In second grade we had a class pet named Lightning. He was a hermit crab and I thought Lightning was too cliché a name for him. I thought he should be named Herman because it rolled so well off the tongue.
HERman the HERmit crab. Herrrman Herrrmit.
And I would say it like that to try and persuade the others. Maybe if they said it enough they would like it too.
Lightning was fed once daily, a large musty smelling brown pellet, like a big chunk of dog food. We would gather around his cage as the teacher demonstrated placing the pellet onto his food plate and then touching it with an eye dropper of water. The pellet would suck up all the moisture and puff up like a warm, wet pillow. Lightning would not notice because, fun fact, Hermit Crabs are extremely low activity animals and they don’t eat much or often. We children were highly underwhelmed but the point of the pet was not to entertain, he was our key to learning about life and responsibility.
A chart was made of who would take him home each weekend and as soon as my name was put down, I became acutely aware that this was a terrible idea. I knew, deep in my tiny little heart, that this son of a bitch was going to wait until my weekend to kick the bucket. He was going to die as soon as I got him home and everyone would blame me for his death. During free times in class I would sit by his cage and whisper
Don’t you do this to me. Don’t you dare die on my watch.
I hated him for his impending death and his ill-fitting name.
When my turn finally came, I was deeply upset by the fact that he was still alive. I anxiously awaited the return of an empty cage every Monday, but he kept showing up, spritely as ever.
On the Friday of my doomed weekend, I begrudgingly carried his plastic box home with me and set him down in a comfortable place. Maybe he wouldn’t die after all. Maybe this was my chance to learn how to love and care for another living thing. If Matthew, the boy who always smelled like pee could keep Lightning alive, surely I could as well! So with my little anxiety level cranked to the max, I diligently soaked his pellet pillow and changed his water bowl. I said encouraging, uplifting things to him;
Good job, Buddy! Eat that mushy pellet! You look so healthy and strong!
I didn’t sleep that night.
I woke up multiple times, ran to his box and picked him up like a new mother terrified of SIDS. I’d poke his little legs and feel a wave of relief when he recoiled in fear. All night I did this, and well into the next day too. My dad saw me obsessively poking the little guy and informed me that it’s very easy to tell if a Hermit crab is dead.
My dad is always full of fun facts that no one else knows. This is one of the things we have in common, random trivia and a natural and well defined swoop of hair that curves high and to the right. One of my Dad’s favorite lines to say when someone remarks on his surprising ability to check car fluids or make waffles from scratch is
Jack of all trades, master of none.
During the era of Lightning the Hermit crab, my dad was a traveling pet supplies salesman so he knew just about every random fact about pets to know. To litter box train your cat, simply put it and the litter box into the bathroom and close them in overnight. By morning your cat will have figured it out. When a Hermit crab dies, its tiny back legs let go of the shell and it plops out onto the table with the sad little crunch sound of lifeless shell.
He didn’t tell me that last part about the sound, exactly. My dad is a big picture guy who often misses the subtle nuances that would scar a child for life.
You’re not tired? Of course you can sit and watch Alien with me until you fall asleep.
Armed with all the necessary knowledge of Hermit crab death, I began to rest a little easier and left Lightning alone for the remainder of the day. Ever the obsessive worrier, I did check on him one more time before bed, one quick courtesy check, just for my own peace of mind.
I can’t say I was really surprised to feel his little carcass roll out of the shell but I think it was the first time in my life I truly felt defeated. I know now that animals don’t die out of spite but at the time, I felt like he was trying to frame me for murder. I could hear the cries and the screams of my angry classmates, devastated that I’d killed our beloved pet and I just wasn’t prepared to handle that sort of stress. I was already an outcast, teacher’s pet. I spent recess walking a slow circle around the playground by myself. I was the kid who sat in the back of the class, waving her hand in the air with an urgent, whining whimper because of course, I knew the answer.
Dear god please pick me, I know the answer!
I couldn’t be all those things and the kid who killed the crab. Insane scenarios started to play out in my head.
What if they really think I killed him on purpose? What if they think I spent all weekend doing experiments on him, torturing him with my incessant rambling of useless facts? What if I’m incapable of keeping something alive?
So I did what any terrified kid would do, I hid the evidence. I picked up the lifeless body and I stuffed it back into the shell. I set him up in between his puffy, un-eaten dinner and his water dish like a happy little diorama or a picture from a pet care book with a name like
How to be a super awesome parent to your Hermit Crab who is totally not dead but really alive and happy.
For the next day and two nights I dutifully fed and watered a dead animal. I slept in my room with the smelly body of a crab, crammed awkwardly into its shell like a dead hooker stuffed into the trunk of a mobster’s car. I was a killer, a crime lord, a heartless bad guy who killed for fun. I was spiraling out of control, trapped in my own head. My dad and I do not have this trait in common.
I have an extremely guilty conscience, I was raised Catholic. Typically when I did something wrong, I would immediately tell on myself. One time, I absent-mindedly traced all the shapes on the pink geometric throw rug in my bedroom and when everything was outlined in black marker, I ran into my mom’s room while she was in the shower and showed her what I did. She poked her head through the curtain and said
If you knew this was a bad idea, why did you do it?
And I said
I just couldn’t help myself.
If my life was a movie, which sometimes I wonder if it is, this would be the tag line.
Jessica Pepper: The Movie. She just can’t help herself.
When Monday finally came, I carried Lightning and his plastic box ever so carefully out in front of me in a step, together, step, together, pattern like I was the flower girl in a wedding procession. I just spent the last two days with a dead crustacean in my room, there was no way I was going to let a misstep ruin this for me now. I needed to get him out of my life. I needed to get away with my horrible crime.
My guilty conscious was eating me alive. This was The Tell Tale Heart for 2nd graders.
When I got him back onto his shelf, I ran for my seat and slid into like it was Home Plate. Safe. Anything that happened now was out of my hands. As far as everyone knew, we got on like gangbusters. We had the best weekend ever. I learned everything there is to know about being responsible. I passed the test with flying colors, of course.
Throughout the day, kids would go by to check on Lightning and make casual remarks about how he was moving even less than usual. And I would say
Hmm I just saw him walking around a minute ago. You must have missed it.
For all they knew, Lightning and I had a special bond now. We were best friends.
Eventually, someone asked the teacher how you can tell if a Hermit Crab is dead and she said that she wasn’t all that sure. I raised my hand and told the class in my best know-it-all voice that my know-it-all dad told me they fall out of their shells when they die but I wasn’t sure because I had never seen it happen in real life. Ever.
So of course, someone immediately picked him up and out popped the several days dead body of our little friend. Horror is the only word to describe the general mood of the class. The howling and the crying and the instant hatred of the person who picked him up, as if he were Death himself and harbored the ability to take lives with one touch. But hey, they weren’t blaming me, so I jumped on that bandwagon.
Shock and awe. Fake it till you make it.
Why is this happening? Why god, why would you take our friend suddenly on this fine Monday morning after he had such a lovely and might I add, lively, weekend with me, his best friend?
This of course was one of the reasons for having a class pet in the first place. We had to learn the harsh
reality of death at some point and thanks to the untimely departure of a little crab, everyone in the class learned the lesson set out to learn: everything dies.
A Catholic education coupled with the over-active imagination of a child produces a horrible stew of neuroses and fear. I took the death to mean something more than what everyone else took away from it. I learned that you can hide your problems; you can literally stuff them into a small space and as long as it looks okay from the outside, no one will question you. I learned how to keep secrets, how to lie, how to pretend you feel a certain way when you really feel the opposite.
Avoid at all costs. Dodge the problems, pass them off onto someone else.
Project, project, project!
But there are consequences to your actions. The lies are living things that sit in your belly and move around with heavy, wet heft, like chunks of raw meat. They will manifest themselves in ways you do not realize and you will pay the price for your actions.
I can’t eat crab legs to this day, and that’s just the cross I have to bear.