Peanut Butter Fluff lost its earthly name and assumed the title: The Immortal. This is after living approximately four years over the maximum guinea pig life expectancy—a feat that Mom never fails to remind us about every time It utters a squeak. And It squeaks constantly; with every month that passes, Its call gets shriller. More nasally. Further away from death. Why God created a creature that communicates by screaming, Mom says she’ll never know.
My brother and I, though—we don’t think it matters much. The point is that It’s still here. Still breathing. Still squeaking years after It should have been gone. Each time It squeaks, Mom raps on the bars of Its cage.
We tell Mom to quit it. We’d be screaming too if we ever got that old in people years.
She says she’s screaming on the inside raising us.
Each morning, Mom opens our bedroom door and pulls back our blinds to wake us. When we stir, she throws her head towards the far dresser and calls out, are You dead yet? She is answered with the shrieking, squealing complaints of The Immortal. So she gets us out the door for school, or on weekends, just out of the house. What all else she does, we don’t think we’ll ever know—but a chunk of every day is spent cleaning Its ribbed cage, replacing the Holy Water, refilling Its wafer dish. All the while, The Immortal hobbles around socked feet in a plastic purple ball. Sometimes, if Mom’s lucky, she’s thanked by a fresh pile of turds the minute those small, scrabbly feet hit new bedding.
At dinner, Mom tells us if a fire or flood ever floored the house, The Immortal would survive and come home just to spite her, an olive branch clenched between Its teeth. Her face is red and wild and funny to us. Our dad, especially. He laughs and motions with his thumb towards the backyard. Says, we could use more wood for the brush pile.
Mom says that the Immortal likes testing our faith. Every now and then, we come in from playing all dirty and scrappy and find the Immortal laying on Its side against the wall of Its cage. We stop dead in our tracks. Call out. But there’s nothing but silence. So we run to the top of the steps and whisper-scream for Dad, who follows with his eyebrows upturned and sharp.
He blinks at the Immortal, laying still in our room. Calls out to It, hey! And when there’s no response this crazy giggle bubbles up out of his throat. Mary! He laughs, running to the top of the steps, us bounding like dogs at his heels. Mary! Until she’s at the bottom at the steps staring up at us with that go play in traffic kind of look. Mary, It’s dead! Only took nine freaking years!
Her eyes widen and she climbs the staircase faster than we’ve ever seen. Then she’s past us and we’re following her back to our room where the Immortal waits. Only the moment Mom steps into our bedroom, the Immortal must hear the soft scuffle of her slipper socks—must smell that Vanilla bean perfume clinging to her like ghosts—because by then, It’s sitting upright.
Mom stops dead and the Immortal squeaks Its scolding.
Sometimes we let The Immortal out just to see what Mom’ll do. By now there’s this lump growing between Its shoulder blades and Its eyes are all bugged and milky. We try not to touch either feature as It freezes between our fingers. Dad sees as we lift It into the ball and stares. That thing on Its back… Did it calcify? We shrug. ‘S hard.
Then we cap the ball and roll it down to where Mom’s making pigs in a blanket for her Bible study tonight after our dinner. It scuttles towards her feet, and when she sees it, her eyes roll straight back in her skull. The Immortal doesn’t move within. It just squeaks at her from Its newfound throne on the floor. She rubs her temple; we’re surprised she can’t hear us giggling from the hallway. Then there’s a carrot in her hand, and the ball plus Immortal going up the stairs.
There’s no squeaking throughout dinner, but Mom still opens prayer saying, Lord, I don’t pretend to know your methods. But it seems that that Pig is planning to outlive us all.
It’s November when we come home to find The Immortal laying in Its cage one night. And not in that pretend kind of way that It had gotten good at doing, either. No, this time it looks cold and stiff, harder than the lump in Its back or the three-inch claws. Gnats circle still eyes.
We don’t quite know what to do but look at each other. Then we race down the stairs, nervously giddy and panting into the TV room. Mom’s the first one out of her chair. We follow Dad follow Mom up the steps and find her with a hand against the cage, reaching in. The room is too silent.
It’s almost eleven and Dad has a shovel. He’s chipping away, chipping away at the frozen Earth one chunk at a time. Mom stands on the back porch with her slippers and a nightgown on, the two of us beside her, quiet for once. The Immortal’s shoebox is a coffin in her hand; the Sketchers logo seems too bright for the occasion.
It’s by then we almost believe that there’s a guinea pig in there, once, distantly, named Peanut Butter Fluff. But once it’s all done and buried in the ground, and Mom has made us all cocoa around the dinner table, she pulls out a stone from her pocket and writes “Immortal” on it with black Sharpie. It will make a decent tombstone. Then she caps it, and sighs, Amen.