Once upon a time there was a hermit crab. He (or she) was the pet of a little girl. The girl’s name was Julia, but the hermit crab didn’t know this because he (or she) probably didn’t understand human speech. The hermit crab knew only his coconut shell hiding spots, the driftwood it climbed on, his water dish, food pellets, and pieces of fresh fruit or vegetables the little girl (or her ever vigilant parents) provided. The hermit crab had an assortment of shells to wear, and the hermit crab had a long life, for a hermit crab.
And then one morning it was dead.
This wasn’t the first time Julia shrieked and said her hermit crab was dead. There were a couple of times he had shed his exoskeleton to grow a new one, and she’d thought the exoskeleton was the hermit crab, his soul gone to that great hermit crab shell in the sky, but no, it was just the exoskeleton. Tears were wiped away and a great sigh of relief whooshed through the house.
Now, there were other pets. There had been three cats when the hermit crab first arrived. Now there was just one. There was a scary lizard in the tank next door, and, from time to time, unfortunate crickets crammed into a little clear box in between the two tanks. At times one of the humans would remove some crickets and sprinkle them in with the scary lizard. The scary lizard would lick her lips and the crickets’ chirping would grow quiet.
The hermit crab was just supposed to be a practice pet, so to speak. A pet that a small girl could take care of and learn responsibility and so forth, but that wasn’t as expensive or in need of as much attention as, say, almost anything else.
The hermit crab lived longer than the parents had expected, until that one day – December 30th, 2015 to be precise – when the hermit crab was well and truly dead.
The little girl was sad, and she and her father buried it at the back of the yard, to the right of the asparagus patch, where most of the other very small dead pets had been interred.
Now, the little girl was truly sad, but it was a short sadness, for, well, it was a hermit crab, and not the most affectionate nor cuddly of pets, and for a long time the little girl had been wishing for and wanting another pet some day. A dog was at the top of her list. Then a ferret. Or another cat. Or a bunny. Or – most recently – a guinea pig. Sometimes she’d request a parrot. Once or twice she mentioned a snake. Or a rat.
The parents had said no to all of these requests, for various reasons, both personal and practical, but when the hermit crab died they looked at each other and understood that the rules had just changed. And then, later, that very same day, the father looked at the mother and said – with quiet excitement – “I’m gonna get her a Guinea Pig!” The mother looked at the father like he’d announced a desire to listen to Broadway show tunes for the next year. And then she shrugged and said “Okay, if that’s what you want to do.”
The very next day, New Year’s Eve Day, the mother headed to work at about ten o’clock, and soon after, Julia went to spend the afternoon rollerskating with a friend. After rollerskating, she would sleep over that same friend’s house. She was very excited.
The mother texted the father, and, when he didn’t respond, she also texted the son, just to see what they were doing. She didn’t hear back from them for a while and had a tiny suspicion as to what they might be doing, but since she was at work, she just had to wait. And work, of course. And wait.
And then the husband sent her this picture:
When she could take a break the mother called the father to get all the details. He’d purchased a cage, food, bedding, a water bottle, and the Guinea Pig. It was young and very cute. Julia knew nothing. The mother was unexpectedly delighted. For one thing, her husband was very sweet and cute at times, and this was one of those times. For a second thing, she could just imagine the look on Julia’s face when she found out.
That second thing was a bit of a bummer, because not only was the mother working until 7:00 that night; she was also working the opening shift the next day and would not be home when Julia returned from her sleepover. The son promised to videotape the event, which was sweet and kind.
That evening, after work, she sat at home in the living room with the father and the Guinea Pig. She read the pamphlets provided by the pet store, and listened as the father recounted everything that had happened at the pet store and and every word the pet store lady had said regarding the Guinea Pig. It was a boy. And Guinea pigs are social creatures and like company. Hmmm.
Later that evening, after the mother had held the furry little creature and had fallen in love immediately, she received a text from Julia. This was around ten o’clock. Julia, in a nutshell, was homesick and kinda sorta wanted to come home. Half an hour or so later the mother met Julia at the door (the house she’d been staying at was just up the street and her friend and friend’s mother had walked her home), wished the other mother and daughter a happy new year and thanked them twice, and herded Julia toward the living room. “Come on inside and tell me about your day,” she said, giggling to herself.
Julia entered the living room and stopped when she saw the cage. She turned slowly to see her father sitting on the couch, a brown and black little furry thing held to his chest.
Julia cried. She was completely and utterly overwhelmed and thrilled and stunned and excited and who knows what else, all at once. That’s a lot of feelings for a little girl.
She named her Guinea Pig “Cookie” because he looked, with the brown and black, like a chocolate chip cookie. And she snuggled the little furry creature and talked to him and took him into her heart.
The next day, January 1, 2016, the mother was at work when her brain and will were suddenly taken over by some furry alien force. And on her way home she stopped at the very same pet store the father and son had been at just the previous day. And she looked at all the other young Guinea Pigs and chose one that was nearly all black with one white foot and some faint swirls of white in his undercoat. This guy had been one of Cookie’s roommates before Cookie was adopted, and the pet store worker was pretty sure they would get along fine, since they already knew each other and had only been separated for one day.
The mother came home – she had told the father – and brought the cardboard box into the living room where her daughter was playing a board game with a friend in the living room. There was a fire going in the fireplace, and because Guinea Pigs don’t like really warm environments, the cage had been moved to the music room. Julia’s eyes widened and there was much exclaiming by her, her friend, and the son and his friend (who had slept over the night before) and, at the pet store worker’s suggestion they introduced the two Guinea Pigs in a safe, neutral space. The bathtub. The furry little boys didn’t quite know what to do in the strange white space, so the mother moved Cookie closer to the new guy, and they sniffed each other and immediately snuggled into one furry, dark-eyed ball.
And thus begins the Era of the Guinea Pigs.
And thus also ends my talking about us all in third person.
Scratchy, in case you were wondering, has not yet made up his mind about these furry little additions to the household. Don’t worry, they will not be playing together.
“But…what are those things? And why are they here? In my house? Why?”