I stood at the front door, my attention shifting between the bathroom, where my young daughters were in the tub, and the yard, where our dog was doing his business. I turned away from the yard for a moment. When I turned back, the dog was gone. Pike had a history of running off. It was dark and bitter cold, and he was past his prime. This time I feared we wouldn’t find him alive.
I rushed the girls out of the bath and into warm clothes. If we hurried, he might still be nearby. They girls waited at the front door while I grabbed a flashlight and searched the front yard, calling his name and whistling. No Pike.
We piled into the car and inched down our street, scanning the neighbors’ shrubbery with the flashlight. The neighborhood was wooded with deep front yards and houses set far apart. There were many places a small dog could be. We rolled down the windows to call and listen, the girls’ thin voices hanging in the still air. But there was no sign of him. I told the girls that their father could make another search when he got home, and that Pike would probably get cold before then and come home. My younger daughter seemed satisfied, but the older voiced my fears: What if he doesn’t?
I had adopted Pike—a small caramel-colored mutt—when I was single and working my first newspaper job in Little Rock. A retired veterinarian had taken in puppies no one had wanted, given them their first vaccinations, and sold them for a pittance. Among them, Pike stood out. He had bolted from the kennel and dashed around the yard in a blur. His spunk had won my heart.
Through my life’s changes, Pike was the constant. He made few demands, and was happy enough to tag along at my heel, and sleep deep in my bed at night. He could be slow to warm up to the men in my life, but accepted my chosen one. When my first daughter was born, Pike proved to be a gentle companion. He allowed both my children to lug him around and use him as a pillow. He accepted food from their hand, licked their faces, and raced with them in the yard. He knew his family, and his loyalty was deep.
But Pike had wanderlust, and he could vanish in the blink of an eye. Once out of sight, he rarely responded to calls or whistles. Most often we would find him nearby, no worse than tired or covered in muck. But there was one time he had taken off in the evening, and it was too dark to find him. Near dawn, my husband heard him at the back door and let him in. Pike came into the bedroom and slumped by my bed. I reached down to give him a pat and felt something sticky: He was bleeding from deep puncture wounds on his neck. The vet stitched him up and he recovered. But there was a lesson and it was ours to learn: We needed to be more watchful. Pike was not going to change.
Now that he was lost again, I was blaming myself. Why hadn’t I waited until the girls were out of the bath and then taken him out on a leash? At fourteen-years-old and with a heart condition, Pike was not as capable as he had been as a young dog. It was up to us to watch him more closely.
As soon as my husband came home, he went out to search. He asked at our town’s police and fire stations. He circled the neighborhood in his pickup. He tromped along fence rows and looked under bridges. Nothing.
We left the back porch light on and went to bed.
I tossed and turned, awaking several times to imagined barking and then getting up to check the porch. My husband was having the same problem sleeping. Halfway through the night, he went back out in his truck. He carried the cold with him when he crawled back into bed. What could that dog find to do in such weather? Even worse, I feared something had found him.
I dozed off until dawn, and then something that resembled a bark startled me awake. My imagination again? I sat up and listened. This time, I heard it clearly—a faint bark. I rushed to the back door and there was Pike, huddled and shivering with ice crystals clinging to his eyelashes. He nuzzled my leg and then went straight inside to our bedroom. He settled into his pillow and didn’t move from that spot for twenty-four hours. I was grateful that he showed no ill effects, other than exhaustion.
The girls eagerly checked on him throughout the day, played quietly next to him, and hand-fed him waffles dipped in milk for dinner. They made up adventure tales about where he had gone and what he’d been up to all night.
During the next year, Pike’s physical condition deteriorated and we had to let him go.
In hindsight, his last disappearing act took on a greater significance. Some people believe animals can sense their approaching deaths. Perhaps Pike recognized what was coming and was determined to have one last walkabout. I would like to think it was grand.