When the bell rang we folded ourselves back into our classrooms although nowhere seemed big enough to hold the truth. I could not stop myself from staring through the back of her head and inside it seeing ragdoll after ragdoll bloodied and bludgeoned senseless against a door frame. I could not un-hear or un-see or un-know her. She was an affliction for which the world knew no cure but to simply slide ever closer to getting lost in her.
All afternoon I portioned out copper sulphate, wondering while my hands shook, how such chemicals could ever mean anything again. Iris had crushed my life and all its features into microscopic perspective and I could not conceive how I could hold the things she’d told me as prisoners behind my jaw. I could not keep secrets tucked away beneath my tongue. She simply did not and could not be forced to fit.
It was not that I denied the existence of human brutality but that I’d always felt so detached from it. Child abuse and self-abuse were like the solar system; I was certain of their existence but their relationship to me was so distant that I could barely grasp the idea that they coincided with me brushing my teeth. Therefore the scars on Iris’ wrist were not shocking because they existed but because they fell under my gaze. They had slipped into our school without warning and the proximity of her tragedy was scared me the most. I had never entertained the idea that I’d ever link myself into such a car crash. She was a lethal, free-falling waterfall that had grabbed me with its current.
I walked back home in silence; chewing strawberry flavoured gum and the sour taste of everything she’d said.
I got it. She was trying to keep her sister alive and part of her – a part made solely of her flesh and blood – by passing her own life to the hands of chance and a razor. As long as Iris lived, broken and graffitied, then Mai lived too.
But there she was plugging herself into a mode of ‘Self Destruct’ like living for two people had become too much of a struggle. It made me wonder how long it took for people to drown – eight years, perhaps. I received in that moment, the description I’d been struggling to find since I first saw her. Her eyes were swimming pools, I realised; sterile, cold and so chlorinated that they stung me. They were swimming-pool blue and sometimes they were wrung out and fragmented but they never clouded. They could never be anything but razor sharp.
I sat in my bedroom that evening and wondered how I was supposed to keep her world hidden inside my head. Something seemed to be gripping at some indefinable point towards the back of my chest and frosting my skin from outside in. I did typed her name into Google and waited for it to solve my questions. It could not because Iris was not a problem on a page, she was interlinked with my reality. The internet believed her dead. There were sympathy pages drenched with eight-year-old tears; stiff and bristling with their faux compassion. There was a brief news report denoting the fact that the twins had been confused but when I searched Mai, there was simply no response. It was as if the girl had never existed. She was just evidence buried in building site. But she was not because this afternoon I’d seen her alive in the veins of the imaginary girl I’d been ensnared by. Mai was Lily and Lily was Iris and Iris was Mai.
She exhausted me with her relentless shape-shifting. Could she not just stand still, consolidate herself for once, and allow me to love her?
“You haven’t told, have you?” She asked me immediately as I approached her the next Monday morning.
“Of course I haven’t,” I muttered. I hated the idea that she’d dared to believe in my betrayal of her trust but at the same time I knew that I really shouldn’t be trusted with such responsibility. I was not Bronwyn; I was not made to carry other peoples’ baggage.
“Good.” She said and I caught her intoxicating scent of smoked-out vanilla as she drew a little closer. “There’s something that I want you to help me with today.” She looked at me briefly as though drawing up a rough character assessment. “You won’t like it but it has to be done.”
“What?” I asked with wearied and misaligned hope that she’d ask for something simple.
“I need you to steal me the keys for Mr Thomas’ office. He keeps them on top of his filing cabinet. I’ve seen him put them there.”
Yes; I’d sat myself in a crashing car. Yes; I’d probably known that since the beginning when I first lynched myself by taking an interest in a girl who’d been “permanently excluded.” Yes; I’d let myself in for the weeks of white-knuckled rides she’d led me on. No; I was still no more than the child who’d sat in a puddle of blue flowers eight years previously.
“You’ll do it, Gareth, won’t you? For me?” She asked and somehow, when she said it, she rearranged herself so that she was even more beautifully painful to look out. I shook away the suggestions.
“No, Iris- I-”
“Gareth, I’m asking you to do it. One last favour and then you can move on – forget I existed.” She made the suggestion as though it was simple; as though I’d ever be able to forget her existence.
“Iris.” I protested, wondering whether perhaps I should tell her of her permanence.
“Just do it. I’m begging you. Please!”
“I’ll – I’ll, Gareth; I’ll do whatever you want if you just do this one thing for me. I’ll kiss you. I don’t care.” I wanted her to; I wanted the approving seal of her lips on mine so badly. At the same time, I wanted it not to be earned but granted.
“That’s basically prostitution,” I snapped and I was minutely impressed by how scathing I managed to sound.
“If you gave a damn about me then you’d do it; you’d help me.”
“I do care.” I could have told her more but I stopped myself because I still had no idea whether I was anything more than the pawn on her chessboard. I could not make confessions to a girl who saw me as a device; my stupid self-ruining pride would not permit it.
“Then prove it. Do this for me and I’ll believe you.”
“Why anything? Why is this the only way you’ll believe me? Why does it need to be done?”
“I need you to do it for me because I am too damn short to do it myself. I won’t ask you to participate any further. It’s just one little thing.”
For some reason I refused to desist from reminding myself of my church-bound childhood. How “one little thing” was a one strike on the devil’s tally chart and how that “one little thing” was the first step away from God’s front door. I had never been religious - perhaps because I’d seen myself as a preacher when I was only seven and so had committed hubris too great for holiness – but I cringed from the idea of it. I did not want thievery to contaminate my already polluted life.
“THAT DOESN’T TELL ME WHY IT HAS TO HAPPEN.”
“I’m begging you. I swear to you if you do this, Gareth, it will be the best thing you’ve ever done for me.”
“What are you going to do?”
“WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO? You owe me that much at least.” And she did, she owed me everything and yet I owed her it all back.
“I’ll tell you once you’ve done it. I’ll show you.”
“You can’t say that.”
“I refuse,” I insisted staunchly and she jerked her chin over to her right shoulder which tensed and then fell again. The same old flinching twitch; the same old Iris. Made of manipulation.
“You can’t say that!” She repeated it with greater urgency. We were reaching the school gates and we were no longer alone.
“I can and I refuse to let you do anything stupid or dangerous.”
“Do it for me, Gareth, please. I swear, it won’t be as bad as you think. No one’s gonna get hurt. Please, Gareth; if you love me then you’ll do it.”
Made of manipulation.
I told myself not to but it all felt too easy to let it go undone. It seemed too much of a happy coincidence when Mr Thomas asked me to manoeuvre some of his belonging from his desk to his filing cabinet during tutor to leave the temptation of Iris’ affection alone. The thing about damage is that it is too easy to cause and in that moment of almost-empty-classroom and turned-away-faces there was some lure to the simple logic of seizing the opportunity which had slipped in my way.
I pocketed the keys and passed them to Iris in a flurry of anticipation. She nodded, marginally satisfied that I caved in. It only occurred to me later that maybe she'd hoped that I’d hold out just a little longer and stop her from destroying everything.