Literary Fiction Science Fiction Dandelion Girl Caren Gussoff Modern retellings Reimagined Golden Age Fiction

Dandelion Girl

By Caren Gussoff Sumption
Feb 11, 2020 · 3,857 words · 15 minutes

From the author: Originally published in Geek Force Five, Vol. 2 (2014) , this "Dandelion Girl" is a response to Robert Young's classic 1961 "Dandelion Girl."

It was a big sky day when I met Sela. Still, blue, few clouds and brilliant sun. I crested the top of the hill into glare; and she was a goddess, beautiful and unnatural. All gold, too much to see at once.

I was lightheaded, struggling to catch my breath. I could lose my breath reaching for something high on a shelf, and then, take moments before the wheezing would stop.  Now, on top of the hill, burning girl before me, my heart raced and wouldn't stop.

Later, I would see her dry skin stretched over ropy muscles and sharp bones: a face and body pared down to the basics. Later, the fire would prove to be a trick of light. 

My eyes adjusted as a cloud broke the sunlight. Her hair was yellow. Not blonde or gold or flax or ash or butter, but primary yellow, like a crayon, like a dandelion. 

She was dressed like a warrior, or maybe a pioneer. Leather apron, leggings, soft boots: all handmade for rough terrain, from a time before technology.

The dandelion girl took a step, saying my name softly, palms up, like she was soothing a spooked animal.

I leaned hard on my walking stick. For once, I was glad of it. It was a good length of hardened Aspen, light and marbled black and beige. Useful and handmade for rough terrain. It put me close to even ground. 

My heart thumped. Like a spooked animal. I watched her approach, like a spooked animal.

She kept her hands up. There was a dark smudge on the right side of her leggings. "You're Naomi?"

I was. But I did not know this dandelion girl. I didn't have a date with anyone, no one knew exactly where I was; I hadn't even spoken with anyone since I arrived at the cabin three weeks prior, except the postmaster and Robert of Dan's General Goods.

If I had met the dandelion girl before, I would have remembered. 

"I am." My voice sounded weird and tentative, throat dry from panting. 

"You look different," she said. 

"From when?" I would have remembered. I would have. I didn't.

The dandelion girl didn't answer. She ran a hand through her vivid yellow hair.

I slid my grip down on the walking stick, to make room both hands. I still leaned, but was poised to swing like a golf club up and into the dandelion face.

"Don't be afraid," she said. "My name is Sela." 

She reached for my stick.  

I don't know why I let it go, and took instead the hand she offered for support. 

Maybe I was dead. Maybe my leg gave out and I never made it up the hill at all. Maybe I was dead in the shower, on the path down the cabin, off the steep side of the trail. Maybe I never even made it to the cabin, never out of the hospital, never in the long car ride, never at the motels and diners and truck stops and gas stations, the trailer of everything I hadn't sold or given away or thrown out bouncing behind me.

Maybe the dandelion girl was the angel of death.

Like she read my mind, she said, "You aren't dead. You are very much alive. I am going to keep you that way." She winced at an unpleasant memory. "This time." 

I didn’t understand, but her expression embarrassed me. So, we stood quietly, hand in hand, looking at the view. I felt her breathing deeply next to me, as if to help me do the same.

Below us, the scrub brush made the earth look like an unshaven face. The scrub spread out to ranches, ranches to subdivisions, subdivisions to suburbs. The suburbs stretched clear over the horizon. 

I caught my breath but my chest ached from it. I looked from the view to the dandelion girl. "There have been other times?" I asked.

"There have been other times." She took the hand she was holding, and turned it, baring my wrist. She studied it, tugged my arm closer to her, and then dropped it. She gave me back my stick. "Are you sure you're Naomi?"

"Yes," I said. I wasn't sure of much that moment, but I was sure of that.

That convinced her. She turned back to the view and held out her arms. "It really is something, isn't it?"

"I guess." I wiped the warmth of her palm on the side of my jeans before leaning back onto my stick. 

"I could look at this every day," she said. 

I tried to see whatever she saw. But I couldn't. "Being from someplace, you take it for granted."

The dandelion girl looked at me like I had said something truly meaningful. "You have no idea," she said. 

The dandelion girl could afford to change history. 

She made a fortune in protective gear, she explained on the walk back to the cabin. She stuck close to me as we went.  

In the cabin, I prepared us a simple supper, which we ate in the kitchen. The dandelion girl ignored the cheese and bread, instead concentrating on the sloppy summer fruits: the melons and peaches and plums and squirting cherry tomatoes. She sucked and slurped, and wiped her hands and mouth on her chamois apron. 

Then we went into the living room. The generator droned on and off.

She pulled a rolled case from the pouch at her belt. Then she sat back, took her time unwrapping her knives from it. She had three, and a ring bent from an iron nail. A water skin, and a pair of tinted goggles.  

"It's hard to decide what to pack," she said, "when you are hoping you can change the world, and then, you may not exist." 

The cabin was, basically, one big room. I chose it because it was small. One floor. Easy to manage, easy to keep clean without help. Sela surveyed the space, then slid her belongings beneath the couch. She leaned back against the arm, peeled down her boots and then slid them beneath the couch also. 

She wiggled her toes, eyes closed in pleasure. Her feet were smooth and pink. They looked like they belonged to someone else. 

It appeared she was going to stay the night. 

The day, the walk, the unexpected company tired me out. She could sleep on the couch that night. Exhaustion drove my kindness.

"Where are you from?" I asked. "Sela." Her name felt strange in my mouth.

"Not where," she said. "When." She opened her eyes and crossed her legs, tucking her feet beneath her. "I am from here, 240 years in the future."

Sela came back to kill me. 

"The first time," she said, "when I told you why, you threw yourself off the roof." 

Involuntarily, I looked at the ceiling. The cabin was, maybe, all of 16 feet high. At best, I'd break a leg, maybe an arm. 

Sela saw me glance up. She took a bite from her second serving of melon, then added, "It was a high rise apartment. You don't live in that building yet."

Before I could respond to that, Sela told me about the second time. She thought she broke it me to me more slowly, gently. But I ran myself into her knife. "In just the right place," she said. "Into your heart."

I could hear my heart, but I had to feel my chest to find its place. In the center, skewed slightly leftward. 

She started telling me about the third, but I interrupted her. "If I was dead those times, why come back again?"

"Nothing had changed," Sela said. She lifted the plate and poured the pooled juice into her mouth. "I wasn't early enough." She licked her lips. "I'm early now, I think. You get a scar on that wrist," she said, motioning to the hand she'd held. 

Her story was crazy, but there are few things, it turns out, more interesting than hearing about your own death. Especially when it is so different than the one you'd sat on a cabin porch for so many hours expecting.

"The third time," Sela repeated, "I tied you up to slit your throat. But you slipped the rope and choked yourself. I almost stopped you…" She looked at her empty plate like she could see the scene in it. "But I didn't."

We looked at each other then, as if seeing one another, as if meeting really for the first time. I saw her drawn, brown skin and her thin wrists, her moist feet and her theatrically yellow hair, her weird costume. 

I don't know what she saw, but she said, "You look so different," she said. "You look older, even though it's earlier. And you're younger."

"Time changes people," I said, unsure why I was trying to offer support, no matter how indirect, to this insane girl's delusion, even if she was in my house, armed with knives. 

"I guess," she said.

"How will you do it this time?" I asked.

"Tell you or kill you?" Sela shook her head. "Neither." She crossed her legs and studied her fingers. "Maybe I'm too nice. Maybe I'm weak. Maybe I'm selfish. But you killing yourself before I can kill you…I've lost a taste for it." She flexed her fingers. "You made me sad."

I didn't know what to say to her. I'd thought of suicide many times since my diagnosis, but didn't have the courage to follow through. I'd come out to die alone like a wild animal. A wild, spooked animal.

"Anyway," she continued. "I'm out of money and out of options. Time travel is very, very expensive." She paused, gazed from her hands back to me. "This was my last trip. Can't do any more. And I like it here. It's pretty. Quiet. Clean." She smiled. "I'm staying. Here. With you."

I was so exhausted, I was dizzy, but getting angry, too. It was one thing to give shelter to a crazy teenager who claimed to have killed me, another to let her move in. "Now, wait a minute," I said. 

"You owe me…you owe the world that much," she said. "Besides, I'm actually really easy to get along with."

"That is not the point." I was starting to sweat from nausea. My pills were in the bathroom, which felt far away. Ice was in the freezer, the other direction. I wasn't going to ask her to get either for me. I dug my fingers into my thighs.

"Right. The point is I keep you and yours' destroying the world. Or killing yourself. Two good deeds." She seemed to notice me pale, starting to shake. "You need some water?"

I didn't answer. Answering would have drained the last of my energy. 

Sela stood up and peered into my face. "Let's get you to bed. I could get to bed, too. Time travel is hard on a body." She pulled me up, leaned me on her sharp little shoulder. She was incredibly strong. She smelled of warm suede. "We'll finish this tomorrow."

"Fine with me," I said, before the blackness took me.

I felt like I'd been under for days, but the clock read 11PM. 

My mouth was dry, and if it weren't for the kittenish snoring carrying from the sofa, I could have written off the day as a fever dream.

I sat up. My clothes were greasy from sweat, joints sore. But I made it to the bathroom for painkillers and a cool bath. 

I lay in the water, dunking my head beneath the surface, squeezing my eyes shut and holding my breath. I would hold underneath for a few seconds, then come up, opening my eyes and letting out the air, half expecting to emerge somewhere, sometime else, strong and alone -- as if the water was a doorway, like I was crossing a threshold.

But it didn't work like that. There was no time travel, no doorway or threshold no matter how much money someone had. I pruned up, then drained the tub, feeling a little better and a little silly as I wrapped myself up in towels.

I was wide awake. And there was nowhere else to go in the cabin where I wouldn't wake up my weird guest, so I slipped into clean pajamas and walked outside.

It was a big sky night. Smoky bands of the Milky Way crossed the moonless black, mottled with stars. I looked up until it all made me a little dizzy, small, and desperate.

I climbed into the truck, let it coast down the driveway, headlights off, staying quiet. 

Driving barefoot felt stupid and a little dangerous, and cheered me immensely. Blue light flickered from the back window of Dan's General Goods, so I banged on the door.

Robert either tried to ignore it or had dozed in his easy chair, so I banged again. He finally stuck his head out of the side door. 

I waved, and he motioned me in. 

"You all right, Naomi?" he asked, frowning and looking at me up and down in my pajamas and dirty feet.

"Not dead yet, Bob." I rubbed my feet on the hall mat. "Just needed a few things and thought you'd be awake."

I followed him into the front room, the store. The only fresh fruit he had left were a few cantaloupes. I stacked them on the counter.

"Well, good, I guess," he said. "I hadn't seen you today so I was going to drive out tomorrow."

Robert Ellroy was the last honest man, folks from the county had told me. So, he and I made a deal: if I didn't come to the store, then I had died, and he should open the folder he kept for me in the store safe and start the arrangements. 

"No need," I said. I added a canister of oatmeal and a box of tea. "I had a surprise guest."

He smiled at that. Even though he'd honor our arrangement, he didn't love it. He thought I should be surrounded by family and friends and often told me so. 

"Add in a pack of cigarettes, Bob. Marlboros, Camels, don't care. And some matches."

His smile turned disapproving, but pulled a small white box from under the counter and a matchbook. "Who's this guest?"

"Friend of the family," I said. I was surprised how easily the lie slipped out. I meant to ask him about any teenagers from around the county, any with shocking yellow hair and some diagnosed mental problems. Instead, I gathered up my paper sack and nodded at him. "Thanks, Bob."

I waited until I drove out of sight to pull over and light a cigarette. I hadn't had one in years, and the hypoxia made dizzy. I leaned against the side of the truck until it passed, then slid back in and drove home, having another cigarette on the way.

The nicotine unexpectedly made me sleepy again. I padded back into the house, half afraid the smell on me would wake the dandelion girl. But she was deep asleep, still snoring. 

As I made my way around her and back into my own bed, I remembered something else she'd said as she'd carried me earlier, something I barely heard as I lost consciousness, that I didn't register until right then. She'd laid me down, covered me with a blanket. Then she'd leaned over and whispered, very clearly. She said, "We have all the time in the world."

I woke up again, the dandelion girl standing over me. She was holding a board, I guessed, to crush in my skull.

But it wasn't. It was a tray bearing a bowl of watery, uncooked oatmeal. She laid it down next to me and looked at it with disappointment.

"In the future," she said, "oatmeal just needs to be mixed with water. I don't know how to heat water except on a fire."

I sat up, let her place the tray across my lap. "I thought in the future we'd all get food in pill form as we zipped around on jetpacks."

"That's not funny," she said. "The world is at war." She glared at me, to remind me why she was here, my place in it.

She believed so deeply, fervently. I ate the oatmeal, in both the spirit it was offered and in shame I couldn't explain -- but also because, for the first time in weeks, I had an appetite.

Sela watched me eat the clumpy oats, sip the cloudy water, and smiled. It occurred to me that she poisoned it, but the deed was done and there was no reason, really, to worry about it. 

I wiped my face with the napkin. "Does your family know where you are?"

That took the smile from her face. She shook her head. But then she smiled at me again, a different, strange smile. "Does yours'?" she asked me. 

I never got more information out of Sela than I did that first day and morning. But we reached a kind of understanding. An equilibrium.

Summer passed. A brown puddle of roots appeared at the top of her head, then replaced the dry yellow, which had been created by a dye not yet invented and very popular, she insisted. Fat filled out her arms and legs and torso, and her skin lightened and smoothed with some care and lotion. 

She became a good enough cook. We took walks, though as the months passed, they became shorter and shorter. We did puzzles, read through the sparse shelves at the regional library. I liked to rent new releases from Robert at the General Goods, but Sela would whine that she'd already seen that movie and never let me concentrate.

It was a full life for me, and if it was too simple for Sela, she never complained, except from movies. I'd never met a young woman who didn't ache for adventure, but perhaps, if you truly believed you came from a world at war, you'd believe you'd already had your fill. 

I asked her once, if she wanted to do more. She answered immediately, as if she had already thought it through. "What could I do?" she asked. "I don't even exist yet."

Days passed, then months. I needed my pills and cold compresses, for the back of my neck, more often. It was harder and harder to get to General Goods daily, so I released Robert from our agreement and asked often for the folder back. 

He was dubious and relieved that Sela could take care of me. "Right?" I asked her as Robert handed it to me. She was picking out cans of fruit and grunted in agreement. Robert was sad but relieved, and I kissed his cheek.

One day, it was too difficult for me to get out of bed. 

Sela brought me my pills, and a row of ice cubes wrapped in a damp towel, a cup of tea, a bowl of fully-cooked oatmeal. She sat next to me on the bed, her knees up, feet tucked under my thighs, and watched me, waiting for me to get up, like a puppy waiting for a walk.

I wasn't going to be able to get up. Well-fed and protected, the brown-haired dandelion girl looked small to me, delicate, precious. I couldn't see anymore the goddess afire; my first impression had grown out like her hair. 

"Sela," I said. "Bring me the folder taped to the back of the refrigerator?"

She did, and settled back next to me. 

"We should talk about what will happen to you when I am gone," I said. I had a little money, a few things. She could get by. If she really didn't want to go back to being whomever she was, insisted on being Sela 240 years from now, she could use the funds to buy a new identity. People did it all the time. 

I took out papers from the folder and showed her: my birth certificate, my social security card, my prepaid cremation receipt, my no-code and DNR. 

But Sela waved her arm. "Stop, Naomi. It doesn't happen like that." She wiggled her toes underneath my leg. "You don't die."

Sometimes, I hated her for her cheerful insistence that I was getting better, not worse, that I would recover. Most of the time, though, it'd been good for me to have hope, even hope based on delusions and fantasy. Hope kept me alive longer than expected. And If I could have lived, I would've.

It pained me to think of her alone. I had her give me a sip of tea, then pushed on. "Please, Sela," I said. "It's important." I repeated myself again: the no-code and DNR she should show any paramedics or the hospital; and the phone number to call on the cremation receipt. "I told you already," Sela said. "Finish your tea."

She pushed the papers aside and fed me the last of the cooling tea. She wiped my lips with her sleeve before taking the tray back into the kitchen. "I'll bring you some more."

"It's funny," I called after her. "You came here, you say to kill me. Instead you've been like a daughter."

She smiled as she turned from the counter and headed towards my bed, mug in hand.  She smiled, so I pushed again. I gathered my identification papers from the papers next to me. "Listen to me," I said. "These…" I held them up, "…will make it easy to get to my accounts." 

Her smile went to a frown. She took a step, and another. She was walking and holding the hot tea, then tripped. Over what, I had no idea. Her feet, a wrinkle in the rug, a boot kicked astray. She went down at once, and the tea splashed around her. I tried to push myself out of bed, kicked my legs to sit up. But then Sela was crouched, pushing herself up.

"I'm OK," she called. She looked at the floor, at the puddle of tea, at scattered chunks of mug. She still held the handle in her hand. "I just broke the mug…" she started, but then she saw something, and her eyes grew wide. She scrambled backward like she'd been shocked. The moment froze: In didn't understand until I saw the bright blood, a rush, a bloom, and then a river down her hand. From her wrist. She clamped her other hand over the slash.

She looked at me wildly, but I held out my arms. 

When she came to me, she sank down, her face into my stomach. I turned over her arm, the hand I held the day I met her on the hill. It was a good cut. The kind that leaves a scar.

I touched the back of her neck. Iran my fingers through her brown hair. "It's OK to want to live, Sela," I said. I kissed the top of her head. "It's OK to want to live as long as you can."

Caren Gussoff Sumption

Caren writes emotionally messy sci fi that hits you in the feels.