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Image for Emperor
Image by BART BROEK


Emperor

When you’re an eight-year-old boy, you need to see your father every weekend. When you’re a fifteen-year-old girl, less is better. Ina’s dad took the extra energy he would’ve spent on her, turned it into money, and bought her brother stuff. Benji was already spazzed out on Lucky Charms and Saturday morning cartoons, though it was barely ten o’clock, and he was windmilling his arms to rush her towards the place behind his desk. She expected he’d show her another kind of air gun, a Lego colossus, some kind of science-is-so-gross-it’s-cool, snot-making machine. Instead, there was a small cage.

Ina could hear her father’s voice mingled with her mother’s in the kitchen around the corner. He hadn’t left yet.

“Remember last Christmas I wanted one so bad and Mom was all freaked out about it? But this one’s even friendly and not prickly at all unless you make him mad and then he does this sneezing, hiccupy thing that’s really weird.”

The cage exuded the odor of earthworms flushed up through cracks in the pavement of golf course holes after a hard rain, then deliberately trampled.

“ . . . crickets or night crawlers, but Dad made me get the chow they sell at the pet store so Mom wouldn’t ‘shit-a-brick’ with his food in the fridge. He actually said it this time—‘shit-a-brick’! Eenie are you listening? Cause I’m trying to teach you what you have to do when we go to Six Flags next weekend and you have to keep the cage real clean so Mom doesn’t find out.”

The cage itself had white-coated bars and was as big as the king-size box of soap detergent their mom bought at Price Chopper. It had a teal-colored plastic base filled with pale wood shavings, a few of which had filtered out along the side and onto the carpet during Benji and Dad’s smuggling fete fifteen minutes earlier. Next to the cage, on the right side of Benji’s unused homework desk, was a perfect pyramid pile of shavings. It looked as carefully arranged as a wedding cake, as discretely ordered, and as precarious.

“I don’t think he’ll be a secret for long if you keep him on your desk,” Ina said.

“The desk has wheels, stupid. It’ll go in the closet.”

Ina was finally close enough to really look at Benji’s new pet. She heard the front door shut, her dad’s footsteps moving down the walk, Benji rushing to his bedroom window and doing that weird send-off wave they always did, fingers in the air “hang loose” or “peace out” or something. Dad had stayed longer than usual. Maybe Anne wasn’t waiting in the car.

Tank, as Benji called him, was almost the size of the snowball chocolate cakes she liked to eat when she felt sorry for herself. They came in a two-pack, sheathed in marshmallow and coconut. They were just the kind of thing Mom didn’t allow in the house, just like Lucky Charms and pets.

In middle school they’d had a classroom hedgehog, an unfriendly thing that spent its time curled into a protective ball, tightly hiding its face in its soft, fleshy belly (or what she was left to imagine was softness beneath the prickles). Tank had two bright, pinprick black eyes and a matching black nose that wiggled on the end of a pink snout. He had little whiskers and two canine teeth, smaller, even, than grains of rice. The teeth pressed down outside his lower jaw, giving his endearing face a laughable sense of menace. His white quills, tipped in brown, were flat against his back.

“You can touch him. He won’t bite.”

The odor Ina noticed earlier intensified. It wasn’t as unpleasant as she’d first thought.

She opened the top of the cage, and Tank watched her as if she were a giant aircraft or a shooting star. Ina lowered her hand to him, cupped open, offering a ride. Something was odd about how he rested on her wrist. Ina ran her finger along the sparse fur of his belly, below the spines. He rolled over for her.

“Benji! He doesn’t have back legs!”

“No, they come like that, the pet store people told me—I promise it’s really true.”

She looked closely. There weren’t even any stumps or divots, not a single indication that there had ever been hind legs. Benji could not be right. “That’s crazy”

“Uh-huh. The man at the store said they were insectivores,” Benji said proudly.

“That means he eats bugs. It doesn’t mean he should drag his butt around like a mutant.”

Their mother called to them. Ina lowered her hand into the cage and Tank ambled off her fingers.

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“It’s not a secret; I know what’s up there.” Her mother was in her pink bathrobe that morning; the one Ina had given her two years ago. She’d sewn two appliqués onto the hip pocket that said “Diva Mom,” the start of a still-running joke. They were having coffee and talking about Benji going for a full weekend to the theme park, Ina intimating that his room could use some airing.

“So, if you know, then why are you humoring him?” All week socks and clean jockey shorts just showed up in tidy piles next to the hinge-side of his shut door. The usual cursory knock before their mother pushed in to speak to them gained a pause, like the blank screen before a DVD starts to play. Maybe she really didn’t care, or maybe she was just that depressed. Ina was getting used to having the sounds of CNN coming from her mom’s bedroom all night and into the morning.

“Because I don’t want to interfere.”

Her mom’s fingers were swollen. Ina could see her sprawled hand on the counter as she leaned near the coffee pot, the wedding band she still wore cutting into her finger.

“Besides, if you and Benji take care of it, that’s okay by me. Nice to see you guys in the same room together.”

“You know it’s a hedgehog, right?”

“Your father told me.”

“He told you?”

“We do talk, Ina. We do sometimes, you know.”

“Did he tell you the thing is a cripple? It doesn’t have back legs.”

“The term your father used was ‘a factory second.’ He didn’t tell me exactly what the problem was.”

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Benji left that Thursday night, his Spiderman duffel bag hanging lopsided off his shoulder as he whispered, “Make sure you feed him two scoops, not just one, move him into the closet when you open the door, and make sure Mom doesn’t hear you.”

Tank himself had not appeared to notice his handicap. Ina continued to be amazed at his affability and how his spines were soft if stroked in the right direction. Still, she’d decided they would go to the vet after fourth-hour history class on Friday. Her mom was at work, but Gert could drive her. He was a junior with a Subaru and a fading crush on her. The year before, he’d written embarrassing poetry about her “wheat-brown hair” and “azure eyes,” her perfectly average self, but since she’d made it clear that she didn’t like him that way, and since they’d both taken trig with Hopkins, Gert had been eager to prove they could just be friends. Using him wasn’t something she wanted to get used to doing, but this was different.

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“He’s a pleasant little fellow,” the jowl-chinned veterinarian said, smiling at Tank. “It’s hard to find that in these hedgies.” For a moment Ina thought he’d said “wedgies,” then realized the older man was just as taken with Tank as she was.

“He doesn’t have back legs,” she restated.

“Hmm.” He pushed his thick glasses back up his nose.

They make contacts now, Ina thought.

“Doesn’t seem to bother him any, if that’s the case.”

Ina had Gert take her to a different clinic.

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The woman veterinarian with the fawn-colored hair told her, “He weighs a whopping 346 grams. That’s pretty big for a pygmy hedgehog!”

Ina lowered her voice. “He doesn’t have back legs.”

“Oh, they’re in there, I’m sure he just tucks them up tight to his body so it’s hard to see.”

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Ina tried one more veterinary clinic the following morning when her mom was out. She put Tank in an empty box of frozen beef patties and took the bus. Ina hadn’t made an appointment. It was Saturday. She’d had to wait in the pastel lobby for two hours, rereading the same issues of Cat Fancy and Conde Nast Traveler, before being dismissed.

“We all have our imperfections if we look hard enough,” the technician said, trying to pull Tank out of the box in the middle of the hospital lobby with barking dogs and mewling plastic carriers. “I’m afraid it’s not an emergency.”

Who were these quack doctors? A pet was missing body parts, and no one actually said or did anything about it?

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At home, Ina carefully returned Tank to his cage on the desk in Benji’s closet. He slithered along the periphery, rediscovering his boundaries. The perfect pile of wood shavings remained frozen, indestructible, giving off that odor she’d first noticed, only now it was less moist, more like a brick of parmesan left in the crisper drawer of the fridge. Brittle, greening.

Tuesday, after Benji was back, Ina got a call from Anne. She took the receiver and tempered her voice to match the way her mom had announced the call to her in the first place. Threadbare. Martyred.

Anne cleared her throat and started in about a birthday dinner for Ina next week when she turned sixteen, just the three of them without Benji. Ina wanted to puke, and waited for Anne to bring up the Mary Kay makeovers again, maybe even impart some secrets about how to leave your blouse unbuttoned to display the lace scalloping on your C-cup bra, but Anne kept the call short.

“Sure,” Ina finally said into the receiver. Her mother was watching her.

Dad came to the door to pick her up for her birthday dinner. Ina wore jeans and a silk blouse, but he dressed up like they were going to the opera. At the seafood place she concentrated on being polite, on answering questions as efficiently as possible, on pretending she actually liked school, and on lying about going out for the cheerleading squad. That last detail excited Anne. When she stopped asking more pointed questions about cheerleading, realizing they weren’t going anywhere with the subject, she said—so quickly and softly that Ina wasn’t sure if she’d heard correctly—“By the way honey, I got you something, I was going to wait until dessert, but I hope you like these.”

It was a little white jewelry box with a silver bow. It smelled of low tide and things left behind. Ina wondered what kind of gratitude she could muster. Inside the box, sandwiched between two layers of cotton, dangling from two gold earring studs, were Tank’s missing legs.

Ina threw the box back onto the table and lurched to her feet. “My ears aren’t even pierced!”

She tasted the puke at the back of her mouth: clam chowder, steak, a half-glass of wine. Already the tears were coming.

“Honey! What’s the problem?! Anne picked those out especially when we were in Martha’s Vineyard.”

“What kind of creep . . . ” Ina struggled, “Who would ever . . . ”

“They’re real mother-of-pearl. There’s a diamond in each one. Honey, honey, what’s wrong?” Her father’s concern echoed.

Ina was sobbing now. “I don’t want them. I just don’t want them. Take me home, Daddy.”

The lapels of his jacket smelled like the aftershave, the fog of the bathroom from when he was still at home. Wet. With no dead things.

Somehow, Ina ended up in the passenger side of the car, her father slamming the driver’s side door angrily and saying nothing. Anne and the little white box of legs were still inside the restaurant. They were halfway back to the house before he started, “I hope you’re happy. Anne wants to be your friend and I want to be your father, but you aren’t helping very much.”

“You don’t need me. You’ve got Benji!”

Her father slammed his hands against the steering wheel, “God fucking, God bless it . . . ” Then he began to cry. As if they were on a teeter-totter that had unloaded on one side, Ina straightened. Her eyes stopped watering.

They were at a stoplight when he turned to her, slowly. He looked like he might shatter. Ina had a learner’s permit, and opened her mouth to ask to drive the rest of the way.

“Ina, Benji is your mother’s son.” He looked at her until the light turned green and kept looking, until they both heard the honking of cars around them, cars idling in the fetid air of all that exhaust.

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The next morning, while the sun was bright and Benji was still snoring in his PJs, Ina crept to the closet where Tank was. Her brother must’ve cleaned the cage last night. Both the odor and the pile of shavings were gone. In its place was the small white box, the ribbon still perfectly attached, but empty, from what Ina could feel of its weight when she lifted it. She looked through the cage bars at the curious, familiar face; Tank’s tongue flicked a kernel of hedgehog chow off his nose. Then he turned and ran, on diamond-tipped hind legs.

Copyright © 2007 by Catherine Whitney

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Catherine WhitneyCatherine writes:
I had the unusual experience of anesthetizing a hedgehog like Tank so we could do a skin exam . . . only to find that he did not have back legs. "He came like that," the DVM said. After reading a lot of Alice Hoffman, that experience spawned this story.

Catherine Whitney livea in Fairbanks, Alaska, and works as a veterinary technician, writer, and substitute teacher. She just "finished" the National Write a Novel in a Month contest (NaNoWriMo) and can recommend the experience for the raucous camaraderie, if nothing else!! She writes a blog at http://catkeepswriting.blogspot.com/, and can be reached via email at meowbackup@hotmail.com.

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