Joe Roald sat at the bar, staring at the local church through the window. The signboard read a simple, chilling message:
IRIS ELLEN MEMORIAL Sept. 4, 1973 – Mar. 12, 1989
He’d been there for a couple of hours, nervously watching people drift in and out. Various mourners carried bundles of flowers, most of them purple. Moments later Sheriff Slauson entered – his badge was off, as was his hat, a sign his day was over. Joe slunk his head between his shoulders, hoping not to be seen.
“Ah, Joe, how goes? Staying out of trouble?”
It didn’t work.
“I’m trying, sir.” Joe stared down the mouth of his bottle. “I gotta record, can’t be risking things.”
Slauson snorted and took a sip of his beer. He took a seat next to Joe. Joe swore under his breath.
“Just wrapped up over at the church,” Slauson sighed. “Damn shame what happened to that girl. Shame we never found her.”
“I hadn’t heard.”
“Well, you don’t come around town much do you, Joe? Always in that cabin. Two years, right?”
Joe cast a sharp look at Slauson.
“I gotta record, Sir. I leave alone to be left alone.”
Slauson shrugged and took a heavy swig from his bottle.
“I get it, I get it. Just… odd day.”
Joe downed the last swill of spit and beer in the bottle and set it down on the bar. He rose from the seat. His stumble was slight. He smoothed out his shirt that smelled of bleach and soap.
“I don’t expect you’ll be driving right now, right?” Sheriff Slauson asked.
“No, Sir. Gotta grab some groceries.”
Joe threw a few bills on the bar and wandered out. He stood near his truck and observed the church. People were still milling about.
Sick to his stomach, he climbed into his truck and drove off for home.
Joe arrived at the cabin he was renting from a friend of his. He’d been living there after his second stint in prison, and cabin life had suited him well enough. He’d lived quietly for two years before the accident. He climbed out of his truck and realized he’d forgotten to grab the groceries he had set out for.
Annoyed, he slid into the old swinging chair on the porch. Any moment could be the end for him but he had nowhere to go. Soon enough Iris Ellen’s body would be found. All it took was the melting of snow.
He’d drunk too much that day during the long winter. He’d been hunting for hours with nary a sign of a squirrel or bird and the longer the hunt went, the more he drank. As the afternoon grew darker something finally stirred. Joe rolled his rifle toward the snap of the twig and at the sign of motion pulled the trigger.
When he found his kill, he discovered a young woman, a teen. Her delicate auburn hair was scattered and flaked with bone, blood, and brain matter. The hood of her winter coat had become a bowl of blood.
He had a record. Nobody would believe him. Aggravated assault, robbery… eight years of his life gone across two stints. Now murder. Fuck.
He had gathered her body and the snow, flecked with gore, and took her to a small gully off the canyon, among the trees. He dug as deep as he could and piled rocks over the corpse. He never came back.
It was the morning after the memorial and Joe found himself on edge. He hadn’t bothered getting food in town yesterday, as he had intended, and had only managed a peanut butter sandwich for dinner. He’d grab his groceries after work. He stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. The bags under his eyes were almost purple, and he hadn’t shaved in a few days. Coarse black and grey hairs grew from his chin and cheeks.
As he stepped out of the cabin he noticed that the last of the snow had melted but the air was still brisk. He took a sip of his coffee. Glancing around the area he noticed patches of purple flowers. They weren’t there yesterday.
The flowers grew in small clusters, only a foot or so apart, in long crisscrossing trails around the area. He traced the paths with his gaze. They all seemed to approach the cabin. He glanced down at his feet.
Sure enough, he was standing astride two patches of the purple flowers. They almost seemed like footsteps.
Joe lowered the tailgate and grabbed his cleaning supplies and followed Slauson into the station. The rent on the cabin was cheap, a favor from a friend, but money was a necessary evil. Joe had taken to cleaning duties in prison and it stuck with him out of the system. His biggest and most stable gig, by far, was the Moss Canyon Sheriff’s Department. It was a strange circumstance, but he was willing to scrub the vomit and shit in the cells with no complaint and relative efficiency. Within an hour he was done and made his twenty bucks, though twenty bucks didn’t seem entirely worth it, given Slauson’s crap.
Joe loaded his supplies into the bed of the truck and slammed the tailgate in place. He glanced at the station’s door where Slauson, a cup of coffee in hand, raised the cup in mock tribute. Joe rolled his eyes but found his gaze drifting to a patch of purple in the planter near the door.
More of those flowers.
Joe rolled up and down the aisles of the market, picking out the bulk goods he could afford. All the while he had seemingly and unintentionally continued to follow a wisp of a woman. Her pace was slow, almost a trudge. He stopped for a moment to sort through the shelves of canned goods. He threw three large cans of pinto beans into his cart, among the bottles of beer. He continued to scan the shelves when something caught his ear.
“Mrs. Ellen, I am so sorry for your loss. That service was beautiful.”
Joe tensed up and gazed toward the thin woman from the corner of his eye, a can of pasta sauce in his hand. She was talking to someone, a teenager, maybe a friend of the girl, Iris.
He threw the can of sauce into his cart as the teen stepped away from Mrs. Ellis. Her body was turned now, in profile, and he noticed a purple flower pinned to her cardigan. She stood there, almost frozen. He rolled his cart past her but she hardly noticed he was there, only shuffling back toward her cart. The purple bloom haunted him as he walked past.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but that flower there… the one you’re wearing. What is that called? I’ve been seeing them everywhere.”
She looked up at him, her eyes were puffy and she seemed a bit shocked by the question. She glanced down at her cardigan and back at Joe.
“Oh, yes, this is an iris. It was her favorite…”
Joe’s throat grew dry.
“I see.” He contemplated moving on, but he looked her in the eyes. “I am so sorry for your loss.”
She smiled an empty smile at the platitude from a stranger. He nodded and rounded the corner to the next aisle.
That night Joe sat on the swinging seat on the porch. It had been a few beers now and the patches of irises in the yard had begun to make him nervous. The more he drank and the more he stared at them, the more that they taunted him.
Fuck off. Fuck off. Fuck off.
He finished another beer and chucked the bottle at one of the small patches. The bottle hit the ground and shattered, but the flowers still stood. He leaned forward, staring at the purple blooms, now black in the darkness of night.
He rose to his feet and stumbled toward his truck, pulling out a bottle of cleaning chemicals and a shovel. He thrashed around the area, digging up irises and pouring chemicals on the roots and piles of dirt. After a few minutes, he tossed the empty bottle into the distance and threw the shovel at his truck.
He grabbed a flashlight from the glovebox and marched, drunken, enraged, afraid. He set off for the gully. It didn’t matter if it was the dead of night, not right now. His beam of light bounced, casting jagged trails across black trees. Periodically the light would hit the ground and patches of flowers, purple irises, would leap at him from the darkness. Thick patches of irises stood in his path and he found himself kicking through them, showering the area with petals. He swore as he trudged toward the site of his great shame.
He arrived at the gully, exhausted. He didn’t know when he began following the irises, but they led him to the crude grave of Iris Ellen.
The pile of rocks he had so hastily assembled months ago were scattered by unknown means. Where her body had once laid, where he was sure he had abandoned her, was a patch of purple flowers.