Julia had no idea how to properly transport a gerbil. Julia knelt until she was eye-level with the cage on her nightstand then opened it. The gerbil dodged her hand and launched himself into the plastic tubing in the cage. He gripped the grooves of the tube in mid-climb, so that his little legs were stretched out like an animal prepped for dissection. His entire body shook with the force and rapidity of his breaths, and his front paw twitched in anticipation of his running into the top of the cage.

“Sorry for scaring you, Charlie.” Julia felt ridiculous calling a gerbil by a human name, but her mother insisted on naming him after Grandpa Charles.

The look of horror in Charlie’s eyes indicated that her apology was not accepted.

Julia closed the cage, then lifted it which caused Charlie to frantically propel himself into the bedding. It seemed like he didn’t know where to run because Julia’s arms were wrapped around his cage. No satisfactory shelter could be found. She had hoped that the outdoor air would soothe him, but when they got outside, Charlie showed no signs of calming.

Julia set the cage on top of her car and opened the passenger door, glancing at the tree for potential rodent-eating birds. When she saw a leaf that looked eerily like a feather, she hurried the cage into the car and buckled him into the seatbelt. Looking into Charlie’s terrified eyes, Julia said, “There, there,” patting the top of the cage twice.

Charlie blinked at Julia as he remained sheltered by his bedding.

The day Julia became the guardian of the gerbil, her mom had called while she was in the middle of listening to her AP Biology. The voicemail her mom left was so loud Julia had to hold her phone away from her head. Julia felt uneasy when she considered the “surprise” her mom had waiting for her; she silently prayed that her mom wouldn’t bombard her with another “potential son-in-law.” She really wasn’t in the mood to endure another one of her mother’s matchmaking schemes.

Julia hadn’t even put her car in park before her mom came running out into the driveway.

“Come see! You are going to fall in love,” her mom said. She skipped behind Julia and firmly yet lovingly shoved Julia through the front door.

“Mom!” Julia stood still. “I can walk without your help.”

“I’m just so excited,” her mom said, clapping her hands at the start of each word.

When they arrived at Julia’s bedroom door, her mom said, “Wait. I want to lead you to it. Close your eyes.”

“Please don’t let there be a guy in my room.”

“Hmm, nope.” When Julia could feel the edge of her bed on her knees, her mom said, “Okay, open them.”

A multicolored rodent cage was sitting where her lamp used to be. When she bent down to retrieve her lamp, which had clearly been tossed on its side, she noticed the small furry animal sleeping inside the cage.

Her eyebrows furrowed. “You got me a hamster?”

“No,” her mom laughed. “He’s a gerbil.”

“I don’t want a gerbil.” Julia crossed her arms.

“Well, I want grandkids.” Her mother spread her arms in front of the cage, “Tada! It’s a Maternal Cultivation kit. The ninety-three point five morning show said that pets are the best way to prepare your children for their future children.”

“Mom. I’m only seventeen.”

She put her arm around Julia’s shoulders and said, “I named him Charlie!”

Julia posted an ad on Craigslist announcing that she was giving away a gerbil and his cage. She waited for its first respondent, Trevor Thompson, in the Petsmart parking lot. Julia rolled down her car window when she saw a silver Mustang pull into the spot next to her.

“You Julia with the gerbil?”

She nodded. “Are you Trevor?”

“Yep.” He got out of his car and stood next to Julia’s door. “Hey, how’re you doing?” He held out his hand. His eyes were squinting from his smile. Julia hesitated for a second but placed her hand into his meaty one.

“Alright, well.” Trevor turned his back to her and opened his car door. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

He pulled out a round Tupperware container that had a line of holes down the center of the lid. The plastic bottom was yellowed where someone had stored leftover spaghetti sauce.

“Where is it?” Trevor asked.

Julia motioned him around to her passenger side and pointed to the cage. “You won’t need that bowl. You can just take the whole cage.”

Trevor shrugged one shoulder and leaned his head to the side. “Nah,” he said. “I just want the gerbil.”

“He would be a lot happier living in a cage than in a bowl.”

Trevor opened the cage and tried to snatch Charlie, but he escaped to his tube again. Trevor grabbed the entire plastic tubing rather than attempt another grab at Charlie. He smacked the edge of the tube like he was tapping the end of a glass ketchup bottle. Charlie was proving to be more of a challenge than the condiment would have been.

“Harley is going to love you,” he said, still whacking the tube.

“Harley? Is Harley your son?”

Trevor snorted, “Nah, he’s my snake.”

On instinct, Julia reached for the tube and ripped it from his grip. “This was a bad idea. I’m just going to keep him.”

“Your ad said that you couldn’t keep it.”

“Well, my mouth is saying that I am.” She covered the tube’s two exits with her hands and shielded Charlie from Trevor by cradling him to her chest.

Trevor put his hands in his pants pockets. “At least I’m at Petsmart.” He walked toward the entrance of the store. 

Julia tried to reattach the tube, but Charlie leapt onto the floorboard. “Great.” She watched as he scurried underneath the passenger seat.

She found the number to the pet store and warned them that a guy wearing a Ninja Turtles t-shirt was probably going to buy gerbils for feeding his snake. When she got home, she left the air conditioner running for Charlie and went inside. In the kitchen her mom sat watching a Dr. Phil video on her phone at the bar.

Her mom paused the video, and said, “Hey honey.”

Julia sat down on the stool next to her smiled, and said, “Your grandchild needs your assistance out in the car.”

SARA CROSBY is graduating from USM in 2016 with a B.A. in English with a minor in chemistry. Although she has incorporated reading literature into her daily life since her childhood, she has only recently discovered a love for writing her own stories. When not engrossing herself with fiction, she can be found hanging out with her dog, Sigmund, or her two gerbils, Edgar Linton and Heathcliff.