In fourth grade, I was the new student in school. While I liked many of my classmates, I felt shy when it came to having people over to my house or accepting birthday party invitations. Only by the very end of the year had I begun to feel like I made a couple friends, including a sweet, quiet, freckly girl named Meredith, whom everyone called Meri. Meri and I became friends after a hypothetical question about our dream pets posed to the class by our teacher: we both said we would like to have a ferret. We bonded further when we realized we both drool a lot in our sleep. While neither Meri nor I ever got a ferret, at the end of fourth grade, Meri adopted an orange and white hamster named Chuckie from another classmate of ours. Chuckie was already a couple years old, which is well past middle age for a hamster, plus he had a hard life before he arrived in Meri’s warm, caring arms. Our classmate’s older brother liked to jump over the squirmy, scrawny fistful of fur with his skateboard. When our classmate decided that perhaps Chuckie would be happier living in a household without such traumas – a rodent heart attack couldn’t be far off if the skate tricks kept up – Meri took him in. Already strongly maternal at nine, Meri showered Chuckie with affection, and in no time at all, he had fattened up and calmed down: a fuzzy sphere with tiny, white hand-claws, shiny black eyes, thin brown ears. His favorite activity was rolling around on the floor inside a transparent blue ball.
Fifth grade arrived, and I felt adjusted. I knew everyone. I was part of inside jokes. I had even abandoned my full name – Elizabeth – for a cool, new nickname: E.B. I attended every birthday party, a couple of fresh students who took over my new girl status, and my friendship with Meri grew even stronger. Meri regularly frequented my house and I hers, along with nightly chatting on AOL Instant Messenger and through coiled landlines. It made sense then that Meri asked me, one of her best friends, the one who had also wanted a ferret, to take care of Chuckie over spring vacation when she and her parents went to Disney World. Even though I had already achieved the ultimate childhood dream – breaking down my mother to get a dog – I still liked small and strange pets, the kinds that live in aquariums and don’t give back as much attention as they are given. After getting my mom’s permission – breaking her down once again, as rodents made her shudder – I told Meri that yes, I would love to have Chuckie stay at my house for that week in March.
Meri and her parents dropped him off on their way to the airport, because Meri could not bear the idea of one unnecessary night away from her beloved hamster. She carried the aquarium full of woodchips in through our front door with a swell of sharp March air. As she ran through the pages of instructions detailing Chuckie’s care, Meri’s parents stood by the door, arms crossed, feet tapping, ready to leave on their Florida vacation. When she reached the end of the list (“You can give him a baby carrot or two for a treat, and make sure you take him out and let him roll around in the blue ball at least once a day!”), Meri’s parents were waiting in the car.
“Okay, Chuckie,” said Meri, squatting down next to the aquarium, which we had placed on a long, narrow side table in our kitchen. “Be good for E.B.” She reached into the tank, scratching his delicate, twittering ears one more time. “Goodbye, Chuckie.”
As Meri went out the front door, another swirl of strong, stinging air came rushing in and a cold feeling settled over me. And that’s the last time she will ever see Chuckie, I thought. I startled myself. Why did I think that? I had dreamed dreams before that had later come true: the score of a test, receiving a letter in the mail, but those always seemed a subconscious fluke. This feeling was different. But I tried to brush it off. As I waved at Meri through the window, getting into her parents’ car, I told myself: You’re being dramatic, E.B. She’s just going to Florida.
A montage of fun and frolicking with good, old Chuckie followed in the next few days. Each morning I rushed down the stairs and into the kitchen, shouting, “Good mooooorning, Chuckie!” to the startled hamster. I followed Meri’s instructions to the letter. I spread fresh wood chips around the tank, I poured out the allotted amount of hamster food that looked like trail mix crossed with Raisin Bran, and I frequently changed the bottle of water that stayed clipped to the side of the aquarium. I loved to sit in one of the kitchen chairs, my face pressed up to the glass of the tank, watching Chuckie’s microscopic bubble gum pink tongue flash out as he licked droplets of water from the metal tube attached to the water bottle. His teeth clicked against the metal, a pleasant, reassuring rhythm of a small living creature. Watching Chuckie eat a baby carrot brought even more delight: his long, curved front teeth would come out as he whittled away at the vegetable, one orange sliver at a time. His white cheeks would puff out as he stuffed his face, and his claws resembled dwarf human hands as he clutched onto his healthy snack.
I took Chuckie out of the aquarium to play even more than Meri suggested. He spent most of his time in the clear, blue ball, rolling around on the floor. I worried about our dog, Gus, and Chuckie interacting, as Cairn Terriers are a rodent-hunting breed, designed to chase them out of Scottish stone walls. But after a few initial confused barks, Gus bored of the alien creature and went back to napping, leaving Chuckie to roll about. Sometimes, while watching The Golden Girls on Lifetime with my mom, I would hold Chuckie on my lap. I liked the feeling of his miniscule feet crawling over my hands, the diminutive claws scratching into my skin. Most of his body weight stayed concentrated in his round bottom half, ending in a stub of a tail. This part of his warm and light body would stay solidly in my hand, while his shoulders and head would peer over the side, plotting where to venture next.
This went on for three days. When Meri called to check on Chuckie – twice a day, once in the morning and once at night – I had nothing but good news to report:
“He ate two baby carrots today!”
“Chuckie and I watched Supermarket Sweep this afternoon!”
“My mom says I am doing such a good job, she might let me get my own hamster!”
On the morning of the fourth day, I glowed with pride as I came rushing down the stairs, sliding on the hardwood in my stocking feet. I knew I was a good friend to take such excellent care of Meri’s hamster. If this week had been some sort of friend test, I was acing it.
“Good mooooooorning, Chuckie!” I crowed, as I thrust my hand into the aquarium to scratch the hamster, still curled up tightly in a sleeping ball.
But Chuckie did not move.
Chuckie did not stir.
Chuckie did not even twitch.
And he was cold.
I ripped my hand out of the tank, the metal grated lid flying to the floor, causing Gus to run under the kitchen table with his tail between his legs.
My parents were already hurrying downstairs.
“Elizabeth! What? What is it?”
I could not even articulate words. I pointed wildly at the aquarium. My father came into the kitchen, gently scooping up and cradling the very still and very stiff hamster.
“Elizabeth, I’m sorry. He’s…”
“NOOOOO!” I wailed and fell to my knees on the kitchen floor, Gus retreating from under the table to lick my limp hands.
“Hamsters don’t live very long. Chuckie was pretty old, actually. Meri had him for almost a year already, right?” My father liked to comfort with logic.
“And who knows how long Chuckie’s previous owner had him before that…” my mother added.
“I know, okay? But what am I going to tell Meri? She is going to think this is my fault! She is never going to talk to me again. She won’t want to be my friend anymore.” I lay down on the kitchen rug, Gus jumping onto my chest to lap my salty face.
“What am I going to do?”
“Well,” said my mother, already throwing out the bowl of hamster food and starting to clean the wood chips from the tank. “I know what we are not going to do, and that is we are not going to tell Meri about this until she gets back. Her parents paid a lot of money to take her to Disney World, and there is no way we are ruining their vacation. Got it?”
My father shrugged. I nodded glumly.
“Now, Elizabeth, help me clean out this tank. Rich, go put the hamster on some ice.”
Every time the phone rang the rest of that week, I jumped. My mother would check the caller ID, shaking her head and answering for my grandmother, my aunt, the dentist confirming my cleaning. For any out of state or unknown number though, we became silent and tense. I sat under the kitchen table, clutching Gus close to me, willing him not to bark as if Meri could hear it 1,400 miles away. I held my breath as the answering machine beeped and picked up Meri’s cheerful, sunny voice: “Hi, E.B., it’s Meri. Just calling to see how Chuckie is doing! Okay, got to go, I’ll call again later!”
With each ring of the phone, I pictured the deceased hamster as I imagined how I was going to break the news to Meri. Chuckie stayed curled up in the tight, sleeping ball, how I had found him, except now delicately wrapped in paper towels and ice cubes in two plastic Ziploc bags, in a cooler out in the freezing, unheated garage. Every time I heard Meri’s voice on the answering machine, I felt sick to my stomach.
Twice a day for three days we managed to avoid Meri’s calls. Then one night, my father was caught off guard. The phone rang some time after 9:00pm, and he, already reading in bed, answered without checking the caller ID. This was the era when my older siblings were at the height of their teenage debauchery, and my father lived in fear of late-night calls from police officers reporting accidents and DUIs.
“Hello, Mr. Bartels. It’s Meri. Is E.B. there?”
“ Ah, hi, Meri. No, E.B. is already upstairs, getting ready for bed. It’s kind of late.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t wake anyone up. I just wanted to see how Chuckie was doing.”
“So how is Chuckie?”
My dad paused. Raised Irish Catholic and a Boy Scout, the idea of outright lying did not sit well in his stomach.
“Okay, great, thank you! I have to go now, but I will see you on Sunday when we come home to pick Chuckie up! Good night!”
“Good night, Meri.”
My father hung up, got back into bed, pulled the sheet up to his chin, and dreaded Sunday.
When the phone rang on Sunday, I answered. Finally. Both of my parents stood in the kitchen with me, and Gus sat at my feet.
“E.B.! Hi! We just landed! When can we come by to pick up Chuckie?”
“Hi, Meri. How was your trip?”
“Oh, it was so great, we went on all the rides, and I’ll show you pictures as soon as my film is developed. But when can we come get Chuckie?”
I gripped the thick, black plastic phone in my right hand, the coiled line wrapped around and around my left, squeezing it so tight the cord made an impression on my palm.
“E.B.? You still there?”
“Yes, Meri. I’m sorry.”
“Well, see, while you were away, I mean, I followed all of your instructions so carefully, I really did, and I think it was just because he was old and…”
“What? What happened?”
I inhaled. I looked at my father who gave a supportive nod, and my mother who sighed and grimaced.
“What?” Meri shrieked and dropped the phone. I heard a muffled exchange, hysterical sobs, and the sound of Meri’s dad shouting, “Oh, no! No, no, no, no! Not again!” I pressed the phone to my ear, my hands white from my tight grip. I was horrified. Not only was Meri upset, but it sounded like her parents were devastated as well. If I was one thing as a middle schooler, I was a kid who did not do anything to upset adults. I was polite. I followed rules. I took off my shoes when I went over my friends’ houses. I had committed the worst possible crime.
Meri’s mom came onto the line.
“E.B.? Hi. Can you put your mom on, please?”
I thrust the phone at my mother and ran into the family room. I threw myself onto the sofa, burying into the cushions and fleece blankets. The end had arrived. I knew it. Meri would never speak to me again. Neither would my few other friends – they had all known Meri long before I had shown up in fourth grade and were bound to side with her. Besides, who would want to be friends with a murderer? I would need to transfer schools. I would have to start again. No one would ever trust me with their pet. We would probably have to get rid of Gus because I wasn’t responsible enough. I might as well die on the spot as a friendless, petless ten-year-old. My face became hot from the tears and the rough woven fabric of the couch. I buried myself in shame and self-loathing.
After a few moments, my mother came into the room and sat on the sofa next to me.
“Meri’s mom wants you to know they are not upset with you, and she also wanted to apologize for how Meri’s dad reacted. I guess when he was about Meri’s age, he had a similar experience involving his dog. His family went on vacation and they boarded the dog at the vet’s, but then the dog got sick while they were away and the vet made the decision to put the dog down without consulting or even telling them. When they went to pick up the dog, he was gone.”
Well, I thought, at least I didn’t kill Chuckie on purpose. Still, I didn’t move.
My mother sighed.
“They’ll be by around two o’clock to pick up Chuckie and his stuff.”
I pushed my face deeper into the cushions. A week before, Meri had handed me her beloved hamster as a warm, lively fluff-ball in a clean, wood-chip-lined tank. Now I would hand him back to her stiff and frozen, wrapped in two damp paper towels inside a plastic Ziploc bag.
I was the worst friend a girl could have.
Yet, somehow, seventeen years later, Meri and I are still friends. Not only that, she is one of my best friends. We stayed in school together through eighth grade, but remained close even at different high schools and colleges. We coached each other through all of adolescence’s milestones: kisses, boyfriends, break-ups, driving, drinking. Meri pierced my ears. I regularly visited her in Washington, D.C. during college. Meri traveled all the way to St. Petersburg, Russia to se me when I was studying abroad. We spent twenty-four hours a day together for two months as we traveled across Siberia, Mongolia, China, Japan, and Australia. We’ve shared every toiletry down to a razor blade. We’ve slept in a twin-sized bed together on more than one occasion. I’ve brought Meri food and Gatorade while she is battling a migraine; she’s rubbed my back while I’ve puked into a toilet. We’ve seen each other pee dozens of times. It goes without saying that Meri is the sort of friend who would be the maid of honor in my wedding and a godmother to my children. We are as close as friends as friends can be.
But even after all this time, Meri has never asked me to watch another one of her pets.
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Ploughshares, Fiction Advocate, and the anthology The Places We've Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35 among others. See her website at www.ebbartels.com, tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.