He came with the blooming flowers, just as the first taste of spring arrived. Ragged, torn clothes falling off his skeletal frame, the man crawled onto a nondescript yard in the dead of night.
“Dad, Dad — DAD!” Jessie yelled frantically, having spotted the man while eating her morning cereal in the front room. “There’s someone on our lawn, and I think he’s dying.”
“Hold your horses kiddo, I’ll be down in a minute,” Her dad replied perfectly calm. True to his word, he took a minute, maybe three.
Shirt stained from last night’s meal, her dad lazily strolled downstairs; his rotund belly jiggled with each step. A cigarette already in hand, he obnoxiously sighed as she was huddled in the corner panicking.
“Get up, he’s not going to bite — shit — he can’t even walk.” Pulling Jessie to her feet, he walked over to the curtains and pulled them shut. “Out of sight, out of mind. Now, let’s eat some breakfast.”
His cooking was terrible. Jessie’s Dad would serve burnt toast, blackened bacon, and runny eggs. She’d eat a few bites, mix it around, and throw the rest away while he wasn’t looking. He’d scarf down the barely edible food with a pint of whiskey, I suppose that’s why he could never taste how bad it really was.
Their house was miles from the nearest neighbor, and even farther from the school bus stop. They hadn’t had visitors in years, other than the half-starved man who’d made a home on their lawn. Jessie’s Dad rarely looked at him, and even more rarely made mention of him. If he did, it was usually an off-color joke about his condition, like comparing him to P.O.Ws — she never laughed in return.
Until school let out, she’d walk by the man twice every day. In the morning he’d groan and roll over, slowly crawling towards Jessie, and in the evening he’d do the same, although much more listlessly, staring at her with his glassy eyes.
She’d ask her Dad sparingly about the man, but he’d shut her down every time. The more she asked, the more irate he’d become — so she stopped. She’d peek her head out the window occasionally, watching the man writhe in agony.
Summer came, and with it, the gentle buzzing of cicadas. Jessie would stay up all night listening to the cacophony of sounds, floating into dreams of better times and happier days. They were a reminder of simple times, before her mom passed away and life turned to shit.
One night, in between the symphony of insects, the man began to scream like he never had before. Her Dad was up in the attic tinkering with his machines, oblivious to the noise. Curious, and feeling an unexpected rush of bravery, she decided to investigate. Clutching a flashlight, Jessie tip-toed down the stairs and carefully opened the front door.
As soon as the door opened, and the cool night air rushed over her, the screaming stopped. Taking a wary step outside, she did a cursory scan of the lawn with her flashlight. The front yard was disturbingly empty, and the man was nowhere to be found. Curiosity intensifying, along with her heartbeat, Jessie ventured further outside.
An owl screeched ominously in the distance and the insects grew quiet. The night was deathly still, only the sound of Jessie’s unsteady breath was audible. She couldn’t explain why, but at that moment, finding the man felt like the most important thing in Jessie’s life. Fear and sadness swirled in her brain like a ferociously strong cocktail, impairing the senses.
The flashlight’s beam caught a glint of metal, just at the edge of the tree-line. Anxiety increasing, she kept the light trained on the item as she crept closer; with each step she suspiciously canvassed the surrounding area.
Once she was close enough, Jessie was able to make out a set of polished keys stuck in a thicket of thorny branches. Wrapping her over shirt tightly around her hand, she reached into the bush to retrieve the keys. Branches snapped noisily as she pushed her hand through, echoing hauntingly into the woods. Then, in heart-stopping fashion, a series of increasingly louder crashes volleyed back from the trees.
Grabbing firmly onto the keys, Jessie fell backward as thorns scraped against and stuck into her forearm. Ignoring the trickles of blood, she scrambled to her feet and dashed towards the front door. Something was coming from the woods, and it was coming fast.
Stumbling over an unseen pothole, her momentum carried her roughly to the ground. Before she could rise to her feet, Jessie felt an ice-cold hand wrap around her ankle in a vice-like grip. Shining the flashlight at her feet, the sunken cheeks and dead eyes of the starving man greeted her. Bony hand clenched onto her leg, the man’s jaw cracked open like a snake ready to devour its prey.
Jessie screamed and kicked the man until his face was bloody, but he didn’t budge and his jaw continued to grow wider. Drips of putrid, black saliva rained down onto her thigh. Escape was impossible, and in a way, she felt she deserved it. For months she’d watched this stranger waste away just yards from her house, and not once did she do anything to help him — never even considered it. Jessie knew she was old enough to make her own decisions, but just like always, she let her Dad set the rules.
“I’m so sorry, I know this probably means nothing, but I’m sorry for not doing the right thing. I wanted to help you, but, but — I’m so sorry,” the words tumbled almost unconsciously out of Jessie’s mouth, tears streaming down her cheeks.
His grip loosed, “Help me, for mom, help me,” he gargled in reply.
Jessie stared intently into his face, absorbing what he’d said. She realized his features were distantly familiar, a fleeting memory teetering on the edge. He nodded silently, letting her go and retreating into the dark, crawling backward like a spider.
Adrenaline surging, Jessie rushed into the house and bolted the locks. Yearning for the comfort of her Dad, she sprinted to the second floor and almost ripped off the string connected to the attic stairs. Bursting through the hatch, she found her Dad slumped against a circuit board, an empty handle of tequila strewn at his feet.
His breath was heavy and she couldn’t wake him up. Jessie frantically dialed 9-1-1 and clutched her Dad tightly until the paramedics arrived. Although it was touch and go for a while there, he pulled through, eventually making a full recovery. The doctors told Jessie if she’d found him even ten minutes later, he would have been severely brain-damaged, or more likely, dead.
Life changed dramatically after that. Jessie’s Dad got sober, employed, and remarried to an amazing woman that loved him as he deserved. She went off to college, following in her father’s footsteps and graduating with a degree in engineering.
It was after her graduation party, and many beers, that she drunkenly cornered her Dad in the bathroom, “Who was he? Who was that man Dad, I deserve to know!” She slurred her words.
Sighing like he did that first night, her Dad ran his hands through his salt and pepper hair, his eyes heavy with emotion, “Grief is a powerful force. It can rip away part of your soul, starving the things that once made you happy. It can break you down and make you numb to the world, reducing you to a wretched shell of your former self. There was no man, only grief.”
With that, he walked back into the party, embracing Jessie’s step-mother with a loving kiss.