Candles for Cuddleswritten by Rosie Denn - inspired by an original artwork from Salmagundi
Losing someone is hard.
I've heard this statement many times, but that doesn't make it any less true when it happens.
It hurts when you have to say goodbye. But, if you're lucky, you can obtain some closure from it, and realize that, though things won't be the same without the one you lost, they can at least keep going in new directions.
The first big loss of my life was my pet hamster, Cuddles.
Now, I'd seen death before (even been the cause of some of it, unfortunately), but it had pretty much always been someone I didn't know at all or someone I only knew a little bit, like a neighbor down the street. It hadn't ever been someone who I considered a part of my family, who lived in the same room as me at my house.
Until a mission went catastrophically wrong.
Like me, my pets had a double-life. By day, I was an average fourth-grader who owned two cute little hamsters. But, by night, I became the villainous Professor Chaos, and my pets, my faithful minions. They, along with my partner in destruction, Dougie, who went by the title of General Disarray, aided me in spreading chaos throughout the world... or at least throughout our hometown of South Park.
When my mom and I had brought my hamsters home from the pet store, I had named them Cuddles and Mr. Bojangles (I was eight when I got them). If, however, for whatever reason Disarray and I had to distinguish between the two of them while all in our uniforms, we referred to them as Minion A and Minion 1. I had thought about using either the first numbers or the first couple letters of the alphabet, but that would have been unfair to call one B or 2, since it suggested that one was inferior to the other. So, I settled for A and 1, as those codenames meant each was the most important, but in different ways.
It was rare that we brought the minions along with us for a physical mission, but this evil plan required their unique talents, namely being able to squeeze into small spaces.
That evening, we would be spreading chaos at the elementary school, a popular target of ours. That night, there was a basketball game. Everyone would be enjoying an exciting battle between the South Park Cows and the North Park Bobcats. But what the attendees didn't know was that soon they would be at the mercy of my latest plot. We'd be releasing a stink bomb into the gymnasium. The plan was for one of the minions to crawl through the air duct, after Disarray had attached a device to his back that I had created for the occasion, until he reached the vent directly above the exact center of the gym. The device was remote-controlled, and, thanks to a camera attached to our minion's headgear, we'd know exactly when to release the bomb from his back, allowing it to fall down onto the court floor where it would explode upon impact. Then, all the people would be assaulted with a horrible, vile stench invading their noses, fleeing in terror and disgust. It would be madness!
But I digress. We chose Cuddles, I mean Minion A, for the mission since he was a bit bigger that Minion 1 (Mr. Bojangles), and it was an awful lot of equipment for one minion to carry. Minion A was strong and willing, though. He did us proud by staying nice and still while we strapped him into his little harness on the roof of the school building. He didn't struggle at all, as if he knew the importance of the evil mission with which he was being entrusted. We kept our other minion on stand-by, when we opened the grate on the side of the big compressor on the roof for Minion A to enter the vent system.
"Good luck," I told him, patting him on his head, and sent him on his way through the small passage.
Little did I know that that would be the last time I heard his happy squeak in response.
We turned to monitor our minion's progress. Disarray turned on the small screen we had, which had a direct live feed to the miniature camera on Minion A's helmet. We watched through night-vision as my servant made his way through the maze of metal passages. He was a smart hamster, and naturally sought out a light source and the smells of food from the concessions people watching the game were enjoying.
After only about five minutes, we noted on the screen that the picture became brighter, which meant that Minion A was close to his target. After the next turn, I could see the light beaming up from the bottom of that duct, which indicated that he had found his way to the correct position.
"Good work, boy," I said, knowing he couldn't actually hear me. I wanted to praise him anyway.
Disarray continued to hold the screen for our visual, while I readied the controller to release the bomb, my left hand poised over the large red button which functioned as the trigger.
I waited until the screen was almost entirely taken up by the bright light from below the duct, then, giving it a few more seconds to be sure Minion A was over the grate, I smashed my hand onto the release button.
Almost instantaneously, the visual on the screen was obscured by vapors. I narrowed my eyes, concerned. That shouldn't have been what happened. The bomb was supposed to fall through the gaps in the grate and release at the end of its trip, once it came into contact with the gym floor, well below our minion's position. We shouldn't be able to see that much gas in the vent.
There was no audio from the camera, so we couldn't hear anyone's reactions in the gym. I ran to the side of the building, above where the windows were open to let some of the cool late winter air in to the crowded building. However, the only roars I heard were cheers for a shot scored by North Park, not ones of panic.
"Aw, hamburgers!" I shouted in annoyance for another plan failing in execution. I ran back over to Disarray, who had remained by the vent with the screen in his hand. He looked just as confused as I felt. At the same time, we both turned our gaze to the grate opening, wondering what had happened.
The monitor remained useless, so we had nothing to do but wait for Minion A to return, so we could pack up and retreat back to our base. I began making plans to revisit the releasing mechanism on the harness he wore, to see if there was some kind of lowering device I could incorporate into it as well, to ensure that it would descend properly next time.
After what felt like ten minutes, I heard faint scratching noises coming from inside the duct. Disarray and I both perked up and leaned toward the sound. Finally, I saw Minion A approaching from the darkness. He was moving really slowly though, which was odd because he had been able to walk just fine earlier, even carrying the extra weight of all that hardware. Now, he seemed to be dragging his steps.
Instantly, I became even more worried. "What's wrong, boy?" I asked.
The little hamster staggered a few more tiny steps, gave a couple painful-sounding coughs, and then fell forward. He didn't move after that.
In a moment of fear, I couldn't help but scream out my loyal minion's secret identity, "CUDDLES!!!" I reached into the duct and picked up my poor pet, but, no matter how hard I tried to coax him, he showed no signs of life.
He was dead.
In spite of my villainous attire, I began to cry. My pet had just died. And it was largely my fault, as usual with tragedies in my life.
My partner stepped forward and patted my shoulder, gently. "He must have choked on the gas. It was supposed to be enough to fill an entire gym; it probably overloaded his senses. I'm so sorry, Professor."
I sniffed and nodded my head as a sign of appreciation for his words. I was still pretty shaken.
Eventually, General Disarray managed to get our surviving minion, all the equipment, and a distraught me still clutching my lost pet, off the roof and back to our base.
I heard later that some people had thought they'd smelled something funny in the gym briefly during the third quarter, when we'd been attempting to enact our scheme. Even though it wasn't much, it still gave me some satisfaction to know that Cuddles' efforts had not been entirely in vain. He'd brought a little bit of distress to some people in his last act as a henchman. It was a dignified end, as he would have wanted it.
"What about your parents?" asked Dougie the next day, when we were sitting on the swings in the playground during recess. We weren't swinging though; I didn't feel much like playing games just then.
"I told them that Cuddles got loose from his cage and fell out the window," I said. It was a harsh lie, but a necessary one.
My parents had grounded me for a couple weeks since they thought I'd left the window and the hamsters' cage-door open at the same time. It would teach me responsibility, my dad said. I took the false punishment without argument. It kind of was my fault, in actuality, anyway. My minion had been in the midst of performing my bidding when the accident had occurred; I was to blame for his loss.
I began to think of what I'd do for Cuddles, now that he was gone. I had been to a couple funerals in my life, which I could remember anyway. There was Chef's when he passed away and Clyde's mom after her accident. Another was for my great-uncle Ross when I was just two years old. "Dougie," I asked, "have you ever been to a funeral?"
"No, no one in my family has died yet," he responded. "My grandma died a month or two before I was born, but that doesn't really count."
"No, I guess not," I agreed arbitrarily. This was starting to bother me a bit. I was really good at planning parties and stuff, but, what were you supposed to do for a funeral? Sure, a lot of people still got together in one place, and there was usually food involved, but it wasn't the same. I decided to ask my partner what he thought we should do.
He considered it for a moment, then said, "Well, when this kid-in-my-class's cat got run over, he buried him in a box in his backyard. He said his mom said it was so that he could always visit him next to the begonias."
I thought about that option. My parents didn't have much of a garden in our backyard, since my mom wasn't really good at keeping plants alive. "No, there aren't any nice flowers to bury Cuddles next to in my yard. Besides, Cuddles fell in the line of battle. I think we should do something to represent that. A soldier's burial."
Dougie thought again. Then, he proposed, "We could do a Viking funeral."
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's when you put the body of the dead person in a boat and send it out to sea, but then, you shoot an arrow that's been lit on fire out at it, so that the whole thing lights up and burns over the water."
That sounded pretty impressive to me. So, that's what we agreed on. We had to improvise a little bit, since neither one of us could shoot a bow and arrow, nor did we have a boat the right size. We decided that the box we'd put Cuddles in would work just as well, since I was pretty sure it would at least float as long as it needed to for it to burn. Also, we weren't anywhere near the sea, so we settled on the creek that ran on the outskirts of town.
I decided pretty quickly that I wanted this to be kind of like a military funeral. After all, a high-ranking professor and general would be attending. Therefore, we kept Cuddles in his minion outfit. Partly because I didn't really want to mess with his body to take it off him, but, more importantly, because he had died in the line of duty, so he should be buried as the excellent soldier that he was.
With Cuddles was still in his outfit, then, that meant Dougie and I had to be in our villain outfits, too. We waited until nighttime, since it was easier to sneak out of my house in the dark while I was grounded, and because the fire would look more impressive that way, Dougie said, and met up at the bridge above the creek. My partner had brought a bowl that his parents wouldn't miss, and I had found a candle and matches in one of our kitchen drawers. I kept these supplies in my pocket, since I had to carry the box containing the deceased Cuddles there as well.
When I met Disarray, I put the box down and passed the candle and matches over to him. He lit the candle, dripped some of the wax into the bowl, and pressed the bottom of the wax stick onto it, so that the candle wouldn't fall over and extinguish itself in the water while we made our way down the bank. I took off my helmet so that its weight and slightly limited field of vision wouldn't cause me to trip on the way down.
It wasn't too cold out or anything, and that was good when we waded into the water. It was up to my waist and Disarray's chest by the time we got out to the center of the smoothly running creek.
I looked up briefly, past the arch of the bridge above us, at the sky. It was completely clear that night. I wanted to say that Cuddles would have enjoyed a night like that, but, in truth, I really didn't know what type of weather hamsters most preferred. On any other evening like this one, I'd probably be in my living room watching television, or having a campfire with the fellas, if they invited me along. But, tonight, I was half-submerged in a small river, about to say goodbye to one of my most loyal companions. Life can be odd that way, I guess, never really knowing what the next day may bring.
I looked back down at the box in my hands, still suspended just above the water's surface. I thought about looking into the box one last time, to say a final farewell, but, really, this act was a farewell. I didn't need to actually see Cuddles again, I would always see him in my memories. I'd remember the way he would nibble on a bit of hamster food, and the sound he made when he sucked on his water bottle. I'd remember the way he'd run around in his hamster ball, and how, when he ran into a wall or my desk, he'd be really smart and turn around to go back the way he'd come. I'd remember the way his whiskers tickled my neck whenever he'd run across the back of my shoulders. I'd remember what a good pet, servant, and friend he'd been to me.
I sniffed and realized that I was starting to cry again. I cleared my throat so that I could say the few words I wanted to use to mark the occasion. "Cuddles, Minion A, you were a good pet. You were as loyal as any evil villain could ask for, and as good at giving whisker-kisses as any little boy could want. You will be sorely missed."
I heard a sniffle come from the side that Disarray was on. I shifted the box so that I held it only in my right hand, while raising the left to my mouth. I kissed my fingers, and brought my hand down to place it gently on the lid of the box.
Then, I lowered the box into the cool water. I was right that it was still light enough to float for a short while, and the small current easily caught it to take it downstream. Just before it got out of reach, however, Disarray tilted the bowl with the candle to the side so that the flame could touch the cardboard corner, and it caught just as it started to drift away.
My partner and I watched the make-shift boat slip downstream. The fire grew bigger and quickly covered the entire top of it. It bobbed for a moment or two, in between some rocks, before it became completely enveloped by the flames.
Disarray and I stood, still and quiet, in the middle of the water, he still holding the bowl with the candle, but my hands now empty. I was a little sad, of course, but I was also happy that I had given Cuddles a proper send-off to heaven, or wherever it was that furry minion pets ended up.
It wasn't long before the fire consumed the entire box, its light having travelled far into the distance before it finally spurted out, then, I assumed, sank to the bottom of the creek.
We silently made our way out of the water, realizing that getting tinfoil outfits wet wasn't the terribly brightest idea. But, no matter, we could always remake our boots and gauntlets. We couldn't, however, ever replace Cuddles, our tried-and-true minion of doom. And he was more important.
Disarray offered some final words of consolation. "He was a loyal minion to us both, but, to you, he was also a pet, a friend in everyday life. I don't have any pets, so I can only imagine what it must be like to lose a companion like that."
In spite of my sadness, I managed a small smile. "Aw, well, thanks, Dougie. But, you know, I've still got some pretty good companions right here." I reached out and patted his shoulder a couple times, reflecting the comforting gesture he'd given me the night before. He smiled back at me.
Yes, it is hard to lose someone you care about, that will always be true. But, it doesn't hurt so much when you can get through it with a friend, together.
If you enjoyed this story, remember to check out the original artwork that inspired it!