THE 12TH GUEST
by Alexandra Sanders
Lila Woods swiveled in the rickety desk chair holding her phone inches from her face, waiting for the vibration that meant answers. Her thoughts drowned out the bustling noise of the newsroom, as she pondered why her friend Harper Seaton would invite her to a dinner party without telling her who else was going or why her name was on the list.
As a journalist, she loved mysteries, but loathed unanswered questions. While the prospect of attending a party she had no context for seemed like an adventure worth experiencing, her curiosity got the best of her and she sent a series of text messages to Harper: Where is the party? Why is she on the guest list? Who else is attending? Should she bring wine, or just herself?
Issue #134 soundtrack: Tiny Stills "Burn It Down"
Her face lit up as her screen did, but fell as soon as she realized Harper had ignored all her questions, writing only: “check your email.”
Lila hit save on another lazy press release rewrite she was banging out for The Daily News. She refreshed her inbox until she saw the invitation. Beneath the date and location was a list of names of the other guests. With a glance over her shoulder to confirm that her nosey editor Davis was otherwise occupied, she entered each name into Google. Of the 11 other attendees, nine had Wikipedia pages, and six were names she had heard before in political circles. Instinctively, Lila began to jot down notes on the attendees in a feeble attempt to make connections among them. She also wanted to pinpoint a reason she might belong in such esteemed company, but was forced to give up when she saw Davis, brows furrowed, eyeing her computer screen.
Lila stood in the marble-walled apartment building lobby and second-guessed her navigation skills. But the Upper East Side building matched the address on the invitation. The conspicuous opulence of the plush cobalt carpeting and gilded chandeliers made her shift nervously in her cranberry dress and cheetah-print loafers. She considered going home to change, but calmed herself and approached the security desk.
“Hello there. I’m a guest of Reese Braddock’s. Lila Woods. I don’t have an apartment number, but the invitation says 15th floor?”
The man behind the security desk smirked and glanced down at a computer screen that bathed his face in a green-blue light.
“Ms. Braddock owns the entire 15th floor. And it looks like she is indeed expecting you.”
Lila felt her face grow hot, and worried her skin would match her dress by the time she reached the party. She managed to blurt out, “of course, thank you so much,” before stepping into the elevator—a space half the size of her Brooklyn studio and more decadent.
Lila exhaled, hoping the scarlet in her face would leave her body with her breath as she gave herself a mental pep talk: Nothing exciting happens if you never try new things.
The elevator doors slid open and Lila’s eyes widened in surprise. The sprawling and minimalist apartment was starkly opposite from the antiquated décor that smothered the lobby. Everything was modern and bathed in whites, creams, and grays. Massive floral arrangements lined the hallway with branches that stretched out into the space, daring guests who walked by to bring $5,000 plants crashing to the ground.
“Hello?” Lila called out softly.
“Lila! Hi! So glad you could make it.” She was relieved to hear Harper’s voice, and felt the anxiety melt from her body when her friend’s arms pulled her into a hug at the threshold of the kitchen.
“Since you told me you wanted to make your life a little less boring last time we spoke, I thought this might be just the thing.”
“When did I tell you that?” Lila’s memory from their last encounter was as cloudy as the gin fizzes they drank that night.
“Tell me you remember something? You went on and on about your horrific, sexist editor Davis and that dreadful newbie he promoted over you. You said you wanted to start a riot, and so here you are.”
“Well, this doesn’t feel much like a riot, but it is a nice change of pace.”
Lila tried to imitate Harper’s glowing smile, perfected by half a decade as a public relations rep. She wanted to appear gracious and warm to the other guests, instead of a notch above uncomfortable. Lila let Harper lead her into the living room, where the rest of the guests were gathered.
“Lila, please meet Reese Braddock, our host this evening. Reese is the VP at Goldman Sachs and a very generous philanthropist. Really, she’s saving this city with her generosity.”
“It is lovely to meet you, Reese,” Lila said, extending her hand. “What a stunning home you have.”
“Oh thank you,” Reese waved the compliment away as if it were a fly buzzing around her head. “The most important part is the wine fridge! Are you drinking red or white?”
Lila chose white, given the pale hues of the apartment and her proclivity for clumsiness when she was anxious. Wine in hand, she wandered toward the remainder of the crowd, noting how the decor seemed to be an extension of Reese’s porcelain complexion. Of the people in the room, she recognized a film director, a prominent actress, and two politicians immediately, but it took her a moment to identify the other guests from her internet stalking.
“Shall we get started? Please take a seat,” Reese said, gesturing to a white, glossy dining table adorned with golden candles and extensive silverware sets that Lila feared navigating.
“As we’re getting settled, I want to welcome you to my home. I am so glad you all came,” Reese said lifting her hands toward her face in delight. Her charming smile was obscured by claw-like nails painted butcher red. “For the newcomers here, every month I hold a dinner party and ask dear friends to bring their smartest, fiercest friends. Over refreshments, we talk about ways to change the world and smash the patriarchy.”
Lila surveyed the animated faces of the women around the table and felt a burst of adrenaline surge through her body. She may be a poorly-paid reporter, but she realized she might have more in common with these women than she expected.
Reese gestured toward a woman with sheets of cherry-red hair that fell in curtains around her doll-like face. Lila had pegged the woman earlier as the award-winning actress whose inventive outfits always shimmered across the style pages of The Daily News.
“Please start off the discussion by talking about your recent incident at work.”
The actress detailed her latest salary negotiation, which ended with her getting paid several million dollars less than her male costar. While she acknowledged her privilege, the discrepancy spoke volumes.
“I am so pleased to be in such lovely company once more,” Lila heard the woman next to her speak. “This is my fourth time attending one of Reese’s dinner parties, and she has been so wonderful. I am grateful for what she does for us all.”
She identified herself as an advisor to the mayor, and Lila was immediately drawn to her. The woman had bright green eyes and silver-blonde hair. She looked like Lila—just 25 years older—and had similar experiences, starting with an anxiety-filled career in journalism. As women in largely male professions, they had both faced sexist jokes, worked later and harder than their male colleagues, and always over-justified their decisions.
As the woman wrapped up her introduction, Lila felt her face grow hot with anticipation of having to speak and feared that the three glasses of wine she had already gulped down would slow her vowels and soften her consonants.
She cleared her throat: “Let me just say that I am honored to be in the presence of your company. All of you have carved out pathways before me so women of my generation could succeed. You kept chipping away at the glass ceiling so we could break through with a light tap.”
As she listened to her own voice bounce off of the china and reverberate through the chandelier’s crystals, she realized how young and eager to please she sounded.
“Anyway, I’m Lila Woods. And as a female journalist, I have faced hardships that my male peers haven’t had to suffer through. But in the interest of not being redundant, let me raise this question: how do we solve these problems? How do we create a world in which my future children will have fewer obstacles than you did, or even I did?”
“I am so glad you asked,” Reese responded, beaming. “Why don’t you all help yourself to dessert and I will be right back to help answer that question. Harper, would you please help our guests with their wine?”
Lila was struck by their easy closeness. Harper was usually the brightest star in any room, and rarely took orders from anyone—including Lila, her friend of six years. She had never heard Harper mention Reese’s name before, but she seemed to be the hostess’ right-hand woman.
“Every year, there are fewer women involved in politics. Every year there are more reports of actresses, directors, writers, and other women who are all-stars in their fields getting kicked down a notch, feeling less-than, and not being heralded for their accomplishments,” Harper said.
Lila, grasping her wine glass with one hand and passing a tray of gold-flecked macarons with the other, noticed that Harper’s usually inviting smile was firmly pressed against gritted teeth.
“Well, of course, but that’s why we have a great group of people like this to brainstorm solutions to these problems.”
Harper shook her head and sighed, speaking slowly as if attempting to teach a toddler the meaning of a word.
“Lila, we have tried brainstorming. We have tried negotiating and we have tried being nice. Tonight, we are going to talk about ways in which we can actually create progress for once—squash these social injustices for good.”
Harper turned her attention away from Lila and surveyed the faces around the table.
“Ladies, aren’t you sick of being treated unfairly? Aren’t you tired of waiting for change? Well, as many of you already know, we have a plan—and so far, it’s working.”
Lila was so rapt, she didn’t realize that Reese had returned, and she was carrying a small wooden chest.
“Do you all know who Felix Mabry is?” Reese asked the room.
“Yes!” Lila heard her voice leave her mouth before considering her answer. “He was the city official who went missing a few weeks ago. There were tons of rumors about his sordid behavior.”
Lila let out an uncomfortable half-laugh as she realized how quiet the room was.
“Indeed, Lila. Felix was someone who had threatened women, intentionally kept them out of influential seats, and made snide comments about them online to tarnish their reputations. Well, we decided to teach Felix a lesson.”
Reese carefully placed the chest next to the platter of macarons and lifted the lid. Lila was perplexed as steam billowed out of the opening. Her brain heavy with booze, it took her more than a few moments to realize that it wasn’t steam at all, but dry ice. The vapors obscured a smaller encasement inside the chest and Lila leaned closer to see what it contained, studying Reese’s face for a hint.
Reese adjusted the string of pearls laced around her neck and smiled proudly. “Inside this box are Felix’s fingers. Some of them, at least. We have already sent a few—along with strongly worded notes—to his acquaintances who were committing similar offenses. So they know that we do actually mean business.”
This has to be a joke. No way there are fingers in there. Lila instinctively clasped her hands together as if to protect them.
She looked at the faces around the table for signs of fright or disturbance, but only saw smiles and nods of encouragement. Lila, disappointed in the wicked behavior of women she initially hoped might be her friends, seemed to be the one person at the table who did not expect this.
She moved toward the pocket of her blazer to switch on her tape recorder and palmed it firmly, aiming it toward Reese, Harper, and the remains of Felix.
“Forgive me,” Lila said, breaking the silence. Again, her brain lost the fight to her eagerness for information and she heard her voice waver. “But how is this going to help achieve equality?”
Harper gave her a sharp look. “Well, Lila, you’re forgiven because you’re new to this group, but it has already led to progress. These powerful men expect us to sit with our hands folded in our laps and wait for justice, but we have waited for too long. One year ago, we began using this—I’ll call it a slightly more forceful method—of creating change. More than a few well-deserved appointments and promotions have happened since. This has been so effective, it’s why we’ve begun inviting more women to this group, women who believe in the fundamentals of female empowerment and have experienced prejudice for years. From now on, men like Felix, men who plant public lies and ruin careers, won’t have the ability to hurt us.”
Lila was taken aback by Harper, who was panting with rage. The actress pushed her chair away from the table and histrionically threw her arms around her, calming Harper with careful pats on the back as if she were in danger of shattering.
“Oh, I see. Of course,” Lila muttered. She wasn’t sure what the consequences would be if she didn’t agree with the group, but she knew she wanted to keep her fingers.
Lila tried to disguise her horror with feigned interest and moved toward the box to get a closer look. She peered through the clouds of dry ice and saw them: gray-blue and bent rigidly as though Felix was waving when the appendages were taken from him.
As the women continued to take turns peering into the box, Lila excused herself to the bathroom.
Staring into the mirror, she gripped the edge of the sink hoping the cold marble edges would prevent her from fainting. She focused on what she needed to know about the big story just outside the bathroom door.
Here was a murderous cult bent on retribution in the name of women’s empowerment. They were clinking glasses and discussing how rich the petit fours were over an open box of severed fingers. She cracked the door open and Reese’s voice faintly seeped into the tiled space.
“As the night winds down, please consider your assignments. Pinpoint the man who has hurt your career, tried to stop you from being the fierce leader you are. And think of how you can strongly persuade him and his fellow miscreants from doing you wrong again.”
Lila, still gripping the tape recorder in her now-sweaty palm, removed her shoes and tiptoed down the hallway. She peeked into the dining room and saw that the women were chatting in small groups, oblivious to her absence.
Relieved, she turned to retrace her steps and collided with a red-silk-clad figure.
“Careful, hun!” Reese said, gripping a knife now pointing away from them. “You could’ve gotten hurt.”
Lila tried to breathe normally, despite the scream rising in her throat.
“What’s that for? You already served dessert.”
Stop asking questions before you think.
“Well, it might just be for you if you’re running off already. You look like you’re ready to make a break for it.”
Reese’s piercing blue eyes wandered to Lila’s shoes, dangling from her fingers, and Lila began to step backward.
“I’m kidding! It’s to cut the ribbon on a hostess gift. Calm down, Lila. You're here because Harper trusts you, so I trust you. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” she said, smiling and moving toward the living room. She abruptly turned just as Lila was letting out her breath. “Oh, and the powder room is down that hall if that’s where you were headed. It’s quite easy to get lost in this place.”
After Reese rounded the corner, Lila found her office and cracked open the MacBook perched on a massive white desk. She began to dig through the hostess-slash-cult-leader’s email, while periodically eyeing the door for stray dinner guests.
Her cursor paused over a message dated May 13 with the subject line, “Dinner.” Lila tried to figure out why the sender’s name sounded familiar. She realized she frequently heard it from her coworker, who reported on white collar crime.
From: Max Coppage
To: Reese Braddock
I really enjoyed our call the other day. I am so impressed by you and the other girls standing up for what you think is right, and I look forward to meeting the new members you welcome after your dinner party next month.
We need to talk about James next. Trust me, he’s the next person you want out of your way. We’ll talk details when we meet for lunch. For now, focus on Felix.
I know this all seems like a lot, but you’re doing great. Just follow my lead.
She was snapping a photo of the message when she heard footsteps in the hallway.
“Lila? Are you still here?”
Lila flicked on the light and feigned searching the room as if she had lost something.
“In here! Just looking for my jacket.”
Harper pushed the door open and eyed her curiously.
“I don’t recall you wearing a jacket. It’s June, Lila. Eighty degrees. Are you feeling OK?”
“Oh, right.” Lila rubbed her arms to quell the imaginary goose bumps covering them. “I just don’t feel that well. I actually think I may head home, but thank you so much for having me. This is a lovely space and extraordinary group of women. I’m grateful.”
Harper’s face remained severe, but she was now sporting a sinister smile that caused genuine goosebumps to sprout on Lila’s skin.
Or was it the same smile as always?
“I do hope you enjoyed yourself. I selected you because of the prejudices you’ve faced and your desire to change the world. I hope you’ll work with us to create that environment you mentioned you wanted for your future children. I’ll send you an invitation in the coming weeks if you’re up to it. I will say though, this group does not look kindly upon others who don’t return after their first dinner party.”
“I truly am honored, Harper. Thank you. We’ll speak soon, promise. Please give my regards to Reese and the other guests, I wish I felt better. Have a good night.”
Lila felt Harper’s cold stare on the back of her head as she slipped her shoes on, slung her purse across her body and headed back down the flora-lined hallway toward the elevator, holding her breath the whole way. As the doors glided open, she stepped onto the carpet and saw sticky stains along the edges of the elevator’s walls that she hadn’t noticed earlier. She studied the lustrous marble she had leaned against on her ride to the 15th floor, and now spotted mottling and pockmarks. Above her, the rusted light cover was shaded in spots where bugs had perished.
As she stepped into the lobby, Lila tapped out an email to her editor with a note about the bizarre dinner, the blur of VIP guests, and the photo of Max’s email. She decided to save the morbid details for an in-person chat. A shiver ran down her spine as the image of the freezer-burned fingers flashed through her mind. Suddenly, she felt the doorman’s eyes on her, and she hurried through the revolving door, shooting her hand skyward to catch a cab before she reached the curb.
The next morning, Lila ambled down the paint-chipped hallway to her editor’s office, mentally rehearsing her pitch. This scoop was a far cry from her usual local dog park opening stories.
“Lila Woods. You look tired.”
“Did you get my e-mail? From last night?” Lila clutched her cell phone tightly, as she had sleeplessly done all night until the corners of the device created divots in her palm and the metal and plastic felt like an extension of her limb.
“Yes, and it was vague. What did you learn in Journalism 101 about including the facts up front? Tell me more now.”
Davis turned back to his computer screen and continued typing, nodding along as she elaborated on the party. When she uttered the word “fingers,” Davis’ perpetually annoyed expression jerked into one of shock.
“Like, human fingers?”
“Human fingers! Human fingers of Felix Mabry! Who I’d guess is dead though he’s just been reported missing, as far as I know. And Coppage might be behind this whole thing? Like, this billionaire possibly grasping at a political seat is leading a group of women to go on a man-killing spree in the name of what they are touting as some positive change movement? And I was up all night researching Mabry’s disappearance and trying to figure out who James is—”
“It’s gotta be James Rossi.”
“Remember he took sudden leave during an awfully busy political season? You might be onto something, Woods. Go make some calls and see what you can find out about Rossi’s whereabouts. I’m going to send a note to a source I have in city council to see what I can get. You might not be a horrific reporter after all, you know that?”
Lila smiled curtly and turned to leave his office. As she weaved around the paper-strewn desks that dotted the newsroom, Lila eyed her red, blotchy hands and attempted to rub out the dents.
The voice wasn’t one that belonged in the newsroom, let alone in her cubicle. Reese, now wearing a cerulean version of last night’s dress, cheerfully swiveled back and forth in Lila’s chair.
“You didn’t say goodbye last night. Is everything OK? I wouldn’t want there to be any trouble, you know, with you being a reporter and all, so I figured I’d stop by to check for myself.”
“Oh! Of course. I just didn’t feel that well. I got swept up in, uh, the jubilance and had a bit too much wine.”
“Understandable! I’d love to have a little follow-up chat, though. I’m meeting my friend Max now for lunch. He’s a gem who you should absolutely get to know. He might even be able to enlighten you about the importance of our work. Join me?”
“You know, I’d love to, but I’m quite busy—”
Lila felt Reese’s nails dig into her wrist before she saw them. Reese was still sporting a genial smile, but her eyes were cast downward toward her purse. Poking out from between the metal clasps was a small, razor-sharp knife.
Lila glanced around the newsroom and saw only empty chairs. She furtively glanced toward Davis’ office in a silent plea for help, but his door was closed. Reese stood, not waiting for Lila to accept her invitation, and intertwined Lila’s arm in hers.
“Seems like everyone else has better things to do—even your dreadful editor, huh? Harper told me all about that pig. Shall we?”
Reese led Harper into the street and gestured to a black town car that was double parked.
“Well? Hop in. Let’s go.”
Lila, eyeing Reese’s hand that was still half-submerged in her purse, climbed in hesitantly.
Lila heard muffled screams and her eyes widened in shock. Davis was bound and gagged in the seat next to her.
“I know you and Davis know one another, but please meet Max,” Reese said, gesturing toward the driver. “We’re just trying to help you move up the ladder, my friend. That’s all we want to do. Now, let’s discuss next steps for you and your editor here over tartine.”
Alexandra Sanders lives and writes in New York. By day, she's an editor at The Huffington Post who innovates in the editorial product space. By night, she bakes mostly pumpkin-flavored confections and dances around the kitchen to 90s alt rock. Check out her recipes, writing and photography at alexandramsanders.com.
Cara Burke enjoys various tactile art forms such as collages and embroidery. She has recently been exploring doodle art, drawing inspiration from the botany of her hometown Austin, Texas. She recently opened an Etsy shop showcasing her hand-made embroidery items. View examples of her art, as well as pictures of her beloved pitbull, Pippa, on her Instagram.
Tiny Stills is an indie pop band from Los Angeles, fronted by Kailynn West. Tiny Stills has toured nationally and shared the stage with artists such as Anthony Raneri (Bayside), Allison Weiss, and Motion City Soundtrack and is currently staying up very late at night and eating lots of sugar and working on the next perfect feel-good-sad-anthem-sing-along for their 2017 album release. Get their debut album “Falling is Like Flying” on iTunes or Bandcamp, and watch for tour updates on Facebook.