“Mia, there’s no shame in being poor.” I can’t tell you how many times my Nana has spoken these words since my arrival. It’s become her mantra. Previously, I was living with my sickly Mom in a commune-type setting on a God forsaken tract of land in West Virginia. I never knew exactly how ill she was. She made it her top priority to hide the sordid details from me. And then she died. I wish I had been prepared. But it really wouldn’t have changed anything. There was only one person on the face of the planet who had any interest in rescuing me, and that was my Nana.
She was employed as a cook/housekeeper by a wealthy CEO of an unnamed, suspect company. He resided on a palatial estate in Roland Park, Baltimore, Maryland. My room was a loft atop a garage. When I first saw it, I entertained all kinds of ideas on how to make it truly mine. I purchased the latest issue of “Decorating Small Spaces” and began putting together a wish list and making sketches of dream bedrooms. Nana tolerated my new pet project, but made it perfectly clear that designing a boudoir for myself took a backseat to my 11th grade homework.
I found school to be a living hell. I was the proverbial fish out of water. The majority of my classmates had their own cars. They sported the latest labels where clothing was concerned and received hefty allowances for doing squat. No need to work afternoon or weekend jobs. All their creature comforts were provided for. Nana could keep her opinions to herself. I wasn’t buying the old adage about beauty being from within. I would have killed to trade places with anyone of my fellow students.
My access to the internet was limited to trips to the local library. Normally, the computer use was monitored, but I explained my plight, all teary-eyed, to a rotund, be-speckled, pimply-faced librarian’s assistant, whose name tag read Remus, and he ignored the time restraints. I just hoped he wasn’t jockeying for a date. It was from Librarian Remus that I got a lead on the hot spot where to dumpster dive. He pointed me in the direction of a strip mall, where he promised an abundance of treasures. And best of all, there was a new & used computer store on site. I packed up my belongings, exited the library and went in search of a bus that would carry me to what I hoped would be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
It wasn’t as far as I had anticipated. It was getting close to dusk and I decided the possibility of discovering a real find at the bottom of this dumpster was worth the risk of being caught on private property. I leaned my backpack against the dumpster and wasted no time in lowering my 110 pounds into the abyss. I was amazed as to how squeaky clean the dumpster and its contents appeared. Other than the lingering smell of chemicals, courtesy of the discards from the beauty salon, there was the absence of any odor of garbage.
And eureka, there wedged between a stack of what looked like water-damaged gardening books and a bolt of some florescent green fabric, lay a laptop. Curiously, it bore no visible make or model number. I lifted the top and it sprang to life, without a power cord. Three letters filled the screen: M – I – A. Immediately, I interpreted this as a sign – MIA spelt out my name. The next order of business was to concoct a believable story to explain the appearance of a seemingly new laptop for my Nana’s benefit. I had the bus ride home to mull over this dilemma.
You know when you feel someone’s giving you the hairy eyeball? I had that distinct feeling after I settled into a seat at the back of the bus. I made eye contact with a couple of passengers, who sheepishly looked away. It was then I put the brakes on. Had I been talking to myself? I’d caught myself doing this of late, just another idiosyncrasy to add to my growing list. Letting out an exasperated sigh, I pulled the sleeve of my hoodie down over my right hand and wiped the condensation off the window adjacent to me. My countenance looked more like a 13 yr old boy’s than an almost 16 yr old female’s. My strawberry blonde hair was cut in a style more severe than a pixie. I had done it myself. My large hazel eyes were probably my best feature, but smokey dark circles underscored them. My nose, identical to my dead mother’s, resembled a bird’s beak. My mouth was okay, at least the lips were a pretty bow-shape. But my teeth were destitute West Virginia trailer park = never seen the inside of a dentist’s office. I made a promise to myself, that as soon as I could get my hands on some real money, I’d invest in some regular dental appointments or at least some Crest dental strips. I delicately fingered my pride and joy at the tip of my elfish earlobes – real pearl studs that had belonged to my Mom. I imagine one of her male admirers gifted them to her for God only knows what she had to do in return. I was so stoked on the day of my move to Maryland when my Nana had entrusted them to my care. I vowed I’d go to my death wearing this most prized possession. This fleeting thought is more significant than you might think, dear reader.
I was caught in such a self-absorbed reverie that I nearly missed my stop. The trek in from the main road to my new digs was uphill and exhausting. I wish I had carried my skateboard along in my travels, but in all honesty it would just be one more thing to carry. I wasn’t accomplished enough to scale small mountains under my own steam.
“Mia, there are upper crust, hoity-toity leftovers from an afternoon tea if you’re interested,” my Nana offered, as I entered the well-appointed kitchen. “Thanks, but no thanks, Nana, ” I replied. I slipped my hand into my backpack to ensure that my new laptop was safely secure in between my chemistry book and American History text. All was well. Just as I was about to divulge my secret to my Nana, she beat me to the punch. “I sure wish we were allowed access to one of the computers in this house,” she sighed. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. “Why’s that, Nana, are you planning on exploring the senior citizen sites in search of a boyfriend?” “Not hardly smarty pants! My friend, Genevieve, told me about a virtual tour you can take of a property up for sale. Professor Mize, who I worked for prior to this job, is selling his Victorian house and Gen says you can take a look-see of every nook and cranny of his house online. I’d love to see how the old house looks after all the renovations the Professor was considering when I left his employment.” “Nana, what would you say if we could take a peek right here and now?” With a dramatic flair, I pulled the laptop from its hiding place and set it on the counter. “Where did you get that?”, Nana asked suspiciously? “There’s a kid in my class that has more money than God and he loaned this old dinosaur to me just until I can afford my own.” “Are you sure it’s alright with his parents, Mia?” “Nana, they’re vacationing across the pond and so Remus is now the ruler of the roost, barking orders to the minions on his parents’ house staff: a cook, gardener, chauffeur, housekeeper and his mother’s personal secretary. You know how the other half lives, nary a care in the world.” Nana just shook her head as she reached for the PC.
My Nana and I had no trouble logging onto a multiple listing site and locating Professor Mize’s property in an opulent neighborhood of Federal Hill in Baltimore. I clicked on the virtual tour tab and we feasted our eyes on a mansion worthy of gracing the cover of Architectural Digest. When the thumbnail of the study/library appeared on the screen, a pop-up message announced I had a private message. “Isn’t that sweet,” purred my Nana, “that young man must have a crush on you.”
I felt a chill shoot up my spinal column and had the overwhelming sense that “a goose walked over my grave”. I had cancelled my email during a prior visit to the library and had yet to create a replacement. After a few more minutes, Nana seemed to have had her curiosity satisfied and I retired to the loft, laptop in hand. I was unable to discover any private messages and returned to the house listings. Once I found the Professor’s house, I page through the tour until I came to the particular room where the notice had first appeared. At first glance, the page looked normal, a home office with wall to wall and floor to ceiling bookcases. Just as I was about to exit, a chat box opened with the following words: NOW THAT YOU’RE ALONE, I’LL GIVE YOU THE COMBINATION TO A SMALL FORTUNE. Projected on the computer screen there suddenly appeared a rough drawing, cartoonish in nature, of a safe and an arrow pointing to a painting in the corner of the room. Having taken a history of art class last year enabled me to immediately identify it as a Gainsborough print – The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly. In an otherwise masculine appointed room, the hanging of the painting seemed to be an after-thought. My attention was diverted only a matter of seconds and when I refocused on the screen, there was now a combination scribbled across the front of the safe 48-55-16.
I scrambled for my cell phone and punched in Remus’ number, which he had forced on me earlier in the day. He answered on the first ring. I directed him to the puzzling page. “There’s nothing like what you’re describing on my monitor,” he said. “As luck would have it, there’s an open house scheduled for tomorrow and I intend to be there. You wanna join me?”, I suggested. “That would look mighty suspicious, Mia. What you do is follow behind a perspective buyer, like you’re one of the family, no one will be the wiser.” “Good idea, Remus. I’ll report back to you after I’ve cased the joint.” “You sound like a gun moll out of a B movie. Good luck!”
The following morning, a Saturday, I made my way to the open house. I stashed my skateboard behind a row of butter-yellow azaleas and lingered at the corner of the house awaiting a ready-made family. It didn’t take long before the street was lined with vehicles carrying prospective buyers. I followed on the heels of a yuppie-looking couple and made my way unchallenged into the foyer. Taking the steps two at a time up the spiral staircase, I easily came upon the study midway down the hall. The room looked almost exactly how it appeared online with one exception – there was no visible arrow indicating the whereabouts of the safe. I was just about to peek behind Gainsborough’s masterpiece, when I heard voices just outside the door.
I pretended to be reading the exposed book spines, as a young couple swept into the room with two snotty-nosed toddlers in tow. I thought to myself that they could only afford a spread like this one in their dreams. I exited the room without making eye contact and cut across the hall to what I supposed to be a guest bedroom. The focal point of interest was a king-sized canopy bed dressed in gold accessories. It sat upon a raised platform and a floor length bed skirt made for the perfect hiding place until the house emptied.
Some hours later, I awoke to a deserted house and could safely resume my investigating. I gingerly lifted “The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly off the wall and there was the expected safe. I wasted no time. I pulled a pair of my Nana’s dish washing gloves from the back pocket of my jeans, slipped them on and held my breath while I spun the combination lock 48-55-16. With the opening of the Professor’s safe, my career as a safe-cracker was launched.
I wasted no time casting aside all sorts of papers, that at first glance I couldn’t make either heads or tails of. They were probably bonds, deeds, T-bills, etc., something I knew nothing about. I went straight for two stacks of bills – all hundreds, each probably six inches high. I stuffed them inside my backpack, slammed the safe shut and rehung the painting. As I bounded down the stairs and left by way of the service entrance off the kitchen, I couldn’t help but give thought to what my first purchase would be. I had an ongoing wishlist that I had begun when I made the move to Maryland. I decided my first priority would be a trip to the mall, where I’d get a makeover, so I might fit in better with my peers.
Luckily, the Relax Day Spa took walk-ins and I treated myself to the works: color, cut, blow-dry, mani/pedi, facial, waxing and massage. I was in heaven! As I exited the Spa, I stopped to admire my transformation in an ornate full-length mirror. I never imagined I could cleanup so well, but there remained a looming problem – my clothes were all wrong. I made my way to Forever 21 and traded in my skater threads for a strappy sunflower print romper, a sweater knit shift, an off the shoulder skater dress and a crocheted racerback dress, just to name a few. Next came shoes, lingerie and jewelry. I purchased an Apple 1Phone Plus, a $380 pair of Tom Ford sunglasses and a macadamia nut & white chocolate sugar cookie. I’d never felt such a high as I peeled off the hundreds and bought whatever my heart desired. I took a cab almost all the way home. Being the clever girl I was, I had the driver drop me a block away and I made my way undetected to the loft, where I hid my packages.
Time to tackle homework. I grabbed my American History book with one hand opened my laptop with the other. Written across the screen was the inquiry: WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? Not knowing how or where to respond, I began typing directly on the desktop page: Following up on your open house lead. GOOD GRIEF GIRL, YOU’RE REQUIRED TO REPORT BACK AFTER EACH TASK I ASSIGN TO YOU. DON’T LET THIS LAPSE IN PROTOCOL HAPPEN AGAIN. And then followed the address of a gas station, with three sets of numbers – the keypad # to access the backdoor of the establishment, the code to disable the silent alarm and the combination to the safe, which was located beneath the front counter. Also an added warning to go dressed in a hoodie and some kind of face covering. This break-in must be executed tonight. I answered with the lame excuse that I had homework to do. A split second later I read: WOULD YOU PREFER THAT I ABANDON YOU FOR A MORE GRATEFUL AND OBEDIENT GIRL? I dutifully copied the numbers for my next heist.
Later that night I collapsed on my bed and fell into a deep sleep having scored $2700. The filling station caper had gone without a glitch. I was awakened to a sound similar to wind chimes. I was able to track the origin of the tinkling to my laptop. Seems as though my mentor had upgraded my notebook with a new feature. On lifting the cover, a new message awaited me: NO REST FOR THE WICKED, MON CHERI! I was provided another set of numbers, just like before and the window of opportunity, Sunday evening. This would be after all the collection baskets from all the Masses were locked in an all-purpose room in the basement of The Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. The church was the largest and most affluent Catholic Church in Baltimore. With its regular parishioners and out-of-town guests, the haul would be sizable. My heart sank. This was my Nana’s parish. I couldn’t bring myself to rob the Church; why the heavens would open and I’d be struck by a bolt of lightening from above as I stepped through the doors.
As I cut across the front lawn of the church grounds, I heard a familiar melody coming from the pipe organ. I lingered on the sidewalk, eyes closed, basking in what was once my Mom’s favorite hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings”. I was lost in a peaceful reverie when I felt a tap on my shoulder. “It’s a heavenly song, isn’t it my child?” The pastor emeritus, who must have been pushing one-hundred, had appeared out of nowhere. I recognized him from attending Mass at my Nana’s insistence. “Hello Father,” I stammered. “Feel free to go inside for a spell dear,” spoke Monsignor Joseph. “The choir is practicing and they welcome an audience. Here, let me walk you in.” There was no escaping as the pastor took hold of my arm and lead me into “The House of the God”. He propelled me up the center aisle to a pew directly in front of the assembled choir. I noticed some members smiled while others nodded in my direction as they raised their voices praising the Lord. I completely forgot my intended mission as I was taken over by a feeling of peace and tranquility. I became mesmerized by the crucifix of Jesus hanging above the altar and the stations of the cross that adorned the perimeter of the Church walls.
Right then and there, I had an epiphany. As the Monsignor passed by me on his way to the sanctuary, I asked if he might hear my confession. On my knees in the confessional box, I bared my soul. We talked about the restitution demanded from me on this earthly plane and the forgiveness by my Heavenly Father. I left the Church a changed girl.
As soon as I arrived at the loft, I type a message to the devil himself. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought to just toss the laptop in the nearest dumpster. The response I received to my refusal to pillage any longer was a blatant death threat. I reasoned that with my now being in God’s graces I was safe.
I sent a text to Remus asking him if he had any tips on how to fall asleep as I was wired to the max. He suggested going on YouTube and finding a soothing rainfall video. I told him a funny story about my Mom never allowing me to play in the rain or jump in muddy puddles like Peppa Pig. My Mom had come very close to drownng when she was a kid and had a justified fear of water. She used to say you can drown in a teacup of water. I ended texting with Remus and promised him a date for Friday night. I poured water with a wedge of lemon into one of my Nana’s antique, hand-painted teacups and placed it on my bedside table along with the laptop playing “Rain on a Tin Roof”. I tucked my rosary under my pillow and assumed a sleeping position similar to a deadman’s float on my French Provincial daybed. Life was good.
Epilogue: The coroner ruled the death of 15 year old Mia Marlow a drowning. The only thing out of place in the otherwise pristine bedroom was a shattered teacup on the floor.
Credit: Ria Law