by Christina Perez Brubaker
Hanna hadn’t planned on taking the rabbits. It was one of those things that just sort of happened. An impulse her husband, Matthew, if he were still alive might’ve slapped her cheek for because according to him, nothing ever just-sort-of-happened. In a way, he’d be right. She’d been thinking about it for a while, death and what comes after.
She was instructed to take the rabbits to the freezer by Jon Walters of all people. He’d been a volunteer at the shelter for only six months and yet he’d accomplished what Hanna couldn’t in five years. More responsibilities. Some semblance of respect.
They stood together in the rabbit pen. Jon holding her by the shoulders. “You need to get a hold of yourself,” he said. A crowd had begun to form outside the low, wood fence. Families looking to adopt, city employees and other volunteers. They whispered to newcomers. Dog attack. Dead rabbits. Crying lady.
Jon spoke quietly as if trying to save her from further embarrassment. Yes, it was a terrible accident, but what was done was done. He stroked the two dead bunnies she held in her arms. Poor things. If she couldn’t take them to the freezer, he would.
“No,” she said. Her voice finally firm.
“That’s my girl,” he smiled, and part of her—the piece she disliked—was pleased he was pleased. But as she walked away she overheard him say to Miguel, the groundskeeper, in the same conspiratorial tone, “What is it with women and rabbits?”
* * *
The freezer was a small insulated room at the far edge of the property. There, when she flipped the switch, the lights flickered, lighting the cement floors, cement walls and crowded metal shelves in flashes of fluorescence. She propped open the heavy door with the wood block left there for this purpose, hesitating a moment before entering.
Hanna hated the freezer. It was a dumping ground for the county’s dead wildlife. Raccoons, deer, coyotes, the occasional mountain lion, all to be carted off at the end of the month to another facility where they’d be placed in an incinerator. Now, they lay waiting. Stacked on top of one another in thick plastic bags. Frozen stiff. In her arms the rabbits were still warm. Pliable. She swore she could feel their tiny souls sparking in the air around her.
The decision to save them split Hanna in two. Her movements propelled by a sudden, unseen force, while the rest of her sat back. Watching. Nervous, but also excited, to see what would happen next.
Even though she knew the security system that surveyed the property didn’t extend to the freezer she looked up at each corner of the room. Sweat gathering across her forehead despite the cold, she untucked her shirt and held it up with her chin pressed against her chest. Sorry lovies, she whispered, before securing their bodies with the elastic waistband of her shorts.
Despite being sticky in places, where blood had crusted over the wounds, Hanna delighted in the feeling of their downy fur against her skin.
* * *
Hanna had always preferred animals over people. Their lack of pretense. Needs and impulses laid bare, even when wild or cruel. After Matthew died, a young widow with a decent insurance settlement, she thought she’d found a haven. However, she quickly discovered the shelter was plagued.
The largest no-kill facility in Orange County, it was just over two acres of land hidden in the middle of an industrial area where two major California freeways intersect. Home to hundreds of animals. Chickens, pigs, iguanas, chinchillas. Cats and dogs. Rabbits and small rodents. A site its size was dependent on volunteers, some of whom, she had to admit, were self-righteous know-it-alls. And the ones that weren’t didn’t stay long. The city employees didn’t make it easy. They called them nut jobs behind their backs. Zealots. So naturally, when Hanna insisted the bunny pen wasn’t safe so close to the dog run, she was ignored.
The problem was an old unused gate. It was padlocked but with rusted screws in sun-bleached wood. Janet, the director—and the director before her—called a new solid fence a misplacement of funds and it seemed the dogs could sense the chink in security. They scratched at it. Bumped up against it. Dug below it. And when the dirt got low enough, their snouts appeared on the bunny side. Frustrated snorts. The occasional paw. Which is when Miguel would pull up on his golf cart, dump out a bag of dirt, and stomp the mound flat with his foot.
The day it finally busted happened to be Hanna’s anniversary. She’d baked a cake to celebrate. Chickpea flour, greek yogurt, shredded apples and lavender from her garden. The treat was meant for the animals, but the others assumed she’d made it for them. They crowded around in the breakroom making awkward small talk while stealing greedy looks, so she took her time unwrapping the pink cellophane she’d taped to the cake plate.
“To Hanna,” Janet the director said, holding up a paper coffee cup, the seam stained dark from reuse. “Five years and counting!”
There was a smattering of claps and Hanna managed a smile as she cut two giant hunks of cake that crumbled in the pockets of her cargo shorts as she made her way across the grounds. Leaving the employees to devour the rest. Imagining their complaints. Crumbs stuck to their chins. What kinda cake is this? It’s too dry. Too grainy. So fucking bland. Except for Jon. He followed her from the breakroom. She could hear his keys jingling in his pockets. His labored breath as he tried to keep up.
* * *
Jon was always buzzing around. Right there whenever Hanna needed an extra hand. Saying stupid things like, Looking lovely today, even when her hair slipped from its braid. There’s that beautiful smile! Even when she rolled her eyes.
Hanna was thirty-two. Jon was older. In his late fifties she guessed. Sixties maybe. It was hard to tell with men like him. Men who’ve spent their days in the sun. The back of his neck was red. Deeply lined. More hide than skin. The hair that stuck out from beneath his faded baseball cap was dirty blonde in the shade, gray in the sun.
On his first day, he’d looked her up and down before smiling wide to reveal a mouthful of beige teeth. A satisfied expression that made her feel exposed. Like he could somehow see through her heavy sweater and she knew, before Janet even said it, they’d be paired up.
“Hanna here’ll show you the ropes,” Janet said. “She’s been here longer than anyone. Shit, she could probably do my job better than me.” She winked at her assistant, who laughed into his fist, pretending it was a cough.
“What’s their story?” Jon said when they were alone. He nodded his head toward the window framing Janet and her assistant standing in the shade of a large oak tree. Hanna said she paid them no mind, then ducked her head back inside the storage cabinet she was rifling through.
“Seem like a couple of assholes,” he said, and for a moment her distaste for him ebbed.
“Here,” she handed him a set of blue latex gloves, then a black trash bag she’d shaken open. “You hold. I’ll scoop.”
Hanna loved the cattery. Three walls lined with a custom-built cat tree. Part wood, part carpet, it had ten levels of platforms, ramps, tunnels, and dens. When she’d first led Jon in, the residents—two dozen or so felines with the right temperaments—retreated to their respective hiding spots, but as Jon and Hanna slipped into a rhythm scooping and dumping, the animals slowly slinked out. Resettling to watch them clean.
Normally Hanna liked to work in silence, but Jon liked to talk. Mostly about his family—a daughter in Arizona. His ex-wife, Joyce. The construction company he’d left to his nephew. An early retirement he blamed on his back. Mornings spent visiting job sites, just in case his sister’s son needed his expertise. Volunteering, he claimed, had been his daughter’s idea. “She says I can’t spend my days sitting around the house, except I probably could, it’s her that can’t stand the idea of it.”
Jon didn’t ask Hanna any questions. He seemed intent on filling the silence in a manner that was familiar. When they met, Hanna mistook her husband’s bravado for strength. Now, after years alone, nothing much more to think about, she knew what lurked beneath this particular type of arrogance. Slivers of insecurity. And so, she let Jon talk. Let him follow her around.
Before long, he was sitting beside her on her favorite bench at the shelter, because it was easier to suffer his chatter than to think of any more excuses for why she’d rather eat alone. A decision she regretted when, one day, he sat down and announced he’d figured out what her problem was. Why Janet and the others treated her like they do. “You gotta learn to play the game,” he said. “Can’t go around being so prickly all the time. ’Specially, with management.”
Hanna took a bite of her cucumber and sprout stuffed pita, trying to enjoy the gooey homemade hummus and the sound of the bougainvillea bushes rustling in the breeze behind them. When her husband started in on someone, the store cashier or a wide-eyed waitress—people who were always trying to rip him off—she’d pick something to focus on. A crack in the linoleum. A ceiling fan with a deflated balloon wrapped up in its blades. She found, if she concentrated hard enough, everything else, except the object, would fall away.
Despite her silence, Jon droned on. “Even if there’s more important jobs to be done,” he said. Stopping to drop a handful of broken potato chips into his mouth. Inspecting his chest for crumbs before brushing it with one hand. “You don’t make a face. You smile real sweet and you get it done.”
On the grass at their feet lay a carpet of wayward flowers. Fuchsia leaves like tissue paper. Purple, blood-like veins. Hanna stared until they pulsed.
* * *
Usually the dogs used the run in packs. With each other to keep busy, interest in the gate came and went. On Hanna’s anniversary, however, Oliver, a sixty-five-pound white boxer with a wonky eye, had the run to himself. The instigator of one too many fights, he also had a thing for small animals. Two-inch strands of drool hung and bubbled from his jowls when led past the cattery. Past the rodents. The bunnies.
When the scratching and the banging against the gate began, Hanna experienced a hollowing in her belly. She was sitting in the grass feeding the rabbits cake from her pockets and they seemed to sense something too. They crawled up her. Nails snagged on her shirt. Scratching her chest. Her neck.
Jon stood outside the pen. His elbows resting on the two-log fence. His knees pressed against the chicken wire. He was talking about muffins. A family recipe, because he too loved to bake. Was damn good at it. Wasn’t ashamed to admit it. Real men aren’t.
“Maybe we should take him in,” she said.
“Who?” he asked, mildly irritated. “Ollie? He’s fine. Poor guy needs to burn some steam.”
Later, it would annoy her how quickly Jon’s body responded to the sound of that old gate ripping off its hinges, while hers—despite the tingling premonition—seemed unable to process the situation until it was too late.
One minute, Jon was vowing to bake her a batch of coconut chocolate something, the next he was jumping over the fence with surprising agility. Arms out, legs splayed, he stood in front of Hanna and the rabbits just as Ollie charged the pen. “Easy boy,” he said, trying to block him, moving side to side, but the dog was quick, he juked, then slid, grabbing a gray holland lop by the stomach. Like a bear with a fish, he swung his head back and forth. His undocked ears slapping against his jowls sending rabbit fur like tufts of dandelions floating into the air.
Hanna watched in horror. Breathing only when Miguel appeared in the mouth of the broken gate. He and Jon cornered Ollie, which only excited him more. Thinking it a new game, he dropped the rabbit from his mouth, threw his front paws in the air, prancing before going after a slow, black and white Rex with short, pointy ears on its way to join the others. A quivering mound huddled against the far side of the pen.
On hands and knees Hanna rushed towards him, but she was still several feet away when Oliver, using both front paws, pounced on the rabbit’s head, then dug at him with his nails. Somewhere someone screamed and it was seconds before she realized the awful sound was coming from her. To stop, she stuffed her dirt covered hand between her teeth.
Finally, Miguel straddled the dog, pried open his jaws before pulling him away by the collar, leaving the dying bunny lying in the grass where, despite its size, it’d fallen with the softest thump.
When Oliver had gotten in trouble for fighting, she’d felt bad for him. The seclusion. Gave him extra attention. Extra treats. She knew it wasn’t his fault, still, seeing him that way—violent, triumphant—made her sick.
She crawled to gather up the bodies. Lifted them by their ears. Held them against her chest. Jon appeared at her side. Squatted down to pat her on the back. Quick, hard taps as if instead of crying there was something caught in her throat.
* * *
Hanna and Matthew had tried for years to have a family. The farthest they got was a stillborn at twenty-three weeks. Perfect in his tininess, they’d let her hold him, but it wasn’t long enough. Too sad and too drugged to intervene when Matthew refused his remains, Hanna went home with a beanie and a blanket. In the beginning, the longing consumed her. Each waking thought inhabited by the baby she couldn’t have. Her marriage, however, made her wonder if it was for the best.
She was twenty-one years old when they met. She’d just lost her mother. Matthew was almost forty, but better looking than any boy she’d ever dated. He was big, six feet six inches. He made her feel safe. Love like a net. A new knot forming when she was busy looking at something else.
He didn’t like her going anywhere without him. At restaurants he ordered her meals. He picked out her clothes. He left a list of chores on the refrigerator he ticked off like a drill sergeant. And once, right before he died, he yanked her back into the room by her ponytail when she tried to walk away from an argument over room temperature vanilla creamer she’d left on the counter.
After an episode, Hanna often fell asleep piecing together a new kind of fight. One in which, like a mirror, she turned his anger on him. However, she never found the strength. They were married nine years when he, a loyal Cal-Trans employee, was killed in the night on the shoulder of the 405 Freeway.
It’s those lights! The drunk driver had screamed at the officers as they placed her in the backseat of the squad car. They’re too fucking bright. His co-worker, Shawn, told Hanna the story at the memorial. A depressing gathering put together by Matthew’s mother and sister at an old golf course in Fountain Valley. An airless room with fake, dust-covered flowers.
Shawn was younger. Short and thin. He fidgeted in his ill-fitting suit. Scratched at his jawline where a shaving rash formed. They stood beside the bar the banquet room shared with the lounge. There, groups of golfers—their spiked shoes clicking against the floor—ordered drinks while looking over the bartender’s shoulder at the small group of mourners.
Matthew never had anything nice to say about his co-worker. That pussy prick, he called him, and yet Shawn moaned he’d lost a friend. Suddenly, he began to cry. Openly, like a child. He’d witnessed the whole thing. Said it was all he saw when he closed his eyes. Matt’s hulking body pinned to the generator that lit those lights. To avoid his scrunched-up face, Hanna looked at her toes nuzzled inside a pair of her mother’s black kitten heels, half a size too small.
Hanna was familiar with grief. The way it crept up, choking you when least expected it, but it was a private thing. Meant for bathroom stalls. Dressing rooms. The refrigerated warehouse at the back of the grocery store. Shawn’s carrying on made the parquet floor feel suddenly slanted. To get him to stop she put an arm around his shoulders. Smelled the piney scent of his deodorant working. Repeated what others had said when her mother died. It’s okay, he’s in a better place. Shawn leaned in with surprising weight. His arm around her back, his breath hot on her neck, he called Matt a lucky guy. An awkward embrace that ended with his open palm momentarily cupping her backside as she pulled away.
She stood taller. Held her hands, as if in prayer, tightly together in front of her chest.
Seemingly embarrassed, Shawn apologized while wiping his eyes and her discomfort turned back to sympathy. To self-doubt. She let him kiss her cheek goodbye. Wet lips that landed too close to her mouth. A spot she spent the rest of the day rubbing raw with the sleeve of her sweater.
* * *
Once she got the rabbits home, Hanna emailed the shelter. She needed a break. A week, maybe two. They’d called. First Reema, the girl with purple hair who ran the front desk. Before each shift she removed metal from her nose, lips and cheeks leaving behind holes Hanna had a strange compulsion to plug with the tip of her finger, then Janet’s assistant, and finally, Janet herself.
This wasn’t the first time Hanna had taken an animal from the shelter. Sick or maimed, left to languor, over the years she’d rescued as many as possible. However, there were rules. Limits on the number of adoptions and so eventually she had to get creative. A missing animal report needed to be filed, but it was as far as anyone would be willing to go. Reema would write it, Janet would sign it and that’d be it. But not for Jon. He’d texted and called, wanted to know how she was doing, when she’d be back, what exactly happened to the rabbits.
“Come on, Hanna,” he said in his last message. “We both know you took ’em.” He spoke as if she were a child he was trying to both coax and threaten and it struck her what he’d done to her time at the shelter. Sure, the politics preceded him but she’d managed just fine for years. It was his persistent, unwanted attention that had her dreading her shifts.
She didn’t have a plan when she called the shelter. It formed while sitting on her kitchen floor, Bubbles, an orange tabby with six fingers, curled up in her lap. She ran her hand down his back, counting each nodule of his spine as she listened to muffled instrumental music cutting out every few seconds so that she greeted Janet three times before she was actually on the line. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t Miss Hanna. Finally.”
* * *
The online videos had made skinning look easy, but Hanna had worried about the blood. She’d never been very good with that sort of thing but the rabbits, cut open and hung in her kitchen, produced only two red inches caught in a painter’s bucket she wrapped in plastic and tossed into the trash. Once drained, it was easier to pretend she was dealing with something other than flesh and bones.
She thought she’d cut in all the right places, using a paring knife sharpened for the job, but when it came time to pull off the hides, in one long tug, both skins stuck. While trying to work them free, she’d accidently sliced straight through in half a dozen places. Wincing each time. Apologizing by gently petting their heads.
While the hides soaked, to alleviate her guilt she boiled their insides. Two days worth of food for the dogs. Her two chihuahua mixes and a blind pug named Jezebel, were far too interested in her project. Sequestered to the backyard they yipped and barked at the turtles.
Matthew was the one who brought home the first fifty-pound leopard tortoise. Purchased from a man—a collector of turtles and guns—who lived on three acres of dirt in Yucca Valley. They named her Joanne. Jojo for short. And after the doctors said Hanna might never carry a baby to term, they got her a companion. Mork. Which eventually led to babies. Sometimes the neighbors complained. The smell. The noises. The males were amorous. They liked to mount and grunt. Now, to quiet them and the dogs she threw a bowl of lettuce and carrots onto the back lawn.
She’d placed newspapers over her grandmother’s lace tablecloth. The two rabbit pelts, covered in salt, lay on a faded blue towel. The oscillating fan she’d set on the counter for the smell, rustled their fur in swirls. She’d just sat down when her doorbell rang, followed by four loud knocks that sent her heart off and running.
She cussed, and Jummo, an african grey who sat across from her, perched on the arched back of a windsor chair, repeated it five times. His favorite number. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” Then squawked.
From the porch came a familiar voice. “Hanna?”
“Hanna. Hanna. Hanna. Hanna. Hanna.”
She tried to shush the bird but he grew agitated. Spread his tail feathers. Mimicked her until she hurried from the kitchen, closing the door firmly behind her. Grandpa Benny, her mother’s father, had built the small house in nineteen fifty-two, back when home construction was about keeping heat in and sound out. She tiptoed through the living room on socked feet, wincing whenever a floorboard creaked.
It was almost noon. She was still in her pajamas. Her mother’s robe, an ivory silk kimono embroidered with ruby red flowers, over worn gray sweats. At the door, she stood on her toes and pressed her hands against the grainy wood where they steamed with perspiration.
There he was magnified and curved by the peephole. “I know you’re in there,” he said, speaking into the eyehole as if it were a microphone. “You’ve got some nerve,” he shouted. “All those missing animals. It’s you who should be suspended. Not me.” Jon pointed at himself hard. Five fingers pressed together beat against his chest like a drum. Spittle flying off freckled lips.
She hadn’t blamed him directly, she’d simply cast doubt. Pointed out to Janet that it was Jon who’d told her to take them to the freezer. Jon who’d told everyone he’d hunted as a young man to impress his father. Ate game big and small. It was ridiculous, she knew. No one in their right mind would eat those rabbits but Janet seemed like she wanted to believe it. Called him a weaselly son of bitch. “I never trusted him.”
Suddenly, her front door shuttered. Kicked by his boot. A realization that shook something loose in Hanna. She undid the locks. Two deadbolts and two chains. With an arm up, a shield against the sun, brightness that was momentarily blinding, she stepped out onto the porch in the space left there by Jon who’d jumped back when she swung the door open.
“Get off my property!” She knew she was yelling. She could feel it coming from her, tightening the cords in her neck.
“Whoa. Calm down,” he shouted back as if she were the one who’d showed up at his house. Kicked his door. Walking backwards he stepped off the porch onto the gravel walkway—slide, crunch, slide—almost losing his balance.
What did he expect? She demanded. All that slithering back and forth between the volunteers and the city staff. It was bound to catch up with him. Did he really think they’d believe him over her? Sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. Being a total fucking creep.
As she moved forward, he moved back until she stood at the edge of her grass between two lawn ornaments, a crystal gazing ball and a large cement turtle the neighborhood kids liked to stop and ride like a pony. Jon was on the sidewalk. His hands in the air, she felt it coming. The guilt. Screaming like that at an old man.
Then he spat on the ground between them. “I knew there was something wrong with you.”
Once back inside, Hanna watched him through the holes in the Chantilly curtains sitting in his truck across the street. Staring at her house. At the exact spot where she stood, or so it seemed, and she had to remind the fear nibbling at her edges, the shelter was hers long before him.
With a quick hand she pulled the curtain open, staring back until finally, red-faced, he drove away.
* * *
Her hands still shaking, Hanna attempted to fit the first snout in place over one of the forms she’d ordered online—two sitting cottontails—discovering the skin on the right side was ripped. It gaped and sagged around the glass eye she’d fastened into the foam. The other rabbit’s face, the pudgy Rex, was covered in slits. One ear hanging on by a thin patch of skin.
Heat in her chest, at the back of her eyes, pressed against her temples, she placed a hand on one of her mother’s egg-shaped paperweights. Cool and smooth, black onyx marbled with iridescent amethyst, a color her mother called deep space sparkle.
In the hall closet, behind the box that held Matthew’s urn—his remains divided by his family, some for you, and you, and you—she found her mother’s sewing kit. For hours she worked, stopping only to use the restroom or stretch her back, breaking three needles in the process.
In the living room, she placed her creation first beside the fireplace. There, Bubbles circled. His head slowly bobbing, then moving side to side. “Oh no you don’t,” she said, picking up the rabbit, placing it on the mantle, standing back to admire her handiwork.
She wasn’t the seamstress her mother was. Still, despite the stitches (jagged in places) the mismatched fur (black and white on one side, brown spotted gray on the other) and the mismatched proportions (one ear up, the other down) the bunny she created was so lifelike.
On the sofa she moved plastic bags filled with mail she’d yet to sort, used batteries she suspected dead but needed to check once more before throwing away, stacks of free magazines, and tubes of lipstick still wrapped in heat sealed plastic, creating just enough space to curl up. She thought of her mother. Five feet, one inch tall, both man and woman of the house she was afraid of nothing. Pepper spray in her leather fanny pack. A baseball bat beside her bed. A rusted hammer hanging on a nail by the back door, another hidden under the sofa cushions where she lay now, closest to the front door.
She saw her applying her favorite color, salmon sunrise, which Hanna had begun to collect from various pharmacies after Revlon discontinued the color three years before. War paint, she’d say with a dramatic pop of her lips that made Hanna laugh.
When Matthew was alive, she never liked the idea of her looking down, disappointed by her daughter’s lack of strength. After the baby passed, she imagined her happier with him to hold. After Matthew’s accident she tried but could never picture the three of them together, now she envisioned the rabbits floating beside her on a puffy white cloud. Their image less vivid, because she’d successfully kept part of them with her. Pleased, she began to drift. A well-deserved catnap. Listening to Jummo in the kitchen. Tracing his movements by the familiar sounds. Opening his wings. Shaking his body. Relieving himself with a splat. A clear puddle which—like the others below his perch—would eventually turn green. Then white. Sending items falling to the floor she stretched out one leg, dug her foot between the cushions, and fell asleep absorbing strength from the wooden handle of her mother’s hammer.
Christina Perez Brubaker is a fellowship recipient from Chapman University, where she received an MFA in creative writing. She lives with her family in Costa Mesa, California. She teaches creative writing at Orange County School of the Arts. Her work has appeared in Coast Magazine, CRAFT and Fourteen Hills.
Phyllis Green is an author, playwright, and artist. Her paintings can be found at ArLiJo 123, Earth and Altar, Superpresent, Novus, New Plains Review and soon in I-70 Review.