As soon as I picked up the phone, I could tell something was wrong. It took Jerry a minute to force the words out of his mouth.
It came out sounding cracked and far away, but those two words echoed in my head continuously as it sunk in. Fortunately I was just finishing up at work. But instead of the usual goodbyes, I shot up from my chair, told Jerry I'd be home as soon as possible, grabbed my coat and purse, shouted some sort of quick explanation to my boss and literally sprinted for the door.
The drive home felt like the longest 12 minutes of my life. It should've taken me 20, but if there ever was a reason to disobey the speed limit, I figured this was it.
Every muscle in my body was tense as I sat bolt upright and clenched my fists around the wheel. In the silence of my car, I tried to come up with a plan, think of his favorite spots on our daily walks, what route to take, whether I should even bother stopping at home. Then I looked up and prayed.
A sense of calm washed over me as I took stock of all the things we had working in our favor. It was a little after midnight so there wouldn't be too many cars on the road in our small town. Jerry and I would have a lot of energy for at least a few hours. Plus, it hasn't been a typical January where the temperatures would test his small size. He could survive overnight. And my biggest relief was knowing that his collar contains all of our contact information, including a notice of a reward if he's spotted alone.
Then the doubts crept in.
It's late so no one will see him. What if he finds his way into the creek and drowns? What if a car hits him? What if we find him, but he's hurt? It takes an hour to get to our vet, would he survive that long? ... He's probably scared by now.
But I shook off all of the negative thoughts because I knew I needed to be levelheaded. I knew I couldn't let myself get worked up or I wouldn't be able to function. And that wouldn't help us get our dog back.
As I got into town, I rolled down my front two windows, cranked up the heat and slowly swept my headlights over the nearby park, continuously calling out his name as loud as my voice would allow me to. I doubted he would cross the train tracks to get to it because he's usually freaked out by the rails, but it's a nice big grassy space that he loves, so it was worth a shot.
I called Jerry for the fourth time as I slowly made my way back home, sweeping my eyes in all directions hoping for any sign of movement on the ground. Jerry was starting to lose it.
"We have to stay calm for Toby," I said over the phone. "Getting all worked up isn't going to help. It's not your fault -- get that out of your head right now. We can do this."
Jerry stayed on foot in the area around our house squeezing Toby's favorite squeaky toy as I crept up and down the surrounding blocks and alleys in my car, screaming out the window.
After deciding to widen our search area, I picked up Jerry and we each looked out our respective windows. As we drove, our voices echoing in the distance, we stirred every dog in the neighborhood into a barking frenzy. But none of them sounded like Toby.
I kept screaming until my vocal cords gave up and my voice grew hoarse. The burning at the back of my throat started to sink in and other parts of my body started to scream when I no longer could. My chest grew heavy, my legs felt numb and my heart literally hurt.
"How are you staying so calm?" Jerry asked quietly.
"I'm in complete denial," I said, ignoring my body giving up on me.
"Well I'm broken inside," he said. It came out sounding like a whisper. Then it hit me. That was exactly how I felt. Broken.
The tears flowed out in a steady stream and I tried hard to choke back my sobs, but I couldn't. I stopped the car in the middle of the street and gasped for breath.
Then Jerry became strong for me. "You were right, this won't help Toby. We can do this. You just drive and I'll yell."
I shoved those feelings away again and tried to call out, but the word "Toby" was too much. I couldn't say it anymore without sparking a flurry of emotion. So I just drove. We drove for more than an hour before I suggested we check at home again just in case he wandered back.
When we got there, I desperately needed a quick break to clear my head. We kept the car running as I sprinted inside to use the bathroom. The lack of Toby greeting me at the door almost sent me into another hysterical fit, but I kept on task and went upstairs.
And there, as I sat on the toilet, I swore I heard him whining. I felt absolutely delusional, but it sounded so close. So real.
When Jerry came upstairs to change out of his shorts and into pants, I confided what I had heard.
"This sounds completely crazy, but I think I just heard Toby whining. It was really nearby."
Then Jerry pushed open the only closed door upstairs, the one to the vanity, and Toby sprinted out, prancing and jumping at our feet.
We didn't question it at the moment, we just broke into tears of relief and slid to the floor. Jerry scooped Toby into his arms and I piled on top of them, laughing and crying and feeling so incredibly thankful for what I take for granted everyday.
After parking the car, silently apologizing to all the neighbors we woke up and reconvening on the couch, Jerry and I tried to figure out what happened.
Jerry swears he let Toby outside, but he probably just panicked when he couldn't find him. Meanwhile, Toby nudged his way into the vanity and the weighted door closed behind him.
Although I hope never to go through that again, it did teach me some valuable lessons. Today I plan to make a "missing" poster for Toby and have copies printed out and ready to go -- just in case. I'm also going to make an appointment to get an ID chip inserted into his neck, so we can prove he's our dog in the event someone decides that keeping him would be a reward in itself.
But above all that, I'm going to cherish every moment with Toby today. Because now I know what it would've felt like without him.