The Tusk only publishes fiction sporadically, but I have created this feature to occasionally publish my own fiction work because I have gone mad with power. – Nate
Mike Fallenberger hands Julia Farrow a translucent light-blue cup of the $7 wine you get at Trader Joe’s. He drinks his wine out of a mug with a cartoon goat on it. Some show about Satanic cults on the History Channel buzzes away softly in front of them as Julia is talking about some guy she thinks she’s probably ending it with soon. Mike drifts in and out of listening. The story winds up and she begins trailing off, and now both their faces are sort of hovering around each other and they’re staring into each other’s eyes. Their bodies aren’t quite touching, so their heads just bob up and down stupidly long enough for Mike to realize how they must look. When he goes in to kiss his platonic friend of several years, it is as much out of drunken romantic longing as it is in the spirit of a brief, out-of-body realization that they were both, for a moment, looking ridiculous not kissing.
“I always had a crush on you,” Julia says, lying down but looking uncomfortable doing it. The lamp on Mike’s bedside table provides the only illumination in the room.
“I always liked you, too.” Mike is sitting upright with his head down, knees up, a sheet over them. He is being hit by surges of nervous energy.
She asks, “Do we tell anyone?” He hadn’t considered. Her face and eyes make this a very serious conversation, not the kind he’d hoped it would be. He’d had a pregnancy scare with his last girlfriend; at this point serious conversations give him fatigue. He simply no longer has any interest in them, or the associative gut-level anxiety they elicit in him.
“I dunno,” he says. “Not yet.”
“This was a huge mistake.”
“Maybe.” And her freckles converging like traffic with the sudden slight smile that appears now, and the nape of her neck like some alabaster vase God dammit.
Mike’s roommate William just came back from visiting his parents in Sacramento. As Mike enters William’s room, the smell of weed overpowers the many other interesting smells brought about by all the snack trash on the floor and by the hamster cage, even with the actual smoke absent as it is now. Mike likes the smell of weed, probably for mostly Pavlovian reasons, he figures, so he tolerates the overall smell of William’s room.
William, in a brown hoodie and jeans and flip-flops, gets up off the bed where he had been sitting cross-legged, puts on a middle-period Stones record, then climbs back on the bed. William is himself kind of hamsterish in appearance, round and brown and seemingly harmless. He offers Mike a hit from one of those vaporizers and Mike takes it.
“So dude, I had a revelation while I was gone,” William announces.
“Yeah, it’s um… well, you know about my feelings for Julia.” There is a faux-casual quality, prepared-seeming, to the way William says this, looking sort of past Mike.
Mike thinks he sees where this is going but decides to play dumb just to delay it. “What feelings?”
“I love her, dude.”
“Um.” Mike hadn’t expected that choice of words exactly. In fact, he hasn’t had a conversation anywhere near this personal with William in maybe a year. He can’t even remember if this recent distance is an accident—William likes mostly to talk about Bob Dylan and the TV show True Blood anyway—or if the two had actually exchanged some bad vibes at some point, over dishes or something. Mike continues: “You never told me that.”
“Well, we spend so much time together.” It was true: Julia was always over fawning over this hamster, holding it, petting it, staring at it, cooing at it, asking it questions, feeding it pellets, drawing cartoons of it riding around on a surfboard or floating in a space suit.
“Doing hamster stuff?” Mike replies. He now feels an unprecedented psychic disconnect from his friend William, with whom he used to so frequently laugh, exchange fantasies and hypothetical situations, consume and assess works of high and low art constantly, often agreeing and holding forth about the works’ merits or lack thereof, but other times disagreeing and arguing playfully; with whom he has invented countless asinine rituals and made innumerable drunken absolute declarations about life and art in dorm rooms and on strangers’ porches at parties in town and on long simian crawls back from bars.
William presents Mike with the vaporizer again. Mike says, “I’m good.”
As pets, Mike feels, hamsters are pretty much for shit. The emotion they mainly exhibit is: scared of you. They hide in their little plastic castles and creep out very hesitantly at night to drink some water or run on their wheels. Mike once put it to Julia and William that the idea of a hamster wheel involves much more tedium and fear and delusion on the hamster’s part than most people think about: “I mean, they think they’re escaping, right? Same deal with the ball you put him in. He thinks he’s running away but he’s staying in the same place. Like how Kafka is that?” They acted like Mike was crossing some line in bringing this idea up. “That’s how they get their exercise,” William said.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Mike replied. “No, the hamster is just like, ‘I’m gonna hit the gym.’ That makes much more sense than what I said.”
“You’re an asshole sometimes, Mike,” Julia had said, and left the room.
“So like, this is the scene we arrive at when we visit. Mike and Julia are creeping around together, and we know but it’s a secret to William, who’s in love with Julia, apparently, and they can’t stand to upset William.”
“Why not? Why not just be a good friend and let him know the truth?”
“That’s a good question. Both trying to avoid thinking about it and just enjoy themselves in a newly-single haze? One or both not thinking of this as a super-long term thing? Not thinking at all? Thinking, like some rodent, only in terms of how not to get in trouble, how to avoid confrontation, rather than thinking more constructively?”
“So me and Trevor are supposed to fly out there, then take Mike’s car back down to Tammy.”
“Tammy, Mike’s mom. And so this is the scene we arrive at. First thing when we get there, William calls this house meeting. And he invites Julia, too, and me and Trevor are there. And he’s like, guys, the hamster is dying.”
“Which is bullshit, right? He says, ‘the hamster isn’t eating.’ He has no real proof of this, no note from the– hamster vet!”
“Wait, why would he lie about that?”
“To get closer to Julia! Julia is in love with this hamster, and the whole thing upsets her so much, she’s crying, she’s all emotional, she’s running into his arms all of a sudden. Plus, now she has pity for him, like this maternal pity.”
“But that’s insane!”
“I know. And all Mike has to do is tell William that no, Julia isn’t gonna go for him just because he’s bereaved, because he, Mike, is sleeping with her!”
“But Mike doesn’t do that, tell William.”
“Again, this is Mike we’re talkin’ about.”
“Whatsa matter? Why’d you stop?”
“I’m just rilly sad about Superman,” she says. Man are things ever getting out of control. Mike finds himself wondering how William might do it—they’d had rats once, in a different place they’d ended up moving out of, so Mike knows if William were to poison the hamster, it would bloat suspiciously. He doesn’t think William has it in him to suffocate it, either. It’s not fair that Mike should ever have to think about these things. He’s done all the work it takes for a person to have sex and to continue having sex. Why does his roommate’s vermin have to pose an obstacle to that?
Mike hesitates, then goes for it: “Why?”
“I mean… it’s not like an affectionate animal…”
“So? He’s a living thing! He’s my little buddy.”
“I mean, I get it, kind of. I’ve had cats…”
“I don’t think you do get it.”
But getting one answer out of Julia has emboldened Mike to push further: “I think William likes you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think William is like in love with you. Romantically.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” She is all sneer now, lips pouting, hair and loose bra strap pointing down as if in judgment.
“Nothing, it’s just been on my mind, that’s all. I mean, would you ever…?” He feels and hears himself saying these things, but doesn’t feel like he ever intentionally willed it to happen. Maybe he is better at confronting than he gives himself credit for.
“No!” Her voice rising in pitch as well as volume.
“Why not? You like William.” Mike means to change the tone to a more jovial one, a discussion of a hypothetical idea, one which reinforces how technically not an item he and Julia are, and thus how not jealous he is. It seems to work.
“Because I secretly fucked his best friend last night. And this morning. And five seconds ago. His best friend slash roommate.”
“But in some other universe…?”
“In some universe where William had, I dunno… a chin that juts out improbably far, like to here… a cool beard like this… ” She parses his facial hair with her short, recently-painted yellow nails.
“And where he brought me wine in funny cups and wanted to stay up watching ‘Satanic Mysteries’ when I was rilly upset…”
“I do have those qualities.” He puts his arm around her bare waist, feeling a sense of accomplishment just from getting through that conversation.
“So William tells us that he wants to let the hamster, whose name is Superman, he wants to let Superman loose in the wilderness to enjoy his final hours or whatever as nature intended. And this is just such obvious horseshit that I decide, well, I might as well at least say something to make everybody uncomfortable. Just because this bunch of Muppets deserves it. I say, Really William? Don’t you think you should be there when the hamster, y’know, passes on? Wouldn’t the hamster, out there in the woods, feel lost, confused, frightened, afraid, spooked, given the heebie-jeebies? Are not his last hours of natural splendor and transcendental glory at risk of, God forbid, being cut gruesomely short by some bird of prey or coyote or bobcat or the like?
“And he’s just like, ‘Dude, it would mean a lot to me.’”
“So we go with Mike and William and Julia and William’s boy Drug William to schlep this hamster all the way the hell up the hill. William doesn’t have like a little pet carrier so he’s just hauling the relatively spacious hamster cage up the whole way. The hamster darts around the cage a few times, then starts spinning in its wheel. The whole climb Mike tries to comfortingly touch Julia or at least look at her meaningfully, but she has her arms crossed and is sighing a lot and has a distant look in her eyes. Her general body language is like, you don’t really understand. Mike puts his hands in his windbreaker pockets. There is a smell of lilac and mint and an invigorating spring breeze.
“We stop at the top of the hill and Drug William takes out a trumpet and starts playing ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ on it. It’s nearly sunset. Julia is crying. William is crying, too, and it’s unclear whether there is any genuine remorse or shame in those tears, if William is using his own shame and remorse to cry and thus aid the appearance of authenticity in his own shameless act, or what.
“William opens the door and picks up the little plastic castle under which the hamster is hiding and we all watch as the hamster runs spryly off and disappears into the wilderness.
“Something seems to change in Mike as he sits there watching the hamster run away and listening to Drug William play the end part of the song, where the pianos and bongos and shit would come in, he’s kind of nodding his head and patting his heads against his thighs absentmindedly in accompaniment and it’s like something comes over him. Finally he gets up and gives William this big, sentimental hug. Me and Trevor decide we gotta get the fuck outta there.
“We walk back down the hill and buy weed from some guy selling at the entrance to the walkway. Me and Trevor decide to leave then, a day earlier than planned.
“On the way back, a few hours out, Trevor gets pulled over and has to explain it’s not his car, it’s our friend’s.
“Cop says, Who’s your friend?
“Trevor says, Mike Fallenberger.
“The cop pauses, who knows what he’s really thinking about, but I suddenly feel very panicky and guilty in that moment and I blurt out, ‘I know. We think it sounds like a made-up name, too.’”