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Barb McClatchy

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Member Since: Sep, 2007

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   Recent stories by Barb McClatchy
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The Habitrail Syndrome
By Barb McClatchy
Monday, September 10, 2007

Rated "G" by the Author.

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Unanswered questions and dark secrets lurk within the corridors of the Ivory Towers, even for hamsters.

Mel, a sensible, perceptive and frugal hamster, lived a meager existence of cedar shavings, soy-based pellets and, of course, bottled water. The bottled water he considered to be really his only form of pure decadence. Bottled water versus standard tap, in Mel’s opinion, was to hamsters like cats were to the dogs that chased them …totally unnecessary but every bit worth the fun of it. 

His home was nondescript: a rectangular structure with wall-to-ceiling windows that enclosed his one-room living space. While he yearned for a companion to share his time with, he was grateful for the hand of Source that swooped in daily to restock his supply of essential daily requirements. There had been a gerbil years ago, but that was then, and there was no use crying over spilled bottled water and a tipped bowl of soymeal that would make it nearly impossible to distinguish food pellets from one’s own…well, you get the idea. Things were too complicated then anyway, given hamster/gerbil social taboos. Complicated, but not insurmountable.

Mel passed his days by keeping things tidy in his little den. He enjoyed the views that his glass enclosure afforded him, so he kept the view clear by meticulously cleaning the glass with whatever spare materials he could find. He used his precious bottled water, dabbing drops onto his paws to rub away any marks that may have disparaged his humble abode, usually from Source smudging the glass when he reached in to make adjustments or change the food and water. Some days, moving the rock structures inside the den was a hard enough day’s work in and of itself, just so he could use them to climb and reach the far-away corners of the den. It was exhausting work, but the scenery was to die for, and the sense of accomplishment rewarding.

One day, the unexpected happened. Source began construction of a new structure close by, but this one was quite unlike the one Mel inhabited. He watched with curiosity as a maze of chutes and ladders connected a virtual mountain of yellow-tinted material. Some of the chutes led to small, confined spaces, where others simply connected several larger spaces. The yellow mound was at least four times higher than Mel’s dwelling, and he salivated at the thought of climbing through all the chutes. The thought of so much surface area to clean and shine made his heart leap like a rabbit. He wondered if the heights would be daunting, but he doubted it.

Next, Source placed a round-like structure inside the main lobby of the structure. Mel pondered this for a moment, wondering what use such a contraption would have. No sooner had the thought entered his mind did Source come back with mounds of fresh cedar shavings and several water bottles placed strategically throughout the large contraption. Then, Source lifted the lid off of a rectangular box with strange figures on the side. Mel pondered the meaning of such symbols, and concluded that, whatever N-I-K-E stood for, chances were it was something that could be made for less to serve more of those in need.                                                                   

As Source reached into the box, Mel put his front paws up against the glass to elevate his status, struggling to get a glimpse inside. To his delight, Source began placing more and more hamsters and gerbils into what Mel had already dubbed Ole Yeller. Before long, the rodents were spreading themselves throughout the structure, squeezing up through the chutes and occupying all available spaces. One hamster in particular made a dash for the round structure, and began running. To Mel’s surprise, the little creature did not run into the yellow-tinted walls. Instead, the circle spun round and round while other hamsters stood in line behind it, appearing to want a turn. When one got off, another immediately took its place. The line never ended since another hamster would join the end of the line after one departed, and would patiently await its turn.

For days, Mel watched the activity in the massive den, and wondered why he was kept apart, but it didn’t bother him. He liked his place and really was quite content with himself. He did notice, however, that there was a petite little gerbil who would hover in the corners, busy with some kind of work, but not necessarily taking part in all of the action.

As the weeks went by, Mel was content to watch the bustle of activity from afar while he kept up with his daily grind, but the smaller gerbil did catch his eye. He also noticed that there seemed to be several larger gerbils who were apparently calling the shots, but they never got on the wheel or climbed the chutes; they apparently left the grunt work to the hamsters. Most of the other gerbils seemed to be supervising the activity. The larger gerbils often huddled together in one of the smaller compartments, and when they emerged, the other hamsters and gerbils would stand straighter, run faster, work harder. Sometimes, a room would go dark after one of the bigger gerbils would enter it, and Mel was curious as to what was happening behind closed doors.

To Mel’s amazement, one day Source swooped out several of Ole Yeller’s inhabitants and placed them inside Mel’s glass home. One of them was the smaller gerbil, who backed into the corner and huddled there. The bigger gerbils were still in Ole Yeller, and the remaining occupants continued scurrying around the structure, busying themselves with a variety of activities.

Mel looked at the gerbil. She was pretty, in a simple, distant kind of way. It was unusual in rodent society that hamsters and gerbils would socialize beyond work-related activities. Unusual, but not unprecedented, Mel reminded himself.

 “I’ve seen you before,” he said. “My name’s Mel. Mel Hamster. I wonder if you’d tell me about what’s going on with that circle over there,” he said, nodding toward Ole Yeller. “Why does everyone want to run in it?”

The small gerbil looked down before regaining eye contact with Mel. “They have to. It’s required,” she said.

“Required? Why?”

She squirmed. “Well, I’m not exactly sure, actually. But no one wants to be the one to go against orders.”

Mel shifted his weight onto his hind legs, and scratched his chin with his right hand. “Orders. Hmm. I think I get the picture.” He looked back toward Ole Yeller. “Let me guess. The bigger gerbils are calling the shots, but no one knows why they’re doing what they’re being told to do.”

“Something like that,” she said. She knitted her fingers together in a nervous fashion.

Mel looked back at her. “Do you have a name?” he asked, smiling subtly at her, wanting to put her mind at ease. He could tell she was uncomfortable.

She smiled back, a beautiful and white smile, and looked back down at her paws. “Sarah. Sarah Gerbil.”

“Well, Sarah Gerbil, why have they put only a few of you over here?”

“I think it has something to do with research,” she said. “For what, I couldn’t tell you.”

Mel thought about this and wasn’t quite sure he was at all comfortable with the unanswered questions. “I, for one, have a need to know, Sarah Gerbil of Ole Yeller. I see them working you all like slaves. Someone ought to know why they’re being told to do what they’re doing.” 

As he said this, Mel scanned his den for a twine of cedar chips he’d worked endlessly to construct. He kept it buried beneath one of the rocks Source would normally not disturb when attending to the den’s needs. He placed the coil of twine over his head and one shoulder, and began climbing the rock structure within his enclosure until he reached the top. When fully extended, he could lift the metal grate. This is something Source was completely unaware of, and Mel reserved the option for only very rare and extraordinary occasions.

“What will you do?” Sarah called up to him.

He looked down at her and smiled. “When I figure that out, you’ll be the first to know,” Mel said. 

With that he pushed the screen upward and over the lip of his large windows. After removing the coil from around his neck, he threaded the twine through an opening in the large rock he’d just conquered, and tied a knot. He threw the coiled twine over the glass and it hung suspended from the top of the enclosure. Then he stretched to reach the side of the glass with the curled appendages of his paws, letting his body thump against the inside of the glass. He mustered up the strength, and on the count of three, pulled his full weight up and over the glass, grabbing the twine along the way. In a mere second, he rappelled down the glass and was eye level with Sarah on the other side. Source probably never considered how and why the glass enclosure was always so spotless, as Mel had figured out long ago how to also clean the outside of the structure. He smiled at Sarah, gave her a salute, then scurried across the table until he could nonchalantly take a closer peek inside Ole Yeller. He began cleaning the windows, as if on the job, using a piece of tissue left by Source outside of the structure.

At first, he merely gained a closer look at the activity from within Ole Yeller that he could see from afar. There didn't appear to be much purpose to anything, but it was very orderly. As he turned the corner, though, he saw one of the darkened rooms and inched closer to get a better look. He squinted, and placed his paws up against the glass like a visor to the sun. After a few moments of making the adjustment to the dim light, Mel’s eyes came into complete focus and his face dropped like a bad pick up line in a mousetrap hotel. Startled, he jumped back from the tinted windows, then looked back toward his glass abode. 

Sarah was standing with her tiny paws and cute nose pressed against the glass. Mel knew in that instant he couldn’t let her return to Ole Yeller, and he had to get to the bottom of what was going on inside….


To read more about the real window washer Mel Hawthorne and his quest to solve a missing persons case tied to a major pharmaceutical cover up within the Ivory Towers, go to

       Web Site: WHEN I FALL by Barb McClatchy

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