is.
I scratch my nails across the wall behind me and cut my index finger on a jagged piece of cinderblock. “How’d you find out my middle name?” I suck on my wounded finger.
Millicent Dibble faces me. Her eyes carry no light. “I know everything about you,” she says. “I know you are an excellent blues musician, an average student, too mean to smile, and lousy at making friends.”
She lowers her twisted hand to withdraw an oatmeal-colored ball of yarn from her crocheted handbag and tosses the ball to B.B. who claws at it and loses his balance, landing with a splat on the cement floor like an overfilled water balloon.
She lurches forward to prop him up. “You poor thing!”
I let a dry chuckle slip.
Her tone sharpens from a cigarette rasp to a razor’s edge. “I will leave you down here for a few minutes to take stock of your careless attitude until your parents arrive—MonaLisa LaPierre.”
Hearing my middle name again makes me shiver. She strides out the door, one arm wrapped protectively around B.B. The rusty door lock screeches to a close. Keys jangle. I lunge for the handle with my bleeding hand. The lock clicks shut before I can reach it. My hand lingers by that handle, vibrating. I’m stuck in the janitor’s closet, and my parents won’t be here until who knows when. My breathing speeds up. Getting locked in here is every Colt High teenager’s worst nightmare. Last year, the girls’ varsity basketball team locked three new players in this room for their hazing ritual and a petrified point guard suffered a minor stroke.
“Bilki, where are you?” I jingle the silver charm bracelet my grandmother gave me. It usually calls her right away.
But there’s no reply.
I try her full name, “Bilkimizi!”
I can’t believe that didn’t work. Speaking her name is the closest thing I know to an incantation. Bilkimizi means “maple tree” in the Abenaki language. Her Indian mother—my great-grandmother—gave it to her because she had a vision of a crimson autumn maple as she pushed her daughter out into the world. It was a perfectly prophetic vision and naming. Bilki grew up to paint New England fall landscape murals, in gorgeous shades of fox russet, golden flint corn, flaming crimson, and squash blossom. She finished each painting with a circular vortex of paint droplets, creating a focal point of swirling leaves that suggested a magical escape portal into another universe. I wish I could step through one of my grandmother’s painted leaf portals, right now, and get the hell out of here.
The picture inside the toppled frame on Dibble’s card-table desk catches my eye. It shows a much younger Dibble leaning against a classic Coupe de Ville in the arms of a hot guitarist in a stylish straw hat. It would appear that Millicent Dibble is a music lover. Perhaps this is a photo of Mr. Dibble, but I doubt it. I’ve never seen her wear a wedding ring.
Overhead, thunderous footsteps signal that the opening bell has rung. I imagine my fellow seniors, texting one another about where they’ll hang out after school and party to celebrate surviving their last Mia Delaney Day, not to mention four years at Colt High. Meanwhile, I’m isolated on the last day of my senior year, maybe even forgotten, just like Mia. My thoughts roll downhill, dangerously close to the murky bottom. Mom’s shrink warned me not to let this happen. “Keep your mind on the mountaintop or you’ll wind up like your mom, at the base of the valley.”
Everybody in America has some dumb theory about depression. Bilki says working on her murals was her way of fighting it. I imagine painting sloppy crimson graffiti on these walls with my bloody finger. I enjoy imagining that because I know Mom would hate it. She’d prefer these walls remain blank because she says blank colorless spaces help her think. She hates the woods because they’re too cluttered. Some Mohegan and Abenaki Indian she is.
Mom inherited neither her family’s artistry, nor their love of trees. She has nothing in common with Bilki. She calls her mother’s fall foliage murals “inveigling,” claiming they draw people in against their will. Granted, my ex-best friend Lizzy sprained her wrist trying to stick her hand through the mural Bilki painted on my bedroom wall. But Mom has no right to talk about inveigling people. With her beauty, she inveigles by simply walking into a room.
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