It stood twisted and arch-backed like the mangled fur of a stray cat. Its shadow, elongated by the low-lit window behind it, sliced mercilessly through the smooth surface of the unsuspecting white sheets. As the sun began its daily death, the shadow gained strength, spilling over the side of the bed and skipping down the ruffled bed skirt. It slithered across the hardwood floor toward the door and the eighteen-year-old girl who stood with her back pressed firmly against it.
It slithered closer… one, two, three, four… and closer still… one, two, three, four, one two, three four. Peony nervously watched the shadow slither toward her, as the earth slowly swallowed the sun.
Peony ran past the shadow to the foot of her bed, pulling the sheets down at each corner until the equal tension sucked the pollinating protrusion into itself and the sheets became evenly distributed once more. The wrinkle was gone.
Peony could hear her parents’ muffled voices coming from downstairs. She didn’t mind when they fought, it gave her a strange feeling of comfort. Consistency was safe; their arguments were constant. Sentences came in peppered fragments as they squeezed through the ageing rings in Peony’s door, painted and skinned.
“How… blame me for this? Shouldn’t… proud… years for this promotion,” Her father’s fiery temper thundered through the house.
Her mother’s soft voice followed with timid determination. “I just… ” Their icy words swirled through the lines in the wood and spilt out the other side like ice cream, but not as sweet. “Didn’t consider… do to us”
“Too much money?… How”
“Peony,” her ears caught her name, grabbing her attention. “…qualify… financial aid.” Peony walked closer to the wall. Her mother’s mousey voice was too hard to hear from the other room. She pushed her ear to the crack beneath the door. Cold air flooded around her face. “It’s not that simple.”
Peony noticed a small mud blot she had accidentally tracked in.
“You’re just too complicated… wrong… her”
She reached into her back right pocket and retrieved a cotton handkerchief to blot the edges of the stain. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four…
“There’s nothing wrong with her,” her mother squeaked back, believing it.
She continued blotting. If she scrubbed, she ran the risk of disturbing the deeper fibers, causing the stain to soak through the carpet’s top, reachable layers.
“Your denial… only making it worse.”
Peony scurried to her bathroom and retrieved the homemade all-purpose cleaner she’d prepared three days prior, ¼ teaspoon of white vinegar and 32 ounces of water. She’d learned how to make her own ever since her father restricted her use of harsh chemical cleaners, having found her passed out in her bathroom next to a leaking bottle and milky white puddle reeking of bleach.
Peony heard her mother’s small voice gasping for air through the crashing tide of her father’s unabated anger. “I think she’s perfect just the way she is.”
She was afraid of soaking too much of the solution into the carpet.
“Damn it, Helen. She needs help!” One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. “You refuse to even acknowledge…”Each time she brought her handkerchief away from the carpet to submerge it in the homemade cleaner again. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. The cowering fibers would pull themselves up and stare at her in humble gratitude. “… can’t take it… sick of feeling like the bad guy.” When she presented them with more cleanser, they bowed, double-bent.
“She’s happy.” The spot on the carpet was still a few shades darker than the rest, but it was just leftover moisture from the cleaning solution.
“You think so?” His voice grew louder. “Well, I hate to break it to you, but maybe you’re going crazy too. Guess the shits hit the fan and gone airborne.” Peony examined the spot one last time and decided it would be best to come back and check it again before she went to bed, just to make sure.
“Yeah, you’re not crazy and I’m not the asshole.” One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. “ Just do one thing, will you? Don’t call me when you find her dead on the kitchen floor covered in Clorox because you were too selfish to be the asshole…” One, two, three, four.“… too blind see that her obsession with perfection is her biggest imperfection.” One, two, three, four. “I can’t…” One, two, three. “…leaving.”
Peony heard a door open and then close again with a silencing crack. Everything was still, except for a small ball of dust that blew in from beneath the door and a lagging breeze that danced on frigid toes down the nape of her neck from a small gap in the back of her collar.
That evening before dinner, Peony’s mother sat her down on one of the hard island barstools in their kitchen. “Don’t think of it as a job,” her mother said, trying to sound optimistic. “Think of it as a chore. You like doing chores and we could really use the extra money.”
Peony let her eyes wander past her mother and began counting the water droplets on the kitchen window as it started to rain. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four….
“Peony, are you listening?” She crooked her head and smiled. “Your father had to go away for a little while.” One, two, three, four… “But, he’ll be back soon.” One, two, three, four… “It’s just work stuff” One, two, three, four… “He’ll be back soon.” One, two, three, four… Peony counted the lies and the rain, as they both fell, creating and destroying.
“It’s right next door and I know how much you love Mrs… What’s her name? Oh dear, I wrote it down somewhere. I’ll go through the Christmas cards and see if she’s in there.” It was mid-April.
As the rain began to tap against the glass in larger increments, Peony lost count. She began anxiously rubbing the palms of her hands together in a back and forth motion, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.
The next morning, Peony made her bed, brushed her teeth, flossed (using a new piece for each tooth), brushed again to remove the remaining loose particles, changed into the outfit she’d placed in her Thursday cubby four days earlier, vacuumed the floor paneling around her room and completed the meticulous daily preparation list she’d Xeroxed the summer her cousin, Tiffany, worked at the Kinko’s in town.
Once downstairs, she spotted her mother leaning against the kitchen sink. Her hair was half up in a loose ponytail. The other half fell in stringy chunks unevenly distributed along the sides of her partially hidden face. Peony averted her eyes to the floor, counting her steps as she headed toward the door. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four…
The road leading up to the house looked like it had been neglected for several generations. The pavement was crushed and ripped apart in several places, like a dry desert lake, parched and cracked from countless seasons without relief. There were overgrown trees on either side. A robin stood on one of the weaker branches, while a fat caterpillar slid past it. Neither bird nor bug cared enough to acknowledge the other.
There was a small pocket of garden in front of the house. It seemed to be stuck in a perpetual fall. Every bud looked like it had crawled out of the ground with twisted, arthritic roots, already dead. The rancid smell of the flowering dogwoods ravaged the delicate pink and white flowers conceived within its dark branches.
The front door had fallen slightly off loose hinges, leaving it at an unpleasant angle. Loud Spanish music was pouring through the empty space. Peony went to ring the doorbell. She stopped, noticing thin layers of grime left over from visitors who had forgotten to fabricate last minute plans. She pulled back the blade of her finger and wondered how many of those who had once come were dead now.
She brought her knuckles into a fist, prepared to knock. However, the doorbell required less direct contact. It squeaked as Peony reached her finger out again and pushed the smudged button. It resisted for a moment, padded by a collection of grime. She watched it crawl back lazily. No one answered. She pulled the hanky out from the back right pocket of her khaki skirt. Wrapping the monogrammed cloth around her hand, she reached forward and grabbed the knob.
The door resisted against the rusty corners of its frame before finally popping open. Peony nervously entered and smoothed down a corner of the entryway rug that the door had snagged back upon opening.
“Hello?” She called.
No answer, except for a Spanish chorus she couldn’t understand. The music was much louder now and coming from the room to the right of the foyer.
Looking around, she suddenly felt self-conscious and out of place. As she surveyed the surrounding area, her heart began to race. She could feel her chest tightening anxiously. A drawer was cocked open, the dull, wooden floor beneath it bathed in a thick layer of muck, overrun by rabid dust bunnies. There were cobwebs in every corner, including the empty space of a lonely keyhole, backlit by a large light in the shape of an ostrich egg.
The walls were infected, coated in green paint, which used to be bright but had long since been left untreated. There was a flight of stairs a few yards in front of her. The bottom seven, were covered in clutter, scraps of junk in stadium seating. A puffy green carpet, oozed out from the seventh stair and continued to the top, interrupted ever so often with darker patches of stains left to fester.
There was a ceiling fan directly above her that had two of its five lights burnt out and left another twitching nervously. There were uneven clumps of dark dust on the forward-facing edge of every blade. They were shuddering from the provocative vibrations of music pulsating off of the expired lime walls. The youngest dust particles slipped and fell like snow or ash.
Peony’s hands began to shake and she became short of breath, one, two, three, four… overwhelmed by all of the dust, mess, disorder, clutter and chaos. One, two, thee, four, one, two, three, four… There was too one, two, three, four… too much of everything. A dust particle landed on her shoulder with threatening silence.
She threw her eyes downward. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four… unable to defend them from the invading world around her. The shag carpet below had awkward bald patches, like a flea-ridden dog. She didn’t even want to imagine what might have been hiding in the tall, synthetic grass fibers. Her hand retreated into the safety of her long sleeve, like a turtle to its shell.
Peony kept her eyes to the floor and slowly made her way to a wide archway to the right of the stairs. The unpolished floor reflected the neon pink walls of the next room. It was a sitting room, or had been once. Since then, it looked like the place where out of work Moulin Rouge dancers—the late night shift—came to die. The electric pink walls seemed much too young for the woman living between them, who Peony hadn’t seen standing at the other end of the room.
There were two velvet purple couches, one larger than the other. They had alternating shades, lighter where the fabric had been rubbed away, no doubt by tacky wool sweaters and patched up corduroy pants. On either side of the larger couch were lamps with bloated shades that looked like discount lingerie, with uneven and segmented black fringe hanging onto the ends.
Peony noticed the woman who had been camouflaged by the things she owned. She was facing a gramophone on the opposite wall and stood behind a faded yellow, vintage stove, which had been converted into a coffee table. She was wearing a shiny 80s running jacket, with squares, stripes and squiggles, expired modernity.
Her fists were wrapped around another tall lamp, whose shade had been relocated to the top of her head. Peony wasn’t sure if she was using the lamp for balance, using it as a microphone or both.
“Hello,” she said in a shaky voice. No answer. She said it again, but her voice drowned beneath the foreign music, smothered by words she couldn’t understand. She raised her voice, which seemed rude and made her feel a little uncomfortable, “Hello, Mrs. Smith?”
The strange woman continued to look the other way, bobbing her head to the music, slightly offbeat. One, one, two, two, three, three, four, four. Peony wondered if her hearing aid had a half-second delay. Her lumpy hips attempted to sway, but were stopped by the callused cartilage that gathered between the joints of her brittle bones.
Peony tried to get her attention by clearing her throat, which was already clean. All that came out was a low hum, off tune to the music. “Excuse me, Mrs. Smith?” Raising the level of her voice a little more. “I believe your niece talked to my mother yesterday,” and then a little louder, “I’m here to watch, uh- keep you company.” The volume increased as the woman, still unaware of Peony, turned the horn toward them.
She cupped her palms over her ears and squeezed her eyes closed, trying to avoid a fast-approaching anxiety attack. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four…“I said, I’m here to keep you,” the music cut out, “company.” A hum came from the recording device as a mismatched attachment, built for a record player, took the current record off of the needle and replaced it with another.
The old woman turned around, startled, dropping the lamp in her hand, sending her matching hat along with it. “Company?” She looked toward Peony but not quite at her.
The next song began to play. It sounded like the one before, but with a slightly faster beat. “What in the Sammy Davis Dickens are you doing here?”
Peony opened her eyes and pulled her hands down to her sides. “Oh, I’m so sorry I-”
“Iris… and I don’t want it. Whatever it is you’re selling, take it back. I don’t read magazines, I don’t want no damn cookies. There’s nothing thin about a Thin Mint. I don’t care if you’re giving out shitty pocket Bibles or whoring yourself down the East coast, I’m not interested.” She took a breath, which seemed to use up more energy than she had left. Peony stood, dumbfounded. “Well…” Iris continued on, “they sure are making’ them stupid these days.”
Don’t you know it’s rude to not make eye contact when someone’s talking to you?” Peony brought her gaze up from the floor. “Kids today,” she let out a loud humph, “got no damn manners.”
Peony was terrified. She felt out of place among the forgotten belongings. The room look like a bad episode of Antiques Road show. “I-” she stuttered, “I’m terribly sorry,” shuffling to a clearing on the carpet. “I answered… my mother, my mother talked to you on the phone. I’m Peony.”
“You have to pee?” Iris yelled over the music before stumbling back, nearly tripping over a footrest. “Bitch,” Iris said with a loud scowl. Peony looked confused. “Not your mother, that damn dog over there,” She pointed to the dark brown velvet footrest. “Is she? I couldn’t quite hear you.”
“Um-” Peony muttered, still confused.
“I said,” Iris, screamed, “Your mother isn’t a bitch, unless she is… is she?”
Peony took a step toward the gramophone, trying to find another clear space to rest her foot. “Don’t come any closer,” Iris shouted before grabbing the nearest object, which happened to be an old pin and quill. It had been lying on a nearby table next to a stationary set full of blank pages. The long end of the feather sank downward toward the floor and then puffed up again as an air vent clicked on beneath it.
Peony jumped back, tripping over a taxidermy cat. She tried to catch herself on a lamp, but the tassels spilled from one side to the other as both were driven downward. Peony landed on a large throw pillow, forcing a spray of dust out from under her on all sides. The lamp shortly followed, crashing down beside her on the pillow, forcing a smaller dust cloud in her direction.
Iris finally switched off the music. “I’m going to ask you one more time more time before I sic my German Shepherd on you. Who are you?” Peony looked around the room, wondering which piece of furniture she was referring to. “Can’t you talk?”
“Yes,” Peony forced out before the old woman had the chance to answer for her.
“So, tell me what the hell it is you’re doing on my floor.”
“I- my mother sent me over here to keep you company.”
“Shit, are you from hospice? Am I dying? I swear you guys do this to me every year.”
“What? No, no, I live next door. My mom wanted to get me a job f- for college and stuff.” She could feel her throat becoming dry.
“So I hired you to keep me company? You can barely carry on a conversation. You break into my house and then scare me into thinking I’m dying. Well,” Iris said and then cleared her throat with a gargling cough, “I guess you’re fired.”
Peony’s heart lurched in her chest. The only thing worse than keeping this job was losing it. “No, please, I can talk just fine.” All of the sudden, going home terrified her.
“So I see,” Iris said with one uneven eyebrow raised. “I suppose I could allow you to reapply for the position, but it would require a strict background check followed by a formal interview.”
“What? I didn’t have to do all that before.”
“Yes, well things have changed a bit.”
“You hired me yesterday.”
“Well, yesterday you weren’t used. I have it under good authority that you were recently terminated by your previous place of employment.”
“But, but that was you.” Peony began nervously rubbing the palms of her hands together. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.
“What are you trying to do over there, start a fire?” Iris said squinting at Peony’s hands.
“Oh, no, it’s just a, um, a nervous tick.”
“Yeah, well it’s tickin’ me off.” Iris shook her head, “Crazy kids, you may be able to break into some people’s houses and try to start try to start fires, but this ain’t going to be one of them.” She jutted out her chin and licked an excited layer of slime off of her thin lips. “Understood?”
“Yes? Uh,” she looked at the floor and then obediently back at Iris. “Yes.”
“You’re an odd one,” she chuckled. “I like ‘em odd. Consider yourself unfired.” Peony smiled unsure whether she should be happy or not. “Alright, let me give you the grand tour. Don’t touch anything. I like to keep things where I can see them I can see them.”
“You can see what?”
“I can see just fine. Now, pay attention, follow me and don’t ask questions I’ve already answered.” Iris shifted her weight forward and pushed her way across the room, toward Peony. When she reached her, she passed by without looking up and then stopped at the doorway to the foyer. “Move your ass, slow poke,” Iris said, looking back at Peony with a stern face, quietly laughing to herself and she turned away again. “Weird-o.”
Peony scampered over to Iris as she entered the foyer. She could see small billows of dust and what appeared to be petrified Cheeto crumbs spraying back wherever Iris’ feet shuffled.
“Would you be a dear and open that open that door?” Iris pointed to a room that had escaped Peony’s attention. She kept her eyes aimed at the ground, counting her steps and the number of mouse pellets she passed until she reached the door, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.
“What are you muttering on about?” Iris snapped.
“Oh, um, nothing, I was” she spat out, caught off guard by Iris’s sudden mood swing. “I was just counting.”
“Counting what?” Iris leaned in her head, suspiciously. Peony had already tried answering that question several times by now, usually at her father’s request and once by her mother the first time she’d caught her doing it. The action was easy. The reason behind it wasn’t. “Shut your mouth and open that door for me. The key’s up there.”
Peony lifted herself onto her toes, reached her hands up and cautiously felt around on top of the doorframe with the tips of the fingers that were able reach. She could feel years of dormant dust burrowing beneath her nail beds. Her pointer finger brushed against something cold and metal. Peony flicked the key over the edge of the doorframe and onto the soiled Oriental rug. She promptly retrieved it and placed it in the patient keyhole.
“Well, open it, numb nuts,” Iris shouted from behind her.
Peony turned the key, one, two, three, four, until she heard a heavy click and then pushed down on the antique handle. “It’s locked,” she said looking back at Iris, her face twisted with confusion.
“Why’d you go and do a stupid thing like that?” Iris barked back. “I just told you where the key was. I never said the door was locked.”
Peony took a deep breath and pushed the key back the other way, one, two, three, four, until she heard the lock click out of place.
Iris approached the door. “This is my red room,” she said as it swung open.
Sure enough, the entire room was painted floor-to-ceiling in a thick coat of fire engine red. There were paintings of naked women hanging on every wall. Each woman had her head bent back, shading out her face but letting her body contort into positions Peony would have never thought to even imagine. She didn’t know if she was disgusted by them, or impressed.
Scattered around the room, beneath the nude paintings were several mismatched statues of naked men. Their bodies seemed more rigid and were placed in less commendable positions. “This is the guest room,” Iris said smiling.
Peony uncomfortably shifted on her feet and tried to seem preoccupied with something else, but everywhere she looked, there were naked people. “Oh, don’t get your day-of-the-week underpants in a knot. Don’t you like boys?”
She glanced back at the unfamiliar forms. “Do you?”
“What? Of course I do.” She looked around at the art in the room. “The paintings are, well, lets call them visual enhancers. Naked women are just more pleasing to look at than men.”
“Then why are the men naked too?” Peony asked, trying not to look up again.
Iris chuckled, “I said that women are more pleasing to look at. The men are statues,” she said as she mischievously grabbed the backside of a miniature of Michelangelo’s David. She didn’t know if it was from embarrassment or the color of the walls reflecting off of her pale skin, but Peony felt her cheeks run red. This seemed to only make the overall experience even more entertaining to Iris. “Come on,” she said with a playful smile as she led Peony out of the room. “I’ll save destroying your innocence for another day. I tend to get bored easily.”
They continued through the whole downstairs section of the house, going from room to room, each one displaying a new color with each color brighter than the last. “Can I ask you a question?” Peony said toward the end of the day as they walked out of a dusty jewel tone blue room containing the largest troll doll collection she’d ever seen.
“I don’t see any point in stopping in stopping you.”
Peony stopped, leaning against the wall next to a life-size suit of arms. “Okay, two questions, maybe three if you count the first one.” …two, three, four
Iris stopped shuffling away and turned to Peony. “I’m listening.”
“Why all the colors, what’s the point? And why do you sometimes repeat words? I’ve been trying to figure that one out all day.”
Iris laughed, “Earlier getting you to talk was like pulling teeth, now I can’t get you to shut up. You really need a reason for the colors? ”She paused for a moment, “Well,” Iris said taking a long breath and changing the tone of her voice, “I guess… When all you have left is a head full of grey hair and an empty house full of black and white photographs of all the people you shouldn’t have outlived staring back to you, it’s hard not to get lost in the shady patches of their faces. Some people spend their whole lives staring too long at a piece of paper just because a couple blots of ink resemble someone they once knew… That’s why we have color, to guide us back when we start to loose ourselves in the darkness looking for that shadow we used to know.” She shook her head and tried to laugh, “It’s a strange sort of victory, surviving. The longer your winning streak lasts, the shorter your funeral procession will be. When the final champion dies, not a word will be said about it, except for maybe by the flies, who will no doubt send their gluttonous gratitude.” Iris could see the sadness growing on Peony’s face. “Or maybe I just have it painted this way so I can remember what room I’m in. I made a chart. Of course I can’t read it worth a damn, so I had I had a census worker who came by read it out to me: Bathroom, monkey ass blue, kitchen, cat piss yellow, then I have my green means go away foyer and… well I used to have them all memorized. I wrote them down them down somewhere.” Iris turned and continued walking to the front door.
Peony stayed back a moment, looking around at all the chaos, the color and the clutter, which, for the first time, didn’t terrify her. It wasn’t until she caught up with Iris and was walking toward the door that she found herself counting her steps again. One, two, three, four, one, two three, four.
“How was your first day of work, sweetie?” Peony’s mother asked her when she got home in a voice more cautious than curious.
“It was fine,” she said, shoveling a dollop of liquid soap into the cupped palm of her hand.
“Have you talked to your father today? I was thing about planning a family dinner for next week. Do you think your father would like Italian? I’m sure he’s anxious to come home. Did you say if you’d talked to him today?”
Working the soap into a thick lather, Peony lost her mother’s rambling voice, as she counted sudsy strokes and dancing troll dolls in her head. One, two, thee, four, one two, three, four.
It had been nearly a month since Peony started working for Iris when she began noticing odd changes in her behavior. Iris was in the pink room sitting on the smaller of the two velvet couches. It had been a particularly overcast day and Iris couldn’t seem to shake off the gloom. She was resting her elbow on the worn down armrest and her chin was resting on the wrist end of her palm. She was staring at something, but Peony couldn’t pick it out.
“Iris, is everything alright?” She asked from the doorway.
“Yes,” she sighed, “I’m just feeling a little upside down.”
“You mean you’re feeling down?”
Iris closed her eyes and groaned impatiently. “No,” she said though gritted teeth, “I said, I’m feeling…I’m feeling crooked. I’m being upside down.”
Peony had forced a smile and left Iris alone for the rest of the afternoon, while continuing to keep a close eye on her. She looked pale compared to the bright colors around her.
It rained again the next day, but when Peony came through the front door Iris was watching “Top Hat” in the red room with a Fred Astaire bobble head doll on one side of her and a Michelangelo miniature on the other.
“How many of those do you have?” Peony chuckled as she plopped down on the sofa beside Iris.
“Don’t go to the zoo, you will fall in, fall in, into to the water.” She grabbed Peony’s arm, “they all fell.” She started to smile as tears filled the heavy lines on her face. “Haven’t you?”
Peony wiggled her toes, which had always been her secret to holding back tears. “Iris,” she said standing up, “I’m going to make you some lunch, sound good?” Iris looked at her.
“Don’t drop the meat, the meat needs to be, but don’t drop it. Don’t get too close to the fallen.” She pulled her finger up to Peony’s face and placed it over her lips. “Shhh, Freddy,” and turned back to the movie.
Peony ran to the kitchen and picked up the phone. It was bring yellow and the numbers on the dialing pad were shaped like the sliced halves of lemons. She punched in the first number that came to mind. It took two rings for her mother to pick up. “Hello,” she said in a cheery tone.
“Mom, is that you? It’s Peony”
“Oh,” her mother sounded surprised. “Hi, sweetie, are you still at work? I think your father might stop by later. He was here, but left after I told him you weren’t, but he was here.”
“Mom, please. I need you help.”
“Honey, does Iris know you’re using her phone?” Peony tightened her grip on the yellow receiver.
“Mom,” she said with more urgency. “Please, I need your help.” She began to wiggle her toes, One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. “Something’s wrong with Iris. I can’t explain it, she just seems… confused.”
Her mother giggled on the other end of the line, “Old people just to do that. We all get confused at one time or another. Has she tried washing her hands? That usually helps you”
“Mom,” Peony could feel her voice beginning to shake. “How can I help her?”
“Sweetie, I trust you. You are so special.”
“Thank you, but you never answered my question. Stop talking at me. Talk to me. I need you.”
“You’re wonderful, sweetie. I believe in you.”
Peony heard a crash coming from the other room. She dropped the phone and ran into the living room. Iris was in the middle of the room next to a broken lamp dancing with an army jacket that had more wrinkles thank she did.
“Say hello to my sailor,” Iris said with a giddy smile before throwing the jacket at Peony and continuing to spin slowly.