Lila Zacharov in 13 Pieces
by Holly Black
The summer Lila came back from Europe, everything was different. She was used to drinking her coffee with a croissant dipped in it and taking the Metro by herself. She liked shopping in Le Marais. She had been to Rome and to Madrid and Marrakesh. Before her return, her father had even let her go to a salon and have her hair chopped to chin length and dyed bright pink. She knew she’d changed – but she figured everyone else would be the same.
Cassel was taller, for one thing. He went from about her height to probably near six feet. It made him look alarmingly adult with the new hard angles of his face and a slight roughness to the skin of his jaw. He must have started shaving.
Her mother was angrier. They fought constantly – over Lila’s hair, over how independent she was, and the music she listened to and the books she read. And boys. Every time a boy tried to chat her up on the beach, her mother interrogated her about every detail of what he’d said, warning her in dire terms about diseases and pregnancy. Her mother grew so paranoid that she actually relented about Lila hanging out with Cassel, since he was a known quantity and his grandfather was always home.
So Lila and Cassel spent a lot of time sprawled on an old leather couch in the basement of his grandad’s house, renting black-and-white films where smoky-eyed starlets drank cocktails and laughed in the face of danger. They once even convinced his oldest brother, Philip, to drive them to vintage store at an indoor flea market a half hour away. There Cassel got a fedora with a red feather in it while Lila bought a pair of huge sunglasses and a scarf to tie back her hair like an old-time movie star.
Afterward they walked around, looking at the other stalls.
“Did you see that knife in the shape of a snake?” Cassel asked. “Isn’t a knife-shaped knife scary enough? Why disguise it? I mean how is a snake scarier than a knife?”
Lila grinned. “I thought the rhinestone eyes were a very frightening touch.”
“Look at this!” He grabbed a beret off a hat rack and plopped it down on her head. “I bet you wore one of these all the time in Paris.”
She laughed, trying to yank it away from him. They spun around and she was suddenly very aware of him, of how close she was to being in his arms.
“That’s how I pictured you anyway,” he said, grinning, looking down at her, shockingly handsome with his sooty lashes and square jaw. He had the face of a pirate or a Romani prince.
“Oh, you pictured me, did you?” she asked. “A lot?”
His arms rested on her shoulders as he tilted the hat with gloved hands. He shook his head. “Barely ever.” Then, with a yank, he pulled the beret down over her eyes.
She howled, pulling it off and chasing him through the aisles as shopkeepers yelled after them. It was only after they’d stopped in the parking lot, still laughing and gasping for breath, that she realized what it meant that her heart was still slamming against her rib cage, that she was still looking for an excuse to touch him, that her whole body seemed to thrum with joy at his happiness.
But she had no idea what to do about it.
It’s not that Lila didn’t like weddings. It’s just that, by thirteen, she had gone to lots of them. Her father’s business was full of bad young men who planned on dying young and rich, with a wife and children to weep over their graves. Criminals were, as a rule, disgustingly sentimental.
Her father had to preside over all the weddings, as necessary as the luck curse and the pair of rings. He had to give out envelopes of money to the brides, just like he gave envelopes to the widows at the funerals that would follow. And since her parent’s divorce, Lila had become the woman on his arm.
Lila had acquired a closet full of dresses to go with her new role. Half of them were black.
That day, she was in light gray. As the bride and groom danced, she played gin rummy with her cousin Anton for silver candied almonds. He mostly won.
“Lila,” her father said, interrupting a game. His black silk suit looked perfectly pressed, red diamond tie pin stabbing through his ivory tie, keeping even that in place. “Do me a favor.” He’d been drinking steadily since they arrived, but he didn’t slur his words.
“Sure,” she said.
He reached into his inside breast pocket and took out an envelope. “Hand this to the new Mrs. Consenza. Tell her it’s from the family.” Ice cubes clinked as he swished them around his highball glass. He took a swallow of amber liquor.
“Okay,” she said.
His gloved hand patted her shoulder. “There’s my good girl.”
She rolled her eyes as he walked off.
“Give me that,” Anton said, reaching for the envelope. “I’ll do it.”
She pulled her hand off the table, shifting the envelope to her lap. “No.”
“How about I play you for it? We finish out the hand.” He was smiling, but it looked forced.
She stood up. “What’s wrong with you?”
His eyes flashed with the promise of violence. “You’re too young to represent the family. That’s all. Look, in a couple of years, things will be different.”
“You don’t get to decide that,” she said. It was a little thing, an errand. She wouldn’t have thought twice about it if Anton hadn’t been so weird. But now, stubbornly, she stood up and walked to the head table.
The couple was still spinning around the dance floor. They looked happy, entirely focused on each other, eyes bright with joy.
Lila waited until the bride came back from dancing, flushed and giddy.
“From the family,” Lila told her, putting the envelope into her hand.
The bride’s hand trembled as she took it. She gave a quick, nervous grin. “Thank you. Tell your father thank you.”
“We both wish you the best,” Lila improvised.
The bride and groom thanked her again, sincerely. They seemed to accept without question that she spoke for her father.
And if she told them something else some other time – even gave them an order — she bet they’d accept that without question too.
She could see why Anton wanted people to believe that he spoke for her father. Why he wanted her to get used to letting him boss her around. Why she couldn’t let him.
Instead, she walked over to the bar, grinning in Anton’s direction as she did. There, she ordered the only drink she could think of, one from an old movie, The Thin Man, she’d seen the summer before – a martini.
The bartender gave it to her.
She took a sip and nearly spat it out. It smelled like rubbing alcohol and burnt the inside of her mouth.
Determined, she went to the bathroom and dumped it in the sink, refilling the glass with water. No one questioned her as she sipped it. The bartender even gave her a toothpick with extra olives.
Lila wondered how many other things she could make people give her.
If she wanted to be more than the girl on her father’s arm, his good little girl, she’d better start making an impression.
When Lila was twelve, she flew to Paris with her father. They sat in first class, which meant big seats, comfortable headphones, and a little television with dozens and dozens of movies her mother would have said she was too young for. The flight attendants brought out dinner with three separate courses plus a dessert of cookies before they folded the seats into beds.
Lying in her seat-bed, though, she couldn’t sleep. She was too excited to be on the plane. Too excited about Paris.
So she’d watched a movie – the one about cheerleaders who are murdered one by one by the nerdy boy whose feelings they hurt. Then, because she still wasn’t tired, she’d watched another movie — the one where three teenage werewolves make a pack to lose their virginity on the same night. And after that, they were so close to landing that there was no reason not to watch the period drama about a lady in fancy dresses who went to masked balls but was really in love with a highwayman.
The exhaustion didn’t hit her until they landed. She dragged herself through the airport, barely awake enough to pull her luggage in a straight line. She fell asleep in the cab and had to be shaken awake by her father.
“It’s the middle of the day,” he said as they shuffled up the stairs to their flat in the Latin Quarter. “I told you to sleep on the plane.”
Her only answer was a yawn.
The apartment was huge and beautiful with dark wood floors and soaring ceilings with beautiful moldings. Her father didn’t seem to notice any of it. He took off his perfectly pressed coat and tossed it onto a slip-covered white sofa. “If you stay up today, you’ll get over the jet lag. Otherwise, your body’s going to have a hell of a time adjusting to the time zone shift.”
“Okay,” she said. “Can I just take a nap then?”
“I have to make some calls,” he said. “I’ll get you up in an hour.”
He went off to do whatever business mob bosses can do in foreign countries over a phone, but when he tried to rouse her, she didn’t budge. She slept through the whole day, getting up sometime after midnight.
She woke ravenously hungry and disoriented at the darkness outside the big picture window. Padding into the kitchen of the apartment, she opened the refrigerator, but it was empty.
“Lila?” her father said, coming into the dim room from his bedroom. He looked unusually rumpled, like maybe he’d been sleeping too.
“Sorry I totally zonked out,” she said, yawning and stretching. Her fingers reached up for the ceiling and curled. She’d slept in her gloves.
He gave her a slight smile, a corner of his mouth lifting. “You hungry?”
“Starving,” she said.
“Go get dressed, then,” he told her. “Paris is beautiful at night.”
She walked back to her room and opened her suitcase. Her mother had helped her pack it, explaining that she’d better bring only nice things because people in Europe dressed differently – they weren’t slobs like Lila and her friends. They would never wear dresses layered over jeans or big clunky boots. “Don’t embarrass your father,” Mom had said, as if he cared what she wore. Don’t embarrass me was what she meant.
Lila put on a heavy camel-colored dress. With her pale skin, it made her look completely washed out. She sighed and went into the bathroom to wash her face, brush her teeth, and comb her scraggly shoulder-length blond hair. Then she put on her knee-high black boots – the ones she’d snuck into the front zipped compartment of the suitcase before leaving – and tied the laces.
Clomping out to the sitting room, she found her father waiting, reading a French paper. He put it down absently and twirled the keys to the flat around his finger. Outside, Paris was lit up and beautiful. Everything seemed familiar – reminding her of some parts of New York – but the details were wrong somehow. It reminded her, too, of the lady in the period drama, rattling past buildings like these in her carriage. Lila looked into the darkened windows of all the shops to see displays of dresses on headless mannequins, paintings, and costume jewelry.
Each store they passed was closed.
Finally, Lila saw a cafe with its lights still on. A couple was even sitting at one of the tables, sipping espresso.
“Dad,” she said, pointing.
When they got there, the front door was locked and the closing time was listed as midnight. A clock on the door in the lobby showed that it was nearly one.
Lila’s father knocked on the door. A waiter came over and opened it halfway, speaking with slightly bored irritation. Lila couldn’t understand everything he said – just enough. The restaurant was closed.
Her father reached into his coat pocket and took out his wallet. As he did, she saw the strap under his arm and the butt of a silvery gun.
The waiter saw it too.
Her father grinned like a shark, said a few words she didn’t know, and took a bank note for five hundred euros from his billfold. The door opened wide.
The money was exchanged as they were escorted inside.
“And how old is the lady?” the waiter asked her in accented English as he pulled out her chair.
“Âgé de douze ans,” she said.
Her father laughed and the waiter smiled, but stiffly, as though they were performing parts in a play.
“Very good,” said the waiter, although she knew it wasn’t. She wasn’t even sure if it was right.
As he walked off, she opened the menu. Her father leaned across the table.
“Money will buy you anything in the world,” he said in a low, satisfied voice. “It’s all for sale. People’s time. Their dignity. Whatever. Whenever. And most people’s price is shockingly low.”
That’s the lesson he thought he taught Lila, but the lesson she learned was different. It wasn’t money that opened that door. It was fear.
Lila’s winter friends were different from her summer friends. Her winter friends were real friends – the ones who came to her apartment after school, who went shopping with her and celebrated her birthdays with candles and sleepovers.
Jennifer and Lorraine and Margot. They all went to the small exclusive academy for rich curse worker children – where they fought to be the prettiest, the smartest, and the cruelest. They stole boyfriends back and forth. They shared books and clothes and told one another secrets. They danced to music and lied to their parents so they could stay out late.
Once, Lila tried to explain about her summer friends, about Cassel and his brothers. Jennifer laughed and said they were made up. Lorraine wanted to meet them. Margot looked at the one picture Lila had – a grainy and faded one with a sprinkler in the background where Cassel had his arm thrown over her shoulders and his shirt off – and said that he looked stupid but hot.
“He’s not a worker,” Lila said, and they all laughed, because a boy who wasn’t a worker couldn’t be anything but a plaything to a girl like Lila.
Sometimes Cassel felt made-up. If Margot was angry with her and Lorraine was busy or Jennifer was taking Margot’s side, Lila would call him. He could make her laugh. And she didn’t need to be afraid to tell him all the true things that she couldn’t tell anyone else.
He was her summer friend. He wasn’t part of her real life. Telling him didn’t count.
Three weeks before Lila’s fourteenth birthday, her mother took her shopping. They walked around the upper levels of Saks, where all the grown-up dresses were.
“Just look around,” her mother told her. “Try on anything you like. It’s your day!”
Lila didn’t mention that she hated parties. She already knew that her mother only remembered facts she liked. Anything else she instantly forgot and would keep forgetting no matter how many times she was reminded.
Instead, Lila brushed her gloved fingers over the rack of gowns until she came to one that looked like something heroines wore at the end of movies. It was sacrificial and beautiful.
“Not white,” her mother said. “You’re not a little girl anymore and this isn’t your wedding.”
Lila moved her fingers to the straps of a red dress and raised her eyebrows.
Her mother laughed. “Your father would kill me, but go ahead, try it on.”
They pulled more – gold dresses and pink dresses, black dresses and dresses as silver as the moon.
“There’s a language of clothing,” Lila’s mother said as Lila came out of the dressing room and twirled around in midnight blue velvet. “Like the language of flowers…or jewelry. For instance, that makes you look older, but not in a good way. You’re saying ‘I’m stuffy before my time.’”
Lila ran her gloved hand down the bodice. She wondered what it would be like to touch the little beads glittering there like stars, but she knew that if she took off her glove it would upset the sales lady.
She made a face at her mother and went back into the stall to put on the red dress with the deep vee neck. It clung to her waist, to her breasts — already grown too big for the training bra she’d been wearing and what a relief to have taken it off – and to the newly formed curve of her hip. She looked like a starlet.
“Jailbait prostitute,” her mother said, and Lila blushed hotly.
“I like it,” she said, narrowing her eyes.
“I just bet you do,” her mother said, waving her back into the dressing room. “Now tell me what you want your party dress to say, because it won’t be that.”
Since the divorce, her mother and father had fought over Lila by buying her things – the trip to Paris with her father, the party, this dress. And they both wanted not just her love, but her promise of loyalty.
She wanted the people at the party to see her as her father’s heir. Instead, she was afraid they’d see her as his spoiled daughter. She didn’t know how a dress could change that, when the whole party was one big indulgence she never asked for and still had to act gleeful about. And even if a dress could make people see her that way, she couldn’t tell her mother what she wanted, when her mother would only see it as a betrayal.
“A force to be reckoned with,” Lila said finally, hoping that was vague enough. “That’s what I’d like.”
Her mother laughed. “Well, it’s accurate!”
She sounded so condescending that Lila ground her teeth. She went back to the rack of garments and picked one at random. Then she stood in front of the mirror, looking at her hair: shorter and nearly white after her mother insisted the stylist bleach it back from pink. Everything about her was so pale that she felt like a ghost.
While she slipped on the silver dress and smoothed the shining paillettes of it over her hips, she imagined turning fourteen. She hoped that it would transform her somehow, change her in some way that would give her the kind of knowledge older girls at her school seemed to have. She hoped it would make her brave. There was a boy – a boy she had no idea what to do about.
The silver looked darker on her – more iron than the bright tinsel she’d initially thought it was – and the paillettes looked almost like scales. The color made her blue and green eyes stand out against her skin like jewels.
“This is the one I want,” Lila said, stepping out of the dressing room.
Her mother looked at her and sighed. “It’s a little short,” she said. “And shiny. Shiny can be vulgar. Maybe you should try on the light pink. Pink is youthful and very elegant when it’s on the beige side.”
“No,” Lila said. “This is perfect.”
Lila loved the dress. It said just what she wanted to say. It was the precise color of her father’s favorite gun.
Barron slung his arm over her shoulders casually as they walked down the concrete steps.
Lila stopped to take her shoes off before she stepped onto the wet sand. He had to let go of her, and she spun away from him, inhaling deeply. The crash of the waves sent up a faint salt spray that dusted her skin.
“You look really nice tonight,” he said, coming close again. His gloved hand rested at the curve of her back, the swell of her hip.
She froze for a second, then forced herself to relax. Being nervous was silly.
“Thanks,” she said. “You do too.”
She’d known Barron for years, after all. He’d spent his summers in the same little town that she did. She’d even had a hopeless crush on his younger brother, Cassel, but Cassel never asked her out, not even after she’d paraded around in front of him in nothing but a big baggy shirt and underwear, with glittery, smoky eye makeup.
So there she was with Barron, who had asked her and who had his license. Who was charming. Who was clearly, technically, the better boyfriend. The one her friends would be jealous about.
And they’d eaten pizza and joked around on the first part of the date, which was fun. And now they were taking a romantic walk on the beach. The moon was hidden behind clouds, but there was enough light to make the breaking waves shimmer as they crashed on the shore.
“You want to sit on the jetty?” he asked her.
This was the exact kind of thing people were supposed to do on dates.
“Okay,” she said and followed him onto the rocks. As she walked out, waves broke higher and higher, in plumes of foam. The surf raged all around them, trickling out through flooded tide pools.
She turned to say something when he took her chin and kissed her. His lips were soft and for a moment, everything seemed perfect. She wound her arms around his neck. But then he was drawing her down to the rock, his hands running over the sides of her legs. And she felt thrilled and scared all at the same time.
It happened so fast. His tongue was inside her mouth and their bodies were pressed together, his legs between hers. Her head rocked back against cold stone.
“Uh,” she said, pulling away slightly.
He looked at her in bafflement and she felt the shame of not knowing what she was supposed to do, of being so much younger than him, crash over her like one of the waves.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said, scrambling to sit up. She tried to think of something else to say, something casual and sophisticated.
He looked at her for a long moment, then sighed. “We should go back.” Standing, he offered her his hand, helping her to her feet.
“We don’t have to stop,” she said uncertainly.
He shook his head. “It’s getting late anyway.”
Lila was quiet on the way to the car and then on the drive home. He talked the whole way, cheerily, but she couldn’t focus on what he was saying.
She was wondering if this was what love felt like. She was wondering if he would ask her out again and what they would do on that date. She hoped he would ask her, but she was already dreading it.
Once, Lila Zacharov was in love with a boy with hair as black as spilled ink and eyes as dark as coffee. She would trace his name on her skin, over and over, write it in the condensation of her breath on panes of glass, scrawl it on the bottoms of her feet with the tip of her nail, like she was casting a spell.
He would come to her mother’s house, and they would lie on the wooden floor of her room, making up games. Once, Lila took out her old book of fairy tales to show him a picture of a dragon that she wanted to draw on his arm like a tattoo.
“Wouldn’t it be great if bears and foxes could really talk?” he said, half kidding, pushing a lock of hair back from his eyes.
“I could give you a dream where they did,” she said.
He looked away from her quickly, like he didn’t want her to see his face. His family was full of workers, but he wasn’t one.
“Thanks,” he said. “But no thanks.”
There was a silence between them, a silence that hadn’t been there when they were younger. She wondered if he was afraid. She wondered if he was jealous that she had magic and he didn’t. She wondered if he wanted to kiss her.
“If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?” he asked her.
She leaned back. “I don’t know. Maybe get a car. A really fast red one.”
He laughed. “You couldn’t drive it.”
“I could buy a fake ID too! I’d have a bajillion dollars. I could bribe everyone.”
He shrugged his shoulders but he was still grinning. There was something about the curve of his mouth, something lurking behind his eyes that made her want to touch him, made her want to strip off her glove and feel the warmth of his skin against hers.
“I’d get out of here,” he said. “Go someplace where no one knew me. Start over. Go to Paris like you did or go to—I don’t know—Prague. Somewhere.” He looked toward the window, like he could already see himself gone.
“Oh,” she said, because it hurt that he was thinking about that when she was thinking about him. She narrowed her eyes. “What’s stopping you?”
The boy looked down at the book of fairy tales. “Nothing,” he said.
Lila wanted to be the one to stop him.
He reached between them and tucked a strand of her long blond hair behind her ear with one gloved finger. The shiver that started at the base of her spine felt like a warning.
When Lila Zacharov was eight, she dressed up in one of her mother’s long beaded dresses and clasped a diamond necklace around her forehead, like it was a crown. Then she stood in front of the huge gilt mirror in her parents’ bedroom to look at herself. Her hair was a tangle of pale curls, and the dress was so long that it trailed behind her like a train, but if she squinted, she could almost see someone else – a mysterious shadow self – reflected back at her.
“I’m a princess,” she told her grandmother, whom she called Babchi. Babchi had lived in the apartment with Lila and Father and Mother ever since Grandpa died. Each night Babchi sat at the end of Lila’s bed, telling her stories about firebirds and white bears, while Mother went out to plays or fancy dinners and Father did business.
“Yes,” said Babchi, coming to stand behind Lila. “My princess. The princess of a land of ice and snow. With icicles as sharp as knives.”
“I’m a fairy,” Lila said, spinning in circles until she tripped on the edge of her mother’s dress and fell.
“Yes,” said Babchi. “My fairy. You aren’t like other girls. You will laugh when others weep. Your heart will be a riddle.”
“Someday, I will fall in love with a boy,” Lila said, pursing her lips. “And he will be a prince.”
“If you fall in love, little one, there is a cure for that,” Babchi told her. “You – and you must do this yourself – you cut out his heart and eat it. Then you won’t love him anymore.”
Lila made a face and stuck out her tongue. Babchi laughed.
“I won’t want to be cured,” Lila insisted. It was her story and she wanted Babchi to understand, to get it right. The fairy princess met a prince and then they were happy. That’s how the story went. Lila had a book to prove it –a book so covered in glitter that flecks of it came off on her hands when she read about their wedding. Her mother had bought it for Lila’s birthday.
“That is very true and that is exactly what makes it so hard,” Babchi said, nodding. “If you wanted to, it would be easy. But you’ll do it anyway. You’re my princess, and when the time comes, you’ll know what you have to do.”
Lila nodded too, because Babchi had that tone in her voice that said that she would be sad if Lila didn’t agree, and if Babchi was sad, she might not want to play anymore. She might go in the other room and watch television.
Lila had lots of other costumes to try on. She wanted Babchi to stay and see them all.
When Lila was nine, she chopped off all of her hair with nail scissors and let it stick up in tufts as if it were wild grass in a meadow.
“It isn’t your fault we’re getting a divorce,” her mother told her.
The day after, Lila and her mother drove down to Carney, even though it wasn’t summer yet. Lila sat at the kitchen table of her grandmother’s house, drawing black swirls on her hand with a sharpie. The whorls went up her arm, curling in on themselves.
“Your father is very selfish,” her mother said, drinking her third cup of coffee. After each sip, she set the cup back down on the saucer with a clink. “Always out somewhere with someone. And the women! He never understood what it takes to be married – no less to have a daughter.”
“Mmmmm-hmmm,” Lila said. She was used to making encouraging noises. If she didn’t, her mother would get upset.
“He expects me to be like his mother was – never complaining, slaving away in the kitchen, never asking any questions. But that’s just what he saw of his mother — what she showed him! How does he know what happened behind closed doors? Or how miserable she was – just look at the lines on her face! I used to walk the runways of Milan! I order take out!”
The back door opened and Lila’s grandmother walked in with a grocery bag in each arm. She set them down on the counter. “I could hear you all the way to the driveway, Irina. Tell me your troubles; leave her out of it. What’s the best cure for heartbreak?”
“His heart,” Lila said distractedly. She got to a tricky part by her elbow and wasn’t sure if she could bend her arm quite as far as she needed to draw the snaking circles just right.
Her mother gasped. “What did you say?”
Lila’s grandmother smiled and ruffled Lila’s shorn head with a gloved hand. “I was thinking of a big chocolate cake with chocolate icing and that’s just what I am going to bake.”
“Do you like my tattoos, Babchi?” Lila asked, holding out her arm.
“No she does not,” her mother said, voice rising with irritation. “And you are going to have to scrub yourself raw to get them off. With that hair – you just look ridiculous. Did you draw on your gloves, too? Give me those!”
Lila took off her gloves and set them down in a crumpled pile. Her tattoos didn’t look right anymore. They stopped abruptly at her wrist.
“She looks like a child,” Lila’s grandmother said. “Lila, why don’t you go play and leave us old folks to talk?”
Lila obediently set down the black pen and went outside. It was only when she got there that she realized she didn’t have her gloves on – they were back on the kitchen table. But she didn’t want to go inside again, and the air was cool on the skin of her palms.
She walked around town, kicking a squashed tin can and catching a toad near the stump of a tree. It had golden eyes and smelled like rich, wet earth, and she could hardly believe her luck when her fingers closed around it like the bars of a cage. She liked the way it wriggled in her hand.
She walked over to Mr. Singer’s house. The screen door was open, but she didn’t hear anyone inside. She tapped at the metal with her foot.
“Cassel?” she called. “I caught something.” Even though she and Cassel didn’t see each other during the rest of the year, every summer they were instantly best friends again. But the beginning was always like an indrawn breath, with both of them not sure when they were allowed to let it out.
No one answered. She waited a few more minutes and then walked to the side yard. Mr. Singer – Cassel’s grandfather — was raking in the back. He looked older than she remembered, his hair grayer. Lila tried to wave, but her hands were full with the toad.
He walked over. “Lila Zacharov? I almost didn’t recognize you.”
“Yeah,” she said, braced for him to tell her how bad it looked. “My hair’s different.”
“The boys aren’t here yet – won’t be down for a couple weeks.”
“Oh,” she said, pain stinging the backs of her eyes. She remembered that it wasn’t summer, but she forgot Cassel wasn’t just always there, waiting for her.
Mr. Singer pointed to her hands. “What’s that you’ve got?”
She bent to let go of the toad, smiling with sudden pride. “I never caught one before by myself.”
Mr. Singer grinned. “He’s a real handsome fellow.”
For a moment, the toad stayed very still in the grass, then exploded into motion, hopping toward the hedges in three flashes of brown and green.
Mr. Singer laughed. “Fast too. When the boys come down, they’ll be real impressed. I’ll tell ’em.”
“Yeah?” she asked hopefully.
“No doubt.” He gave her a considering look. “I like what you’ve done. Short hair’s good for the summer. Keeps you cool. Maybe you want to get some clippers and even it out, though.”
She touched the tufts of it with her bare fingers. “Do you have some?”
“Sure.” He took her inside the house and showed her where they were and how they worked. Then he made her a cup of tea, and they watched Ban of the Banned on the television until her mother came looking for her.
“Is my daughter here?” Lila’s mother asked from the doorway while Lila pretended to be asleep on the couch.
“Sure is,” Mr. Singer said.
“I’m so sorry,” her mother said. Her voice was a little unsteady, like she was afraid. Lila cracked open her eyes.
Mr. Singer was shrugging. “No trouble. Kids are always in and out in the summer.”
Lila got up, and she and her mother walked home together in the early dark. For a long time, they didn’t speak. Lila was braced for shouting.
“You can’t go over there anymore,” Lila’s mother said softly, instead, as they got to the edge of their lawn. She didn’t comment on Lila’s hair or the fact that she was going around gloveless.
“Why not?” Lila asked. “I always play over there.”
“That man works for your father,” her mother said. “None of them are good people and they’re beneath you besides.”
“Cassel’s my friend.”
“He’s not even a worker. He’s nothing. Listen to me — you stay away from Mr. Singer and those Sharpe boys. Things are different now. I don’t want you winding up like your father.”
When Lila got back to her grandmother’s, she took the pen into her bedroom and finished drawing the swirls, covering her fingers in black ink. In the mirror of her room, she could see her hair, military-short and gold with reflected light from her desk lamp.
Things were different now.
She was different.
She was alone.
After what felt like hours of sitting in silence, someone finally took the hood from over Lila’s head. Cool air started drying the sweat on her brow. She swept back her bangs with one bare hand and tried very hard not to tremble. Tried to seem like the kind of girl who was never afraid.
Three men were standing in front of her – three men she’d known for a long time. Fat Jimmy, Big Louie, Nat the Knife. They were like uncles to her. Wicked uncles who had tutored her in wickedness.
The room was dark, but the shadows seemed to cling to the dusty boards of the wall. The only light in the room came from a candle on a table. Next to it was a cloth, a knife, and a fifth of cheap vodka. She could hear traffic, but distantly. She would bet the building she was in was abandoned. It would be an excellent place to leave a body. She just hoped that body wasn’t going to be hers.
“This is my initiation, right?” she asked.
Nat grinned, but none of them answered.
“Where are my gloves?” she asked.
“Take a shot,” Fat Jimmy said. “And toast to your old life. Say good-bye.”
The scent of old blood rose up, maybe from the floorboards, maybe from the cloth or the knife. Sometimes, when Lila was a little girl, her father would come home smelling that this. She wondered what it would be like to smell the scent on her own skin.
She went to the table, found a small glass hidden behind the wadded-up cloth and poured vodka in it. Despite feeling nauseous and a little dizzy, she downed the drink. It seared her throat.
Fat Jimmy said something else, something about honor or respect or silence, but Lila couldn’t quite pay attention. She wasn’t done saying good-bye.
Once upon a time there was a girl with golden hair and no fear. She burned her hands on stoves because she wanted to touch the pretty red coils, she stuck her fingers in sockets and ran with knives. She told her cousins that when she grew up, she would be the boss of them all, and she meant it. There was a girl whose heart was as hard as diamonds.
Until someone locked her in a cage and hid the key.
That was the story Lila told herself, the one that might not have been true, but that she repeated over and over anyway. That was the way she kept herself eating and drinking and pushing at the bars, looking for a way out. That was the fairy tale that sent her off to sleep each night and woke her every morning.
Once upon a time there was a girl with golden hair and no fear. Someone locked her in a cage and hid the key. But the girl would have her revenge.
“There are dog people and cat people.”
That’s what Anton, Lila’s cousin, told her one afternoon while they sat near the lake in Carney. She was wearing her first ever bikini – a white one that her mother told her wasn’t supposed to get wet. Annoyed, she was sitting on the hot planks of the dock and dipping her feet in the water while the boys swam.
Philip, Anton’s best friend, pulled a cooler out of his car, dumping it on the bank. He was just turning twenty, and the scars on his neck showed his loyalty to her father. A shallow cut, packed with ash so that it darkened, marking him as dead to his old life and born anew as part of the Zacharov family. Sometimes when she looked at his neck, she felt guilty. Other times she felt nothing at all.
“You want a sandwich or something?” Philip asked her. “My grandfather packed up some stuff. There’s peanut butter. And some soda.”
Anton grabbed for a beer.
“Can I have a soda?” Lila asked. When he gave it to her, she pressed it against her forehead and neck, letting its coolness push back some of the muggy heat.
“Guys like you,” Anton told Philip. “Dog people. Dependable. Friendly.”
“Will bite the hand that feeds me,” said Philip.
She looked out at the lake where his youngest brother, Cassel, floated in the middle of the lake, his skin bronzed by the sun. Anton and Lila both had the kind of skin that never tanned. It just turned lobster red and faded back to pale. Already, Anton’s shoulders had gone pink.
Cassel noticed that she was looking and grinned, waving to her. His black hair was a messy halo of floating curls. His eyes were as dark as the water.
“You coming in?” he called.
She wanted to explain about her swimsuit, although she wasn’t sure why her mother bought her a suit she couldn’t actually swim in. But if she said that, she was afraid he’d laugh at her. She shook her head instead.
“Which one am I?” she asked, turning back to her cousin.
“Oh come on,” he said. “You know you’re a cat person. Fickle. Finicky. Don’t listen to anyone.” He laughs.
Lila kicked the surface of the lake, sending up a spray. “So what are you?”
“We’re family,” he said. “Two of a kind.”
“But cats hate water,” she said and jumped in.
It was a cold shock after the oppressive heat, but it was the feeling of recklessness that made her giddy. She ribboned through the lake, swimming toward Cassel.
“Um,” he said as she bobbed beside him. He had a very strange expression on his face. She couldn’t be sure, but he seemed to be blushing.
“Anton says there’s cat people and dog people,” she said. “What do you think?”
“Right now, I think I’m more of a snake,” he said, glancing down then back up to her eyes. He looked like he was about to start laughing, but there was something else. Like there was a joke he was just waiting for her to get, so she could laugh too.
She followed his gaze and finally figured out why her mother told her not to get the suit wet. The white fabric had gone translucent.
A hot flush crept up her neck.
“Get me your T-shirt,” she said. “Go.”
“This is me not saying all the things I could say.” His eyes danced with mirth. “This is me being your knight in shining armor.”
She looked toward the bank, where Anton was watching her, still drinking his beer. She kept treading water.
Being a dream worker sounded silly. It sounded like crystals and clouds and rainbows. Only babies were afraid of nightmares, after all.
Lila remembered one of her father’s friends, Fat Jimmy, laughing when her father told him what her talent was.
“A cute kind a’ curse for a kinda cute gal,” he said, chuckling.
She took off her glove and poked him in the arm. That night he had the dream she’d seen wandering around in her father’s head – one of being shot over and over and over again by each one of his friends. The next time she saw Fat Jimmy, he couldn’t quite meet her eyes.
Cursing people was something that you shouldn’t do. It was illegal, for one thing, but since she was a member of the Zacharov family, no one she knew thought breaking the law was a big deal. It was rude, as her mother reminded her.
But it was also easy. If she could touch someone without them noticing, then she could crawl around in their dreams, learn their fears and their desires. She could give them dreams suggesting things. She could even, she discovered, make people move while they were asleep. Once, she convinced her mother to go to the kitchen and make a cup of cocoa without ever waking.
The bad thing was that it ate away at her sleep. No matter if she gave people nightmares or watched their dreams like television or made them dance around the living room with their eyes closed, the price was insomnia.
She would lie awake for days at a time, until she finally cursed herself to resting. Then, when she woke, she had to pay for that, too.
Once, she made a boy come out of his house and kiss her under the streetlight. It was her first kiss. She thinks it was probably his, too.
She never told him and she never, ever will.