I Cheated

There were plenty of people who expressed doubt that I could successfully give up the Web. “Four months is a loooong time—think you can last even half that long?” said a friend. “You will cheat,” said another. But after two months of being offline I had no doubt I could go the distance. Shows what I know. Last week, I spent 30 minutes online. It all started with the bunnies.

“But we already have a wonderful pet.” I argued. “We don’t need another.” Our 3-year-old dog, Chi-Chi, is a lab-husky mix. “But we want our own pets!” my daughters begged.

After a year continual pleading, of long lists of potential names and long discussions about colors, sizes, and genders, our daughters finally got Rachel and me to cave. There is an enclosed porch off our mudroom that we’d been using for storage and recycling. One weekend, we cleaned out the room to make room for a rabbit pen.

The big day was a month ago. Each girl got her own bunny (two males!). My oldest daughter, Eva, named her light gray-bunny Ash, and her sister, Charlotte, called her dark-gray bunny (who had a shock of hair like Bigwig from Watership Down) Thunder. The girls were beside themselves with joy. They spent every spare moment on the porch (except when they took their bunnies outside and into their bedrooms). They showed their bunnies off to their friends. Phone calls to their grandparents were all bunny talk.

Less than a week later, the mudroom door was left open. Chi Chi jumped up onto the rabbit room door, came down on the door’s handle, and the grim business began. Both bunnies were out of their pens but Ash somehow managed to find cover. Chi-Chi snapped Thunder up in her jaw and shook her head vigorously. He died in Rachel’s lap a few minutes later.

My youngest daughter is 7. The violent death of her bunny was the greatest tragedy of her young life. The blow of losing her new pet was bad enough; the fact that her older sister still had her bunny was unbearable. There was constant crying for days on end. That weekend we held a funeral for Thunder in our backyard. A small gathering of friends paid their respects. Thunder, in a cardboard shoebox, was placed in a shallow grave. Our neighbor, a sweet and sensitive fifth-grade boy, commented, “I don’t think anyone could have loved a bunny any more than Charlotte loved Thunder.” We were all in agreement. Rachel served cake and lemonade.

Charlotte wanted another bunny, and she wanted it right away. My wife called the mother of the classmate who had provided the first bunnies. There was a new litter but it would be weeks until they would be old enough to be given away. Rachel called the humane society and scanned Craig’s List with no luck. The local pet store was bunny-less too. Every day there were more tears. In the meantime, we put a new latch on the bunny room to make it Chi Chi-proof. “Always remember to secure the latch or you-know-what could happen,” we warned the girls repeatedly.

Twelve days later, on a Friday, we called the pet store again, and there were bunnies ready to buy. Saturday morning, Rachel and the girls were waiting at the store when it opened and picked out an adorable orange bunny that Charlotte named Cedar. Peace was restored in the kingdom. Charlotte and Cedar were inseparable all weekend.

That Monday morning after the girls left for school, I put Chi-Chi’s leash on in the mudroom. Before walking out the door, I ran back into the house to grab something. Sunglasses? My baseball hat? I honestly don’t remember. I was gone for less than 30 seconds. Upon returning to the mudroom, Cedar was laying lifeless at Chi-Chi’s feet.

The latch hadn’t been secured. I screamed as they do in overwrought comic books or in the movies: “NOOOOO!!!” My wife ran into the mudroom. She screamed just as loudly. Both of us were already feeling the emotional blow our daughter would soon suffer. I was sick to my stomach all day, dreading having to deliver the news.

It was as bad as we knew it would be. Charlotte crumpled to the ground and howled in pain. She was inconsolable, refusing to be held or comforted. She looked up, seething in anger, “Why was it my bunny again? Why do bad things always happen to me?!” she demanded to know. She also demanded a new bunny that instant. She crumpled to the ground again.

I picked her up. She continued sobbing. She refused food, even ice cream. Just that day, she had told her class about her new bunny. She felt embarrassed, maybe even ashamed, and insisted that Rachel and I tell no one about Cedar’s death. “I am not going to school tomorrow,” she cried.

We got her into the kitchen. She wouldn’t touch the smoothie Rachel made her (and she loves smoothies). She didn’t want me to read her a book. She didn’t want to watch a DVD (normally not an option on school days). I felt useless. Everyone was miserable.

She did, however, suggest that she’d be willing to play Fantastic Age, a Web site of games and cartoon avatars. Charlotte is usually allowed to go online only on weekends, but given the day’s circumstances, there was no way we could refuse her. Anything to soften the blow. She logged in and started browsing the various hairstyles she could purchase for her character. She didn’t have enough “points” for the one she wanted, so she started playing some simple video games to earn more points. She asked me to help her, and I didn’t hesitate.

In a game reminiscent of Space Invaders, I pressed the arrow keys, moving her ship left and right to avoid fire as she shot at her targets. In another game, I helped her tear down a wall by eliminating clusters of similarly colored bocks. The games were hypnotic. We sat together focused on the screen shooting and selecting.

The rest of the day was rough going, but our shared screen time got us through the worst of it. After amassing her points, buying her new hairdo, Charlotte was still distraught, but the fever pitch of hysteria was gone. It wasn’t until we’d logged off the site that it dawned on me that I’d violated my self-imposed Internet ban. Not that it would have stopped me if it had occurred to me earlier. There was no way I would have passed up the opportunity to be useful to Charlotte during her lowest moment. That afternoon I had nothing but appreciation for the computer’s soothing glow. Praise the bridges that carry you across!

Epilogue: The bunny room is now a fortress, complete with a gate, a screen door, and two dog-proof hutches. Charlotte’s new bunny, Thistle, was brought home from the pet store while she was at school the next day. Cedar’s funeral, five days later, was a less elaborate affair. Ash, to everyone’s surprise, is actually a female. More bunnies are likely on their way later this summer. Once I’m back online I’ll post a classified on Craigslist.

Condolence cards can be sent to:

The Center for Cartoon Studies
attn: James Sturm
P.O. Box 125
White River Junction, VT 05001

Next week: Responses to readers’ letters.

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