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Social Animals by Catherine Austen




Hammy was not in his cage. Denise looked everywhere—in the plastic cave, under the lettuce leaves, behind the pile of sticks. No Hammy. “Mom!”

            In the kitchen, Wade was frying meat. An English muffin popped out of the toaster and he buttered it. “Mom went out. She didn’t even make me breakfast.”

            “Have you seen Hammy?” Denise asked. “I looked everywhere.”

            Wade chuckled. He flipped the meat in the pan and a burst of stinks and sizzles rose into his face. A round face, baby fat at fifteen still, with full lips and long lashes, and a boyish smirk.

            “Did Mom take him to the vet, do you think?” Denise asked.

            “Why would she take that little rat to a vet?”           

“He’s not a rat. He’s a guinea pig. They’re smart, you know.”

            “Not smart enough.” Wade leaned into the pan and sniffed. “How do you know when it’s done?” he mumbled. He flipped it again, to be sure. It was a rough circle of meat, sliced lopsided, thick on one edge but thin on the opposite. And bright pink.

            Denise stared at it. He looks like he belongs in a bun, Wade always said about Hammy.

            The English muffin waited on a plate.

            “So I’m in charge,” Wade said. “Since Mom’s gone.”

            “Where did she go?”

            “Shopping, dipshit.”

            “Not to the vet?”

            “Not to the vet.” Wade smiled at his little sister, who stood with her hands on her hips, her pink slippers planted squarely on the grey tiles, her jammy top and bottoms mismatched. “Your rat’s gone,” he told her. “It was just a matter of time before I couldn’t resist the urge to slap that little burger in a bun.” He turned back to the pan, barely controlling his laughter.

            The cutting board lay beside the toaster, holding a fat tomato with two slices cut away, lopsided like the meat, and a long sharp knife. Nine inches? Ten? A horror-story knife.

            “Did you kill Hammy?” Denise stood behind him and whispered it.

            He chuckled as he lifted the meat from the pan and laid it on the buttered bread. He grabbed the tomato slices, leaving a round half of tomato on the cutting board, blood-red and belly-shaped, lying on its cut face. The knife was gone from its side.

            Wade stacked his sandwich, laughing, and turned to his sister. His smile faded. “What are you doing with that knife?”

            She’d never been a joker. Two siblings so unalike, their mother could hardly believe they’d both come from her.

            “I hate you! I hate you!” Denise shrieked, her arm swinging wide.

            Wade was truly surprised. Sure, he kidded his sister, maybe too much, but he loved the little squirt.

            The knife wasn’t sharp, and the thrust wasn’t strong. She wielded it like a sword, so all it did was nick his arm before he wrenched it from her. The sandwich fell to the floor and Wade’s arm bled on top of it—not a deep cut, no veins or arteries, just skin and fat and a few dozen capillaries that emptied out, turning the bread red.

            Denise fell to her knees and cried, big gasping sobs that echoed off the cupboard doors.

Wade smacked her head. “Are you trying to kill me?” He tossed the knife in the sink. He rubbed soap into his skin and let cold water wash the cut.

            Denise pulled the meat from the ruined sandwich and cradled it in her palms. “How could you kill him?” she whimpered.

            “I didn’t, you moron! You think I’d kill your stupid guinea pig? You think I’d eat it?”

            She looked up at him with no confusion in her watery eyes. Yes, she did think he would kill her pet and eat it in front of her.

“What the hell?” he said. “Who would do that?”

He would do that, her gaze said. She had no doubt that he would do that.

            “You’re crazy,” he said, the words catching in his throat.

            “What on earth is going on here?” their mother shouted. She set two bags of groceries on the table and waved at the mess on the floor. “What did you do?” she yelled at Wade.

            He backed into the counter.

            “Did you throw your sister’s food on the floor?”

            “No.”

            “Is that blood?” his mother shouted. “Whose blood is that?” She glared at Wade.

            “Mine.” He picked up the bloody bread and tomato and opened the garbage cupboard. Hammy sat behind the compost pail, chewing Swiss chard, plump and glossy and the picture of health. He did look like he belonged in a bun, though.

            Wade tossed his breakfast on the compost and closed the cupboard door, leaving Hammy in his happy place.

“What’s going on? What did you do?” his mother repeated angrily.

“He ate Hammy,” his sister said.

His mother gaped and waited for an explanation.

“He’s a monster,” Denise said.

His mother kept waiting.

“You’re all crazy,” Wade said. His throat was sore, his laughter all dried up. “Your stupid hamster ran away because everyone in this house is crazy.”

            “He’s a guinea pig!” Denise screamed.

            “Where’s the guinea pig, Wade?” his mother demanded. Her eyes were dark, her mouth pursed, her whole face closed up tight like she didn’t even know him.

“Hammy’s gone,” Wade said. “He went to find another guinea pig. They’re social animals, you know. It’s cruel to keep one in a cage alone.”

            His sister and mother exchanged glances. They’d bought the creature on a whim one day in the mall, on a girls-only shopping trip.

            “They can die from loneliness,” Wade said.

He walked up to his room and shut the door.

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