(cw: emotional abuse of a child, disordered eating, suicide)
There was a big, empty lot behind the trailer park I lived in. It stood between us and the highway. It had been empty for as long as I’d lived there.
Well, empty of buildings, anyway. It got all overgrown with weeds every spring, and those burst into bloom in early summer, a riot of flowers too uncivilized for gardens. Mom always grumbled about them, even though they never tried to overtake our scrubby lawn, and never could understand why I went out there to ‘play out there alone in all the allergies’. She never tried to stop me, though, and always had a smile when I’d come in for dinner with a clumsily made crown of cornflowers on my head.
I didn’t exactly play alone on purpose – I knew there were other kids in the neighborhood but none of them ever came into the empty lot. I didn’t mind, though. The field of flowers no one else liked was my place. No one bothered me out there, and I could pretend I was whoever I wanted to be.
Yet somehow, I didn’t notice the big, blank ring of earth until Mom’s boyfriend moved in with us. It was way at the other end of the lot, the end that was hidden from the highway by a big box store and closed off to the side by a row of storage sheds. I’d never gone over there because it felt like it was someone else’s space, being closed off like that, but now that I’d seen that perfectly bare patch of ground it itched at me.
As the weeds sprang up that spring, green blades started poking up along the edges of the ring. Day after day I’d look over warily to see how much they’d grown overnight; the flat, sword-like fan of their leaves worried me. When they shot up stalks I was almost afraid to go out into the field at all, until one day I peered over and saw that they’d finally bloomed: they were just irises.
Blood red irises.
So that’s what they look like when they’re not in a vase, I thought to myself, and wondered who’d gone to the trouble of planing a perfect ring of irises out in an empty lot full of weeds.
I didn’t go over to investigate. They were probably someone else’s special place, and I shouldn’t intrude. I had the rest of the field to myself. Curiosity ate at me, though. I spent a lot of time in the field once school let out for the summer, especially when Mom’s boyfriend was home, and I never saw anyone near the ring of irises.
“I don’t understand what you do out there all day,” Mom said to me one weekend. “Especially in this heat!”
I shrugged. “I like the field.”
“You don’t even—” She sighed and shut her eyes. You don’t even have any friends with you out there, I finished in my head. “Just take a bottle of water with you, okay?”
I filled up a bottle at the tap. Over the sound of the water I heard her boyfriend grumble, “Better out there than sitting in here getting fatter in front of one of those goddamned video games.”
My hand trembled so hard that I almost dropped the bottle. I clutched it to my chest and left the trailer as silently as I could.
Being out in the field didn’t make me feel any better. The sun glared down at me like it was looking for flaws too. Too fat, untidy clothes, get those weeds out of your hair, stop flapping your hands, put your arms by your sides, what are you, some kind of animal?
I hurried through the field like I had some place to go, like there was anything but the big box store and the highway beyond.
And the ring of blood red irises at the other end of the empty lot, still and waiting.
I stared at it for a long moment. Maybe it’d be all right if I went and looked. Just for a moment.
The irises seemed awfully tall and their blooms very big, much bigger than they had any right to be. I wasn’t short – I wasn’t even really a child anymore, I’d turned thirteen last winter — but they came up to my chin.
They grew close together in their perfect circle, the stiff blades of their leaves just like a wall of swords. I walked around the perimeter until I found a gap. It was just a little one, too small for me, but I couldn’t resist. With a whispered apology to the flowers, I pushed through anyway.
I slipped in more easily that I should have and was surrounded by a wall of green. I sat, legs folded under me, and marveled at how the irises hid me from the world. It was quieter in here, cooler, dimmer, like the flowers had bent in around me to hide me from the prying eyes of the world.
My mind slipped away elsewhere until I heard Mom calling me in to dinner. Her voice sounded like it was coming from very far away. I crawled out from the ring of irises and brushed at my clothes as I returned to the trailer.
“You didn’t drink any water?” Mom asked, frowning at the full bottle dangling from my hand.
“Oh, uh.” I frowned at it. “I forgot.”
“Honey! You’ve got to be parched. Here,” she said, pouring me a glass of iced tea and setting it at my plate.
“Is that sweetened?” her boyfriend asked as he entered the kitchen.
Her shoulders rose. “Just a little.”
His lips thinned into a line but he sat down without another word. Mom served us dinner — it was always salads lately, but this time we got a little side of mac and cheese — and for a few minutes, we ate in silence.
Mom’s boyfriend banged his fork down. “Haven’t I told you not to hold your fork like that? You look like a savage. You’re thirteen for god’s sake, hold it properly.”
I looked guiltily at my hand, all its fingers wrapped around the handle, like how a little kid would hold it. I shifted to hold it like he did, like a mature person does. He grunted his acceptance and left me alone to eat, painfully slowly, because I was too clumsy to do the delicate movements quickly and he’d scold me if I spilled anything.
When I was finally done and had loaded the dishwasher I wanted to go back outside, but Mom stopped me. “Watch TV with us,” she pleaded. “That show you like with the monsters is on, we can watch that, okay?”
I could barely pay attention to the show, or Mom and him as they talked. My mind kept slipping away to the irises.
Mom’s boyfriend left to hang out with his buddies early the next morning. I stayed inside and helped Mom clean. Afterward, she let me play a video game while she read.
I didn’t hear his car in the driveway, didn’t even notice him come in until I heard his exasperated, “Seriously? I thought we talked about the video games.”
“We finished cleaning hours ago—”
“Well, I want to watch baseball, so you’d better get done with that, too.”
I saved and quit as Mom took him aside, her voice a furious whisper, but I didn’t stay to hear the inevitable fight. I filled a bottle with water and went outside.
My feet took me to the ring of irises, their blood red blooms vigilant in the sun. It was just as empty as I’d found it yesterday, so I slipped inside and sat down behind the wall of bladed leaves.
It was so peaceful in there; even the constant drone of summer insects was muffled. I could dream of being whoever I liked, wherever I liked, and no one would interrupt me. It was so quiet, I could even just stop being anyone at all.
A long time later I heard Mom calling for me again, and I might not have noticed if it wasn’t for the edge of panic in her voice. I crawled out and looked up at the sky, confused. It had been early afternoon when I’d gone in, but now it was twilight. How did that happen?
Mom called for me again, sounding near tears. I brushed myself off and hurried back to the trailer, apologies ready to spill from my lips.
She swept me into a hug before I could speak. “Where were you? It’s been hours since dinner!”
I returned the hug, startled. “I was just in the field. I didn’t hear you call me in to eat.”
“Well, I did, for about five minutes! I nearly went looking for you.”
My heart sank. But you didn’t. I searched her face, and saw apology there. “Where is he?”
Her lips pursed. “Out with his buddies again. Will you come in?”
I nodded, and she took me inside and gave me my leftovers, and as much iced tea as I could drink, and then a creamsicle afterward. “I’ll tell him I ate two,” she said before I could refuse, so I took it. Unlike dinner, I was actually able to taste it a little.
On weekdays I had the trailer to myself after I finished chores, until they both got back from work in the late afternoon. Other summers, I would play video games during the heat of the day until Mom got home, but when Mom’s boyfriend moved in he had started keeping them locked in a cabinet because he thought I was addicted to them. It was either TV or a book I’d read fifty times.
Or the irises. The cool, green space with the blood red blooms watching over me, where I didn’t have to hurt or think. I could sit out there all day if I wanted, but then, I might miss them coming home and someone would come looking for me, and then they might find the irises.
The thought made me sick. They couldn’t find the irises. They couldn’t ever find out.
I sat on my bed instead, thinking about drawing or playing with toys I hadn’t had fun with in a long time, and did nothing.
It was almost a relief when they got home and we could have dinner, because after that I could go outside and they’d be too absorbed in TV to wonder where I was. I took the water bottle so Mom wouldn’t worry, and my little battery-powered alarm clock (Mom’s boyfriend didn’t believe in kids having phones), so I wouldn’t stay out so long I’d freak her out again.
It felt wrong to take the clock into the ring, so after I set it for nine p.m. I left it just outside, nestled by the base of one of the leaves, and then I went away for a while.
When I finally noticed the alarm, it had been beeping for a few minutes already.
We all went to the craft fair downtown that weekend. Mom offered to buy me caramel popcorn, or a shaved ice, but I turned them down. Her boyfriend, who had scolded me for taking too much cereal for breakfast, praised me for ‘making good choices’.
I looked at the art without seeing it. All I could think about were the irises. I wanted to go home and sit among them, where I couldn’t hear or see him, or myself.
I wished I were an iris. They only had to grow, and when the winter came they’d die until spring. I wished I could do that.
I started skipping breakfast, doing my chores right after I got up instead, and go outside to my irises immediately afterward. I took my alarm clock with me every time, set for half an hour before anyone was supposed to get home, and put it outside to guard before I crawled through the gap. Relief washed over me as I laid down on the bare ground. The wall of bladed leaves rose high above me, keeping everything else out while the flowers watched. My thoughts emptied out of anything but their blood red petals until I heard the alarm.
Usually I heard it in more than enough time, but one day I almost cut it too close. As I walked back, from between the trailers I saw Mom’s car drive down the road, and she was already getting out of the car by the time I got to the carport.
“Hey, kiddo!” She swept me into a tight hug. “I’ve got some good news — I got my vacation days so we can spend extra time at the county fair!”
I blinked at her. “That’s good?” A little line appeared between her brows and I remembered that I used to like the county fair. I made myself smile. “Sounds like fun.”
“We can go Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, so you can ride all the rides and visit all the animals, too.”
Last year, I’d cried because I hadn’t had time to see the goats. Mom’s boyfriend had a talk with her about my emotional maturity on the way home. “I’d like that.”
I came inside with her and drank the iced tea she gave me while she talked about work. During dinner, I picked my food until the adults had finished and I could go back to my irises.
My alarm had been beeping for almost an hour before I heard it. I scrambled back in a panic, but no one was waiting for me. From behind Mom’s bedroom door, I heard arguing.
Her voice, tight and angry. “—and you need to knock it off with the comments about food!”
“Why? It’s obviously working. Seventh grade is going to be hard enough as it is with those poor social skills. Being a little thinner is only going to help.”
“My kid is barely eating, and you’re still going to harp on about weight?”
“It needs to be said because you’re obviously in denial—”
I went back outside, into the safety of the irises, and didn’t come out until the next morning after they’d both gone to work.
I started spending the night out there more often, although I didn’t usually mean to. Maybe it was because the irises kept me safe. I didn’t think when I was in them. When I wasn’t in them, I could barely think of anything but them. I even dreamed about them when I couldn’t sneak out to sleep between them; their green blades surrounded me, keeping out everything but the blood red flowers watching me.
I thought about other things sometimes, even when I didn’t want to. Mostly Mom worrying about me. She’d always worried about me, but it was so much worse now, and I wasn’t sure why. I was doing everything her boyfriend told me to do. I didn’t eat, I didn’t play, I did my chores when they were at work and was still and quiet when they at home.
That’s how she wanted it, after all. She argued with him about me, sure, but she’d chosen him. She said he was good with kids. She didn’t know how to teach me to act like a real person, but he knew how to get me to stay out of real people’s way and not make them stare.
He was even pleased. He’d noticed I’d gotten thinner, said I was on the right track, and said maybe they’d buy me new clothes for school. I didn’t see how it mattered, but I smiled and nodded because that was what he expected.
School. That would take me away from my irises. I could barely stand the thought, so I didn’t think about it. Everything was fine as long as I did my chores and stayed in the irises as often as possible.
And then everything wasn’t fine. I missed a chore. I never missed a chore but he went looking for his favorite glass at dinnertime and it wasn’t on the shelf. He pinned me with a glare before opening the dishwasher, full of clean dishes that should have been put away. “Why isn’t this unloaded?”
I could only stare at it, baffled. I unloaded the dishes every morning. Every single morning, it was the last thing I did before I went back to my irises, but there they were, clean and accusatory. “I guess I forgot?”
“You forgot.” He stood, looming over me, his arms crossed. “Did you forget, or did you decide you just didn’t want to? I have noticed you getting sloppier and sloppier with your chores, you know. What’s really going on?”
My heart pounded. “I just— I just forgot—”
“What are you up to?”
He jerked away from me and stared at Mom. Her hands clenched. “It was an honest mistake. Just— no,” she snapped as he opened his mouth. “Drop it.”
Muttering something about lax discipline, he dropped it, but he kept giving me suspicious looks, and when I went out later I felt his eyes follow me all the way out the door.
I woke up the next morning from a dream filled with blood red. I didn’t remember having come back inside, but I was in my bed, still in my outside clothes. I went to the bathroom and washed up, wearily, before putting on fresh clothes and going to do my chores. I’d do them extra carefully this time, I’d doublecheck I’d done everything. It’d take me away from the irises for longer but—
He was there, pacing the living room and waiting for me to get up when he should have been at work. I felt— something. I couldn’t figure out what. I stopped just inside the hallway, my fingers tracing the fake woodgrain of the wall. “What are you doing here?”
“I live here,” he snapped. “We need to have a serious talk. Do you know why?”
The feeling grew as I tried to think of what he might mean. I’d done everything right, except the dishwasher. Still, quiet, perfect, just like the irises. I shook my head and his face darkened.
Oh. The feeling was dread.
“You’ve been acting strangely. Your mother is worried. What do you do out there in that empty lot all day?”
“I just… daydream.” Not really, but close enough. The irises took my daydreams so I didn’t have to have them. My fingers twitched, dug into the groove between fake panels.
“You just daydream.” He huffed. “Why don’t I see you when I look out there?”
“It’s a big field?”
He scowled. “I think you’re hiding something. You’re losing weight way too fast. I think that now that you don’t have your video game fix you have to find it some other way.”
That feeling wasn’t just dread, but fear, the kind of fear I had whenever I stumbled across a social rule I hadn’t realized was there, which was often. “What are you talking about?”
“You’d better tell me. You’re not going to the fair if you don’t tell me. You know that, right?”
“I don’t know—”
He got right in my face. “Are you on drugs?”
My mind blanked, the words refusing to make sense, until suddenly they did. Was I on drugs. I started laughing.
“What the hell are you laughing at?” he snapped.
“You’re so stupid!” I cackled at his dumbfounded look. “I don’t go anywhere, I-I don’t even have any friends!” I laughed harder. “Wh-where would I get drugs?” I laughed so hard I started crying.
He backed away. “What is wrong with you?”
“God, you’re stupid! You tell me all the time! EVERYTHING!”
He turned and fled the trailer, muttering about therapy. I slumped to the floor, my chest heaving with laughing, sobbing, screaming, everything is wrong, everything is wrong, why don’t they see it? Why can’t they tell?
Everything but the irises. Tall, still, and pretty. Bugs didn’t chew on them. Mold told me last week that it was the hottest summer on record, and we hadn’t had rain in weeks, but they didn’t wilt.
My tears ran out eventually. I leaned my aching head against the wall. I wished, again, that I could be an iris. If I were, I’d be perfect, and they couldn’t ask anything of me. But I was just me. Ugly, broken, unlovable me.
The irises loved me, though. They’d hold me forever, if I let them.
I couldn’t get up for a long time, long enough I was afraid someone would come home first. When did I get so weak? It didn’t matter. After a while, I crawled into the living room, and climbed my way up the couch before I got more or less to my feet.
My head throbbed as I stumbled to the door. I pawed at it clumsily, my hands not working like they should have, but it came open anyway. Mom’s boyfriend hadn’t shut it all the way when he left. I didn’t bother trying to close it, either. It didn’t matter.
The irises were a very long way away. I never realized how far, before. The lawn was a thousand miles long as I plodded through it. The empty lot was a million miles wide as I dragged my feet through it and, after my vision blacked out and I found myself on my knees, I crawled.
Finally, I was there, gasping, hands and knees scraped. The blooms watched me and judged me, but I knew they loved me exactly as I was anyway. The sword wall of leaves parted to let me in.
I crawled in and curled up on the cool, bare ground. The red flowers watching me were so beautiful, their petals the color of the blood oozing from my skin, and satiny in the bright sun.
They were perfect. If I stayed with them, they would stay perfect. They would always love me, and I’d be perfect, too.
I smiled, and closed my eyes for the last time. My mind filled with blood red.