'My puppy's lost!" Jill's cry stopped me. I turned and looked at my daughter in the middle of the sidewalk. At 3 years of age, she usually stuck to that puppy like Velcro, but there she stood, empty-handed. Unshed tears magnified her clear blue eyes.
A lost puppy is a crisis at any time in a child's life, but our situation was that much more serious because we were an hour from home, and Puppy was Jill's favorite stuffed-toy companion. "Where's Puppy?" she wailed, her tears spilling over at last.
Puppy, originally chocolate brown and lily white with floppy ears and a stubby tail, had received his mundane name on first sight. No amount of pleading by Colin, her oh-so-much-more-mature 5-year-old brother, could persuade her to change the little critter's name to something he considered more suitable. "Fang," as I recall, topped Colin's list, followed closely by "Turbo-Dude." But Puppy he remained.
The fur on top of Puppy's head had worn down to the nub, where Jill rubbed it against her chin as she fell asleep each night. Puppy's ears grew thin because they provided such an easy handle for toting him around - when his tail wasn't being used for the same purpose. The little dog's body developed a saggy, smushed consistency from incessant loving and hugging.
We'd gone on a day trip to hit a couple of tourist spots, have a picnic, and shop. Puppy tagged along. Then, just as we headed toward our car to drive home, Jill realized he was missing.
I remembered last seeing him in Jill's arms when we left the picnic area. After lunch, we'd had a tour of a mission and other buildings from the Spanish missionary era. Then we'd made the rounds of the many shops surrounding the city's central plaza.
Now Puppy was gone. It was 5 p.m. Stores were closing, and Jill dissolved. I gathered her into my arms and sat on a park bench. Her father and brother took off, determined to retrace our every step. I rocked Jill and said, "Puppy will wait for you."
Twenty minutes later, they returned. Dejection showed in my husband's posture. "We've been everywhere...." Rog said.
Head hanging, Colin walked beside him. "I'm sure someone will give him a good home," he said, which produced louder wails from Jill.
"Well, let's go home," Rog said. "I'll make a few calls tomorrow. The toy store and the place we bought the fudge have already closed. Does anybody need to use the bathroom first?"
A vision popped into my mind, a vision of Puppy sitting on the marble washstand in the venerable hotel across the plaza. Jill and I had visited the bathroom, and she'd set Puppy down to wash her hands.
"Did you search the women's bathroom at the hotel?"
Rog gave me a look.
"I mean, did you ask at the hotel?"
"No, I didn't know you'd gone in there." Jill sat up and looked hopeful.
Pigeons scattered with a froth of wings as Rog and Colin galloped across the square. They disappeared into the hotel but reemerged so quickly I didn't believe they'd had time to ask anyone.
They came toward us empty-handed, and Jill collapsed in misery against my side. "Mom, oh Mom, my poor puppy...." Tears filled my own eyes.
Colin touched his sister's hair and said, "Jill, there's something in the hotel you have to see."
"Do you have Puppy?" she asked, peering behind him to see if he was hiding it.
"No, but you have to come look at something."
I glanced at my husband, but his face told me nothing. The four of us approached the imposing facade of the old hotel, and Rog put his hand on my arm, holding me back as our children passed through the heavy carved oak door ahead of us.
Colin hugged Jill to his side and leaned down to look at her face as she walked toward the reception desk. Radiance glowed from her eyes as they again filled with tears. Colin looked as happy as she did.
"Puppy...." was all Jill said, but she filled that whispered word with every bit of the love and agony she'd felt for the past half-hour.
Someone had found Puppy and recognized his importance. He sat on top of the long wooden counter, visible to everyone stepping through the front door. A crown of fragrant jasmine sat on his head, and several colorful hard candies lay beneath his dusky nose.
Large bouquets of fresh flowers flanked each side of his well-loved little tan-and-cream body, and a lollipop rested between his front paws. A multicolored bow with curlicues and streamers decorated his stubby tail, and behind him stood an enormous hand-lettered sign saying, "Can Someone Help Me Find My Way Home?"
Jill stared at Puppy's jet-black eyes for a moment, then reached up and pulled him to her chest. The jasmine crown toppled, the candy scattered, and the lollipop rolled off the counter. The colorful bow trailed all the way to the floor.
Colin retrieved the candy and offered half to his sister. Jill shook her head. "You can have it. I just want Puppy."
I looked at the young woman behind the counter and said, "You've made someone very happy today."
"The pleasure's all mine. My daughter had a stuffed bunny she cared for about as much as your daughter loves that little dog. She lost it, too, but we never found it. As soon as I saw this stuffed animal, I knew how important...."
"His name is Puppy," said Jill, rubbing Puppy's head against her chin.
"Right. Puppy. I can see he loves you, too." Jill nodded.
And when we turned to leave, the woman behind the counter waved at Puppy -a private little two-fingered wave - as we walked back through the heavy doors and headed for home.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor