Around the House: Shell Game 

Two new pets and the real facts of life.

Only it turns out that these hermit-crab kits, when you look at the fine print, are kits in the sense that a gallon of water is an aquarium. When we decipher the booklet that comes with the kits, it turns out that the crabs need: (a) a heat source; (b) food; (c) salt for their bathing water; and (d) crabs.

Well, of course the kits don't actually contain any crabs. You have to add those. What, you thought crabs would live in a kit on the shelf at Toys "R" Us? Don't be silly.

Off we go to PetSmart. We peruse an aquarium full of crawling shells to choose our newest pets. The boys are, again, thrilled.

"I want that one!" cries the 8-year-old, pointing.

"I want that one!" cries the 3-year-old, pointing elsewhere.

"This one?" asks the pet-store worker, a frazzled teenager. "This one?"

"No!" cry the boys. "That one!"

Eventually, the correct crabs are obtained along with the heat source, the food, the salt, etc. I do not purchase the many possible accessories (crab treats! crab toys! crab water! crab baths!). Total cost to us for the boys' gifts from their loving aunt: $32.

The boys admire their crabs, which are about the size of large marbles. "They're so cute!" cries the 8-year-old. And you know, they are kind of cute in a way, with their little eyestalks and their nests of claws protruding from their shells.

Once at home, the 8-year-old, a pragmatist, names his crab Hermy. The 3-year-old, who loves a show about trains with faces, names his Thomas. The 3-year-old cups Thomas in his palms. Thomas promptly pinches him with an impressively big claw.

"He just lost his balance and was scared," I say, to soothe the boy.

"That's OK. I love him," the 3-year-old says through tears.

The crabs scramble around Crab Island, a plastic kidney-shaped container about the size of a football. They drink crab water, eat crab-food pellets, soak up rays from the crab heater. Everyone is happy.

Two weeks pass. The crabs are not always active, to say the least. "They're nocturnal, and besides, it's winter," I remind the kids. "They're cold-blooded, so they're a bit slow now."

Hermy is more than a bit slow, though. He's a lot slow. In fact, he's immobile. After a week of not seeing Hermy move, the 8-year-old walks past the bookcase where Crab Island is located and says: "Phew! The crabs need a bath! They smell terrible!"

I've been a father for years now, so my heart sinks. After bedtime I investigate, reeling from the rotting-fish stench billowing forth from Crab Island when I remove the top. Thomas moves away from my prodding finger. Hermy, though, does not. Prod. Nothing. My worst fears are realized.

What should I do?

Lie, of course.

The next morning, I break the news. "Boys," I say heartily, "Hermy is molting!" I explain that Hermy has outgrown his shell. He's hiding in the sand until he's ready for his new one.

"Good Hermy!" says the 8-year-old.

"Yay!" says the 3-year-old.

"I'll get a new shell for him!" I say.

While both boys are at school, I return to PetSmart and pick out a new crab, this one larger, golf-ball-sized. When the boys come home that evening, they rush to Crab Island.

"Dad!" cries the 8-year-old, "Hermy's moved into his shell! He's bigger!"

Hermy is moving around Crab Island like a terrier. He's bigger, stronger, more assertive. He's acting like, well, a new crab.

"Go, Hermy!" says the 8-year-old.

"Yay!" says the 3-year-old.

"You want to hold him?" I ask.

"No!" they say, in chorus. So we watch Hermy and Thomas gambol through Crab Island until bedtime. HS



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