On the first day of Christmas break, Dad and I had a piece of bread for lunch. His job fixing airplanes at the Livingston Municipal Airport didn’t plan the budget right, so he was let go. Mom worked at Friedman’s Grocery Store four days a week. She gave out food samples to customers, and if there were any left over, she would bring them home to us for dinner.
“Dad, I’m starving!” I said to him an hour later.
“You’ll live, Ben,” he said as he highlighted job ads in the newspaper.
“What if Mom doesn’t bring any samples home?”
“Then we’ll eat dirt.”
“I don’t wanna eat dirt, Dad.”
“You will if you get hungry enough.”
When Mom came home, she handed me a piece of paper. It had a picture of a small dog with the word LOST on the top.
“A customer at the store told me she lost her dog, and she’s offering one thousand dollars to anyone who finds him,” Mom said. “I thought you might wanna look for him since you’re on vacation.” The dog was cute, and he had fluffy white fur and blotches of brown on his tail. Buster looked a lot better than the stray dogs that hung around my neighborhood.
Later that night, Ernie invited me over to his house for dinner. After eating chicken tacos with rice and beans, we played basketball in his driveway.
“I overheard my parents saying if they can’t pay the house bill this month, we’re gonna have to move in with my grandparents on the rez,” I said.
“Do you know how much your parents pay for your house?” Ernie asked as he bounced the ball around me.
“Eight hundred bucks. That’s what I heard my mom say.”
“We could look for that lost dog,” he said. “His sign is everywhere. If you get the reward money, you can pay your house for another month and your dad might find a job by then.”
I didn’t know how to start looking for Buster, so I asked Dad if he knew anything about catching lost dogs.
“Leave bacon on the porch.”
“Dad, bacon would catch you.”
“That’s how your mother got me to go out with her,” he said. “She wore a dress made out of bacon at the senior prom. It was love at first sniff.”
“Stop teasing him, Norman,” Mom said from the kitchen. “Tell him something useful.” Dad placed a hand on my right shoulder.
“Whatever you do, don’t wear a catsuit.”
I started the search in the neighborhood where Buster was last seen. Ernie put dog treats on the sidewalks, and I called out “Buster” over and over again. After three hours of looking, all we had were treat crumbs and stray dogs chasing us for more. We ran away as fast as we could and went inside the neighborhood’s clubhouse.
“Okay, let’s focus,” I said. “If you were a dog, where would you go?”
“I don’t know,” Ernie said and shut the bag of dog treats. “A steakhouse?”
“How many dogs have you seen at a steakhouse?”
“I’ve never been to a steakhouse, how should I know? We’ll find him,” he said. “Livingston’s a small town, it can’t be too hard.”
“Buster could be anywhere, Ernie.”
“Anywhere? Then let’s check a steakhouse tomorrow,” he said. We high fived each other and started walking home.
On day two of searching for Buster, Dad took me and Ernie to Matthews Park. We peeked inside bushes, got bitten by weird-looking bugs, and thought we saw Buster in a tree, but it was just a white towel. Dad sat on a bench, reading a book about World War II airplanes. Whenever Dad read, he blocked out everything else. He liked reading because it was something we could still afford. Back in November, we sold our TV for grocery money, but checking out books from the library was always free, so that’s what we did for fun.
“Dad, we can’t find this dog anywhere!” I said and threw my hands up. He raised his finger at me and said, “Wait.” I stood in front of him until he shut his book.
“Ben, almost ten billion gallons of gas were used to fuel all of the World War II planes. That’s more gas than I let out after eating your mom’s chili.”
“Dad, when am I ever going to need to know that?”
“Maybe Buster ran away to become a pilot.”
Ernie and I explored Matthews Park until it started getting dark. The house bill was due in three weeks. My grandparents were in San Antonio for their 50th wedding anniversary, and they said we could move in as soon as they got back, but I didn’t want to move away from Ernie. He was my best buddy, and I hoped I would find Buster soon.
Later that day, Mom came home with a basket of fruit and a box of rice and shredded chicken. It smelled so good that I rushed over to hug her so I could smell the food better.
“This is from Mrs. Hansen,” she said. “She’s Buster’s owner. She came by giving out more signs, and when I told her you’re looking for Buster, she bought me all this food.”
“Hear that, son? You keep not finding that dog and we can eat!” Dad said. I helped Mom take the food into the kitchen. We got some paper plates from the pantry and dug in, even though the food was cold. We finished eating in five minutes.
Around nine, I crawled in my bed, deep under my blankets to keep warm from the Texas winds blowing outside. Mom knocked on my door right as I started falling asleep. She walked inside and sat on the edge of my bed.
“Ben,” she said. “Living with your grandparents will only be until Dad finds a job. He’s already applied to every single ad in the paper, and he’s got some interviews coming up.”
“What if Dad never finds a new job?” I asked. Mom put a hand over her mouth.
“You know, I never thought about that. Maybe I can make him some chili, and he can sell his gas to an oil company.” I laughed as Mom kissed me goodnight.
Mom drove me and Ernie to Mrs. Hansen’s house on Saturday morning. Her two-story house was about three times the size of mine. The cars in the driveway weren’t dented, and the mailbox wasn’t tipped over. Mom rang the doorbell. Mrs. Hansen answered with a plate of chocolate chip cookies in her hands. She was about Mom’s age, but she didn’t have the swollen bags under her eyes like Mom.
“Hello Mrs. Hansen,” Mom said. “I brought the boys, like you wanted.”
“So you two are the Buster Detectives,” she said. “What are your names, young men?”
“I’m Benjamin Silver Lake,” I said and shook her hand.
“And I’m Ernesto Jarquin,” Ernie said. “At your service, ma’am.” He saluted Mrs. Hansen like he always did to every new adult he met.
“Come inside,” Mrs. Hansen said. “I have some things for you two.”
Mom, Ernie, and I slowly walked inside the house. There were rugs on the hardwood floors, chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and a giant television set in the living room. We sat on a leather couch and ate some of the chocolate chip cookies. Mrs. Hansen went to another room for a few minutes and came back with a basket full of squeaky toys.
“These are Buster’s favorite toys,” Mrs. Hansen said. “If you take them with you, Buster might hear the noise and recognize it.” She handed me a rubber chicken and gave Ernie a spiky baseball.
“I’ve been looking all over town and no sign of Buster yet,” Mrs. Hansen said. “But with you boys helping me out, I think we can find him.” All of the sudden, we heard crying. Mrs. Hansen ran up the stairs, and she brought down a fussing little girl in her arms.
“This is Grace, my two-year-old daughter,” she told us. “Buster was her best friend.”
After visiting Mrs. Hansen’s house, Mom took us to Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church. Ernie went there every Sunday, and he said church members gave out food to stray dogs, so we thought Buster must have shown up for a meal. Thomas, the old man who cleaned the church, stared hard at Buster’s picture on the missing sign. He took a deep breath.
“I know I’ve seen this dog,” he said. “He looks so familiar.”
“He’s been missing for a couple of days now, sir,” I said.
“I’m a hundred percent sure he stopped by here last night for some food. I’ll keep watch for him today. Come back tomorrow and I’ll give you an update.”
The next morning, Dad dropped me and Ernie off at Saint Joseph’s while he went to an interview at the bank next door. We ran inside the sanctuary and found Thomas mopping.
“Yeah, that dog came by,” Thomas said. “And I trapped him for you.” He led us to a shed at the back of the church. When he unlocked it, a huge black dog ran out, gnashing its teeth and barking at us. Ernie and I ran back inside the church before the dog ate us for breakfast.
“That dog’s not white,” I said, panting. “He’s way too big. There’s no way that’s Buster.”
“It has to be Buster,” Thomas said. “Let me see that sign again.” Ernie pulled a copy out of his pocket. Thomas unfolded it and squinted his eyes.
“Nope,” he said. “You boys are right.”
We left Thomas some dog treats to put out in case Buster stopped by for a snack. Dad pulled his car up to us, and we jumped inside just before it started raining hard.
“I thought I heard barking on my way over here,” Dad said.
“It was the wrong dog,” I said. “It was giant!”
“It almost ate us, Mr. Silver Lake,” Ernie said.
“Of course it did, you both smell like dog treats.”
As soon as the rain stopped, Ernie and I looked all over our neighborhood and the neighborhood behind ours. We squeaked Buster’s toys, hoping he would hear them from wherever he was. An old woman stepped out of her house, and she told us if we didn’t stop our squeaking, she would call the police.
“We’re just looking for Buster, ma’am,” I said.
“You’re looking to bust me?!” she shouted. She came after us with her cane, swinging it and cursing. We showed her a copy of Buster’s sign to calm her down, but she grabbed it, ripped it, and said, “Don’t tell me I look like a dog!” She tossed her cane at us and missed, but it hit a passing car. The driver stopped to see what was going on.
“These boys giving you trouble?” the driver asked.
“They said they’re gonna bust me!” the old woman told him. The driver came over to us, rolling up his shirt sleeves.
“Let’s run for it, Ben,” Ernie whispered in my ear.
“No, maybe he’s seen Buster,” I said. I held my hands up and gently gave the driver a copy of the sign.
“We’re looking for Buster,” I said. “My family really needs the reward money.”
“You’re only looking for this dog for money?” the driver said.
“Not just the money, sir,” I said. “His best friend’s a little girl named Grace, and she really misses him, probably the same way I would miss my best friend here, Ernie, if I ever got lost. Have you seen this dog, sir?” The driver looked at the sign and he nodded.
“Sure, I know this dog,” he said. “He lives in my sister’s neighborhood. My niece always talks about how cute he is. She might have seen him in the last few days.”
“Are you gonna bust those boys, or do I have to bust you with them?” the old woman screamed as she waved her arms in the air. The driver wrote down my phone number and Ernie’s. He took a copy of the sign and said he would get in touch with his sister.
“You boys be careful,” the driver told us. “Especially from that old lady.”
I ate dinner at Ernie’s house that day. His parents were Mexican and their homemade food was way better than any Mexican restaurant I ever went to. Mrs. Jarquin’s refried beans and cheese enchiladas were my favorite. Mr. Jarquin loved making fruit juices. He made the best pineapple and strawberry cocktails in all of Livingston.
“I lost my dog when I was a little girl,” Mrs. Jarquin said during dinner. “We got him back a week later. I was so glad to see him again.”
“Where was he, Mama?” Ernie asked.
“I don’t know, he found his way home,” she said. Ernie and I groaned. If Buster showed up at his house, I wouldn’t get any of the reward money. But Grace would have her best friend back, and I thought that was worth more than any kind of reward.
Buster had been missing for a week, and Mrs. Hansen raised the reward money to two thousand dollars. Dad woke me up earlier than usual, and we went to the library to research how to find a missing dog. The books we checked out said not to chase the dog because it might get scared and run away. Instead, you had to let the dog come after you until you found a place to trap it. The books also said to be patient and never lose hope.
“See, Ben,” Dad said. “The books say to keep up the good work.”
“These books didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already.”
“Look what it says right here,” Dad said and pointed to a paragraph. “Stubborn boys who don’t listen to their fathers don’t find dogs.”
“It doesn’t say that, Dad. I know how to read.”
“Then keep reading. Books make you smarter. Kids at school might make fun of you for being poor or for wearing funny clothes, but if you’re smart, they can never call you stupid.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll keep on reading.”
I skimmed through the books Dad got for me, and I checked out a few others to see what they said about lost dogs. In the end, they all said to keep looking. Looking was the only thing I could do. But I was getting worried. School started again in ten days, and if we didn’t pay the house on time, I wouldn’t be going to school with Ernie anymore. To add to everything, my grandparents were coming home from their anniversary trip in two days.
“Dad,” I said. “My head really hurts.”
“Let’s go home,” Dad said. “I’ll make you some tea.”
Back at the house, Dad boiled some leaves in a little pot and served me tea in a big mug. It tasted horrible, but it did make my head quit pounding. I glanced at the clock on the microwave. It was a couple minutes past noon, time to start looking for Buster.
“Where are you looking today, Benny?” Dad asked when he saw me heading out.
“I don’t know, Dad,” I said. “It feels like I’ve looked everywhere.”
“Ben, try looking for him in the most bizarre places. When you look for something hard enough, you find it and that’s why I know I’ll find a job soon. You’ll find Buster. Just do whatever the books tell you to do.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I said. He kissed my forehead and opened the front door for me.
Two days before I was supposed to move to the rez, I got a call from the driver Ernie and I met some time ago. He said his sister swore she saw Buster running through the neighborhood. Dad rushed me and Ernie over there. When we arrived, there were about fifty other people standing around yelling, “Buster!”
“Hurry up, boys, they’ll take our reward money!” Dad said. He pulled over and we hopped out of the car. We squeaked Buster’s toys about a hundred times. We tossed dog treats everywhere, even up in the trees. But there was no sign of him.
“I give up, Ernie, I’m going home,” I said.
“Wait!” Ernie said and pulled on my arm. “We never checked Long King Creek. If we don’t find him there, we’ll stop looking, I promise.”
Dad caught up with us a few minutes later, and we all walked up the street to Long King Creek, but I didn’t have high hopes.
“The books said to never give up,” Dad reminded me. “Do what the books say.” I rolled my eyes. We walked around the creek, squeaking the toys and leaving dog treats like always. There was some mud I didn’t see, so I slipped. I landed on my back and hit my head on a loose branch. Ernie kept on walking with Dad since they didn’t see me lying on the dirt. I got up and jogged towards Ernie and Dad. Then I felt something tugging at my jacket sleeve.
“I hate these branches,” I said to myself, except it wasn’t a branch. It was Buster.
“BUSTER!” I yelled. But he wouldn’t have me raising my voice at him. He barked and tried to bite my legs, so I ran and he came right after me. I ran so fast that I passed Ernie and Dad.
“Somebody catch him before he kills me!” I shouted. Soon, Buster and I were darting through the intersection near Friedman’s Grocery Store where Mom worked. I let Buster chase me because the books said so. He followed me into Friedman’s, but I couldn’t go on running anymore. I reached into my pocket and felt the spiky baseball. When we got to a corner in the store, I threw the ball at him. It landed in the center of his mouth.
“Ben?” Mom said when she saw me. “Are you okay?”
“Found Buster, Mom,” I said, panting. Then I fell on the floor.
Mom and Dad took me and Ernie to Mrs. Hansen’s right away. She opened the door with Grace by her side. Grace waddled over to Buster, and she hugged his neck as he licked her face. Mrs. Hansen reached into her purse and gave me and Ernie each one thousand dollars in cash. I had never held so much money in my hands before.
“This is a lot of money, Mrs. Hansen,” Ernie said. “I don’t need all this.” He handed me his stack of cash, but I didn’t want it.
“Uh, Mrs. Hansen,” I said. “Ernie’s right, this is a lot of money. But he should have some because I wouldn’t have found Buster without him. My dad took me to the library to get books on how to find a lost dog, and it was my mom’s idea for me to look for Buster anyway. I don’t deserve all this cash for myself.”
“Son, you shut up,” Dad whispered to me in our native Alabama language.
“That’s very sweet of you to say, Ben,” Mrs. Hansen said. “Maybe there’s something else I could give you for bringing Buster home.”
“What I would really like is for my dad to have a job so we can keep on being in Livingston,” I said. Mrs. Hansen nodded. She asked Dad what he did before he got laid off.
“He’s been fixing planes at the airport for years,” Mom butted in. “But this year, they said there wasn’t enough money to pay him, so he hasn’t been working for three months. He knows to fix planes, cars, and buses, but still nothing.”
“Mr. Silver Lake, I’m sorry but all I can do is wish you good luck,” Mrs. Hansen said. “My husband, Mr. Hansen, was out of work for a long time too, but eventually he found something and you will soon. For now, I want all of you to enjoy this reward money.”
The Saturday after school was back in, Mom took me and Ernie to Matthews Park for Family Fun Day. There was mini golf, bounce houses, and free barbecue.
“I can’t believe your dad still doesn’t have a job,” Ernie said as we sipped on lemon sodas. “All that looking for nothing.”
“At least Grace got her best friend back,” I said. “And I got to stay in Livingston a little bit longer than I thought.”
“But if your dad doesn’t get a job soon, you’ll move away.”
“I know,” I said. “It sucks.”
“My dad said the reservation is only a twenty-mile drive from here, Ben,” Ernie said. “My parents could take me over there on the weekends and when school’s out for spring break, you can stay at my house all week long.”
“But we won’t be in the same school,” I said.
“Didn’t you say your dad’s got an interview on Monday?”
“Yeah, he does. I hope he gets the job, Ernie. I don’t have a best friend on the rez.”
“Benny,” Dad said when I came home after school on Friday. “I learned something really interesting this morning.”
“If it’s about farting or airplanes, you already told me. I gotta pack for the rez now, Dad.”
“No, you don’t. I learned that we Silver Lakes are champions at finding stuff.”
“That was in a library book?” I said.
“The school district called this morning. I got that bus mechanic job I interviewed for on Monday. We’re gonna be okay after all,” Dad said.
“You found a job, Dad?” I said. I hugged him and he patted my back.
“Of course I did, I left job treats outside the school district’s building last week. The only problem now is I found my old work shirt, but I can’t find my work pants anywhere. What do you say we make a sign for my lost pants?”
“Dad, we can’t do that.”
“Sure we can, son. It’ll say missing pants,” he said. “Last seen on Norman Silver Lake’s legs. Reward, Mrs. Silver Lake’s homemade chili.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go check Long King Creek for them.”