“The Glass Iris”
“He was part of my dream, of course – but then I was part of his dream, too.” Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
The beginning of summer is not so still as its end. Clementine listened to the chirping of the finches that gathered around her mother’s birdbath and wished she had something to throw at them. She and Greer sat in silence, smiling tightly, as they waited for Clem’s mother to return from the kitchen with their iced teas. That was the problem with summer, Clem concluded: there was too much parental interference. And too much wildlife.
Clem’s mother stepped out onto the white porch with a tray of refreshments. Clem groaned in relief as her mother set down a tray with a pitcher of iced tea and two glasses, because it meant that she wasn’t intending to join them. But it didn’t stop her from chatting.
“So, what are y’all gonna do today?” Her mom perched herself on the arm of Clem’s deck chair.
“Nothing.” Greer smiled. “You know, first week without homework and all…”
“I remember my first year out of high school!” Clem’s mom laughed and flipped her hair, revealing the sprawling tribal tattoo that spread across her bare, left shoulder and upper arm. “I couldn’t wait to see what else was out there in the world—”
“But then you went and got knocked up with me, Mom, we know,” Clem said, and her mother’s eyes flashed for just a moment.
She recovered quickly. “And I don’t regret it a bit.” She patted Clem’s bony knuckles and left the girls on the porch to resume their conversation.
“So, tonight then?” Greer asked impatiently.
“I’m in,” Clem said.
The wind blew and the birds took off into the trees, chirping hysterically in addition to the sound of her mother’s infuriating wind chimes. “For fuck’s sake!” Clem growled.
Greer laughed, launching her head of dark curls back as she always did when Clem cursed. When Greer stopped laughing she locked her eyes on Clem’s and rolled her pink tongue over the piercing in the center of her bottom lip. She reclined in the deck chair opposite and stretched her legs out onto Clem’s lap. In a severe state of heightened relaxation, Clem was hotly aware of where their skin was touching, but she wasn’t willing to move, not just yet.
It was Greer who first noticed him, the man in his late twenties sitting with his back to the bar, elbows resting on its surface and legs spread wide on the stool. He was dressed from head to toe in black, sunglasses too, and when the two of them worked up the courage to approach him he spoke very little.
“Hey there,” Greer said, twirling her peacock feather earrings.
“I’m Greer, this is Clem.”
“Clem. Like Clementine.” It wasn’t a question. His eyes, black through the sunglasses, were following the curves of her long, blond hair lazily down her body. “That name’s not so common anymore.”
“What can I say – my mom’s quirky.”
“Want a beer?”
Clem looked at Greer who smirked, and they agreed.
After their beers arrived, Greer did most of the talking, but the man’s eyes hardly ever left Clem.
“Hey,” he said, interrupting Greer mid-sentence, addressing Clem. “I got something here for you.”
“I got something here, and once you take it, if you take it, you can’t ever go back.” He nodded at her to make sure she understood. “Do you want it?”
“I don’t even know what it is.”
Greer elbowed her in the ribs. “Of course she does – oh, go on Clem, let’s see what it is.” Clem finally nodded apprehensively.
From inside his black leather jacket he presented a crushed pink rose. It was wilted but the color was still vibrant in its veiny petals and Clem grinned.
“Well aren’t you a charmer!” Greer laughed, “What, do you carry those around in your pocket for all the girls you meet?”
“Nope, just got one. Just for a special girl.”
Greer’s face hardened and she sipped her beer.
“Thank you.” Clem reached out and took the flower from him, her fingers brushing his. There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence as the man downed his beer and Greer flagged down the bartender for another drink.
“You wanna take a walk?”
“Um, sure – Greer?” Clem asked.
Greer waved her off impatiently, eyes roving the bar for another, more interested, available person. Clem smiled at the man and he took her by the hand, leading her off towards the back of the bar.
“Where are we going?” she said, “I thought you wanted to take a walk.”
He didn’t reply, but instead led her into the dark bathroom behind the pool tables and locked the door after them. He pulled a small plastic bag out of his jeans pocket and poured its white powder onto the counter by the sink.
Clem impulsively took a step back, digging her bony spine into the coat hooks on the inside of the door. Smoking joints with Greer behind the bleachers at school was one thing, but this… She stared at the man, who was carefully creating two lines on the counter, and brushing the extra powder onto the floor that was littered with damp hand towels and tampon wrappers. He had broad shoulders beneath his leather jacket, and a wad of money peeked out of his back pocket as he bent over. His hands were delicately neatening the lines now, and the small white ridges reminded her of the furrows in her mom’s vegetable garden. Summoning her courage, she tucked the rose behind her ear and took a shaky step forward to stand next to the man.
He grinned and pulled up her hair with scarred hands so she could lean over the lines he’d made on the counter.
“If y’all want to have sex take it someplace else!” a voice called from the other side of the door, “Some of us got to go!”
“Simmer down bud – we ain’t having sex,” the man in black yelled roughly. Then, brushing his lips against Clem’s neck, he said, “Least not yet anyways.”
Clem rubbed her eyes, viciously attempting to get them to focus on the room that was currently bathed in noontime sunlight. Last night, she’d sneaked back into her room through the window, conveniently located above the trellis her mom used for her limp sugar snap peas.
She briefly recalled her most recent dream, in which the cold metal of a lip ring pressed onto her mouth. But then she heard a rattle outside that dragged her out of the hangover, forced herself to her feet, and walked unsteadily over to the open window. Upon looking out and down she clenched her fists in frustration.
A brown head, beads of sweat clinging to its brow, appeared just over the sill.
“I don’t know how you manage this drunk – high – whatever. It’s hard enough sober,” its voice gasped as the head became a body that tumbled into her bedroom, landing on all fours at her feet.
“Jeff, what do you want?” she asked, rubbing her head. “Now’s really not convenient.”
“I can come back – just let me in the door next time.”
“God I should’ve never showed you that trellis,” Clem sighed. She threw herself back onto the bed and thrust her face into the dark comfort of pillows.
Jeff sat next to her and then after a few moments of silence, lay down on his side, with one arm propping up his chin and the other resting on the small of her back.
“Where you been, Clem? You haven’t answered any of my texts.”
“Busy doing what? It’s summer, there’s nothing to do.”
“You know,” she said, “Out with Greer.”
“Oh yeah? Girls only – boyfriends not allowed?”
“You are not my boyfriend.” Clem lifted her head to stare up at Jeff’s imploring eyes.
“Then what am I?”
“You,” Clem smiled and rolled over onto her back, lacing her fingers into his over her stomach, “are a special friend.”
Jeff grinned and said, “I thought Greer was your ‘special friend?’”
Clem pulled her hand out of his and frowned. “If you don’t like it, I’ve told you before you can fuck off.”
“No, no,” he said, “That’s not what I want.”
“What do you want, then?”
“Nothing! Just – I just wanted to give you something today.”
Clem eyed him warily as he sat up and reached into his pocket. She sat up too and rested her head on his shoulder as he pulled out a long, black box. “Here.”
She took the box warily. It was long and thin enough for a necklace or bracelet, but it was hard to believe he would buy her anything. Sometimes she regretted how hard and fast they had fallen for each other in junior high, because as soon as she met Greer she knew it was over between the two of them.
But instead, resting amidst white tissue paper, she saw a purple, long stemmed iris, made out of blown glass. She plucked it out and turned it over in her hands, feeling how sleek its petals were and how delicately it had been crafted. She couldn’t help but smile, hiding her grin in his shoulder. “Where’d you get it?”
Jeff shrugged, heard the delight in her voice and flushed. “Nowhere special – don’t go thinking I spent a lot of money on you or anything.”
“Thanks Jeff.” She looked into his eyes again. “It’s lovely, really.”
“No problem.” He nudged her shoulder with his and patted her knee. “So hey, I was thinking…”
“Well, I was wondering if you want me to come over tonight?” The words came out in a rush and he stared down at the glass flower in her hands.
“Jeff…” she moaned, “I don’t know. I’m meeting Greer at nine –”
“Then I’ll come with!”
“You? And Greer? You hate each other!” Clem stifled a laugh when she saw his frown. “You’re serious aren’t you?”
“As death.” Jeff finally looked up, “Clem, I just miss you –”
“Don’t start,” she said, crawling over him to get out of the bed. “Come on, you’d better leave.”
Jeff obeyed. “Fine, but I’m taking the steps this time.”
Clem placed the iris gently on her desk and walked with him to her door.
“So, yeah… don’t forget to close the front door after you,” she said, just for something to say. “And, thanks.”
Jeff leaned down and whispered, “It’s nothing,” and then kissed her, his hands on her neck, caressing her jawline gently. Clem felt a familiar pang in her stomach, the kind she got around Greer, and the kind she felt last night with the man in the bathroom. A combination of fear and excitement threatened to overtake her but then her mom’s door opposite opened and she emerged, dressed in a short pink nightie.
Jeff pulled away and coughed. Clem’s mom raised her eyebrows. “Hi Jeff – long time, no see.”
Jeff shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on his toes. “Yeah, you too, Mrs. Wells.”
“Sure,” Jeff smiled awkwardly down at Clem who widened her eyes, pressuring him to leave. “Well, I was just heading out.”
“Won’t stay for breakfast?”
“No, thanks, Mrs. Wells – Judy.” Jeff stole a glance at Clem in her pajama shorts and bra, blond hair cascading over her shoulders. “See you at nine.” Then he leapt down the stairs two at a time and rushed out the front screen door.
Clem’s mother turned to her daughter and put one hand on her hip. “So,” she said, “You two back together?”
“Mom – please!” Clem slammed and locked her door without making eye contact with “Judy,” then flung herself onto her bed again. She reached for her phone and set an alarm for seven thirty. As she rested her head on the pillows, she gazed over at the glass iris on her desk. Her thoughts oscillated between lip piercings, purple flowers, and peacock feathers, before the colors began to blend together in her mind and she fell asleep, in spite of her mother’s persistent yet resigned knocking.
“So you guys come here a lot, huh?” Jeff beamed, looking from Clem to Greer.
“It’s kind of the only place we can go,” Greer was glowering at Clem, who was seated next to Jeff. “My brother’s friend’s the bouncer.”
The bar was dimly lit, but the arcade games flashed and the lamps that hung over the pool tables swayed, occasionally shooting bursts of light in their direction.
“Clem,” Greer said, suddenly placing her hand over Clementine’s, “want to get me a drink?” Her smile was sickly sweet, and Jeff scowled.
“I’ll go with you,” he said.
“No,” Greer said before Clem could accept or decline, “I think Clem really wants to go get me a drink. Alone.” She stared pointedly over Clem’s shoulder and raised her eyebrows.
The man clad in black was sitting alone at the bar again. Though he was wearing sunglasses, she could feel his eyes on her.
“Right, Clem?” Greer pressed, squeezing Clem’s hand.
“Right.” She laughed. “No – Jeff – it’s fine really. I need to just… I’ll be right back.”
The man was smirking at her as she hopped off the stool. Clem hated to think what kinds of things Greer would say to Jeff as she sat there smugly twirling her earrings. Greer had never really gotten over the fact that if she hadn’t transferred to their high school Clem might still be with Jeff, though Jeff had long ago accepted the situation and said he loved Clem the more for it.
“Blondie,” he nodded, and grinned crookedly. “Didn’t know if I’d see you tonight.”
“Greer wanted to come out again,” Clem began, but stopped herself as she saw the man look with disgust over her shoulder at her friends.
“So, you get home okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” she laughed, “I have a wicked hangover though.”
He chuckled and took a swig of his beer. “You kill me. Let’s go.”
Clem looked over her shoulder at Greer who was talking to Jeff, smirking, while his face grew darker. “Can I just tell them we’re leaving–?”
“Looks like they’re getting along just fine,” he said, “They won’t miss you.” He grasped her elbow and his long nails scratched at the soft skin of her inner arm as he steered her towards the back door that led to the parking lot. Her heart began to beat a little faster. As if he could hear her pulse quickening, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and shook her roughly. “You said last night you wanted to take a longer walk than to the bathroom – just thought we’d get some fresh air.”
“Of course.” She smiled, but a voice in her head was screaming no, stay inside. She glanced once more at Jeff whose eyebrows were furrowed in concern and hurt, but then she settled her sight on Greer, who winked as she ran her fingers around the rim of her glass, and allowed herself be led out into the hot night.
“Hey,” she said, blushing, “about last night… did we, I mean – I really don’t remember much.”
He walked her over to a black pick-up in the darkest corner of the parking lot, saying nothing until he’d emptied another white pouch onto its hood. “Nah,” he said, using a motel card key to make two neat lines, “Why?” He grinned over at her, his teeth a shining white in the darkness. “You want to?”
Clem forced a smile and ignored the question, checking that her lace bra wasn’t showing.
“Come on then,” he said gruffly, “Not that we don’t got all night…”
She dawdled around the truck and leaned slowly over the line, snorted it as gracefully as she could, then tossed her hair back and pressed her middle finger to her nostril. Her eyes teared up but she closed them and stretched her neck. Opening her eyes she saw the stars above and mumbled, “Cassiopeia” as she spotted the “W” constellation and reached out her fingers to trace it.
The man, after wiping down the hood of his truck, came up behind her, placed his hands on her hips, and began to slowly sway her back and forth.
“Aren’t you gonna tell me your name?” she asked, as the sky above began to swirl and sparkle brighter than before.
He spun her roughly around and lifted her chin with a black-gloved hand. “Not yet,” he murmured, and pressed his lips onto hers as he guided her body up against the side of the black truck.
Clem’s phone buzzed and she jerked out of Greer’s embrace to check it. The message was from an unknown number, and contained a one-word question – Tonight? Clem sighed.
“Would you stop checking your phone?” Greer said, snatching it away from Clem and throwing it down to the end of the bed. “Jeff isn’t going to text you back.”
“What did you say to him?”
“I’ve told you – nothing.” She smirked, playing with Clem’s long hair.
“Nothing,” Clem echoed dubiously.
“You know.” Greer stroked her cheek and gave it a quick peck. “I just told him the truth.”
“Oh yeah? And the truth was…?”
“That you’re not interested. You have other people in your life now.”
“That’s not true.”
“Give over, Clem.” Greer ran her fingers along Clem’s collarbone. “He’s been following you around like a puppy dog for years. It’s not like you’re gonna have sex with him. Stop leading him on.”
Clem winced as she watched Greer yawn and stretch like a cat next to her on the bed. Greer had climbed up the trellis with her early that morning after she got back from the parking lot and found her drinking alone. Jeff had disappeared.
“Is that pancakes I smell?” Greer continued indifferently, adjusting her bra. “I hope they’re blueberry.”
“Ugh, I’m sick of them.” Clem thought of the blueberry pancakes and how she always had to pick out the stems because her mom was too lazy to check them all before spilling them into the batter. “Let’s just stay here, order some take out.”
Greer rolled her eyes at the suggestion and got out of the bed, walking over to get her skirt from the floor by the desk. She stopped short and eyed Jeff’s glass flower. Picking it up, she ran her fingers along its stem.
“Where’d you get this from?”
“Found it,” Clem lied.
“Greer, chill out.” Greer’s eyes were stormy, so Clem broke down. “Fine! Jeff gave it to me.”
“Jeff?” Greer laughed snidely. “Aw, how sweet.” Her fingers were gripping the flower a little too tightly.
“Come on, give it to me.”
“Why – does it mean something to you?”
“What, no, of course not – I just, don’t want you to break it.”
“I don’t know!” Clem cried exasperated, “Just put it down.”
She sneered and then slammed it down on the desk, crushing one of the leaves under her palm. “Didn’t know Jeff meant so much to you.”
Clem jumped out of bed to examine the damage. “Look what you did!” she said, cradling the flower in her palms. “You broke it.”
Greer pulled on her shirt and tucked it loosely into her skirt before stalking over to the door.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m bored,” she said, her hand on the doorknob.
“Let me change, I’ll come out with you.”
“Fuck off, Clem.”
Clem froze and stared at the back of Greer’s curly hair. She walked over to her and, swiping Greer’s hair out of the way, rested her chin on her shoulder, and wrapped her arms around her waist. “Come on, it’s just a silly flower. Stay?”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“Well, can I see you tomorrow?”
“No.” Greer wrenched Clem’s hands off and pushed her away.
“Why are you being like this?”
“I’m not being like anything!” Greer spat. “This summer was supposed to be about us, not about seeing how many guys you can sleep with.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I get it, I pushed you to hang out with that weirdo in the bar, but why is he texting you? Why do you care so much about what Jeff thinks? And why the fuck has he been in your bedroom! Have you even considered how I feel about that?”
“Greer – I haven’t had sex with him! With either of them! That man, he’s just some guy, he doesn’t mean anything –”
“Then why does he have your number?” Greer practically shrieked.
“For drugs! For whatever! I don’t know – he asked me and I gave it to him!” Clem reached for Greer’s hand but she pulled away again.
“Forget it. Have fun at the bar tonight.”
“Where are you going?”
“Nowhere. Home. Maybe I’ll call Jeff, get me one of those pretty flowers.”
Greer opened the door and left, slamming it shut behind her. Clem spun around irritably and her eyes fell on the shards of glass and the maimed flower on her desk. She went over and picked it up gingerly, noticing a few spots of Greer’s blood on the surface. She felt her intestines coiling up like a snake inside her, and her stomach churned. If she didn’t need to meet the man in black tonight she would have gone after Greer, but instead she curled up on the rug in the middle of her room and closed her eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks, her head swimming.
Clementine’s mother placed two undercooked blueberry pancakes onto her plate. In spite of the fact that the sun had just set, its heat was still bearing down on them even within the bleach white kitchen. They had opened all the windows and screens, on the off chance that they might catch a breeze, but the curtains hung still. Clem usually reveled in the peaceful summer evenings, but tonight all she could concentrate on was the sound of cars passing by, as she listened for the hum of a pick-up truck.
“What’s up, sweetie?” her mom asked, her elbows sticking to the plastic placemat on the table.
Clem shook her head, trying to hide her bloodshot eyes. “Nothing. Just sick of these fucking pancakes that’s all.”
Her mom let the insult slide and replied, “Well, that’s almost the last of them. The bushes are practically bare, between me and the birds.”
Her mother played with her own graying blond hair and then wrapped her arms around her shoulders, hugging herself as she watched Clem finally gulp down the pancake mush. Clem felt the glob hit her stomach and paused before cutting another bite to check her phone.
Pick me up – my place? she had replied to the unknown number. So far there was no reply. She didn’t know how he would find her, but she felt sure that he would.
Her mom attempted conversation again. “Heard back from Greer yet?”
“No – stay out of it.”
“Well, honey, it’s not like I’m going to call her mom or anything. You’re not a child anymore –”
Just then, Clem heard the purr of an engine and a car pulling into their gravel driveway. She spit out the lump of blueberry pancake she had been rolling around in her mouth and sat up straight.
“Are you expecting someone?” her mom asked.
“No,” Clem lied.
“Maybe they just took a wrong turn – ”
“I’m going out.”
“What do you mean? With who?”
But Clem was already stalking from the kitchen and ascending the stairs to her bedroom.
“Clementine!” her mother cried. “Come back and talk to me!”
Clem waved over her shoulder and raced into her bedroom. Tearing off her shirt angrily as she heard her mother opening the porch door to investigate who was in her driveway, Clem snatched up her jeans from the floor, staggered into them, and grabbed her debit card and car keys from the desk next to Jeff’s crushed flower. She had tried to tape the leaf back on after Greer left, but failed. Pulling on a zip-up sweatshirt over her bra she rushed out of the room. Ignoring her mother’s voice as she ran back past her, she leapt down the porch stairs and into the driveway, leaving her mother standing open mouthed and clinging to the chipped, sea-foam painted doorframe as she watched her daughter fling herself into the black pick-up.
“Fuck, I don’t know, just drive, okay?”
The man was quiet for a long while, and it was only when they hit the highway that Clem dared to steal a glance at him. In the orange light of streetlamps his pockmarks were even more evident; deep red blotches covered his cheeks and forehead and reminded her of the moon.
“I know,” he finally rasped.
“Where we can go. I’ve got something I want to show you.”
“Oh, but first…” he said, reaching across her and digging through the glove compartment. He pulled out a red and white Altoid tin.
He chuckled, “Nah.” Opening it, she saw a couple of inch long strips of blotter paper. “Have one. You’ll understand better once we get there, if you take one.”
She gladly obeyed and placed one on the tip of her tongue. It tasted acidic as the paper began to disintegrate in her mouth, and she leaned back on the headrest, closing her stinging eyes. She heard the click of a lighter and smelled his cigarette smoke as it hung in the heavy, suffocating air of the truck.
When she finally opened her eyes again, about a half hour later, they were peeling into a darkened dirt path with giant green trees towering overhead. He cut the engine and walked around the car to help her out. She felt giddy, drunk – she wanted to call her mom and tell her how much she loved to hate those fucking pancakes and wind chimes. She wanted Jeff to know how much she’d loved him. She wanted to scream at Greer for making him hate her. She leaned on his arm, admiring the way the leaves began to swirl and grow, some to the size of her head, before her very eyes. Stumbling on her own feet, she leaned on him as he escorted her down into the forest.
Every step seemed to echo and vibrate within each individual muscle of her leg. She tried to voice this to him, but he hushed her and pushed on through the forest until they came to a clearing of sorts. Here, he let her stand on her own and strode over to the middle of what appeared to be a makeshift, wild garden that stretched out for as far as Clem could see in the night. He spread his arms wide and grinned at her. She giggled for no particular reason and swayed on the spot.
“Welcome,” he announced, “to my heart! My haven.”
She stumbled over to him, past orange Zinnias, Lemongrass, banana yellow Daffodils and Mint leaves that seemed to shrink and expand from the ground, repeating the whole blossoming process over and over again until she felt dizzy. The colors were unreal, fantastical.
“This is where I was born again,” he laughed, taking her hand and dragging her through aisles of flowers; quivering Black Eyed Susans, Chamomile plants, Peonies, wild Roses of every color imaginable, and of hues for which she had no name. As they raced together through the flowerbeds she felt a deep wind gathering and awakening the quiet forest; the trees around them were dancing, the hedges whispering, the very flowers at her fingertips shivering in delight. She tripped and fell to her knees and he stopped to crawl over the aquamarine grass to be next to her.
“What is this place?” She gasped and rolled onto her back, fingering the rip in the knee of her jeans. She could feel the grass stain on her skin creeping up her leg, over her belly and up onto her chest. It sprouted roots into her lungs and she breathed a sigh of dirt, then watched it drift away in the breeze overhead. The moon-reflected clouds were no longer silver – they were growing a stormy blue-grey.
“This is our home,” he said in his gruff voice. “These are all my children.” He touched the petal of a large red flower next to them and Clem thought she heard it coo in pleasure.
“Who are you?”
“The gardener. The father.”
“But… why’d you bring me here?”
He crawled over her and placed his knees on either side of her pelvis. Even if she wanted to struggle she couldn’t have. Leaning over her face, he removed his sunglasses and stared into her eyes for the first time. His glassy eyes were black, pure black; she couldn’t differentiate the pupils from the iris.
“Because now,” he said, “I’m going to be your father too. I’m going to plant my seed within you. And soon a flower will grow. I will cultivate you, I will watch you; I will watch it stretch its green limbs out of the red earth of you until it blossoms. You are the earth, and I am the seed.”
He opened her jaw forcibly with his hands and stifled her scream by placing another strip on her tongue, watching as she shuddered at its bitterness.
“Who are you?” she choked out when she could breathe again.
He smiled crookedly and stared into her blue eyes with a look of venom. “Don’t you know who created the earth and the heavens, the birds of the sky and the beasts of the ground, the seed-bearing plants and the land that bears fruit? Don’t you know who created you, you who are fruitful?” He gripped her face in both of his hands and growled, “I am your father – your God.”
There was a crack of thunder and he laughed, spreading his arms wide like Christ on the cross above her. “I am God!” he cried to the skies, “I am – God!”
As the rain poured down and shattered the petals and leaves and blades of grass that cradled her, Clem sobbed, thinking of the iris on her desk and of the flower this man would plant inside her, and wondered, wondered if it would have his glass eyes.
Madeleine Veninger is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, majoring in English with a focus on Creative Writing, and minoring in Gender Studies. She has been writing her whole life and hopes to pursue a career as an author of short fiction and as a professor of Creative Writing and English. She will be attending the University of San Francisco’s MFA Writing Program in the Fall of 2014. She served as print co-editor and photographer of the Blackstick Review.