Post Road Magazine #29

Lynx

Alice G. Stinetorf

            When his mom drove him to the rabbit breeder's farm out on 32, Harlan walked the vast barn twice, slowly making his way through the five long rows of hutches, before settling on a pair of mini lops. Both the doe and buck were stout with squared heads and ears that draped in an even horseshoe when he viewed them head-on. They looked the way his 4-H manual said they ought to. His mom was out back smoking a cigarette and laughing overloud at things the breeder said between his spitting tobacco juice at a mound of spent hay.

This was Harlan's first time meeting the breeder, but it was clear that his mom already knew the man. When they arrived Harlan recognized the rusted pickup parked next to the barn, an old Ford with circular headlights. It had pulled into his family's driveway periodically over the past year. The horn always blasted, and then his mom would hurry outside, returning an hour or two later. In the months since Harlan's father moved out, the truck had appeared more frequently. But the driver never came into the house.

"Call me Roy," he'd said. Harlan was twelve and unaccustomed to calling adults by their first names. He had nodded but didn't plan to call the man by any name at all. Realizing this was the driver of the mysterious truck made Harlan dislike him on the spot.

            After deciding on the two rabbits, Harlan waited inside the barn door for a pause in the adults' conversation and then stepped out. "I like the ones in 76 and 79," he said.

            "Them the lynxes?" the breeder asked.

            The boy paused. It was past five but the August sun felt as unrelenting as it had at noon and it took him a moment to think back on the tags affixed to the two hutches, but he did, and finally shook his head. "Mini lops, the tags said."

            The breeder braced a hand across the back of his neck as he cackled with a suddenness that made Harlan flinch. "Fella," he said, hoarse, "I reckon I knew that." He nudged Harlan's mother. "He's sure something, huh? Thinks I got wildcats bunked down in there!"

            She flicked her cigarette away with a long nail and grazed the breeder's leathery elbow with her fingers. "Hon," she said, "that one favors his father and that ain't a favor, if you follow." She laughed through the smoke snaking from her nostrils, a sight that always made Harlan's eyes water, but more now than usual.

            The mini lops rode home in two cardboard boxes on the backseat of the station wagon. A bag of feed, small bundle of hay, and two salt licks sat between the boxes. "On the house," the breeder had said. The air conditioning in the station wagon was busted and Harlan feared the rabbits might suffocate before they got home, the current washing through the open windows was so muggy and thick, but he felt them both move around in their boxes as he removed them from the car.

            Harlan's mom was supposed to help him build the hutches, but hadn't. He had found what he needed in the garage, a cluttered graveyard of his father's abandoned projects. The hutches had turned out well, Harlan thought. He made them out of plywood and chicken wire. Each had a slanted roof, a latched door, a chicken-wire floor spacious enough for the rabbit to stretch and move around some, and in one corner, a wooden nesting box with an entry hole cut into it.

            Before transferring the mini lops, Harlan filled their feed troughs, secured their salt wheels alongside, and ensured the ball-bearings were turning smoothly in their water bottles. He went inside to double check his manual and remembered to look up "lynx." A thickness returned to his throat as he remembered how the breeder had mocked him, earlier, despite the fact that he knew the man wasn't talking about wildcats, had never thought something that stupid. Harlan had assumed a lynx was also a breed of rabbit, but it turned out to be the term for the two rabbits' coloration: a creamy fawn shade with a slight lilac undertone.

            The boy went back outside, clutched the doe by her nape, and put her in the first hutch. She dashed madly around her tight quarters before sprawling out, panting, resigned. Once the second hutch was latched, the buck thumped his hind legs against its floor, viciously, repeatedly. Harlan opened the door and reached in to stroke his neck. "It's okay, you're okay," he said. The buck bit his wrist. The boy slammed the wire door and pressed his opposite thumb to the pricks of blood forming on his skin. "Bug off, then."

            A smattering of droppings, each pellet as dry and perfectly formed as a pearl, fell through the chicken wire to the hay below.

*

            Betty, the social worker who started coming by after Harlan's dad moved out, sometimes asked Harlan to go play outside so she could talk to his mom in private. He often eavesdropped instead, crouching in the itchy grass beneath the living room window with his back pressed to the vinyl siding. "It's best for him to be involved in some enriching activities with kids his age right now," Betty had said. They eventually called him inside, asked some questions. He said, "I want a dog." Betty said a dog wasn't an activity, but why not a different animal? "A horse," Harlan said. Betty said horses were amazing creatures, but awfully expensive. She put on a voice to talk to him, higher-pitched and slower-paced than the one she used with his mother.

            The rabbits were his mom's idea. At the time, the suggestion seemed to come out of nowhere, but Harlan now saw that it had to do with Roy. Betty thought rabbits were a great choice. It turned out that a rabbit 4-H club, the Carrot Crunchers, met every week on a farm just three miles from Harlan's house. "How fun will that be, being a Carrot Cruncher?" Betty cooed, wrinkling her nose up and down.

            There were about ten kids in the club, none of whom Harlan knew. The house of the woman who hosted the group was large, but musty. Plump couches and a wooden bench and some kitchen chairs sat in a ring around the den and during the first meeting Harlan played a silent game in which the object was to settle his eyes in a place where a rabbit wasn't in focus. He didn't win the game. There were rabbit embroideries and trophies; Winnie-the-Pooh Rabbit and Peter Rabbit and the White Rabbit; a framed "Bad Hare Day?" novelty poster featuring a Jersey Wooly with its puffy fur teased out.

            Making a mental inventory of the gaudy décor was better than looking at the other kids. Only one of them looked normal, a boy of about seventeen. He had dark, shaggy hair and wore jeans and a black t-shirt too baggy for his skinny frame. The rest were homeschoolers. Girls in ankle-length denim skirts and big plastic headbands. Boys in pleated khakis with their shirts tucked in. They took turns shaking Harlan's hand when he arrived. He had never shaken hands with someone who wasn't a grownup before.

            The meeting ended as it had begun, with recitations of the 4-H pledge, which he mumbled through, and the Pledge of Allegiance, directed at a stuffed pink bunny holding the dowel rod of a tiny American flag in its paw. Harlan's pulse was heavy. His mother had told him he needed to find a ride home—"I can't up and drop everything to do this every week, you know"—and while most of the other kids' parents had stayed through the meeting, drinking coffee in the kitchen one room over, he felt sick at the notion of approaching anyone. There was more handshaking as folks trickled out the side door, the sound of engines starting and the grandfather clock ticking.

            Someone nudged Harlan's shoulder. "You lost?" It was the boy with the shaggy hair. When Harlan didn't respond, the teenager said, "I'm Zane."

            "I'm Harlan." He extended his hand and Zane smirked. Harlan dropped his hand.

            "So is your mom coming for you? Your dad?" Harlan shook his head. "Well…how far are you?"

            Zane's car was rusted but sporty and the bass line of the CD in the player vibrated up and down Harlan's sternum on the way to his house. It smelled like cologne and Zane talked without seeming to expect any response. Harlan was grateful for that. His tongue felt glued to the top of his mouth. He had to brace himself as Zane sped around the bends, between fields and banks of trees, sometimes drifting fully into the opposite lane, and he was worried that his feet might accidentally crack one of the loose CDs on the floorboard.

            When they arrived, Zane gestured at the hutches, positioned between the house and the detached garage where there was some shelter from the wind and sun, and asked, "Mind if I check 'em out?" Harlan shook his head. Zane grabbed the buck and opened the garage's side door. "Get the other." Harlan got the doe, and followed.

            Zane cleared a small space on a wood worktable. "How long've you had 'em?" he asked.

            "A week."

            "Learnt to show 'em yet?"

            Harlan shook his head, and Zane pushed his hair back from his eyes and said, "All right, first things first, you chose good. Good lops, but for county fair you gotta know how to show 'em right. For mini lops, the judge'll wanna see they're not narrow, like this." He put his hand on the buck's rump and pushed it so the hind feet were tucked deeper under the belly. "See how that bulked him up? You now."

            Harlan imitated what the teenager had done, compressing the doe's body. "Yeah," Zane said, "like that. Keep an eye on their paw pads and undersides. Judge'll take off for urine stains. Lynx can take on yellow pretty easy."

            He showed Harlan how to flip the mini lops, how to extend and examine their claws and haunches, how to assess their teeth, check their nasal passageways, and palpate the doe for future litters and either rabbit for abdominal abnormalities. Harlan was sure he'd forget most of it, though he'd read about the techniques in his beginner's manual. It was all more daunting in practice, but he nodded and followed along on the doe with everything Zane did to the buck.

            By the time they were finished, it was dark outside. In the humid night fireflies flicked on and off like traveling beacons, and the frogs and crickets harmonized with an electric whirring. Zane put the buck back into the hutch Harlan had been using for the doe, but the boy didn't correct him.

            Zane peered into both hutches. "Your dad make these?"

            "No. I did."

            "Right on." He turned to his car and paused. "Your parents be home soon?"

            "Yeah," Harlan said.

            "Cool. I can pick you up next week." Zane tossed his keys in the air and caught them a few times. "You've been giving 'em A/C, right?"

            They used box fans in the house all through summer. Harlan had thought the mini lops would be okay outside. He felt overwhelmed, and angry at his mom and Betty, who had started all of this.

            Zane collapsed the passenger seat of his car to rummage in the cramped backseat. He emerged holding a few plastic soda bottles, again unaware, or not caring, that Harlan had never responded. "Fill these with water," he said, tossing the bottles towards Harlan's feet, "put 'em in the freezer. Every morning, when it starts to warm up, put a frozen one in each hutch. Afternoon, take 'em out, put in fresh frozen, refreeze the thawed ones. Rotate. Rabbit A/C. Remember that, you gotta, okay? Imagine if you were coated in fur and left out on a day like today. They'll overheat, you remember that."

            With that, Zane got in his car and quickly backed down the drive and looped into the street, as if he'd done it a thousand times before. In the kitchen, Harlan filled the bottles and made space for them beside the stack of TV dinners in the freezer. He took out a meatloaf dinner, nuked it, and ate on the couch. Nothing was showing on the four channels the antenna picked up. He thought about playing Nintendo, but that was something he'd always done with his dad.

            It was Harlan who had mentioned the Ford with the circular headlights to his father, thinking little of it. But, on a night soon after, his father came home and started yelling at his mom. He hit her, something Harlan had never seen happen. And his father didn't stop. Harlan was in the kitchen calling 911 before he even realized what he was doing. It seemed impossible that dialing three numbers could cause so much change, but it was all he could come up with.

            Harlan turned on the porch light before he went to bed. He set his alarm clock extra early to make sure he got the bottles into the rabbits' cages before the sun was too high.

*

            Harlan hadn't liked lying to Zane, but with Betty the lies were easy to tell. His mom said he was too old for a sitter, and Harlan agreed. He took care of himself just fine. So when Betty asked he had few qualms about repeating what his mom scripted: Julia sits for me after school; Julia makes me do my homework before I can go outside. Julia was his mom's friend. It occurred to him once that Julia must be telling the same lies to Betty, which was stranger, somehow.

            Other times he improvised and felt a little uneasy and confused about where the lies came from, or why he told them. Julia doesn't give me cookies. She cuts up carrots with ranch sauce. She cuts up apples with peanut butter. We work jigsaws. Sometimes it was as if his brain mined old memories, of snacks he saw in other kids' lunchboxes or things he did with his grandma before she died, and these stored-up things spilled out of his mouth.

            Betty gave satisfied nods. Harlan overheard her telling his mom, "He's adjusting great, just great. You're doing great, Kim."

            Zane drove Harlan to and from the Carrot Crunchers meetings. Some weeks he showed up early and they went to town and Zane culled sticky coins from the ashtray of his car to buy them both dollar cones at Freddie Freeze's. He told Harlan he'd be smart not to befriend the homeschoolers in the club. "If they end up transferring into real school, you know? You'll be mincemeat. I had one follow me around like a retarded puppy all freshman year." Zane explained that he only stuck with 4-H to get a college scholarship. "I'm no athlete," he said, "and I gotta get the hell out of here one way or the other."

            He usually handed Harlan his cone when the ice cream was gone. "The cone tastes like cardboard. Have at it." Harlan would stash the little paper cone-holders in his pocket and bring them home. Zane lent him a novel about a boy surviving in the wilderness; gave him a lucky 8-ball keychain; pulled graded essays from his backpack and passed them along, saying, "Hold onto these, by the time you're in high school none of those teachers'll remember who wrote these." The essays were B-minuses or C-pluses. Zane said it was recycling, not cheating. Harlan clipped the 8-ball keychain to the belt loop of his jeans most days, where it would be hidden beneath the hem of his shirt. The essays, the book, crumpled receipts from the floorboard of Zane's car: a collection piled up beneath the lamp on Harlan's nightstand.

*

            By winter it got to the point where Harlan could position the doe on his makeshift show-table, hind feet tucked up tight, and back away to the other side of the garage without her moving. The buck was a different story. The buck was a jackass, and Harlan told him so frequently. But he'd grown fond of both rabbits. Winter meant the mini lops' nesting boxes had to be lined with extra hay, and the hay had to be changed frequently to prevent moisture buildup. Many mornings he had to take their drinking bottles in and run them under hot water at the kitchen faucet to thaw them and loosen the ball bearings.

            Some afternoons he put on mittens and brought the doe into the garage to run free while he did his homework. Zane had warned him not to let the two loose together. Having a litter in the dead of winter would be "fucking bad news," he said. The garage wasn't heated and it was twice as hard for Harlan to write his answers with mittens on, but the doe now felt safe bunching up against his thigh, and the more comfortable she was, the better she would show come county fair.

            On a Saturday afternoon shortly after New Year's, Betty drove Harlan to his father's apartment. The boy hadn't known his father was living in an apartment. There were balconies cluttered with grills and empty planters and mildewed patio chairs. Worn painted numbers marked the parking spots, and they had to climb two sets of warped wooden stairs, pocked with carved initials, to reach his father's door.

            Harlan stared at his father's sneakers, the laces stained with automotive grease, as the two adults shook hands. "You go on and sit, son, that couch there," his father said. More conversation he wasn't meant to hear. Harlan imagined himself rolling around the planet inside a clear bubble, sounds and words bouncing away from him in colorful lines.

            "Two hours, this first time," Betty said. "I'll make myself scarce as possible, but I will be in the room, you understand."

            Harlan's father poured iced tea for all of them and sat at the other end of the couch. The boy drank it with hesitation. No one in his family drank tea. It was bitter but he didn't ask about sugar. He couldn't picture his father buying sugar at the grocery. The white long-sleeved t-shirt his father wore was tucked into his jeans and his belly dipped slightly over a thick leather belt.           "How about some Nintendo?" he asked. Harlan nodded. The Nintendo console that sat on the carpet by the TV was dustless, brand new. He hadn't played the one at the house since his father left, and a pang of shame, even anger, hit his gut when he visualized his dad going out and buying a new Nintendo, one all for himself. Playing it alone. But then his father knelt by the TV, pulled out his pocketknife, and slit the plastic wrap on an unopened game cartridge. Harlan saw no other game cartridges in the sparse room. Maybe his dad only bought the console when he learned Harlan would be visiting.

            For the next two hours they played Mario, passing the controller back and forth across the pillow that sat between them. Betty tapped her watch when it was time to leave. She walked to the stairs and left Harlan and his father alone in the doorway for a minute.

            "You aren't scared of me," Harlan's father said, the words falling halfway between a statement and a question.

            "No," the boy said.

            "You know I didn't mean nothing by all of what happened."

            "Yes."

            "Well…say hi to your mother."

            "I will."

            Betty's car smelled like pine trees and there was no clutter except some manila folders in the backseat, and those weren't cluttered but carefully stacked. She drove slowly enough that the folders barely shifted. She made Harlan ride in the backseat—"on account of the airbags, hon"—as if he were just a little kid. On the way to his mother's, Harlan thought about the lies he'd told his father. The second one was most odd-tasting. Because he wasn't sure what all had happened, and what it meant or could mean. Harlan only knew that he was to blame. He was the one who made the call that changed everything.

*

            "This one or the other?" Harlan's mother asked. She turned in a full circle, her spindly heels scraping and clacking on the kitchen linoleum. The dress was cherry red, its top layer a gauzy fabric that sparkled some under the ceiling fan's yellow bulbs. She had thin legs compared to most of the moms Harlan saw at 4-H or school events, but the dress was short and, when she was facing away from him, Harlan couldn't help noticing the texture of her upper thighs, like the surface of oatmeal. Her skin was tan, and purplish veins forked like lightning from the crux of her knees and disappeared beneath the high hem of the dress. The first dress she'd put on was longer but it cinched around the waist and the neckline dipped low. It was also red.

            "This one's better," Harlan said.

            It was Valentine's Day. Roy was picking Harlan's mom up for dinner. The old Ford pickup had continued to appear in the driveway, honk loudly, and whisk his mother away since August, and the rabbit breeder still never came inside. Roy had checked up on the mini lops, once, handling them in a rough way that Harlan loathed, as if the rabbits were sacks of flour.

            She crouched down to assess herself in the decorative "Hot Stuff" mirror that hung beneath the hood of the stove. "Nah," she said, "first one shows me off better."

            His mom seemed unsteady in the tall, pointy shoes as she headed into the hallway. Harlan remembered what Zane had said last week. Zane had started dating a girl, a freshman named Melissa, and thought Valentine's would be the night he finally rounded third base. Harlan didn't ask for details. He got the gist. Less clothing, more touching.

            "She's always wearing these little low-cut shirts," Zane had said. "Near bust a nut just looking at her. Girls that show off their tits, they're the ones to try."

            Harlan thought about that. "Yeah, but you look skinnier in the one you got on now," he called after his mom. "You look less skinny in the other."

            She pivoted and came back down the hallway and her brown eyes were wild, set between eyelashes she'd painted thick enough to look like black pipe-cleaners. She drew a hand back and slapped him. His cheek stung and a throbbing ache set in at the hinge of his jaw. But when she left the house half an hour later, clutching a smoke-rank coat about her as she ran out to the breeder's truck, she was wearing the second dress.

            Harlan bundled up and went outside. He unlatched the doe's hutch but changed his mind, grabbing the buck instead. He set the buck on the garage floor and watched him hop around, nosing oil funnels and old buckets of primer and scraps of sandpaper.

            Betty had taken him to visit his father a few days ago. She sat in a chair to the side of the couch, reading a book. Betty didn't speak, but the boy never forgot she was there. He and his dad played Mario. They were stuck on a level, one of Bowser's fortresses. Harlan timed a jump wrong, and Mario fell into the lava for the twelfth time.

            His dad took the controller and suddenly said, "Shit—is Valentine's this week?" Harlan nodded. His father stood up and asked if he wanted to drive over to the grocery to get some candy and cards.

            "It's best if we keep these visits stabilized," Betty said, "and stay here for now. You understand."

            So Harlan had gone to school without cards to distribute to homeroom. Most of the ones he received didn't have his name written on them. They said he was cool, generic things like that. He didn't receive any of the cards with words like "Best Friend" or "Friends Forever" on them. In art class he made a Valentine for Zane and when it was complete he slid it into the trashcan.

            Now Harlan's ears were numb and he had to squirrel around piles of junk to catch the buck. The rabbit bit him. The boy twisted one of the buck's hind legs until he shrieked. The buck fought in his arms and Harlan twisted his hind leg until he shrieked again before shoving him into the hutch.

*

            It was late March when Harlan's mom told Betty that they were going on a weekend vacation, "to see my sister and nieces in Dayton," she said.

            Betty nodded. "And you want to keep him out of school Friday?"

            "One day," she said. "Just a day. We'll get his assignments and all."

            "I don't like the idea of him missing any school," Betty said. She fiddled with the pen clasped in the hinge of her clipboard. "But it's a good idea for him to see his cousins."

            That Thursday, after getting off the bus, Harlan grabbed the shovel and wheelbarrow and cleaned the hay out from the mini lops' nesting boxes and from beneath their hutches. He rolled the load of droppings and dirty hay back to the edge of the forest and dumped it on the decomposing mound there, then filled their water bottles and feed troughs. It was warm outside. A few early dandelions were beginning to sprout and Harlan collected some to feed to the rabbits. He liked to put the ends of the stems next to their mouths and watch them pull in the stems with tiny bites, like a fishing line drawn back to the reel, until the bright yellow blossoms hit their lips and those, too, disappeared.

            Inside, he packed his pajamas and a few changes of clothes in a paper sack, then pulled from his nightstand the list of telephone numbers that the Carrot Crunchers club leader had given him in the fall. In the kitchen he picked up the phone, listened to the dial tone, and returned it to its cradle a few times. He'd never called Zane before, and over the past month he'd seen Zane less than he used to. Zane picked Harlan up right before the weekly 4-H meetings and then drove him straight home.

            The week after Valentine's, Harlan had asked him about Melissa. "Did you get lucky with her?"

            Zane had laughed. "Aiming for third base and she gave up a homerun." Harlan's stomach was knotted but he had bumped his fist against Zane's when he held it up.

            Harlan finally managed to dial the number, his breath rattling with nerves. He squeezed the 8-ball keychain hooked to his belt loop as the phone rang. A woman, probably Zane's mother, answered. "Hello?"

            "Hi, is Zane there?"

            "Hold on." She shouted Zane's name a few times. "There's a girl on the phone for you." Heat rushed to Harlan's forehead.

            Zane picked up on a different line with a click. "I got it in my bedroom. Hang up." Another click. Some rustling. "Hey babe," Zane said.

            "It's not a girl." Silence. "It's me. Harlan."

            "Oh. Hey bud. What's happening?"

            Harlan flicked the telephone cord and watched it spring around, the coils tightening and loosening. "My mom's taking me to see family this weekend and I was wondering if maybe you could come over and check on my rabbits while I'm gone."

            "Sure. Saturday and Sunday?"

            "Tomorrow, too."

            "Sure, bud. Have a good trip."

            Harlan nuked a Salisbury steak dinner. The corn was rubbery and he didn't eat it. Shortly after his mom got home, the rabbit breeder's Ford pickup crunched up the driveway. Harlan's mom took the middle seat and rested her hand on Roy's leg, stroking his upper thigh through his jeans with her long nails. Harlan squeezed the bag of clothes to his chest. After driving awhile they pulled into the parking lot of his dad's apartment complex.

            "This'll be fun, huh?" his mom said. "Like old times." She lit a cigarette and exhaled smoke through her nose.

            "You don't give your pop too much trouble," Roy said.

            When Harlan knocked, his dad wasn't home. He sat on the stairs but a dank smell lingered there so he leaned the paper bag against his dad's door and went downstairs to the patch of grass out front to search for four-leaf clovers.

            "You ain't supposed to be here," his dad said when he arrived.

            "Mom said we were having a visit."

            He made Harlan wait in the hall after they climbed the stairs. Eventually Chuck showed up. Chuck had gray hair and wore overalls. He was older than Harlan's parents, but had been their friend for a long time. Harlan had known him since he was very little but hadn't seen the man since summer.

            "Hey boy-o," Chuck said, ruffling Harlan's hair. "How's it hanging?" The boy shrugged. "Wait here a sec while I talk to your old man, huh?"

            Harlan pressed his ear to the door, rough against his skin. He heard his dad say, "She just up and left him here."

            "What'm I supposed to do?"

            "The woman from CPS doesn't keep to a schedule, Chuck. Drops by whenever she pleases. And he ain't supposed to be here unsupervised."

            "Call her up then. Tell her what Kim done here."

            "I'm fucking Judas on the tree right now and you know it. Not a word they'll believe out of me. I'd like to have it so someday I get to see him like regular again."

            It was quiet a moment. Harlan carefully scratched his nose and pressed his ear tighter to the door.

            "You're the one laid a hand on her."

            "You wouldn't've?" his dad said. "With what she did?"

            Chuck didn't respond. Harlan heard their feet move some and then it was harder to hear what they were saying. The sun was slung low in the sky and it reflected sharp shapes on the windshields in the parking lot. The paper bag had ripped and the leg of his pajama bStinetorfms was working its way free. The door opened and his dad asked how a pizza sounded.

            After the delivery boy showed up the three of them shared the extra-large pepperoni pizza, polishing off every slice, and then his dad jimmied Harlan's bag of clothes into a second paper sack to keep it from splitting more. He hugged the boy, his elbow pressing Harlan's head close to his body, and then Harlan left with Chuck.

            The radio played, a country station, as they drove. The air had grown crisp, and Chuck turned on the heater. "You know, boy-o, it won't be like this forever. What don't kill us makes us stronger."

            Harlan nodded. Chuck made up a pallet for Harlan in his den. There was cable TV and the boy watched it past midnight. The room was bright when he awoke. The night had brought a deep cold snap, out of season, and three inches of snow coated the ground outside.

*

            The weekend progressed with more flurries, with sleet, and tree limbs hung heavy with ice. In the afternoons sounds like gunfire struck the air as the frigid limbs popped and cracked. Harlan stayed in his pajamas and watched cable TV. He ate peanut-butter sandwiches and cereal. Chuck drove him home early Sunday evening. He didn't know Harlan's mom had left in the breeder's pickup, so when he saw her car in the driveway he left right away, thinking she was already home. Harlan hadn't packed for cold weather, so he went inside and put on boots and his quilted coat before going to check on the rabbits. On the way to the side door, he saw the light on the answering machine was blinking. He pressed the button.

            One message, from Thursday at 10:16 p.m. It was Zane. "Hey, sorry for calling so late," he said, "but Melissa's parents invited me for this like, retreat thing, this weekend. Anyway, it's in Louisville so I won't be around to check up on the rabbits. You oughta just run down the list, someone'll be free. I'll see you next week." Harlan felt his pulse stutter and stood paralyzed as the answering machine's automated voice asked if he wanted to save or delete the message, once, twice. He erased it.

            Outside, he thrummed his fingers down the chicken wire of the doe's hutch. "Hey pretty." She was in her nesting box. The surface of her drinking bottle was frosted. He unhooked it. His bowels twisted. The bottle was frozen solid. He reached into the hutch and rapped on her nesting box. "Hey." He rapped harder. "Come out." His breath escaped in quick clouds as he snaked his hand into the box. Her fur was cold. She didn't move.

            Harlan knocked on the buck's drinking bottle. Frozen. He reached into the nesting box and the buck's fur was cold but he thought he felt a movement in the rabbit's chest, so he grabbed his hind feet and carefully worked the rabbit out onto the chicken wire. He'd never seen the buck without eyes wide open and mad, but now they were slit shut. Harlan picked him up by the nape and rushed to his bedroom, where he flipped his space heater to its highest setting and laid the rabbit before the coils, glowing red.

            He fetched a plastic straw and a cup of water from the kitchen. The buck's lynx coat looked dulled and gray against the carpet. Harlan put his finger over the top of the straw to keep water in it and tried to dribble the liquid between the buck's lips. "Come on come on." The water trickled down the rabbit's face and into the carpet. The boy hugged the rabbit and rubbed him and dangled him in front of the space heater, his long ears cold and stiff, then propped him on his back and trapped water in the straw and drew back the rabbit's lips as if checking his teeth and inserted the straw and let the water go. The buck didn't swallow, the water was just pooling in his throat. Harlan turned the buck over and the liquid dribbled down his soft chest. He went to the bathroom and turned the faucet all the way to the left and filled the sink with hot water. He put the buck in the water, keeping only his head above the surface. Harlan submerged his hand and twisted the rabbit's hind leg. He twisted harder but the buck didn't shriek. His fur was sodden and dark and then the boy noticed the rabbit's chest was no longer moving.

            Harlan plugged in his mom's hairdryer. He held the buck by the nape of his neck and dried his coat. The lynx coloration still didn't look right. It had lost the hint of fawn, the warmth.

            It was hard to get the doe out of the nesting box. Her corpse had hardened some. He put the buck, the doe, and a shovel in the wheelbarrow and pushed his way to the forest, leaving footprints and a single tire track in the snow. It was overcast and the green that had returned to the forest was sapped away, buried. The ground was hard and the shovel's edge was dull. Harlan held it high and plunged it down as if planting a flag but the earth wouldn't give and the impact shot pain up his arms and through his shoulders, but he raised the shovel again, and again, slamming it into the ground with dull metallic thuds. Clumps of snow slid from the trees and whished around him.

            He left the mini lops and tools there and returned to the house, where he kicked over his old space heater and dropped papers into its coils. The wrappers from Zane's ice cream cones. His hand-me-down essays, torn to strips. Some of the shreds turned ashy or smoked black and a few caught and went up in sparking yellow and orange. He unhooked the keychain from his belt loop, the one Zane had given him, the lucky 8-ball. "I can get lucky without it," Zane had said.

            And he had. Everyone had, except Harlan, rolling around in his invisible bubble. He dropped the keychain onto the space heater and an acrid odor filled the room as the plastic began to melt against the coils, and Harlan ripped the plug from the wall and threw water on it and watched until the smoke stopped.

            Harlan grabbed a butcher's knife from the block on the kitchen counter, and ran back to the forest. He'd done a poor job drying the buck's coat. It was crinkly, like an icy shrub. Harlan swept the snow and fallen leaves and sticks away from a patch of earth and tried to work the blade into the unyielding soil. He picked back flecks of it with the tip of the knife but the light was failing and none of it was enough.

            He peeled back one of the buck's eyelids and stared into the glazed, empty eye, chocolate gone black. "Jackass," he muttered, "you good for nothing jackass."

            He stretched the buck out on a log and pulled its haunch straight, held the butcher's knife in a perfect vertical line, and pressed the tip into its lower hock. The skin parted slightly. He twisted the knife back and forth, widening the hole, then pulled back and began to saw at the joint. Harlan was queasy and he screamed and kicked the log and pressed the length of the blade against the buck's leg and sawed and sawed but all of the secret pieces in there, the ligaments and thin bands of muscle and intricate bones, all of those pieces that had made the stubborn buck's thumping so ferocious, didn't want to give, and the foot was hanging on by bloody tattered pieces and snaking a stain down the side of the cold log.

            That was all he needed. The foot. That was the lucky part. Harlan braced his shoe against the buck's abdomen and grabbed the foot, yanked, and fell backwards into the dirty snow.

            The small, furry foot was wet in Harlan's palm, and to his pale and chapping lips there came a smile.



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