Better Than Starbucks Fiction
The Girl on the Grass
by Robert P. Bishop
Carl jiggled the leash. “Let’s go, Sailor.” His Jack Russell trotted across the kitchen floor and allowed Carl to snap the leash to its collar. Before Carl reached the front door, his phone binged: Sarah Mann, his neighbor.
“Carl, there’s a body on your front lawn.”
“You mean a dead body?”
“I don’t know if they are dead or not. You’ll see when you leave your house. I wanted to warn you. Your heart, you know.” Sarah ended the call.
Carl opened the front door and stood on the porch. He saw the body on the lawn, lying close to the hedge. Sailor whined and strained at the leash.
Carl approached the body, a young woman lying on her side with knees flexed. Her hands were clasped together under her chin, as if she might be praying. Her head rested on a gray backpack. Clear, pale blue eyes looked up at him. Carl let some out of the leash. Sailor whined and sniffed her face then sniffed her body all the way to her feet.
“What is your dog doing?”
“He’s giving you the sniff test. He’s deciding if you’re all right. If you aren’t, he’s going to bite you.”
“Oh.” The girl didn’t move.
Carl leaned over and peered at her. “I’m just kidding. Are you injured?”
“You’re a girl.”
“Are you paralyzed?”
“What are you doing on my lawn?”
“Resting. I felt like lying down in this wonderful afternoon sun and resting. It’s a lovely day and your lawn, well, it’s a perfect lawn for lying down.”
Carl straightened up. Sailor jumped on the girl’s shoulder, put his wet nose in her ear then licked her face. “My dog likes you.”
“I like your dog.” The girl petted Sailor’s head.
“Are you an escaped criminal?”
“Did you just get out of a madhouse?”
“Are you on drugs?”
“Then you must be a runaway. What are you running from?”
“What if I’m running toward something?” A faint smile flickered then disappeared. “Your dog’s tail is only three inches long. It’s stubby and incongruous. It looks like a handle.” The girl petted Sailor. “Why did you cut it off? That was cruel.”
“I got him from the shelter like that.”
“Are you going to send me away?”
“No, no I’m not. Sailor and I are going for our afternoon walk.”
“Sailor. That’s an odd name for a dog. Were you in the navy?”
“No, I was in the army.”
“What’s your name?” The girl’s clear blue eyes never left his face.
“Carl. I’m a retired cop.”
“My name is Autumn Rose. I’m not retired from anything.”
“Sure,” Carl said. “We’re leaving now.” He tugged on Sailor’s leash.
“How long will you be gone?”
“About an hour.”
“I’ll be right here. I won’t move. I promise.”
He smiled. “You can stay here as long as you like.”
“I’ll wait for you,” the girl called as Carl walked away.
Carl thought about the girl as he followed Sailor on the sidewalk. He had seen lots of unusual things during his thirty-nine years as a cop, so the young woman lying on his lawn did not alarm him. It was a new experience, but not an alarming experience. She looked all right. She wore substantial boots in good repair and her clothing, somewhat soiled, wasn’t torn or ragged. Carl thought she didn’t look like a homeless person or even a runaway. Perhaps just a little confused and trying to find her way. But probably not dangerous.
Then he chided himself for being foolish. “You’re a cop, for Christ’s sake. Act like one,” he said. “Don’t make stupid assumptions. She might be a serial killer for all you know.”
His phone binged: Sarah Mann again. He stopped while Sailor sniffed a bush then raised his leg, peed on it, trotted to the other side and whizzed on the bush again.
“That person is still on your lawn. Do you want me to call 911?”
“She’s a girl. Has she moved?”
“No. She’s still lying there all curled up just like she was when you left for your walk.”
“How do you know what she was like when I left?”
“I’m not spying on you, Carl. I’m concerned about you, that’s all.”
Carl sighed. “I know you are, Sarah.”
“You can’t let a vagrant cause you stress. She’s trespassing. I’m going to call 911.”
“Don’t do that, Sarah. I’ll take care of it when I get back.”
“I’m just trying to be a good neighbor, Carl. I worry you might have another attack.”
“I know, and I appreciate it, Sarah.” He ended the call.
On the return he paused by another bush while Sailor gave it his usual treatment. Carl’s defense of the girl on the grass perplexed him. Why should he object to Sarah calling 911? The girl was a vagrant, and perhaps a fugitive as well. And she was trespassing. A 911 call was the proper thing to do.
He felt a twinge of pain in his chest and put a nitroglycerin pill under his tongue and waited for the pain to subside. He was having these bouts more frequently now and wondered if they were a prelude to a second heart attack, one that would kill him this time.
The discomfort continued, so he took another nitro and walked slowly, waiting for the pain to ebb.
Sarah was right about his heart and he appreciated her concern, even if she tended to overdo it. He had suffered a heart attack four months ago then cardiac arrest in the ER as the staff worked on him. The emergency room staff zapped his heart back to life after it stopped beating. The ER staff told him he had been without vital signs for a full minute before they put the paddles on his chest and hit him with the juice.
“You were indeed dead for a minute,” a nurse had told him.
Dead. For one minute. He didn’t know anyone who had ever come back from being dead. And he remembered nothing about being dead, either.
What interested Carl most about being dead was what didn’t happen to him after he died. He didn’t see bright lights, hear music, or see anything like angels or demons. And he certainly didn’t see any souls, lost or otherwise, wandering about, not even his own. The absence of these features convinced Carl that nothing knowable at all happened after one died, at least to the dead person. Being dead was a blank, a nothingness, incomprehensible. Carl’s experience meant there was no afterlife, and, consequently, no Heaven, no Hell, which also meant no god, no devil. Being dead was just that; it was over, a life ended, with nothing at all following.
For several weeks following his resurrection by the ER staff, the knowledge that an afterlife did not exist distressed Carl. No afterlife. That sounded ominous to him and flew in the face of widespread public belief that an afterlife did indeed exist. But Carl had, he believed, irrefutable proof that it did not.
He wrestled with this knowledge and wondered if he should do anything with it. He thought about going to churches on Sundays and telling the congregations, as a kind of public service announcement, that they were embracing a belief that was not true. When challenged on his statement, as he surely would be, he would say, “I have empirical evidence to support my statement,” and explain what had happened to him.
After thinking about it at some length he determined this was probably not a good thing to do and discarded the idea. After people died, what difference would it make if there were no afterlife? They wouldn’t know it, so he stopped fretting about its nonexistence. Let people find comfort in their own way.
His experience brought home something else he had not thought deeply about; he had lived far more years than he had left to live. Carl wondered how much time he had left. He began to dwell on and analyze time. Carl knew time, unlike death, could be experienced and remembered. He knew he experienced something if he remembered it, and to remember something required being alive and moving through time. This caused Carl additional anguish and he wrestled with time until he realized only three simple measurements, known to everyone living, mattered; they were yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Yesterday was time gone forever, never to be retrieved except as something stored in a memory. Yesterday could not be experienced again, but it could be remembered. Carl tried to forget many of the yesterdays that had caused him grief and pain, but some yesterdays he held dear because of what they meant to him and refused to let them go.
As for the period of time called tomorrow, well, Carl’s cardiac arrest and brief bout with death brought into clarity that one day there was not going to be a tomorrow for him, or for everybody else for that matter, so he stopped caring about something beyond his control.
That left today for Carl, but he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Finally, he decided the only thing he could do was live today as, well, as today. It seemed a laughably simple and trite concept, and good or bad, whatever happened to him today he would embrace as the essence of his life. He could do nothing less, nothing more. Carl decided today, and today only, was all that mattered.
Sailor sprinkled three more bushes before they got back to Carl’s house.
The young woman lay on her side, knees still flexed, hands clasped under her chin, backpack under her head. She watched Carl unclip the leash. Sailor jumped on her and started sniffing her face. “I waited for you.”
“I see that.” Yep, he thought, lost souls aren’t dead, they’re alive, and I’ve got one right here. He extended his hand to the girl on the grass.
“Are you sending me away?” The young woman named Autumn Rose took his hand.
“No.” Carl pulled her to her feet. “Get your backpack and come inside.” She followed him up the walk and into the house. Sailor scampered beside her.
“Do you have any clean clothes in that backpack?”
“Jeebus,” muttered Carl. “Come with me.”
Autumn dropped her backpack and followed Carl down the hallway to his bedroom. Sailor trotted along behind, sniffing her feet. Autumn stopped at the bedroom door and did not go in. “What are you doing?”
Carl opened a closet. “Find some clothes you can wear then take a shower. I’m going to fix us something to eat. Come into the kitchen after you’ve cleaned up.”
“You are a strange man, Carl.” Autumn started going through the clothes hanging in the closet.
“Oh, it smells delicious,” she said when she came into the kitchen.
“Bacon does that.” Carl looked over his shoulder, saw her wearing a long-sleeved white blouse and blue jeans that Suzanne used to wear. The clothes looked a trifle big on her. She didn’t wear any shoes. Her toenails were painted the color of red wine. “Sit.” Carl pointed to a chair. “We’re going to eat.”
“My, you’re certainly telling me what to do.” She sat down. “I bet you were a bossy father.”
He ignored her comment. “The interesting thing is you’re not afraid of me,” he said as he spooned copious amounts of scrambled eggs mixed with chopped onions and red and green peppers onto the plates. Toast and strips of bacon followed. “That means you have courage and confidence. I like that.”
Autumn laughed. “Oh, Carl, you are such a sweet man.”
Carl grinned. “I am. That’s what happens when you get old. You should guard against it.”
“Being sweet or being old?”
“Both. Nobody admires a sweet old man. People think you’re a nitwit if you’re always grinning like the town cretin. Better to be grumpy and not give the bastards the satisfaction of thinking they are right. Now eat.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Taking me in, giving me a place to clean up and something to eat.”
“Is there a reason I shouldn’t?”
“Do I look like I need help? Is that why you’re doing this?”
“You look capable to me, but I think you’re a little on the confused side.” Carl forked scrambled egg into his mouth. “Now that you’re cleaned up, you look decent.”
“You don’t know anything about me. You could be taking a big risk.”
“I could, but I don’t think so. You tell me, am I?”
“No, but I don’t need charity, Carl. I’m wealthy.”
“Oh? You’re living out of a backpack, maybe sleeping under an oleander bush, and you want me to believe you’re rich?” Carl got up, poured more coffee for them and sat down.
“I’m a trust-fund kid. I have a ton of money and credit cards, too. I don’t need or want pity.” Autumn plucked at the blouse’s sleeve. “Whose clothes are these?”
“Suzanne’s. My wife.” Carl smeared orange marmalade on a slice of toast. “She’s dead.”
“I’m sorry, Carl.”
Carl bit into the toast.
“How did she die?” Autumn peered at him over the rim of her coffee cup.
“She was shot to death in an ambush. The shooter was never caught. We think it was a revenge killing. Somebody was settling an old score with me. Maybe somebody I sent to prison.”
“How long ago was she killed?”
“Twenty-four years ago.”
“Do you remember the exact date?”
“Some yesterdays you never forget, even if you want to.”
“And you live all alone in this house, with her clothes and everything she owned?”
Carl shrugged. “I guess I do.”
“Are you keeping her things as a memory, like one of those memorials you see along a highway where someone was killed in an accident and people keep leaving plastic flowers and things?”
“You’re pretty nosy, you know that?”
“Do you have any kids?”
“Everybody has kids, even ones they don’t like or want. Why don’t you have kids?” Autumn ate a strip of bacon.
“Suzanne said she didn’t want kids by a cop. She said she didn’t want to tell them someday their dad got shot and died. She said that wasn’t fair, so we never had any.”
“That is so sad.”
“It’s ironic. Suzanne was afraid it would be me, but she was the one who got killed. We should have had kids.” Carl blinked and hoped he didn’t sound bitter.
Autumn reached across the table and put her hand on his. “I’ll be your daughter and you can be my father for as long as you want me. I won’t mind.”
Carl felt her warmth seep into his bony hand and realized her touch was comforting. He didn’t pull his hand away. “Do you know how absurd that sounds? You want to be my daughter and me to be your father? Why in the world do you want that?”
“You said you should have had kids. Well, I should have had a father.” She squeezed his hand. “Let’s try it, you being my dad and me being your daughter. Why not?”
Carl laughed at the outrageous suggestion, but the idea percolated in him and he wondered what it would be like to call this young woman he had met just minutes ago daughter. He had never in his life addressed anyone by that word, not even one time. Today he was being asked to do that.
“It will be fun for both of us,” she said.
Carl was surprised he did not reject her suggestion outright. It sounded extraordinary and outlandish, but the more he thought about it the more he liked it.
“I’m eighty-seven years old, too old to be your father.”
“Lots of fathers are that old, even older. I need a father and you said you wanted a kid.” She smiled at him. Carl thought he saw hope, maybe yearning, in her eyes. “Today each of us can do something different, something we have never done before. We will be good for each other.”
For a moment, Carl feared he might be hallucinating and wondered if he were losing touch with reality. Did a vessel blow in my brain? What if I’m having a stroke or losing my mind and don’t know it? “How old are you?”
“Twenty-four. That’s the perfect age to be your daughter.”
“Nobody does these kinds of things.”
“We do,” Autumn replied.
“We do?” Carl blinked several times.
“You didn’t chase me off your lawn. You’re different, Carl.”
“So, you’re out shopping for a father, is that it?”
“Our lives are already different. We may as well keep the experiment going.”
Carl reached down and scratched Sailor’s head. Autumn’s proposal bounced around in his brain. The more he thought about it the more he liked it. Still, he knew the proposal was preposterous, bordering on madness. “Sure, why not,” he heard himself say. The words startled him and for a moment he wondered if he had actually said them out loud. To his amazement, he continued talking. “But only as long as it works for both of us. If I tell you it’s over, it’s over and you leave. You can leave any time you want to, of course. Even if I want you to stay I won’t try to stop you if you want to go.”
“That sounds agreeable.”
“Well, okay, that’s settled,” Carl said, got up and started collecting the dishes.
Autumn jumped up and said, “Sit down, Dad. Let me do it.”
Carl sat down, surprised by her actions and what she had called him. Dad. A name given to him for the first time in his life. He felt disoriented, as if he didn’t quite know where he was or who was talking to him. This is lunacy, he thought. For a moment he believed he was looking at Suzanne clearing the dishes then said, “I don’t know how to be a dad.”
Autumn smiled at him. “It will be the easiest thing in the world for you. You’re going to be a great father.”
After the kitchen had been put right, Autumn took his arm and said, “Tell me about you and Mom. I need to know.”
They went into the living room. Carl sat on the sofa, Autumn in the stuffed chair facing him with her legs curled under her body. Sailor jumped up in the chair with her.
“Well, I’m talked out,” Carl said and stood up. “Tomorrow will be your turn.”
“Today has been wonderful for me,” Autumn said and hugged him. “I’m really tired, Dad. I need to sleep now.”
“Sure. Today has been extraordinary for both of us,” he said and showed Autumn her room. Sailor hopped up on the bed and lay down, his head on outstretched legs, and watched them.
“Tomorrow we can have lunch out then go shopping. I’m going to need some new clothes. And don’t worry, Dad, I have plenty of money. I’m not going to spend yours.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Goodnight, Dad.”
He left her alone in the room with Sailor.
He lay in bed in the dark and thought about the arrangement with the girl. It seemed bizarre to him but fascinating as well. What could go wrong? His money was safe and couldn’t be pilfered by anyone, so he didn’t have that to worry about. His will spelled out how he wanted things done after he died so that was taken care of as well. There were no loose ends to worry about.
He decided there was nothing wrong with what he and the girl were doing. Not a thing wrong. Having a daughter might be a wonderful thing. After nearly a quarter century he would be sharing the house and his life again with another person. Carl knew his life was going to be different now and he thought that might be a good thing after twenty-four years of emptiness.
Carl rolled onto his left side and slid his left hand, palm up, under his cheek. “Daughter. Hunh. How about that,” he said out loud and, pleased with the sound of the words, went to sleep thinking about tomorrow.
Autumn was up, making French toast for breakfast. Carl hadn’t come out of his room yet and she thought he must still be asleep. Sailor lay by the bedroom door, whining quietly.
That’s not good, she thought.
She stopped the breakfast preparations and went to Carl’s door and knocked. “Dad, are you awake?” When he didn’t answer she opened the door and went in. Sailor followed her.
Carl lay on his left side, eyes closed, with his hand still under his left cheek.
“Dad?” Autumn put her hand on his shoulder and shook him gently. When he didn’t respond, she put her hand on his cheek. It was cold. “I’m so sorry, Dad,” she said softly then called 911.
Autumn went into the living room and sat on the sofa. Sailor lay down beside her.
Together they waited for the emergency vehicles.
Robert P. Bishop, a former soldier and teacher, lives in Tucson. His short fiction has appeared in The Literary Hatchet, Umbrella Factory Magazine, CommuterLit, Lunate Fiction, Fleas on the Dog, Corner Bar Magazine, and elsewhere.
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