Every time one of their schoolmates tries to tell them otherwise, the Palluck boys insist they know Santa Claus is real. Their proof came with four paws, ears that "touched the floor" and a big black wet nose.
Payton, the family beagle, arrived four years ago on Christmas morning. Santa left a note with the puppy, instructing Brayden (now 11), Conner (now 9) and Heath (now 7), to share their first dog and take care of her for the rest of her life. And that they did.
While sitting in a car, watching smoke emit from their Summerlin home recently, the three boys learned Payton didn't make it out of the fire. Brayden broke down. Conner got quiet. Heath wanted to know if he could send Santa a new letter.
Shortly after her sons dealt with their loss, Shea Palluck dealt with hers. Firefighters informed her they couldn't find the family cat, which would've given most pet owners a little hope. But after you know a cat for 17 years, you know better. She directed the firemen upstairs. The master bedroom, in the closet, on a pile of clothes. That was Bandit's favorite spot. And that's where he took his last smoke-filled breath.
An electrical spark that ignited in the laundry room fan when none of them was home caused the Pallucks to lose a lot. The morning after the fire, a couple of footballs, kids' sneakers, an oversized piggy bank with the words "college fund" printed across it and a blackened laundry basket littered the lawn.
When your house endures $250,000 worth of fire damage, those are considered assets.
"I keep hearing that George Carlin quote," Shea said. "It's just (expletive) -- just stuff. It's all replaceable. ... But not them."
She describes Bandit and Payton's relationship as very Garfield and Odie. Bandit tolerated Payton. Payton tormented Bandit.
If cats could roll their eyes, her cat would have perfected it. While the dog of the house had a strange obsession with the kitchen wastebasket and the pantry closet, Bandit would have settled for a fresh dish of cat food every morning. Unfortunately, Payton also had an obsession with that.
It's a good thing the cat with the mask of white fur across his eyes knew how to get what he wanted. He'd meow his loudest meow. In his mama's ear. Before the sun came up.
Just after she graduated from college, Shea rescued Bandit. A friend's neighbor had moved out and left the kitten behind. Shea figured she'd try him out for a week and see how it went. After he stole her watch, he earned his name. After he stole her heart, he earned his keep.
Bandit knew Shea before her husband, Bryan, did. He knew her before her other three sons did.
Ask Shea what she'll miss about Payton and she'll go on and on about her dog's relationship with her boys. Ask her what she'll miss about Bandit and her cheeks will moisten with tears.
He was her clear favorite. And it's safe to say she was his. Most pets have a favorite, whether their nonfavorites want to admit it or not. Payton certainly had hers.
According to Shea, she and Bryan could have sworn their mischievous little dog could bark Brayden's name. Payton would call her buddy when she needed someone to chase around the house or when she wanted to hear all about Harry Potter's latest adventure. That was their thing. Brayden would read to her and she'd look as interested as a beagle could look. They got through the Potter series and were working on the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books.
Shea recounted all this as men in protective masks sorted through the ashes that used to be her home on Salt Water Court. Her Allstate agent, Tom Finch, took her through a list of things to expect in the coming days. Her husband searched for his car keys, but couldn't remember which vehicle he drove that morning. Her mom called her cellphone, spurring the ring tone "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas."
She couldn't care at that moment that she had a black smudge on her forehead or that she'd just discovered her destroyed wedding dress. She couldn't consider the irony of where she was when she found out her home was on fire -- delivering items to a neighbor whose house had burned down the week before from a faulty fireplace.
Instead, she had to worry about how to tell her kids Christmas might come a little late this year. And, she had to figure out how to explain to her youngest son that Santa can bring new pets, but, similar to their home, Payton and Bandit are gone forever.
Contact columnist Xazmin Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.