What You Cannot Replace

“The spider is our pet now, children, but one we can’t touch.  We leave him in the corner above the lamp. And we don’t hurt his webs.

“Charlie, you do not blow on the spider.  Do you see how he jumps and wiggles about?  He think’s there’s a storm and he panics.  Do you want to make your pet panic?”  Mary looked down at her son.  Charlie huffed and crossed his arms.  His sister, Emma, kept her eyes trained on their new pet.

“Yes, Emma, we can name him.  No, we cannot name him Mommy, because that’s my name.  No, we cannot name him Daddy either.

“Charlie, let your sister decide the name.  You named the dog and the fish, and now we have two pets named ‘Charlie.’”

Emma thought for a while.  Though only a year younger than her brother, she was never quite as creative as Charlie was.  And here she was, with the important task of naming a new pet.  Charlie looked up at his mother.

“No, we cannot ‘just kill it’, Charlie.  Can you make a new spider?  No, I didn’t think so.  Don’t destroy what you cannot replace.”  Charlie’s eyes shot down to the floor.  He stomped his foot.  He could not name the spider, he could not touch the spider, he could not kill the spider.  The spider might as well have never bothered to exit.

Charlie turned his body and marched over to the couch where he sat, sulking and breathing heavily.  He stared at Charlie, swimming between rocks in the fish bowl.  Another pet he wasn’t allowed to touch.

“It’s okay, Emma.  Your brother is being a poor sport.  We’ll let him mope until he is ready to join us again.”  Emma moved closer to her mom, holding the fingertips of her hand and humming.  She stared endlessly at the spider, studying its thin, brown, branch-like legs, and trying to think of names outside of her family.

Emma’s mom was also thinking about names, or rather, one in particular: Roland.  If Emma choose any name but that, it would be okay.  It already belonged to a loved one.  Mary kept her head high, and was glad that her son was pouting on the couch and her daughter started so intensely at the spider that she did not blink.  It meant no eyes were on her, and unwatched, she could reflect.  Her memory worked in faded colors, like the old home movies she sometimes watched when she couldn’t fall asleep.

Though staring at the spider, she could see the room she grew up in, white, and its hardwood floor, glossy.  She felt the rug she was rolling up, stiff, and the metal from Roland’s cage under her bed, cold.  She enjoyed the pitter patter that his toes made wandering across the hardwood flooring.  He was smart, and she had taught him to grab ahold of her hand when he was hungry.  He’d grip her finger firmly, and she’d feed him a piece of bread tightly coiled into a ball.

Roland had come from her 4th grade teacher, who did not want to keep the pet rat in the class after school had ended.  Mary was very skilled at forging both of her parent’s signatures.

Though only 10, Mary had learned a lot that year with Roland.  It was true that her father normally knocked on doors, and it was true that she could quickly sweep Roland back into his cage and under the bed when he came to visit her.  But these truths were not absolute, she found out.

Without hearing the light switch flick on, without hearing footsteps in the hall, and without hearing the door knob turn, Mary was caught by surprise.  And so was her father, who stood at the doorway with a bowl of popcorn.  The bowl slammed to the floor, scattering kernels and warm popcorn .  Both of her father’s hands gripped the door frame at the sight of Roland running across the wooden floor, his feet slipping.

There was yelling, mostly from fear, and mostly from her dad trying to protect his daughter from such a dirty creature.

There was so much yelling that he could not separate his voice from hers.

So he did not hear her say that his name was Roland.

And that she was his friend.

Or that his favorite snack was bread.

And she did not hear the bones break.

But she saw the neck twist.

And she saw his kicking legs drop loosely beside him.

And learned that blood can sometimes seep from the mouth.

Emma finally took her eyes off the spider.  She gazed, instead, at her mom.  “‘Leggy’ is a fine name, Emma.  From now on, he is Leggy.”

What You Cannot Replace

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