"Dandelions" was published in RAMBLR in 2020.
Copyright Christopher Stanton.
Jake Cooper needed a place to think things over, so he left Sheila passed out on the sofa and called his buddy Paul McBride to ask him for a ride to the junkyard. Jake told him that he had gotten into a scrape with the Datsun and needed to find some parts. Paul always drove into the city on the weekends to visit his infant son, and he said it would be no trouble to give Jake a lift.
Although he had lied to his friend, Jake figured it was for the best, because of the complicated mess he was in. Sheila had promised him the night before that she would be home before midnight; her girlfriends were taking her dancing in the city and she needed a night out. That’s it, baby, she had said, and kissed him softly on the cheek as she left.
He didn’t know when Sheila made it home, but Jake remembered rolling over in bed in the middle of the night and realizing that he was still alone. He recalled getting up for a glass of water and standing in the empty kitchen in his boxer shorts at three in the morning and wondering if Sheila was with another man.
Then, he had woken up that morning to the sound of a motorcycle revving its engine on the access road outside their apartment. He found Sheila in the living room, snoring peacefully on the sofa. She wore her red miniskirt, and her hair was draped over the pillows, nearly touching the carpet. She smelled like Old Milwaukee. Jake brought her a blanket from the linen closet and tried not to wake her.
When he went outside to start the car, he saw that the front end of the Datsun was caved in, half the fender resting on the concrete floor of her carport. The latch of the hood was twisted, and his fingers wouldn’t fit through the slim opening to reach it. When Jake started the engine, an unbearable stench filled the inside of the car, and he switched off the engine immediately.
Jake loved Sheila and figured that he should take a step back, instead of starting another fight.
The junkyard was his favorite place to be alone. It was illegal and secluded and a well-kept secret. Paul had shown it to him the summer before, when they were out hunting for possum. It had mangled cars and warped furniture and was in a forest behind the reservoir. Jake had been taken with the place and went back at least six times on his own, when Sheila would lend him her car. He liked imagining the stories behind each object and why they ended up in a patch of dirt in the middle of the woods.
By the time they had driven up the winding access road and stopped at the gravel turnoff that led to the reservoir, Jake had almost forgotten about Sheila and the Datsun. Paul had kept him laughing the whole way there.
“Let’s say you do find yourself a fender, genius,” Paul said, tossing his cigarette out the window of the pickup. “How the hell do you think you’re gonna get it home?”
Jake thought for a moment. “I’ll carry it back down to the main road and hitch,” he said. “Somebody’s bound to give me a lift.”
“Yeah,” Paul said, scratching at his three-day growth of beard. “The sheriff. Straight to jail.”
“Naw,” Jake said, and grinned. He tried to picture himself in a cinder block cell, spiders spinning webs on the ceiling high above him.
They watched a mockingbird fly low across the gravel and land in some sage brush at the edge of the trees. Paul stared at Jake for a long moment. “I know you’re not looking for parts,” he said. “I know why you come up here.”
Jake smiled. “I guess you do,” he said. He liked Paul because he understood a lot more than he let on.
“Ol’ Cooper,” Paul said. He called Jake that, even though they were the same age. Jake had grown to like it.
Jake got out of the pickup and slammed the door. Paul grinned at him, then spun out and drove away, gravel spitting out behind his wheels as the truck disappeared through the trees and out of sight.
Jake wished he could tell Paul about Sheila, about the times when she hollered at him and criticized him and how he would retreat into the bedroom, staring at the ceiling, while she railed outside. And about the times when she bought him new socks out of the blue, or would bake a chocolate marble cake without it even being his birthday, and they would drink coffee and sit outside on the front step, enjoying the night.
He knew that Paul had problems of his own, so he figured he should straighten out his own life himself.
Instead of walking toward the reservoir, which lay shallow and lined with willows, Jake cut across the gravel toward a dirt path that led into the trees. Two posts guarded the entrance, a corroded metal chain between them. It hung low and dragged in the dust.
The path was just wide enough for a truck to fit through. It was rutted and overgrown with buttercups and peppergrass. Jake stepped over the chain and made his way through the trees, the shade cooling the sweat on his forehead. The world grew suddenly quiet, and he heard mice rustling in the leaves around him and the brush shifting in the breeze.
Jake felt welcomed by the forest. It reminded him of the altar of the Methodist Church on Christmas Eve, covered with dozens of tiny candles that lit the darkness. He closed his eyes for a moment and could see the tiny points of light spread across his mind, beckoning to him, leading him forward.
After a while, the path took a gradual incline and Jake caught the first glimpse of the junkyard through the trees. It was in a clearing that was hidden from view by a high ridge on one side and the forest on the other.
Jake made his way over a deep rut in the path and the trees opened up in front of him. He saw the familiar pile of tires that had been spray painted red and the checkered couch without its cushions. He saw piles of bricks and scrap lumber. There was no rhyme or reason to the way in which the discarded objects lay in the shallow grass, but the lack of order was comforting to him, a validation of his own jumbled thoughts. He began to breathe more evenly and thoughts of the Datsun and his fights with Sheila were pushed even further away, like an empty boat blown slowly out to sea.
Jake passed a blue Dodge Dart with no roof, weeds sprouting between the seats inside. He saw an ancient television set, its inside gutted and washed clean by the rain. Jake looked at the television and imagined the house that he would build for Sheila and himself, on a plot of land in a safe neighborhood with good schools. He imagined passing all of his classes at night school and obtaining his trucker’s license. Then, the look on his supervisor’s face when he quit the cashier’s position at the Mini Mart, a job that Sheila had gotten for him, and said goodbye to the place for good. The picture was clean and clear in his head, and he knew it was close and within his grasp.
He kicked a beer can across the grass and it struck an abandoned water heater with a loud clang.
Then Jake heard a noise — a muffled thumping sound — quite close to him.
He stopped and listened. There was the roar of a plane, high above him in the thin white clouds. A breeze came up from the trees and blew his dirty blond hair out of his eyes.
He heard the noise again.
“Hey,” he called tentatively, feeling foolish. “Anybody there?”
The pounding grew louder. Jake looked around him. An old meat freezer, tarnished and marked with graffiti, sat in a patch of weeds nearby.
Jake moved closer to the freezer. “Hello?” he yelled, quite loudly this time. A squirrel dashed across the grass and into the bushes.
He heard a tiny yell, distant and unfocused, as if from the end of a long tunnel. It came from right in front of him. “Hello?” he whispered, his throat suddenly dry.
The meat freezer had a heavy door that locked automatically when it closed. It was covered with tiny pink blossoms, blown from the tree above them. Jake had never seen them on any other tree in the woods. He reached for the latch, his hands shaking, and hefted the door open with all of his strength.
A little girl lay curled up inside the freezer. Her matted brown hair clung to the back of her t-shirt. She was perhaps three years old, and small for her age. Barefoot, she wore short pants that were torn and streaked with red earth.
“Hsssh,” she gasped, and extended a hand toward him. Her palms were scratched and bloody, her thin lips blue and chapped.
Jake took a step back. He thought of Sheila’s cocker spaniel, which had been struck by a car on the access road on Easter Sunday and lay dying on the blacktop for twenty minutes. Jake had been afraid to touch the dog or even comfort it.
The girl tried to pull herself across the freezer toward him. “Hnnh,” she whispered, and then collapsed.
Although he was frightened, Jake knew it was time to make a decision. He didn’t want to risk the child dying by leaving it here while he searched for help.
He reached into the freezer and took the little girl under the arms, pulling her out gently and drawing her close to him. He could feel her ribs jutting through her white t-shirt. The child did not cry out or squirm; she didn’t seem seriously hurt. She clutched him tightly.
“Are you okay?” Jake asked in a low voice, drawing her hair back carefully from her sweaty face and neck. “What happened to you?” His hand shook. He had never held a child before, not even his niece when his brother brought her to visit.
The girl rested her head on his shoulder. Her chest moved up and down quickly as she struggled to take air into her lungs.
The main road lay at least a half a mile past the ridge, through a stretch of sumac and crabapple trees. Jake was sure there would be a passing motorist, perhaps a mill worker or trucker, who could get the girl to a doctor. He sometimes watched the hospital shows on TV with Sheila and knew that he would be taking a risk by moving the child. But he figured that it would take him at least fifteen minutes to get back to the main road, and he didn’t want to waste any time.
They set off through the wood, over the ridge and through the underbrush. The sun found its way in crooked beams through the canopy of leaves above them. Tiny gnats swirled in circles in the light. The girl moaned a bit and he adjusted his grip on her shoulders, trying to keep her as steady as possible as he ran.
Jake thought of the dozens of races he had run in high school, of leading laps around cracked tracks in hollow stadiums. He saw his father, high up in the bleachers, watching him with no expression. He saw the white lane lines leading him forward as the dry wind blew dust in his eyes.
He thought of his mother — the woman he’d loved so much and whose absence hovered over his life, constantly. He thought of the lines on her face, the streaks of gray in her hair.
He ran faster.
A house appeared through the trees. The white paint peeled in the hot sun and the whole place was set up from the ground on concrete blocks. Jake had seen it many times before, but it always seemed to him like no one lived there. He decided to take a chance.
Jake ran across the grass toward the back door. He and the girl passed a dirt garden with tomatoes and snap peas. Then: a child’s wading pool, filled with half an inch of water from a hose that lay curled up like a garter snake in the grass.
The little girl shivered in his arms. Her breathing was shallow and her skin was cool.
Jake went up the steps and knocked hard on the back door. “Hello?” he yelled. The screen was ripped. A beetle crouched on the wire mesh, watching him.
Jake opened the door and stepped inside the house. The kitchen was stifling and the sink was filled with dirty dishes. There was a litter box on the floor next to the refrigerator. A cuckoo clock knocked quietly on the wall, next to a bleached armadillo skull that hung from a rusty nail. Tiny violets sprouted from the dead eye sockets.
“Hello?” he called again.
There was no answer.
Jake cleared a pile of newspapers off a chair so he could set the little girl down. He found a clean dishcloth in a drawer and moistened it with water from the faucet. He wiped the child’s face and hands, cleaning away the blood. He whispered to her and promised her that she would be fine.
“What are you doing in my house?” said a voice from behind him.
A middle-aged woman stood in the doorway. She had straight blond hair tinged with gray and she wore a cotton work shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Her jeans were stained with red earth.
She took a step toward him. Her gaze fell upon the girl.
“Amy! Where have you been?” she said, and a relieved smile crossed her face. Then she turned to Jake, and the smile faded. “What the hell have you done to my kid?” she barked.
“So, this is your daughter?” Jake asked, stepping in front of the woman. Her eyes were bloodshot. She wore a tiny gold cross on a chain.
“Of course she is,” the woman replied. “She’s been gone all morning. I’ve been out looking for her.”
She pushed past Jake and bent down next to the chair. She touched the little girl’s forehead and kissed her on the cheek, but the girl squirmed, struggling to get away. “I thought I lost you,” the woman said. “Oh Jesus, I thought you were gone for good.”
There were tiny pink blossoms in the woman’s hair. They were stuck in her hair and the back of her shirt. Jake knew they had come from the tree right above the meat freezer.
The little girl started to wail, as if she had been placed in a bathtub of scalding hot water.
“I think you’re lying,” Jake said.
The woman stood up and glared at him. “The hell you say.”
“I found her in the woods,” Jake said. “Somebody left her there.”
The woman’s jaw grew hard. “Fuck you, mister,” she said, and lunged toward him.
Jake grabbed the woman by the shoulders and pushed her hard against the refrigerator. Magnets clattered to the floor as she squirmed in his grip. “You took her,” the woman whispered in a voice like dry gravel. “I’ll tell them you come in my house and took her.”
She spat in his face. Jake shoved her and she tripped over a chair, falling to the floor. She knocked over the litter box and it spilled across the dull linoleum.
Jake took the little girl into his arms. Before he could second guess himself as he had always done, he dashed out the back door and down the steps. He heard the woman yelling behind him, but he did not look back as he ran down the dirt driveway, himself and the little girl. He concentrated on his steps, putting one foot in front of the other.
The front lawn of the house was covered with dandelions. They were a yellow cover that stretched over gently rolling land.
Jake knew he had to get the child far away from the woman and her hollow, lying eyes. He dashed across the lawn full of dandelions with the sun beating down upon him. The little girl squeezed his shoulder. She sang to Jake softly, and in that moment, her voice became that of his kind mother, the woman he missed so much. He let himself be wrapped in the blanket of dandelions that he knew would keep them safe, once they got away from that terrible place.