The wind whistled through the trees, like water rushing down the creek, and I was caught in a flurry of falling leaves. I turned once, then again, and again. Duke was nowhere in sight.
“Any luck?” Molly stood at the top of the hill and offered me her hand.
“He’s not here.” I walked carefully up the muddy riverbank and reached for Molly’s hand. She held on tight as I pulled myself onto flat ground. In her other hand, Duke’s black and red collar dangled between us, his gold tags rustled in the wind. Molly held it out when she noticed me staring, offering me the collar. I swallowed what felt like a boulder growing in my throat and took it, pressing it to my chest and walking back to the house.
Molly was the sister I never had. We wrote each other letters and strung them across the line we hung between our childhood homes. We consulted teen magazines for dating advice and cried on each other’s shoulders after our first heartbreaks. Of course we fought from time to time, but we always had each other’s backs. And her brother Dawson was there to annoy both of us at any given time. They were my family. The three of us rented a house together, along with Dawson’s girlfriend Ella. It wasn’t big or fancy, but it offered a functional kitchen and was close enough to downtown.
We hoped to move to Seattle once Molly and I graduated, but things didn’t work out quite as planned. We struggled to pay rent on a one-bedroom we split in Queen Anne while working long hours at entry-level jobs we hated and each recovering from fresh breakups. When Dawson dropped out of college to “find his passion,” his and Molly’s parents cut him off. Molly felt compelled to help out her brother even though she could barely stand on her own two feet. We took him in, found a three-bedroom house in Normandy Park that didn’t drain our bank accounts, and happily called it “home,” or Le Château de Chou we decided one night after too much wine and some haphazard French lessons from Ella.
A week after we moved in, a stray dog showed up in the backyard. He was skin and bones and scared of every leaf he laid a paw on. Dawson and I used leftover chicken strips to coax him onto an old woven blanket in my older station wagon, and drove an excruciating twelve minutes to the closest veterinarian office through rush hour traffic. He had no tags, no microchip, and clearly no home, but when Dr. Nicks dropped a clipboard on the floor, the dog scurried in between my legs and my heart was sold.
Duke loved sneaking strips of bacon from our breakfast plates and followed me everywhere. He stole the socks off my feet and hid them underneath his tug-of-war rope and learned to open the fridge by himself—though the only thing he’d ever taken was a leftover burrito. Every night before I turned the lights off, Duke barked at the alarm clock, and every morning, he woke me up by sticking his wet nose in my face.
“Can I get you anything? Water? Or tea?” Molly pleaded, hovering by the stove.
I fiddled with Duke’s collar, running my fingers over the engraving on his tags. I thought of how I played with the tags any time Duke lay his head in my lap. He rarely enjoyed having his ears scratched or his belly rubbed, but he always let me play with the tags on his collar. After all, it meant that he had a home.
I reached into a nearby cabinet and pulled out a jar of peanut butter. “I’m going to look around the neighborhood again. Will you—”
“You know Ella and Dawson are already out there with the car.”
“But what if he’s scared of cars today? What if that’s why he ran?” I untwisted the lid and held out the jar for Molly. “Can you just walk around the yard with the peanut butter? Maybe he’ll smell it and…”
Molly nodded and took the jar.
She followed me to the front door, handed me the large flashlight we kept on the entry table, and walked with me to the end of the driveway. We paused, both looking over at where Duke tried to dig up the mailbox last month. Molly put her hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. I thanked her and kept walking, the flashlight in one hand and Duke’s collar still in the other.
I walked up and down every block, calling Duke’s name and rattling his collar, checking behind bushes and peeking over fences. Every few houses, I stopped to ask if anyone had seen him. I showed them pictures of Duke—stealing bacon and eating peanut butter from the jar and hiding under the sheets. Some of them recognized him from the walks we took, but no one spotted him. My fingertips were numb and my legs ached when I stumbled back home. Dawson and Ella had driven around the neighborhood, visited Duke’s usual parks, made stops at every vet and shelter within fifteen miles. No one knew where he was.
I collapsed onto my bed at the end of the night, terrified by how scared and cold and lonely Duke must be. Did he hear some weird car noise and run off? Had he been spooked and got lost before? Where had he gone? Was he hurt? My heart ached at the thought of every question. I fell asleep with the lights on because I couldn’t bear not hearing Duke’s bark, and every hour, I woke up still horrified that he wasn’t there hogging the covers.
* * *
I threw off my comforter and swung my legs over the side of the bed. The clock read 5:30, and the wood was cool on my bare feet, and I wished Duke’s cold nose were there to wake me up instead. I didn’t wait for the alarm anymore.
In the kitchen, I scooped cold coffee grounds into a clean filter and watched the water drip slowly into the pot. I pulled out a frying pan and took the open package of bacon from the fridge. It sizzled and splattered in the pan, and then I laid the strips on a plate. We used to put paper towels underneath to soak up the grease until we realized how much Duke liked to clean every one of our dishes. I brought the plate of bacon and my coffee to the front porch and sat on the top step. The sky lightened and the rising sun spread yellows and oranges through the clouds with each passing minute.
I followed the same routine every morning for months. And every morning, I fell asleep on the porch next to an empty mug and a plate full of bacon, waiting for Duke to show up. Molly or Dawson or Ella would find me, and I would reluctantly get ready for work. Each day, I called the local vets and shelters, and each day, they told me the same thing: Duke was not there. I posted flyers on street corners and community bulletin boards and pleaded with anyone on the Internet who would listen—if anyone had seen Duke, or any dog who looked even remotely similar… I wanted him to come home, obviously, but more than anything, I wanted to know he was safe.
That morning, Ella nudged me awake after her run.
“Hey, it’s almost seven.”
Her cheeks were flushed, but her hair didn’t look even the slightest bit out of place. I envied her for that, but also because she woke up every morning and didn’t feel the unbearable weight of a missing friend. Everyone loved Duke, but no one missed his presence more than I did.
Molly settled into a job she loved and was finally dating people who weren’t jerks. Dawson discovered he had more than one passion; local craft beers, pho, and mountain biking were the current frontrunners. He was even taking classes again. My friends were figuring out their lives and I was stuck. The day Duke found me, everything had changed. It didn’t matter to him that I was let go from three jobs in as many months, or that I could only afford instant ramen most days. As long as he had a warm place to sleep beside me, he was happy.
Now, everyone tiptoed around the subject. They’d check in, wondering if I’d heard from anyone, or to tell me they had looked at one of the parks. But it felt like they’d given up. I was growing tired of holding my breath.
I drove to work, sat in my squeaky swivel chair, and stared longingly at the photos of Duke on my desk as usual. There were eighteen new emails waiting in my inbox, a stack of papers I needed to sort through, and a presentation I had to prepare, but I didn’t know where to start. For just one day, I wanted to forget that my best friend was gone. The day, like all the others since Duke had gone missing, moved by at a glacial speed, and when it was time to leave, I couldn’t get out of the office fast enough. As I dug through my bag for my keys, my phone rang.
“Cara!” Molly sang.
“Hi, Moll,” I said. I found my keys and threw my bag over my shoulder.
“Can you make a quick stop on your way home?”
“But it’s an emergency! I need green beans.”
“No,” I told her again and rubbed my forehead.
“It’s just one thing!”
“Send your brother then.”
“He won’t pick up his phone.”
“Look, I had a long day. We almost missed a deadline. My boss freaked out. I just want to come home and sleep.”
“Please, Cara,” she begged. “Jenny’s coming over for dinner and I told her I’d cook this fancy thing which I have absolutely no idea how to cook and I just need some fresh green beans.”
“Oh my gosh, fine. I’ll go to the damn store. Just stop having a meltdown.”
Molly squealed and thanked me, and I hung up the phone before she could rope me into any more favors. I found the green beans quickly at the store and, as I waited in line to pay, my phone buzzed with a text from Molly. She needed red wine and a lemon. “For zesting!” Her timing was impeccable. I cursed under my breath and trudged back through the store to find her missing ingredients. I grabbed a second bottle of wine for myself and hoped that at least Molly would make extra so I could have the leftovers.
I parked on the street because everyone already claimed their spots in the driveway and I wasn’t going to move my car in an hour when someone needed to leave. I took the groceries from the trunk and dragged my feet up the driveway. Dawson leaned against the front door, his arms crossed and an extra large grin plastered on his face.
“Why are you so—” I started.
Dawson looked down at his feet, still smiling. In his shadow, a thin German Shepherd with a black and red collar sat: his black sable fur damp, white bandages on two of his paws, tail thumping so fervently it looked like it would launch him into space.
I dropped the bags on the stairs and dove onto the porch. Duke leapt forward and our heads knocked together. I started laughing and crying at the pain, and at Duke. He rubbed his wet fur all over me. He smelled horrible. But he was home and I didn’t care.
“He was just sitting in the backyard when Ella and I got home.” Dawson knelt down to pet Duke. “He was limping and covered in mud, so we took him to the vet to make sure he was okay.”
Duke continued to lick my face and climb all over me. I sat speechless.
“There were a few pieces of glass and debris in his paws, and he obviously lost weight, but Dr. Nicks said he’ll be fine.”
“He’s okay.” Dawson smiled.
Tears streamed down my face, but I smiled too. “Duke, what were you doing buddy? You smell so bad. Clean, but bad. You couldn’t get them to dry you off any better?”
Molly opened the front door. “Hey, what’s all the commotion? Where are my green beans?”
“You couldn’t have led with like, ‘Hey, we found your dog?’ The green beans and wine were more pertinent?”
“Daws and Ella wanted to get Duke to the vet and get him cleaned up before you got home. I was in charge of the decoy. And the wine was to celebrate!”
“Ah yes, your love life hanging in the balance was the perfect distraction,” I joked.
“Hey! I actually do have a date with Jenny tonight and you’re going to have to explain why we’re eating Thai takeout instead of my delicious home-cooked meal.” She pointed to the red-stained walkway.
We all laughed, and then Duke barked at us because we’d stopped paying attention to him for five seconds.
“Okay, buddy.” I wrapped my arms around him again until he squirmed his way out and stuck his nose in my face. “Let’s get you some peanut butter and bacon.”
Dawson picked up the ruined groceries and we moved our celebration inside, where Ella and Jenny were waiting. Duke kept himself glued to my side, and I to his. Le Château de Chou finally felt like home again.