The Gerbil Thief
“Dear God. Not again.” Shelly blew out a loud sigh and tapped on the glass next to Chewbaka, hoping this time it would jump up, or yawn, or even twitch. Nothing. She unlatched the top door of the cage and reached past the Chewbaka-sized ramp and running wheel to where the little animal lay snuggled into its digging dirt, but not in its usual spot, and not curled in its usual ball-shaped sleeping self. Shelly poked Chewbaka gently with her finger. Nothing. It looked a little thin, but it’s not like it was wasting away. Why did this keep happening!?
“Siri, call Jeff.”
Siri called Jeff.
“It happened again,” said Shelly, as soon as Jeff picked up.
“What happened again?” he asked. A voice in the background yelled “Order up!” Jeff was obviously busy.
“You know,” said Shelly, rolling her eyes. “Oh never mind, I’ll handle it.”
“Wait, don’t, that’s not—”
But Shelly had already told Siri to hang up.
Shelly donned a pair of rubber gloves that she found under the kitchen sink and removed the gerbil from its cage, carried it into the yard, and tucked it under the hedge at the back of the lawn. Then she took a gold coin out of her jeans pocket and slid it gently underneath the little body. “Goodbye, Chewbaka 2,” she said, “and good luck.”
At 3:10, Mrs. McGlenigan dropped Henry off in front of the house, and he bolted through the front door and past the kitchen where Shelly was catching up on emails at her kitchen desk. He was in his room with the door shut faster than Shelly could blink. That kid was always busy.
A few minutes later, he ran back out of his room and stopped behind Shelly, then stomped both his feet. “Mom,” he said, “it happened again!”
Shelly felt a twinge of guilt, then pulled herself together and swiveled to face her son. “What’s wrong, honey?”
“I think you know. Chewbaka is gone. That’s not Chewbaka.”
“You’re right,” said Shelly, her tone soothing. “It happened again. Remember the last time you thought Chewbaka was gone? But it turned out to be Chewbaka in the end, didn’t it, after you got used to it, after a few days … right?” She was gesturing for him to come closer, even to get in her lap, but he turned around and stomped back to his room, closing the door with a slam.
Mom’s comments are not even worthy of a reply, thought Henry. He opened the gerbilarium and held his finger near the golden agouti gerbil, its tummy a fluffy off-white and its back a speckled brownish-grey. But not speckled in the same the way Chewbaka was, not at all. If that had really been Chewbaka he’d said goodbye to, just this morning!
He pulled his hand out of the cage, closed and latched the cage door, and paced back and forth in his room, from the bunk bed (which was his alone, except when Devin came over for sleepovers) to the window, then back again. Over and over. Either he was crazy, or mom was—it always came back to that choice. If he asked, Mom would say she was sure the gerbil in his room was Chewbaka, just like she’d said the last time. And yet … Henry knew this was not the same Chewbaka he’d said goodbye to this morning. Not even close.
He stopped in front of the cage and tilted his head at the new gerbil, who looked back at him with alert, shining eyes. “Where did you come from?” Henry asked. No reply. He opened the top of the cage and stroked the gerbil’s back with his index finger. She was friendly, but even so, it would take time for them to get to know each other. “Well,” said Henry, with a sigh not unlike his mother’s, “I might as well call you Chewbaka.”
Henry had a hard time falling asleep that night. New Chewbaka was running in the spinning wheel, starting and stopping at uneven intervals, the kind of non-rhythm that makes sleep impossible. The wheel had a quiet squeak that was getting louder—or maybe just getting more annoying. The real Chewbaka had never run the wheel at night, would never do such a thing. More proof that this Chewbaka, just like the last one, was a complete and utter stranger.
Henry got out of bed and pulled open his curtains, letting the light of the full moon stream across the floor and onto his desk, onto the gerbilarium. Chewbaka stopped running and jumped out of the wheel, then put her tiny front paws onto the glass front of her cage, as if looking at the moon, or at something outside the window. “What is it, girl?” asked Henry. He turned to look in the direction Chewbaka was looking, and he saw something, or thought he did. Had someone—or something?—been peeking through the window? Henry put his hands up to the glass and looked carefully at the lawn, then at the hedge on the other side of the lawn. There! Something moved.
“Okay, that’s it,” said Henry, turning to Chewbaka. “You stay here, and I’ll be back as soon as I can. I’m getting to the bottom of this.” He pulled on the robe that matched his flannel dinosaur pajamas and slid his feet into his sneakers.
After making it across the house and out the back door without waking anyone, he tiptoed across the lawn and sat down in front of the hedge where he’d seen the movement. “I know you’re in there,” he said quietly. He only half expected an answer, and so he jumped when a high-pitched voice spoke from the hedge. “Yep, you got me.” The voice was so quiet he almost couldn’t hear it, but he hadn’t imagined it.
“Show yourself!” said Henry.
An elf no taller than Henry’s knees stepped out of the hedge, its shadowed outline and color blending with the hedge’s leafy green. “At your service,” it said with a bow, sweeping a tiny Pilgrim hat off its head. “You’ve asked whether it is you who is crazy, or your mother. Have you considered that it might be neither?”
“Say more,” said Henry. “One of us has to be wrong.”
“Wrong? I thought this was about crazy,” said the elf. “Maybe you’re both crazy, if that’s what you want to call it. Why not?”
And with that, it disappeared back into the hedge, a green shadow fading into a green hedge.
Night after night, Henry thought about this puzzle as he fell asleep. He quickly got used to Chewbaka’s night runs on the wheel, and even found them soothing as he lay looking at the ceiling by the glow of his nightlight, turning ideas over in his head. Only one solution made sense to him, and dad was always saying that the simplest solution was usually the right one. And yet … it meant that mom hadn’t been telling him everything. Did she think he wasn’t old enough to handle it?
Eating cereal at the breakfast table one morning before it was time to leave (it was mom’s turn to drive the carpool), Henry was ready to get this over with. “Mom,” he said to the back of the New York Times, which was open and propped between Shelly and her cereal bowl. “I know what happened to Chewbaka.”
Shelly folded the paper and set it aside, her gaze on Henry. “Oh?” she said. “Tell me.” Her nose was twitching the way it did when she felt guilty about something. Henry had to think for a moment before diving in. He didn’t want to be misunderstood. “Look mom,” he said, “I know there’s no tooth fairy. I’ve known that for a while.”
“Ah,” said Shelly, sitting back in her chair and smiling a little. “You’re right. No more tooth fairy.”
“I’m saying this because I don’t want you to think I’m a silly kid who believes in fairies and ghosts and stuff,” he said. “I’m growing up, and I’m serious about what I’m about to say.” He paused, then spoke in a rush, letting the words tumble out, because he knew it would sound unbelievable, no matter how he set it up. “We have a gerbil thief he lives in the yard in the hedge he’s been stealing my gerbils and replacing them and I’m not sure how to get the old ones back.”
Phew, he’d said it. He drew in a long breath. There was one more thing he needed to say. “And why did you lie to me? You must have noticed someone come into the house?”
Shelly just smiled. “Who says I didn’t?”