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I look at the same medal a thousand times per day, turning it over in my hand and absorbing every careful notch in the golden material. Winner in athletics. A great waste.

And I start thinking about what was left to me. A round and shiny piece of metal that states the perfect physical form of a healthy person. Ironic. A small prize that many are dying to achieve. I don’t like this saying. I don’t like death.

For what did it serve George being an athlete that the doctors praise if a nanosecond of carelessness and chance ended it all? People keep saying: “Who could imagine such a tragedy would happen?”/ “Poor Julia, alone in the world… again”.

But I am not alone anymore. I have a new foster family. Not that it makes much difference. They don’t understand. They can make me tea and cookies, and they can speak gently, and they can caress my head, but they are miles away from where I am. I can’t be rescued, and all that keeps me company is the damn medal. I don’t despise it, though. I like to remember his vitality when he ran… the search for that little thing that now is all that binds me to him.

Most of the day, after I was accepted in a new family, I stayed in my bedroom, but I started looking for other hiding places when those clean, pink curtains began to scream that I’m the intruder in someone’s home.

The neighborhood is also too clean and cute, and I need to walk far to distance myself from that artificial environment. My legs carry me to our old street, and I always regret it, but when I get there, I can’t walk away. I sink down somewhere, on a bench, under a tree in the abandoned park, at the back of the old sawmill where we used to help Bob… and I endure my regret. Almost always, not very well, but there I can scream and a hot mug will not be brought to me by soft and trembling hands, because my new family doesn’t know what to do. They try, but the truth is: I don’t need anyone to try. This is not what will make me feel better.

I’m sure that neither is hanging around here, but I don’t know where else to go. And at least here I can see it: the little creature I hate more than anything, because it took him away from me. He exchanged his own life for the life of this miserable little thing.

The dog looks at me with that expression of abandon, and I don’t feel the slightest trace of pity. I know I’m not in a much better situation, although I can say that now I’m well off. But I hope that seeing him suffer will relieve me a little. It’s not what happens.

The sight of the mutt’s skinny ribs doesn’t satisfy me any desire for revenge. I don’t even know if I have a desire for revenge. I don’t want to kill that dog. I know he is not to blame; he’s just stupid for being in the middle of the street when a car passed. His life isn’t more valuable than George’s, but George apparently didn’t think so, when he jumped to save the creature.

That’s why I decide to share my bread with it, the dog, after I passed in the bakery and sunk to the floor on the outer wall of the unused sawmill, where the dog usually stays. I throw the pieces to the creature, and he eats it as if he had seen no food for days, which is probable. I realize I can’t let the dog die. I owe it to George.

So I go there every day, and, while crying, I feed the dog, who seems increasingly eager. I’m leaving him spoiled, but I don’t care. I don’t care about anything.

One day I decide to change my spot, I can’t stand being there any longer. I move fifty meters and sit down under a tree. The dog quickly finds me. I don’t want his company, but, still, he lies there. He must be full of transmittable diseases, and I try not to get close, but then I remember that George has taken him to the vet. He just hadn’t adopted it because I didn’t allow him to. Besides the costs, I was afraid that he would end up liking that dog more than he liked me. It didn’t happen, and I know, deep down, that it never would. George’s heart was big enough to fit more than one living being. Maybe mine it’s too small…

As time goes by, I make an effort to let more people enter the gravelly space inside my chest. I let my new family flatter me a bit, and I try to be friendly with them. When I can’t bear it anymore, I return to my tree, where the dog is already waiting, salivating with anticipation. I give him food and I sit down. For the first time, he licks my hand. I say that there is nothing for him there, but he keeps licking me, and I realize that his dark eyes look at me in an excited way. His eyes may not be sad anymore because all he needs is food. But not me, so I don’t return his excitement. I turn away and cringe against the trunk, and he seems disappointed.

On other days, he looks more lethargic, almost back to his former state of neglect, and I realize that I am being insensitive thinking that he doesn’t need more than a full stomach. I never understood dogs, but I realize that this one feels. He misses George too. I know that George took care of that dog, even without taking it home. He managed to protect both the dog and me, separately, because I didn’t want an animal at home. Maybe a cat, a hamster, a fish. I never wanted a dog, that one.

And I realize that he must have a name. George certainly named it. He was the secret my tutor kept from me. One of many. I decide, then, to call it Secret, because it also became mine. When my new mother asks where I go when I’m out, I don’t tell her the truth. She is paying a psychologist, and if I tell her that I come back to the place where I lived, she’ll think I’m regressing and won’t let me get out again.

Secret and I silently make each other company, and sometimes I tell him about the moments I spent with George. I talk endlessly about George, more than I talk to the psychologist, because while he nods and asks ready questions, Secret just listens and looks at me with those eyes that saw George. He recognizes the name; he also misses him. He understands me.

At one point my hands slide by themselves to stroke the dog’s thick fur, and his response to it makes me cry. He comes around and rests his head on my lap. He doesn’t bother with my tears, he doesn’t make me stop, he accompanies me in my grief. He understands now that after food won’t come a fun time, that I’m too devastated. He just sits there with me, for as long as I need, and when I leave, he whimpers. I promise I’ll be back, and one day, before going to my new house, I leave the medal with him. It is too big for him to swallow and too bad to chew, so he just carries it with his teeth to his little private spot where he deposits all the crap he collects.

The next day, he greets me with the medal in his mouth and puts it by my feet. I give it back to him. I tell him it’s a gift, and that I don’t need it anymore. I stroke his head and instead of letting the medal on his nest, I throw it far away. He runs to catch it. I’ve never seen him running. He brings the object back, and instantly I realize that George used to play with him like that. I show my first smile in months.

We spend more time playing, and the energy of our connection makes me want to walk. I wander around the woods, and Secret comes along, right behind me. I visit the places where I used to go with George, and Secret goes around, marking territory. We are taking over those places, claiming them as ours. I realize that I’ve got a companion. It is already impossible to make him leave me. When I go home, it is a calamity. I am sorry to leave him alone at night, but I can’t take him with me. Surely my adoptive mother and my new sisters will not like a mutt at home.

In a sudden relapse, I become enraged and yell at the dog for being in that damn road in the middle of the night. I know he is not guilty. I know that it was not George’s fault either. Because now I know that I would have done the same. I would have tried to get this stupid dog away from the car.

Secret gets offended and feels like he needs to go. He walks away with his tail between his legs. It would be very easy to just leave him there and try to move on with my new life, but now there is no way to separate my new life from what I built with that annoying mutt. He is part of my days more than my second foster family. We are both orphans, left by those who loved us. We only have each other.

I let out a grunt and run after him. I catch him from behind. He is dirty and I’m afraid of fleas, but I carry him until I get tired and order him to follow me. He doesn’t need me to ask again. We cross streets, avenues and neighborhoods. We stop in front of a pet shop. I ask them to do everything Secret needs to be decent. It’s a fortune, but I pay. Now I can afford such things.

When we leave the store, I barely recognize the dog before me, and I admit that he is more than just an animal I saved from the streets. He is my buddy. The one that was with me when nobody else was, that treated me like no one could – and without saying a single word. I see that those tired eyes see me like no one else besides George did. Secret was persistent. He didn’t give up on me, even when I did.

Now he’s my new best friend. My adoptive family also accepted the two of us as a package, in a desperate attempt to make me happy. With him around, I can bear my new reality, because I take with me a little piece of George. I appreciate more than ever that he didn’t let this dog die. This dog taught me to smile again and helped me bond with my new siblings. He met a female, and I met the owner of the female. I love the owner of the female, and the puppies made three children happy. I still miss George terribly, but by saving the dog he loved, I saved myself. And now we share this. A Secret.

 Paula Ottoni, 2012

Copyright © Paula Ottoni, 2017.