Monday, October 3, 2011
Harriet: To Hell and Back
I remember the day Elisa got Harriet as a gift for her eighth birthday. It was like Jacqueline Laurita of Real House Wives of New Jersey had come to live in our home. The entire family became glued to the rodent's plastic cage, avidly observing the little hamster long before reality television swept the nation. Andy Rooney from sixty minutes could have created an editorial about the suburbanites who forfieted their own lives to watch a hamster run on its wheel, eat its food and poop where it slept.
Of us all, Elisa loved Harriet most. She'd had other pets before, but a special bond existed between the small child and the furry beast. I, on the other hand, wearied of it rather quickly. As a seventeen year old brother in high school, it wouldn't do to care for such things.
"Don't kiss it," I scolded Elisa one day when I saw her giving it a big smooch on the mouth. "It's dirty!"
"She's not!" Elisa insisted. "I give Harriet a bath every day."
"It doesn't matter. Do you clean her cage every day?" I asked.
"Well, no," Elisa admitted.
"Don't you think when she goes to the bathroom it gets all over her?"
Elisa gave me the evil eye. "You don't know. You don't know anything!" she yelled and stormed away.
I almost felt bad. I'd made my sister realize something unattractive about her first true friend. It wasn't long before she forgot though, and resumed playing with the hamster. She'd go to the bathroom, or her bedroom, close the door and let Harriet run wild. I learned to be careful entiring a room, lest Harriet be turned to hamster jelly beneath my big feet. And an ample amount of jelly she would make. She'd gone from an oblong baby to a bloated ball in a few months. At the rate she was growing, the New York Giants or the Detroit Lions would be busting down our door to sign her as a nose tackle.
Then one day, catastophy struck. Elisa had let Harrient run loose in her room, on the second floor, but forgot to close the door properly. The next thing she knew, Harrient was gone. I heard the wailing from my room, where I got ready for work.
"Harriet. Harriet. Where's Harriet?" Elisa cried. She ran in. "Shane, help. I can't find Harrient."
"I can't now, Furp," I teased her. "I've got to go to work."
As I left, I could hear my mother and Elisa calling Harriet's name through the house as if it would come running. I got to work at the local Wendy's, but couldn't get my mind off what might be going on at home. Not so much because of the hamster, but because of how scared Elisa had been.
I called home on break. "Hi mom," I said. "Did you guys find the fuzzball?"
"No, we've looked everywhere, but we can't find her."
"How's Elisa doing?" I asked cautiously.
"Oh, you know, she's devastated," my mom replied. "When are you going to get home. Maybe you can help us look?"
"I have to close tonight, so I won't be home until after midnight. But, I can tomorrow."
"If we don't find her soon, I'm afraid she'll stay lost."
"Well, I have to go, my break's almost up and I need to grab something to eat," I said.
"Okay, honey, do a good job. Bye."
I got something to eat and went back to work. The beef patties sizzled angrily on the griddle with a life of their own. I pressed each with a spatula and the squeal made me think of Harriet, caught somewhere, unable to extract herself. Where had she gone? Four orders stacked up and my supervisor shot a scathing glance my way before I realized the meat had burned and I'd have to throw on a new batch of burgers. The rest of the night proved difficult and by the time I returned home I felt like the meat had been pressing me into the grill and not the other way around.
I sat on my bed at one a.m., pulling off french fry smelling socks. I looked up. Elisa held a smurf plush toy in the doorway, tears sparkling in her eyes.
"Hey, what you doing up? Shouldn't you be in bed?" I said.
"We didn't find Harriet," Elisa said matter-of-factly.
"We'll find her. Don't worry."
Elisa walked next to me and leaned against my shoulder. "What if we don't? She'll turn into a mummy somewhere in the house and then she'll come to get me because I lost her."
"No, she'd go to heaven, Elisa. You love her and she loves you. But, don't worry, we'll find her. She's got to be somewhere, and if she's not here then maybe she's running free outside somewhere."
Tears wet my shirt. "But, it's cold outside, Shane."
"It's okay, she's okay. You taught her to be tough, right?" I asked.
"Like you taught me?" She brightened a little.
"Yeah, but did you?" I asked again.
"I sure did. She's the most deadly hamster ninja on the planet."
"Good, then you don't have to worry. We'll find her kicking some cat's butt tomorrow. Okay, Furp?"
Elisa gave me a hug and went to bed.
The next day came and even though we searched for much of the day, we found no trace. The day after that, Elisa looked more dejected than ever on the way to church.
"You think Harriet went to hamster heaven?" she asked.
"I'm sure she would," I said. Our mother turned concerned eyes from the front seat onto her youngest daughter in the back.
"I'm not so sure," Elisa said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I had a dream last night. I heard Harriet scratching, trying to get out, like she was under my bed. I woke up and checked, but she wasn't there. I think she's in Hell, because I didn't take care of her."
My mom and I shared a look. "No Elisa, she'd go to heaven, without a doubt."
Days stretched into a week and still no sign of Harriet came. We all gave up hope of ever seeing Elisa's small friend alive again. Elisa had the same dream multiple times; Harriet trapped, scratching madly to escape out of Hell. Nothing we said consoled my sister. On the best of days Elisa's imagination could conjure prismatic dragons and fairies out of bland woodwork. Now boogie men and demons seemed to be the only things she saw.
"I've decided something," she said one day after dinner.
"What's that?" I asked.
"Hell's under my bed."
"I can hear Harriet scratching to get free, under my bed." Her eyes gleamed with the knowledge.
"It's just a dream. Maybe mom should get you another hamster."
"No!" she yelled, "I don't want another. Hell's under my bed, that's all. And, it wasn't a dream, I hear it in the middle of the night, when I'm awake, the scratching." She'd taken a hold on my arm with an uncharacteristic tenacity.
We both had rooms on the second floor, and that night I listened before I slept, actually hoping to hear something, anything. Harriet was forgotten, now I worried for Elisa.
I closed at Wendy's a few nights later and got home well past first bell's hour. Autumn left little pools of chill air strewn about the floor. It was the kind of night that held all in an impregnable silence. Mom had said she'd turn on the furnace, but she must have decided to wait a day. I trudged up the stairs when the faint scritch-scratch of tiny nails eviscerating a chalk board came to my ear. At first I thought nothing of it, a fatigue induced malady. But, the sound intensified as I ascended. My slow steps turned to bounds as I sprinted up the stairs and into Elisa's room. She knelt on her bed, eye's wide as dinner plates, holding the blankets up to her mouth.
"Do you hear it?" she stammered.
I nodded my head and crouched on the ground, half expecting to see fire and gas belch from beneath the frame. Instead, only dusty carpet lay, and the scraping we both now heard. I crawled under the bed.
"Stop, Shane! It's Hell. No!" she yelled.
Under Elisa's bed, directly below where her head would lay, a vent sat askew. I tilted my head to it and the sound came louder than ever. I backed my way out.
"Come on, Elisa. Let's go get Harriet out of Hell," I said.
"You think we can?" she asked.
"You can't keep a ninja hamster down. Come on."
I made her listen to the vent in the bathroom, the sound echoed there too. We went downstairs and listened in the kitchen. It came louder. We opened the door to the unfinished basement, a place of nightmare in the dark hour, and the sound bounced out of the stair well.
"I can't go down there." Elisa said.
"Even to save Harriet?" I asked.
She screwed her little face into an example of courage. "To save Harriet, I will."
We crept down the stairs and I flipped on the light. It was as if the scratching came from everywhere at once. The duct work rang with every sound. It stopped and Elisa gasped.
"Let's walk around," I said, but the silence suffocated my words.
We came around to the furnace and I eyed it speculatively. A curved cylinder sat at the bottom where the fan rotated inside. The two of us practically jumped through the ceiling when the sound came again.
"Shane, Hell's in the furnace," Elisa said solemnly.
"So it seems. Let's get her out."
The scratching came from the furnace fan housing, scrambling, trying to climb the circular side. We got a drill and a pair of tin snips from the garage. The running stopped as I drilled. The tin snips parted the metal and I bent a three inch flap down like a draw bridge.
"Hold out your hand," I urged Elisa.
Elisa cupped her hands at the end of the metal. The shuffling of something inside sounded.
"Call her," I prompted.
"Harriet, Harriet." Elisa said with so much hope I thought the sun might rise a few hours early.
Then from the dark square cut in the furnace, the furry features of Harriet emerged. Thin and bedraggled, with lint and dirt matting her hair, she shuffled onto Elisa's hand, out of the furnace, out of Hell.