Violets Are Blue

Winner of the 2021 Rollick Fiction Prize

Bending at the knees, Camilla crouched down to view the lipsticks on the lowest shelf of the drug store cosmetic aisle. The hem of her black dress grazed the linoleum floor as her fingers hovered over the edge of the shelf.

There were at least 30 colors packed into the display, all with black, square bases and a clear plastic top. The line transmuted from deep browns and nudes to bright reds and fuschias, and she knew that Violet’s shade was somewhere in the middle. She pulled out a warm purple called “Time to Mauve” and placed it into her shopping basket to join makeup remover wipes, ballet slipper pink nail polish, a pair of false lashes, coral blush, brow pencil, a set of makeup brushes, liquid eyeliner, and pressed powder foundation in a shade called Cafe au Lait. As she stood back up, a glitter eyeshadow called Stardust caught her attention. Without hesitating, she added it to her basket and started walking up the aisle to check out.

It was only eight in the morning, and typically Camilla’s ankles and feet would still be popping in the cold Boston air, but her joints seemed to have readjusted to Central California’s humid summer in the two nights she’d been back. Normally she’d be sipping on a cup of coffee, and she eyed the mini-fridge at the end of the aisle with sugary frappes, but she kept moving. There would be plenty of time for that later.

A familiar tune came over the store’s speakers by the time Camilla reached the counter. It was unattended, but she could see someone in a blue vest approaching from her periphery. 

“Good morning,” the cashier, Evie, greeted her while traipsing over from the nearby snack shelves they were restocking. Camilla smiled and nodded as she set the basket onto the counter.

Evie began scanning and Camilla got her credit card ready. People would start arriving for the funeral in two hours, so she had enough time.

“Lose your makeup bag?” they asked, interrupting the rhythmic beeping of the barcode scanner.

Camilla’s tired eyes met Evie’s, which were thickly rimmed with a chocolate-colored liner that really brought out the blue in their irises.

“Yeah,” she answered, tapping her fingers to the slow beat that was strumming from the speakers.

“Ugh, I hate it when that happens. It’s the worst,” they responded, scanning the last couple of items. “Do you need a shopping bag?”

“Yes, please.”

Camilla glanced over the tabloid magazines in the rack next to her and almost reached for one. It was a special tribute to Amy Winehouse on what would have been her 35th birthday. The moody black and white cover was selected with tragedy in mind — Violet would have loved it.

If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied…” Evie sang under their breath, snapping Camilla out of her thoughts.

“I’m sorry?”

“Oh, it’s the words to the song that’s playing,” they answered. “‘I’ll Follow You Into the Dark.’”

Camilla let out a soft laugh. “Is that what that is? My friend and I would sing this a lot when it first came out.”

“Total throwback, right? The owner only lets us play the instrumental versions of popular songs here,” Evie grinned. If she wasn’t so exhausted, Camilla would’ve shared their enthusiasm for conversation. “Your total comes out to $43.86.”

Camilla inserted her card and completed the transaction as she took hold of the plastic bag.

“Need a receipt?” Evie asked as the printer chugged.

“I’m ok, thank you,” she answered as she began to step away. “Have a good one.”

“You too!” she heard Evie call out behind her as she made her way to the automatic doors.

By the time her heels clacked against the pavement outside of the store, Camilla was hit with a wall of hot, mid-September air and the noise of bustling traffic lights. She continued to make her way through the parking lot until she got to the curb, and waited for her chance to jaywalk across the street to the funeral home.

Crosswalks were more of a suggestion in this town, at least that’s how it was when she and Violet were growing up, but in the last few years of Camilla’s absence there seemed to have been more money — newer money — poured into the community. Now the dusty, formerly agricultural town was showing the first stages of gentrification, including crosswalks, parking meters on the main streets, and full-scale reconstructions on the neighborhoods. Now there were tall, two-lot houses that stood where the single-story homes used to; the ones she used to have playdates in as a kid and deliver bread to when she worked at the bakery, which had since been turned into a chain cafe. She knew it wasn’t personal, but all her favorite parts of this town had a tendency of getting erased.

A red SUV honked at her as she walked in front of it, to which Camilla gave an unflinching bird while continuing to pass through the double-lane of stopped cars. By the time the driver told her to use the crosswalk, Camilla was halfway across the empty, opposing lanes and had lifted the middle finger on her other hand in solidarity. It wasn’t the attitude she hoped to have as she tread onto the driveway of the funeral home, but if anyone understood, it would be Violet.

The smell of the pine trees that lined the driveway and the crunching of gravel beneath her feet followed her up the incline. In a few hours, there’d be a line of people hugging and making small talk as they filed into the funeral home’s lobby.

Camilla came up to a side door that was marked “Private,” and knocked loudly. She heard shuffling on the other side, and a moment passed before an older man in a suit and loosened tie answered.

“Camilla? You’re almost two hours early,” he said while checking his gold-rimmed wristwatch. 

“Hi, Mr. Waldeburg,” she responded and extended her palm. He let go of the door to shake her hand, which Camilla squeezed as she slipped between him and the narrow door frame into his small, cluttered office.

She pushed through the stale, dim air and down the narrow walkway between two desks

that were topped with stacks of manila folders, gilded picture frames, and dust. The door that separated the office from the rest of the funeral home was open, and Camilla could see the main lobby at the end of the unlit hallway. 

“You really shouldn’t be back here,” he said, following her to the hallway. “We’re not open yet.”

“That’s ok, you can just take me to Violet so I can do her makeup.”

“Mrs. Waldeburg already did it last night,” he rebuked. Camilla eyed a portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Waldeburg that hung beside him. Despite being a recent photo, the cosmetics and attire made it seem like it was taken in the early ‘70s.

Camilla faltered for a second. “You know us girls these days, always doing crazy things with our makeup.” She feigned a grin and pointed at her own winged eyeliner. “See?”

He frowned. “I think my wife did a fine job of it,” he answered. Camilla watched his shaky hand fiddle with his open shirt cuff. 

She slipped the plastic bag handle into the crook of her arm as she stepped toward him to help. The smell of his Old Spice aftershave rose as she fed the plastic button through the buttonhole.

“It would really mean a lot to me, Mr. Waldeburg,” she said, straightening out the cuff. “I don’t know how to say goodbye any other way.”

An unsure sigh heaved out of his chest. “I think the natural look would be better — for the both of you.” His watery eyes met hers. “But who am I to keep you from your friend?”

Camilla smiled. “Thank you.”

He teetered past her and led her down the carpeted hall and into the main lobby. “Try not to move her face, she has a nice expression now,” he instructed. “And try not to take too much of the face makeup off. We use a special kind that keeps the skin from drying out.”

Streaks of amber and blue light poured in through the two stained glass windows that sided the main door. In the center of the lobby was a round table with an elaborate, dusty faux flower arrangement — the same one that greeted her when she mourned her grandfather, then for her mother, her grandmother, her favorite English teacher, one aunt, two uncles, a cousin, a few classmates, and now a best friend.

The shuffle of Mr. Waldeburg’s loafers against the brown carpet came to a stop. “Keep going straight, she’s in the viewing room on the left.” He pointed an arthritic finger, revealing a second unbuttoned cuff.  

Camilla caught the cuff in her hands before he lowered his arm and buttoned it for him. The tension in the corners of his puckered mouth softened.

“I appreciate you doing this,” she said. “I’ll only be a few minutes.”

He nodded and patted her on the shoulder before starting a slow stroll back to his office.

Camilla turned and headed to Violet’s viewing room. Without Mr. Waldeburg’s scuffing feet, the funeral home had become stagnant, as if the only reason it continued to exist was that she was there to create movement inside of it. Violet’s room was the one closest to the lobby. One of the walnut double doors was wedged open by a rubber stopper, and above the whitewashed door frame was a sign marked “Wisteria Room.” Camilla didn’t remember being in the Wysteria Room before, only the Hydrangea Room, the Lily Room, and the Iris Room. By the looks of Violet’s viewing room, the names were in lieu of size, and at a seating capacity of about thirty, this would have to be one of the smallest ones. 

The first thing Camilla noticed about the room wasn’t Violet’s casket as she had expected, or the blown-up portrait of the photo she used for her social media profiles — it was the lavender wallpaper and how it was the only source of color in the room. Everything else was made up of different shades of beige and brown, and she hoped that the flowers she helped Violet’s mom pick out would brighten things up once they arrived. 

Camilla paused to take in Violet’s bleak purple tomb. She had seen this part of their lives going differently. They both agreed that Violet would most likely pass before Camilla did, but she didn’t think it would be so soon.

She moved toward Violet’s white, pearlescent casket. This would be the first time seeing each other in person in almost four years. Camilla had planned on surprising her next year to watch her graduate and finally earn that bachelor’s degree in psychology she’d been working on. 

The last time they were together in the same place was in the bakery they both worked at a few hours before Camilla’s one-way flight to Boston. She remembered the sound of the overhead bell as she let herself through the front door before opening. Violet turned the corner from the kitchen and wiped the flour from her hands and onto her canvas apron.

“Is Tony here?” Camilla whispered.

Violet shook her head and opened her arms. “He’s handling the deliveries now.” 

“Bet he’s mad at me for that.”

Violet’s arms went to their familiar places around Camilla’s neck, and Camilla’s found theirs around Violet’s waist. The two kept each other in that moment, and Camilla could tell from Violet’s breathing that they were both struggling with keeping their composure.

“I’m getting flour all over your black pants,” Violet said after a while.

“I don’t care,” Camilla responded, giving Violet another squeeze before unwrapping her arms.

They took a step back from each other, but a few strands of Camilla’s hair had hooked themselves around the cubic zirconium stud under Violet’s lower lip. Violet laughed and tried to untangle them. “This is the only thing I won’t miss.”

“I’m still not used to seeing you with it.”

“I know,” Violet grinned. “But I love it.”

“It looks good on you.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” she said and rushed back behind the counter that was half-filled with the day’s bread and pastries. Violet plopped her purse on the counter and rummaged through it as Camilla sauntered up to the other side. She pulled out a yellow sachet. “I got you a matching one.”

Confusion tugged on Camilla’s brows until she opened the bag to find a pair of sparkling stud earrings. “Thank you,” she said and immediately put them on. “I’ve always wanted a simple pair like this.”

“It’s because you were too much of a wimp to get your lip pierced with me.”

“I’m not as brave as you.”

“Says the girl moving to Boston in four hours.”

A brief silence fell between them. Camilla was already regretting being the first one to let go in that embrace. “Hey, I’m really sorry I said that I didn’t have anyone left here. I didn’t mean you.”

“Don’t worry about it. I know you didn’t mean it that way.”

“You’re the only thing about this place I’ve liked since I was, like, fourteen.” 

“It’s really ok, I was being sensitive that day,” Violet reassured. “You’re the only thing I’ve liked about this place too.”

“You’ll come visit me soon though, right?” Camilla asked, slipping the empty sachet into her pocket. “Boston actually gets seasons. Then I’ll convince you to live there with me.”

Violet nodded. “Maybe.”

The Wisteria Room’s cold temperature ran up Camilla’s arms as she peered over the edge of the casket. Aside from Mrs. Waldeburg’s interpretation of 21st-century makeup, Violet did look beautiful. She was wearing a burgundy lace dress, soft curls in her hair, and an expression that could only be described as peaceful. She looked almost exactly the same as when they video called each other two weeks ago. Camilla liked to think that the goodbyes at the end of that call were the last things they said to each other — but in reality, it was Violet texting that she was going to take a bath, then Camilla responding with a GIF of Chandler Bing covered in bubbles. To be fair, Violet didn’t share that her self-care bath routine involved benzos.

It was strange to see her so still and silent, but even weirder to see her with pale pancake foundation and red lipstick, which was purposefully overlined to cover the hole where her lip ring should have been. 

Camilla put her hands up and looked around the room. “Vi, if you’re here, don’t worry, I’m gonna fix this face for you.”

She set the plastic bag and her purse onto the nearby podium and opened up the package of makeup wipes. “I know I’m not really supposed to do this but I can’t take you seriously with that eyeshadow and lipstick.” She lowered herself and began to gingerly remove the smudged aubergine eyeliner, brown eyeshadow, and bright red lip. After covering the wipe with a smattering of color, Camilla leaned closer. “Wanna hear something funny?” she whispered. “Mr. Waldeburg thinks that that’s a natural look.”

 She went back over to the bag for the powder and tossed the used makeup wipe into a small wastebasket on the other side of the podium. As she unwrapped the plastic from all the makeup, Camilla was hit with the emptiness around her. She should’ve been hearing Violet’s laugh. Instead, the room was filled with the sounds of plastic crinkling in the wastebasket and the stiff bristles from the makeup brush picking up powder.

“I’m not sure why she’s trying to make your corpse look paler than she already is, but here we are,” Camilla said and started packing powder onto Violet’s face to cover the pallid foundation and strip of rouge on both cheeks. “We’ll cover up the foundation, I know you don’t like it.”

“It makes me look greasy,” Violet said, perching herself on Camilla’s bathroom counter. “And it makes me break out.”

“You’ll like this much better,” Camilla said. “Close your eyes.”

The soft black bristles of the brush swirled Cafe au Lait colored powder over Violet’s skin in a gentle current. In circular motions, Camilla pushed the makeup into her hairline and down her neck, then patted her nose once more for luck before reaching to a coral blush with a light shimmer.

“Smile a little,” she said. Violet smiled, but Camilla could tell her mind was elsewhere. She dusted a natural flush on the apples of her cheeks and her cheekbones. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, just trying to keep my face still.”

“Ok,” Camilla said. “What sort of eyes do you want? Want to match your dress?”

Violet’s hazel eyes opened and studied Camilla’s face. “I like how you do the winged eyeliner, but also natural. But also sparkly — I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t go tonight.”

“Woah, there. What’s happening?”

“I don’t know, I’m just getting really anxious.”

Camilla set her brush down. “Why are you feeling anxious?”

“It’s the same dress as last year.”

“So? It’s with a different date.”

“I don’t know if I like Devon.”

“It’s just prom, you only have to like him enough to hang out and dance a little. He’s a nice guy.”

“I’m having a bad hair day.”

“Ok, I’ll give you an updo. What’s really going on?”

Violet looked away and started picking at a hangnail.

“What’s wrong, Vi?” Violet avoided her gaze. “Do you not want to go?”

“No, I do.” One strong tug had pulled the hangnail from her finger and drawn blood. “I might need some help to get through it though.”

Camilla plucked a tissue out of the box and handed it to Violet. “I’ll be with you the whole night. We can be sober and have a good time.”

Violet’s jaw tightened.

“Will you try for me?” Camilla asked. “If you start feeling overwhelmed I’ll drive us back here, we’ll watch Princess Bride and eat a roll of cookie dough.”

She could see Violet weighing her options. “That does sound fun.”

“It’s senior prom. Let’s go just in case it’s the best night ever,” Camilla said, pushing a brown curl out of Violet’s face. “Isn’t that what people say on their deathbeds? Their only regrets were not doing things?”

Camilla studied Violet’s slightly chalky complexion and compared it to the large portrait that was resting on an easel beside them. “You really took that advice and ran with it, huh?”

Her skin may have been cool to the touch, but the color had already warmed it up considerably. “I added a little more blush than usual because…you know,” Camilla explained. “Now let’s get you that natural, sparkly, winged look you liked so much.”

Tapping a fluffy eyeshadow brush into the same coral blush, Camilla touched the bristles down to the outer third of Violet’s lid. She blended it softly into her skin and tried not to move the plastic cap underneath that was shaping her eyes.

“Not to gripe, but remember whenever I’d do your makeup and you could not keep your eyelids still?” Camilla moved onto the other eye, packing in color and blending it out to a soft, warm edge. “Thanks for staying so still this time.”

The clacking of her heels on the floor were the only sounds in the room as she returned to the podium for the Stardust eyeshadow and the eyeliner. “What? Too soon?”

She returned to Violet’s side to sweep glitter over her eyelids until the shimmer met the coral edges. She stepped back to see her progress and was pleased with how it looked with her dress and silver jewelry. “Now for the tricky part,” she said, shaking the liquid liner pen.

Careful not to touch her skin, Camilla lowered her face to Violet’s and glided the black pigment along her lash line. 

“It’s pretty nice in here,” Camilla said, concentrating on matching the line thickness and angles on both sides. “Your mom liked the white tufted fabric because you had a bedspread like it when you were little — which I thought was a tad bit morbid.”

She took the edge of her nail to remove a small smudge and sharpen the tip of the wing on her right eye. “But as someone who just put glitter on a corpse, who am I to talk?”

Camilla examined her handiwork. The lines were crisp and clean, much better than what she had done when they were seventeen.

“Lash time,” she said as she retrieved the false lashes, opened the package, and began lining the right lash strip with glue. After fanning it till the glue became tacky, she bent into the casket again to fit the lash in place. Her scent was distracting — a light mix of chemicals, hairspray, and clothing straight from the store. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t her usual smell of honey and lavender.

“Don’t worry, I’ve gotten better at these,” Camilla said while working on the left lash. “I promise you won’t be walking around the afterlife with a lifted corner.”

After laying down the lash and making sure it was secure, Camilla straightened her back and closed her eyes. The vertebrae in her spine found their spaces as she tried to loosen the tension in her neck and shoulders. “Only one thing left to do and you’ll be ready,” she murmured.

“Finally,” Violet said as Camilla removed some glitter that had fallen on her cheek.

“I think I’m making pretty good time!”

“I’m kidding,” she laughed, flashing the gap-toothed smile she spent so much time being self-conscious about. “You know I don’t have the patience for this myself.”

Camilla uncapped a lipstick she pulled from her makeup bag. “I think this one will look pretty on you.”

Violet glanced at the bottom of the tube. “‘Time to Mauve.’ Amazing.”

She kept talking as Camilla smoothed color over her moving lips. “Do you think coming up with those names is a specific job? It has to be. I mean, someone did it, right?”

“Rub them together.”

She pressed and rubbed her lips together, finishing with another smile. “How is it?”

“I really like it. Want to see?”

Violet nodded and jumped off of the counter. “I’m going to close my eyes and turn around to look, ok?”

“Do you want a countdown?”

“Duh,” Violet answered, eyes closed.

“Ok, three… two…one…” Violet turned to face the mirror. “Open.”

Violet’s eyes fluttered open to greet her reflection.

“Do you like it?” Camilla asked.

She stared in silence for a little longer.

“We have time and I can do something else if you don’t like it—”

“No, I love it,” Violet answered. “It’s the prettiest I’ve ever seen myself look.”

Camilla rounded out the top of her cupid’s bow, trying not to focus on how tightly her friend’s jaw had been bound together. “I’m sorry I left you here,” she whispered. A tiny hole at the bottom of her lip caught her attention. “Oh, you’re going to haunt me for sure if I let you get sent off with that empty hole in your face.” 

Using a tissue from the podium, Camilla brushed back her hair to remove the small, cubic zirconium stud from her earlobe. “I don’t know how this is going to work, but here we go,” she said and pushed the post through the hole under Violet’s lip until the stone laid flat against her skin. “You can borrow mine for now, but you have to give it back next time you see me.”

Satisfied with her work, she gave Violet’s cold, clasped hands a gentle squeeze before turning to face the rest of the empty room. She knew that she’d be in the front row with Violet’s mom, dad, and older brother, and that a handful of seats would fill up behind them with friends and coworkers, but Camilla would be surprised if they could occupy half of the room. A lot of people Violet hung out with weren’t the type to show up.

Camilla tossed the tissue into the plastic bag and knotted it up before placing it into the wastebasket. Once the symphony of crackling plastic subsided, Camilla rested her back against the podium and stared at the second hand of the clock that was near the entryway. 

“I don’t know what else I can do for you, Vi,” she said, slinging her purse over her shoulder. “The flower delivery should be getting here pretty soon, and people will be coming to see you in an hour or so.” Despite knowing that she should leave, her feet refused to budge.

“I feel like my shoes are glued to the floor,” she said, reaching for Violet’s flour-dusted hand.

Violet wrapped her fingers around Camilla’s palm. “You can’t miss your flight. This is a good thing — I’m happy for you.”

An unexpected sob burst out of Camilla’s mouth. She tried to regain composure, but the building pressure of repressed wails and blocked tears felt like a nail between her eyes. It was the first time she’d cried for Violet since she got the text from her mom, and the heaviness of reality had started to settle.   

Bending at the knees, Camilla crouched down and let the podium support her heaving back. The hem of her dress grazed the carpeted floor as her fingers hovered over her head, clenching into fists until her body calmed. Slowing her breath, she reached behind her for a few tissues to start cleaning up her face.

“Do you need a countdown?” Violet asked, squeezing Camilla’s hand before letting go.

Camilla nodded, trying to capture how Violet looked in her messy apron, only a few flicks of mascara, and a tight braid draped over her shoulder.

“Ok. Three…two…one…Bye.”

Camilla straightened up to standing and glanced over to Violet and her portrait. “Bye,” she whispered, holding the moment before turning to walk up the aisle.

Jordan Nishkian

Jordan Nishkian is an Armenian-Portuguese writer based in California. Her work has been published in Overachiever Magazine, The Kelp Journal, the New Plains Review, The Yellow Arrow Journal, The Plentitudes, and more. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Mythos literary magazine and has recently published her first novella.

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