Jake found the first one on our daily walk. I was supposed to take him for walks because the doctor said to, so I did, and we were a quarter-mile from home when he found the rabbit. It had been hit by a car and it was curled up in the ditch on the side of the road. There was a little blood near the nostrils, but aside from that and the bent spine, it could’ve been sleeping.
Before I knew it, Jake slipped his hand from mine and ran over to the rabbit. He stood above it, pointing. This is what he did sometimes. He pointed. He didn’t talk—I was lucky if I got eye contact.
“What’s up, bud?” I asked. I walked up and took his hand again. He pointed at the rabbit.
“It’s sleeping, Jake. We can’t do anything about it.”
It was hard to tell how much he understood about death. We’d buried my wife, Georgia, eight months earlier and, through it all, I had no clue what Jake thought of the situation. Our priest had told him his mommy was on vacation. I said she was sleeping. He cried a lot, but he usually cried, so it was sixes if it was about his mother.
I went to walk away, but Jake wouldn’t move. At the halfway point of our walk we usually got ice cream from the nearby family dairy. It was a way to calm him down. Jake stared at the rabbit, pointed again.
“It can’t come with us, buddy. I’m sorry,” I said, tugging his hand. He pulled his hand away again and squatted down next to the head.
“Don’t touch it, Jake,” I said. I could see the ice cream hut a few hundred yards away. It sat at the intersection of our county road and the main highway through town. If I could get him to there, he’d be fine. He’d get his two scoops of strawberry and forget all about the dead rabbit.
Sitting on his haunches, Jake looked at the dead rabbit. He held a hand out like he was trying to warm it near a fire.
“Jake,” I said again. I dropped my voice to a level that made Jake flinch.
My son stopped, looked up at my ear, and pointed at the rabbit again.
“We can get you another rabbit. I’ll go to the store tomorrow and get you another rabbit. How about that?” I’d moved to stand behind him. I pulled my flask out and took two quick swigs of Bushmill’s. It’d become my other child, that flask. It went everywhere Jake and I did. At night, when I put the flask to bed, I brought out one of the rocks glasses that Georgia and I had gotten for our wedding.
Doctors had told me I shouldn’t surprise him and touch him without his knowing, so I waited for Jake to turn around and see I was there before squatting and taking his hand.
He stood. I said his name again. It seemed like it was going to be another one of those times, the ones that every parent hated, where no matter what you did, your child’s screams made you sound like you were about to take a blowtorch to their eyebrows. All my daddy would’ve done was haul off and smack me until I submitted, but you couldn’t do that anymore. Especially not with Jake.
I tugged and Jake fell off-balance. He looked at my chest for a moment before opening his mouth. It was like when you got cut—it didn’t bleed right away, but once the first bit of blood hit the surface, you had to work to stop it.
Sometimes Jake only had one or two good wails in him. We stood on the side of the road and I waited to see if this was one of those. A car drove by and I ignored what I figured was the driver’s angry or appalled stares. Jake continued on. He beat at his own chest as he did which, would’ve been funny if it hadn’t left bruising. We stopped his swim lessons when he started that.
“I’m going to pick you up, buddy, and we’re going to go home. When we get there we can put on some cartoons. Okay?” I asked. He cried.
I picked Jake up and held him tight to my chest like you would a cat you didn’t want to get scratched by. I hooked his legs with one arm and squeezed them between my bicep and forearm so he couldn’t kick. He was small, but he could do damage. Jake buried his face in my chest as I began to run home. I prayed no one would drive by that didn’t know us. If they knew us, at least, they wouldn’t immediately think I was trying to steal a child. Jake’s moans and sobs vibrated my ribcage, my heart.
Jake wanted nothing to do with the stuffed rabbit I’d picked up at Walmart the next day. He took it and examined it—turning the fluffy white thing over in his hands, an archeologist with an artifact—before throwing it across the room. I brought it back to him a few times, tried to show him that it was just like the rabbit we’d seen the day before, but no. I even sang that “Little Bunny Foo-Foo” song to him, hopping the toy along the kitchen table in time to the song. I gave up eventually and we watched reruns of Muppet Babies until he fell asleep on the couch. I kept a bottle of whiskey on top of the cabinet outside Jake’s room so that I wouldn’t have to wait after I put him down for the night.
After four or seven shots and a half hour of the newscaster telling me the world was going to hell, I decided to take a walk. I went by myself sometimes, when Jake was asleep, just to breathe. I took the same route that he and I did. If I went into the woods that bordered our house I’d probably get lost and that wouldn’t do well. I couldn’t have Jake waking up in the morning without me there. A half hour without me there, though? He’d be fine. He wouldn’t even know. There was once that I came back to Jake crying. He was asleep, stuck in a sad or scary dream. I rubbed his back and cooed to him like my wife had done and he’d eventually fallen asleep. It was a tip I’d written in a little notebook in the week I’d had between finding out my wife was dying and the last breath she took.
The rabbit was still there. Scavengers had gotten to it, though, and its eyes were missing. Some of the fur had been ripped off and what was left was stained cotton candy pink. I toed the carcass off the side of the road and into the ditch with my boot. We’d walk on the other side of the road tomorrow, just in case. Jake would know we weren’t walking how we usually did, but that tantrum would be more bearable than him trying to pick up what was left of the rabbit. I took my flask out, unscrewed the cap and poured some on the creature. Not too much, though.
“Requiem in terra pax, Fluffy.”
The Havahart traps were starting to get rusty in the garage. Georgia had insisted on them to deal with the pests that bothered her garden. She said that shooting the creatures was inhumane. I told her that if shooting them was crazy, than she was living in County Bedlam. It was what we did, what we always did. My first job had been picking off squirrels, possums and raccoons with a .22. Georgia didn’t come from here and she didn’t agree with that. She ordered the traps off the Internet—the guy at the feed store laughed when I asked about them—and we humanely trapped and released the little assholes that ate our food.
I hadn’t used them in eight months, but I pulled them out and set them on the porch. I filled each of the four with some almost-bad lettuce and carrots and set them in various places around the back yard perimeter. From the porch, they looked like glimmering puddles the way they reflected the moonlight.
The next morning, I had two possums and a raccoon. Before Jake was up, I took my Ruger Varminator with me out to the traps and put a bullet into the skulls of each of the creatures. If nothing else, I’d be getting rid of the pests around my yard. Our garden had gone to shit, but no one wanted vermin around. They were called vermin for a reason. I put the carcasses in a pile about fifty yards into the woods, made the sign of the cross over them and went back to my yard to refill the traps and get Jake up.
There were no rabbits in the traps for the first three days, and in that time I’d bought three other stuffed rabbits, all of which Jake hated. On our walks, he kept trying to go to where we found the first one. We were forced to turn around, Jake bawling into my chest.
On the fourth day, I caught a rabbit. The pile of creatures in the woods was starting to grow—I’d caught everything but a rabbit, it seemed—so it was a relief to see a little brown thing sitting in the corner of one of the traps. I stood over the trap, staring down at the rabbit, unsure of what to do next. Would Jake want a pet? What did rabbits normally eat as pets? The only pets I’d ever known were mutts and the occasional tomcat that killed barn mice.
I brought Jake out to see the rabbit when he woke up. It hadn’t moved from the corner of the cage. Jake stared at it from where we stood, three feet away.
“Look buddy,” I said, pointing with my mug. “A rabbit. Like what we saw.”
Jake scrunched his face up and shook his head.
“He’s yours. Your very own rabbit. We can get him a cage for inside and you’ll be able to take him out and pet him whenever you want. You can even name him.”
I patted his back and he shook his head again.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Jake pointed at the rabbit and as if on command, it hopped once.
“See, buddy? He’s cute. Let’s go get ready for school and then afterward we can get him his new home. Think about a name for our new friend.”
He wouldn’t, I knew that, but the doctors told me to strive for normal. So I strived. I ushered Jake back inside, brought him to school, and went to work.
Jake ignored the rabbit that night and the next day. I had the day off and I found myself outside, staring at the creature. I’d brought a plastic cup filled with whiskey and Coke with me and sat on the sun-warmed grass. I’d put a water bowl in the cage and dropped a few carrots in as well. I named him Paul. I didn’t particularly want a pet, but I was willing to try anything. I needed something for Jake. His mother had always known what to do, how to handle him, but I felt lost, stuck. When he started to cry and thrash around, the only move I had was to hold him tight until I thought he might suffocate and wait for him to stop. Everything the doctors had said to try didn’t work. He wouldn’t be distracted by me, he just wouldn’t. I’d even tried giving him some whiskey, like his mother had done when Jake was teething, but to no avail. He bit my whiskey-soaked finger and drew blood.
“What are we supposed to do?” I asked the rabbit. It nibbled on the grass at its feet. This was as helpful as talking to the polyester toy. Somewhere, an owl hooted.
“You could be his dinner, you know. This isn’t so bad.”
I finished my drink, went back inside, and had more whiskey. I’d need to pick Jake up soon and I didn’t want him screaming. I was tired of it. In the moments when it was absolutely silent in the house, I could hear him. I wanted it to stop. There seemed only one option left.
As I opened the cage, the rabbit tried to make a run for it, but I caught it by the scruff. It was soft and I could feel its heart beat through its little body. I grabbed its feet with one hand, squeezed tighter on the neck, and broke it. The rabbit went limp. I held it for a moment, half-expecting it to kick away and be okay. When it didn’t happen I brought the rabbit into the shed and put it on the large wooden work desk at the back. I set my skinning tools on the table next to it and went to find stuffing. The best I could do was balled up newspaper, some sawdust, and some leftover fake Easter grass. I put it all in a basket and set it aside.
I made little incisions just above each foot and pulled the knife in little lines up the back. I slipped my fingers in and began the process of pulling the hide away. It came off easy, revealing the pink muscle underneath. My father had taught me to field dress animals when I was a kid and I’d done it often enough that the lightness needed to hold the knife so I didn’t puncture anything came back quick. I cut the tailbone and pulled the fur up toward the head. When I got to the head, I cut around the front legs, pulled it up a little more, and cut the head off. I set the body aside to cook up later. I picked the hide up by the ears and listened to blood drip onto the table. I wasn’t sure what to do to preserve the inside, exactly, but I figured if I washed it well it’d be okay. It would be stuffed and, if it came down to it, I could always find another one to replace it.
Then it was time to get Jake so I took the stuffed rabbit with me in the truck, buckling him into the passenger seat. It sat limp, folding over on itself. Parts bulged where balls of newspaper were and you could see my bad sewing job, but I hoped it’d be good enough. If it weren’t, I’d toss it out the window on the way home. It didn’t smell nearly as bad as I thought it might.
Jake was inseparable from the rabbit right from the time I gave it to him. He saw it in his seat and grabbed it, holding it to his chest like I held him. He met my eyes for the briefest flicker, then went back to staring at the dashboard and squeezing the rabbit. He didn’t seem phased by the rough stitching—I couldn’t help but think of my wife and her small fingers, of how she would sew buttons back on my shirts for me because she made a point of showing off her one domestic skill, as she called it. The rabbit looked like a misshapen, hairy football to me, but Jake liked it. Later, he sat on the floor and stared at it, and he brought it to bed with him. He threw a fit when I told him he couldn’t bring it to school with him the next morning.
“They’ll take it away, bud,” I told him as he stood in the doorway, crying. It was too early in the morning to deal with this and I hadn’t had a drink yet. I wanted to smack him, but instead, I pulled the rabbit out of his hands and tossed it over my shoulder. I fully expected a call about a meltdown from his teacher before the day was through.
I made sure to bring the rabbit with me when I went to get him. It was weird to see his eyes light up like that. I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened, if it ever had. I’d had the radio off to take a call and midway back to our house I heard what first sounded like the hissing of a hole in a tire. I turned the radio dial down, not that it mattered, and cocked my head to listen. As I turned my head I saw Jake’s lips moving. He had the rabbit in his lap facing him and he whispered to it.
“What’d you say, Jake?” I asked, looking at him sidelong. “What’s Paul telling you?” As soon as I addressed him, Jake stopped his whispering.
“I heard you saying something, buddy, but you’ve got to speak up. Daddy can’t hear you like that.”
I looked over to see Jake turn the rabbit around, like he was letting it see out the front window. I bit my lip and took a breath. If he could talk to the rabbit, he could talk to me.
I’d almost forgotten that I’d kept the other traps out. I was at the kitchen sink, washing some dishes when I saw movement in our yard. I squinted and saw a rabbit in one trap and what looked like a weasel in another. I set the dishes down, drying my hands on my jeans as I climbed a step ladder and unlocked the box I’d built above the back door to house my rifle. I put the weasel down and let it bleed out a bit while I went to look at the rabbit. It was another brown one, a little bigger than the first. It looked up as I approached, twitched its nose at me. It hopped to the side of the cage near me as I squatted down. I ran a finger across its side. If one rabbit made him happy, two had to make Jake even happier, I thought. Eventually, he might open up. Might speak full sentences to me. Screw what the doctors had said. He would. I opened the cage and the rabbit went right to my hand. It was as easy as the first one, and I was done within the hour. I dropped the guts and the weasel on the pile out back. You could smell the death from the tree line. Bodies had been scattered and so the area looked more like a battlefield now. I poured a little of my whiskey over the bodies, made the sign of the cross with two fingers, and used my boot to push some of the dead animals back into something resembling a pile. As I made my way back to the house, I thought about bears and teddy bears.
Jake was even more pleased with the second rabbit. I’d seatbelted the pair into the truck and when he saw them it seemed he didn’t know what to do. He’d pick one up, look at it, put it down, and do the same with the other. He repeated this over and over until we got home. It took fifteen minutes for him to get out of the car. Jake held a dead rabbit hooked in each elbow, and to get him in the house, I did the same to him, holding him like a football. I felt like a nesting doll.
I sat on the floor with Jake that night. Behind us, a baseball game was on mute. He didn’t like watching sports with sound, so if sports was on, it was on silent. I didn’t mind too much. I had a tumbler of ice and rum nestled between my legs. We rolled a ball back and forth. The rabbits—Paul and Derek—sat on either side of Jake. He’d look at them and hiss whispers. I don’t think he was actually talking, but it was more than I got. I rolled the ball a little hard, and it bumped off his knee. Jake looked at the floor in front of my feet.
“I’m sorry, bud. Did that hurt?” When I got no response after I minute, I kept talking. It was best, the doctors told me over and over. Normalcy, they chanted as I wrote check after check.
“Do you like your rabbits? They’re pretty fun, huh?”
Jake pulled the rabbits closer. He pet one.
“Daddy is pretty cool for finding those guys, isn’t he?”
Jake gave me a half nod.
“If Daddy found more rabbit friends would you want them?”
Jake nodded. He sat one of the rabbits in his lap. The stitches that closed the eye sockets stared back at me, black thread thick like tree roots. When Jake slept, the rabbits sat on the pillow next to him, staring at nothing. I stood in his doorway, watching him toss and turn a little, getting comfortable after I read him his favorite story. I couldn’t kiss him goodnight—he’d never let me—but I watched as he kissed the rabbits each on their foreheads. I spent fifteen minutes staring at the rabbits. My drink had gone watery and I slugged it down in one long swallow as I stood there. I couldn’t figure out what about the rabbits did it. He’d seen rabbits before, plenty of them. At the county fair, he’d pet one when he was five. The more I looked at his new toys, the less they looked like rabbits. They were horrible little things. The crunched up paper bulged like tumors and the seams were as visible as they would be on a baseball. I couldn’t figure out what it was. They had the smell of death in their fur, which was not made better by Febreeze, even though I sprayed them every night as he slept.
When Jake was asleep, I took Paul the rabbit with me and sat him down on the kitchen table. I refilled my glass and stared at it. I poked it, turned it over and around. My eyelids were getting heavy and I could feel the whiskey, wonderful like a sleepy limb, weighing on the back of my brain. I brought the rabbit back upstairs, trying to replace it exactly as it was before going to be myself. As I drifted to sleep, I wondered if I had reset the traps.
A week went by with no more rabbits. I’d bought two more traps and set them up in the woods, but had only caught things I didn’t want. I’d had to buy more bullets, too, and my corpse pile grew. The teenaged girl at the grocery store told me I was going to turn orange with the amount of carrots I was buying. I knew her dad—he was a huge dick when he was drunk, but he was also a quick shot—and so I bit my tongue and didn’t tell her what I was thinking. What I did with the carrots was none of her business.
The third rabbit looked exactly like the other two. We named him Joe. I wondered if all wild rabbits looked alike as I snapped its spine and brought it into the shed to stuff. In that quiet week, I’d read up on taxidermy, learned that people sometimes used marbles for eyes and wireframes to help keep the shape. I found a couple marbles in a junk drawer and had set them on my workbench just in case. They were too big, but I stuffed them into the rabbit anyway. In the end, the creature looked surprised and I hoped it wouldn’t scare Jake. He loved it, like I knew he would, and the rabbits started to become members of the family. Jake pulled chairs over to our little kitchen table for them to eat with us—I didn’t tell him when we were eating what came inside his stuffed animals—and he began lining them up next to us on the couch, all pointed at the television, all watching without their eyes.
Jake seemed to be opening up, little by little, but only to the rabbits. He still avoided eye contact. I could hear his whispers, but could never make out what he was saying. It felt like building a pyramid. With enough, pieces, I’d eventually get to the top, I’d eventually feel the sun up close. I kept setting traps. Bears must’ve finally found my pile, because when I went out one day there was not much at all left. I took it as a sign that I could keep going. Nature had hit the restart button.
Two more rabbits, Petunia and Daisy. I went with girls names this time to mix it up a bit. I didn’t want Jake to have an all-male Dead Rabbits Society. My wife wouldn’t have allowed that. Equality, she would’ve said. Jake needs to interact with both boys and girls.
The rabbits started taking up more space on the couch, the floor. They were multiplying like they were still alive. Jake was in his element. He even had begun to throw less of a tantrum when we walked out the door in the morning for school. If we went anywhere else, we needed to take them, but school he was getting better at. I’d pulled out his old wagon and we toted the rabbits with us on our walks. Five dead, misshapen rabbits being pulled along like they were on a royal visit. Every few feet Jake would turn back to look at them and readjust if necessary. I took frequent pulls on my flask.
At dinner, I tried like I did every night to talk to Jake.
“How was school, Jakey?”
Jake moved a forkful of couscous around on his plate, the little balls rolling away from the tines.
“Having a good time with Ms. Rosa?”
I tried a few more questions to no avail. I finished my drink and stared at my son. He ate, slowly, methodically, and looked at his rabbits. If he wasn’t going to talk directly to me, I decided to try a different tact. I picked one of the stuffed animals up and held it in front of my face. Through pinched vocal chords I asked Jake how is day was. His head shot up to look at the rabbit.
“Did you have a good day, Jake? I’d love to know. Petunia and me don’t ever hear about your days at school. We’re so lonely here when you’re gone.”
I wasn’t sure if this was going to help or hurt—did Jake think the rabbit was trying to make him feel bad? I was tipsy enough to not care. The doctors advised against things like this, of course, but were they here now? No. They didn’t have to snap little rabbit necks to interact with their sons.
“Come on Jake, talk to me, I’m a curious bunny,” I said. I made the rabbit hop in front of my face. From between the ears I could see Jake’s eyes following the rabbit. I hopped it again.
“Tell me, Jake, tell me all about school.”
Jake’s lips moved, but no sound came out. I stopped and cocked my ear to listen.
“I can’t hear you, Jakey. You have to speak louder.” I tried to emphasize words like I thought they would on Sesame Street. Jake moved his lips again. His eyes darted to another rabbit, then back to the one I held.
“How will I know how you are, Jakey, if I can’t hear you?”
I waited. Jake made no effort to speak louder. I could feel my patience sliding away as it usually did. Even though I’d given up trying to get him to talk to me a while ago, all of the frustrations came rushing back.
“Talk to me,” I made the rabbit say. Louder, with insistence. Jake’s eyes widened. “Why won’t you say anything, Jakey? How can you expect me to like you if you don’t talk?”
Jake’s mouth moved and a stream of whisper came out.
“Louder,” I said. “Louder.”
Part of me felt bad, it did, but the overwhelming rest of me wanted this.
“Louder, Jakey. Louder.”
Jake had pushed his chair away from the table and had pulled the other rabbits close to him. He had one on his lap and the rest in a three-point stance around him on the table. He held a hand out. I sighed and put the rabbit down.
“Goddamn it, Jake, talk to the rabbit. Talk to Daisy or Petunia or whatever it’s name is. How do you expect to survive out there if you don’t talk to anyone?”
It was instantaneous. Jake exploded into a fit of sobs and wails and my stomach dropped down into the basement. I closed my eyes and knuckled them. I picked the rabbit back up.
“Jakey, no, Jakey. It’s okay, buddy. It’s okay. Daddy didn’t mean that. Daddy was being mean, but he didn’t mean it. Please stop crying.”
I stood up and Jake flinched. I rounded the table and went to pick him up. He started punching and I absorbed his little fists as I bent over to pick him up. I held Jake close and felt his tears on my shoulder. I whispered to him in the rabbit voice, telling him it was okay. Eventually, whether because he cried himself out or the voice actually did something, he calmed down. Jake hung limp against me, all sixty pounds of him dead weight. I rocked him, cooing to him like my wife had taught me.
This was what it came down to. I’d never have my own voice, never have a real conversation with my son. I’d never be able to talk about girls or anything—not that he’d ever have those sorts of conversations. I’d be the voice of a rabbit, and that was it. There was always going to be a furry wall between us. I thought about whiskey and the traps I needed to set up and getting more carrots.
Sam Slaughter is the author of the chapbook When You Cross That Line, God in Neon (forthcoming, Lucky Bastard Press), and Dogs (forthcoming, Double Life Press). He currently lives in South Carolina, where he is at work on his MFA. He can be found online at www.samslaughterthewriter.com and on Twitter and Instagram @slaughterwrites.