The Twelve #2(4)


    Lila Kyle. Her name was Lila Kyle.
    Though, of course, she knew that the face in the mirror had other names. The Queen of Crazy. Her Loony Majesty. Her Royally Unhinged Highness. Oh, yes, Lila had heard them all. You’d have to get up pretty early in the morning to pass one over on Lila Kyle. Sticks and stones, she always said (her father said), sticks and stones, but what galled her, really, was the whispering. People were always whispering! As if they were the adults and she the child, as if she were a bomb that might go off at any second. How strange! Strange and not a little disrespectful, because in the first instance, she wasn’t crazy, they were one hundred percent wrong about that; and in the second, even if she were, even if, for the sake of argument, she liked to strip naked in the moonlight and howl like a dog (poor Roscoe), what concern of it was theirs? How crazy she was or was not? (Though she had to confess, there were days, certain difficult days when her thoughts would not cooperate, like an armful of autumn leaves she was attempting to shove into a bag.) It wasn’t nice. It was beyond the pale. To speak behind a person’s back, to make such vile insinuations—it was outside the bounds of common decency. What had she ever done to deserve such treatment? She kept to herself, she never asked for anything, she was quiet as a mouse; she was wholly content to bide her time in her room with her lovely little things, her bottles and combs and brushes and her dressing table, where now she sat—it seemed she had been sitting there for some time—brushing out her hair.
    Her hair. As she shifted her attention to the face in the mirror, a wave of warm recognition flowed through her. The sight always seemed to take her by surprise: the rosy, pore-free skin, the dewy glistening of her eyes, the humid plumpness of her cheeks, the delicate proportionality of her features. She looked … amazing! And most amazing of all was her hair. How lustrous it was, how abundant to the touch, how rich with its molassesy thickness. Not molasses: chocolate. An excellent dark chocolate from someplace wonderful and special, Switzerland, maybe, or one of those other countries, like the candies her father had always kept in his desk; and if she was good, very good, or sometimes for no reason at all, simply because he loved her and wanted her to know it, he would summon her to the sanctified quarters of his masculine-smelling study, where he wrote his important papers and read his inscrutable books and conducted his generally mysterious fatherly business, to bestow upon her the symbol of this love. Only one now, he would say to her, the oneness amplifying the specialness because it implied a future in which further visits to the study would occur. The golden box, the lifting lid, the moment of suspense: her little hand hovered over the rich bounty of its contents like a diver poised at the edge of a pool, calculating the perfect angle for her plunge. There were the chocolate ones, and the ones with nuts, and the ones with the cherry syrup (the only ones she didn’t like; she’d spit them out into a Kleenex). But best of all were the ones with nothing, the pure chocolate nuggets. That was what she craved. The singular treasure of milky melting sweetness that she was attempting to divine from among its fellows. This one? This one?
    In a flurry of skirts and veils and windy fabric, the woman came bustling into the room. Really now, Lila thought, what a ridiculous getup that was. How many times had Lila instructed her to dress more practically?
    “Yolanda, where have you been? I’ve been calling and calling.”
    The woman was looking at Lila as if she’d lost her mind. Had they gotten to her, too? “Yolanda, ma’am?”
    “Who else would I call?” Lila sighed exorbitantly. The woman could be so dense. Though her English was not the best. “I would like … something. If you please. Por favor.”
    “Yes, ma’am. Of course. Would you like me to read to you?”
    “Read? No.” Though the thought was suddenly appealing; a little Beatrix Potter might be the very thing to soothe her nerves. Peter Rabbit in his little blue jacket. Squirrel Nutkin and his brother Twinkleberry. The two of them could get into such mischief! Then she remembered.
    “Chocolate. Do we have any chocolate?”
    The woman still appeared totally out of it. Maybe she’d gotten into the liquor. “Chocolate, ma’am?”
    “Leftover Halloween candy, maybe? I’m sure we have some somewhere. Anything will do. Hershey’s Kisses. Almond Joy. A Kit Kat. Whatever is fine.”
    “Um …”
    “Sí? A little choc-o-LAH-tay? Check the cabinet over the sink.”
    “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re asking for.”
    Now, this was annoying. The woman was pretending not to know what chocolate was!
    “I fail to see what the problem is, Yolanda. I have to say, your attitude has begun to trouble me. A great deal, in fact.”
    “Please don’t be angry. If I knew what it was, I’d be glad to get it for you. Maybe Jenny knows.”
    “That’s my point, you see. That is precisely what I’m saying.” Lila sighed heavily. A pity, but there was really nothing left to be done. Better to rip the band-aid off than drag things out.
    “I’m afraid, Yolanda, I’m going to have to let you go.”
    “Go, yes. No más. We no longer require your services, I’m afraid.”
    The woman’s eyes seemed practically to pop from her head. “You can’t!”
    “I’m truly sorry. I wish things had worked out. But under the circumstances, you really leave me with no alternative.”
    The woman hurled herself at Lila’s knees. “Please! I’ll do anything!”
    “Yolanda, get ahold of yourself.”
    “I’m begging you,” the woman blubbered into her skirt. “You know what they’ll do. I’ll work harder, I swear!”
    Lila had expected her to take it badly, but this undignified display was wholly unexpected. It was positively embarrassing. The urge to offer some consoling touch was strong, but Lila resisted it, lest this draw things out, leaving her hands hovering awkwardly in the air. Maybe she should have waited until David got home. He was always better at this sort of thing.
    “We’ll provide you with a reference, of course. And two weeks’ pay. You really shouldn’t take it so hard.”
    “It’s a death sentence!” She hugged Lila’s knees as if she were clinging to a life raft. “They’ll send me to the basement!”
    “I hardly think this qualifies as a death sentence. You’re completely overreacting.”
    But the woman was beyond appeals to reason. Unable to form words through the storm of her uncontrollable sobs, she had given up her pleading, soaking Lila’s skirt with mucusy tears. The only thing on Lila’s mind was extricating herself from the situation as quickly as possible. She hated things like this, she hated them.
    “What’s going on in here?”
    Lila lifted her gaze toward the figure standing in the door, at once breathing a sigh of relief. “David. Thank God. We seem to have a bit of a situation here. Yolanda, well, she’s a little bit upset. I’ve decided to let her go.”
    “Christ, another one? What’s the matter with you?”
    Now, wasn’t this typical. Wasn’t this typical David. “That’s fine for you to say, gone all day, leaving me stuck in the house. I’d think you’d back me up.”
    “Please, don’t do this!” Yolanda wailed.
    Lila made a get-this-woman-off-me gesture with her hands. “A little help here?”
    Which did not prove quite as easy as it might have. As David (not David) bent to extricate the sobbing Yolanda (not Yolanda) from Lila’s knees, the woman redoubled her hold and commenced, unbelievably, to scream. What a scene she was making! For goodness sake, you’d think being fired from a housekeeping job really was a death sentence from the way she was acting. With a hard yank at the waist, David pulled her free and hoisted her bodily into the air. She kicked and screamed in his arms, flailing like a crazy person. It was only through his superior strength that he managed to contain her. One thing about David: he’d kept himself in shape.
    “I’m sorry, Yolanda!” Lila called as he whisked her away. “I’ll mail you a check!”
    The door slammed behind them. Lila released a breath she realized she’d been holding in her chest. Well, wasn’t that something. Wasn’t that just about the most uncomfortable business she’d ever had to endure. She felt completely rattled, and not a little guilty besides. Yolanda had been with them for years, and for everything to end so badly. It left a sour taste in Lila’s mouth. Though admittedly, Yolanda had never been the best housekeeper, and recently she’d really let things go. Probably some personal difficulties. Lila had never even been to the woman’s house, though; she knew nothing of her life. How curious was that? All these years, Yolanda coming and going, and it was as if Lila didn’t know the woman at all.
    “Well, she’s gone. Congratulations.”
    Lila, who had resumed brushing her hair, examined David coolly through the mirror as he paused in the doorway to straighten his tie.
    “And how is this my fault, exactly? You saw her. She was completely out of control.”
    “That’s the third one this year. Good attendants don’t grow on trees.”
    She took another long, luxurious stroke with the brush. “So call the service. It’s really not such a big deal, you know.”
    David said nothing more, evidently content to let the matter drop. He moved to the divan, drawing up the knees of his suit pants to sit down.
    “We have to talk.”
    “Can’t you see I’m busy? Don’t they need you back at the hospital or something?”
    “I don’t work at a hospital. We’ve been over this a million times.”
    Had they? Sometimes her thoughts were autumn leaves, sometimes they were bees in a jar, little buzzing things going round and round.
    “What happened in Texas, Lila?”
    He sighed grumpily. “The convoy. The Oil Road. I thought my instructions were clear.”
    “I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about. I’ve never been to Texas in my life.” She paused her brushing, meeting David’s eyes through the mirror. “Brad always hated Texas. Probably you don’t want to hear anything about that, though.”
    Her words, she saw, had hit their mark. Bringing up Brad was her secret weapon. Though she knew she shouldn’t, she took a perverse delight in the expression on David’s face whenever she spoke the name—the deflated blankness of a man who knew he could never measure up.
    “I don’t ask much of you. What I’m beginning to wonder is if you can control these things anymore.”
    “Yes, well.” Buzz, buzz.
    “Are you listening to me? We can’t have any more disasters like this. Not when we’re this close.”
    “I don’t see what you’re so upset about. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t care for the way you’re speaking to me.”
    “Goddamnit, put that fucking brush down!”
    But before she could do this, he snatched it from her hand and sent it pinwheeling across the room. He seized her by the hair, yanking her head back, and jammed his face so close to hers it wasn’t even a face but a thing, a monstrous distorted sluglike thing, bathing her with its rotten bacterial breath.
    “I’ve had it with your bullshit.” Spittle splashed her cheeks, her eyes; it launched revoltingly from his mouth into hers. The edges of his teeth were etched with a dark substance, giving them a terrifying vividness. Blood. His teeth were lined in blood. “This act of yours. This stupid game.”
    “Please,” she gasped, “you’re hurting me!”
    “Am I?” He twisted her hair, hard. A thousand pinpoint agonies screamed from her scalp.
    “David,” she pleaded, tears drowning her vision, “I’m begging you. Think about what you’re doing.”
    The slug face roared in anger: “I’m not David! I’m Horace! My name is Horace Guilder!” Another twisting yank. “Say it!”
    “I don’t know, I don’t know! You’re confusing me!”
    “Say it! Say my name!”
    It was the pain that did it. In a cyclonic rush, her consciousness collapsed upon itself.
    “You’re Horace! Please, just stop!”
    “Again! All of it!”
    “Horace Guilder! You’re Horace Guilder, Director of the Homeland!”
    Guilder released her, stepping away. She was lying backward over her dressing table, shaking with sobs. If only she could go back. Go back, she thought, clamping her eyes tight to hide this horror of a man, this Horace Guilder, from her sight. Lila, go back. Send yourself away again. She shook with a nausea that rose from a place so deep it had no name, a sickness not of the body but of the soul, the metaphysical core of her fractured self, and then she was on her knees, vomiting, gasping and choking and spewing the vile blood that she herself had drunk that very morning.
    “Okay, then,” said Guilder, wiping his hands on his suit coat. “Just so that’s clear.”
    Lila said nothing. So powerful was her longing to will herself away, she couldn’t have formed words if she’d tried.
    “Big days ahead, Lila. I need to know that you’re on board. No more of your nonsense. And please, try not to fire any more attendants. These girls don’t grow on trees.”
    With the back of her wrist, she wiped the rancid spittle from her chin. “You said that already.”
    “I’m sorry?”
    “I said, you said that already.” Her voice didn’t even sound like her own. “About attendants not growing on trees.”
    “Did I?” He gave a little laugh. “So I did. Funny when you think about it. Something along those lines would sure come in handy, given the exigencies of the food chain and all. I’m sure your pal Lawrence would agree. I tell you, that man can eat.” He paused a moment, enjoying this thought, before his eyes hardened on her again. “Now clean yourself up. No offense, Lila, but you’ve got vomit in your hair.”

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