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 flop- ping 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 grand- father, 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 mor- tuary-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. Mil- licent 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. Every- body 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 inap- propriateness 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—Mona Lisa 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!” Still nothing.
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 gor- geous 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.
My heart races at the sight of a pile of messy dark curls on the floor by the sink. They say Mia had dark curly hair. I tell myself I’m seeing things and close my eyes. I refocus, and reopen them. Sure enough, it’s only a dirty rag mop. I still don’t like it. I edge as far away from it as possible and pretend to be somewhere happier—frying trout with Bilki in our kitchen, jamming with Lizzy at her brownstone next door, locking lips with Beetle on Rocky Neck Beach. Don’t laugh at that last one. It could happen. He’s a fanatic fledgling guitarist. You should see the expression on his face when he watches me play Rosalita. It’s so beautiful that I almost forget the horrible things he did to me—like his Halloween Facebook posting that read,“Do you like horror?” next to a picture of a vampire, Frankenstein, and me. Beetle swore he was only mocking the Black Fang band tee shirt I was wearing with the salivating red-eyed dog on the front. But I’m not that gullible.
The day of that Halloween posting, I contemplated jumping off the roof of City Place, the tallest building in Hartford. I texted my ex-best friend Lizzy, “Wanna die, yeah, wanna die,” borrowing a line from the Beatles’ Yer Blues. She instantly wrote back, “take a sad song and make it better.” You see, we text Beatles lyrics to one another when something powerful happens. We started doing it to make fun of Beetle’s obses- sion with the Beatles, as his almost-namesake. Right after his toxic Halloween post about me, she showed up at my doorstep−bursting with her usual frizzled blond Cherry Coke cheerfulness−and shoved a lit cigarette and a flask of maple whiskey at me. The smoke burned my throat, but the whiskey was worse. It tasted like someone spilled Tabasco sauce on my pancakes. After the third big gulp, I didn’t care about the taste. The sad truth is I love Beetle and the Beatles, which Lizzy deemed peculiar. She said no respectable blues musician would obsess about a dumb-ass pretty boy and a fifty-year-old British rock band. But I don’t care; I know what I like.Take The Dead Kittens. Their lead guitarist, Scratch, is the same age as me. After graduation, I want to go on tour with a band—not the lukewarm mess of a band that Lizzy and I cooked up—I mean a real band. Or, I might go solo with my blues act and head for St. Louis. I’m moving far away from here, that much I know.
I once told Bilki my ambitions, and she said,“So you want to be a musician? The creation of art and beauty is fraught with sacrifice. One day, you’ll need to decide if you’re willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve your goals or if those goals are a fantasy.”
I’ll admit me hooking up with Beetle is a fantasy. But me touring the world with my music is a certainty. It’s only a matter of time. Trust me.
I play a couple lines of Louis Armstrong’s “St. Louis Blues.” I got those St. Louis blues, just as blue as I can be. Oh, my man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea…
My face almost slips into a fluffy teen magazine cover grin at the thought of traveling west to the great city of St. Louis with Rosalita, when a shadow crosses my feet. It’s Mia, for sure, and I doubt she’ll be as friendly as my dead grandmother. I keep strumming in the hopes I can wish away my fate. But it’s no use. They say Mia takes revenge on the naïve and vul- nerable. And look at me: I’m a senior who’s never been kissed, locked in a cinderblock basement cell playing a woebegone tune. I glue my eyes to Rosalita, hoping not to see anything that might be construed as the specter of a dead teenage girl. I don’t dare look up—at first, anyway. But curiosity kicks in. I have to take a small peek. I raise my head and see…nothing. What I thought I saw must have been the shadow of some woman on the street, courtesy of the light streaming through the lunchbox-sized window overhead.
Imprisonment is making me crazy. I rush to the locked metal door and hammer my palms against it. My pounding sounds muffled and stuffy, like your hearing does after an airplane flight or inside a nightmare. I need to apply more force. I lift my foot to kick that door but pause when the lock starts to rattle and the door cracks open. I drop my leg. Crooked old fingers appear, winding around the door jam. Millicent Dibble reenters, her raunchy red lipstick neatly reapplied.
“I hope you’ve had enough time to reflect on your misguided clothing choice, Ms. LaPierre.”
Footsteps thump down the stairs behind her. Mom appears and freezes in the doorway, her endless dark hair flowing past the narrow waistband of her yoga pants. She made it here in record time because she didn’t bother to change. Fantastic. Mom stares at the dirty mop head in the corner of the room, precisely as I did. Like everyone else in town, she knows the legend of Mia Delaney, although she didn’t grow up here. Mom moved to Connecticut from Hicksville, New Hamp- shire, to attend Yale University. Dad came from a similarly backwater town in French Canada. My parents met at a Yale conference called “Ancient Rituals in The Modern World.” That was appropriate, as they both like outdated things. Dad had already been teaching at Twain College for a decade when they met. My guess is their connection landed Mom her job at Twain. Or, should I say, former job. I wonder if my parents liked each other back then. Now Dad finds every excuse to fly to remote parts of Russia on archaeological expeditions with his team of adoring graduate students. Mom never travels with him. She loves downtown Hartford and hates everything about everywhere else in New England, especially places that have too much fall foliage. She says it wears on her. What’s up with that? She is a psychologist’s dream. The only thing she doesn’t complain about is our neighborhood on Manburn Street. She insists it has a good vibe—which is pretty funny. Our apartment building is a former cattle slaughterhouse wedged between a former funeral parlor and a former orphanage. My grandmother, Bilki, says places carry spirits, which suggests the sidewalks of my neighborhood creak under a heavy load.
Mom continues to zone out on the mop, her facial muscles limp, like she’s correcting freshmen midterms. Clearly, this mop has triggered one of her depressions. They always begin like this. Some photo, or story, or random object elicits an unpleasant memory, and she goes on a mental vacation for days, forgetting all of her responsibilities. I should have reminded her to take her pills last night. On the bright side, whenever she freezes, she instantly transforms into a lovely Land O’ Lakes American Indian butter girl.
Wait! I know what you’re thinking and you’re right. Call- ing my ex-professor mom a butter girl sounds like a sexist, racist stereotype. She would kill me for even thinking it. But I can’t help it; it’s true. That’s the way she looks—minus the ridiculous butter girl outfit.
Dad’s mildewed book, stale coffee scent enters the room ahead of him. Sweat drips from his weedy gray ponytail, and he wears only one argyle sock. After removing his fogged up glasses, he rolls his eyes backwards, way up into his head. He can’t help doing this disturbing thing because he has a photographic memory. Faced with any tough situation, he focuses upward, searching the books in his brain for helpful information. Right now, he’s probably researching advice on childrearing. I hope he is flipping through some friendly ancient guidebook like Baby and Child Care and not one of those nasty parenting texts like Dare to Discipline.
Dad’s weird eye motions explain why freshman attendance in his Introduction to Archaeology classes has always sucked.
He does better with the upper level undergraduates, and his graduate classes are always packed. The more educated a student becomes, the more they think his eccentricities demonstrate brilliance. Now you see why I’m determined to go on tour with my music and skip college.
Millicent Dibble ignores Dad and addresses Mom. “Lila Elmwood, I realize Mona must have left home dressed in this vile shirt without your notice. I know how much you respect innocent animals. All of your people do.”
Your people. Who says that to an Indian? Mom says nothing in response to Dibble’s bigoted statement. She’s still staring stupidly at the mop in the corner. I don’t know much about the technical aspects of clinical depression, but personal experience suggests this is a bad sign. In the good old days before she lost her job teaching Native American history at Twain College, Mom would have rifled back at Dibble’s remark with words hot enough to burn her ears off. I miss the old Mom with the Red Power picket signs. Down with Columbus Day! No More Native American Mascots! Save American Indian Burial Grounds! Now she is a mute, frozen butter girl, eyes fixed on a rag mop in the corner of a stuffy basement closet. Dad also stays silent, but for a different reason. His academic field of study is ancient Russian archaeology. Nothing in twenty-first-century America remotely interests him. That includes Mom and me. My parents share one true love, and it’s their work. That’s why it hit them so hard when Twain College made its cuts.
Millicent Dibble shakes her head at Mom, clearly vexed at her lack of response. She shouts, “Does the girl have a job lined up after graduation? Dr. Elmwood, your daughter needs discipline!”
My ears perk up at her mention of a job because this is a sore point. I had scored a great paid internship with the Twain College music department. But the budget cuts that eliminated Mom’s job also killed mine. I got the bad news last week. I expect Mom to explain this last-minute hitch in my employment plans. But she retains her lifeless butter girl pose. Millicent Dibble purses her lips, as if she pities me for having such an unstable mom.
“Dr. Elmwood!” she bellows, rattling Mom back into con- sciousness.
“Principal Dibble!” Mom barks back, abruptly coming to. “I agree that Mona needs a firmer hand! That is exactly what she is about to experience.This morning, Bryer and I accepted summer jobs on an archaeological field crew in Russia.” Mom turns her back on me.“We will be working there for a month to investigate the site of an ancient bear sacrifice. We leave tomorrow.”
My brain has trouble processing Mom’s words. Surely she’s speaking an alien language. What I think I heard can’t be true. Or worse, what she said is true, which explains why she can’t face me. Graduation is a week away. She can’t possibly expect me to miss it. Never mind that it’s inconceivable for my animal-loving mom to dig up bear bones and force me to spend a month doing that, too. This is the worst idea she’s ever had. My guess is she’s telling herself that working on her hubby’s project will save her rocky marriage.
Millicent Dibble holds her hand to her ear in the universal symbol, asking Mom to speak up. She obviously thinks she misheard her. After all, what mother forces her child to miss their high school graduation? Admittedly, most teenage girls would have a friend’s house to crash at if their parents decided to abruptly leave town. But my ex-best friend Lizzy moved to Toronto last year and my antisocial behavior since has backfired on me. I have no money and nowhere to go. Mom has no other choice but to drag me with her to Russia—something neither of us wants.
Mom lowers her voice making me strain to hear her.“Mona won’t be coming with us. As she is still a minor, she will be leaving tomorrow for her grandfather’s cabin in Indian Stream, New Hampshire, where she will be in firm hands.”
My ears sting. My blood turns to ice. I thought missing graduation and digging up bear bones in Russia was the ultimate disaster. Now I know I was wrong. I will be spending the next month alone with my widowed grandfather, Grumps, somewhere in the New Hampshire wilderness. I’ve never vis- ited his cabin. Until now, Mom insisted it was best for us to stay away. Now she’s forcing me to live in a place she always avoided because of some stupid law that says I need some adult to look after me until I’m eighteen.
If Bilki was still alive, this might be tolerable. I loved my grandmother’s annual Christmas visits to our home.We had so much in common. Sure Grumps came along, but we all tried to ignore him. Now, I’m spending a month alone with him! All this because of my unfortunate July birthday. Until then, I’m seventeen and a miserable minor. Summer birthdays suck! Millicent Dibble reads my mind. The corners of her wrinkled red lips jolt upward in a wicked grin. “It’s such a shame that Mona will miss her graduation. But I’m sure this experience will do her good. The least I can do is release her from school early today, so she has sufficient time to pack.”
This is the final blow! Packing for the worst trip of my life is not my idea of a good way to celebrate the end of high school. Not that I planned to do anything new. I wanted to celebrate like I did junior year, when I jammed with Shankdaddy, the old blues man whose sweet music drew me to the other end of Manburn Street. I found him sitting on a worn-out stool on the metallic steps in front of Celine’s fortune-telling parlor, beside a mangy cat. (What’s up with me and cats?) His eyes whirled smoky gray, begging me to come closer. I sat beside him and admired his music, his chiseled cheekbones, and his lean muscles. His music hurt sweetly, like a caramel-coated toothache, and his cheekbones stood so high and mighty, you’d swear they’d been carved in granite. This man was ageless and omnipotent, like the God of Blues.
Once I started playing guitar with him, Celine stepped outside to listen, along with a few other curious neighbors. It must have sounded pretty damn good. After we finished jamming, I was shaking from the power of his mighty blues. I told Shankdaddy I was dropping out of school to hit the road and become a musician. He laughed cruelly, showing the raw pink tops of his gums beyond his big white teeth. He pressed his face into mine, challenging me, letting me know that he could always do me one gritty one better—whether it was bending notes on a guitar or bending the rules in life. Of course, I understood all that. I endured his test of will because he was the Master, a man who didn’t just sing about hard times but conveyed them in a preternatural way. His music told me things about the universe that I’d have been better off not knowing—like how people who kill for love turn into ugly fiery angels that burn everything in their path, especially those who make beautiful music. When I didn’t flinch at his tale, he decided I was worth a shiny pearl of gutbucket wisdom.
“Guitar Girl,”he said, rising to the full extent of his impressive height. “What you don’t understand is that you need to become the blues. You gotta let the blues fill you up so that every note hurts enough to make you double over and groan.” I reminisce about this amazing man while I trudge up the school basement stairs, trailing behind my parents. Knowing
I’m leaving Colt High for the last time, it occurs to me that while I can’t be with Shankdaddy today, I can make him a promise. I swear in my heart that I’ll play the kind of blues he admires, or die trying. Step one in the right direction is avoiding banishment to the musical desert of New Hampshire. Maybe I’ll run away to Toronto, where Lizzy lives. There are plenty of hot blues venues there. Greyhound has cheap bus tickets. I might be able to sneak onto an Amtrak train. I’ve read that tribal IDs can work as passports for the Canadian border-crossing. I’ve got one of those, thanks to Mom putting me on the Mohegan tribal rolls. I’ve often wondered why I’m not on Bilki’s Abenaki tribal rolls. Mom probably kept me off them to spite The Inveigler, even though she claims the United States Government forced her to pick a single tribe. Mohegans or Abenakis. Hatfields or McCoys. Crips or Bloods. I hear Bilki whisper inside my head, “Go to New Hampshire. It will be fine because I’m watching over you.”
Her words loosen my tightened muscles and allow me to exhale. Somehow, I believe her. When I was a kid, she would point to the constellations of The Hunter and The Great Bear and tell me how people turn into stars after they die. I know she’s there, among those starry constellations. Whenever she speaks to me, I feel a connection to them.
I raise my head to the heavens and ask my starry grand- mother to save me from my looming summer nightmare. Bilki doesn’t respond exactly but I experience a woozy rush as we emerge onto the main floor of Colt High. Through the old-school sepia light, I spot a pretty girl smiling at me. She’s wearing a retro Rush band tee shirt featuring a rabbit coming out of a hat. Her wide emerald eyes, heavy dark curls, and huge silver hoop earrings carved with the word “LOVE” across the center make her look more like a Rosalita than my guitar. Her shirt shows half her stomach, which is a clear violation of school policy 14 E. Her manicured fingernails flash electric blue as she scribbles something on the wall in front of us. Despite the fact that graffiti is a breach of every school rule on the planet, Dibble strolls by her without a word. It’s ridiculous what pretty girls can get away with.
I dip Rosalita’s neck at the girl, respectfully, because we know one another, sort of. We met last year when I was hang- ing around Celine’s fortune-telling parlor with Shankdaddy. She and I never actually spoke. But she’d smiled at me that day, too, in a way that told me we were sharing the music at a deeper level, and pretty girls don’t normally share intense moments with me.
The second period bell rings. Beetle spills out into the hallway, sporting a peach sherbet polo. I fast finger some delta blues on Rosalita, struggling to keep calm.
“Whoo-hoo, Mo-na! Nice tee shirt!” he calls, tossing back his butterscotch bangs and flashing his switchblade smirk.
I glance at Mom to see if she’s catching this miracle moment. I want her to feel extra guilty about forcing me to leave town, just as the school’s most popular guy decides to talk to me. But no. She’s caught up in Millicent Dibble’s rant about how the school board is too cheap to replace the faulty wiring in her upstairs office so she’s stuck in the janitor’s base- ment closet until they demolish our school in the fall.
I lift my head from my guitar and catch Beetle’s licorice eyes focusing, not on my fingers, but on my tee shirt. My brain turns to strawberry slush.
“Hey, bad girl,” he says, pointing at my chest.“I’m guessing this tee shirt earned you a ticket to our cat-loving principal’s basement luxury suite. I didn’t know you were a fellow Dead Kittens fan. I saw them perform in Stadt. It’s my favorite city.”
I keep playing in order not to scream. Beetle is acting like we’re old friends. I can’t believe he loves The Dead Kittens. I’ve never heard of Stadt. I have to get out of Hartford. There are so many great cities I need to see. If only I could take him with me.
He tugs my sleeve, “Did you see our resident ghost down there? It is the last day of school.”
I don’t understand how he can speak so casually about Mia Delaney. He sticks his hands in front of my face and wiggles his fingertips spookily. I remain mum.
“Mia Delaney was my dad’s high school girlfriend, you know,” he prods.
This remark irritates me because I know he’s lying, like he’s lied to me before. I slump, in the cool bluesy way Shankdaddy taught me, and say, “Everyone knows Mia left school on her last day with a guy on a Harley with green flames. Your dad doesn’t strike me as the biker type.”
“No.” He moves in dangerously close. “But Mia was the type of girl who had more than one boyfriend. She was a bad girl.” He winks.
“Right. I doubt that. Your story sounds like a tabloid headline: Bad and Beautiful Juliet Slain by Wicked Romeo.” I clutch my chest.“They were young lovers so they had to die.” I shoot him my muddiest glare. “It’s a tired tale.”
He smirks.“True enough. It is the cliché moral our parents tattoo to our souls: teenage sex always equals death.”
I lift my mudwood eyes to meet his delicious licorice stare. “Mona!”calls Mom, storming toward us, scowling at Beetle like she wants him to die. She must have been eavesdropping and heard the word “sex.” If she were listening, it would be the first time she’s tuned into one of my conversations in as long as I can remember.
Beetle’s carrot-topped, perennially stoned best friend, Brick Rodman, ponies up and drags him away to class before I can ask Mom what her problem is. Beetle waves good-bye to me. I imagine I see a look of regret on his face. I never asked him where he’s going to college. I want to ditch Mom and tell him that we should jam together sometime soon. But the truth is, I won’t see Barrington Dill ever again. High school is over for me. Beetle is over for me.
Rasima’s mom and dad trudge toward Millicent Dibble, arms wrapped around their limping daughter with the bag of ice tied to her foot. I can’t afford to get dragged into a discussion about the cause of Rasima’s injury, so I tell my parents I need to grab some stuff from my locker. From behind the metal door, I text Lizzy to cue her into the miracle that just happened between Beetle and me.
I write, “Help! I Need Somebody!” “Let It Be,” she replies.
Lizzy is right, of course. I need to settle down. Nothing really happened between Beetle and me. Nothing ever does. He likes to think of me as his artsy musical acquaintance. Everybody has one. Nobody dates them.
I head back to the main hallway and note with relief that the Jones family has departed. Naturally, Beetle is heading in the direction of the graffiti girl with the LOVE earrings. He is smirking worse than ever. It’s easy to imagine what will happen next. The whole school knows the effect he has on women. Rasima said it best in our school blog, The Weekly Stinger, “Beetle’s smirk is like a solid gold mirror with a crack in it: something that you must stare at, even though you know it will bring you years of bad luck.” I don’t agree with Rasima on much but she was dead-on about that one.
Beetle passes right by the graffiti girl and opens his arms to hug Dibble. What a suck up! He must be bucking for the Principal’s Prize at graduation. I strain to listen to what he has to say to her.
“Thanks for everything, Principal Dibble.” Beetle hugs her. Dibble rasps, “I know you and some of your friends are headed to your family cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee for a few weeks after graduation. Enjoy yourselves.”She sighs.“Oh, how I love New Hampshire.”
The universe spins like I’ve fallen into a vortex in one of Bilki’s murals. Beetle is going to New Hampshire. I’m going to New Hampshire. I’ve overheard tales, from girls with good hair, about endless summer parties there with boys who smell like cocoa butter. Up until now, that lake has been an imaginary place, never mind one I might visit. I live in the real world, where family discussions center on how to pay rent and utili- ties, not how much money to blow on long summer vacations. The kids in my neighborhood are lucky if their parents take them on an annual day trip to Mystic Seaport, Roger Williams Zoo, or Fenway Park. A month of lounging by some New Hampshire party lake is an unimaginable fantasy. Yet I’m on my way to that dreamland. Bilki must have a hand in this. This is one day when I truly appreciate both the living and the dead.
Overhead, the hallway lights flicker with a sparkling galactic majesty, offering all the possibilities of a glittering newborn universe. Through the hall windows, the summer sun beams down on me with the pure, glorious, healing white light of a loving cosmos.The hint of a first smile tugs at the left corner of my mouth. My heart is beating so hard that I swear it pumps life back into the dead kittens on my tee shirt. I glance down and see them dancing in a circle on my cupcake-pink chest.
From now on, I know things will be different. I lift the collar of my shirt and kiss it. I’ll wash it on the gentle cycle. It’s my new good luck charm.