Behind The Iris: A Short Story


Oct 29, 2020
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This is just a little short story I wrote. Not sure exactly what to think about it, but I might as well post something, right?

Trigger Warnings: Terminal Illness, Grief

Behind The Iris​
It was nine-thirty in the morning when I pulled into the hospital valet. Jake called me at three AM, but I was asleep. When I called him back, eight on the dot, he told me to head to the hospital. That it was important.

I went through the whole shebang - the I-95 to New Haven, the traffic-ridden roads, the sluggish check-in - and made my way into the hallway. The carpet was the fuzzy kind, neon green with yellow circles spotted around the place. I kept seeing cardboard cutouts of a smiling nurse, a laughing baby, stuff like that. I spotted a cutout of a girl on a swing just outside the pediatric cancer ward. I kept going down the hallway.

It led down to a bigger room, lit up by an iron-plastic chandelier, with fluorescent light-bulbs shaped like candles. Just behind it was a mahogany desk, decorated with even more of those cutouts; behind that was the receptionist, who I could already tell was the fakest of them all. She flashed me a smile, her teeth bared, and waved me over. For a moment, she looked just like the grinning nurse next to her - flat, poised, practiced.

“Good morning! How can I help you?”

I copy her smile. Dad would call her a plastic person - factory-made folk, he’d whisper to me. “Hi, I was wondering if you could help me out. My dad, he’s over in Room 407. Mr. Davis Aberdeen. Is he accepting visitors?”

“Hold on one moment, please.” She clicks away at her keyboard, the white glare of the computer glancing off of the corner of her glasses. Hurry up. Hurry up, Jesus, hurry up. I already knew the visiting hours. I knew I could just go ahead. But here I am, waiting, and I kept waiting for three minutes until she finally found what she was looking for. “Room 407 is open for visitors. Go on ahead.”

The nurse pointed me towards the elevator with a practiced half-smile and a sympathetic tilt of her head. Room 409, she said, but I already knew this place like the back of my hand. I knew the ways the walls curled in on each other around the fake cardboard people and plastic lights, the delayed wait every time the elevator rang when it went down from the thirteenth floor to the garage. it had the number popping out of the door, right over the doorknob. The elevator music, always some soft Glass piece or something, ringing in my ears like white noise.

All the other signs littered around the hallway were in this cheerful, bubbly white text over neon green backgrounds, but this was in some kind of harsh, black font. The door was white like plaster, but the number was blacker than anything.

The door clicked behind me. I always hated these rooms - all stiff concrete and artificial white. The hallways always had these colorful carpets and plastic little chairs, like some kind of stupid little playplace, but these rooms showed its real colors. It felt like it just drained everything out of you, like a fucking leech. Maybe these rooms are doing me a favor, ‘cause nobody went to stay in this kind of place if they were perfectly fine. It’s like a little death, like a warning or something. Or maybe I just need a coffee, I don’t know. Part of me’s happy that some part of this place is being so honest about it. The rest of the building looked like a goddamned casino, and this place ain’t no casino.

So the door clicked behind me. I tried to close it carefully, quietly, but the room was so silent that it stood out anyways. Jamie was already there - he was bowed over on a chair, half asleep. His tie was done halfway, his blazer practically falling off of his shoulders. His hair was sticking out in places, greased up and sticking out of places like a matted dog. I cleared my throat, and he lifted his head. He smiled tightly.

“Wakey wakey, Jakey. It’s getting late, you should head home.” I sighed, claiming the seat next to him with a huff. “How long you been here? Looks like you didn’t sleep a wink.”

Jamie exhaled quickly, like a half-laugh huff when you can’t bring yourself to laugh full and proper. “Only an hour, Jules, and I was about to leave. The nurses say Dad’s been sleeping a whole lot - didn’t even notice I was here. Don’t you worry too much about that.” He gave one last glance at the bed, rested his hands on his knees, and began to get up. He smoothed over his pants, straightened out his tie, and tapped my head with his knuckles. “I’ll give you two some space,” he said, and then he’s out the door.

I finally looked down at the bed. Jakey fought tooth and nail to get a private room for him. Persistent little bastard, yeah, but eventually it paid off. But the room’s quiet, but sometimes it feels like it’s too quiet, so quiet that it muffles up everything. It would be silent if it weren’t for the beeping, the methodical green blips on the machine, but somehow that makes it worse. Is this how mummies felt, when they had their skulls hollowed out and stuffed with cotton and what-have-you? The quiet makes you stop thinking, like your head is just like those dead, shriveled things. It eats you up from the inside.

I don’t know if I was relieved that Dad finally began to wake up. He blinked slowly, once, twice, and tried to focus on me. His breathing started to pick up through his machine, the beeping of the machine picking up a few ticks. His eyebrows knit together, and he tried to get up. “Who are you? When did I get any visitors, hmm?”

I rested my hand on Dad’s shoulder, and I tried to coax him down onto the mattress again. “Hey, Dad, chill - take your time, it’s alright. I’m here, mmh? It’s Jules - Julie, Dad, it’s Julie.”

He squinted harder. “Jules, Jules…” His face eases into a loose smile. “Julie. What a nice name, Julie. Nice to meet you.”

My lip curled up a little, and I sighed. I pulled the covers up to his chest, and patted his pillow. “I know, Dad. Just sit tight, alright?”

He just nodded his head. Dad slept like a sloth - it was considered bad luck if you ever saw him awake before noon on a weekday. Every morning from Monday to Friday he had to be dragged out of bed with five alarms. He hid them around his bedroom; he said it was so he could get some blood running, jog his head awake. Most of the time, he just left them running in the bathroom until someone had enough and shut them off for him. And now, it’s like he’s always asleep. As much as I want to let him nod off again, I can’t let myself. I want him awake for a little while longer.

“Dad, you doing okay?” I leaned towards him, resting my arms on my knees. “They treating you fine?”

He hummed, and nodded his head again. He did that a lot, humming. It wasn’t the kind you wanted from an old man, filled with wisdom and nostalgia. It would hurt less if I could hear the age in there. But he sounded just like a kid when he hummed, with those two little notes, the hum ending with a curl at the end, like a question. Like he was barely paying attention to a teacher, no less his kid. He was already looking away from me, his eyes sliding away from mine and towards the window behind me. The blinds were open. Dad always wanted the first thing to see in the morning to be the sunrise, he said it was enough to get him out of bed on the weekdays. That all the colors and clouds and birdsong were better than any cup of coffee. But the sun already rose today, and he was just staring out into an office building that blocked the view.

“Dad, are you doing okay?” I tried to lean forward a little, to catch his attention, as if to say, ‘Dad, I’m here. I’m right over here.’ He didn’t look at me. He kept staring at the window, his mouth growing agape. A bit of spittle started to slide down from the corner of his mouth; I wiped the drool that was collecting there with the corner of my sleeve.

My throat bobbed as I gulped. My mouth was dry. “I remember when I first met you,” I began, my voice soft. Dad is staring off into the window. A car honked somewhere in the road below us. I laugh a little under my breath, high-pitched and nervous. “I’m Julie, I said, all confident-like, like only a stupid little kid could talk. And then I hugged your leg. You loved my name ever since, you said it was a pretty name, that it fit me. And you took me home.”

He didn’t respond. I reached out my hand, and I took his in mine. I grip it tight. “And do you remember when we snuck out when Mom was asleep to get ice cream? I was seven, I think. I got an A on a spelling quiz or something, I don’t know.” I paused, hoping for him to answer back. His eyes were glazed over. I “It was dark outside, real dark, but you still went to the car and hit the ignition. I got vanilla, and you got pistacchio. I never knew why you liked pistachio, dad. It looked like slime.” I laugh again, and I wipe my eyes. “And after all that, I couldn’t sleep for hours, ‘cause Mom was so mad.”

His hand is limp in mine. The only response was his breathing, the beeps of his machine. I almost wanted him to see me again. Even if he forgot me, forgot my name - I wanted him to look at me again. I reached out my other hand, and I held him tighter than before.

“Dad, you - you were so mad, when I got into my first fight. Dad, I kept telling you he deserved it, that he was making fun of me at school, but you didn’t care. You said I shouldn’t be throwing around punches like that, that it didn’t make me any stronger. And, and you took me to my first boxing lessons. And I was good, Dad. You saw my first real match and you clapped. You said something, but I couldn’t hear it. Dad, what did you say?”

He smiled. His eyes crinkled at the corners, the creases running deep in his skin. I kept going. “Dad, you - you never put on sunscreen. You always told us to, but you never did. And you started - God, you started complaining about your wrinkles, and we told you so, Dad. We did.”

His smile grew. I could see his teeth through his lips, yellowed out with the years of cigarette smoking and chewing tobacco. “And you smoked. God, you smoked so much. So every time I smell one of those things, I don’t even gag. I just thought of you.”

His eyes flitted over to mine, and he opened his mouth. His pupils, they locked onto me, and I could see him again, right there, just beyond the iris. And he’s waving at me, in there, calling me over. He’ll pick me up, swirl me around, and I’d get mad at him, and he’d laugh it off anyways. And later, when he’d call me and Jakey over for dinnertime, he’d give us both a slice of pie, and I’d forget about it too. And when it was time to go to bed, he’d go to me last. He’d kiss me on the forehead, and he’d say goodnight sweetheart, I’ll see you tomorrow, and I’d sleep good dreams about apple pie and pistachio ice cream.

“Who are you?” His smile is loose, crooked. “When did I get any visitors, hmm?”

I inhale. I wipe my face again, and I grip his hand one more time. “I’m Julie, Dad. Jules.”

“Jules, Jules… what a pretty name, Julie. How nice…”

I kept a smile on my face, just for him. It wasn’t a plastic smile, but it wasn’t really real, was it? Because I didn’t want to smile. I wanted to yell, to cry, to hug him and never let him go. But I didn’t. I just smiled, patted his hand, and got up from my chair. “I know, Dad. I know.”

The door clicked behind me.


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