"Ben, Ben, come quick!" Miles burst into Ben's room without knocking, again. Not for the first time, Ben bemoaned the fact that his mom didn't believe in locks for their rooms ("what if there was a fire and you couldn't get out?"). He sighed the sigh of an exasperated older brother, closed his math book and turned around to face his ten years old brother.
"What is it, Miles? I'm doing homework."
"Something's wrong with Splinter," Miles said, biting his lower lip. "I think he's sick. Can you come look?" Splinter was their albino hamster, though he was always more Miles' pet than Ben's. Whenever he tried to hold him, Splinter would bite his finger and even peed on him once. All he would do in his cage was sleep, eat or run in his wheel. It was only slightly more interesting to watch than his old fish. Plus he had red eyes and only evil things had red eyes- like demons.
But Miles was looking at him with his big, puppy eyes, so Ben gave up on his homework and got up. "Ok, I'm coming." Miles grabbed his arm and practically dragged him to the living-room, where Bass was squatting on the couch, staring intently at the cage.
"I think he's dead," Bass said in way of greeting, his watery blue eyes glanced at Ben, before they turned back to the cage. "I've been watching him the whole time- he's not moving."
"Ben, can you fix him?" Miles asked hopefully. Ben sat on the couch, next to Bass and peered into the cage. Splinter was lying on his side, eyes closed and mouth slightly open. Ben watched him for five minutes, looking for signs of life, but he wasn't breathing or moving.
"I think he's dead, Mi," Ben said sadly, wishing he didn't have to break his little brother's heart.
"Maybe he's just sick," Miles tried, his eyes watering. "Maybe he can get better?"
"I don't think he's getting better," Bass said quietly, before looking at Ben questioningly. "What do we do now?"
Ben wished their parents were home- they'd know what to do, what to say; but their dad was still at the base and their mom wouldn't be home until nighttime. What should they do? When his goldfish, Goldie, died, their dad flushed it down the toilet. But fish live in water, hamster don't, so they probably shouldn't do that. What would mom do?
"We should bury him," Ben said with more conviction than he felt. "When someone dies, you give him a funeral and bury him. We need a shoe box-"
"I can get one," Bass volunteered, dashing out of the house, leaving Ben alone with his brother.
"He wasn't even sick," Miles said with a shaking voice. "Why did he die?"
"I don't know, Mi," Ben put an arm around Miles' shoulder and steered him away from the living-room. "Maybe he was sick and he couldn't tell us, so we didn't know? Maybe he was just old."
"How could he be old? I'm older than him."
"Humans live longer than hamsters, longer than most animals, except for tortoises," Ben said knowingly, as he made Miles instant chocolate milk, like mom always made him when he was upset.
"It's not fair," Miles said, rubbing his wet eyes.
"No, it's not," Ben agreed, setting the glass down in front of him. "I'm sorry."
"I got a box!" Bass came back, shaking the empty shoe box. "Now what?"
"Stay here," Ben told him, as he took the shoe box and went back to the living-room. He steeled himself for what he was about to do. He wished he didn't have to, wished he could wait for mom to come home and deal with it- but she wouldn't be home for another four hours and he couldn't just pretend Splinter was alive- he needed to do this for Miles. It's what older brothers were for.
He opened the cage and looked up at the ceiling, as he tipped the bottom of the cage sideways, until he felt a thump bang into the inside of the shoe box. He covered it with the lid and went back into the kitchen. Bass was sitting so close to Miles that they almost looked like Siamese Twins, his arm wrapped around Miles, who was trying hard not to cry.
"Let's go, we can bury him in the woods behind Mr. Cooper's house."
"Don't you bury in a graveyard?" Miles asked in confusion.
"Only humans are buried in there," Ben said. He didn't know if there was a pet cemetery around, but he would never even mention the idea, not after accidentally watching 'Pet Sematary' and having nightmares for weeks. "Animals need to go back to nature."
"Oh," Miles said, deflated.
"I need to go get something, I'll be right back," Bass told them, leaving once more. Ben and Miles waited in silence, save for occasional sniffles from Miles, until Bass came back out of breath, seemingly empty handed. Ben held the shoe box in one hand and grabbed Miles' hand in the other, gently tugging him toward the door.
Every step Ben took rattled the shoe box, causing a sliding sound and he could feel the dead weight shifting from side to side. He felt nauseous and his hand was sweating so much, he was afraid he'd drop the box. He forced himself not to think about what was in the box, or how Splinter looked, lying unmoving in his cage. Miles walked quietly in front of him carrying a small shovel, eyes on the ground, with Bass a steady presence at his side.
"What happens to Splinter now?" Miles asked aloud.
"What do you mean?" Ben asked.
"Mom says that people go to Heaven when they die," Miles reasoned. "What happens to animals?"
"They go to Heaven too," Bass said quickly. "Charlie went to Heaven. He's a dog, but if all dogs go to Heaven, hamsters should go to Heaven too."
"That was just a movie, Bass," Miles countered.
"Doesn't mean it's not true," Bass said defensively. Ben had no answers for them, no assurances about the afterlife or if God really existed, so he kept quiet and the three continued to walk silently around the woods for a few minutes, not venturing in too deep, before Miles said:
"Here- I think we should bury him here."
The spot didn't seem special to Ben, but he acquiesced and set the box on the floor. He took the shovel from Miles and dug a hole big enough for the box; when he was done he put the shovel down, wiped his sweaty brow on the back of his sleeve and put the box in the hole.
"We should say something," Miles decided. "They always say thing in funerals." Several times he opened his mouth and tried to say something, but his voice always hitched and tears started streaming from his eyes. Bass looked at Miles with a miserable, helpless look, before turning pleading eyes onto Ben.
"Splinter…" Ben started, racking his brains, trying to figure out what he was supposed to say. "-Was a great hamster. He liked to eat and sleep and run in his wheel. He wasn't very loud and his fur was nice to touch. He was a good pet and we'll miss him." He finished and waited to see if they had anything to add. Miles was still silently sobbing and Bass had both arms around Miles, hugging him tightly. Ben shoveled dirt onto the shoe box, until the ground was leveled once more.
He turned to leave and head back home, when Bass called out: "Wait!" Ben turned around and saw Bass taking a Swiss Army Knife out of his pocket- those things are dangerous, he shouldn't be walking around with one of them- and started carving on the nearest tree.
"What are you-?" Ben started, but couldn't finish; he stared transfixed at Bass' carving, trying to decipher it. Eventually Bass finished and stepped back, grinning at Miles proudly. He carved on the bark of the tree R.I.P SPL in one line and INTER in the next.
"I ran out of room on the tree," Bass apologized sheepishly. "My Grandmother's grave has a tombstone and it says stuff on it, so I thought we'd make one for Splinter. And now you will always know where he's buried, so you won't have trouble finding him, when you want to visit."
Miles smiled gratefully at Bass and the three of them made their way back home.
"You know," Bass said. "When Emma's Parrot Freddy died, her parents got her a cat. I think you can get at least a dog for a hamster."
"You think so?" Miles perked up slightly.
"Oh yeah," Bass grinned mischievously. "But you need to be really sad and cry a lot, so that your mom will feel bad." Ben was grateful for Bass being there and knowing what to say to cheer Miles up, when Ben had no clue.
"We should ask for a snake or a tarantula," Ben piped in. "Something gross that mom will hate, so that she'll want us to get a dog." The three of them continued to plot the whole way home and Ben managed to push dead Splinter from his mind for the time being. But for several nights, whenever he closed his eyes, he saw the image of Splinter, lying dead in his cage and heard the skid-roll-thud of his dead body being shifted into his miniature coffin.