This chapter probably needs more revision/editing, but I'll submit it as is now. I just need it done so I can work on other stories. Enjoy! Special thanks to ValueMyHeart, EvilRegal, ComingandGoingByBubble and Arekanderu for your reviews! (There will definitely be interesting things between Regina and Theodora, but whether they will be friends remains to be seen.)
It was official: the car had gone kaput. Deceased. Passed on. The old lumbering jeep had finally bought the farm. Perfect timing, too. The sky was dropping buckets on Storybrooke. Not only was Iris getting soaked even while under the hood to squeeze out one spark of life in the battery, but the river in the street started to soak through her red converses.
Groaning, she straightened and slammed the hood down. She already knew she'd let her phone expire, too. There was no USB port in the once functioning car to charge it. At the time she noticed it she didn't think much of it. Nothing to do except hurry home as fast as she could - until the engine started sputtering and coughing the way her uncle did first thing in the morning.
Iris blinked through the rain and the water dripping down her forehead, and looked around. Of all the places in Storybrooke, she'd picked one of the hidden streets to get herself stranded on. The idea had been to cut through the woods on a dirt road practically no one used to get from her friend Tippy's house back to the squat farmhouse she and her aunt and uncle called home. Her aunt in particular liked to lecture her on her responsibilities when she stepped through the door even ten minutes passed curfew. The lectures floated through Iris like fog, no longer really touching her. Just two more years, she'd told herself. Two more years and she'd be out of high school, out of that farmhouse, and out of Storybrooke.
To her eye there was nothing but green foliage whipping through the stormy gusts and mud glistening under the sheets of rain. Iris closed her eyes and forced herself to remember the last landmark she saw. Trees. Nothing but trees . . . no. There'd been a drive of some kind, covered with gravel. It made a sharp curve to the right and climbed uphill. The woods parted for the little road. There might even have been a building there. She couldn't have passed by it more than a few minutes ago.
For once Iris was glad her Aunt Ellie had foisted an umbrella on her before she left. It was an ugly thing in her opinion: checkered blue and white and better suited for the kitchen table. It didn't do much to save her from the rain. Her skin was already prickling and shivering from the wet clothes sticking to it. But at least she could watch where she walked once it was open and covered her drenched head. She buttoned the top button of her grey wool coat (now a useless garment also aggressively recommended by Aunt Ellie) and ran back down the road to find the drive.
She came close to fearing she'd imagined it or underestimated the distance when a bend in the road showed Iris what she wanted. The mud squished under her soles, but she ran anyway, not worrying if she slipped. Even the pounding clap of thunder couldn't dissuade her. It was nice to hear the crunch of gravel instead of the gooey sucking earth, and even nicer when she spotted a house at the end of the twisting driveway. It was one of those houses she'd seen in Down East in the waiting rooms at her dentist and doctor. Tall, broad, well windowed, painted ash brown to blend with the scenery. A sense of rustic comfort without anything really rustic to it. The kind of house rich people fled to for a respite from their lives. A house Iris would've liked to have once she became a famous writer. She wanted to have some adventures first, of course, but after a while a little solitary rest would be appreciated. Yet even while fantasizing about owning a house like this, she worried what sort of person was living there now. Probably someone who wouldn't want their privacy violated. She just needed the phone. She would say this calmly and quickly, and would do that and only that as fast as physics would allow. Iris mentally chanted this while sprinting that last twenty feet to the woodland mansion.
It was a godsend just to stand in a sheltered spot. Once she was under the porch overhang, Iris sighed and leaned against one of the pillars holding it up. She became more aware of her drenched state, how much heavier her clothes were, and how her jaw knocked her teeth together, beyond even conscious control. In a stroke of optimism, Iris closed the umbrella, stepped on the fuzzy green welcome mat, and knocked with desperate boldness.
No answer for a full minute. Iris knocked again, louder. She then noticed the doorbell: a white opal circle strangely warm to the touch. She pushed it. She couldn't hear anything through the door.
The tempting suggestion of peeking through the windows to check if anyone was home flit through her brain and made her fingers twitch, but Iris dismissed it. She could wait another minute.
Another minute went by. Still no one.
I'll just check around the back for a car. No car means no one's home. Her stomach lurched in fear that the place was in fact deserted. She didn't want to break in if she didn't have to. How would she explain herself? Drying herself off in someone's home while they weren't there - it just seemed rude. Not to mention if the owner turned out to be less than mentally stable, well, it was a horror movie waiting to happen. This was Maine, after all.
Inclined to keep out of the rain as long as possible, Iris stayed on the porch and turned with the intention of walking down to the other end and poke her head out for any form of transportation. The space was empty except for a rocking chair and a broom. Iris noticed the chair immediately; it reminded her of Uncle George's, and how he'd sit and move on humid summer nights. He'd talk to Iris when she was younger and more enchanted by the old-fashioned, hicksville manner of living. Tell her where the bullfrogs came from (a land under the earth where rainwater seeped down and gave them an underground pond to swim in, but after one dry summer they poked their heads up to find where the water went, and upon discovering that dry land wasn't so bad decided to sprout legs and lungs and live out their heady adult days in sunshine) and why fireflies lit up at night (because they thought the stars were another swarm of fireflies looking for others of their kind). All silly, childish things she used to believe in. Now she understood that the real world was very different from the fanciful truths she once held. Some part of her insisted that there was - had to be - more to things than the brute facts of textbooks and news broadcasts. The rest of her threw reality a dark glare but took its veracity for granted.
The rocking chair nudged forward and back in the sideways gusts. One gust startled Iris so much she stumbled and knocked over the broom leaning against the house. She heard it fall but didn't really see it. Her mind took note of it. She was sure her feet knew where it lay and how high and how far to go to avoid it while she stepped toward the rocking chair. But her feet were blind. The toe hovered low and hooked under the broom handle. Feeling her balance slip, Iris turned and tried to free her foot. It was too late; she was heading for the floor. She dropped her umbrella and grabbed for the chair, taking hold of an armrest and a protruding foot. The chair keeled forward with her weight. It came close to falling on top of her, but somehow hit a point of equilibrium just above her head. Iris kept the chair up even as her ankle burned.
The chair had not fallen, but Iris had. The thump of her body hitting the floorboards cracked in her ears. She bit back a cry from the pain. The throbbing in her leg and the sounds of driving rain and creaking wood distracted her from other important sounds: an opening door. Clicking footsteps.
"What the hell are you doing on my porch?"
Iris pulled up her knee and wrapped her hands around what was probably a sprained ankle. She looked to see a pair of dark eyes set in an olive-brown face swallowing her up. Little crows feet tweaked the corners of those eyes. Rich brown hair was pulled back tight in a puffy bun, giving Iris a view of the high forehead and watermelon shape of the woman's skull. While her facial contours weren't too angular, there was an overall narrowing effect thanks to her intense gaze and pursed lips. She was an eagle that had found a foolish mouse wandering around her nest.
"I'm really sorry," Iris croaked, the pain and the knocked-out air stifling her voice. "I just need to use your phone." She barely finished before releasing an agonized hiss.
"My car broke down. Up the road. There's no one else nearby. I'll only be a minute, I promise." As long as she could hobble quickly enough, and her aunt or uncle were willing to answer the phone and come get her fast, Iris would be only a minor interruption. If her luck improved.
"You expect me to believe that? You were probably trying to break in."
"I did knock. And I rang. I don't think smart burglars would want to get your attention."
The woman huffed in a way that could have been a laugh. "Even if you are a burglar, you won't get anywhere anytime soon."
"I guess not." Iris rubbed her ankle. Moving it made her want to scream. All over a stupid broom! "I just need someone to pick me up. I'll wait on the porch if you like!" Not that she wasn't curious about what was inside, but to spend more time than necessary in the house would be tempting fate.
The woman kept staring at her grimly for a minute. Her upped lip twitched a few times, almost into a sneer. The long silence amplified the drumming rain and tightened Iris' nerves like they were banjo strings. Hands still planted on her hips, the woman turned and walked back to the door. "Get in here."
Painful and difficult as it was to get up without assistance, Iris wasn't ready to complain. She shouted her thanks, not knowing how far out of earshot the woman was, and used the unstable rocking chair to stand. She tried to hop lightly through the door (pausing a second to pointedly kick the broom out of the way) and across the dark foyer. Even though the time of day compounded with the weather left things dark, there were barely any lights on. Iris followed the one hint of luminescence coming from the room at the far end of the hall, relying the wall for balance. She passed by a small table with a dozen tiny snow globes from different places - Paris, China, New York City, Hawaii, and more. It was like seeing the whole world in that one compact space. Iris smiled at it. Maybe her reluctant host had traveled a lot. Lucky.
The one lighted room turned out to be the kitchen. An extravagant place with gleaming white tiles, a domed white ceiling, and a huge stove with eight burners, shiny black like oil. If Iris' aunt and uncle had a stove and kitchen like this, they could easily run a B&B. The room was spacious, and the owner filled the space with a few long tables drowning in papers and notebooks and textbooks. There were also crumble-covered plates, ceramic ramekins and glass beakers with liquid residue clinging to the insides. Was the woman some kind of mad culinary scientist? Did those exist?
"The landline is in the living room," said the sharp, nasal voice. It came so suddenly Iris jumped and nearly tumbled over again. She grabbed the ledge of the island counter that bisected the room. The speckled onyx marble was cold to the touch.
"Sorry. Thanks." She followed the woman's nodding head, which pointed to a room through another doorway. Iris had to limp past her to get to it. As she did, she threw another curious glance over her. She was tall, though not exceptionally so. She might have been taller if not for the slight hunch in her shoulders. Her face seemed pinched up from years of scowling and wincing. Other than that, though, she wasn't terrifying to look at. She might have been beautiful once, and she had the look of someone who had reason to stay out of the world. It intrigued Iris even more. She also admired the shimmering ruby-red blouse she wore, accented with silvery rhinestones. It draped over her frame, ending below her waist so it grazed the long black skirt that covered her stocking-clad legs. Iris wasn't so sure about her choice of footwear. She didn't object to heels in general - just the really high, skinny-heeled pumps the woman wore. Yet they did suit her, strangely. The heels were almost fang-like.
Iris took this all in in a second, but she felt and saw the woman's warning glare and blushed with embarrassment. She ducked her head and hobbled into the living room. Resisting the urge to check if her host was watching, Iris turned the old-fashioned dial on the red phone. Her aunt's answering voice served enough of a distraction.
"I told you you weren't ready for this responsibility," Aunt Ellie said, angry and fatigued.
"I was going to have it looked at this weekend! It was just bad luck!"
"Well, your uncle has a bunch of appointments because of the rain. Leaks and overflowing septic tanks and such. So I guess I'll have to come get you."
"Sorry to be such a big inconvenience!" Iris shouted. She forgot she was in someone else's house.
"Excuse me, missy, but let me remind you who paid for your car, pays for your education, washes your clothes and feeds you every day!"
"Is it my fault you're stuck with me?" Iris tried to play he jab with humorous snark. She still felt tears rise in her eyes.
"Don't talk like that! I won't hear it! You can't go through life making everyone feel sorry for you."
"I don't need your pity. I told you, once I graduate I am gone. Got it? You want me to call one of my friends instead? Because it'll be a lot less of a headache for me."
"You ungrateful . . . I'll be there as soon as I can. Whose house is it?"
Sighing, Iris covered the mouthpiece and looked around. The woman was still there, leaning against the post of the kitchen doorway, arms crossed. Her vigilant glare never relented. "Umm," said Iris, "what's this address?"
The woman told her. When Iris relayed it, her aunt sputtered. Suddenly the anger in her voice fizzled out. Iris raised her eyebrow at the phone.
"How on earth did you . . . never mind. Sit tight, I'm heading to the car right now. Be polite."
"I am polite!"
Iris clenched her teeth. "Thanks." She hung up. She had better manners than this, she'd swear to it - her aunt had a way of speaking and sounding that made her eye twitch. Staying calm with Aunt Ellie was like trying to not turn into the Incredible Hulk.
When she turned around again, the woman was smirking. "Did she tell you whose house this is?"
"Huh? No." Iris' brain cells started to sync up as she remembered her aunt's reaction to the address. She didn't recognize the woman, though. Was she some feared figure Iris had never heard of? She knew of Mr. Gold, the shady pawnbroker and ruthless landlord. And of course there was the mayor whom no one had the gumption to had a stand-off with even in broad daylight. Was there someone else? "Is . . . is it all right if I ask?"
"Tell me who you are first." The woman stepped into the room, eyes always on Iris even when she sat on the love seat with golden bows stitched into the scarlet upholstery. It didn't hit Iris until now just how much red she had seen. There sure was a lot of it in this house. The living room wallpaper was a faded shade offset with dark emerald stripes. The love seat was red. Her blouse was red. The phone was red! And - well, the only other red things Iris could spot were her own converses. She shivered at the coincidence.
A headshake chased away the thought. Really, it wasn't that strange. A lot of people liked red. Some people more than others. Way more.
"Iris," she said finally. "Iris Windfell."
The woman, for the first time in a while, lowered her eyes. Her long fingers drummed on the back of the love seat. Iris checked the nails. They had white French tips, not red polish. Thank God.
"You didn't mention your ankle to your aunt."
Iris shrugged. Her shoulder ached from it, or from the fall. "She'll find out soon enough."
"You should probably elevate it." The woman abandoned her seat to take an ottoman from a chair across the room. As she carried it with more ease than Iris expected, she motioned for the girl to sit on the love seat. Iris did, taking the unused end.
The stormy noises outside had a more lulling effect when they drifted inside - in the safe dryness. Iris settled back and let her eyes roam the room. It took a minute to notice that most of the windows, which offered a view of the dense forest on nearly all sides, were draped with wine-colored curtains. Were those red? Or more purple? Hard to tell with so little light.
"It sure is dark in here," Iris let slip.
"Does it bother you?" The woman sat in another stuffed chair, the cover a cream-colored background slapped with sultry tropical flowers. Her voice suggested that she'd heard this sort of remark before and was bored by it.
"No, it's fine." Iris adjusted her heel to the most comfortable angle. She wished she had the nerve to ask for ice, but it wouldn't be right to put the woman through the trouble when Aunt Ellie was sure to be here soon.
"I'm called Miss McKenna."
Iris' eyebrows shot up. She looked at her host. The woman rested her chin in her hand. Her pointy elbow poked into the soft arm of the chair. She looked tired, barely managing a dry smile. She wasn't old or ugly, but she gave Iris the impression of an aging farm cat worn out from chasing mice and running from coyotes, but it still thoroughly groomed itself to hide how tired it was.
"You're called Miss McKenna? You mean that's your name?"
A quiet laugh that crackled at the end leaped like a bullfrog onto Iris' ear. "I mean you can call me Miss McKenna."
"Oh." Iris distractedly pushed some of her damp hair off her forehead. "You, uh, can call me Iris, then. If that's how this works."
"I couldn't tell you. You're the first person to stumble across my house in the middle of a thunderstorm."
"Lucky for me." Iris tensed and gulped. "S-sorry, I wasn't being sarcastic. I'm really glad there was somebody nearby. My cellphone died, so I could've been stuck out there for hours."
"You don't like the rain?"
A strange question. Iris tilted her head. Miss McKenna straightened and set her arm down so both of them gripped the chair. Like a queen on her throne.
"Not when I'm outside. Except in summer, if it's really hot."
"I don't like the rain at all." Miss McKenna said this while appearing to admire her nails, in an off-hand way that piqued Iris' curiosity.
"Why?" Iris asked.
Miss McKenna looked up without looking at Iris. She stared into some spot before her, and a slow scowl appeared across her forehead. "I'm not sure."
"I guess it's not that unusual," Iris said after an uncomfortably long silence. "There are probably more people who don't like it than who do."
"I don't not like it." Miss McKenna leaned back and looked at Iris askance. Her mouth turned up into a half-smile. "I hate it."
Iris blinked. "Oh."
Miss McKenna turned in her seat toward her. "Your name means 'rainbow', doesn't it?"
Iris felt her face heat up. "Uh, yeah. My mom's idea, I think. Don't know why."
"Maybe you were born during a thunderstorm." Something darkly intense entered Miss McKenna's voice and eyes. She was still smiling.
"I have no idea." Iris forced herself to stop shivering. This was not a normal conversation, but she didn't know how to change the subject. "My mom left me with my aunt and uncle when I was really young. Like a toddler. I can barely remember her. So it doesn't really matter to me why she named me that."
The woman's smile softened just a little. There was something warning and unpleasant about it. Nevertheless, the gentler edges gave Iris some peace, and she relaxed.
"Families are fickle things," said Miss McKenna.
Iris, in spite of her nerves and her hurt ankle, broke into a laugh. She was about to agree, and talk about her aunt and uncle and how she could never understand them or their expectations. She wanted to, for some reason. Then the phone rang.
Miss McKenna slipped off her chair, slouching again. She answered the phone. Iris expected it to be Aunt Ellie calling for directions. A few one-sided exchanges went by before she realized it wasn't.
"I'm still working on it," her host answered after a long pause, dampening her voice. "It's a delicate process. I don't care if he's getting impatient - it'll be ready when it's ready." Another pause was filled with rain knocking on the roof. "Now? If you think . . . I see. Fine, I'll look into it." She laughed roughly. "No, thank you, I'm busy. In fact I have a guest right now. Yes, I'm sure it is. Why thank you. I'll be by tomorrow morning."
After a while said goodbye and hung up. She turned to Iris, her eyes alighting on the propped up ankle. "Still hurts?"
"Yeah, but it's all right," said Iris in a rush. "I don't want to trouble you."
Miss McKenna crossed her arms. Her smile had disappeared. She seemed to be thinking very seriously about something. The longer she held that pensive scowl that only deepened the lines in her face, the greater Iris was tempted to squirm and wriggle away from her. She couldn't tell if the woman was actually thinking about her or her ankle, hence why she stared at it like she'd discovered a land mine and was figuring out a way to disarm or destroy it. Or maybe she was thinking about something else entirely. Iris hated not knowing.
"I have something that could heal it up fast," Miss McKenna said at last. She looked at the ankle rather than Iris' face.
The pain persisted. It was too much to walk on for the time being. Iris would have preferred getting back on her feet as soon as possible. She had things to do - friends to see, schoolwork to complete so her aunt wouldn't hover again, demanding to know what she had due and checking that she'd done it. She also wanted to avoid being stuck in the house. That just might cause irreparable damage.
"Okay," said Iris.
"I won't give it away for free." Now she looked Iris in the eye. That dark heat returned. Miss McKenna appeared suddenly angry. Not at Iris - so Iris hoped. Just angry overall. As if a switch had been thrown and her smirks and magnanimous, if unsettling, mood had been washed with random rage. But she was keeping it reined in. Controlled anger like a chained pit bull whose owner knew when and when not to release it.
Iris wiped her sweating hands on her jeans. "I understand. I'm afraid I don't have money on me. Could I pay later?"
"You couldn't afford it. I sell my homemade remedies for a pretty high price." Her mouth curled into a smile that showed off her upper teeth. "They're organic."
Iris had some knowledge of organic products. Her aunt and uncle both grew up on farms and were devoted patrons to farmers' markets, always insisting that the fresh-grown stuff could not be beat. But there was a difference between the farmers' produce and the stuff Iris saw on grocery-store shelves labeled "organic". Those were suspect. She distrusted labels, not matter how much other people tried to assure her otherwise. In that sense her guardians had rubbed off on her. It gave her a brand of pride she knew was unwarranted.
"Just how well do they work?" she asked, revealing that stubborn inner skeptic.
"I'll let you have a sample." Miss McKenna's grin widened and left the room. Sooner than Iris expected, she returned with a blue jar that she set on the coffee table close to Iris' foot. "Give me your hand."
She did. The woman's creepy air should have warned her. When Miss McKenna grabbed her pinky finger and twisted it hard, almost to the point of breaking, Iris had a terrible vision of being tied to a chair and watching this dark-eyed lunatic break her fingers and toes one by one for the pure pleasure of it. She imagined it as a slasher film with shaky close-ups and spurting blood. Her imagination flew away with these images that she barely had time to scream "What the hell?!" at Miss McKenna.
After nearly snapping her pinky, Miss McKenna calmly took the blue jar and dipped a finger inside. She scooped out a blob of pink goo and dabbed it on Iris' finger. A fresh tingling like spearmint or a blast of winter air shot through the digit. The pain numbed. Miss McKenna, cradling Iris' hand, set it on the girl's lap. She folded her own hands in front of her. "How do you feel?"
"Besides traumatized?" cried Iris. She covered her victimized hand. "It's . . . it's not so bad now, but you can't just do that! You should've told me what you were going to do!"
"You never would have let me," said Miss McKenna.
"Well, yeah! Why couldn't you have put the stuff on my ankle?"
"Because that costs you. The sample was free."
Iris whimpered as another tingling surge overwhelmed her pinky. After it passed, she wiggled it. The renting it had endured should have left it a stiff, swelling lump, but Iris found her pinky perfectly functional. Even the pain was draining away.
"Holy hell! What is this?"
"My special talent." Miss McKenna held up the jar to Iris' eye level. "Interested?"
Iris looked at the jar and its contents with newborn reverence. Uncle George could use stuff like that for his lumbar problems. Aunt Ellie, too, for her shoulders and arthritic knees, which meant less footwork for Iris. Not to mention how quickly it would heal her ankle. "How much? My aunt could pay for it. She'd buy it happily."
"My customers usually have more substantial bank accounts. The cheapest offer for this is $800."
Iris cursed under her breath. Well, no wonder. It was a miracle in a jar. "How could I pay for it?"
"You'll work it off. Starting tomorrow, you work for me."
Iris retreat into the love seat's cushioned back. "Doing what?"
Miss McKenna threw a sneering grimace around her. "Dust collects in here like stench in a landfill. You'll clean and organize any clutter. I also need someone to run errands and be my chauffeur. It's difficult not having a driver's license to get anywhere quickly."
"For how long?"
She took a moment to think. "Six months."
Half a year? To do all that without getting paid? Iris wanted to groaned but resisted. She didn't need to give Miss McKenna a reason to increase the price, or withdraw it altogether. Still, it might be worth one jar of that stuff, whatever it was called. And it gave her an excuse to get out of the house. Besides, from little she saw, the house didn't appear to be in terrible condition. She didn't foresee any mammoth projects that would exhaust her to the point of begging for death. As for her employer-to-be . . . the pinky twist certainly gave her pause. Maybe there was a reason Aunt Ellie reacted so nervously when she found out where Iris was. Maybe there was a reason Miss McKenna lived in a remote part of town, and was rarely spoken of by everyone else.
"I'll have to think about it," she said. Her ankle throbbed in dissent.
"Suit yourself." Miss McKenna set down the jar again and headed back to the chair. She stopped when a truly unexpected noise arose. Iris couldn't tell where it came from, but its familiarity set her heart skipping. It was a shrill, punctuated bark. Several more followed, each one more piercing.
"Dammit, not again!" growled Miss McKenna. She bared teeth at Iris. They were long and slightly yellow.
"You have a dog?"
"Of course not! It came to my door earlier, when the rain started. It kept scratching and scratching. I tried chasing it away, but the stupid thing came back. I decided to let it wait out the storm in the basement."
Iris both warmed at the thought of a little dog and shuddered imaging it cold and wet and locked away in a dank, lightless room. "What will you do with it? Take it to the animal shelter? That's what you're supposed to do."
"Like I give a damn." Miss McKenna snickered and sat down.
Filling with well-intended worry, Iris set down her aching foot. "May I look at him?"
Miss McKenna waved a hand. "You can take him away, if you want."
"Really?" Iris would've jumped up and down if she could. "I'd love to! I don't know if my aunt would let me keep it. But I've always wanted a dog!"
The woman's forehead furrowed again. Just like when Iris asked why she hated the rain. She seemed confused.
"What?" asked Iris.
After a moment Miss McKenna sighed and shook her head. "Nothing. Whether you'll keep him or not, please take him."
Iris gave in to a smile. "Don't like dogs, either?"
"I'm not a very tolerant person," Miss McKenna said dryly. When she smirked, Iris noticed a crinkle form around her mouth that accented the expression. It made her mouth too wide for her face. Like a snake or some other reptile with an unhingeable jaw. Yet her cheeks and jaw curved gently, and it bothered Iris to see their incongruous features, soft and sharp, kind and grotesque, in one face. It especially bothered her that these details compelled her to stare at Miss McKenna.
She needed another distraction. Iris pushed herself to her unsteady feet. "Which way is the basement door?"
Miss McKenna told her, offering her directions with a wave of her hand. The barking continued and the woman's muscled flexed tensely with each new series of yips. Iris had a feeling that if she didn't hush the dog soon, Miss McKenna would do something drastic and even more upsetting than twisting her finger. Iris hurried to the cellar door and opened it.
A damp black ball of fur darted right now. It slipped past her feet, then circled around and started jumping up against her. Its tiny tail wagged madly. Round pitch eyes and a little pink tongue emerged from the mop of shaggy fur, hanging limp and long with rainwater.
"Why, aren't you the cutest!" Iris didn't care that the small dog was wet and smelly. She gathered him up and took him into the living room. He barked a few times in her face. "No, no, no. We're not going to annoy Miss McKenna anymore, are we?" Iris had met other people's dogs throughout her life and found it easy to get along with them, regardless of temperament. She could tell right off that this little fellow was a nosy, wreckless thing, but adorably curious and hungry for companionship. He swung his head around as they entered the room and managed to bark again at Miss McKenna before Iris silenced him with her hand. The dog, excitable as he was, soon calmed and settled into Iris' arms. The girl returned to the love seat.
"You'll have a hell of a time giving him up now," said Miss McKenna, watching the pair with mild interest.
"I'll make my aunt understand," said Iris. She scratched and kissed the dog's head, and used her sweater to soak up some of the water.
"Don't name him yet, in case you do have to take him in. It'll only give you heartache."
"For someone who doesn't like dogs, you seem to know what it's like to like one."
Miss McKenna's eyes darkened again, this time with a mixture of bitterness and melancholy. "I don't need to like dogs to understand how easily one's heart gets attached to something, and suffers needlessly when it's time to let go."
Although she continued to sprinkle affection of her canine charge, Iris regarded Miss McKenna with swelling sympathy and concern. She sounded like she spoke from devastating experience. And how lonely her life was now - there were no pictures of friends or family in any of the rooms she'd seen so far. She wasn't even a widow, going by her name. These thoughts helped her feelings burrow in a corner of her heart. Iris revisited their earlier conversation and made her decision.
"I'll take the deal," she said.
Miss McKenna briefly raised her eyebrows. Iris dared to smile at her response, and again when the woman whipped her head away and cleared her throat condescendingly.
"Very well," said Miss McKenna.
The blue-and-white umbrella lay on the porch with the broom, both forgotten for now.