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Nature vs. Nurture
by Thom Didato



“I have three sons,” the mother recalls. “Darin, the oldest, is the most serious, hardest working, and the quietest. Duncan, the middle son is the most clever, charismatic, and probably the most talented of the bunch. He is also the loudest. And my youngest . . . Well, he’s just the youngest, and always will be… If they were to come upon a bug, Darin would want to catch it and study it, Duncan would want to kill it, and my youngest would just run away and cry.”


Between the screen door and the hanging plant that extends from the shingled house, a spider diligently goes about its work. Her web, an arithmetic assembly of silk, is nearly complete. The spider eagerly awaits its first catch of the day -- a ten-year-old boy. Running across the kitchen floor, the boy swings open the screen door and jumps outside -- right into the spider's morning work.

“Ahhh!!” Standing on the steps, his hands grab at the air around his face and head.

A good portion of the spider's home remains intact. Realizing that this catch is too big to handle, the spider begins her repair work.

“Cool, a spider,” Duncan says, who, along with the eldest family associate, emerges from the doorway. “Let's kill it!”

“Why don't you just leave it alone? Nasty spider.”

“How come you're so scared of bugs?” Darin calmly replies, already examining the spider and the web as if they were under a microscope. Being the oldest grants him the right to be heard over the pointless bickering between the younger two. “After what you've just done, the spider is probably more scared of you.”

“I just don't like bugs, that all.”

“‘I don't like bugs,’” Duncan mocks in a whiny tone. Being the class bully in a class of three was easy for the chubby middle son. So begins the routine. “'They're scary… Get it away from me! I'm scared.'” Duncan picks up a rock and is preparing to use it against the spider.

“Leave it alone!” shouts the boy, fearfully approaching the dangling web.

“I’m scared. Will you wipe my fanny for me?”

“Shut up!” The boy’s big blue eyes already fighting the natural urge to cry. Duncan punches his younger brother in the chest. A deep dull thud echoes off the side of the house.

“Leave me alone! Mom!”

“Will the both of you just be quiet,” Darin orders, barely having paid any attention to his brothers' usual escapade. He pokes the web gently with a stick, testing the spider's reflexes as it continues to go about her work. “Go get some bugs to feed this guy.”

“I'm not going anywhere,” whimpers the boy.

Darin’s turn. “You heard him wimp, get a move on.”

“I said, I'm not going anywhere!”

“Wrong answer!” Darin says, shoving his brother off the side of the cement steps. The boy falls into the middle of the nearby shrubbery. Years later, their parents will wonder why there are large gaps in the middle of all their shrubberies.

“You guys can find your own bugs!” he screams, escaping into the woods.

While his older brothers throw a year’s worth of flies, ants, earwigs and other bugs at the spider web, the boy wanders under the trees and squawking birds of the neighborhood forest. He envisions a day, fifty years from then, himself, a grown adult in good health, crimping his once overbearing brother's oxygen tube at the old folks home. The boy smiles as he pictures his now extremely fat and bald brother's head turning an interesting shade of blue. He laughs to himself as he quickens his pace, jumping over the rotten moss-eaten logs that cross the path.

All of a sudden, out of the corner of his eye, he sees something fall from the treetops above. There, lying on its back in a patch of leaves, is a frog. Its left leg seems to be twisted the wrong way, as if it were a loose bedspring.

“Cool, a frog!” The boy grabs a stick and flips the frog over to see if it's still alive.


“You're not that slimy,” he says as he gently picks up the creature. “I think you're going to be O.K.” The boy cradles the injured animal in his palm, applying pats to the head with his forefinger. “Maybe I'll take you home until you get better? How’s that sound there . . . Froggy. Sounds good, eh Froggy?”

Running back to the house with his new pet in hand, the boy checks to see if his brothers are still around. All that remains is the result of their work, a once invisible web now sagging from the weight of a billion bugs. Coast clear, the boy grabs his mother's good wash bucket, fills it with sticks, stones and a little bit of water and leaves Froggy -- near the family's faded gray shack.

“Hey analwipe, whatcha got over there?” Darin and Duncan stroll up the stone driveway.

“Nothin . . .” is the reply lie. The boy runs from the shed to his oldest brother, and too innocently asks, “What have you guys been up to?”

“Engh, engh. Don't go trying to change the subject,” Darin grins.

“Yeah!” Duncan shouts, pushing his little brother aside to make his way towards the shed. “What are you covering up over here?”

“I told you, nothin!”

“GRIMP!” The boy winces.

“Doesn't sound like nothing.” Darin’s head shakes from side to side.

“Doesn't look like nothing, either!” Duncan yells from the side of the shed. “It's a cute little frog. Let's kill it!”

“Don't!” shrieks the boy as he runs to the bucket. “Leave him alone. He's my pet.”

“Geeze, calm down, I was only kidding.”

With the three of them stooping over the bucket, Darin asks, “What are you going to do with him?”

“I'm keeping him,” he announces. “At least until his leg gets better.”

“Something wrong with its leg?” Duncan asks, already poking the creature with a stick. “You should just pull it off. They can grow back new ones, you know.”

“They cannot!” the boy shouts as he moves between the frog and the evil brother.

“Can too, really!”

The boy looks to Darin. “Really?” The oldest blinks his eyes and shakes his head — indicating that, as usual, the chubby brother is full of . . .

“No they can't!”

“You wanna bet?”

“Just get away.”

“Let’s try it and see what happens.”

“Get away.”

Duncan tosses the stick. “I bet your pet there will die within a week.”

“Get away!”

“One week.”

“Come on, leave him alone,” mumbles the oldest, walking back to the house. “Let's get something to eat.”

“I give it one week, max.”

With his brothers gone, the boy grabs a few more broken branches and stones, gently places them in the bucket, and tells Froggy not tot listen to “that jerk.” For the rest of the day, every hour, the boy runs out to the shed to check on Froggy. He talks to him. Plays with him. Tries to feed him by throwing it some live grasshoppers and crickets.

“I don't like bugs anyway.”

The frog is happy. The boy is happy. And just before he goes to bed, under the pale glow of a summer's night, the boy bends down over the bucket and whispers, “You're going to be just fine.”

That night it rains. And as the boy lays sound asleep, having just prayed to God for Froggy's complete recovery, the storm outside rages, as wind and water take turns smacking the window panes. The steady downpour lasts until the morning.

The boy wakes up the following morning, puts on his Toughskins, and runs down the stairs and out the back door to check on his new friend. At the top of the bucket Froggy floats, belly up and bloated.

“Who ever heard of a frog that couldn't swim?” the boy cries as his brothers walk towards the shed.

Reading the look on the little boy's face, Darin asks, “What happened?”

Not waiting for an answer, Duncan remarks, “One week. Hell, one day. I told ya!”


“What's a matter with you?” the mother asks. She’s in one of her perpetual cleaning-the-kitchen frenzies. “You've been moping for days.”

The images of Froggy white bellied and bloated, floating among the broken sticks at the top of the overflowing bucket still haunt the boy every time he closes his eyes. “Nothin.”

“Hey Butthead,” is Duncan’s usual good morning greeting. “I've got an idea. Why don't we get a tree frog and put him in a bucket full of water . . .”

Not fully understanding the son's subtle sarcasm, the mother still comes to the boy's defense. “Be nice to your little brother,” she scolds Duncan as he woofs down a Fluffanutter. Soon the rest of the family joins the table and begins the Saturday afternoon lunch. Mom looks under the sink and is reminded of an earlier unasked question. “Have any of you seen my good wash bucket?”

Silence. For a second, the boy wonders what would qualify as a bad wash bucket.

“Hey mom, dad, can I get a pet?”

“Jesus Christ, another pet?” his dad replies, not yet bothering to look away from the morning paper.

“What kind of pet?” his Mom asks.

“A frog. One that can swim in water.”

“One that can swim in water?” the father repeats, not knowing the full significance of the statement. He's eating food directly off the serving plate. “Sure, it’s all right with me if it’s O.K. with your mother.” He goes back to the paper, the sports page.


“If its O.K. with your mother,” he qualifies.

Even at the age of ten, the boy is old enough to know this trick. “If it’s O.K. with your mother” usually led to “if it’s O.K. with your father” -- a series of O.K.s but no definitive permission. But this time they made the mistake of playing this game while both were in the same room.


Not waiting for her answer, the father swallows hard and says, “Why don't you go down to the pet shop this afternoon when your brother goes to pick up more fish.” Darin has a big tank with lots of exotic expensive things swimming around in it. The father hands the child some money and with satisfaction, eats the rest of his meal in peace. The boy is so excited he clears his entire plate, even the box of raisins he usually discards clandestinely in the withering fern.

As soon as the mother parks the orange Volkswagen bus along the main street, the three boys run across the street to the pet shop. The smell of pet droppings permeates the dimly lit shop. The boys hold their noses as they walk down the isle to the frog tanks.

“I want this one” he says, pointing at a miniature African Frog whose pinkie-sized body swims, jumps and bounces endlessly under the brackish brown water.

“If I didn't know any better,” says the old woman storekeeper, having followed the boys to the back of the store. The eerie glow of the florescent tank lights made the old women's gray hair even bluer. “I'd say that little guy is waving at you with those little webbed hands of his.”

“I'm going to call him Alf,” the boy announces.

“Why Alf?” asks the women.

“Because,” is the reply.

Duncan’s getting impatient. “Good reason Dorkface. Lets get it and get out of here.”

With that, the boy pays the blue-haired pet shop lady eight bucks and change for Alf, a small bowl, some florescent red gravel, a plastic plant and one of those miniature treasure chests that opens to reveal a skull.

“Neato!” Duncan yells, repeatedly opening the fake treasure chest to see the plastic skull. Darin purchases some more tropical fish for his growing collection, and the boys race back to the VW bus to return home.

In the cozy environment of the family house, Alf enjoys his life, the tank, the fresh water, even the fake sunken treasure chest. The boy feeds him daily, covering the surface of the water with the stinky food flakes provided at no extra charge by the kind blue-haired pet shop lady. Often, he sits at his desk, peering into the bowl, making eye contact with Alf as if some sort of communication were possible. The boy is extremely happy, and after an entire week passes, Alf is still swimming.

“O.K.” Duncan admits, “You win. Its been a week. You can let him die now.”

But another week passes. Then another. The boy's friendly visits to Alf become less frequent — especially after Darin warns him not to feed Alf too much of the food flakes. “You’re gonna kill him if you give him too much.”

“If I feed him twice as much in one sitting, can I feed him every other day?”

The boy grows concerned, however, when, after another week, he notices that the once clear tank has changed into a murky greenish-brown.

“You're suppose to clean that thing once a week,” Darin tells him.

“OOOOOh. Woops.”

That afternoon, while the rest of the family is out and about, the boy chases Alf around the tank with a small white net for a half an hour until he finally catches him and puts him in his brother's large tank.

“You can stay in here until I clean your bowl.” For a minute, the boy stares into his brother's larger tank, watching Alf and the rest of the exotic aquatics intermingle -- guppies galore -- a collage of neon colors and bubbling geometric shapes. He rests his palm against the side of the tank, leaving an almost perfect imprint upon the glass. Running downstairs with Alf's bowl in hand, the boy dumps out the water and gravel clumps into the kitchen sink. Scrapes the algae off the sides of the bowl and rinses it with boiling water. Makes a futile attempt to clean the treasure chest, now covered with some sort of green gel. Pours a new bed of red gravel at the bottom of Alf's home. Fills it with fresh clear water. Adds the necessary protective chemicals. And lets the tank sit on the kitchen table to settle. All this work has made him hungry. Another hour passes. Finishing the box of Oreos, the boy grabs the bowl and begins climbing the carpeted stairway. That's when he hears . . .


It's Darin, yelling from his room as the parents rush past the boy to see what's a matter. Curious but unconcerned, the boy reaches the top of the stairs, Alf's newly cleaned bowl in hand, and slowly peeks into his eldest brother's room. The rest of his family is standing around Darin's tank -- Darin, face red in anger, is on the verge of tears.

Everyone except Duncan turns to face the boy, who cautiously approaches the large tank. OH NO! the boy thinks. He puts Alf's bowl down on the floor. Water sloshes onto the carpet. “What did you guys do to Alf?” he yells.

“What did 'we' do? You did it, you idiot!” Darin screams.

The father has to hold back the eldest son. “Who gave you permission to put your frog in your brother's tank?” he asks.

“Permission? For what?”

His parents step aside; the answer to the boy's question materializes before him. In the tank, once filled with a hundred exotic fish, there is now only a single creature with a white belly so obese it swallows the frog’s limbs; leaving only a pair of small webbed hands protruding from its sides. Alf lay floating near the top of the tank. The boy, still puzzled, asks, “where is Alf?”

“That is Alf,” replies his mother. “He has eaten all of your brother's fishes.”

“ . . .”

The oldest brother tries in vain to hold back his tears. The father, meanwhile, still prevents any retaliatory strike against his dumbfounded youngest son. The boy, overcome by an onslaught of guilt and frustration, quickly begins to cry. The mother tries to comfort the boy.

Duncan doesn't hold back a thing. He laughs out loud. “Is he dead?” Alf is not, but Duncan still thinks its funny.

The next day, the boy's parents make him bring Alf back to the pet store and exchange it for some replacement fish for the oldest son.

“It's the least you can do,” they say.

The orange bus makes another trip to the blue-haired lady, who, upon seeing the bloated creature in the boys hand, remarks, “I guess we can't call him a 'miniature' African Frog anymore.” The boy tries to explain what happened.

“He'll surely die from indigestion.”

The boy stares at the unrecognizable creature as it floats in its portable home -- a plastic sandwich bag. He is crying, again.

“I don't think I'll ever be allowed to have another pet as long as I live.”


A week or two later, the family is busy running errands downtown. The boy stands across the street from the pet shop. Suddenly, someone taps the boy's shoulder. He turns to find his mother’s warm glance, as she bends down to greet her son. “This time,” she says. “Why don't we try something other than a frog. O.K.?” Reaching down into her beaded purse, she hands him some money.

“Thanks Mom!”

“Just don’t tell your father.”

The mother watches him go into the shop and come back out some fifteen minutes later, a shoe box under his arm.

“What did you get?” she asks.

The boy jumps into the back, places the box on the seat and slides the back door shut.

“I'll show everyone when we get home! It's a surprise!”

The mother, already regretting her decision and fearing the worst, tries to listen over the clanking of the bus motor to figure out which animal from the wild kingdom will soon be the newest member of the household. At times, she thinks she hears a hissing noise. Good Lord, she prays, not a snake. Please, don't let it be a snake.

The boy's wide grin takes up the entire rear view mirror.

As his mom slowly pulls into the driveway, the boy jumps from the moving vehicle and runs into the house. The family gathers in the kitchen as the boy slowly lifts open the box.

“It's a rat!” Duncan shouts. The mother cringes.

“No it's not!” the boy replies, holding the white haired creature in his hand. “It's a mouse.”

“Looks like a rat to me.”

“Shut up!”

The mother, not exactly a fan of the vermin family, is nevertheless relieved to see that her son's latest pet is not a reptile. “All right you guys, take that thing . . .”

“Lilly! Her name is Lilly.”

“Lilly! What a stupid name, Fartbreath,” says the brother, already trying to grab the mouse by its tail. “How'dya know she’s a girl, anyway?

“The blue-haired pet shop lady told me so.”

“All right,” interjects the mother, wishing that her children stopped referring to Mrs. Brown as the 'blue-haired pet shop lady.' “Get 'Lilly' out of the house and put her in the old hamster cage outside.”

“Thanks again, Mom!”

“Just don’t tell your father.”

By now a well experienced pet owner, the boy cleans out the old cage, puts new wood chips in, a water bottle, food pellets and lets Lilly get accustomed to her new home.

“I know mice can't swim,” he says, covering the cage to make sure no rainfall gets in. Together, the three brothers sit and watch the mouse. Lilly cowers in a corner of cage, relieves herself, and goes to sleep.

“Real interesting pet you got there,” Duncan kids.

“Yeah, I think I liked the frog better,” admits the boy, disappointed by Lilly’s lack of energy.

“Hell, I liked the sunken treasure chest better.”

“Let her rest,” Darin orders. “You can check on her later.”

The boy turns to Lilly, taps the side of the glass, and says “LATER.”

The boy feeds Lilly everyday. But as Darin suggested with the frog, he starts feeding the mouse every couple of days. Every time he approaches the cage, Lilly is just sitting in a corner; shitting or sleeping. Sometimes, from the looks of things, doing both at the same time.

“You should clean out that cage,” Darin tells him.

“I will.”

A week passes. Then another.

On the last day of July, the father and his youngest son are watching the Red Sox play the Yanks when Duncan strolls in and asks, “How is Lilly?”

“Who?” is the youngest's initial reply. The father’s mind is on the game.

“Lilly the mouse, you idiot.”

The boy just watches the screen, as the Sox player hits into another inning-ending double play. “Oh yeah, “ he remembers. “Lilly. She’s all right, I guess.”

“When did you get a mouse?” the father asks, still staring at the set.

“Couple months ago. Where you been, Dad? Mom said it was O.K.”

“Have you checked on her lately?” Duncan asks.

“She’s all right, I tell you.” Like his old man, the boy doesn’t want to be interrupted during the ball game.

But the father, intelligent enough to see where the devious Duncan is going with this line of inquiry, turns to his youngest son and asks, “When was the last time you fed her?”

An evil smirk emerges across Duncan’s fat face. Darin comes into the room. “You clean her cage out yet?”

When was the last time I fed her, the boy thinks to himself. He looks around.

“Jesus Christ!” The father glares at the boy.

Darin and Duncan start their silent convulsions.

The boy can feel the weight of his sweat as it accumulates in the hair of his eyebrows. Let's see, it was raining. I remember that, but it hasn't rained in weeks. Now with his brothers laughter ringing in his ears, the boy's breathing slows, his lungs twitch and his mind remembers. “OH MY GOD!” He races past the kitchen and pushes open the screen door.

It was another beautiful summer day on the island; sunny, gorgeous -- perhaps a bit too hot. It had been really warm, upper eighties for the past two weeks. And in the corner of the tank lay a shriveled piece of gray matter, formerly known as Lilly the Mouse.





About the Author


Thom Didato's most recent fiction credits can be seen in forthcoming issues of Tatlin's Tower, and Gargoyle. A 2002 Edward F. Albee Fellow for Fiction, he is also a founding editor of the online literary journal, failbetter.com. Thom lives and breathes in Brooklyn, New York.