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Invincibility at the Hands (Wheels) of My Zhu Zhu Pets

Bethany Cutkomp

I’m not sure why the universe has beef with hamsters to begin with, but those creatures cannot catch a break. Suffering cryptic tragedies is wired into their DNA. For example, they’re always escaping the cage and getting stepped on. Becoming an all-natural chew toy for the dog. Bouncing down the stairs inside their plastic ball. Having a heart attack at the slam of the door. What I’ve taken away from the horror stories passed around is that hamsters are essentially fragile time bombs the moment they’re birthed into this world.

The Zhu Zhu Pets were Mom’s idea—fuzzy robotic rodents on wheels in place of the real deal. My friend down the street owned one that sported a radioactive shade of pink and often spun backwards in neurotic circles. Pretty hamster-coded, if you ask me. Press their patterned back, however, and they take off at random. Touch their nose and they chirp with cute catchphrases.

“Real hamsters wouldn’t tolerate you handling them like that,” I pointed out. “I’m sure if you did that, they’d die.”

“Yes,” Mom said, peeling the tape off of the packaging. “Exactly.”

To a degree, that made Zhu Zhu Pets the inverse twin species to the hamster. Sturdy. Resilient. No stressful monitoring. No responsibilities. I didn’t even need to remember to feed it. Powered merely by two AAA-batteries, no exterior variable could harm its mechanical composition.

My Zhu Zhu Pet had jaundiced fur with a star shaved into its back. Its name was Pipsqueak, or some dopey variation of the sort. Pipsqueak survived two tumbles down the stairs. Thump thump thump, all the way to the wood floorboards. I flipped it upright, pressed go on its star-patterned back, and off it went. Good as new.

Mom bought my older brother one, too—not that he needed one at his age. Although he’s graduating at the end of the year and wouldn’t be caught dead playing with kiddie toys, he renamed his pet Cigarette after the smokey color of its coat and arranged activities not advertised on the box. Domino mazes. Cardboard ramps. Races against his HexBug collection. Cigarette-vs-Pipsqueak brawls contained within empty storage bins.

And when those options dulled his interest, he used my body as a track. Dragging those motorized wheels across my arms and neck tickled. It was when the route migrated to my scalp that things went downhill.

Cigarette’s wheels reeled in a chunk of my hair. I shrieked, grabbing at the knot wrapped within its gears. Immortal creatures of robot-descent do not contain the sentience necessary to stop when screamed at. Cigarette rolled into reverse, spinning up a separate wad that tugged at the follicles.

“Shit, shit,” my brother hissed. “Hold still. I’m pushing stop.”

Fingers sifting through the nest of disaster atop my head, he pressed the button on its back.

“Here we go!” Cigarette sang, waking into motion once more. The toy rolled a thicker tangle under its belly and stopped short, motor protesting against the newfound obstruction.

Had Mom been home, we might have saved my hair, but my brother settled on teasing stubborn strands out of Cigarette’s grip. I whined in protest. He shushed me. This became a dance—me ducking out of his grabby hands and him chasing after me. When it became evident that we weren’t going to salvage my curls without ripping a bald spot, he cupped my wet cheeks in his palms.

“Hey, listen to me,” he said. “We’re gonna have to shave you free, alright? Don’t cry.”

Swallowing a glob of snot, I asked him to turn me into a Zhu Zhu Pet. My brother’s brow furrowed. It wasn’t until I pointed at the pattern on Pipsqueak’s back that he lit up and steered me toward the bathroom.

I was no hamster weakling. Leaning toward the mirror, I rubbed my velvety buzz cut, tracing the wobbly star shaved to the skin. It didn’t matter if Mom screamed at us when she returned from the market. No big deal if everyone at school poked fun at me. My brother turned me invincible that morning, identical to those hardy motorized rodents of ours.

Bethany Cutkomp is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri. She enjoys catching chaotic vibes and bees with her bare hands. Her work appears in Ghost Parachute, trampset, The Hooghly Review, Exposed Bone, BRUISER, Alternative Milk Magazine, and more. Find her on social media at @bdcutkomp.

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