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He lost everything he owned, so he decided to forget everything he was. Little by little, however, he started to gain, in small amounts and curious details.

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Everything was destroyed.

His house.

His fish store.

There was nothing left but silence. The kind of silence you heard when a child did something they shouldn’t have done and they just realized it. That kind of silence, where you held your breath and prayed that it wasn’t true.

But it was true. His eyes took in the damage, the chaos, the debris.

“We should move on,” someone in the small crowd at his back said.

“There’s nothing left for us here,” another person quipped.

“Thank God nobody got caught under!” A woman, this time. Her voice shook around the edges. She was the one crying in the bunker. She might have been on the verge of crying again, but he thought that she already dried up a large portion of her reserves in tears.

“Come on,” – the hand fell heavy and cold on his shoulders, and that’s when he realized that he was trembling – “we need to move on. Go to the nearby town and see if they need our help. As it is, we’re in for a long wait until any help comes from the city.”

“… stay,” he mumbled.

“What’s that?”

“’m gonna stay.”

The numbness hadn’t let up.

“You’re kidding, right?” The man – it might have been his best friend, once, but it was hard to remember or care, for that matter, when he felt so numb – said incredulously. “There’s nothing left for you here!”

He turned to face the man. “I still have a house and a store.”

“They’re ruined, can’t you see? You barely have two walls standing!”

He stood his ground. This went beyond what these people thought and believed then. “They’re mine. No matter what state they’re in, they still belong to me!”

They fell silent then. Part of him realized that the silence wasn’t a result of shock, but a result of resignation. Like him, they had no energies left to spare on anyone, let alone on him with his stupid tenacity and even more stupid stubbornness.

He could see it written on their faces: he was gonna die. And he was gonna die alone.

He didn’t care.

Maybe a little.

But those were his, dammit! And he intended to rebuild his house and his store, even if it was the last thing he did in his miserable life!

They left. Most of them were his friends – before the storm and the subsequent flood. Now they were part of the other world, the world that lay beyond the boundaries of his town. They were strangers.

And he was another stranger.

Memories couldn’t keep his spirit up.

He cried, the first night. Alone in the complete darkness, protected from the cold wind by some wet wood planks and a wet blanket. The shudders kept his muscles in constant tension and him awake. He cried. He had nothing else to do. The despondency of the situation overwhelmed him.

But he never once questioned the choice he made back then.

Despite the difficulties, he still believed that he could rebuild his home and shop. It was the only certainty that he had left.

 

***

 

One week later saw him with a clean plot of earth where his house had stood proudly in red brick and wood-framed windows. Half walls delineated the perimeter and he could see the rooms. On the left, the kitchen. On the right the living room. Further down a small bathroom and then next to it the storage room. Unfortunately, the first floor fell into nonexistence.

Looking up into the summer blue sky, he closed his eyes and let himself be for a few moments.

The loneliness was crushing him.

 

***

 

But then it happened.

Out of nowhere, a dog appeared. At first, it stayed at a distance, watching silently as he worked day in, day out, separating salvageable materials from completely destroyed and cleaning up the debris. By then, he had managed to make himself a decent shed between two trees that were sturdy enough to support the rooftop.

He saw the dog. It was a mongrel. A skinny mongrel, as scared of loneliness as he was.

He chose to ignore its existence until it decided to approach him.

Days passed, and it never approached him. It kept to its small alcove made into a bush, a few meters away from his house. It was closer to his shed than his house, actually, and he didn’t know if it was silently and slowly getting closer or if it was just him imagining things.

But gradually, the mongrel took to follow him around. From the moment he got out of his shed till he retired, the mongrel proved to be a silent companion. He never outwardly acknowledged it, but he was silently grateful for the companionship.

A few days later, he decided to try and pet it. It let him. Later that day, he found out that it was a she. He named her Mongrel.

 

***

 

It was another several days later that another thing happened to him.

Or maybe upon him.

Another human being.

By then he started to feel like Robinson Crusoe. Mongrel had been this close to be named Friday, but since he had no grasp on the hours, let alone the days, he thought it was a safe bet to just give her a name that somehow characterized her.

It was a kid. A little girl with a white and pink dress all muddied up and she was crying.

“Hey,” he croaked and had to clear his throat.

She cried harder, but didn’t move an inch when he approached her and fell on one knee.

“Mommy!”

“Hey, it’s okay,” he said and made an aborted movement to give her some physical comfort, but he realized that it’s been so long since he last touched a human being, that he wasn’t sure he could stomach it right now. So he tried to smile. He had no idea how it went, if it was even the slightest bit reassuring, but the girl stopped wailing for a bit. “Look, I don’t know where your mom is, but you’re safe. You’re safe. You’re okay.” Baby tears rolled down her dirty cheeks as she looked wide-eyed at him as if this was the first time she saw him.

It actually was.

“Dog.” She indicated Mongrel besides him.

“Yeah.” This time the smile felt more natural on his lips. “Her name is Mongrel.” He turned his head towards his dog and clicked his tongue. “Come on, girl.” He nodded towards the girl and Mongrel received the message because she stepped up to her, cautiously, and pushed her snot into the girl’s stomach.

She gasped and he thought he’ll have to pull Mongrel back and resort to physically comfort a wailing girl, but she started to giggle. Mongrel pushed forward when she leaned back, but maybe his dog pushed too much or the girl leaned back too much because the end result was her falling on her bum.

Silence caught in another of those holding breaths moments.

He was prepared to comfort her, poised even with his arms stretched.

What escaped her small mouth wasn’t a scream, but a laugh. She had a crystal, lilting laugh that warmed him to the core of his numb self.

Mongrel waggled her tail in delight at the girl’s laughter and went over to properly show her how much the dog was happy by licking her face.

The girl dissolved into another fit of serene laughter as her hands caught on Mongrel’s snot and pushed half-heartedly, all the while crying out “No! No! Stay put!” to no avail.

He made a bed for the little girl in his little shed.

 

***

 

“Your eyes are so blue,” she deadpanned one afternoon as she helped him carry the debris to the small mountains he had made on the other side of the road.

He froze.

“Your eyes are blue, too,” he said slowly, not knowing how to respond to that.

She giggled. “Yeah, but yours are bluer and they crinkle when you smile.”

Which made him smile, of course. He shrugged and got back to work, but the little girl’s attention didn’t stray from his face.

 

***

 

A man stood stock still a few feet from a demolished house a little down the road. At first, he couldn’t quite believe his eyes, but he blinked and the man, partially hidden by the half-wall, was still there. And he was peering suspiciously at him.

“Hey,” he went for a smile and a half wave of his hand.

The man was still a little ways off, so he couldn’t make any details out.

Mongrel took off like a race car and he ran after her, afraid that she would attack the stranger.

She didn’t. Instead she wagged her tail happily at the man and yipped, something he never heard her do.

As he got closer, he couldn’t help but take in the ragged state the man’s clothes were and the young look. A bit younger than him, anyway. He looked like maybe twenty-eight, thirty at a push. Under all that dirt, the thin shirt clung to him for dear life; his muscles were well-defined, and he had a certain stern and controlled air about him. He couldn’t shrug off the feeling that this man belonged in the Army; his expression was so haunted and lost. How could he possibly be both vulnerable and in control?

The man crumbled into a heap at the sight of the dog.

“Sasha,” the Army man croaked and the dog yipped some more, positively vibrating with joy as the man took all the comfort he could from embracing Mon– Sasha.

He frozen just a couple of feet away from the developing scene.

“Hello, um, are you okay?” he asked because he needed to say something. He was so confused right now.

But just then something touched his thigh and a slender arm snaked its way around it. He cupped her head instantly to offer her comfort.

“Who is he?” she mumbled into his leg, voice shy, but eyes as curious as they ever were.

“I don’t know.”

“Why is Mongrel so happy to see him?”

“I don’t know,” he whispered, suddenly unable to trust his voice with a neutral tone.

“Hi,” the Army man said as he stood up, voice deep and rough like sandpaper. His hand tightened fractionally on the girl’s head. “Sorry if I scared you. I didn’t mean to. I just –“ he broke off and Mongrel whined softly, pushing her snot into the man’s thigh.

The girl gasped and tightened her arm around his leg.

“It’s okay,” he managed to say, voice wavering. “It’s… how did you get here?” His attention kept straying to Mongrel whose attention was revolved solely on this stranger.

“I…” the Army man was visibly lost. “I don’t know. I woke up under a fallen tree.”

“Are you gonna take Mongrel away from us?” she asked.

“Who?” Army man frowned.

She pointed at the dog and the man looked down as if to make sure that what she talked about actually existed.

“Oh. Sasha.”

She sounded bothered when she said, “No, her name is Mongrel and she loves us.” The tension in her arm didn’t ease off.

“I’m sorry,” he intervened. “I take it she’s your dog?” The Army man nodded slowly, attention focused on him. “It’s just that she came here several days ago and we adopted her and named her Mongrel, so…”

Another slow nod. He looked pensive. Mongrel didn’t budge an inch from his side. It stung to see her so affectionate with a man they didn’t know.

“Please don’t take her away,” she said. She was visibly trembling.

That startled Army guy. “Take her away? No. No, I won’t take her away.” Then, sheepishly, “I don’t even have a place to take her to.”

“Don’t you have a home?” He could hear the frown in her voice.

Army guy smiled a little this time. It was the first time he did and it accentuated the lines around his mouth. Definitely in his thirties.

“I don’t remember.”

“Huh. Where do you come from, then?” she asked.

A pause. “The woods?”

His first impulse was to snort, but he contained it.

“Are you a fairy?”

“I don’t know. I guess? I might be?” Army guy looked up and caught his gaze.

“Can we keep him?”

That startled both men. He looked down at her and met her pleading eyes.

“He’s not a dog we can decide to keep, you know,” he explained patiently. He gazed back at the man. “He can stay if he wants to, though.”

Her attention snapped back to him and the poor man was probably feeling under pressure because his gaze fell back on the dog. She licked his palm.

“I… I don’t think I should stay,” he said, but he wasn’t convinced. “It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that – I feel there is something wrong with me.”

He frowned, but before he could say something, the girl beat him to it. “But you’re not hurt.”

Army guy smiled a little. “No, I’m not. It’s something… something that isn’t visible, I think.”

She turned her head up towards him. “Can we still keep him?”

This time it took him a few moments to snap out of it. “Only if he wants to.”

“Do you want to?” she asked the man.

He looked lost for a moment, scared even, as his eyes went from one to another. They finally settled on him, asking for permission. He nodded once.

“Okay.”

The shed was cramped at this point.

 

***

 

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“I honestly don’t remember,” Army guy said, shrugging.

They lapsed into silence.

“Can I call you Sergeant?”

A short chuckled bubbled up from deep within the man’s chest. He could practically feel the air vibrating with it.

“Why?”

It was his turn to shrug. “You have the face of a Sergeant.”

Another chuckle, this time softer and quieter. “What’s your name?” He returned the question.

He didn’t answer right away. He couldn’t.

“I don’t remember.”

He didn’t want to remember.

That evening they ate rabbit and Sergeant showed the little girl the many tricks Mongrel knew. Her name stayed Mongrel, after Sasha. The dog seemed happy with both, so the girl baptized her Sasha Mongrel.

 

***

 

The quiet of the night was only interrupted by the murmur of the leaves and the occasional night bird. The cramped shed was warm, despite the chilly wind seeping in through the cracks. The four bodies splayed on the floor exuded enough warmth to keep the cold at bay.

He was wide awake, staring at the dark ceiling. Even though he worked all day and talked most of it — which was no small feat, but he now had not one, but two conversation partners — and he could feel the bone-deep tiredness, he couldn’t convince himself to fall asleep.

The girl and Mongrel slept at their heads, while they were left to divide the small blanket in the middle of the shed.

And then it started. Small twitches and mumbles coming from Sergeant. At first, he put them on being the product of a dream, but then they escalated, and before he had any time to react, Sergeant was thrashing in the bed. He managed to get tangled in the blanket, which made things worse.

Mongrel was quick on the uptake and came over to whine and lick Sergeant’s face, trying to rouse him from the nightmare he was having.

That put him in motion, too, but before he could touch the man, he sat up with a gasp, breath labored.

“You’re safe!” He didn’t touch him. He knew what this was almost at the same time as he opened his mouth. “You’re in — in my shed. You’re alive and safe. You’re on American soil! Your name is Sergeant. You’re safe!”

He kept repeating that he was safe, softly and calmly, helping Mongrel as she pushed her snot gently against Sergeant’s cheek, whining softly. It took them both a couple of minutes to see and feel him relax.

A shaky sigh was ushered through his mouth.

“How do you feel?” he asked. He needed to know.

A pause. “Like I want to crawl out of my skin,” he croaked, and even though there were clear signs of sleepiness in his voice, there were also a quality to it that he could only hear in those who had cried a lot.

But apart from the sweat, Sergeant’s cheeks weren’t wet with tears.

“Will it help, if I touch you?”

“I–I don’t know.”

So he took a chance. The skin his fingers first touched was cold with sweat. He leaned backwards and searched for one of the couple of towels he managed to salvage from the rubbles. When he found one he used it to help dry off the sweat. Sergeant was already shivering.

He worked in silence, gently and perfunctorily rubbing away the sweat from his arms, shoulders and face. He dared to go into his shaggy hair, but the man was as silent as a rock.

“Is it better?” he asked.

“Much,” Sergeant answered quietly.

So he maneuvered the man down on the flat pillow, covered him and then turned to do the same to the little girl, since Mongrel decided that she was going to sleep at Sergent’s back.

He felt more tired than before, despite what transpired earlier. The only point of contact between them was Sergeant’s forehead touching his arm.

And it was okay.

It was enough.

Just before he drifted off, he heard Sergeant mumble into his skin, “’s home.”

“Hm?”

“’s not a shed. ‘s home.”

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