As part of our Florida Lit Mag Series, we’re going into the Black Fox Literary Magazine archives to highlight a short story by Mathieu Cailler, who will be appearing at the Chickasaw Library on Feb. 20 for a reading and signing spearheaded by Orlando’s own Writer’s Atelier/BFLM, in partnership with OCLS, Bookmark It bookstore, and Burrow.

______

My whole life I’d only wanted two things: a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar and Pricilla Milton. Three years ago, I’d finally saved up enough money for the Gibson, but Pricilla couldn’t be put on layaway. Tonight, I was going to tell her that I’d always loved her. The timing wasn’t perfect; I was leaving for the Peace Corps in a couple weeks, but I wanted her to know, and I wanted her to know it tonight, on Halloween, at my friend Scott’s party.

It was a perfect Palm Springs night: seventy-nine degrees, dry, with the sky as open as the freeway. I felt the rush of air on my face as I sped up and leaned my Vespa into a bend. In less than a minute, I was at Scott’s. I hopped off my scooter and secured my helmet to the handle bar. Masses of children rushed the sidewalks in all directions, and parents stood tall in the centers of these clusters, holding flashlights and calling out names and “be careful” and “slow down” and “watch out” and “Joey, your cape fell off” and “it’s back there” and “yes, on your left… your other left, on Mrs. Brody’s hedge.”

At that age, all I wanted to do was be an adult, shave like dad and wear dress shirts, but now, at twenty-four, I missed the freedom of being a boy, of having no other goal for the entire month of October than to possess more candy than the other kids of the neighborhood. I just wanted to tell those children buzzing around the street, with their superhero tights tucked into their sneakers, that adulthood was nothing more than candy corn: it looked exciting, but it was really sticky and turned stale fast.

Music, laughter, and loud conversation hung in the air around Scott’s house. I twisted the knob and entered. “Hey, Cooper,” Scott said. He was dressed as an old-fashioned doughnut. He also had a backwards cap on, which I wasn’t sure what to do with—was he a rebellious sweet treat? One that just didn’t want to jump into the fryer? “When do you head off to Ghana again?” he asked, leading me into a hallway where Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” had trouble finding us.

“In a couple weeks. Where’s Pricilla?”

“Man, I’m gonna miss you. Can’t you just do some hero shit out here in Palm Springs? The freeway’s full of trash. What the hell are you anyway? A gay Bill Clinton?”

“What? No. I’m Mister Rogers.”

“Oh, yeah. I see it. The red cardigan, the sneakers. You’re the causal Mister Rogers, the ‘just in the house’ guy. How’d you get your hair gray?”

“Baby powder. Is Pricilla here?”

“Yeah, she’s been here a while. By the fire pit in the backyard, I think. She asked when you were coming a couple times.” Scott patted me on the shoulder and started mingling with a woman dressed as a slutty construction worker. A long blonde braid poked out from underneath her hardhat.

I walked outside where my eyes found Pricilla. They always did. I took a deep breath, then another, and tried to get my heart to relax, but it couldn’t. She was no longer in front of the fire pit; she was near the edge of Scott’s property, sitting on a bench in a garden that Scott had let go to hell. I strolled her way, reminding myself to breathe slowly so that my face wouldn’t match my sweater. “Hey, Pricilla,” I said.

She turned my way and uncrossed her legs. She was dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and she had it all, too: the blue-and-white checkered dress with two big shoulder straps secured by white buttons, a ruffled blouse underneath, a wicker basket in her hand, and ankle-high socks tucked into shiny ruby-red slippers. “Hi, Coop,” she said.

“You all right?” Even with the poor outdoor lighting, I noticed that her eyes were shiny and that her cheeks were wet.

“I lost Roberto.”

“Your little poodle?”

“Yes. I brought him with me, you know, to look like Toto.”

I joined her on the bench. “Why are we here then? Have you looked for him?”

“Of course! I’m just tired now. I thought maybe he never left the party, or that someone was playing with him or something.”

“Let’s go find him! He can’t be that far. His legs are the size of golf pencils.”

“Okay,” she said, grabbing hold of my hand. We headed across the burnt grass, through the house, and out the front door. Her fingers and palm were soft and delicate, and I wanted to hold them tighter, but worried that I’d crush her. I hadn’t seen her cry since her father’s funeral a couple years ago. Poor Mr. Milton had suffered a heart attack. And before that, I think she’d let out a few tears when Hal McGinnis broke up with her in the eleventh grade. She’d rambled on and on about how sweet guys were an endangered species and I’d just sat there in the cafeteria, poking at my sloppy joe.

When would I tell her? It couldn’t be now. She was frantic and worried. I’d wait.

Once we reached the driveway, I called out, “Roberto! Roberto!”

Nothing.

Then Pricilla did the same: “Roberto! Roberto!”

A chunky kid, not far down the block, who I thought was dressed as The Flash, yelled back, “Yeah, what do you need?”
Pricilla sighed. I apologized to The Flash, and told him we were looking for another Roberto.

“I love him,” Pricilla said, “but he’s a stupid dog.” She paused and looked me up and down. “Who are you supposed to be? Norman Rockwell?”

“I’m Mister Rogers.”

“The cowboy? No, wait, that’s Roy Rogers. I love Mister Rogers, the ‘beautiful day in the neighborhood’ guy, right? He was so sweet.”

“Yeah—”

“Wait!” Pricilla pointed to a house in the distance. “I think I see him. Right there! I just saw a little white dot. It had to be him! Roberto!”

I chased Pricilla who chased Roberto who chased freedom. We ran against the grain of trick-or-treaters, weaving through capes and hats and brooms and axes. Pricilla had decided to name her dog Roberto after the ballplayer, Roberto Clemente, her dad’s favorite player. Mr. Milton I had always thought secretly rooted for me to date his daughter. He’d always hugged me whenever I came through the door and told me I looked “sharp.” I’d been with Pricilla when she got news of her father. We were at my apartment, playing Scrabble. I had just plunked down “quibble,” and couldn’t have been more excited. She started crying in a way I’d never seen, her whole body convulsing, and her face turning white. I scooted over on the couch and held her. I wanted someone to cry like that over me. I wanted to mean that much to someone.

“Did you see that?” Pricilla said. “Did you see him?”

We approached a dark house that was clearly not interested in Halloween: The lights were off, the shades were closed, and the sprinklers misted the front lawn. We dashed across the wet grass to a side gate, where Pricilla said she definitely saw Roberto. She crouched and peeked through the planks of wood. She yanked the gate open and the hinges groaned like my Uncle Bart getting out of a waterbed.

“Roberto,” she whispered as we tiptoed past trashcans and an open barbeque.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

“I wondered how long it would take you to say that. There!” She hurried into the backyard. “Berto! Berto!”

An automatic light cut on, casting a thick cone of white across the backyard, temporarily stunning us. I thought I heard a rustle at the far end of the lawn, but by the time Pricilla got there, Berto was gone. She called his name a few more times, but nothing. I wrapped my arms around her. She smelled like coconut. I knew I’d never find another woman like her, not in Russia, not in Ghana, not even in America. There was only one. So many men searched for a Pricilla, and I was lucky to have grown up with one. We’d lost teeth, time, and Toto together.

All of my happiest moments took place in her presence, and I knew it’d be strange to spend years away from her. She’d told me she’d visit and that she was proud of me, but I knew I’d return home soon, and she’d be with some bastard named Brad or Hoyt or Zach, a man with meaty shoulders and thick ringlets of golden hair. Some dude with a tough-guy job, like a fireman or a lion tamer. He’d have an old Corvette or Buick that he’d polish on weekends with a special microfiber towel, and Pricilla would make her famous mango lemonade and bring it out to him while he worked on the transmission. Meanwhile, across town, I’d be married to Barbara, a mailwoman, whose father, Don, hated my charity-giving, vegetarian guts and who often said at get-togethers, “Real men eat bacon!”

“We’ll get him,” I said. “We’ll find him.”

She brought her hand up and clutched mine. “You think it’s harder to find water in Ghana or a poodle in the desert?”

A sliding door on the back porch screeched open. The automatic light clicked on again and backlit a man with the physique of a Russian doll. The man held a rake. “What the hell are you two doing in my yard?” he said in a voice that was more Kentucky than California.

Pricilla walked the man’s way. “I’m sorry, sir. I’ve lost my dog. He’s a curly white little poodle. I saw him make his way in here. I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.”

“Lucky I didn’t shoot you both.”

“With a rake?” I said, joining Pricilla near the deck stairs.

“Who the hell are you supposed to be?” the man asked. “Ronald Regan?”

“He’s Mister Rogers,” Pricilla said.

“Never liked that cupcake,” the man said.

“Cupcake?” I said.

A woman’s voice escaped from inside the dark home. “Harold?” the voice said. “What is it? Is it a prowler?”

The man turned around and faced the sliding door. “Shut up, Marjorie. Go back to bed.”

Pricilla raised her eyebrows.

“Don’t talk to her like that,” I said.

“Thank you,” said Marjorie.

“Mind your business, kid,” the man said. He pointed the rake’s teeth at me and trudged my way. Pricilla wedged her body next to mine. The coconut scent lingered in the air and gave me confidence. “She was just asking what happened. Marjorie,” I shouted, “we were just searching for a dog. We thought…”

The man stomped onto the grass and brought the rake back. Marjorie yelled “thank you” and Harold told her to “close the door” and “pipe down,” and I told him to “be quiet” and “calm himself,” and then he came at us faster. For a big guy, he could really move. In the distance, I thought I heard a dog bark, but I wasn’t sure until Pricilla confirmed it. “It’s Berto Boy!” she said.

“Run!” I said. “Run!”

We zipped down the side of the house. Harold followed. I even felt a gust of wind as he swung the rake and it nearly connected with my back. Instead, though, it slammed a bag of charcoal next to the barbeque. “Always hated Reagan,” he said, before Pricilla kicked open the gate and we sped to the other side of the street and slipped into an alley.

From there, we studied Harold in his driveway, his head craning from side to side, the rake in his hands. A few children bustled past and pointed at the old man. One of them giggled and asked, “Who is he, Mama? Elmer Fudd?”

When things were calmer, Pricilla and I left the alley, took to the street, and resumed the search. I scoured the sidewalks and front lawns of homes, creepily whispering, “Roberto” and “Berto Boy,” and Pricilla asked oncoming trick-or-treaters if they’d seen a curly little white dog. One of the girls whom she’d asked wasn’t any taller than a fire hydrant and was dressed as a pumpkin.

In this moment, I was perfectly happy. From time to time, life seemed soft and mellow, like I was roaming an unshaken snow globe. This warming feeling didn’t happen to me a lot, but when it did, the common denominator seemed to be Pricilla. I remembered when I’d first gotten my driver’s license and my dad gave me his LeBaron for the night and we put the top down and didn’t have a destination. I drove and drove and Pricilla controlled the music and we rushed past speed-limit signs and thanked them for the suggestion. That was all I wanted now: just the two of us—and maybe Roberto—on my Vespa, cutting through the desert night.

I neared Pricilla and the pumpkin. The girl told Pricilla that she thought she’d seen a dog in the haunted house up the road, and Pricilla leaned forward and placed her hands on her thighs.

“So right up the road?” I asked the girl. “You think you saw him?”

“I saw a little dog,” the girl said, “just right up there. Who are you supposed to be?”

“Mister Rogers.”

“You look like my dad.”

The girl’s what-must-have-been chaperone called her name, Joy, and the girl skipped away. I’d never seen a pumpkin skip.

“Do you know what’s wrong with kids today?” I asked Pricilla as we started the climb towards the haunted house.

“Oh, please, not another one of your rants.”

“No Mister Rogers. He died and all kids became weird.”

Pricilla shook her head.

In those soft moments between conversation, when I could hear telephone wires buzz and light gusts dance overhead, I started to ask Pricilla. Actually, I just said, “You know what?” and “How long have we known each other?” Then I calmed down. I knew she’d say, “We’re like brother and sister,” and that the whole thing would be over. Asking a long-time friend to be more than that was like leaping across a lava-filled moat: most people never survived the jump.

“You know,” she said, “the only people happier than children on Halloween must be dentists. I bet right now, DDSs are just sitting in their living rooms, sharpening their tools, thinking of what kinds of cars to buy.”

“Dentists don’t sharpen tools,” I said.

“It was for effect,” she said.

I smiled. And she started jogging. Soon after I’d broken a sweat, we arrived at the haunted house. It was built of plywood and began on the driveway and led into the garage. A woman dressed as a witch with a wart above her top lip spread both of her hands out, as if to say, “Welcome.”

“Ma’am,” Pricilla said. “Have you seen a little dog? He goes by Roberto.”

She didn’t answer. Witches didn’t help people, apparently.

“Lady,” I said, “Can you drop character for just a moment? We’ve lost our dog. He looks like a large rat.”

“Cooper!” Pricilla said.

“I’m trying to put it in terms she might understand.”

The woman stood there, continuing to motion the way of the entrance. Her wart seemed to have gotten bigger in the last minute. Maybe I should have asked it for help. Pricilla shrugged and we headed inside the haunted house. When I turned back around, I saw the witch take a sip of orange soda. Good sorceresses didn’t speak, but pop was okay.

Inside, it was the expected mess: strobing lights, fake spiders, cobwebs, eerie whoo-wee-woo music, and a labyrinth-like layout. Corridor after corridor was splashed with fake blood (I hoped), and strewn with little plastic bones and cut up Barbie dolls.

“Roberto!” Pricilla said. “Roberto!”

A machine hissed and a cloud of gray smoke blanketed us. “Why does this fake fog always smell like feet? It’s not scary. It’s just gross,” I said. “And why the hell would Roberto come in here? He looks smart… you know? Those big eyes, they look intelligent. I really hope we don’t die this way, in here, like this. Can you imagine dying in here, this way, wrapped in this smelly fog?”

“Shut up, Coop,” Pricilla said. She reached out and our fingers met somewhere in the smoke. I held her tight as the music swelled and the Psycho theme pulsed. She screamed and I clutched her shoulder.

“Compared to this, I’m actually looking forward to Ghana,” I said.

We crept forward. Baby steps. Our feet sliding along the garage floor. A group of people in front of us squealed and the lights shut off. Then a red glow took hold of the tight passage.

“My earring! I lost my earring!” Pricilla dropped to her knees and began sliding her hands over the ground.

“Can you do me a huge favor and stop losing stuff?”

“Seriously, Coop. Help me. I actually felt it fall out, so it’s got to be right around here.”

Red light morphed into blue light and blue light into pale light. We were both on the ground now, on all fours, massaging the garage floor. I had never told a girl I’d loved her. Sure, I’d used love to describe everything from The Great Gatsby to couscous, but I found it sad that I’d never used the word the way it wanted to be used. And while I knew I was far from an expert in the matter of love, I was certain that love was being spread out on a garage floor, searching for an earring while searching for Roberto.

“I didn’t know Dorothy wore earrings,” I said.

“She didn’t,” Pricilla shouted. “There’s just more pressure on girls these days.”

“Oh, I think I found it,” I said. “No, no, that’s just gum—still very wet gum.”

Pricilla called off the hunt soon after. “I liked those earrings. Bought ‘em just for tonight.”

“You still have one, though, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You can just wear the one then—like Michael Jordan.”

“That’s who I try to look like.”

I helped her up and we pressed on through the dark, stinky maze. Again, the fog blasted us and I gripped Pricilla. Moments like these, when Pricilla was mine and no one else’s, were my favorite. I savored them. Replayed them. Did my best to pump them with formaldehyde.

It did annoy me that while in my arms, she constantly called out another name, Roberto, but I reminded myself that he was, in fact, a poodle, and not an Antonio Banderas look-alike with curly chest hair and a soothing Spanish accent that would turn Pricilla into Pree-cee-la.

One step at a time we conquered the haunted house. It was scary, not because of ghosts or demons, but more because of the B.O. stench and the possibility of contracting hepatitis.

“Do you see it?”

“What?”

“That.” She pointed at a black mass, fifteen feet in the distance. “It’s coming at us!”

“It’s not Roberto,” I said.

“No,” she said. “It’s not Roberto.”

We worked north. The thing plodded south. We crept. The thing lumbered. Pricilla squeezed my hand, and I squeezed back.

“If need be, I’ll kick its ass,” I said.

“Sure,” Pricilla said.

I could hear the thing breathe.

In and out.

Hard and quick.

Then it laughed, and let a high-pitch scream rip from its throat. The noise assailed my ears, and I dropped Pricilla’s hand and shielded my head. She shrieked and swung her wicker basket and smacked me in the neck. I may have called out for help, too. I think I even yelled, “Heavens to Betsy” a few times.

“Ow!” Pricilla said. “You shit! You bit me!”

“Let go of me lady!” a voice said, a squeaky voice.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked.

Pricilla stormed towards the opening, all the while holding on to whatever had bitten her. The voice spouted bits of apologies, and I followed the two of them until we reached the driveway. The witch had vanished and the chomping monster turned out to be little boy wearing a Batman costume. It wasn’t even one of those cool Batman costumes either—the ones with built-in six-pack abs and hearty pecs. No, this one’s bat emblem was fuzzy, like shag carpeting, and some of the spandex, especially in the belly area, looked tired and see-through. Even the mask wasn’t right, with droopy, dachshund-like ears.

“I’m sorry,” Baby Batman said.

“What kind of an asshole bites someone?” I said.

“Coop, don’t swear at him,” said Pricilla. “Seriously, though, why did you bite me?” She showed him her hand. There was a red semi-circle where her index finger and thumb met.

“I just got excited,” Baby Batman said. “You both screamed and then I felt I had to do something scary, but I didn’t know what.”

“I don’t think you understand the Batman thing,” I said. “You’re supposed to be on our side. You should be fighting the monsters. Batman would never scare people.”

“I didn’t want to be Batman,” the boy said. “My mom just got me this because it was on sale.”

“Batman on sale?” Pricilla said.

“Wal-Mart,” Baby Batman said.

“Honor the costume,” I said. “Look. She’s Dorothy. She’s honoring the costume. You don’t see her holding-up a liquor store. Do you?”

He nodded and hung his head.

“It’s okay,” Pricilla said, shooting me a look that said take it easy.

“It’s all right, Baby Batman,” I said, patting him on the back. “More importantly, have you seen a dog? A curly white little dog. He goes by the name Roberto.”

“There was a dog here earlier, but he was grayish and kind of big.”

“Oh,” Pricilla said. “Really?” She put her head in her hands and Baby Batman patted her on the back. I did too.

In time, I wrapped one of my arms around Pricilla and guided her away from the haunted house. We took to the road, our shoes scraping along the yellow-lit asphalt. What would happen if I found the dog? Would Pricilla need me to stay? Would she want me to stay? Or would she just thank me and move on? I worked up some courage, and said, “I just don’t understand it. Why would anyone want to run away from you?”

“You are.”

“I’m not running. I’m right here.”

“You’re leaving, though.”

“I’ve never been closer to anyone, Pricilla…” And then I couldn’t speak. My mouth turned into cracked desert clay. Romance with Pricilla was a language I couldn’t speak.

She waited a while, called out for Roberto a few times, then said, “I’ll come visit. Get a nice room at the Four Seasons Ghana.”

“Ah, a lovely place.”

“By the way, thanks for letting go of my hand when we got attacked by Baby Batman. Did you really yell ‘Heavens to Betsy,’ too? The cardigan has seeped into your pores.”

“I didn’t let go.”

“You so did. Then you screamed way louder than me and dropped me like a sack of potatoes.”

“Never understood that expression. Who the hell is dropping all of these potatoes? And why? Spuds are fragile.”

“The one that always gets me is blowing smoke up your ass.”

“Yeah, the visual’s strange, too, right? And is it cigarette smoke? Hookah? What kind of smoke are we talking about?”

“Roberto!” she let out a few times. She peeked under a parked car. I called out for him. Then we both yelled his name.

“Are you sad about leaving?” She blinked her eyes and the streetlights’ sheen caught the hazel of her irises.

“Yeah. I know I’ll be doing good stuff, though, so that helps.” I couldn’t believe I’d just described the honorable JFK-founded institution known as the Peace Corps with the words “doing good stuff.”

“Roberto!” Pricilla said.

“I want you to know that you’re my favorite person in the world,” I said.

Pricilla stared at the ground and dug one of her shoes into the asphalt like she was putting out a cigarette. “I’m going to miss you, too,” she said. Then she broke the quiet with another “Roberto!”

“Do you remember that night? The night when we drove around town in my dad’s LeBaron? Do you?” I said.

“With no place to go,” she said.

“Yeah.” I noticed the glimmer of her single earring and nearly laughed.

“I wish we could do that again,” she said. “It’s hard to spend a lot of time together these days. I’m busy with my master’s and work, and you’re trying to save the world.”

“I liked when our only thing was hanging out. Like spending time with you was a day of the week, you know?”

“Then we went to different colleges,” she said.

“Yeah, but we stayed close, right?” I said. “We talked on the phone a lot, and we both moved back home right after graduation.”

“Now you’re abandoning me again,” she said. As I thought of a reply, a police car grumbled up the street. Its roof lights spun and flashed, but the sirens weren’t on. “I’m going to ask about Roberto,” Pricilla said. She waved her arms and the police car pulled alongside her. The officer lowered his window and clicked on the interior light. He was around thirty, with a perfectly-shaven face. How was he so well shaven? Had he just started his shift? Did he use a straight razor? Maybe he had one of those shower mirrors that allowed you to shave while warm in blanket of steam. Pricilla leaned against the driver’s-side door. Why did she need to get so close? He could hear her just fine.

“How can I help you, Dorothy?” the officer said. He smiled. Of course his teeth were all in row. “Who are you supposed to be?” He looked my way. “A grandpa?”

I just went with it. “Yes, a big ol’ grandpa. Are you supposed to be the cop from YMCA?”

He smiled. The asshole actually had a good sense of humor.

“My dog,” Pricilla said. She told him the story.

The officer picked up his radio and asked a question about a curly white little dog. The man actually got to say “over” and “copy that” for a living. Pricilla seemed impressed. She kept smoothing out her left braid. After he radioed-in the message, we waited and Pricilla filled in the empty moments. “Busy night?” she asked.

“Yeah,” the officer said.

“You probably have a lot of crazy stories.”

“For sure. I just arrested a man who was dressed as Jesus. He was disturbing the peace in a mini-mart. You from around here, Dorothy?”

Pricilla giggled. “Yes. Born and raised. You?”

I knew he was falling for Pricilla. It was easy to do—everyone had, did, and would.

“I just moved out here, was transferred from Barstow. I really like it. There’s enough action, but not too much, you know?”

“Do you ever get scared?” Pricilla said.

“He’s human, Pricilla,” I said. “Of course he—”

“There’s no time for fear,” he said.

No time for fear? What did that even mean? “Roberto! Roberto! Pricilla we should get back to looking for Roberto.”

The two them played verbal ping pong. He asked about what she did for a living and she let him know that she was working towards a special-education degree and waitressing in the meantime. He told her how much he respected teachers and how they should get paid more and that they were unsung heroes and Pricilla laughed and leaned back and said, “Me? A hero? I’m just a girl—a little desert girl.”

A little desert girl? What the shit?

The police station finally radioed back, answering my prayer, and telling Officer YCMA that no one had reported a curly white little dog, but that they had found a beagle wandering down Main Street.

“Sorry about that,” the officer said. “Let me get your information. I’ll let you know if we find a little white dog.”

Policemen were lucky. They could ask a woman for her “information,” not her number. Information didn’t seem as threatening, yet it was the very same stuff. While Pricilla took her time giving him her number, I stepped off to a nearby driveway, pulled out my phone, and dialed the number for the local police. I had it saved on my phone from the time my Vespa had been stolen. When the secretary picked up, I told her what I saw: “Yes,” I said, thinking of an address that was close enough to get Officer Flirty dispatched. “I have something to report.” The woman on the other end of the line asked me to go ahead. “I’m in the Wal-Mart parking lot and there’s this man harassing this beautiful lady. She’s trying to get away, but he won’t leave her alone. He’s being an asshole and pestering her and I can’t get him to stop. Can you send someone out here?” The woman said she was on it, and I hung up, shoved my phone deep in my cardigan pocket, and returned to Pricilla and the officer. The sweet sound of grainy CB radio popped into the night air: “Attention units: We have a possible 8-0-8 in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Nearby units…”

Pricilla howled with laughter at one of the officer’s jokes.

“Shouldn’t you … sounds like you should get that. It’s real close. A possible 808,” I said.

“Yes,” Pricilla agreed. “They need you. You’re important.”

“Yeah, guess so,” the officer said. He put his car in gear and flipped on the lights, but not before reaching towards Pricilla and saying, “We’ll be in touch.” He sped off, the sound of his American engine booming.

“He told me that the pound closed hours ago, so there’s no point in looking there,” Pricilla said.

“Sorry,” I said. “A lot of the time a dog goes back to where he’s most comfortable or even the spot where he first got lost.”

“This isn’t like him. He usually doesn’t like to spend any time away from me.”

“I hear ya.”

We started back towards the house, calling out for Roberto every now and then. The street had changed its costume, too: It was no longer teeming with children and parents and candy and laughter. I thought of those kids shoving their favorite costumes back into dresser drawers for the long year. What use was it to tell Pricilla how I felt about her? I was leaving. She didn’t need me to come clean. It was selfish, actually. “Hi, I’ve always loved you. Bye.” It was better to be a weakling and her friend, than a hero and her nothing.

Scott’s party was still going strong. Laughter and banter exploded from the home like fireworks, and I leaned against my Vespa and tried to look cool, while Pricilla sat on the curb and fanned her dress over her knees. “I really love him. It’s stupid maybe to love something so much, something that incapable of loving you back. Here I am, searching and looking everywhere.”

I joined her on the curb. “He does love you back. He’s your Berto Boy.”

There was a yip.

A bark.

And then another.

They were muffled and seemingly nearby. “In the house, I think,” Pricilla said. “Go check the house! I’ll stay here, just in case. Hurry! Go!”

I sped off, my laced-up sneakers bashing the pavement, and shoved Scott’s front door open and hurried about the floor plan. I scoured the living room, the bedrooms, the backyard, the kitchen, the garage, and a bathroom (which a man dressed as Zorro had forgotten to lock). I was certain I’d heard a bark.

Had I heard Pricilla correctly? “Maybe it’s stupid to love something so much, something that’s incapable of loving you back.” Roberto was a dumbass who licked his crotch for fun. He didn’t realize how lucky he was to get caressed by Pricilla’s hands and bathed in her porcelain tub and granted permission to sleep at the foot of her bed. He was the luckiest son of a bitch on the planet.

“The dog!” I said to Scott. I wiped my forehead with the sleeve of my sweater. “Have you seen Pricilla’s dog?”

“No.” He titled back a beer.

“Shit.”

“Did you check upstairs? When did she lose her dog?”

I pushed through a crowd of costumed folks and rushed up the stairs, yanking on the railing, flying up to the second-story. There, I got on all fours, thinking I’d have a better chance of spotting Berto if I got on his level. “Roberto! Berto! Berto Boy! I swear I wish we lived in Korea, so I could eat you when this was over!”

Behind each door was exactly what was supposed to be, though: beds in bedrooms, books in bookcases, bath in bathrooms. I really thought I’d find him, and that I’d be Pricilla’s cardigan-wearing hero. But nothing. I got off the ground and shuffled into a bathroom. I pulled in a few breaths, splashed some water on my face, then gazed out the tiny window on to the street. Pricilla brought her head back and forth and her pigtails swayed. After checking the surroundings, she slinked to her car and plucked what had to be keys from her wicker basket. She slowly opened the driver’s-side door and scanned the road once again. Inside her car, sitting on the seat, was Roberto—the curly little white dog. He was wagging his tail, barking, and licking Pricilla.

Heat rushed to my cheeks and my chest tingled. I balled my fists to keep my fingers from twitching and held Pricilla in sight. She placed Roberto in her basket and shut her car door with a quick thud, before taking a few more steps into the center of the road and casting her gaze about the quiet street. There was something perfect about Pricilla Milton standing in the middle of Yucca Lane, alone, waiting to tell me that she’d found Roberto, that he’d just turned up. I didn’t know why she’d done it. Maybe she’d wanted the same thing all along, or maybe she’d thought an adventure would pull it out of me, or maybe we just needed to search for something that was never lost in the first place.

And so I sprinted from the bathroom, jumping the stairs by twos, with the front door in sight, and the knowledge that Pricilla and Roberto were standing behind it.