I am not exactly sure when my dwarf hamster Elmer died. Mom fed him for a few days, while I babysat my cousin. When I returned home, I put out some food and water, leaving it for Elmer to find during the night. I finished up some freelance work the next day and forgot about him until his lack of activity concerned me. Eyeing his full food bowl, I stuck my hand under his hut, finding my way to his usual sleeping spot. His body was cold and stiff, unlike the usual warm, vibrating ball of energy.
I pulled Elmer out of the beige bedding. He was smaller than my palm, curled up with his eyes closed. The flashbacks roared back to life, and I was standing over my boyfriend Adam. On the carpet, he laid frozen, not breathing. His lips were blue, and his eyes were stuck open, but not seeing.
Even though I wasn’t with Adam the night he died, I know that is how he looked when the paramedics found him. Sitting in the driver’s seat of his Ford F-150, his eyes stared forward out of the McDonald’s parking lot, the last needle stuck in his arm.
I blinked and looked at the dead hamster in my hand. He looked peaceful, as if he fell asleep. I put Elmer back inside the cage and left him there. In the bathroom, I sat on the toilet, staring at the pink bathroom rug, the white shower curtain with a bluebird on it, the plastic curtain rod.
My socks were pink, fuzzy against my toes. The sweat from my feet, not having changed my socks in a few days, made each step vaguely sticky. I ran my tongue along the film on my unbrushed teeth. My left eyelid began to twitch, as it did every time I encountered any inconvenience, no matter how large or small. My eyelid twitched that morning before work when I forgot my keys in the house and had to run back inside. My eyelid twitched when the doctors told me I had a dead fetus in my stomach. My stress scale had gone haywire. Everything was a trigger to my hypersensitive left eyelid.
Get up. Get up, said a voice, and I knew I had to stop staring at my feet. In my room, I opened my closet and got one of the shoe boxes leftover from opening presents on Christmas Day. I wrapped Elmer in a paper towel. Then, in tissue paper. I opened the shoebox, put Elmer in it, and closed it.
“Do you want me to help you bury him?” My sister Sammy asked after she found me in my room.
I shrugged, “Maybe later.” I set the shoebox on top of my dresser, and it stayed there for one day, two days, three days, four days. The smell didn’t bother me, but it bothered Sammy. She pleaded with me to please bury Elmer. I told her later. I told her tonight. I told her tomorrow.
I got Elmer the day I picked Adam up from detox for the first time. It was September 2019. After driving two hours to the treatment center, I found Adam standing on the asphalt in blue socks, all his things in a plastic grocery bag.
He said, “Hey baby, you OK? …Listen, let’s get you that hamster you’re always asking for.”
We brought Elmer home, and he fell asleep on Adam’s chest. The next time Adam went to detox, I fell asleep with Elmer’s cage next to my bed.
A year later, Adam overdosed. Ten days after he died, I had a miscarriage. I didn’t bury our baby. I didn’t bury Adam. I couldn’t bury Elmer, so he laid in a shoebox on top of my dresser.
“You need to bury Elmer,” Sammy said on day four.
“I know, but maybe I could cut off his foot and save it? Like in a necklace? What do you think? Is that crazy? Isn’t it the same as people with a rabbit foot keychain?”
Sammy shook her head with wide eyes, and I feared I was entering the land of Jeffrey Dahmer.
She left me in my room, and I asked the universe, “What more can you take from me? I have nothing left from my life with Adam. Our baby is dead. I lost our house. His truck died last week. It’s all gone.”
The cold, impartial voice of the universe said, “We are taking what no longer serves you.”
But the voice was imaginary. I had a dead hamster in a shoebox on top of my dresser. Was this what psychologists meant when they said trauma changes you? I looked at the poster on my wall detailing the anatomy of the brain. Was it my amygdala?
Hippocampus? Even if I knew, how could I fix it? I took my medication. I went to therapy. At only 25, I felt as though I was stumbling through a storyline already set in stone. I pulled at the next page, begging for the author to show me the plot, the character arc.
When Adam died, only one person was allowed to see the body because of COVID-19 restrictions. The coroner warned me, “Do you really want to come in? The autopsy was extensive. The body is not presentable. The skull was cut into, and the brain is exposed.”
I shut my eyes, silent on my end of the line. I thought I needed closure, to see Adam one last time.
“No. I don’t want to see that.”
“You waive your rights to see him?” “Yes.”
“OK. We will call when he has been cremated.”
Over three months later, I was still waiting on the autopsy results and Adam’s ashes. The coroner said the epidemic had delayed the process.
Amid thousands of people who grieved a family member or friend who died of COVID-19, I grieved my boyfriend alone. The stigma of his brain disease hovered over his memory.
The family gossip got back to me through the grapevine. “She should have known. She should have left.”
“That baby was a mistake.”
“What did she expect?”
I stopped talking about losing Adam and resented the people who could grieve their loved ones without being shamed.
I saw myself on that autopsy table. The coroner sawed through the crown of my head, opened my cranium, and… huzzah. Were the answers there? Was it clear finally where it all went wrong? Too big ventricles maybe?
No. Just grey matter. A lifeless body. A 1999 truck with an old engine. A hamster who lived an averagelifespan. A girl who held onto a shoebox because it was all she had left.
Josie Thornhill is a freelance writer and psychology student. In her free time, she helps run the Neurodivergent Writers book club and works on her first book. Her writing has been published in Ang(st) Magazine and Dark Marrow. Connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, and WordPress.