DANDELIONS

by Lorraine Anderson

As he tried to comfort the sobbing girl, Sam looked up at the priest. He looked down at Sam, obviously rattled, then turned to the rest of the mourners. "Please..." the priest murmured. "Let's continue." Sam looked thankfully at him.

The procession of mourners continued. The girl flinched each time a clod of earth hit the coffin. "Come on, honey," Sam murmured into her ear. "Let's get away from here."

"No!" she shouted. "I'm not leaving...this time!" She pounded her fist on his shoulder.

Sam was taken aback by her response. "Ok," he said slowly. "We won't leave. We'll just move over there, out of the way." He pointed at a leaf-covered bench.

She hiccupped, then all will seemed to leave her. This startled Sam more than her wild attack, so he raised her chin to check on her. Glaring up at him, she defiantly pulled her chin out of his hand.

She looked down into the grave, chewing her lip, then studied the lawn. Spying a late-season dandelion, she picked it tenderly, then dug out a clod of dirt. Tears running down her face, she dropped both carefully down onto the head of the casket. "I know you liked dandelions, Barbara. I'm sorry they put those Calla lilies on top of you." Sam tugged at her arm. "Good-bye, Barbara," she sobbed. "Pick a lot of dandelions for me!" She rocked back and forth, chewing on her upper lip.

He hugged her tight, then helped her up. They walked slowly over to the bench. "I did not..." Sam started to say, then he rephrased his response. "Why do you think I murdered her?"

She straightened up suddenly, looked at him suspiciously, then lunged forward to sniff his overcoat. "You've been drinking again, haven't you?"

Sam hesitated. Had "he"? Come to think about it, his coat did have the smell of rum around it. "Don't change the subject," he said firmly.

"You're the one changing the subject...Dad," she said venomously, turning away.

Sam looked helplessly at the priest, but the man was busy finishing the ceremony. He took her gently by the shoulders and turned her to face him. "Do I look drunk?" he said.

"You never do," she said, pursing her lips. "And you'll never admit it, so I don't know why I bother."

He sat and looked at her. What made this girl so bitter? He wished fervently that Al would show up and give him a few answers. "Why do you think I killed Barbara?" he repeated gently. "You know I would never have hurt her."

She studied his eyes, then looked at the grave. "I know that...you!...wouldn't," the girl said slowly, apparently searching for words. "But you know you were drinking that night. You hit her with the car, didn't you? DIDN'T YOU?"

Sam blanched. "Oh, God."

She glared at him. "You still can't remember, can you?

You must have hit her...Ted." She spat the name out. "You hit her, then got scared and ran off until you sobered up." She closed her eyes and lowered her head. "But she was dead. She laid out on the front lawn for two hours before anyone noticed."

Oh, God. Sam let out his breath forcefully. "I am still your father..." he started.

"No. You are not my father. You're my mother's husband. You're my step-father." She turned her body the other way.

"Technically, Amelia's your daughter," a new voice broke in. "You adopted her and her sister when she was three, and Barbara was seven."

"Al," Sam said silently. "Thank heavens."

"Better late than never." Sam looked at him, his eyebrows raised. Al looked over at the grave and chewed his cigar. "Sorry. Poor choice of words."

Sam tried to turned Barbara back towards him, but she refused to move. "I am still your father." His voice broke, and tears started coming down his face. "Don't you think I'm grieving for Barbara, too?"

She looked back at him tenderly, then hardened her face. "You have a strange way of showing it...Dad...coming to her funeral drunk." She paused. "Just like you came to Mom's funeral."

Sam looked over at Al. "She's right. He arrived in the waiting room dead drunk. He passed out after we questioned him." He smiled grimly. "I'm afraid I wasn't as gentle as I could have been...but I was worried."

Sam nodded, knowing that Al knew firsthand how to get information out of a intoxicated man. "I am not drunk now," Sam said forcefully to Amelia. She just shrugged.

He looked over at the funeral party. The mourners were clumped together in groups, talking and glancing over at them. The priest was wandering from group to group, then, as he saw Sam looking at him, came over. Amelia launched herself at the priest, who enfolded her in his arms. "Uncle Jim," she sobbed.

Al was furiously pounding at the hand link, trying to hurry it along. "This must be Jim Fitzsimmons. Amelia's..." he looked down at the hand link, a look of regret on his face. "Amelia's late mother's brother. Poor kid. Her mother died, a year ago...her father died of cancer two months after she was born. Apparently, Ted has been on quite a bender ever since her mother passed away." He looked at her, saddened. "No wonder..."

Al stared sympathetically at Amelia, who was sobbing desperately into her uncle's sleeve. Sam looked at Father Fitzsimmons. He didn't look much better.

Catching Al's eye, Sam gave a slight questioning motion. "Oh," Al murmured. "Yeah. Your name is Ted Jameson. Two daughters...We already know that, Ziggy." He gave the side of the handlink a whap. "Damn..." he said slowly. "Take your pick in what you're here to fix." He looked at Sam, then at Amelia. "Ted gets sent to prison for involuntary manslaughter, Amelia runs away in two days and is picked up five years from now for prostitution, and Father Fitzsimmons commits suicide in six months."

Sam raised his eyebrows and looked at him. "It seems Amelia and Barbara was the only family he has left. It just took the wind out of his sails."

A teenager walked through Al, and Al stepped back, startled. "Jeez Louise," he said. "I wish that wouldn't happen!" The teenager stood in front of Al and looked at Amelia, apparently uncertain. He was a gawky young man, in an ill-fitting suit. Father Jim nudged her chin up. She looked at him blankly a moment, then said, "Neal." Al looked at the hand-link. "Neal was apparently Barbara's boyfriend." He looked at Sam.

"This came up in your trial." He looked at him. "Somewhat of a nerd, isn't he?"

"Amelia..." the young man said, shaking. "I'm...I'm sorry."

Amelia straightened up. "I know you are."

"When I left your sister, she was fine." The boy was obviously distressed.

Amelia looked at him and chewed her lip. "I knew she had a date with you. She told me before I left to sleep over at Heidi's. It surprised her. She had thought you had been dating other girls."

Neal turned his head away. "I was. I wanted to break up with her, but I couldn't." He caught Sam staring at him, and he looked away. "I guess I loved her."

"Wanting to break up with her is a funny way of showing your love," Sam said.

"I didn't know I loved her until..." He glanced over at the grave. He hugged himself, then blurted out, "I think I killed her."

"What?" Al said.

"What?" Sam echoed.

Father Jim looked distressed. "What did you say?"

The boy sat down on the bench beside Sam. "We had a big argument. I left. She came running after me. I gunned the car. I felt a big bump, and...I couldn't stop! I couldn't even look into the rear view mirror! I couldn't stop!" He pressed his head into the bench.

"Oh," Amelia said, white. She walked over to Neal and laid her hand on his shoulder. "Oh."

Sam looked up at Jim. He was as white as Amelia, and he was swaying. He looked at Sam, then looked away, then swallowed hard. "No. Neal, no," Jim said. "You ran over a log. You did not hit Barbara."

"Jim," Sam said. He had a horrible suspicion in the base of his stomach, and he hated it. "How do you know?"

Jim collapsed slowly, ending up on his knees, his head in his hands. "Because I killed Barbara."

Sam sat there with his mouth open. "Jim," he managed to get out. "How?"

"You were drunk again. You were at the Corner Bar. The bartender knew you couldn't drive home, so, as usual, he called me." He raised his head. "I took a cab to the bar and I drove your car. We were almost to your house. I saw Neal gun his car and pull away and I saw him hit the log, and I wasn't watching the road!"

He raised his head. "Before I knew it, I heard...an impact...and I saw a glimpse of white. I jumped out of the car...but she was already gone. Dead. I did give her last rites, Ted, I swear I did." His face twisted. "Then I carried you into the house—you were out like a light." He looked away. "I was going to call the police, Ted, I swear...but I got frightened." He pressed his head against the ground. "It was all my fault!"

Sam felt cold, and it wasn't just from the fall wind. He got up and kneeled beside Jim. "No. Jim, no. It wasn't your fault, either. It was just a horrible accident."

Neal sat on the bench, still white, staring at the pair. Amelia sobbed, then slowly walked over to Sam. She leaned over, picked another dandelion, and fitted it into his lapel. Then she pulled the two men into a hug.

"This did it, Sam," Al said slowly. He looked at the handlink. "Ted founds the local Al-Anon chapter. Amelia marries Neal, they start a small printing service, and they have three kids. And Jim..." He paused to push a button on the handlink. "Jim goes into prison for six months, then he starts a prison ministry which helps a whole lot of people." He looked at the grave. "What a damn shame. Why did a young girl's death have to start so many good things?"

Sam shook his head.

The next morning, they drove Jim to the police station, then stood by him as he repeated his story to an incredulous policeman. As the man was writing up his report, Jim looked up at Sam sadly. "You can go now, Ted. I'll be fine now."

Al appeared at the side of Sam's vision. "You can leap now," he said. "Ted is sober."

Amelia gave him a hug. Sam smiled sadly. "Yes, Jim. I know you'll be alright." He paused and put his arm around Amelia. "I'll see you later. So..." The room disappeared in a flash of light. "...long," he finished, lamely. He found himself standing on a railing, looking at a giraffe. The giraffe lowered his neck to look at him. He scrambled off the railing, startled.

A woman with a paisley dress laughed. "Yes, he does have a long neck, Johnny!" She offered him her hand. "Well, it's time to go. Daddy will be wondering where we are."

Daddy...? Sam looked around. They were in a giraffe house of some zoo or another. He let her guide him out the door into the bright sunlight, then paused by the reflecting pool by the front door and looked at his image. "Oh, boy," he groaned softly. The image that looked back was of a little boy, about three years old.

"What do you see there?" the woman said. "Fishes?"

"Yeah. Fishes," Sam said. Oh,_boy, he groaned again to himself.

END