Our hamsters are too still in their cage, so I stick my finger through the grates to curl around the one I think is mine. Without confirmation of a bite, a droplet of my blood, I can’t be certain. I am sure he is too stiff.
I don’t want to tell anyone but wade in the minutes for as long as I can. I try to preserve the past and delay the present because the death of a pet is new because I just turned seven twelve days ago because I don’t know the difference in our dead hamsters’ peace and the quiet of my room the minutes before stage two. These are strange needles inside me.
My sister, Melissa, walks in and sees my face as her backpack slides down her arm at a free fall. She is thirteen and wise; I’m seven and sick.
“What’s wrong?” She focuses on me and can’t see why my back is turned or what my body is concealing with its narrowness. I turn as if I’m attached to a hinge.
She skips to logic. “Did you feed them?” But bends like a paper fan beside them and peers in like a half question.
“They have food and water.”
We both sit picking and for a better distraction.
“They have water, but can you remember the last time we filled it?”
I try. “No, but didn’t you fill it up a few days ago?”
She looks to the side and grimaces; her shoulders tense, and she shakes her head.
“They’re small. They don’t need much water. I’ve seen them drinking a lot lately anyway.”
“But why is the water bottle still full?”
I bite my lip.
“Get the hamster book.”
We sit with our backs against the bed. The spine of the book is stiff, and it crunches apart. We look at each other, and the unspoken secret is neither of us had even attempted to read it. We thought we had the basics covered, and the rest was just interesting facts, not warnings. Melissa’s finger is running vertically when it stops on the words—Feeding your hamster. The crisp table of contents cuts her finger, and she winces.
Under the bold text of the chapter, there are subtexts and one that offers asterisks, caution, dehydration—death. We read it in mumbles, but her eyes dart faster than mine and swing back as I wait for the final verdict, holding my breath like a crying child.
“I don’t know how we could’ve missed this.”
“Did you read the book?” I plead that it is just an oversight and that at least we tried.
“No. Did you?”
“No.” I’m thinking of what mom will say. “Should we call mom now, or tell her when she gets home?”
“But it might be worse. You call.” I suggest a buffer, forty miles of thought for mom, time to soak.
My sister stares at me.
“Okay, let’s wait.”
When mom gets home, I think it’s the guilt that gets her or money wasted, a need to blame someone for negligence. She is angry and skipping over compassion like a stone. She is rage. She taught us resentment, the context of her little earthquakes, the cost of these small incidences, and why lying could have never been a choice under these circumstances.
She is red, and then she is gone. We sit after the shift on the floor beside our dormant hamsters, where we began. It’s as if we pick up where we left off, but what comes next? I know what, but I wait again and shuffle minutes to decipher—what is peace?
The book is already collecting dust because we only had one chance. It’s receding half under the bed as if it knows. It knows better than us all. The room is like an early deathbed. We know mom’s not coming back.
We take what’s left of the day and wrap bodies in paper. I carry Sniffles, and Melissa carries Tweety Bird, the one that always bites. They are identical dwarf hamsters, but somehow in death, I know which one is mine.
The living room is quiet when we pass through to leave. There are no escorts. The adults are hiding from something, sweeping up bitter ends by exiting. It’s better this way.
We take the shovel by the shed. It stands, a confirmation above my head. It is soon angled awkward in my sister’s frail hands as she presses into the hard dirt. I try to help, but the limestones are tiny boulders that only chip away.
I am grateful their bodies are small because, by dusk, we’re tired of the day. I need an end that doesn’t taste like dirt on my face, under my nails and covering two bodies in large chunks that could never suffice. We start a second grave for Sniffles.
When it’s finished, I insist on a headstone and find a rock that is a crude heart. I run because the light is leaving. I get a marker from the dark. I make sure it’s permanent. I hope it still has ink as I move, a shade that can withstand what needs to be said, one that might feel like a hand holding mine through the house where everyone is asleep on my way out. Where the moon and Melissa wait, we knead the earth and become heavy.
I ask my sister to engrave the stone as I recite the words that have an end—“Loved by All!”
We’re silhouettes across the yard, returning to our room where the empty cage rests, where I fiddle with peace and gain no better perspective, where there is food and water but no real sustenance.