The Midnight Waddler
By Rebecca Zornow
Shirk shirk shirk.
Kyle’s eyes snapped open as if the sound was the shrill cry of an eagle rather than tiny, frantic scratching.
When he heard the noise the previous night, Kyle bolted over his wife out of bed and immediately got tangled in the damn pile of throw pillows on the floor. The cacophonous racket scared the creature away.
Tonight, he eased out of bed as slowly as he could, taking care to step over the five or six ornamental pillows that leaned against the headboard during daylight hours. The floor creaked. The scratching stopped. Kyle froze. Everything in the house was silent. He waited.
Kyle didn’t think he could take the throbbing in his right calf any longer. Then the arch of his foot started cramping.
Finally, fidgety animal sounds came from beneath the dresser. Kyle quietly backtracked to get the box of Kleenex off the nightstand. He’d dump that out and use it to catch the animal. No one would have to know he—
Kyle screamed when he stepped on something big and very much alive. His wife, Pearl, crashed out of bed and stumbled over a stray pillow. Kyle flipped the light switch.
“Dad, what did you do that for?”
Down on the floor, in the nest of pillows, was Jackson.
“Jesus Christ, Jack!”
“Kyle,” Pearl said, admonishing him with his own name.
“Everyone quiet,” he hissed. Kyle dropped down, stomach against the floor, and peered under the dresser. “I heard the hamster.” Nothing was there.
“I knew it! I knew Apricot was going to be in here,” Jackson said.
It was the fourth night since Apricot the hamster escaped and the fourth night that Kyle spent awake, listening to the hamster rummage under their floorboards and through whatever was inside their walls. Mornings brought chewed socks and cords and tiny, long hamster plops on the rug.
Hey, diddle, diddle!
The cat and the fiddle!
A robotic nursery-singing voice came from the next room.
The cow jumped over the moon!
“Pearl, can you?”
The little dog laughed!
He heard a slight dissatisfied sigh behind him, but she went.
To see such sport!
And the dish ran away with the spoon!
“Jack, what are you doing?” Kyle asked as Jackson pulled the bedding off the mattress. He kicked a few pillows out of his way and lined the bottom of the closet doors with the blanket, “We have to make sure Apricot doesn’t escape. Come on, dad. You’re just standing there! Can you get out your purple tie? Apricot loves peeing on it.”
Pearl and Izzi, hair standing on end, came in. “Is it Christmas?” Izzi asked.
The sound cracked through the room. Horror took over Jackson’s face as he wrenched the closet doors open. “Oh no!” He shrieked. Jackson ran to the bed and sobbed. Izzi, still in the doorway, began crying too.
“How could you set a mouse trap, Kyle?”
The hamster spent less than a week inside its cage before turning into a furry Houdini. After days and nights of looking, Kyle knew they were never going to catch the rodent. Instead, it was going to die inside the walls and create a God-awful stink and his entire family was going to complain to him about it.
Instead he said, “Jackson, it was the only way to catch the hamster. It’s better it’s over quick than by dehydration.”
“What’s over quick? You mean die? I would have caught him. Apricot is my best friend. He’s the only one that helps me with my homework!”
Kyle rolled his eyes.
“I saw that. I saw that, Daddy!”
“Jackson look! It’s not Apricot, it’s just my slipper!” Pearl said, holding up the beige colored fabric clenched within the mousetrap.
“EEEkkkkk!” Izzi screamed.
“Izzi, cut. It. Out!” Kyle said.
Pearl, Jack, Izzi. Someone was missing. “Pearl, when you got Izzi, did you check on Sophie?”
“No,” Pearl sighed aloud again, primary for Kyle’s benefit, but she went to go check on Sophie, their eldest. Sophie wasn’t in her bed so Pearl descended the staircase to look for her.
Moments later a shriek rose from the first floor. “You-you stop that right now, young lady.”
Kyle ran for the bedroom door and tripped over the trail of pillows. “How many times is someone going to scream tonight?” he barked.
Pearl came speeding up the stairs. “Kyle, you won’t believe—” Pearl looked at her two youngest kids in the room and dropped to a whisper. “You won’t believe what I caught Sophie doing in the bathroom. This is terrible. I thought it’d be years before we had to worry about this. She’s too young.” Pearl’s voice cracked and then rose again “We’re going to have to talk to her about this.”
Kyle felt distinctly uncomfortable. This whole thing was getting off the rails. His top priority was the hamster. Then bed. Everything else could wait until morning, or if what he thought was going on was going on, next year.
Sophie came in just then, looking like his little girl. “Mom, chill out, I couldn’t sleep.”
“But you can’t do that in our bathroom! You can’t do that anywhere!”
“Err,” Kyle broke in. “Darling, why don’t you go back to sleep. We’re just dealing with the hamster situation. Your mother will talk to you tomorrow about…this.”
“You’re going to take her side?” Sophie snapped. “Dad, everyone at school is doing it. I’m just practicing anyways, it’s not like I was getting ready for school.”
Kyle said, “Wait, what aren’t you going to do before school?”
His wife and eldest daughter turned to him, appalled, and replied “Wear makeup,” in unison. Makeup. Right. Good.
“Sophie, you’re just too young. I didn’t wear mascara until I was 15 and lipstick until I was 18!”
“Mom, you can’t expect me to wait. That is so old fashioned.” Kyle’s attention shifted from the conversation to his younger two kids. Izzi sat on top of one of the pillows while Jackson upended the hamper in search of the hamster. Half of the room was demolished: part of the rug was curled up on itself, a stack of magazines was tipped over, and necklaces danged out of Pearl’s jewelry box. Jackson seized a basket from under the bed. Pearl and Kyle froze.
“What’s that?” Izzi asked. Jackson riffled though the basket dumping out sweaters to reveal a package of Oreos. Izzi jumped over and seized the package, ripping it open to reveal chewed plastic and cookie crumbs.
“Mom, did you hide these?”
“I was setting a trap. For Apricot.”
Kyle said, “Alright, Izzi, put that down. The hamster, well, he got away from the trap after all. We need to clear all of this mess up so we can find the hamster.”
“He’s here dad, I know it. Apricot’s not that fast, he waddles a lot. And he wants me to find him. Apriiiicooot. Apricot, come out now, it’s bedtime.”
“Ohmygodthereheis.” Sophie whispered and pointed at the door, where a furry peach rump disappeared around the doorframe.
“Bertie!” Izzi shrieked her inexplicable pet name for Apricot. Three shushes answered her. Jackson dropped to his knees and began crawling frantically towards his proclaimed best friend. Kyle paused and then followed suit, crawling along quietly.
“We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one–”
Kyle got to the hallway. “In there,” Jackson mouthed and pointed to Izzi’s room. Izzi’s nightlight was the only light on in the room. In near darkness, Jackson and Kyle quietly plugged the bottom of Izzi’s closet door with a blanket and then Jackson stationed himself next to the vent. Kyle flipped the light on and looked under the bed. No. Nothing under the dresser. Nothing inside the pop up princess castle. Where was the hamster?
Tap tap tap tap tap. Pause. Tap tap tap tap tap.
“That’s him! He’s in my room.” Jackson bolted out of the room and thundered down the hallway. Kyle, Sophie, Pearl, and Izzi followed closely behind.
“You got him, Jack,” Sophie said.
There in the bedroom, the wire lined hamster cage sat in the middle of the carpet surrounded by Legos. The cage door was down like a tiny drawbridge. Inside Apricot sat on his haunches, one paw on the water bottle as he drank feverously.
“Hey, what’s that, Apricot?” Jack asked the hamster. Something on the opposite side of the cage moved.
Pearl leaned in to look and said, “Oh. Apricot had a-a-baby. He must be a girl.”
“That’s a baby? Where did that come from? Why is he a girl now?”
“Shhh. Apricot won’t like so much noise around the baby.”
The entire family sat and watched Apricot fluff the bedding around her baby. All was content until she headed for her small door. “No you don’t. We’re not babysitting.” Kyle scooped up the mammal in his hands.
Pearl said, “I think you have to let him go, Kyle. There’s only one baby. I think they usually have a few. He-well, she-must have given birth and needs to bring her babies back.”
“I’m not putting the hamster down. What if she runs away again?”
The entire family started arguing.
“Daddy, you’re supposed to help me no matter what.”
“The babies are going to die without their mom!”
“We just have to trust Apricot.”
“Really, Pearl? We have to trust the hamster?”
“I HATE you, Daddy,” Jackson screamed and ran to his bed sobbing. Kyle felt a punch to his gut. The first time Sophie said she hated him, she was much younger than Jackson. It was when Kyle took a big bite of her rainbow-sprinkled ice cream cone. Kyle had hoped that Jackson would bypass that phase altogether, but here it was.
Pearl took over. “Give me the hamster, Kyle. Jackson, I’m going to set him-her-down, and you and I are going to follow her until she gets her babies, okay? Okay, sweetie? Honey, stop crying now. Let’s help Apricot.”
“Fi-in-ine.” Jackson sniveled. “But I’m doing this for Apricot and her babies. Not you, Daddy.” One more jab before Jackson followed Apricot out into the hallway.
Izzi dazed in front of a poster of the solar system so Kyle picked her up and laid her down on Jackson’s bed. She rolled over on her stomach and stuck one foot up the air. Kyle sat down beside her and patted her back.
Sophie examined the small pink ball of life that lay in the nest. She popped back up after a few moments, “Dad, you don’t care if I wear makeup, right?”
Now Kyle saw the pink shine to her lips and the traces of black around her eyes.
“I’m not even wearing lipstick. It’s lip gloss. And I’m just trying the blush, I don’t even know if I would wear it to school.”
“Where did you get this stuff?
“The mascara is mom’s and the blush is Gretchen’s, but the lip gloss is mine. I bought it with my own money.”
“Why do you want to wear it? You always look beautiful.”
Sophie snorted. “It’s not about that. My friends are wearing makeup and I want to too because it looks fun. Just because mom didn’t wear makeup when she was my age doesn’t mean I have to do the same. She doesn’t understand why it might be important to me.”
“Momdoesn’t want you growing up too fast. There’s a lot of time for it. Plus, makeup isn’t important.”
“The same way Apricot and her babies aren’t important to you?”
Kyle didn’t know what to say to that. He felt bad about setting the trap, especially since Apricot was, apparently, a plump mother-to-be, but just a little. It was still a rodent loose in his house.
“Grandpa told me you got really mad at him when he threw out your comic books.”
“That was a true tragedy. I’ve looked up the prices of those things now—”
“Dad, that’s not the point. Anyways, you would have spilled juice on them or cut them up to hang in your locker. There’s a reason those things are rare.”
Kyle wanted to lay down in the little twin bed next to Izzi and go to sleep. He sat there so long, he wasn’t sure if he was going to say anything. Sophie adjusted the water bottle, hanging it a little lower.
“Okay, I know. I know how you feel.”
“So you’ll tell mom I can wear makeup?” Sophie grinned.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow, but I think if you start with only lip gloss she’ll be okay.”
Kyle heard Jackson’s excited voice in the hallway. Apricot came in the lead, cheeks bulging and went straight to her cage.
“Daddy, wait until you see how many babies are in your tie drawer.”