“You gotta get a hermit crab!,” my brother-in-law, Tom, said to my kids as we strolled the sidewalks of Bethany Beach, Delaware. “It’s tradition!”
I laughed. “We have a dog. We’re fine.” The kids stopped to gaze at the hundreds of hermit crabs in hand-painted shells that were climbing the metal mesh walls of a giant cage in front of the surf shop. “I want that one! No that one! Look at that one painted like Spongebob! Can we get one?” “Forget it,” I replied, “you two won’t even walk the dog.”
The pleading continued for the next couple of days. My loving sister wore me down further. “It’s no big deal. All the kids get them. They’re really cheap and last about a week.” It was just what I needed to hear. We packed the car and headed back to Chicago with two little hermit crabs in tow, each in their own brightly painted shells and small cages. The kids named them Fred and Sandy and promised to take charge.
And they did. For about a week.
Each evening at bedtime I’d ask, “Did you feed your crab?” The responses were always the same—“Whoops!”, “Oh yeah!”, “Hold on”—as they’d shoot out of bed. As the weeks passed I wondered how long I had to deal with this and decided to look it up. Hermit crabs can last ten years, I read. They are social and live in groups. Hermit crabs molt and get bigger and bigger and oh crap! I cursed Tom’s name. We went to the pet store, bought a fish tank, filled it with sand and other crab-lovin’ items and put Fred and Sandy together. It was the least we could do. But the kids’ interest remained a problem. First, I moved the tank to their bathroom so the crabs would be noticed during the teeth-brushing ritual. Didn’t work. Then I moved the tank to the hallway at the top of the stairs. Didn’t help. Then I put them in the master bathroom where everyone showered. Still, my kids were slowing starving the poor critters.
One day, I looked in the tank and Fred, identified only by his orange painted shell, was gone. I called my son upstairs. He responded to my inquiry with a panicked expression.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I put him on my bed the other night to crawl around while I brushed my teeth.”
“And I think I forgot to put him back.”
We checked in the bed, under the bed, by the desk, in the closet, in the hall…. How hard could it be to find a bright orange shell crawling across a floor? But he was gone. And then I remembered that the cleaning lady had come the day before. I figured he’d either been thrown in the washing machine or vacuumed up. Either way, he was a goner. My son felt awful. I just hoped to avoid the smell of dead fish somewhere in the house.
A month passed and I continued to remind my daughter to feed poor, lonely Sandy. And then as I was stepping into the shower one day, I looked down and saw a bright orange shell. Fred! I called the kids with great excitement. He was alive! I looked to my son for a new-found passion to care for him. His excitement lasted a nano-second. I believe it was, “Cool! Hey Fred! Can I go next door and play?”
Months passed. Every few days at bedtime, I’d ask about the crabs and the kids would jump up and head for the tank. And then it happened. Sandy croaked. My daughter chose to think her death was from “natural causes” and staged an elaborate funeral and burial in the backyard with her friends. I turned to my son. “We’ve got to get rid of Fred. He’s all alone and no one can remember to feed him and I feel sorry for him.” He agreed. And we came up with a plan. We were heading back to Delaware in July to visit my sister again and we’d return him to the beach where he belonged. We just had to keep him alive for a few more months.
When the day of our trip finally arrived, we poked some holes in a plastic container and got Fred ready for the trip. “You’re going home, buddy!” my kids chimed. Everyone was excited to take him back. After the fourteen hour road trip, we unpacked the car, changed into bathing suits, headed for the beach, and grabbed Fred. As we walked along the sand, I wondered aloud, “Do you think we should put him near the bluff in the dry sand or down in the wet sand?” My brother-in-law chimed in again. “You know, hermit crabs aren’t indigenous to this area. They’re land and tree crabs. He’s not gonna do too well here,” he added with a chuckle. My kids’ jaws dropped. Thanks again, Tom. I tried to recover quickly and assure my kids we wouldn’t kill Fred. “Maybe we should just see if the store will take him back,” I offered, wondering with great fear what on earth we’d do if the store clerk said no.
But then my sister had an even better idea. “The cages are on the sidewalk. Let’s just walk by, hold up the crab, and he’ll grab on to the wire mesh. They’ll see him eventually and get him back in.” Brilliant! We said our goodbyes to Fred before we neared the store, my son grabbed him, and I tossed the empty container in the trash. There was no turning back. My son was in charge of the drop. It would be a covert op. We were all excited. But the damn crab wouldn’t grab on to the cage. My son panicked. I tried to advise without drawing attention. My daughter soon joined in and we were creating a scene. People were walking by, there were too many whispers. “Dispurse, dispurse!” I ordered and we all scattered for a moment. We went back to the cage and my sister checked the cage door—it wasn’t locked. She opened it. “Toss him,” she whispered. My son placed Fred onto a water soaked sponge surrounded by hundreds of crabs in the middle of the cage and we quickly slammed the door. Success! We were free and poor Fred was back with his buddies.
We began imagining the horror stories Fred would share of his year. The road trips, the loss of his girlfriend, the month of survival in the wilds of our second floor, the glee of returning to his “home.” And then we wondered if anyone else had ever bought a crab only to return it a year later, like it was a rental. I’m thinking yes. That must be why the cage wasn’t locked.