Note: There’s this fan community I recently joined that hosts an annual writing contest called Project Ink. I applied, surprisingly got accepted, and made it to the second-to-the-last round. Each of the bi-weekly rounds had the participants write short stories following prompts. I had the choice to build a new world with each new round, but I didn’t. Instead, I built the Cecilia Canon – a series of stories about this woman named Cecilia, her daughter Claudia, and her unnamed mother who all look like Eva Green.
Project Ink Round 2: Character Challenge – create any compelling character. Follow traditional story format: intro, body, conclusion. Max 3000 words.
Trigger Warning: General
Iris envied people who had somewhere to go in the morning. She had been tasked with minding the house for most of her life, cleaning and cooking while the men ventured out to make a living. Besides, George had made it clear on their wedding day that he would not have his wife working. She watched him now, decades into their marriage, thinning hair bowed over the breakfast she prepared for him without fail. He was munching slowly on his carrots, the sound of him chewing replacing conversation.
They had never talked much over meals, or even out of that. They had not talked properly since Iris last miscarried, and he finally gave up on having children.
“I’m coming home late tonight,” George muttered, eyes never leaving his plate. “Don’t wait up.”
Iris’ scarred hand clenched around her fork. This, she knew, was how men strayed. This was how it started. Still, she knew George would not leave her. There was a reason that the two of them had gotten married: No one else would have them.
Iris smiled. “All right. I’m shopping today. Do you want me to get you anything?”
“No,” George grunted. Tossing his napkin aside, he walked over to his wife and placed a quick kiss on her graying cheek. “Thanks for the pie.”
Long after he left, Iris could still feel the grease from his lips. It had always been his favored way of saying goodbye.
Later, she was scanning the shelves at Harp’s when a familiar blond head entered her line of sight. Nicholas Kyle Bell. He had always been an imposing presence, tall, with broad shoulders and a pair of long legs that was always clothed in jeans. His hair was graying at the temples, glasses thicker since she had last seen him. Still, Nick was as handsome as she remembered.
“Nicholas Bell!” Iris greeted excitedly. “It’s great to see you! It’s been, what – thirty years?”
“Iris?” He smiled at her, crows’ feet teasing at the corners of his deep blue eyes. “God, it’s been too long.”
“How are you?” Surprising even herself in a sudden burst of forwardness, she flung an arm out and hugged him. Perhaps she lingered a second longer than she ought have.
Pulling back gently, Nick smiled in that hesitant way he did, chin dipping down. Iris had always loved that about him – so attractive yet so unaware. She tilted her head. “What are you doing in Oklahoma? Are you going back to Silver Spring?”
Nick suddenly seemed apologetic. “Sam died last week. We’re burying him tomorrow.”
“Oh my goodness.” Iris raised a hand over her mouth. “I’m so sorry, Nick. Your aunt must be devastated.”
“Ruth’s coping.” He exhaled. “Sam got into a fight with Darcy Rogers. Got his head concussed and never recovered.”
“I’m so sorry.” She could not help it. She reached for his arm, squeezing him softly. “The funeral’s tomorrow?”
“Yeah, 10 o’clock-”
“I’ll be there,” Iris vowed. “I’ll be there, Nick. It’s the least I can do.”
Nick stared at her hand, scars luminous in the bleak supermarket light. He smiled. “Thanks, Iris. I appreciate that.”
She was still standing frozen, absently clutching a jar of pickles, when Nick left the store. She could not believe it. After he had left for college and she had left their hometown, they had not seen each other. Last she heard, he had gotten divorced, and aside from Sam and Ruth he had only a daughter for family.
But now, Nick was back. Iris walked towards the window and watched him load his packages into a rental car. In the front seat sat a dark-haired young woman, head bowed so that Iris could not see her face. Nick caught her staring through the shop window and waved warmly. Still so sweet, Iris breathed. Still as sensitive as he had been when they were seventeen, comforting her after Brad Miller had called her too ugly to live.
“You’re not like the other girls, Iris,” he had said with his shy smile. “You’re different. Special.”
Special. No one else had ever called her that. No one had ever bothered to see who she was under the stringy hair, the weak knees, and the smattering of horrid freckles. No one but Nick Bell, the fair-haired angel who had miraculously returned to her life.
Iris gripped the jar so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Tomorrow, she resolved, she would wear her best suit. It was Samuel Bell’s funeral. She would see Nick again.
She had not returned to Silver Spring since her parents died. Staring at the old barn through the Bells’ kitchen window, watching dust motes floating in the air around it, Iris sifted through the memories she had of living there. Her mother had been timid and homely, constantly shuffling around the kitchen so she would always look busy. Her father had been gruff and tyrannical, permanently stuck to his rocking chair on the rickety porch.
He had always had a mug of beer in one hand, the other clutching his shaking knee as he reminded her, “Good girls do as they’re told, Iris. Good girls don’t argue.” Whenever she tried to recall what he had looked like, the sun that perched on his shoulder would blind her. She could barely remember the planes on his face anymore – those lines she had once known so well.
On the day of Sam’s funeral, the way the morning shone over the old barn reminded her of the day it burned down.
“Can I help?”
Nick’s daughter, Claudia, had entered the kitchen, resting a hip on the kitchen counter that was laden with salads and various pies. Her dark hair was held up in a messy bun, errant wisps framing her tiny face and emphasizing her brown eyes. She was beautiful, gorgeous in the effortless, uncaring way of the blessed. Iris hated her instantly. There was nothing of Nick in her, and Iris immediately knew this demon was the clone of her mother, the She-Devil herself.
“No, thank you, dear,” Ruth said with a smile. “Maybe you’d like to eat something? Iris here makes wonderful apple pies.”
Claudia looked down at Iris’ dish with a doubtful smile. “I’m sure it’s delicious, Mrs. Woods.”
She reached out and grabbed a plateful of salad. “I’ll be in my room if you need anything.”
Iris’ hands were clenched so tightly she was shaking. The pale scars on her knuckles screamed up at her, fuming at how the girl could be so ungrateful. Seeing this, Ruth laughed and inched forward to hold her. “Girls these days are on crazy diets, eating salads all the time. Why don’t you take your apple pie out, Iris? I’m sure Nick would love some.”
All her pie disappeared in a matter of minutes.
Promising Ruth she would come back – her town was only an hour away – Iris drove back home to get more of the apple pies she had baked the day before. As she raced up the front steps, smoothing the lines on her skirt, she tried to remember how many she had made. Four, if memory served. They were all sitting in the kitchen, although maybe George had taken a bite out of one of them.
When she rounded the hallway, she was surprised to find a blond head bent over her stove. It was wearing George’s green bathrobe, his favorite one made of fleece, and it had a supple pair of tan legs that ended with a pert bum.
“I-Iris,” George stammered, coffee sloshing on the table as he brought his mug down with a bang. He wore his flannel robe, barefoot with his hair still dripping. “Y-you said you were coming home late!”
She took a moment to remember how to breathe. “I forgot something.”
The blonde turned around to face her, and she was shocked to be met with a pretty face. Almond green eyes, high cheekbones, and a cute button nose – how much had George paid this girl? Moving slowly, Iris began to gather the pans of pie in her hands. Her car keys jangled noisily in the stunned silence.
“I’ll be back by five,” Iris whispered, eyes focused on the peeling linoleum of the floor. “Please clean up by then.”
She had one foot in the hallway when she abruptly turned around, rage flashing in her eyes. “And keep your hands off my stove, you bitch!”
Iris didn’t know how she managed to drive back to the Bells’ old farmhouse. She drove very slowly on the highway, wondering why her tears would not fall. The windows of her rusty truck were rolled down, and the sweet Oklahoma wind was teasing her limp hair. Men – she told herself as she gripped the steering wheel – men would always use her, then cast her aside.
Except Nick. Everyone but Nick.
She bumped into him in the hallway of his aunt and uncle’s house, right after she had deposited her load in the kitchen. His hair was standing on end as though he had just run frustrated fingers through it, and there were wrinkles on his suit. Nick’s eyes were red either from crying or lack of sleep – Iris could not tell.
Gently, she reached for him. “You should rest, Nick.”
“I can’t,” he said, smiling sadly. He raised the cordless phone in his hand. “I have to get back as soon as possible. Probably tomorrow-”
“You’re leaving?” Iris’ hand fell limply to her side. “So soon? What about Ruth?”
“Doesn’t want to leave. I’ve tried to get her to move in with Claudia and me, but she’s stubborn. Doesn’t want to be taken away from the farm-”
“But you’ll come visit,” Iris claimed, wanting it to be true. “You’ll come to visit her, won’t you?”
Me, Iris gasped. Me.
Nick just smiled at her, an apology in his eyes. “I’m not sure, Iris. I don’t know if I’ll be back.”
She did not know how long she stood there, gaping.
Eventually, Nick raised a finger and poked her forehead playfully. “Look after her for me, won’t you? I’ve always thought of you as the sister I’ve never had.”
He wrapped an easy hug around her before disappearing into the darker end of the hallway, rubbing his tired eyes.
When Nick went back to Sacramento, Iris baked a pie.
George had taken a new approach to her since she found blondie in her kitchen. Whereas he used to be indifferent to her presence, now he seemed to be alert whenever she was around, fidgeting with whatever he happened to be holding.
“I want a divorce,” he muttered one morning, fork hovering over his plate. “We’re not happy anymore, Iris. Haven’t been for a long time.”
She stared at him through the gap in her steepled hands, marveling at how he genuinely believed himself to be in love. George had never been sharp – his most redeeming feature was his predictability – but to be so enamored with a discount high school cheerleader was bordering on pitiable.
He banged his fist on the table. “Dammit, say something, Iris!”
“No need to shout, George,” she whispered. “You want a divorce? Fine. Get the papers. I’ll sign them.”
His head snapped up. “You will?”
“Yes,” she assured him. “Now shush, and eat your pie. I won’t microwave it for you if it gets cold.”
She watched him dig into the dish, a smile blossoming on his face. The scars in her hand shone sharply in the morning light.
That afternoon, she drove to Ruth’s. As she rounded the corner, Iris paused to appreciate the joys of rural living. There were no other houses nearby, just Ruth’s and her old home, the vast Oklahoma plains stretched before both in a dusty horizon that ended under the scorching summer sun. No one else. No witnesses.
Ruth answered on her third knock. The old woman seemed genuinely happy to see her, but appeared to be falling apart at the edges, too. Her smile was forced, hair barely brushed. Her fading eyes were skittish, distractedly staring at random points on Iris’ face.
“I’m sorry about the pie,” Iris said softly. “George finished off half this morning.”
“It’s no problem, dear,” was all Ruth said. “Would you like to come in?”
“Thank you.” Iris paused as she walked through the door of the Bells’ home. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. If there’s anything I can do to help-”
“Oh, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” Ruth patted her shoulder. “I’m a good camper. And Nick calls – makes sure I’m all right.”
Iris just nodded.
Two days later, Nick was back. Ruth had committed suicide. A note had been found on the kitchen table, over which she had been found dead. It had been hours before someone discovered her, body cold and frothing at the mouth. Barely a week after burying Sam and Nick had lost someone again. Barely a week and he was back.
Iris would make sure he did not leave this time.
“It’s not your fault, Nick,” she said, running a soothing hand on his knee. They were sitting in the kitchen at the Bells’, Iris having brought a freshly-baked pie. “You couldn’t have known-”
“I left her on her own. I shouldn’t have.” He had his head buried in his palms, the fair wisps clutched in his tapering fingers. “I knew she was grieving – damn it!”
Claudia appeared on the doorway. She wore a strained expression, the cordless in her hand. “It’s the sheriff. Should I tell him to call back?”
“No,” Nick said, standing up dazedly. He wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his jacket. “No, I’ll get that. Excuse me.”
When he left, Iris stared at Claudia. Her dark eyes were stormy – full unlike hers. “Do you want apple pie, dear?”
The girl let herself be ushered towards the table, a slice of pie shoved under her nose. Claudia frowned at it. “I have a complicated relationship with pie, Mrs. Woods. I hope you don’t take it personally.”
“Oh?” Iris clutched the kitchen knife in her hand, its blade glinting in the afternoon sunlight. “Why is that?”
“My mother used to bake pies. Before she left us, that is.” The wench had the gall to hold her gaze. Her face darkened. “Are you trying to be my father’s new wife, Mrs. Woods?”
Iris licked her lips as Claudia’s fork lingered in the air. She chuckled.
Then she snarled, “Shush, Child, and eat your pie.”
The girl’s eyes widened.
“Claudia?” Nick barreled down the corridor and immediately froze upon seeing them. Pulling his daughter roughly off her chair and behind him, he backed into the farthest corner of the kitchen, Claudia complaining of his harsh grip. The cordless was blinking in his hand.
Iris stretched herself to full height.
“Iris.” Nick’s eyes roved her body. A flicker of panic flashed in his eyes when it landed on the pie between them on the kitchen table. “What’s in the pie?”
She stared at him unblinkingly. “Why do you ask?”
“Ruth-” He shook his head slowly. “It wasn’t a suicide. The coroner says she was poisoned.”
She liked the way the light glinted off the edge of the knife. Her eyes reflected on it, hollow as they had always been. “You told me I was special, Nick. You’re the only one who’s ever said that.”
Claudia’s grip on her father’s shoulder tightened.
“You’re very sick, Iris,” Nick said, raising a placating hand. “You’re very sick, and you need help-”
Iris clenched her fists, scars cheering her on. “Everyone keeps saying that, but no one does anything. You all keep saying that – you’ve been saying that for years-”
“Iris, you’ve got to stop this! You’re hurting people!”
“George deserved to die. Ruth wanted to die.” The knife was at the level of her eyes now, blinding. “You said you wouldn’t come back, but now you’re staying with me, Nick!”
Behind her father, Claudia’s piercing brown eyes glared. Any other person would have cowered in the presence of a knife, of Iris, but the girl barely quivered. Through and through, Claudia was different. Through and through, Claudia was blessed.
Iris had never been one of the blessed.
How she hated that wretched girl.
As soon as the knife hit the floor, she was running out of the house. Nick was shouting after her, but for the first time in her life her frail legs were taking her somewhere. She was running out the door, tumbling into the street, where the dust motes flew in the air and danced.
Iris ran the few hundred meters towards her old man’s decrepit shack. She could almost see him there, one hand clutching his mug of cold beer as the other scratched his knee. And then it would rise to his belt, loosening it, and that would be Iris’ sign to go inside and wait. Her mother would busy herself, making apple pies that no one ever ate to keep up the pretense that she did not know what was happening.
And Iris, lying with her cheek on the floor hours later, would remain invisible. She was sick. Everyone said so. But no one ever did anything.
Her knees gave way as she clutched the barbed wire of her old house, its charred remains teasing in the August sun. She had learned everything she knew from her mother – portly, pale woman she was. Baking pies. Knitting. Pretending not to hear anything.
Iris had looked away when she burned the house down, never crying even when the dust crept into her eye. Thirty years later, she knelt where she stood back then, eyes wide and taking all of the ruin in. The Oklahoma wind huffed into her face, and finally she gave in to the dust that had hounded her all her life.
She let the first tear fall.