4: Twins


No one knew what to do about the Holliday twins. They were delinquents. They were miscreants. They were possibly mentally deranged. There were reports of alcohol, cigarettes, and unvirtuous behavior of a lewd and sexual nature. Barbara, who called herself Babs MacNabs, was certainly fooling around with biker and local toughie, Ronnie “The Sock” Montrose. Some said Louise, who called herself Lou MacGoo, was similarly entangled with Ronnie’s knife-wielding sister, Donella.


These activities were shocking to the parents and faculty at St. Hilda’s. Those folks got the vapors if a girl had a wrinkled collar. But Sylvie wasn’t shocked. A lot of the girls back in the neighborhood—her sister, her cousins, her old students at Sacred Heart, herself at sixteen—made eyes at Aunt Rosa’s blue-eyed craps-dealing boyfriend from Atlantic City. She knew that a certain degree of shit-stirring was obligatory, a necessary stage on the path to womanhood, even if she could not professionally condone it. Sylvie wasn’t immune to irresponsibility. She was only a few years away from being a teenager herself, as the whole life-ruining mess at Sacred Heart had manifestly demonstrated.


But the Holliday Twins were different—not just a step, but a whole grand marble staircase outside the realm of typical teenage bullshit. You could see it in their faces—not identical, though certain St Hilda’s faculty pretended they were—that shifty, half-bored cunning of girls playing dumb but missing nothing, who could smell blood from miles away. If they’d been boys in the neighborhood, Sylvie suspects they would have ended up like Scary Anthony, deceptively polite with the ladies, but thinking nothing of bashing a man’s head in, walking away easy as you please, with a contented smile and a bloodstained cuff.


Which was why Sylvie wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that they’d set Mrs Jordan on fire during her second period lesson on the Salem Witch Trials. Sylvie hadn’t been there to see it. She’d missed the bus that morning, and had to wait on her brother Lorenzo for a ride, and by the time she arrived to work, the campus was in total chaos.


“A few burns on her legs, but she survived. Her skirt took most of the damage. And by the way that is exactly why I avoid polyester blends.” Mrs Pomerantz shook her head, and took a long drag on her third consecutive Pall Mall.


“Will they be expelled?” asked Sylvie.


“They should have been arrested,” said Mrs Pomerantz. “They Headmistress has them quarantined in the infirmary, waiting to be delivered home, but I suspect no punishment will come to them. After all, they are Hollidays . . .”


Sylvie nodded. St Hilda’s was a school for rich girls, in a part of town reserved for rich people. It was at least six city bus stops north of middle class, and nearly an hour ride from the cramped rowhouse she shared with her mother, her two unmarried brothers, and Great Aunt Paola. Yet even in a sea of presumed heiresses, the Holliday Twins were in a class by themselves. Their great-grandfather, Ignatius, had accrued a fortune so vast in shipping and railroads that his son, The Commodore, famously tried to buy Australia (the Crown balked; he bought oil wells instead). Originally Lady Baltimore Academy for Well Brought Up Young Women, St. Hilda’s had been endowed to the point of near-purchase by The Commodore’s Wife sixty-odd years prior. She hired faculty from Europe and refreshed the decor with a lot of pink marble and decorative turrets. She renamed the classroom buildings—Horatio Hall and Popsy House—after her favorite spaniels. When the dogs died, she had them interred in an elaborate tomb, eternally guarded by a battalion of bronze puppy cherubs, that took up much of the St. Hilda’s chapel.


Post-Gilded Age, the Hollidays had reigned in the extravagance, opting for offstage investment instead of grand public excess, and had made precipitous cuts to their contributions to the school. Even so, the scuttlebutt around the teacher’s lounge had it that Barbara and Louise were to receive matching yachts for their seventeenth birthday, and would spend their summer before senior year charting a parallel course from Bar Harbor to Barbados.


It didn’t sound credible to Sylvie. Why would anyone give a yacht to a teenager, especially one who once stole and then tried to sell the chaplain’s car (Barbara) and famously forced the entire glee club to surrender their underpants at sword point (Louise)?


“It might be good for them. My nephew Reggie really got on the right track after the Navy. He said a lot of character-building happens on the high seas,” said Mrs Pomerantz.


“Sure,” said Sylvie. “But so does piracy.”


*

Sylvie was what St Hilda’s called a provisional hire, which was to say you obviously don’t belong here, but we’re desperate. The Holliday girls had chased away a half dozen teachers and countless subs with better pedigrees before the headmistress rang the Fortunato phone. Sylvie had been shocked. She’d suspected her teaching days were well behind her, at least if she stayed within a 100 mile radius of Baltimore. After all, she hadn’t been so much fired from her job from Sacred Heart as exorcised, and it seemed there wasn’t a soul in town who hadn’t heard about the half-dressed, wildly drunk school teacher who cursed out the priest in the middle of a choir recital and threw her size 7½ black patent leather pump through the stained glass window of St. Peter behind him. She’d been aiming for Peter the man, not the apostle. The priest had ducked, and she’d taken out the saint’s left foot.


“That’s probably why you got charged with vandalism and not assault,” her brother Lorenzo, said when he bailed Sylvie out of jail. “And I know I should probably be making you feel bad about all this, but that was a helluva throw. Shame they don’t let chicks pitch for the Orioles.”


The church ultimately dropped the charges, after Sylvie’s Uncle Ray called up his buddy in parish to plead for her mental health and offer to cancel out the Monsignor’s poker debts. Sylvie had to swear she’d stay well away from Sacred Heart and church windows for the rest of her days. She applied for jobs. No school would hire, which broke her heart, because she loved teaching. So she applied for secretarial work and department store jobs, for telephone operator and diner waitress. Every time, she’d go for an interview, hopeful in her best dress, and hear the whispers, see the glances. Then came the pitying smiles, the “I’m not sure you’re exactly what we’re looking for,” the manager at the Pancake House who simply said, “We don’t hire crazy women.”


Lorenzo knew a guy who parked cars at the Lord Baltimore Hotel and he might, he might, be able to get Sylvie work on the housekeeping staff. She knew she should be grateful, but she was devastated. She was smart, educated, ambitious, the first and only member of her family to go to college. She was a good teacher, a goddamned beloved teacher to gauge from the notes her girls sent her after the thing with the shoe, and now she was supposed to be happy about making beds and cleaning toilets.

God help me.


She thought about making a new name. She thought about dyeing her hair. She wondered how she’d look as a blonde. She thought she’d maybe make a credible Vivian St. Pierre.


Then the headmistress called.


In retrospect, Sylvie thought she’d been hired not in spite of but because of her reputation, that St Hilda’s had determined to combat the unpredictability of the Holliday Twins with someone as equally unhinged. Worst case scenario, they could fire her. She didn’t know what the best case would be.


“I hear you helped a couple of impoverished Sacred Heart girls get into Radcliffe,” said the headmistress. “If you could do that for the less fortunate, imagine what you might be able to do with our young ladies.”


Imagine indeed.


Sylvie took the job. She bragged to her astonished family. They celebrated. She didn’t mention to any of them that the richest school in town paid its provisional hires less than the Lord Baltimore paid its chambermaids.


The Twins were in her third period American Literature class. It was three weeks after Sylvie had been hired. Three days after Miss Jordans’ trial by fire. The class was studying Thoreau and most of the girls were at least pretending to follow along. Since the warning bell, the Twins had cleaned their nails, heckled other students, and carved curse words into their desktops.


In the past, Sylvie tried sending them out to the headmistress, but they were sent right back. She tried verbal remonstration. She’d tried demerits (Barbara had 1874, Louise was close to 3000). Over time, she’d developed an ignore them strategy. It worked, sort of. But that day, Louise wouldn’t stop with the muttering so, she tried “Anything you want to share with us, Louise?” only to be told that the classroom was full of ugly fucking bitches and she, Miss Fortunato, was the ugliest fucking bitch alive.

“Her shoes are cute though,” said Barbara. “Cheap, but cute. “


Sylvie looked down. She was wearing red pumps. A bit of a risk, but her class had already finished The Scarlet Letter and the shoes made the beige hand-me-down a touch less sad.


“They’ll look adorable going through the chapel window,” said Louise. “I hope you’re waiting for the Christmas service.”


Sylvie had heard it before. The Twins had come fully loaded with her resume on their first day in her class. She fought off an impulse to tell Louise she’d look pretty good going out a third story classroom window, and instead asked sweet, studious Margaret Wingate what she thought about Walden.


“I think it’s a big fat turd,” said Barbara.


“I think Thoreau is a homo,” said Louise.


“I know Louise is a homo,” said Barbara, and then flinched as the other one reached across to slap her sister in the face.


While they tussled, Sylvie discussed self-reliance and the precepts of Transcendentalism. The class, inured to Holliday hijinks, tried to follow along. And Sylvie had arrived at a particularly salient point about self-reliance and Thoreau’s own hypocrisy, when Louise hit Barbara so hard that the latter, nose bleeding, fled the room.


Sylvie put down her chalk, and stared down Louise.


“You know I have to send you to the headmistress.”


You know I have to send you to the headmistress,” Louise repeated. She held Sylvie’s gaze, defiant, nostrils flaring.


The class was silent.


Sylvie thought, it’s possible she’s about to set me on fire. But remembered it was Barbara with the zippo. Louise had the knife. It’s possible she’s going to stab me to death.


Louise rose. Sylvie took a deep breath, anticipating the worst. The girl ran toward her, then out of the room. She listened as the girl’s steps echoed down the hall, to the stairwell, and into memory.


Sylvie waited a moment, staring at her students, students staring at her. She closed the door. After a moment she locked it, and she heard a soft voice—Janet Nichols? Deenie Harding?—say, “Oh god, thank you.”

*

During lunch, Sylvie took her seat beside Mrs Pomerantz at the faculty table.The Headmistress sidled up behind Sylvie’s chair, looming over her cottage cheese salad.


“Miss Fortunato, a word?”


Sylvie’s stomach sank. She blinked and studied the crowd of students. No sign of the twins. She folded her napkin and slid back the chair, wondering how this firing would go. Would it be because she let them leave the class? Because she locked the door? Would it be because some parent had finally complained—we heard you’ve got the hysterical window smasher teaching our sweet Betsy about Poe.


Outside the dining hall, the headmistress turned. “It would appear you had a conflict with the Holliday twins in your class this morning?”


Sylvie nodded. She explained the backtalk. The fight. The way Barbara had run out. The way Louise followed.


“I sent them downstairs,” she said, only realizing after she said it, that she hadn’t, not necessarily, and how preposterous the presumption that the Holliday twins would do as directed even if she had. She’d been relieved to be rid of them. The whole class was relieved to be rid of them. She hadn’t cared where they’d gone. “I sent them to your office.”


“They never arrived,” said the headmistress. “It would appear they’ve left campus.”


Sylvie looked down at her red shoes. She wondered if, as a chambermaid at the Lord Baltimore, she would ever wear them again.


“It would appear—“ the headmistress repeated, then paused. “It would appear they left campus in my car.”


Sylvie imagined a manhunt. Police reports for not-quite-identical twins with messy light brown curls and matching St Hilda’s kilts. The taller wearing a Silver ID bracelet etched with RONNIE. The shorter, and meaner, one in a cheap necklace she’d evidently gotten off Julie Kemper at knifepoint last week after field hockey practice.


“Does anyone know where they might have gone?” asked Sylvie, despondent.


“In fact, I do,” said the headmistress. “Your mother called the front office about five minutes ago. The Holliday twins are your house.”


Mrs Pomerantz offered to drive. She didn’t have a class sixth period and wouldn’t dream of missing an event like this. The headmistress sat in the front seat, Sylvie exiled to the back.


“You’ll have to give me directions,” said Mrs Pomerantz, upon hearing their destination. “I’m afraid I don’t know that neighborhood.”


Sylvie crossed her legs, indignant at the tone, ashamed of the destination, ashamed of herself for feeling ashamed. She tried to imagine what the Holliday Twins would find to do with themselves at Casa Fortunato. Would they steal her mother’s jewelry? Would they descend upon Aunt Paola like hungry she-beasts?


They found the headmistress’s Oldsmobile, fender newly bent, tail light shattered, fishtailed on the curb across from Sylvie’s house. The headmistress narrowed her lips. The sun caught her tidy, peacock blue suit, as she stepped onto the curb. She looked regal against the tawdry backdrop of Sylvie’s block. Sylvie walked up her front steps, and her mother, clearly aggrieved, opened the front door.


“Good,” she said. “You’re here.”

Barbara and Louise Holliday sprawled insolently across her mother’s sofa, disrupting the doilies. Her mother’s best room, recently re-wallpapered, looked impossibly small, cheap, and tawdry. It seemed barely capable of housing the headmistress’s wafts of expensive cologne, let alone the sudden crowd.

“Barbara and Louise Holliday,” said the headmistress. “What is the meaning of this?”


“There is no meaning to anything,” said Barbara. “I read that in a book at your dumb school.”


“They told me Sylvie invited them, ” said Sylvie’s mother.


“And you believed them?” asked Sylvie.


“I called the school, didn’t I?” She shook her head, chiffon scarf wrapped around an Easter basket assortment of pastel rollers. “They seem nicer than those Salvatore girls you used to run with. They were real trouble.”


“What kind of trouble?” asked Barbara, smirking.


“The kind of trouble that got mono and pregnant and a husband in prison by age seventeen,” said Sylvie’s mother. “And get your dirty loafers off of my coffee table.”


Barbara started and then startlingly complied.


“I have to call their family,” said the Headmistress. “Might I use your phone, Mrs. Fortunato?”


“How did this happen?” asked Sylvie.


“Barbara told me and Paola they were friends of yours and had come to talk about Sacred Heart.” Sylvie felt a wave of nausea. Aunt Paola didn’t really know about Sacred Heart. She was old. She was fragile. She often lost track of things.


“Paola gave us spaghetti,” said Louise.


“That was supposed to be for dinner,” said Sylvie’s mother.


“Where is Aunt Paola now?” asked Sylvie, thinking about Louise’s knife, her killer’s smile, the sweet old lady.


“She went to take a nap after she called the priest,” said Barbara.


“Come again?” asked Sylvie. Barbara repeated what she’d said.


Sylvie felt her heart lurch. “What priest?”


“The one from Sacred Heart. Father Peter O’Halloran. I think,” said Barbara. “He said he’d be right over after Louise told him you’d just had a baby.”


“What in God’s name are you girls on about?” asked Mrs Pomerantz.


Louise unleashed a shit-eating grin, and gave a nod that might have passed for a curtain call.

Sylvie felt her hackles rise. She thought, I could eat your heart out you little bitch. But she could still hear the headmistress talking from the other room. She hadn’t been fired, yet. And these girls were spoiling for a fight. That’s all they wanted. Just a reaction, any reaction, and the first time they smelled blood, they’d jump like jackals. It probably hadn’t even happened. It couldn’t have. Peter wouldn’t be so foolish, so easily led, so—


There was a knock on the front door.


“Wonder who that is?” asked Barbara.


“I’ll get it,” said Louise as she rose, languid as a tiger and twice as fierce. In two steps she’d transformed herself into a modest teenager, blouse buttoned, blushing, eyes full of tears and worry.


She opened the door, and in strode Peter.


Sylvie hadn’t seen him in six months. She’d hoped he might look worse for wear, but he was handsome as ever, tanned bronze, silvery hair in a rakish curl over his forehead. His black suits were always impeccably tailored—one of the parishioners liked to fit him out at a local men’s store—and he had a movie star’s smile, though that was nowhere to be seen behind the current tight-lipped scowl. He brushed past Louise, indifferent, and stood panting on the carpet, vein throbbing on his forehead, beyond fury.


“What in God’s name are you up to Sylvie? There’s a child? Where is it? I told you if there was a child to see that it went to a good Catholic family? I told you I didn’t want to see it raised by a woman like you,” he spat out at her. His face was so twisted with anger that Sylvie, for a moment, could not find the handsome man she’d known. The one who had offered to drive her home after she’d chaperoned the Sacred Heart Valentine’s Dance, and instead drove her out of town, to a place by the bay, where they’d watched the stars and necked like teenagers. That was how it started, and for a time, he was so kind and so gentle. He talked about leaving the priesthood. He talked about marrying her. It felt real. He’d felt real. A man. So much different than all the boys she’d gone out with.


But he changed. She’d gone to him one night and he cursed her out, called her a harlot, whore, accused her of trying to ruin him. Stupidly, she went again, and the next night he yelled at her again, louder and worse names, but that time, he’d smelled like cigarettes and perfume. Not her perfume.


Bastard.


When she told him she might be pregnant, he told her it couldn’t be his, and anyway, she wasn’t fit to be a mother. That was when she was fired. That was when she returned for her things and heard the singing in the church. That was when she clattered down the aisle and took off her shoe.


Her delayed period, with perfect ironic timing, came while she was in jail, waiting for Lorenzo to bail her out and drive her home.


“There is no baby, Peter,” she said. “The girls were pranking you. This was all a huge—”


“Of course you would involve innocent children in your sinful plans. I told you I never wanted to see you again. You’re an abomination,” he said. “You’re a vindictive little slut.”


Mrs Pomerantz gasped audibly. Sylvie tried to listen in if there were noise from the kitchen, a sign the headmistress had heard. She didn’t hear anything from the kitchen at all.


“Get out of my house,” she said.


“You invited me here,” he said. “You little b—”


The loafer, when it hit, hit him heel first, squarely between the eyes. He wavered a bit, reached to touch what would turn into a nasty bruise. Then the second loafer hit, this time lower, swiping his nose. He yelped.


Louise walked up beside him, her left loafer still held aloft. “You through?”


He backed away toward the door. “I’ll see you in jail,” he said. “I’ll see all of you in jail.”


“And I’ll see you in hell, padre.” She flashed her knife, and the priest scurried away. The door slammed. Louise replaced her shoe, and stopped on the way back to the sofa to collect both of her sister’s, before sitting back on the sofa between Barbara and Sylvie.


The headmistress stalked out of the kitchen. “Well, I’ve been in touch with the Holliday family.” She sat gingerly on the old easy chair, and unpacked a crystal ashtray and a pack of Pall Malls from her handbag. “They’ll be sending a representative to fetch the girls and help us work out today’s various complications.”


“Here?” asked Sylvie.


“Yes, Miss Fortunato. I hope that will be acceptable.”


Louise settled back into the sofa, arms crossed, expression unreadable.


Against her better judgement, Sylvie elbowed her gently, and said, very quietly, “Thank you for that.”

“No problem,” said Louise. “He had it coming.”


“He had it fucking coming,” said Barbara.


“Language!” said Mrs Pomerantz.


“Indeed, Miss Holiday. A young woman of quality never uses those kinds of words.” The headmistress lit a cigarette. “But if I may, and from what I overheard, I must say I rather agree.”

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