This story is by Marka Ormsby and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Cheap bourbon slid down Roy McNeil’s throat with the warm burn he needed to face the next twenty-four hours. After taking another long swig, he closed his eyes and put the pint in his Army camouflage jacket. He pulled the collar up around his neck to keep the early October winds at bay.
“Hey, GI Joe, you gonna share?” asked a homeless man sitting nearby.
“Sorry, man,” said Roy walking away with his head down and hands in his pockets. He was a long way from Afghanistan, but Afghanistan was never far away. The noise, the blood, the fear, the death. The war that wouldn’t end. It had stripped him of his will and his ability to connect.
He ambled down the park path until he found a bench where he could sit alone. He pulled a sandwich from his pocket and tore open the cellophane wrapping. White bread, cheese, and a thin layer of meat. It would do.
As he bit into the sandwich, a small dog walked toward him, sat, and watched him with big round eyes. She was brownish with short hair and flop-over ears. She was filthy.
“Oh, no,” said Roy, looking at her. “I don’t have anything for you. Shoo, go away.”
The dog’s ears drooped, and her brown eyes grew larger imploring him for food.
“No. Go away,” said Roy picking up a pine cone and throwing it at her. She jumped back cowering for a moment before slowly easing back.
Roy took another bite of sandwich. The dog moved closer, her eyes begging and her ears down. Roy tried to ignore her, but she sat fifteen feet from him, staring.
“Ah, shit,” he said as he tore a piece of sandwich and threw it to her. She gobbled it in one gulp and moved closer, yearning for another bite.
“Look, I can barely feed myself.” He felt a twinge. He cared. He didn’t want to care ever again. Buddies killed, a wife who left, and friends who gradually moved on. A life bereft of companionship seemed easier than having and losing.
He stared back, but she broke his resolve. “Oh, here you go,” he said pulling his sandwich apart and tossing her another piece. She ate it and moved closer. He held out another piece, and she moved close enough to take it from his hand.
As Roy stood to leave, the little dog followed.
He waved her away. “Go on. I can’t help you.”
They walked to Roy’s home, which was little more than a one-room converted garage. The owner, Dave Meyers, a veteran himself, gave Roy a place to sleep and offered him a job in his auto shop. Roy tried full-time work several times, but it had been too much. The loud noises, his inability to concentrate or focus on what others were saying exacerbated his PTSD. He worked enough to feed himself.
“Hey, Roy, you’ve got a shadow.”
“Yeah, she picked me up in the park. Don’t know what I’m going to do with her. She’s got no collar, but she’s friendly enough. Maybe she’s lost.”
“Take her to the shelter on Marion Street. If she’s chipped, the shelter can find her owner.”
“Yeah, they insert a chip about the size of a grain of rice in a dog’s upper back or shoulder.”
“What if she doesn’t have a chip? And they can’t find her owner?”
“I guess if someone adopts her, she’ll be okay.”
“Otherwise, they’ll put her down.”
“Strays are a problem, Roy.”
Roy winced as he stared at the little dog.
“You know you can’t keep her. You can barely look after yourself.”
“Tell her that,” said Roy nodding at the dog. “I’m going to clean her up.”
“Don’t get attached to her. It’ll hurt more when you have to give her up, and you don’t need that.”
Dave’s words echoed in Roy’s mind as he picked up the dog and carried her to his room. He warmed Dave’s leftover stew and put it a bowl. The little dog sat next to Roy’s leg anticipating the tasty morsels she was about to receive. He put the bowl on the floor, and she wolfed it down in a heartbeat.
“When’s the last time you ate? Probably a while, huh? Let’s get you some water.” She drank until the bowl was nearly dry.
Roy filled the sink with warm water and turned on the space heater to ward off the early fall chill. He placed her gently in the water. She didn’t fight but succumbed to the warm water quietly. He soaped her down with the bar he kept in the sink, massaging her back and then her shoulders. As he rubbed her left shoulder, he felt a small hard seed, like a grain of rice. “Yeah, you belong to someone, don’t you?” The dirt cascaded off her tan coat as he continued to bathe her. She gazed at him with big brown eyes, comfortable and less fearful. He finished her bath and dried her.
“We need money if we’re going to eat tonight.”
She cocked her head, followed Roy to Dave’s front door, and sat as he rang the doorbell.
“Hey, Dave. Could I borrow some money for tonight? I’ll work it off tomorrow.”
Dave looked at the dog. “Okay, but you work tomorrow, right?”
“And Roy…give me the booze.” Dave held out his hand waving his fingers.
“Oh, yeah.” Roy pulled the bourbon from his pocket and tossed it to Dave. “Forgot all about it.”
He sensed Dave’s concern about the dog. “I found the chip. I’ll take her in tomorrow.”
Dave took a twenty from his wallet and handed it to Roy. “Here you go…and if you need to talk, I’m here.”
“Thanks, Dave. I appreciate that.”
The next morning, Roy awoke with the dog sleeping along side his body with her head lying in the crook of his arm. He watched her sleep, quietly and at peace. He felt a sense of peace, too, but knew it would end once they found her owner. She sensed his tension, lifted her head, yawned, and stared at him. He felt a lump growing his throat and tears beginning to sting his eyes. No, no tears!
“C’mon, let’s go before I change my mind.”
When they arrived at the shelter, he felt the tug of the loss to come. How had this little dog wound her way into his heart so fast? Trying to detach himself emotionally, he didn’t watch as the worker ran the wand over her. “Her name’s Shawnee, and her owner is David Hartness. We have an address and phone number. He’s local and not too far away.”
“What if he doesn’t want her back?”
“Owners who chip their pets usually want them back. But hey, why don’t you give me your number, and I’ll let you know what happens.”
“Can I stay with her a while longer?”
“Tell you what, let me call the owner now. If he answers, you’ll know.”
Within thirty minutes, a middle-aged woman arrived at the shelter asking about Shawnee. The worker introduced Roy to Mrs. Hartness as Shawnee’s rescuer.
“Mr. McNeil, thank you. Shawnee was my son’s dog. He was a Marine, killed in Afghanistan. Shawnee ran away the day we buried him, and we’ve been worried sick.”
“I was in Afghanistan, too. It was tough. I’m glad Shawnee has a home.” Roy squatted to rub Shawnee softly on the head, and she licked him in the face.
“Well, girl, time to go home,” he said as he buried his face in her fur to hide his tears. Another loss.
Mrs. Hartness looked at Roy and Shawnee, tears forming in her eyes. She paused.
“Roy, why don’t you take her. She needs someone who loves her, and look how she loves you.”
Shawnee licked Roy’s tears from his cheeks.
“Are you sure? I mean, she’s your son’s dog.”
“My son is gone, and now, she needs you. My son would want you to have her, and you look like you could use a friend.”
Roy let his tears flow unchecked for the first time since returning from Afghanistan. He stood and hugged Mrs. Hartness as they both cried tears of loss and joy. Shawnee jumped between them pawing at his legs. “Hey, she wants in on this,” he said as he bent to hug her.
“You’re sure,” he asked, wiping his face with his sleeve.
He looked into Shawnee’s big brown eyes. “We’re going home.”
As they left, Mrs. Hartness said, “Good luck, Roy. Let me know how you two are doing.”
“Hey, you have visitation rights anytime you want.”
Roy and Shawnee sat on the park bench where they’d met. Shawnee leaned against him sniffing the brisk autumn air. He scratched her neck, and she squinted at him lovingly.
“Come on, girl, let’s go talk to Dave about some full-time work.”