Hamster Ball by Elizabeth Boyd

As a treat on my blog this month, my insanely talented writer friend, Elizabeth Boyd, has kindly agreed to share her brilliant short story with us. It’s an unsettling, sometimes funny, and very human tale inspired by how she and her family survived their Covid19 quarantine. 

To give her a clap, post a comment on my website @ https://mannamarkbooks.com or reply to the Mailchimp email and I will make sure to forward any remarks along to her. 

BD Hammy

Quarantine Day 9:

“They need to widen the perimeter. They’re just scanning the one area. That’s not going to do any good at all.”

Adam and I stand at the window of the front room, looking at the kids on the lawn across the street. We live in a neighbourhood with big lots, mature gardens with plenty of trees, and high fences. The kids stand in a triangular formation on our neighbour’s lawn, definitely not a full two metres apart from one another, looking perplexed. Their arms are loose at their sides, their eyes cast down. The mid-day sun draws only a stump of shadow from each of them. 

“I mean, this is ridiculous,” Adam gestures to the window with an open palm. “The thing has four feet and it’s got at least a half hour head start.” 

“Four feet and a half hour,” I say, giggling, “it could be miles away by now!” I’m smiling, but I do feel sorry about the situation. 

Our neighbour strolls out of his garage in a hooded sweatshirt and pajama pants. He stands well apart from the children and seems to be speaking to them. The kids’ heads turn in unison to face him. Then he walks past them, quickly, towards the hedgerow. He brushes his hands underneath the hedges squatting close to the ground. The kids watch him, rapt. Our boy, Taylor, bends over with his hands on his knees, baseball player style. They stay frozen like this for a moment, then the neighbour gets up. I imagine him groaning as he does this; he’s not a young man. 

“Look at this doofus, now,” Adam leans towards the window, his arms crossed. “He needs to take charge, give these kids some direction!” 

“You realize sending Taylor out to help look for a lost hamster is an exercise in futility. The kid can barely find his shoes when they’re on his own feet.” With this observation, I turn to go. I don’t really have anything to do or anywhere to be, but the situation has started to make me feel nervous. Clearly, Adam and I can’t go out to help, and I know my kid shouldn’t be out there either.

I find myself wondering how we got to this moment. I have to concentrate to separate the days leading up to this event. Since we’ve been isolated, time seems to stretch then snap back in a blurry line. 

Quarantine Day 4:

Although Adam and I were still trying to follow the guidelines about self-isolating in our home, the kids were driving us insane. If our children—Taylor, 8, and Mia, 5—watched anymore TV I would soon find out the veracity of my mother’s theory that too much television turns your brain to mush. The news feeds and social media on our smart phones were sending mixed messages; there was the suggestion to “just do what it takes to cope,” which would be followed by the idea that this was a time to “connect” and “explore”, to “slow down and get in touch with what really matters.” 

I felt we had made an effort. We’d played all of our board games, and helped our kids learn valuable lessons about sportsmanship. We did jigsaw puzzles. Or really, I did jigsaw puzzles and the kids wandered off, while Adam played a train driver simulation game on his computer. I was away from my job as an office administrator, and Adam’s office was closed too. I thought we ought to feel like we were having a vacation in a remote cabin, not a soul for miles, but a nagging restlessness permeated the atmosphere. We’d started bickering. On one occasion, five-year-old Mia had actually snapped her teeth and growled, as if the isolation was causing her to regress in evolutionary terms.

Just before dinner time on Day 4, the arguing turned into a full-out fight between the kids. I was staring at four jigsaw puzzle pieces which I’d thought were the same shade of azure blue (it was a lovely 1500 piece puzzle depicting a Greek village, somewhere I might like to go someday, somewhere that no one would be visiting anytime soon), and just as I realized that in fact these were actually four distinct shades of blue, I heard Taylor below “STOP FOLLOWING ME!” Swiftly followed by Mia, “OW! Don’t grab me!” Then a scream, I couldn’t tell whose. 

I looked at the ceiling, glanced at Adam, and then back up at the ceiling. Another scream and a wail. I inhaled, “wait for it…” 

The tell-tale thump of small feet pounding down the stairs resulted in an explosion of accusations: she’s following me—he grabbed me—she hit me! I held up a hand and tried to use my “calm, authoritative mom voice,” and ask what was going on. Somewhere in the jumble of whining and crying Adam’s voice rang out, “That’s enough! If you kids can’t behave yourselves, you’re both going for timeouts in your own rooms!”

I nodded firmly. United front. 

“I was in my own room!” Taylor whined. Mia had started to cry, wailing something that ended in nooooDadddyyyyy….

“I think everyone just needs to take a big deep breath,” I said, abandoning my jigsaw puzzle pieces, realizing as I did, that they were blending into a sea of several hundred other azure blue pieces. 

“Right,” Adam agreed. Yes, United front again! “Get your shoes on, go outside, run it off. Don’t go past our block.” 

I agreed, this was a great idea, and then I remembered. It only took a moment. The kids were at the door, scrambling around trying to find their shoes, throwing on whatever kind of sweater or jacket they could find. I touched Adam’s arm. “Honey, I don’t think we’re supposed to…”

Adam’s face fell, then he exhaled hard. “Listen, it can’t hurt. None of us have any symptoms. We’ll stick to our block, no contact. Besides, didn’t they say it’s okay to go for walks or bike rides?”

I bit my upper lip, a nervous habit that I thought I had kicked in my twenties, but in the past few weeks it had resurfaced. I had developed a rough red patch of eczema above my lip. “I don’t know,” I said, “I think that’s bending the rules. It seems like we’re taking advantage of the situation to find a loophole.” 

Adam faced me, tenderness in his eyes, and placed both hands gently on my shoulders. He was a full head taller than me, and this reassuring posture was one he usually reserved to pull me out of moments of self-doubt. Standing like this would usually be followed by something like, “you’re an amazing _________ and we’re lucky to have you.” I prepared to lap up the comfort. 

“Honey,” Adam said, gently, “if we don’t let the kids go outside and play right now, we might fucking kill them.”

The front door slammed, and the kids’ screams became an eerie echo down the empty street. 

Quarantine Day 5:

We got through the first few hours of the day well enough. I was making decent progress on the Greek get-away puzzle, starting to see some of the blue sea and the creamy white stone hills taking shape. Adam, who was truly making an art of self-isolation, was holed up in our bedroom playing a new simulator game (bus driver, this time). “I’m an introvert,” he explained. “It’s easy to be required to stay home…but it’s hard having all of you around.” 

By about nine in the morning, Mia started wandering around the house sighing deeply. Taylor was reading a graphic novel for the second time, working his way through the entire series again. “Mia,” he said from the couch, “stop breathing so hard.” 

Mia sat on the floor beside me and sighed. 

“Miaaaaa,” came Taylor’s complaint from the couch. 

“Sweety,” I said, “with all this sighing you could power a wind farm.” 

She turned her large brown eyes to me.  Her dark curls framed her face, she blinked her long eyelashes slowly, and I marvelled at her capacity to resemble a Disney princess. “Mama,” her voice was barely more than a whisper, “Can’t we please go play outside?” 

I looked around, half expecting the public health administrator to show up in my kitchen, shaking her head ominously. No sound from upstairs. It wasn’t worth the effort of going up a level to consult Adam, since he’d started this idea. I gnawed on my upper lip, considered the possibilities. I glanced at the couch where Taylor was staring at me over the top of his book, the way a cat stares at you before you open the door. 

“Okay,” I said. Instantly, they were up, heading for their shoes and coats. Never had I seen them get ready so quickly, retrieve their own belongings with so little confusion, such determined energy. “But,” I called after them, “you have to keep to yourselves! Stay at least two metres away from anyone you see, and if anyone walks by, give them lots of room!”

The deadbolt on the door clicked, “Did you hear me?” I yelled. 

“Okay mom,” came Taylor’s reply as he streaked down the front porch and onto the driveway. 

I sat back to contemplate Greece in 1500 pieces and breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe I should call Adam down here? We could open a bottle of wine, put on a documentary about drugs or murder or political scandals…

My daydream was interrupted by a scraping noise. I focused my listening towards the front of the house, using my well-honed trouble-radar mom-ears, and realized it wasn’t a scraping sound; it was the sound of skateboard wheels on the pavement. Ding! And that—a bike bell? Had the kids gotten their bikes out? Neither of them had a skateboard… 

I bolted from the table to the front room window to see the kids being chased down the street by a girl on a pink bicycle and an older kid on a skateboard. Immediately, I went to the door and stood on the front porch yelling at Taylor and Mia. The kids stopped in their tracks and stood in a huddle with the other two. 

“Move apart,” I shouted, “get away—get away from each other!” I flapped my arms. “Don’t stand close together!” The kids stared at me. 

I heard Adam’s footsteps on the stairs behind me. “What’s up?” he asked. He had the light, refreshed tone of someone who’s just had a nap. 

“The kids, they’re playing together,”

“Cool!” Adam smiled. 

“No, not with each other! With the neighbours!” 

Adam grimaced. He stepped beside me onto the front porch and raised his serious Dad-voice, “Taylor and Mia, come here now!”

Mia instinctively burst into tears, and Taylor affected a slow, deliberate jog towards the house. They got as far as the end of the driveway, then stood there looking at us. “What?” Taylor asked. 

“Come here,” Adam pointed at his feet on the porch. 

“We are,” Taylor shrugged.

“No, come here.” 

The kids plodded up the driveway and stood in front of the porch. We used words they could understand, as, at only five years old, Mia would have difficulty with the concept of a global pandemic. We talked about germs and that some people are afraid of getting sick, how we aren’t supposed to leave the house or have contact with anyone outside our family. 

“But Mom said we could go out and play. And so did you!” 

“Yes,” Adam rubbed his hand over his face, “yes, I know Taylor, but you can’t play with anyone else.” 

I glanced over Taylor’s shoulder and saw the pink bike and skateboard kids approaching.  In a moment they were just a few metres away, and coming on fast. 

“Stop!” I yelled. They ignored me and rode right up to Taylor and Mia, where they stood astride their wheeled toys shoulder to shoulder with our kids, like knights lining up for battle. “Oh God,” I muttered.

Adam turned to me and pulled me back over the threshold of our home. 

“Listen,” he said, “this is nuts. You’re acting hysterical!”

“You know, that word is really loaded for women. I am trying to keep it together in an insane situation!” 

“Yes, yes,” Adam nodded. He raised his hands to place them on my shoulders, but I stepped away from him. “Look, the kids are going to play. It’ll be okay. We’ll keep it to the neighbourhood,” he turned to face the children. “And you guys, you can only play here, on this street. And no going into each others’ houses.” 

The kids nodded solemnly and stood, waiting. 

“Okay,” I said, nodding. “Go on!” 

We stood on the porch watching them run and wheel away down the driveway, then down the street. I imagined the bacteria they exhaled, a pointilated cloud swirling around them, glowing at their mouths and noses. 

“Adam, we didn’t remind them not to touch their faces.” 

“We will,” he said, “and we’ll make them sing happy birthday twice when they wash their hands. Three times, even, just to be sure.” 

I sighed, and stepped away from the door, closing it behind me, but keeping my listening ears cocked. 

“Want a glass of wine?” Adam asked. 

Quarantine Day 6:

The doorbell rang. I opened the door, and peered out around the edge of it. My own daughter stood there smiling, with her hands cupped in front of her. 

“Why are you ringing the doorbell?”

“Mama, look!” She held out her hands to reveal a fluffy brown and white hamster. 

“Where did you get that?”

“It’s Lee’s,” she cast a glance over her shoulder. Skateboard kid stood in front of our porch. The kid was dressed in baggy grey sweatpants, grey sneakers and an oversized t-shirt that said “I know you are but what am I?” The kid’s hair was an ear-length mop of straw-like blonde hair. It was impossible to tell if skateboard kid—Lee—was a boy or a girl. I reminded myself that this detail was unimportant; what mattered was that Lee had a hamster. 

“Why is Lee’s hamster outside,” I asked, “shouldn’t it be inside, where it’s safe?” 

“It likes to be outside!” Mia beamed. “It’s so happy!” She held the fuzzy creature up close to my face, so I could see how happy it was. It wiggled its nose, it’s black eyes were tiny beads in it’s fluffy face. 

“Give it here,” Lee said, approaching Mia. She thrust her hands towards him, balancing the hamster on her open palms and I gasped as the creature slipped down towards the porch. It lay there trembling and in that second I though this, this is the day I explain death to my little girl. Then, like a miracle the hamster flipped over from its back to its feet and Lee scooped it up. “Hamsters are really tough,” Lee said, “they fall down all the time.”

I nodded, totally unconvinced, and watched the kids run back down the driveway and into the road, where Natalie and Taylor were building a hamster sized obstacle course out of twigs and stones from neighbouring gardens. 

Quarantine Day 7:

“Did you see this email from Taylor’s teacher?” Adam looked up from his smart phone. 

I shook my head. “What’s it say?”

“They are rolling out some materials for home-schooling.”

I realized what this meant, and I’d been expecting it. School would be out for a considerable amount of time. I would shift from being an office administrator to being a stay at home mom and homeschool teacher. My insides clenched up. This was not the plan, not how I’d imagined it. I’d put firm faith in the option of outsourcing my kids’ care and education during work hours. I could hear them arguing upstairs as I thought this, and the prospect of keeping them engaged for hours a day loomed before me. 

“It says that they expect between one to two hours of instruction a day, and they will send the assignment. She’s attached the first one…Looks like a writing assignment,” Aaron’s thick eyebrows knit together. 

“Okay,” I said, slightly relieved, “only two hours a day? We can do that.” 

There was a pounding of feet on the stairs and our kids ran into the kitchen. “Lee and Natalie are outside, can we go out and play?”

“Sure,” Adam said. “But don’t touch your faces! Or each other! And don’t get too close.” 

I made us some more coffee and Adam and I stood at the front window and watched the kids. They were crouched down in the street, shuffling around, their arms splayed to their sides like goalies in a miniature soccer game. 

“What are they doing?” Adam asked. 

I explained about Lee and the hamster. Natalie was in on the fun too, her bike discarded on her lawn. 

“So they have a hamster outside, just…running around?” 

I nodded. 

“Well,” he said, “that won’t last long.” 

I realized this was true, but knowing it was Lee’s pet and not ours relieved me of any responsibility to forestall the inevitable. We continued watching as Natalie stood up from the pavement suddenly and rushed into her house. She came back out holding a transparent ball. She shouted something, the kids turned to look at her, and the hamster almost scuttled away. Taylor grabbed it and carried it over to Natalie’s driveway. The kids huddled together and when they stepped apart, I saw that they had put the hamster into the clear ball, which they placed on the ground, and the hamster began to run. The children seemed mesmerized for a moment, then they rushed after it in a chaotic frenzy, stopping the ball and changing its course every few seconds. 

“That seems like a safer solution,” Adam said. “I have to go get on a call, apparently the boss wants us to set up a work-from-home situation. No idea how I’m going to have client meetings that way.” 

About an hour later, I was back to work on my puzzle and Adam was preparing dinner of canned beans and grilled cheese sandwiches, when the door burst open. 

“Mom, Dad, quick it’s an emergency!”

I sprang from my chair and moved instinctively towards the cupboard where the First Aid kit was kept. 

“It’s Natalie, and the hamster,” Taylor continued. I exhaled and slowed down to listen. “They—we—they, Lee put the hamster in his ball and then Mia said we should roll it down Lee’s driveway, and it’s a big hill, and then Natalie did and the hamster went wump wump wump wump and banged its head the whole way down!”

I covered my mouth with my hand, absorbing the mental image of the hamster flopping inside the hamster ball, victim to the forces of gravity and curious children. 

“Are you kidding?” Adam turned from the frying pan and looked at Taylor with a mix of horror and anger on his face. “And you didn’t stop them?” 

“Dad, I couldn’t, it happened so fast, and—”

“Is the hamster okay?” 

“Um…I’ll go check,” Taylor turned and ran back out the door. 

“Oh my God,” Adam said, “Why is that kid bringing his hamster outside at all? Where are his parents?” 

“I’m not sure Lee is a boy,” I said.

“What?” 

“It doesn’t matter, anyway. I think that hamster may already be brain damaged,” I explained to Adam about Mia, and how the Hamster had fallen on our porch.

Adam covered is eyes with his hand, and I thought he might lament the poor animal’s fate, but his shoulders started to shake and soon he was laughing. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “I can’t believe we’re talking about a brain damaged hamster.”

I laughed too, I had to agree. 

When we called the kids in for dinner, we washed our hands and we all sang happy birthday three times.

Quarantine Day 8:

Taylor sat at the dining table with his head in his hands. Across from him, Mia was drawing a rainbow over an ocean devoid of fish. 

“Ugh, I can’t think of anythiiiiing,” Taylor whined. 

“Well, you’ve been home for some time now,” I didn’t want to count the days. I was just about done my jigsaw puzzle and was left with only a complex portion depicting ropes and masts on a cluster of fishing boats. “You should have at least enough for a one-page journal entry.” 

Taylor lay his head on top of his notebook and tapped his pencil on the table. I chewed my upper lip. This wasn’t my idea of a good time either. I knew people who were binge-watching documentaries about rednecks with tiger farms, or learning to crochet, or planting magnificent backyard gardens. I wanted desperately for the children to go outside and play, so I could work on my jigsaw in peace. 

Adam came into the kitchen and left his dirty lunch plate on the counter. I clenched my jaw. Why was it that as soon as I was home, everyone forgot how to do basic things like load the dishwasher? 

“Hey bud,” Adam said, “Whatcha workin’ on?”

“Homeschooling,” Taylor said. “I have to write about something.” 

“Why don’t you write about the hamster?” Adam looked at me, hopefully. Yes! He’d come to the rescue. Perhaps I wouldn’t vote him off our island after all…

“Great idea,” I said, “That’s super! You could call it, ‘The Adventures of Hammy!’”

“Oh yeah,” Adam continued, “and you could make it really sophisticated, draw a little picture of him in an argyle sweater, or put him in goggles and a scarf like an early aviator. Give him initials, you know, like TS Elliott or EB White,” Adam squeezed my shoulder. I looked up at him and he winked, “He could be…BD Hammy.” 

Brain Damaged Hammy. That poor creature. I started to giggle.

“Taylor just think,” Adam started gesturing with his hands, “there’s an endless list of places he could go and visit, creatures he could meet with no harm to his little hamster self, all because he’s travelling within the safe, see-through confines of The Hamster Ball!” 

“Ooh yeah,” I added, picking up the enthusiasm, “BD Hammy is like an astronaut in space! The environment could be deadly, but he’s safe to observe it all!”

Adam was chuckling, “BD Hammy, a hero of our times!”

“Like the boy in the bubble!”

I believe,” Adam started to sing Paul Simon’s The Boy in the Bubble “these are the days of miracle and wonder! This is the looong distance call!” He danced out of the kitchen and left me sitting at the table with the kids, smiling and nodding encouragement. 

Taylor put his head back down on his notebook and groaned, “you guys are so weird.”

Mia looked up from her drawing. “Really weird.” 

Quarantine Day 9:

I’d read somewhere that building things and crafts was not just a way to kill time, but also a way for children to develop math skills, spatial awareness and fine motor skills. Since none of my attempts to interest them in activities had been very successful, I decided to capitalize on what was trending in my kids’ world: the hamster. 

“Hey guys,” I said, “maybe we should build a fort for BD Hammy.”

Taylor looked skeptical, “Like, what kind of fort?” 

“I don’t know, like a complex series of tunnels and tubes, trap doors, holes, and we can cut out viewing panels so you guys can watch him.” 

Taylor’s eyes lit up. “Yeah,” he said, “and it can be like those castles with the bridge on ropes and water around it!”

“YES!”

Mia began hopping up and down on one foot and saying “Mummy” rapidly, over and over.

“Yes, Mia, what is it?”

“I want to paint!”

“You can paint the ramp for the hamster fortress!” Taylor said. 

Perfect. Hook, line, and sinker. 

After about a half hour we had assembled a collection of empty cardboard boxes and paper towel rolls from the garage recycling pile. I scoured the house for duct tape and scissors and set Mia up with paint. Taylor found an assortment of shoelaces in his bedroom, which would have to do since we couldn’t find string. Following this, there was a series of negotiations around whether or not the fortress would need to be planned before construction could begin. Be patient, I reminded myself, this is another learning moment: how to communicate and work in a team! Perhaps these were lessons I also needed to brush up on. 

We sweated away at the thing for about an hour, while Mia sat contentedly painting strips of cardboard. Eventually Taylor announced, “I think this is good.” 

“Are you happy with this?” I pushed, “Perhaps it needs a floor? Or more windows?”

“No,” Taylor shook his head. “We’ll put it on the ground, that will be the floor, and the top opening is good enough to see into.” 

Mia looked up from her painting. “Can we take it out to Hammy right now?”

“Sure,” I said. 

The kids hauled the cardboard structure out of the house and into the street where Lee and Natalie were waiting. It wasn’t exactly a fortress. Rather, it was a series of cardboard walls with holes in them, connected by paper towel tubes, which made a straight tunnel. The structure ended in a single long box with a hole cut in the top for observing. It was connected by unnecessary amounts of duct tape.

I watched from the front window as the kids placed the structure on the ground and gently lowered BD Hammy into it. They urged the hamster through the tunnel. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Success. 

I went back to the kitchen table and resumed work on my puzzle. I was so close now; I knew I couldn’t quit. As lunch time rolled around, Adam came out of his office and I asked him to call the kids in. I could not tear myself away. I was laser focused on the picturesque Mediterranean scene. Distantly, I heard Adam call the kids for lunch. As I watched the fishing fleet come together, I heard Adam call the kids in again…and again. 

Adam made lunch for us as I put the final pieces in place. I stood back to look at the image: creamy stone hills, whitewashed buildings and blue domed rooftops. A bell in the church on the cliff’s edge. And below, the unmistakeable azure of the Mediterranean, fishing boats all tied up to a rickety wharf. I ran my hands over the glossy puzzle, feeling the tiny cracks between each piece which had come together to form this beautiful whole. I could almost hear the lapping of the sea against the hulls of the fishboats, a seagull’s cry…

Our doorbell rang five times in a row. There was a pause, and then the ringing started again. Taylor rushed to the door, and I followed behind him. Natalie and Lee stood there, wide eyed. 

“When did you last see the hamster?” Lee was breathless. 

“Where did you leave him?” Natalie demanded. 

Taylor returned their serious gazes. “Right there,” he pointed towards Natalie’s house. “Right there. On the grass.” The other kids turned and ran towards Natalie’s yard and Taylor closed the door. 

We sat down to eat, and Adam asked Taylor what was going on. He explained that the kids were looking for the hamster, he guessed it was missing. 

Adam shrugged, “Big surprise,” he said. It seemed like a heartless response, given our recent fondness for BD Hammy. 

“How did the fortress work?” I asked, hoping to hear about the success of the venture. 

“Good! I discovered something about Hamsters, mom. They like dark places. Hammy went straight to the back of the box when we put him in, and just stayed way in the back in the dark. So he likes dark places.” 

I nodded, imagining the terrified BD Hammy, cowering in the back of the box. Maybe it hadn’t been my best idea after all. 

After a few minutes, Taylor put down his sandwich. “Um,” he said, cautiously, “I think I might have to tell you something.” 

Adam and I exchanged glances. 

“Well,” Taylor said, “I think it might be my fault that they can’t find Hammy. I was watching him on the grass with Lee, and then Lee said ‘I’ll be right back,’ then Lee left, and so I was just watching Hammy and then Dad called me in for lunch, so I left.” 

My stomach dropped. “Honey, what do you mean you left? Where did you put the Hamster?”

Taylor nodded, and made downward gestures with his small hands, as if reassuring us all. “I just put him down in the grass, right there, so Lee would find him.”

“Why did you leave him there?” Adam was aghast, his eyes bulged.

Taylor looked at his Dad and his lip started to tremble, his voice cracked, “Because, you called me in for lunch and you yelled and said for the third time!—and I didn’t want to get in trouble!”

I put my face in my hands, “Honey, you can’t just leave a tiny animal like that…”

“Do you think he ran away?” Taylor’s eyes began to well up.

“What were you thinking,” Adam raised his voice. “That’s your friend’s pet! Who knows what could’ve happened? You get out there right now, Mister, and help your friends find that hamster!”

 

***

 

Adam continues monitoring the kids from the front window. Trying not to worry about the ineffective hamster-search party, I prepare a pot of tea, and pour some milk for Mia, now stationed in her room watching a cartoon on the ipad. 

Adam shuffles into the kitchen, looking stricken. “Do you think we should just call Taylor in?” 

I shrug. “I feel bad for the poor kid. Honestly, Lee should have taken better care of that animal. Taylor truly didn’t anticipate this would happen when he left the hamster in the grass.” 

“I know,” Adam concedes, “he was so worried about getting in trouble.” He grimaces, and it’s a look I know well: Dad guilt. “Still, he should’ve thought it through. I’ll talk to him this evening, and we’ll make sure it’s a lesson learned.” 

I nod, happy with this arrangement. It’s Adam’s turn to tuck the children in tonight, anyway, and now that my puzzle is complete, I might settle in with that tiger documentary. 

The afternoon passes slowly. I busy myself with housework and laundry that’s been waiting for me, while Adam holds video calls with his clients. Mia and Taylor are confined to the house, doing quiet activities in their rooms; Taylor’s glum mood seems to cast a stillness over the house, a long shadow of regret. 

After dinner, Adam helps the kids with their bathing and bedtime routines. I hear him engage in a long discussion with Mia about why she can’t wear her party shoes to bed. Eventually her door closes, and Adam goes into Taylor’s room. I hear their hushed voices. These father-son chats are not unfamiliar to me. I sit back on the couch in the family room and flick on the TV. 

Later, when Adam has settled in our room with his hand-held gaming device, and I’m watching things go terribly wrong in the big-cat industry, my sister calls. We try to check in on each other, see how things are going these days. She tells me she can’t go to work at the clinic anymore. 

“Somebody stole all our protective equipment,” she says. 

“Stole it? What do you mean, how?”

She explains that a client came into the clinic and asked if they had extra masks and gloves, and of course she told them that the clinic could not give these away. Then she went to prep an examination room. When she returned, there was no one in the waiting room, but the storage drawers were all hanging open, completely empty. 

“They cleaned us out!” She’s frantic on the phone, “They took everything! We had to shut down, because it’s not safe to work without that stuff. I bet they’re going to try and sell it on EBay or something,”

“No way,” I sigh. I haven’t been out of the house, but I’ve seen photos of people out there wearing masks and gloves just to go to the grocery store. 

“Yeah, so I guess I have a few days off now,” my sister gives a short, sad laugh. 

“Mama—” I turn to see Taylor standing in the hallway. I glance at the clock, it’s just before 10 pm. He should be asleep. I tell my sister I’ll talk to her tomorrow. 

“What is it?” 

“Mama, I can’t sleep,” his voice has the high pitch of sadness, not the whine of hungry/tired/hot that I know so well, but real emotional pain—the kind that comes after being picked on at school, or after a nightmare. 

“Come on sweety,” I take Taylor’s hand and lead him up to his bed, where I tuck him back in tightly. 

“I’m so sorry about the hamster,” Taylor says, sniffling. “And now I’m having so many bad dreams, and the hamster is stuck in a hole, and he can’t get out, and no one knows where he is, and we can’t rescue him.”

“Oh honey,” I say, considering my options for how to respond. It feels like a tiny fissure is cracking my heart. “You know,” I say, “hamsters are just little rodents, and rodents move fast, and they like to find comfy places for a nest. I bet he just ran away to find a comfy little place to burrow and make his home. Maybe he even found a rodent family.” 

“Do you think he’s dead?” 

Probably. “Um…no, sweety, I’m sure he’s just fine. Let’s think of all the nice things a hamster might do,” I suggest. 

We lie in the dark together, talking about a hamster’s dream life, and after a while, Taylor yawns. I smooth his blankets, kiss his hair and tiptoe out of the room. 

I find Adam, already in bed, the light from his smart phone shining in the darkness of our room. “Blue light before bed is bad for sleep,” I say. 

“So is reading about a deadly global pandemic,” Adam replies. 

I slide into bed beside him, and he puts his phone down on the bedside table. I feel him shuffle down under the covers. Listening to Adam’s breathing, I can tell he hasn’t fallen asleep. I lie with my eyes closed and try to think of something positive. I imagine the hamster, running through uncut spring lawns, its tiny paws wet with dew, finding a sweet little hollow beneath an oak tree, where it curls up, safe and sound. 

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