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The Secret of Iris (Pt. 3)

Chapter Three

The first weeks of my time at SJCF was a whirlwind. Learning how to adapt to a new home and lifestyle is always challenging, but especially for a four-year-old. Kaylee and Megan guided me through everything I faced. I first encountered bullies during free-time around the TV, the showers, getting places, and basically anywhere. I picked up on it after some time, but there were my guide dogs. The only person that I connected with besides them was my counselor, Ms. Haleigh. She didn't need me to talk often, which I appreciated. She just wanted the best for me and helped me with anything emotionally. I had my group of people, and they were always there for me, even in the hard times. 

Every day remained the same as the next, with the meals, chores, counseling, showers, some free time, and then sleep. The girls and I grew closer and closer as we got to know each other more. I learned a lot from them. I learned more about Kaylee and how she had tried stealing a car from a grocery store parking lot—and about her family, with her two cats, brother in the military, and dead mother. We had a lot of deep talks, and, by the time I was six, I knew almost her entire life story. The same went for Megan. She wasn't as open as Kaylee, but I got her to reveal herself to me eventually. She'd killed someone who'd stolen a lot of money from her family. Her dad had cancer and her family struggled for a while. So when the man came along and continued charging them a lot more than necessary for services, he was practically robbing them. So she shot him. 

After years at the facility, days got longer, and although I had my friends, it got exhausting. My only exciting days were the days when my mom visited. Truly, I was the only person that knew I was in there falsely. Mom believed that I'd been working with Dad all this time and didn't attempt to get me out. But even if they did discover the truth, I couldn't leave Kaylee or Megan. I was content. 

Talking to Mom felt like a look into the outside world. She told me about cousins getting married, how the neighborhood was changing, and her new boyfriend named Chad. She gushed on and on about him for hours, and I listened. After all, I wouldn't find love until after I was 18. I could only read and listen to the stories. 

As the years went by, people came and went. I was still the youngest for a while as thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds came. The older girls left when they turned 18. Throughout it all, me, Megan, and Kaylee became inseparable. The staff called us the "three musketeers." We all helped each other and made the most out of every time together. That was until I turned nine. Kaylee's eighteenth birthday was only a week after mine. I cried for weeks after she left. Megan tried to calm me down but I knew she was next. I had a few acquaintances throughout the facility but no friends as close as them. Kaylee sent me letters telling about the big city and her dreams to become an actress. I knew she'd done theater in middle school and adored it. Once in a while, she'd even act for us during free-time. It came as no surprise when she told me she'd gotten the main role in a show. It broke my heart that Meg and I couldn't go, but I sent my support. It was two months after she'd left that she showed up and surprised Meg and I. A glass separated us as we talked but our connection reached beyond the reflection. She told us how she'd gotten an apartment and was working at a local office as an assistant when she wasn't acting. She'd also fallen in love with her neighbor. He was a year older than her and worked in the theater she performed in. His name was Michael. Megan and I could listen to her talk about her new life for hours on end—which we did. And we never got sick of it.

Megan's departure came four months later on her eighteenth birthday. I clung to her for my life. Once she was gone, I had no one besides Haleigh and a few distant friends. They had to pry me off her, screaming. I kicked and screamed in my room for days. My chores fell behind, and I got in trouble. I was forced to do the harder chores until I calmed down. There, I met Francine—a fourteen-year-old that I learned to become friends with. She would never be as close as Megan or Kaylee, but she'd have to suffice. 

Through my preteen years and surviving puberty without my girls, Megan's letters kept me going. She got a job as a waitress at a diner in the city and absolutely loved it. She lived with the diner owners and rented a room in their house. She had a boyfriend named Ollie that she met online. Meg gushed about how often he came over and how everyone loved him, including her. Her father also had gone into remission. 

Years continued to fly by as the girls' letters made life more exciting. I'd tell Ms. Haleigh all about their new adventures and how badly I wished I could join them. Although hard at first, I came to the conclusion that I wouldn't get released early no matter how much I pleaded. Kaylee got married to Michael after spending three years together and starring in a big Broadway hit. I watched videos on Ms. Haleigh's computer on her performance. She was incredible. 

Megan broke up with Ollie after he cheated on her and got her co-worker pregnant. But her special personality soon attracted someone new named Keith. He lasted a while and even got her job at his dad's airline. She worked in HR and boosted her career. They got married after another year. 

Kaylee and Megan's visits became fewer apart and their letters slowed. But, I always got a letter once a month no matter what. I held onto their words throughout the month, constantly thinking about them while doing chores or watching TV. 

The next five years passed fairly slowly as I followed along with Kaylee's first pregnancy. She was beyond excited and we wrote and wrote about possible names. Then the letters halted. Two months went by without a letter from Kaylee. Megan's continued to gush about her new mansion in Beverly Hills with Keith. I was taken off-guard when I got called to the visitation room and saw Kaylee. She looked a lot rougher than the last time she visited or sent a picture in her letter. We talked and talked about life and how I'd been. She then broke the news to me about her unfortunate miscarriage. She apologized for her missing letters but had to tell me herself. I was heartbroken for her. I'd watched tons of TV shows about miscarriages and knew it was tragic. She luckily got counseling and the letters continued when she discovered that she was pregnant again. 

A year after Kaylee's first was born, Megan had a baby as well. Kaylee named her new baby girl after me. Megan had a baby boy named Ethan. Both girls were mothers and I was trapped in the facility. 

The last year of my stay was absolute torture. I couldn't wait to see them and their new families, along with my own family. Three months after my seventeenth birthday, I received a call from Ms. Haleigh. She told me how my mother had died in a collision with a train. Mom's visits had become less frequent, to about twice a year, but she was still my mom. This news crushed me. I kept going, though, knowing that in a few short months all this would be better and I'd be free. I powered through and did my best to not let anyone phase me. Every day was identical to the one before, and, after thirteen years, I could do everything in my sleep. Once in a while, a girl would try to get on my nerves or start drama. I did my best to ignore what I could and push off the rest. But the time all blurred together. 

I thought the final year of my time was painful until I reached the final month. It was almost as if everyone was targeting me when the other thirteen years spent at the facility had been overlooked. From new people deciding to suddenly be angry at me to extra chores, I felt horrible. Being that I was now the oldest person in the facility and will probably always be the person to have spent the most amount of time there, everyone clung to me. I helped the new girls as Kaylee and Megan had for me, but none of them connected with me like they did. I couldn't wait to see them again. The calendar placed in my room was getting smaller and smaller. 

Then, it finally came. I didn't sleep the night before. I'd had myself prepared months in advance. I woke up that morning about to scream. Although I knew very well that was extremely frowned upon (I knew from personal experience), I couldn't contain myself and ran through the halls jumping for joy. The staff, the ladies who had raised me, didn't even try to stop me but instead rejoiced with me. I knew they'd miss me, but how could you not feel happy for me in that situation? Some other girls danced through the halls with me, only for them to get more chores in doing so. Nothing could stop me, though. I grabbed my single bag with letters, things I'd made, and an address book, and rushed to Ms. Haleigh's office. She was waiting for me when I got there and seemed even happier than I was. 

"You sure you want to leave now...?" she said sarcastically while picking up my paperwork. 

"You have no idea," I laughed. 

"You know the drill. When we go to the head office, just do what you're told and you'll survive. Stay close to the guards," she explained. "You'll be given new clothes to put on once we get there. I went out and bought them just for you, given that your old clothes are... well, you know.

"Oh, and you'll have to sign a few things. Nothing excessive," Haleigh smiled. "Shall we?" 

"Wait!" I hesitated and looked in the hall. "Can I say goodbye?" 

She paused and then smiled and nodded. "I'll be here."

"Thank you," I took a deep breath, held tight to my bag, and walked into the halls. These bright halls had so many memories. My arrival, which I barely remembered by now: Kaylee and I running down the halls when Haleigh snuck us some makeup, saying good morning to all the girls, doing our secret knocks outside each other's rooms before we could enter, and so many more. I walked slowly to the cafeteria. I wouldn't miss the food at all or the chaos, but I most definitely would never forget my many cherished conversations here. I wondered if the kitchen staff would miss me or if they'd ever serve my favorite: chicken nuggets. They only ever did that on special days like my birthday. I traveled through the halls and waved goodbye to everyone who had affected my stay in any way—the other counselors, some of the guards, and the girls who'd spent the past few years with me. I went upstairs to the second floor. I barely ever went to the third floor except to deliver things or see the other rooms. I walked to my room. I had the most memories here. Kaylee, Megan, and I spent numerous nights here, talking until curfew about our past lives and what we wished we could do when we got out. We wrote so many stories here, given that we had so much time to be creative. I also had the bad memories, like crying in the corner behind my desk when Kaylee left, when Megan left, after Kaylee's miscarriage, when Mom died. It all would remain in that corner until the end of the facility. I hoped the person who stayed in it next would learn to love and hate it as much as I did. 

I quickly went back down to Ms. Haleigh's office. "I'm ready," I sighed. I was so excited to leave. 

"Off we go, then," she stood up and led me to the door. Together, we walked to the outside entrance. She scanned her ID and two guards began following us as we made our way to the main office across the street. We entered through the back and the sea of guards stared at us as we walked to the wardrobe station. Haleigh picked up a pile of colorful clothes—a pale blue V-neck shirt and skinny jeans. "For you, mademoiselle," she smiled as she handed them over to me. Haleigh started teaching me French during our counseling hours, given that we practically knew everything about each other after a few short years. She gestured to the same small room I'd changed in upon my arrival. It looked so different—so old. I walked into the same sight I did 14 years ago. But this time, I was changing out of my beige uniform. I'd never felt jeans before. They felt tight after being in my loose clothes all those years. Once I figured them out, though, I felt confident and strong in them. The blue V-neck was easy to put on, but the feeling of a bit of cleavage felt odd. I stepped into view of the tall mirror on the wall and stared at myself. I looked good. I looked like a movie star that I'd seen on TV. 

"You ready, Iris?" Haleigh called from outside the closed door. 

"Yeah, just about!" I called back. I took one last look at myself before picking up my old clothes from the floor and opening the door. I held my pile away from myself to model my new wardrobe. "How do I look?" 

"Oh, Iris!" Haleigh exclaimed. "You look beautiful. So much better now that you're out of that horrible, boring outfit." 

I smiled and accepted the compliment. "Thank you," I said. 

"Let me take those so I can burn them later," she laughed and took my old clothes out of my hands. I laughed with her. She placed a hand on my back and guided me to the office doors. We walked out to a front desk. The lady that checked me in was no longer there, luckily, but a new lady greeted me. "This is Iris Tobin. She's being checked out," Haleigh smiled at her. 

"I see. Her paperwork, please?" she said as she typed. 

Haleigh handed her the giant folder of my paperwork, now only holding my dirty clothes. 

"Thank you," she said and flipped through them, rapidly pecking at her keyboard. It took her a few minutes to finish up and look back up at us. "Now, Iris, I'm sure you know the rules. You're welcome to return but must be treated as any other visitor. You're on your own now. You have to depend on yourself for money, housing, and so on. Ms. Haleigh will be using the facility's car to drive you anywhere you'd like, but, from then on, you're responsible for the rest of your life. Good luck."

I nodded and looked at Haleigh. "Off we go, then. Thank you, Monet!" She started towards the front door. She held the door open for me and then we walked to a small, white car with the SJCF logo on the door. 

"I sit up here...?" I asked, pointing to the side opposite from Ms. Haleigh.

"Yes, and put your seatbelt on. You've never been in a car?" 

I pulled on the handle and the door popped open. I pulled it open wider and sat down on the seat. "It's... it's just been a while." I looked to my right shoulder and found the seatbelt. I pulled it over me and into the clip on my left side. Haleigh did the same and twisted a key into the ignition. She started driving. 

"How long have you been driving?" I asked Haleigh. 

"Well, since I was 16. And now I'm... 38. So, do the math," She laughed and drove down the path towards the gate. She rolled down her window as she approached the guards. "Checking out for Iris Tobin," she told them. A tall man looked to a man in a window and nodded.

"Happy birthday, Iris. Good luck out there," he spoke in a deep voice.

"Thank you," I smiled and nodded back. 

The red bar in front of the car rose up and Haleigh drove under it, continuing down the road. "Maybe you can learn how to drive. Someone could teach you. Possibly a boyfriend...?" she giggled.

"I haven't seen a boy in 14 years!" I gasped. Except through TV, I'd disconnected from that world completely. At least I knew I wasn't gay, given that I'd dreamed about finding a boyfriend for years. Not even a single member of the staff was male, except for the guards outside and in the main office. Everyone in the facility was strictly female. 

"That doesn't mean the moment you reach the big city, you won't go chasing after them. Almost all the girls I've seen go off into the world have fallen in love within two short months. Go to a club, meet some neighbors, explore! You're beautiful, Iris. They'll practically come begging," she shook her head, laughing. 

"Whatever," I blushed and shrugged. "Where are we going, anyway?" 

"It's a surprise."

"That's what my dad said," I raised my eyebrows. She knows the story. 

"I promise it's safe," she rolled her eyes. "And you'll love it." 

"Fine... Where am I going to stay? How will I get money? How do I get a phone...? I've always wanted one of those!"

"Well, you'll see where you're staying when we get to the undisclosed location. You'll get money by getting a job. You get a job by applying to things. And check the back seat." 

It took me a moment to process what Haleigh was saying. "The back... seat...?" I turned around and looked to the back seat. I noticed a small box on the seat. "What's that?" I asked and reached for it. I grabbed it and brought it to the front seat, on my lap. It was decorated in pink and blue wrapping paper with a bow. Haleigh always would bring me small gifts on my birthday each year. 

"Happy birthday, Iris. I usually don't give presents to the other girls I check out, but... I've been with you for 14 years. I got you something that will help you when you get out in the world." She smiled and turned onto the highway. 

"You didn't have to get me anything!" I laughed and looked down at the box.

"That's BS. Open it!" she exclaimed.

I sighed. "Thank you." I ripped open the package to see a white box with a thin phone on the side. My jaw dropped. "Did you get me a phone??" 

She quietly snickered. "Maybe..."

"Haleigh!" I gasped as I opened the box and revealed a brand new phone. Its slick design looked amazing. I'd seen these kinds of phones on TV and had already decided that by the time I was 18, I would start saving up for one—once I got a job, of course. The back of it was silver and the screen lit up when I touched the circle button at the bottom. My face lit up as well. "This is too much! I can't accept this!"

"Of course you can and you will. I'm going to pay all of your phone bills for the next year. Then, you'll have an income and hopefully a husband, right? Until then you get on my family plan with unlimited data and texting. Your storage is 16 gigabytes. I hope that's enough, I didn't know how much you'd need."

"It's more than enough! Thank you so much, Haleigh!" I squealed and quickly pulled her into a hug.

"Oh!" she jumped but kept her eyes on the road and smiled. "I know you'll need it to build your empire." 

"Right, with all of my model employees and the tallest building in Seattle." I blushed and played along with her. 

"Seattle? Wow, you sure are aiming high. But there isn't a doubt in my mind that you couldn't do it," she curled her lips into a smile and shook her head. We took an exit off the highway into downtown. It wasn't very crowded given the time, 10 AM. "Almost there," she told me. 

We turned into a coffee shop parking lot. I'd never been to a coffee shop. Haleigh and I liked to pretend her office was a coffee shop occasionally when she made me a latte along with hers. She turned into an empty spot. It was clearly a local shop because the windows were decorated with sports teams' posters. "Here we are," Haleigh sighed and turned off the car. She unbuckled her seatbelt and climbed out of the car. I searched for my buckle and undid it, pulling on the handle and stepping out. I grabbed my bag off the car floor and we walked together to the front door of the coffee shop. She opened the door for me and stepped back.

"After you," she smiled.

"Why thank you," I smiled back and headed inside. Instantly when I walked in, tons of blinding camera flashes hit me. I closed my eyes in surprise and almost fell back. 

"Surprise!" was loudly yelled through the establishment. I quickly collected my vision again and when I opened my eyes, I saw them. Megan stood there with a tall, dark-haired man that I assumed was her husband, Keith. He held a little boy with hair a tad bit lighter than his, seeming to be an exact combination of them both. He definitely had to be Ethan, their son. Beside them stood a radiant pregnant woman that I could barely identify. She looked fairly large, but not about to burst. Although hard to see, I knew deep down who it was. Kaylee smiled at me, with her husband, Michael, having one arm over her shoulder with the other hand holding a little girl not much older than Ethan. That must've been Iris, her daughter she'd named after me. Tears formed in my eyes and I let out a small whimper. "Aw!" the crowd of my distant best friends came and surrounded me. They worked together in bringing me to a nearby table. The working baristas had stopped working and joyfully watched our reunion. 

"Kaylee! Megan!" I cried and pulled them tightly into a hug. It had been years since I'd last seen them. We can't forget about the lacking of letters the last few months. 

"She still remembers our names!" Megan squealed and we all giggled. "There's so much to catch up on, Iris. You have no idea what's happened."

Haleigh nudged my shoulder and I turned around to face her. "I have to get going, now," she frowned. "I have a job, you know. And soon you'll have one too, correct?" she smiled before I threw myself over her, hugging her as tight as I possibly could.

"Oh definitely!" I sighed and eventually let go of her. "I promise I'll call and update you."

"You better," she shook her head and laughed. "Goodbye, now. Be good."

"Thank you," I whispered as she walked away for the last time. 

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