Toad Episode

Tonight, because there is a blizzard outside, and the cookies are baked, I bring you a summer story of enough fun.

My kids have become dissatisfied with our two cats as pets. The cats sleep a lot, pounce unexpectedly when you come around the refrigerator and have absolutely no ‘cool’ factor with their friends. Sometimes we go to the pet store at the mall “just to look” and I am asked to explain again why we can’t have a salamander/gerbil/hermit crab/fish/mouse. Anything, it seems, would be better than what we have. Each time the question is asked, I give the same answer. How do you think the (fill in the blank) would get along with the cats? There is an uncomfortable silence while they contemplate who would eat who. And this is my plan. If I get a convincing argument that we could keep the new pet safely caged from the cats, I’ll ask my back up question, “Who will take care of it when you are at dad’s house?” End of discussion. This strategy had been effective for three years. I am not opposed to any of these small creatures being in the house, but what I don’t need is one more thing to take care of. I don’t even have houseplants.

 I am at work when I get a phone call from the director of the day camp the kids are attending this summer. Unfortunately, I have received phone calls from her before. Once, my daughter had slipped on some rocks. She had a scrape on her knee and her cheek. The director has called several other times when one of my boys was in conflict with another camper or a staff member and the conflict has ended with a swear word or a kick to the shins. These calls are never about good news. My muscles begin to tense as the director speaks: Umm, I’m sorry to bother you at work, but um, well, ah, well. Well, I really am not sure what happened back in the woods earlier today (my imagination gambols in the woods, imagining what might have happened) but I need you to know that I think we are going to have a real problem with Michael getting on the bus this afternoon if we don’t let him come home with this toad.

 I almost laugh out loud in relief, take a moment to compose myself and reply in a somber tone, “We will make a home for the toad.” “Thank you,” the director says.

 The toad came home that evening in a Gladware sandwich box that had 14 holes about the size of a pencil poked in the plastic lid. The box contained a couple dry sticks, some dirt, a squarish rock and a very small toad. She (Michael informs me that it is female, which he knows from the striped pattern on her belly. Whether this is the scientific method for sexing a toad, I don’t know, but Michael has studied toads and I have no reason to doubt him.) She is about ¾” long, a brownish color with raised areas on her back. Toad bumps. She slightly resembles the rock in the sandwich box. She has tiny black eyes and she does not pee in my hand when I hold her, although Michael says it is very likely.

 After supper we go to buy her a larger, more cat-proof habitat and some toad food. On the way, the boys discuss what to name her. Patrick, who enjoys irony, suggests “Fluffy,” which makes me laugh, but Michael, who is more literal, says her name is Rocky. We find a suitable box with a secured lid, but it turns out there is no such thing as “toad food” because toads only eat live insects. How Michael knew Rocky’s sex, but not this other important tidbit goes unchallenged. We go home with a bag of crickets. We put three crickets along with a lid of water, some dirt and more sticks in the cage, but in the morning all three crickets are hopping about. I am concerned that Rocky will not survive her captivity if we do not become better providers. I send the boys outside to forage for insects. They come back with two roly-poly bugs. It turns out that Rocky likes these, which is good, because they are fairly slow moving as insects go and the boys are able to catch them. Later we give her a circadian that is bigger than she is and it dies, apparently of old age or boredom, because Rocky will not go near it. We find some bright green, yellow and black striped caterpillars and put them in the cage. Michael won’t touch them with his hands, but he tries to move them closer to Rocky with a stick, so she will notice them. However, when Michael touches the caterpillar with the stick, they protrude out antennae with bright red globes at the end of them and this scares Michael. He believes this is a sign that they are poisonous and may hurt Rocky. He gets more and more agitated until I stop what I am doing and come get them out of the cage.

 In order to keep the cats away from Rocky at night, the boys place her on top of a book shelf, about four feet off the floor and next to a dresser about the same height. The dresser is covered with abandoned projects. About 3am, I hear a crash upstairs, exactly the sound that a plastic box with dirt and sticks and a toad would make if it fell from a height of about four feet. I run upstairs and find the toad box on the floor, on its side with the lid popped off and dirt and sticks on the carpet. In the dim of the night, I search for Rocky, hoping that she has survived her plummet. The boys are still sleeping. I find her in a corner of the box, covered in dirt and slightly shaken. At least, she looks shaken to me, but it is dark. I hold her up to my face, eye to eye, tell her she is alright, put her back in the box, snap the lid on tight and head back to bed, wondering if the crickets got out.

 In the morning, the crickets are missing.  We never do find them.

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