As soon as she awoke, Elly Mae could tell that the world was all wrong. She couldn’t tell you why, precisely, but for instance, something peculiar in the angle of the sunlight made it seem like it was afternoon though it was only eight in the morning by the time she went outside. Goldenrod poppies cast shadows in altogether the wrong direction during her morning walk with their dog, Jenkins, who, incidentally, had gone to bed young and spry and now was behaving old and arthritic, his pale blond coat tinged with white overnight. Ornamental pear trees shed their white blossoms in clouds as if there were an infinite supply of them, and at first this was comforting, luxurious even, when the petals swarming the air caressed her face and landed on her sleeve. But when she brushed them off and looked more carefully, they turned out not to be petals at all. To Elly, they appeared to be the severed wings of termites or lacewings, or some other flying bug. Millions of them.
The carnival tunes of an ice cream truck went up in pitch as the truck drove by rather than down—and why the ice cream truck in the morning anyway? It just didn’t make any sense. Even the intensity of the sun seemed like it wasn’t quite right, only as high and strong as in winter though it was well into late spring.
These were all vague sensations, of course, nothing she could put her finger on, nothing she could point out to anyone as evidence that something had gone awry without seeming crazy. Until she noticed the roses. It was peak rose season, and all different hues and varieties abounded throughout their neighborhood, but the ones that used to be that perfect shade of deep cabernet, that voluptuous red velvet—at least as far as she could remember—were now an unnatural hydrangea blue, the kind of blue that only developed after shaking a box of aluminum fertilizer pellets onto the ground. And that was with hydrangeas; these were roses, which, as the nursery rhyme so clearly and inelegantly stated, are supposed to be red, certainly never blue. At least the way she remembered it.
Elly Mae’s first mistake was admitting to her husband that she thought it strange the roses were blue when she got home from walking Jenkins.
“Have you seen all the blue roses out there this morning?” she asked upon her return.
“What about them?” He was reading the paper and didn’t seem alarmed at the mention of blue roses, so she probed a little further.
“Well, they’re blue.”
“So you’ve seen them?”
“The blue roses.”
“I suppose so, when I was out to get the paper. But what of it?”
“It doesn’t seem strange to you? That they’re blue?”
Henry wasn’t usually this exasperating to talk to—he was a sensible English professor after all but he genuinely didn’t seem to know what she was getting at. Elly Mae decided then to be more cautious. They were approaching the age at which keys left in the refrigerator or dishes inadvertently dumped in the trash could elicit more than just a raised eyebrow. These types of lapses were now being catalogued, consciously or not, bit by bit, maybe in a notebook somewhere, maybe only in their heads, by one against the other in case it eventually became clear that one of them was what people called in decline.
But this was not that; they weren’t there yet, only barely the age of retirement. Today was not a series of missteps; things were measurably different than they’d been before.
She’d look it up on the computer.
But before she’d even finished typing, the search engine finished the phrase for her: Roses are blue. When she changed the search terms to red roses, she was directed to an explanation that because of a genetic limitation, red roses did not exist in nature and therefore when one sees a red rose at the store, it is actually a white rose dyed red.
And the rhyme, it would seem when she looked it up, began Violets are red, roses are blue…
When Elly Mae read the words, she felt them to be viscerally wrong, not simply because of the meaning they conveyed; they also looked wrong on the screen. It was then that she realized the font was not even the same as what she was used to. This one was entirely unfamiliar, it was not the typical sans serif of the web she’d always known. But when she looked at the settings, they were still set to “default,” so either she was wrong about her memory of the way things had always been, or everything had, in fact, abruptly changed.
It took some getting used to over the next few weeks, but Elly Mae was not the type to make a big stink about something that clearly was not affecting other people. Everyone around her either seemed to accept these changes as a matter of course or didn’t register them as changes at all, and she was keen to protect her reputation as a woman with all her wits about her. She had spent her life as a housewife and an amateur painter, so there was not much in there to suggest that she was not insane if things started to get a bit fuzzy around the edges. If she went around to her friends talking about strange fonts and improperly colored flora, for instance.
Elly had never painted roses before; it had always been fields of poppies, snapdragons, for those had been what was popular at the farmers’ markets where she sold most of her work. Now, she was drawn to them as a subject, these blue roses that everyone accepted as being ordinary. Except, she couldn’t bring herself to paint them as she saw them now, that peculiar Smurf blue that made no sense to her whatsoever, so she painted them as she saw them when she closed her eyes, the way she remembered them being before the day she’d woken up and everything had shifted: she painted them a rich carmine red.
Her husband, Henry, puzzled over her motives, she could tell by his expressions when he viewed her latest paintings. She had never done anything like this before. Sure, her previous work had had elements of Impressionism and were not photographic depictions of reality, but they at least resembled the real thing. This new Red Rose series was uncharacteristically bold for Elly Mae, as if she had taken it upon herself to start baking purple bread without explanation. From the look on his face whenever he popped into her studio, she could tell he thought she’d intended the red to stand for something. He probably felt it was supposed to be obvious and didn’t want to appear dense by asking what it was supposed to mean.
“This is a new direction for you,” he said behind her, munching on hard pretzels. There were always salt crystals left in his beard when he ate pretzels, and Elly often became alarmed when one of them invaded her mouth when he leaned down to kiss her, as he did right then, the unexpected crunch and brininess piercing a cluster of taste buds on her tongue. Her reaction was swift and severe.
“Augh!! Why must you always do that to me? You know I hate kissing you when you’re eating those!” Elly shoved him back with the hand holding the paintbrush, and a splatter of red paint glommed onto the arm of his sweater. She had been too distracted by her painting to notice that he’d been eating pretzels before he’d kissed her.
“Now that was uncalled for. This is a good sweater. It’ll be a pain in the rear to get that out.”
Elly appreciated the distraction offered by the soiled sleeve; it meant she didn’t have to address his comment about her work. The things that had seemed different to her on the morning she first saw the blue roses still felt different than what her memory of them had been. What seemed to her like insect wings still took the place of her conception of what petals should be on the ornamental pear trees. The mornings now all seemed like afternoons, and the afternoons mornings, though the sun still technically rose in the east and set in the west. It was the quality of the sun, the texture of the light that no longer fit. And poor Jenkins seemed older than ever, no longer stalking the tennis ball at the dog park, merely content to limp along on a slack leash, to smell the little drips of urine left by all the other canines on the shrubs and posts, and to think back fondly to the days when he’d considered doing something with all that information, tugging a bit on the leash, for instance, in one direction or another.
Elly Mae took Henry’s stained cardigan of Merino wool into the laundry area to wash it for him as a peace offering and also to avoid his gaze. Removing paint from a delicate fabric was an art in and of itself; the garment needed to soak in just the right temperature of water with just the right amount of Woolite with no agitation so that the pigment would not set into the fibers. Then a light, indirect rinse and another soak before she could approach the blob of paint directly.
In the meantime, Elly sat in the forgotten armchair beside the laundry sink that usually rested hidden beneath layers of clothes which had been laid out awaiting special treatment, a pair of trousers with an oil stain from a dropped French fry, a white shirt with sweat marks around the collar. Though she would have ordinarily moved the clothes somewhere else so she could sit, perhaps to the drying rack, this time she merely sat directly on top of the pile, feeling a slight ripple in her chest at the transgression.
Beside the chair lay a stack of neglected books piled from the ground up to the armrest, most of which were abandoned galleys that had been sent to Henry to review by his publisher. Elly took the one from the top and opened to a random page to pass the time as she waited for the sweater to soak.
It was a book of poems with a couple of dead fish on the cover. She’d opened to one called “Blue Velvet,” thinking perhaps it was a reference to the song. As she read it, she became less sure that it was, and then very sure that it was not a reference to the song. And then when she got to the end, something in the poem deeply troubled her. There was a line about the fabric, the velvet: the wale of the fabric was described as being “blood blue.” At this, Elly Mae suddenly became very uneasy, the ripple in her chest growing into more of a wobble. She felt she was losing her balance though she was still sitting down.
She put the book back down on the stack, a little puff of dust going up like pipe smoke when she did. She looked at her wrists, then the crux of her inner elbow. The veins were blue-green and purple as they’d always been. She rose from the chair to get out the straight razor which she used on occasion to diligently scrape the pilling off of old flannel sheets and cashmere sweaters. She didn’t intend to do anything drastic, nothing dramatic, but she had to know (yet she was afraid to know). She disinfected the blade with rubbing alcohol, always cautious even when she was being reckless, and found a place on her inner forearm that would be inconspicuous if there were a little scratch. She would make sure that it was only as long as the gauzy side of a Band-aid.
Elly Mae cut slowly, wary of leaving a scar. The blade only penetrated the skin all the way in three distinct spots on the line, and even then, she had to squeeze to get anything out.
At first there was doubt. The lighting was poor and the dots seemed more purple than anything. But then she held up her arm to the naked bulb above the laundry sink, and there they were: three perfect, glassy beads, sapphire blue, unmistakable and irrefutable. She had blue blood, and so, she guessed, did everyone else.
Her breath quickened though she tried to slow it down with mindfulness techniques. She wasn’t sure what this changed exactly. Did it alter something fundamental or only the surface of things? As far as she could tell, wine was still red, lips were still red, red cars were still considered sporty.
But she would have to be careful with this knowledge. She couldn’t let it seep out that she was only just finding out about this now, after the main events of her life had already passed her by. Certainly the universe hadn’t changed overnight; it had to be that her perception of it had been flawed. Her memory was inaccurate. She felt as if she somehow needed to relearn certain things about being human now, that she needed to re-watch certain films, for instance, to see them as they were now. To see war in blue, medical dramas in blue. Murder in blue.
How could she have missed such a vital facet of life? Admittedly, Elly Mae was a squeamish person. She thought back to any formative encounters with blood she may have had in the past, and could only recall having looked away. Her period had been delayed due to her slight figure, and once it arrived, she’d taken birth control indefinitely—always skipping the placebos—such that her cycle was eliminated altogether. She’d never wanted children. She’d never witnessed any grave injuries. No one had ever been in a grisly car accident. Certainly no one was ever shot.
Whenever she accidentally cut herself, she always covered it up immediately with tissue and wrapped it in a bandage right away until it healed, flushing the bloody dressings down the toilet when she was through. Had she simply avoided it all this time, then, and forgotten?
“Almost done, darling? We’d better be heading to the Fredericksons soon.”
Henry and Elly were supposed to go to a dinner party that night at the home of close friends, and she couldn’t wear her painting clothes to that. She dressed her minor wound and put on the beige bandage and cleaned herself up. The sweater would have to wait.
At the party, their hosts, Janet and Stewart, offered freely flowing wine and decent conversation regarding their recent trip to Costa Rica. After two generous glasses of Côtes du Rhône, it was becoming easier for Elly to forget what she had discovered earlier in the day in the laundry room.
Stewart poured Elly a third glass as he finished explaining to the other couple, the Rollings, how easy it was to go zip-lining even at their age. “I hope you don’t mind, El, I know you’re a vegetarian, but we’re serving up steak tonight to everyone else. Janet whipped up a stuffed acorn squash with rice pilaf for you, but we got these fabulous porterhouse steaks as an anniversary gift, and it would’ve been a shame to freeze them.”
“No, of course it’s fine,” she said, the wine plying her with sharp cherry notes and putting her at ease. Elly walked over to Henry, who was discussing faculty gossip with Sue Rollings, who also worked at the university, and linked arms with him. “I’m worried about Jenkins,” she said to Henry during a lull in the conversation. “He didn’t even raise his head when we left.”
“It’s not so surprising really. He’s been that way for the better part of the year now. I suspect his time is very nearly up.”
“Not a year, no! He’s only slowed down just these past few weeks,” she insisted.
Henry stared at his wife and the glass of wine she was holding and had a look on his face that was something between pity and concern, and she felt herself growing angry. “Perhaps we should make it an early evening tonight,” he suggested.
“I’m fine,” she snapped. “They haven’t even served dinner.”
Soon after, however, they did serve dinner, and Elly was not quite prepared for what was in store. There, on everyone’s white plates but hers, was a slab of brown flesh resting in a puddle of ink-blue bovine juices. She was repulsed in a way that she did not understand. She was disgusted at the very idea of being at the same table as this food. There was no way she could be a part of the gathering now without becoming visibly upset.
“I think I need to go,” she blurted out as people were pulling up to the dining room table. “I’m sorry, but I’m concerned about our dog. I have a bad feeling that something is wrong, and I need to go.” She placed her glass clumsily on the table and it tottered a bit before settling down.
“Oh, of course! You must go. Poor old guy!” said Janet. So he was old then. Even their friends had known.
“I’m fine on my own.” Elly waved off Henry, who was already seated at the table, keeping her chin up so she didn’t have to see. “I’m sure the Rollings wouldn’t mind dropping you off on their way home.”
“Yes, of course, no problem,” nodded Frank Rollings, who golfed occasionally with Henry when their schedules collided.
It was only a short mile and a half, and she wouldn’t ordinarily drive after the wine, but she felt an imperative to go and be with their dog, and to do it alone.
On the way home, Elly was grateful for the darkness and the dearth of streetlights as she passed garden after garden filled with roses whose colors manifested merely as ambiguous in the night. When she arrived home, however, she knew as soon as she opened the door that she was too late.
There was a foul-smelling bluish puddle near the dog-door towards the back of the house, and Elly promptly threw a ratty old towel over the mess; she would deal with it later. She then approached Jenkins’ bed gravely, aware that his tail had not even twitched at her presence, that his left ear had not cocked upward. At least he had made it back to bed and had not died alone on the cold, tile floor. He had died alone, yes, but warm and with a shred of comfort.
She thought about calling Henry but decided against it. It wouldn’t change anything if he found out now or later. Instead, Elly Mae went out to the garage and collected her pruning shears, forgetting the gloves, and went out the front door.
Even in the low light of the neighborhood late in the evening, she could spot them in her neighbors’ hedges when she was up close, the blue roses which were only now past their prime. She started clipping each and every blue bloom she came across, just the heads, and letting them each fall to the ground. She didn’t seem to care or notice that she was getting substantially scratched up in the process. She couldn’t do the entire neighborhood, at least not in one night, but she could probably hit the streets she frequented most often. The petals would still be there, scattered on the ground, but they wouldn’t be in her face, and they wouldn’t be so vibrantly blue anymore.
But she wasn’t able to avoid all those thorns to get at all those rose heads, and her hands, wrists, and forearms were beginning to look as though someone had scribbled all over her skin in zigzags with a skinny royal blue marker.
After a while, headlights from a car she should have recognized as the Rollings’ bored through the dark night and singled her out like a circus spotlight in the front garden of someone she didn’t even know.
“Elly?” Henry called from the back seat with the window partially down, willing himself to be wrong about what he was seeing. But the dress was unmistakable; she was still in her dinner clothes, a peach shift, gold belt, and a string of pearls down to her navel. It was his wife, traipsing about murderously in a stranger’s yard gripping her pruning shears with a trail of dead-headed roses in her wake.
She looked over at him, and he seemed less disappointed, more fascinated than she’d expected him to be. She could read in his expression that an invisible notch was being etched on an invisible board in his mind in the never-ending catalogue of lapses that was now their shared lives. Chalk one up for the institution—he seemed to be thinking, with more shrug than alarm, as though it had always been inevitable that they would end up here, with her committing petty vandalism in an unfamiliar garden bed. And maybe it was.
“Don’t look at me like that, Henry. It’s unbecoming.”
And then she kept at it, hunting and clipping her way through the night until they came out and carried her away.
Marléne Zadig (rhymes with “train a bad pig”) is a writer in Berkeley, California, with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. Her short fiction has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Reed Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Sakura Review, and elsewhere and was recently chosen as a LongformFiction Pick of the Week. She is a 2015 Best of the Net nominee, a winner of Carve Magazine’s First Annual Blog Contest, and she tweets @MarleneZadig.