He had to be wondering about the dog. I hadn’t gone anywhere without Max since arriving at the village. This included the supermarket. Max failed to sniff or sneer at the first American I had seen all week not involved in the recovery effort. Given how infatuated I had already become with his smooth jaw and bricklayer man-boobs, I needed more than a plain polo and wide-eyed gleam to put me at ease while introducing myself.
“Nice to meet you, Jackie.”
The man identified himself as Mike Sheppard. I introduced my award-winning search and rescue dog. Whatever we said next was apparently far less interesting to Max than the reflection of the overhead droplights cast along the floor. The market was half the size of a Sam’s Club back home and a tenth of the average foot traffic. Mike told me exactly what had brought him to Serbia, but the gaudy details of his ongoing geological research and movie star-inspired hair didn’t go directly over my head. Not after Neil Armstrong, Jr. began playing the fourth movement of New World Symphony behind a basement door marked “thespians only.”
My public persona hadn’t always resembled an occupied riser in a well-insulated moon crater. Minimizing my horizontal surface area as best I could, I dropped to my knees like a good choirgirl before using both arms to erase all unchecked items from my given errand list. Mike proceeded to compress me even further; only then did we make a silent pact to wait the worst out before running like Olympic gold medalists on two hydraulic legs hell towards the nearest exit.
The largest earthquake in Grdica that week had registered a 5.5 on the most widely accepted moment magnitude scale in current use. In layman’s terms, the scale was a measurement of how much kinetic energy it took a section of rock to displace another with respect to the total resistance encountered. The potential energy of any given quake varied greatly, which meant that one with no perceivable seismic force could register at just a full unit less than another that toppled buildings.
Earlier that morning, a local 3.8 had failed to register to the general public. The fault line directly affected was rather shallow in comparison to the NATO-bomb newbie that had just removed all red, white, and blue cotton fiber from my previously latched luggage bag. Belgrade had been a terrible place to be an American travel cruise queen ever since the Clinton administration, but luckily for me Montenegro had yet to submerge into the Adriatic Sea by the time I finally lost my cool.
A small object had just rolled passed by my double-clutched head. I quickly identified the runaway health clinic rivet as a brand name soup can before my mind wandered elsewhere. It was never too late to think about my last gelatin meal on a jiggle-free earth. What else could I do? My current exit strategy was certainly no-buys. The aisle terminated at a well-tempoed stock wall with unwrapped pallets stacked three levels high. As far as I knew, the overhead rack would be shaken completely off its mountings at any given second.
Rather than ravage a fish-shaped PDQ until it was completely devoid of clearance tags and bouncing tuna, Mike continued to provide me temporary shelter. Only once the lights stopped blinking did a backup generator fail somewhere near Neil, Jr.’s personal movie set trailer. Mike’s speaking voice instantly became faker than a moon landing outtake. Only after he took my hand and urged me outside did we make a visual scan for major casualties.
Common sense soon prevailed in Dante’s overextended wake. The petroleum station across the street could’ve ignited at any second. Mike started to direct the other shoppers towards the back of the building. Meanwhile, I found myself imagining greater devastation in a much larger urban setting. A train station in Chiba. A large apartment complex in Haiti. Ground Zero. Haunting memories I tearfully longed to disown at times like this. No matter how many tons of severed earth separated my sweaty palms from someone else’s box-shaped likeness, I was trained to answer God’s work phone on the first ring.
Once the sable coat of my missing German Shepherd came into view, I took off at a full clip. I half-expected Mike to understand the risks I was willing to take with my recently spared life; I just never imagined a man with such a fortified frame and naturally sluggish surname to keep in step with me for as long as he did.
Eventually, he decided to take a quick nap in the park. Actually, the initial quake seemed to have only been a theatrical teaser in comparison to the global warming documentary about to debut directly over Bill Nye’s artificial heart. The lowest branch of the natural sun antenna swaying all around us sat no lower than medium congregation church spire height. Hopefully, Mike had found Jesus long before he failed to pivot out of his browning golfing shorts to avoid being crushed by a rotating tree trunk.
The uprooted oak was the length of a six figure yacht but no less girthy than a Sri Lankan supermodel populating its burger-scented bow. Despite his unfavorable plight, Mike urged me after Max. After all, the physical manifestation of federal budget cuts during any forested killing spree was destined to move a volunteer emergency response team in the completely wrong direction eventually.
The last time I saw Max, he had been making a beeline for the vibrating horizon. He was neither on the scent or running scared, which had me completely baffled. So did the garage-sized convenience store awaiting my arrival after I exited the woods. The stack of bagged charcoal in the middle of the shop turned out to be a display of twenty-pound dog food. And then it hit me.
Max had heard something. Something that I couldn’t. A small boy trapped inside a collapsed house down the road in fact. Max was still barking at him from behind five iron bars I found myself silently cursing, when Mike reappeared. I hadn’t witnessed his bumbling dismount from the child’s bike he had found by the road. Since the base of the window sat at waist height, Max was up on his hind legs pawing away at a stovetop grill, one that would soon burn red hot with bloodstained benevolence if I didn’t do something. And quick.
I urged Max down so Mike could kick in the grill. The broken glass too. I couldn’t see the kid, which was a problem. Even our growing alleyway audience could clearly tell that Mike had outgrown his usefulness at age sixteen, at least in terms of our present predicament. Even though the tremors had stopped, I still concluded, “He’s not coming.”
The boy hadn’t responded to my poorly conceived smattering of Serbian good will and emotional inconsistency. I probably sounded more angry than concerned, but once Mike began lowering me heels-first through the culpable void separating the dutiful from the local PD’s full message inbox Max had no choice but to follow.
I checked our bashful whistleblower for injuries. Was he expecting someone else? A Marine-trained Malinois perhaps? He looked to be no older than ten. At the very least, he pretended to be familiar with the peephole hand gesture I performed while dumbly asking in plain English, “Are you okay?”
He nodded, likely pleased by the attention, but it was hard to tell, for only his radiant pate was made visible by a tiny ceiling. I gave him a friendly shove underneath the open window, despite the human tank bearing down on his ashen face. Having Max there with me seemed to help. We soon learned the boy’s name, Rasim, before all was well within Slobodan Milosevic’s fully exposed bunghole.
Twenty years earlier, I had never conceived of taking an active role in minimizing collateral damage during the worst accounts of ethnic cleansing in Central Europe since World War II. As a grieving widow, I had lost the ability to search for belonging in the suffering of another woman’s child. Lucky for me, Rasim had sought out my surviving life companion, not the other way around. As far as Mike went, I wouldn’t agree to a plum festival date in Brestovik until he proved my given hypothesis that a tall glass of rakija would always make me weaker in the legs than his steadfast, short-reaching hands.