Celeste sets out to find a bank robber—but ends up solving a mystery about her mother instead
Eighteen-thousand dollars were stolen from the Bridgeham Regional Bank on Nov. 2. Eyewitnesses say the robber was a man wearing all black, carrying a gun.
“He had a slight figure and he ran very quickly,” said one woman who had witnessed the event.
This is the third armed robbery this week. Witness reports from each of the robberies confirm it was the same person.
—Page 1 of The Bridgeham Times
“Maman,” I said, looking up from the newspaper. “Did you hear about the robbery?”
“What is it, the third one you’ve told me about this week?” my mother asked, washing dishes at the sink.
“Yeah. And all of the eyewitness reports agree that it’s the same person!”
“Celeste, eat your oatmeal,” she said. “It’s getting cold.”
I ignored her. “But isn’t that weird? I mean, this isn’t the kind of place you’d expect to hear about three armed robberies in one week by the same person.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, turning around. “No place on Earth is safe from people doing horrible things. People kill, steal, cheat, lie. You name it.” She turned back around. “Now eat your oatmeal. You’ll be late for school.”
At dinner, I brought up the robberies again. “It’s just—that’s so many!” I said intently, once again ignoring the food in front of me.
Maman gave me a weary glance. The dark circles under her eyes were as prominent as always. “Why are you so fascinated by the horrible things people do?”
“Because it’s a mystery. Isn’t it exciting? That person could rob the restaurant! We’d be in the news!”
“That is not exciting. And it’s not worth pursuing. Just because you’ve read about every mystery book the library has does not mean that you’re going to be able to solve this case, if that’s what you’re aiming for.”
“That’s not what I was saying,” I said indignantly, although I had had that same fantasy for all of math class. I’d just have to pursue it when Maman wasn’t looking.
There was a long silence before Maman said, “You should write Aunt Marjorie.”
Aunt Marjorie was Maman’s younger sister with a passion for poetry, and in my opinion, quite possibly a mental disorder. She had dropped out of school to become a poet, and now she lived by herself in the middle of nowhere. Maman always used her as the reason why I should work hard in school. (“You don’t want to end up like Aunt Marjorie.”) But as far as I could remember, Maman sent her a letter every day because Aunt Marjorie didn’t own a telephone. And on Sundays she sent her money and a box of food because she knew Aunt Marjorie couldn’t support herself. She didn’t want to publish her poems (“It ruins the intimacy”). But to be honest, I doubted she would be able to publish them even if she tried.
“But she never responds when you write her,” I said.
“She never responds to me.” Maman stared at her plate. “But she might respond to you.”
“What would I write about?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Whatever you want. Write about school or something. She needs human contact. She’s probably started talking to the squirrels.” She sighed.
After dinner, I wrote Aunt Marjorie a long letter telling her all about the robberies and how I’d compiled all the information I knew about the robber. He was male, blond, tall, skinny, and fast. I had even devoted a notebook to it, and I carried it with me everywhere in case I saw a clue or had a sudden realization. I told her about how I wanted to solve them. I knew that my secret was safe with her. She hadn’t seen another human in person for years.
I mailed it the next morning.
Writing to Aunt Marjorie made me think about Maman’s childhood in France. Maman’s father had left, and her mother was sick for a long time before she died when Maman was eighteen. Maman had taken care of Aunt Marjorie, her little sister, for most of her childhood: cooking, cleaning, and fussing over everything while Aunt Marjorie played outside or wrote poetry. I suspected this was why Maman was so worried about her all the time. She had programmed herself to. I wondered why she would have let Aunt Marjorie drop out of school. That didn’t seem like something Maman would do. Maybe she had been too busy to care.
* * *
Constantly worrying made Maman far too practical and cheap. She insisted on hand-washing all of the laundry because there was no washing machine in our apartment and the laundromat was “too expensive.” I couldn’t understand why she would be so intent on making her life harder all the time. And for what? Saving a few dollars?
The way I saw it, Maman had never been happy. Naturally, I decided that her constant worrying had done this to her. I had resolved to never live like her. I was going to become a famous detective or, at the very least, star in a detective show. I’d be rich, and I’d hire people to do everything for me. Then I’d have Maman come live in my mansion so that she could understand how life was meant to be lived: to the fullest.
* * *
One night while I tried to sleep, Maman’s question played over and over in my head. Why was I so fascinated by the robberies? I got out of bed and looked out my window at the city lights twinkling. The lights never stopped, like they were constantly worrying or working, too busy to take a break. As I crawled back into bed, I realized that if I solved the mysteries, I’d give people a reason to stop worrying. The robber would be behind bars, and I would be the hero.
An idea came to me Saturday morning as we opened up the restaurant. I would be the one taking orders, so I could observe the people in the restaurant. The robber could be among them! It was a small chance, but I was desperate for something to do. And besides, I could save the restaurant from being robbed. Every time a customer came in, I wrote down a description of them in my notebook so I could keep track of them. One matched the blond hair but was very short. Another was tall and skinny but had black hair. Each graphite streak led me closer to solving the mystery. Adrenaline pumped through my veins.
I got out of bed and looked out my window at the city lights twinkling. The lights never stopped, like they were constantly worrying or working, too busy to take a break.
In between jotting down descriptions and taking orders, I thought about what I would do if I found the robber. I realized I hadn’t really thought it through that well. I decided that I would closely watch them and write down any information. I could tell Maman I was going on break and follow them, if the opportunity arose. As I cleared dishes, I knew that Maman would not allow me to take a break. Oh well, I thought. I’ll just write down anything I observe. Two customers came in, and I went to grab my notebook to write down their descriptions. A customer seated directly behind me saw the notebook.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Um, just something I’m working on,” I said, rushing to hide the notebook. I wasn’t fast enough.
“Are you taking notes on us?” the customer sitting across from them asked.
“Um, no, of course not . . .” I said, trying to find the right way to fix this situation.
“That’s so creepy,” the first customer said. “Come on, let’s go.” They walked out.
I turned around and saw that Maman had her eyes fixed on me from the counter. She had seen the whole thing.
“What are you doing?” Maman demanded. Before I could respond, she grabbed my wrist and pulled me behind the counter. She grabbed the notebook and read what I had written. I watched her face as she realized what I was doing. She stared at me like I was not from this world. “Go back to work. We’ll talk about this more tonight.” She held onto my notebook.
After we closed the restaurant, I sat on the sofa while Maman paced around me. “Why are you so obsessed with these crimes? Why does this matter so much to you?”
“Because it’s a mystery!” I said loudly.
“You keep saying that! What do you mean?”
I wasn’t sure how to explain it. It was just something to do. Instead, I went after Maman: “You’re obsessed with the restaurant!”
“Do you know how hard I’ve worked for that restaurant? I’ve put everything I had into the restaurant!”
“You’re still obsessed with it!” I took a deep breath, and there was an uncomfortable silence. “That’s your thing. This is my thing.”
“You don’t need a ‘thing’!” There was another long silence. “Look,” she said. “I need you to help with the restaurant. You can’t help with the restaurant if you’re busy taking notes about every person who walks in.” She slammed my notebook on the table and walked away.
I sat in my bedroom staring at the wall. Look at where Maman’s ended up, I told myself. She spends every day of her life taking orders from people in the restaurant. She worries about everything. One thing dawned on me: if I did what Maman told me, I’d end up just like her. Once I solved this mystery, she’d realize that she was wrong. I pictured the headline in The Bridgeham Times: “Local 11-Year- Old Girl Solves Mystery that Baffled Police.” I took out my notes on the robber and tried to remember all of the people in the restaurant. I sighed. None of them had looked like the robber.
* * *
To get more inspiration, I re-read some of my favorite mystery books. I realized that the detectives always mapped out the locations of crimes to find a pattern. I decided that in order to have any real chance at solving this mystery, I needed to plot out the robberies on a map too. That way I could find a pattern.
Maman’s bedroom had the big closet, so that was where we kept things that I needed for school supplies. I went in there to look for poster board and thumbtacks. A small cardboard box caught my eye. I opened it and realized that it was all the letters that Aunt Marjorie had ever sent Maman.
There were only three. I picked one up and read it:
Like I keep telling you, I’m fine. We’re not children anymore.
I read another:
Stop sending me letters. I won’t read them. I never needed anything from you. I would have been fine if you had stayed in school too.
The paper was old and wrinkled, but I spotted what looked like teardrops on it. Whose tears were they? Judging by what Aunt Marjorie had written, I knew the answer.
Why did Maman send Aunt Marjorie so many letters if she didn’t even want them? Did that mean she wouldn’t reply to me either?
The door opened and Maman came in.
“What are you doing with that box?” she asked.
“I was looking for thumbtacks and poster board. For, um, a school project. I found this in here.”
Inexplicable anger shook through me. Why would she make me wait so long for a response and then just send me a riddle?
She walked over and swiped it out of my hand.
I studied her face intently. “Why do you write Aunt Marjorie so much if she doesn’t want you to?” She didn’t respond. “Why didn’t you tell me that you dropped out of school too?”
“Get out.” And I did. I could tell she would start yelling soon.
I laid on my bed, tracing the pattern on the bedspread, trying to untangle the complicated web of Aunt Marjorie and Maman’s relationship. If Aunt Marjorie was just composing poems all day, it would have been up to Maman to support the family. From the little snippets she had told me, I gathered that her father had taken most of the family’s money when he left. I hadn’t put together until then that Maman must have had to work to support them while her mother was sick. But why was Aunt Marjorie so hostile toward Maman? Maman was giving her food and money. She was looking out for her.
I turned back to the robberies. A crime spree made far more sense than my mother’s family. I would have to do without the thumbtacks and poster board.
The next morning, Aunt Marjorie’s letter finally came. I was sitting at the table with another bowl of oatmeal in front of me. I ripped it open, eager for her response.
There is another problem closer to home that needs solving.
“What is this, a riddle?” I asked out loud.
“What did she write?” Maman asked.
I read it to her. She was as confused as I was. Suddenly, I felt anger. Inexplicable anger shook through me. Why would she make me wait so long for a response and then just send me a riddle? I crumpled it up.
“What are you doing?” Maman asked as I walked toward the trash can. “You should be glad she sent you a reply. Even if it doesn’t make sense.”
* * *
“I know you’re still trying to solve those robberies,” Maman said as we sat down to dinner.
“What?” I asked, taken aback. “No, I’m not.”
“Celeste, I saw the notes in your room.”
I sighed. “Maman, why can’t you just let me have this?”
“Because it’s not healthy to obsess over something.”
“But you obsess over multiple things!” I shouted. “You obsess over everything! The restaurant, Aunt Marjorie, the laundry!”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Maman asked quietly. “Celeste, I don’t want you to turn into me.”
“What?” I asked, shocked.
“I have worked so hard so that you can have a better childhood than I had. I spent my childhood worrying, and now I spend my adulthood worrying. I can’t not worry. It’s just who I am.” She sighed. “But if you start obsessing over things like these robberies, or whatever, next thing you know, you’ll obsess and worry over everything. Don’t do that to yourself.”
I stared into her eyes, and I saw a tear form.
“But . . . it wouldn’t be a bad thing to be like you. You have your own restaurant. You’ve accomplished so much.”
She looked at the floor and shook her head.
I got up from the table and got my notes. Then I ripped them up and threw them into the trash can. More tears slid down Maman’s cheeks, but she gave me the first real smile I’d seen on her face in a while. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed her smile. I hadn’t realized that the smiles that she’d been giving me were the same smiles she had to plaster on when a customer complained about something. Before I knew it, tears were falling out of my eyes too.
“Why did you let Aunt Marjorie drop out of school?” I asked. “Couldn’t you have stopped her or made her work so you could’ve stayed in school?”
She stroked my hair. “It made her so happy,” she whispered. “But these robberies won’t make you happy, Celeste.”
I wondered how she knew that.
Then I realized something.
“Aunt Marjorie was wrong,” I said.
“What?” she asked.
“She was wrong. She was saying that you need to be solved, but she’s the one that doesn’t make any sense. We need to go visit her. There’s a new mystery on my hands.”