Louie the hamster escaped from his fish tank cage two days ago, and I can hear him scratching behind the walls in the kitchen after everyone else has gone up to bed. It is a desperate grasping, tiny rodent paws against drywall, and I believe there are only a few more days before we will be unable to tell the kids he’s going to turn up.
Earlier tonight after dinner my husband pushed back the stove from the wall, hoping to find the hole where Louie crawled through, but eventually felt that was enough effort and went up to fall asleep to the Orioles game, leaving me to this guilt. Unlike him, I am afraid if I nod off I will have horrible dreams about the poor little guy meeting spiders and beetles and other lurking insects that built their own cities inside the walls and don’t want unexpected tourists. I pull out all of the cleaning bottles we’ve accumulated under the sink in the past 13 years—three bottles of Windex, Drano, leather conditioner for an old chair from my husband’s bachelor days, Clorox, plant food, dried and twisted sponges, silver polish for a tray my mother bought us when we were married (a tray we never use), baby wipes, crusted superglue, inexplicably one of Samantha’s tiny pink flip flops—and sweep a flashlight to the back panel where the sink pipe disappears through the wall, leaving enough space for a hamster to squeeze in, fall to the floor and realize too late that he can’t clamber back up.
Now I find Samantha’s school ruler and Damien’s twine and popsicle stick building set and I jury-rig a ramp worthy of Evel Knievel, all the while popping slivers of carrot down that hole as in the news story I read a few months ago where a little girl trapped in a mine survived for days eating scraps of food they were able to send down to her in a sawed-off plastic soda bottle. Louie scratches in rhythm to my breathing, reminding me he is there.
There are several moments after I maneuver the ramp down behind the sink that I believe I have failed; the hamster is chewing on his own escape route and I realize I am counting on the logic of an animal with a brain the size of a pea, and in these moments I think not of the hamster’s limitations but of my own, and that I must’ve failed as a parent, that this shoddy ramp would get a “C” at best in Mrs. Thomas’s arts and crafts, that I shouldn’t have let Louie escape, and that I should never, ever be the cause of such a crestfallen look on Damien’s face. Because Damien especially is a fragile kid—Samantha is more headstrong, confident, parading on stage at the fourth grade winter play like a Broadway star with a paper crown—but Damien is more internal, more sensitive and thoughtful (more like me, I think with its own kind of guilt) and one day the both of them will grow up to be their own people, and I will have to let them scurry in their own dark spaces. And just about that time, the hamster stops eating his safety net and perches just at the bottom; I can feel his weight as he tests the ramp, imagine his pink nose quivering upward, and I hold my breath as we both wait, wondering if we can trust it.