Whisky starts to taste less like poison and more like home. I cannot afford a therapist or new clothing for a job. I can’t afford much of anything. I panhandle when I can overcome the shame of asking strangers for money. A little liquid courage is all it takes to drown my shame. It doesn’t work like it used to. Nothing works like it used to.
I go to sleep with the moon and wake up with the sun if the mosquitoes will allow it. I didn’t sleep last night. An incessant buzz in my ear all night long. I remind myself to buy some earplugs to drown out the taunts of the miniature bloodsuckers. Then I remember it will not matter considering I will be dead soon.
I patiently wait until eight am when the liquor store opens. Usually, I settle for the cheapest beer I can find but not today. Today I use the sixty-three dollars I’ve been saving and pick the nicest bottle of liquor I can find. Today is the day I drink until I die.
The cashier smiles at me as she hands me back my change but I can tell she is holding her breath. I can't smell anything over the scent of my sweat-drenched clothes. I haven’t showered in weeks. I haven’t eaten a real meal in months. I haven’t seen my family in years.
I shove the sixty-three cents into the left pocket of my camouflage pants and grab my medicine in the disguise of a brown paper bag. My feet stick to the floor covered in old soda. The change falls through the hole in my pocket. Slides down my leg, out the bottom of my pants onto the floor. Embarrassed, I leave the change and pick up my pace. A bell rings as I open the door.
The cashier waves. “Have a nice day Ernie.”
“You too Katie," I smile. One of those half-smiles where you don’t show your teeth and everyone knows it is forced. Katie doesn't know I plan to kill myself with the bottle of liquor she sold me and I hope she never finds out.
I always had a crush on Katie. Beautiful and full of southern charm. Someone like that had no interest in dating me. No one had an interest in dating me. Hell, I wouldn’t date me but it would be nice to have someone to talk to. It would be nice to not feel so alone.
Thunder crashes as if there's an ongoing war in the sky. I flinch, flashbacks of gunpowder and smoke take hostage of my mind. I have post-traumatic stress order or whatever you call it. Life is all around traumatic if you ask me. I jog to my campsite, hoping I have enough time to shower in the rain.
Time. What a foreign concept. Is it even real? Is anything real? We are born and then we die. What if nothing happens when we die? What if death is nothing but eternal darkness. What if no one remembers us? What if we leave nothing behind? The world is better off without me. No one will remember me anyway. I wonder what they will do with my body when no one claims it.
My campsite contains a makeshift fire pit with a metal rack and pan I use to cook with. A one-person tent riddled with holes that I draped a tarp over and a fold-up chair. My bike and a tiny trailer I built from a storage container and some tires I found behind a dumpster. Another container, full of cans I collect and crush for extra spending money.
My duffle bag from the army and a picture of my ex-wife Emily. When I left for Iraq she was pregnant and when I came back she was gone. I have never met my daughter. I don't even know her name. The lawyer said there wasn’t much I could do since she crossed state lines. That’s when the drinking started.
I grab my bar of soap and remove my clothing. I lather my body and scraggly brown hair. The soap suds seep into the earth as I dance in the rain. A brief moment of happiness eclipses my soul knowing I will never have to feel pain or agony again. If my theory is correct I will never feel anything again.
I cough over and over and rush into my tent. I cover myself with my only towel and try to catch my breath. There used to be a church downtown that let the homeless shower once a week. They discontinued the showers because people kept using them as a bathroom. Humans are strange creatures. Why won't she let me see my daughter?
I pat myself dry and put on my clean set of clothes. My wardrobe contains two shirts, two boxers, one pair of shorts, and one pair of pants. Three pairs of socks and a jacket. It's not much but I am thankful for what I have.
Once I start drinking I can't stop but that's the point, isn't it? There are worse ways to die. I don't want to be alone anymore. I need a sign. I look for one day after day. I search into people's eyes and in the sky but I never find anything. I unscrew the cap and take my first sip of warm whisky. Why did she leave?
The rain patter slowly comes to a halt and I decide it is time to burn my ex-wife's picture. Painful memories are better left behind. I wipe the tears from my face and take another swig to smother the taste of saltwater.
This isn’t so bad, this isn’t so bad, but it is. My stomach growls and I take another sip to suppress its anger. That doesn't work so I scarf down a lonely slice of bread. A joke of a last meal if you ask me. Laughter overcomes me until my stomach hurts.
When I was a teenager I had dreams of luxury and five-star cuisine. Pretty girls and fast cars. At twenty-something, the pressure of providing for my growing family and serving my country grew day by day. My responsibilities were a coffin. Each shovel of dirt made it harder to breathe. My ex-wife nailed it shut when she left. Now I’m thirty-something with nothing to show for it. I wonder what my daughter looks like.
I unzip my tent and walk around in search of wood. Then I see it. A single dandelion, hidden under a collapsed tree. I pluck it out of the ground graciously, afraid to hurt its feelings. Do plants have feelings? I shake my head and put Emily's picture in my shirt pocket. I can't burn her picture. Not now, not ever.
Her favorite flowers were dandelions. Every week I used to hunt them down and bring them to her so she could make a wish. I stopped looking for dandelions after we got married. Happy I had won her over, I stopped trying to win her over and maybe that’s how I lost her.
I haven’t been able to blow on a dandelion and make a wish since Emily left, but today feels different. After all, I am going to drink myself to death and a silly little dandelion can not change that. Can it? I have to let her go. Oxygen fills my lungs and I exhale wishing I wouldn’t feel so alone. The remnants of the dandelion dance with the air dissipating into the unknown.
I take another swig of whisky or maybe a gulp or maybe more. I stumble into my chair and prop my feet on an old log. I fight to keep my eyes open. I must drink more. Drifting in and out of consciousness. The sun peeks through the trees revealing spider webs and changing the color of leaves.
Had it been minutes or hours? Something licked my face. My eyes spring open and I search for the face-licking culprit but I don't see anything. I wipe the sleep from my eyes and reach for my leftover whisky.
Something licks my hand again. A puppy, only a few months old. My bottle of poison was knocked over. My lips curve into a smile, one of those real smiles when your skin wrinkles around your eyes. Was this a sign? Laughter erupted from my stomach turning into a cough. “Did you do that little buddy?”
The puppy barks again and jumps into my lap. I get lost in her golden eyes and for the first time, I see a sign. A sign of hope and happiness. “Where on earth did you come from?”
Her fur was as white as snow, covered in mud. I decide to name her Dandelion and I also decide she needs a bath, some food, and maybe a toy or two. In the meantime, I feed her a can of sausages. She licks my face again and I let her fall asleep cuddled up in my arms.
Dandelion had knocked my liquor over and saved me from myself. She resembles the dog I had before Emily took her away from me. That was over a decade ago. What if the stories about reincarnation are true? Maybe this is my sign. A sign it's not time for my life to end. I can't leave this little puppy to fend for herself.
The summer sun scorched the pavement and though I had shoes, Dandelion did not. Afraid she would burn her little paws I carried her one mile, then two. Every so often I stop and watch her play in the grass. She rubs her head against my hand and I scratch her head.
A yellow house with chipped paint catches my eye. There are no cars in the driveway so I figure no one is home. I turn on the water spigot and unravel the hose. I rinse the mud off of Dandelion and she shakes her coat out. Water particles fly in my face.
"Good as new," I said.
The front door creaks open and a blonde woman with grey roots pokes her head out. “What are you doing in my yard?”
I turn the water hose off and wrap the hose back up. “Oh, I’m sorry. I just needed a place to wash my dog.”
The woman steps onto her porch and lets her screen door slam behind her. “Oh, that’s quite alright. She is a pretty little thing isn’t she.”
I wipe my hands off on my shirt and pick Dandelion up. “She sure is. I should go, I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“Actually, I have some pot roast in the oven that should be about done if you’re hungry. I could use the company.”
I nod. "Starving."
She smiles and opens the door. “I’m Bell.”
The pot roast melts in my mouth. We talk for hours. I told her about my time in the army. How I had given up looking for a job because no one wants to hire someone like me. She tells me how I remind her of her son, George. How she had lost him in the war.
Bell takes a sip of tea. “Maybe it's a sign we met. Life is too hard on some of us and I think everyone deserves a second chance, don’t you?”
I cough and clear my throat. “Yes, ma'am.”
“You can stay in my garage if you want. It’s not much but my son converted it into a small apartment. There’s a bed, bathroom, and a kitchenette. I couldn't bare to get rid of George’s clothes. I bet they would fit you perfectly and I think there’s even a suit in there you could wear to an interview. You could help me take care of the yard until you find a job and the house could use a fresh coat of paint. What do you think?"
I gulp but the lump in my throat does not go away. I want to say yes but I don't want to be a burden or run up her electric bill.
Dandelion barks and jumps into Bell’s lap. If she wouldn’t have needed a bath, I never would have stumbled upon this opportunity. It wouldn’t be fair to make her sleep in a tent and Bell said she could use my company. With that reasoning, I made my decision.
A smile spread across my face. "I would love that."
George's suit fits me perfectly. Bell makes pot roast every Friday night when I get off work and we always make each other laugh. Dandelion has tripled in size but always sleeps by my side. It’s funny how one thing in life leads you to another. My dandelion wish came true in more ways than one. Thanks to Dandelion and Bell, I never have to feel alone again.