The Rabbit Matchmakers
BY ANDREW PHILLIPS
Loneliness killed Grandpa Charlie. Henry’s father told him this on the day that he dropped him off for the school field trip. His father, a Harvard grad and a political advisor for the Democratic Party, made a living solving others’ personal crises. He thought the quiet ones were always the ones that needed the most help.
Henry was a quiet one. Some people even said strange. He preferred Flora’s company to that of other children. Flora was Grandpa Charlie’s rabbit, and he didn’t have to make an effort with her. She was content to sit on his lap and listen to him. Sometimes he told her stories about his day and other times he recounted some of Grandpa Charlie’s. Either way, Flora listened. She, Henry knew, understood loneliness. She felt it herself. In the six months since Grandpa Charlie died, she had lost a lot of weight. Henry asked his parents to buy her a rabbit companion. They thought he was too sensitive.
They insisted he attend the sixth-grade field trip. It was the last social event before Henry and his classmates started middle school. The school district splurged on a couple of rooms in a cheap hotel that didn’t serve food and arranged for a bus to take them to the Met and to a Yankees’ game. It was what they always did. Henry’s older brother, Ted, had gone five years earlier and returned home with a slew of new friends. Their parents hoped the same for Henry.
Henry didn’t have high expectations for the trip. He was paired with a group of boys that he didn’t know, and soon wondered if it was possible to feel any more out of place. These kids wore baseball jerseys and had the stretched torsos and expanding interests of boys on the cusp of puberty. Henry, shorter and squatter, still waited for his cheeks to thin out, his voice to drop, and his personality to form. Without a personality transplant, he had nothing of merit to say. The only things he could think of saying were things he knew he shouldn’t talk about: his watercolor paintings, his collection of origami animals, his grandfather’s stories, and Flora. He stayed quiet.
The trip dragged. The Yankee game was canceled due to an unexpected downpour that lasted the rest of the trip. Henry, having forgotten his coat, dripped all over the Met, which elicited irritated glances from the guards. He buried himself in the back of their group, allowing the others to dominate the tour. They breezed past the Impressionists and Surrealists and only stopped when they reached the indigenous spearheads and medieval suits of armor. Henry didn’t see the appeal.
After the museum, a chaperone took the others boys to the video arcade across from the hotel. Henry retreated to their room. It had free Wi-Fi and a pullout couch that he curled up on to watch movies on his cell phone. His mind turned to Flora. She probably missed him. Ted promised to feed her while he was away. Henry was bored, lonely. It felt normal. Then the trip was over.
“How did it go?”
Ted’s car was waiting for him in the school parking lot. Henry knew that he was only there because his mother attended a sociology class at the local university on Wednesday nights, and his father had been called out to Oregon to deal with a political crisis. Henry was relieved to be, at least temporarily, spared from telling them about the trip.
“It went fine,” he said. “We went to the Met.”
“Cool. Did you see the suits of armor?”
They were passing the high school where the cheerleaders were building a white and green pleated pyramid on the soccer field. Ted, the captain of the lacrosse team, knew most of them by name. Henry counted the seconds in his head it took for his brother to return to reality. Thirteen.
“Did you make any friends?” Ted asked.
“Yes, humans.” Henry flushed angrily. He hadn’t made friends, but Ted didn’t need to sound so skeptical.
“I had to check. Thought you might of buddied up to a pigeon or something.”
Henry glared at him and withdrew further into his seat. Ted chuckled at his own joke; the word “pigeon” formed over his lips and then he choked on it.
“Oh my God, Henry. I forgot…”
Flora was running in rapid circles around the hutch. Henry could feel her heart beating through her skin. She was expediting her own death. They needed to work fast to save her.
Rabbits, Grandpa Charlie had explained to him, were practical creatures. They assessed their options. Given the choice to perish slowly and painfully from hunger or die quickly from distress, they always chose the second option. Their internal systems surged out enough adrenaline to exhaust their hearts and send their bodies into a state of paralyzed shock. They left the world as victors, the masters of their own deaths.
Henry and Ted refused to give Flora that satisfaction. Ted threw clumps of hay down in front of her and hoarsely demanded that she “eat dammit” while Henry patted her soothingly on the soft spot at the base of her ears, and with his other hand steadied her body in place. Her heart thrummed against his palm. It wasn’t slowing down. He thought: I am too old to cry.
But Flora settled. Her heart slowed to its natural cadence, and she nibbled hungrily at the hay. They watched her for a while. Ted joked that she looked like a pencil sharpener when she ate, her cheeks moving in mechanical rotations. He looked at Henry.
Henry looked away. Flora was chomping away at a long, pale green strand of hay. She was fine, but he wasn’t. He was hot and exhausted like a little kid after a long cry.
“Don’t you see it?” Ted asked. “Stick a number two pencil between her lips, and I bet she’d nibble it down to the point.”
Henry turned away. His brother didn’t used to be so callous. When they were younger, before their grandfather had moved in with them, they would spend the whole summer at Grandpa Charlie’s house. They would race the rabbits up the stairs and take turns filling their bowls with hay. Ted even stuck around for Grandpa Charlie’s stories. He liked the stories and the rabbits. Then he didn’t.
“I guess killing my rabbit is just some big joke to you.”
Ted looked stunned. Henry, too, was surprised by his audacity. Not only had he talked back to Ted but he’d also claimed Flora as his own. She was Grandpa Charlie’s rabbit but it felt right that she should be passed down to him. She was his rabbit and Ted nearly killed her.
“You know it was an accident,” Ted said.
“You starved her for three days.”
“I’m not a monster.” Ted picked at his fingers. “It was a really busy week. I honestly just forgot.”
“Sure, you did.”
Ted opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it. They both knew there wasn’t anything he could say.
Henry stomped up the stairs to his bedroom.
Flora’s accident spurred Henry to be more proactive about finding her a friend. He combed through Grandpa Charlie’s belongings and found the contact information for Elaine McGrath, a local breeder, who facilitated a rabbit-bonding program in her home. Bonding, he read online, was the art of rabbit matchmaking. It involved setting the rabbits up on a series of ten minute dates and was widely praised on veterinary blogs as the most successful method of fostering healthy companionships.
Now that he had the name of a matchmaker, Henry needed his parents’ permission. His mother would be easy to convince. It was she who convinced Henry’s father to let Grandpa Charlie bring Flora with him to their house. She even helped him to find nice homes for the other rabbits, the ones Henry’s father wouldn’t let him keep.
Henry’s father was the challenge; it was best to start there. He checked the time difference on his cellphone. It was five-thirty at night in Oregon, and his father had probably just returned to his hotel. He rang his number.
“Dad, it’s me.”
“Is everything okay?”
“How was the trip?”
Henry paused again.
“You’re making friends?”
He was met with silence on the other end of the phone. Henry wondered if his father’s deductive skills applied to vocal cues, or perhaps one of the teachers had called to tell him that Henry seemed withdrawn in New York.
“Sorry, champ. I got sidetracked. What’s up?”
Henry rushed through the rest. He told his father that Ted had forgotten to feed Flora, that she had almost died from stress, and that they needed to enroll her in a rabbit-bonding program immediately. He explained about Mrs. McGrath, the rabbit breeder friend of Grandpa Charlie’s, and his father thought he remembered her from one of his grandfather’s birthday parties.
“So can we do it?”
His father said nothing, then: “Put your mother on the phone.”
Henry found his mother washing dishes in the kitchen. She took the phone and went up to her bedroom and shut the door. He followed her upstairs and pressed his ear against the crack. Nothing. His mother had been the wife of civil servant long enough to know when to speak softly.
Fifteen minutes later, the door opened. His mother said, “We’ll call Mrs. McGrath in the morning and set up the first date.”
Mrs. McGrath was a plump, little woman in a loose fitting sweater set. She lived on the opposite side of town in a pink-bricked rancher house decorated with doilies, photos of baby angels with harps, potted tulips, and of course, a floppy-eared bunny rabbit. Henry and Ted followed her into a small kitchen where three plates of chocolate cake had been set on a round table.
“Thanks.” Ted dug into the cake. He didn’t want to be here. Henry knew he only agreed to bring him out of guilt for nearly killing Flora.
Henry looked for a place to put down the rabbit carrier and decided on one of the wooden dining chairs. Mrs. McGrath didn’t seem to mind. She peeked in through the slits of the carrier and cooed, “My, what a distinguished lady.”
Henry frowned. Distinguished was a euphemism for old. In fact, Flora had to be at least 11. Perhaps she was too old to date.
“She’s only seven,” he lied.
Mrs. McGrath didn’t hear him. Strangers never did.
“It was such a surprise to get that call from your mother. You don’t know the number of times I have thought about Charlie…”
She inclined her head as though leading them in a moment of silence. They reciprocated. Awkwardly. It was, Henry thought, the problem with the way that Grandpa Charlie died. They always had to talk around it.
“You knew our grandfather a long time?” Ted asked.
“Oh, we met a while back.” She poked her piece of cake with her fork and didn’t elaborate.
Henry and Ted exchanged glances. Their grandfather had only ever talked about their grandmother. It never occurred to them that he had seen anyone else, but maybe he had. Grandpa Charlie outlived Grandma Jean by 20 years. He couldn’t be lonely all that time.
“I suppose we should get started.” Mrs. McGrath pulled out a notepad. She wanted to know Flora’s vital information: her weight, length, age, and any medical conditions. They answered in approximates. Grandpa Charlie never wrote anything down. When he got sick, he stopped leaving the house and they doubted Flora had been to the veterinarian in years.
“Last question,” Mrs. McGrath said. “Do you have medical records or any written confirmation that she’s been spayed?”
They didn’t have any. Flora had been the mother to three bunnies, but that was a long time ago. Henry’s father insisted that Grandpa Charlie have Flora spayed as a condition of his being allowed to live with them. Grandpa Charlie protested this ultimatum but eventually relented. He phoned the veterinarian and made an appointment to have Flora spayed the next day. However, they only had Grandpa Charlie’s word that the procedure had actually occurred. Henry’s father left the next day for a month in Washington to deal with another political scandal and was unable to accompany him to the veterinarian’s office as planned. When Henry’s mother offered to take him, Grandpa Charlie assured her that he could manage on his own, goddamn it. She conceded and stood back to let him place Flora’s carrier on the passenger seat of his scuffed up Buick. She and Henry watched the car tear down the street. They assumed he took Flora to her appointment, but with Grandpa Charlie there were no guaranties.
“That could be a problem,” Mrs. McGrath said. “We won’t be able to house her with a buck, and unspayed does can be quite aggressive with each other. But we might as well give it a shot. ”
They followed her through a door and down a flight of stairs into a bunny nursery. Playpens with cardboard tunnels and chewing blocks occupied one side of the room; rubber balls and plastic baby keys littered the floor. Stacked in baby blue cabinets were bags of Timothy hay, alfalfa, pellets, spare water bottles, toenail clippers, and a few square-headed brushes with slanted teeth that were perfect for thinning a heavy, summer coat.
Mrs. McGrath steered them to the other side of the room to select a rabbit.
Lined up in wooden hutches was a collage of different colored rabbits of varying sizes and ages. Wide-bodied New Zealand Whites cozied up next to Flemish Giants, and Jersey Woolies raised their feather duster heads to peek curiously through the wire meshing at them.
Henry didn’t know how he would possibly pick. Ted wasn’t any help. His brother, determined to get a laugh, turned their situation into a Bachelorette- style game show. He paraded Flora up to each hutch so that she could examine the tight rumps of the dwarfs, the rugged bad boy manes of the lionheads, and the sturdy thighs of the lops. It was a lot to consider.
Finally, Mrs. McGrath suggested a Netherland Dwarf, small and honey brown, which was preening itself. Ted agreed with this choice. Good hygiene was a must on a first date.
Mrs. McGrath modified the bathtub for the occasion. The rabbits needed to socialize in an enclosed, safe space where neither one would feel vulnerable. Baby-proof plastic coverings were fitted over the drain and the faucet. Newspaper covered the bottom to reduce sliding. On a nearby wicker side table, she laid a pair of rubber gloves and a squirt bottle used to scold aggressive daters.
She set the dwarf down at the far end of the bathtub and instructed Henry to wait two minutes before lowering Flora down into the opposite. When he completed this task, she set an egg timer for ten minutes. The date began.
Nothing happened. Flora showed more interest in sniffing the bathtub walls than she did in socializing with the dwarf. She stayed on her side of the tub. The dwarf did the same. The timer buzzed. The date ended.
Henry was disappointed. Ted teased that the dwarf wasn’t her type. Flora preferred a masculine energy.
Mrs. McGrath was more hopeful. She told them that rabbits, like humans, could not be expected to fall in love at first sight. Bonding was a long game. It could take anywhere from days to a year for rabbits to trust a new mate. The fact that the encounter ended without foot stomping, fur pulling, or ear nibbling, had, in Mrs. McGrath’s opinion, proved the date was a success.
“I don’t know,” Ted countered. “Ear nibbling is not always a bad way to start off a date.”
Henry laughed. He wasn’t sure why.
They arranged a time to come over the next day for a second date.
On the car ride home, their father called to see how things went. Ted told him that it was one of the weirdest nights that he had ever experienced, but it wasn’t that bad. Henry agreed. They left it at that.
The next night the courting ritual started over again. Again, they put Flora and the dwarf on opposite ends of the tub. Mrs. McGrath set the egg timer and they waited once more. Again, the rabbits didn’t budge from their prospective corners.
“Charlie was such a colorful character,” Mrs. McGrath said to pass the time. “I bet you have wonderful stories.”
Henry hesitated. His grandfather’s stories had always been private. He turned his attention to the rabbits. They were still ignoring each other.
Ted gave him an encouraging nod.
Henry told the story about the horse in Korea, one of his favorites. His grandfather rode a horse into a burning barn to save a villager’s baby. The grateful mother then named the baby Charlie Scooter, in honor of both him and the horse.
When the story finished, there was a few seconds of silence. Mrs. McGrath rubbed her fingers thoughtfully against her lips. “Wow, what a story! I didn’t know that the Army had horses in Korea.”
Henry was saved from responding by Ted who pointed to the bathtub. Flora had hopped over to within a couple inches of the dwarf. They eyed each other cautiously, and then Flora flopped down on her belly. They were getting closer.
The third date, the rabbits bonded more quickly. About four minutes in they were cuddling. Mrs. McGrath believed that broke a record for the fastest bonding session. She suggested they set up one more date and if it was a success, they could take the dwarf home with them.
Then it happened. Flora peed on the floor of the tub, but it was unlike any urine Henry had ever seen. In the center of the puddle was a circle of red, raised and separate from the urine, like a clouded iris. An alien eye.
“Oh,” Mrs. McGrath gasped.
She and Ted hurried over to examine the spot. Mrs. McGrath released another startled intake of breath but recovered quickly. She took Flora from him, examined her bottom, using her fingers to press gently around the round belly of her lower abdomen. When she was satisfied, she told them everything was fine. “Even distinguished ladies have accidents.”
Henry wasn’t sure.
Ted told him to get some paper towels and cleaning solution. His face was pinched and uncomfortable like it was the day he’d forgotten to feed Flora.
“What’s going on?”
Henry found the paper towels and a bottle of Lysol in the kitchen. When he came upstairs, the door was locked. He pressed against to it hear, but the running tap muffled their voices.
The door opened. Ted looked pale and uneasy. He told Henry that they were going. Henry knew better than to argue.
Ted turned off the usual route to their house and pulled into the parking lot of the elementary school. They used to come here together on summer afternoons and play on the swings. But this time, Ted made no motion to get out of car. He kept his eyes focused on the space ahead.
“You know, Flora’s really old.”
Henry nodded. He felt incredibly tense. Flora sat in the carrier on his lap. He had opened the lid and was petting her gently behind the ears. He didn’t know if they should be talking in front of her. “She’s sick, isn’t she?”
“Mrs. McGrath says she’s got a tumor.”
Henry’s hand froze over the rabbit. It couldn’t be. Cancer showed itself.
Grandma Jean found a bump on her breast. His mother compared it to a lemon under her skin. Flora didn’t have any lemons.
“Where is it?”
“Don’t make me say it.”
“I need to know.”
Ted’s eyes focused harder on the windshield.
“You know, it’s on her…uterus.”
Henry’s lips twitched. Uterus wasn’t a word spoken in their house of boys. He felt funny. He couldn’t picture it.
But Ted seemed oddly empowered by the word as if the mere ability to get the words out without laughing or blushing had given him the resolve to finish the conversation. Mrs. McGrath, he said, had experience looking after sick rabbits. When a rabbit peed that weird, bloody spot it meant that she had a tumor in her uterus. They could take Flora to the vet for an operation, but it was likely too late. The cancer was probably growing inside her for the last two years and had most likely traveled to her blood and other organs.
“She was a very old rabbit,” Ted said.
“You already said that,” Henry said. He looked away. Flora shifted in the carrier on his lap. He wondered if she knew and had been waiting for them to figure it out. She’d been getting thin for quite some time. He wasted hours on rabbit blogs researching cures for loneliness. He bypassed the pages about rabbit tumors. Perhaps he just didn’t want to know.
“It’s my fault.”
“No.” Ted looked at him for the first time. “It’s Grandpa Charlie’s fault. He was supposed to get her fixed. Those were the rules.”
Henry shook his head. “He just forgot. You know the loneliness made him sick.”
Ted shot him a pitying look. He measured his words carefully. “He lied. He lied all the time.”
Henry had searched for his grandfather’s name on an online registry of Korean War Veterans without success. Henry had let him fill his head with stories. No—lies. Why? Perhaps he was bored.
They sat there. Henry reached over to pet Flora’s head. She felt like silk. She sniffed his hand and then sprawled out on the floor of her carrier. Soon she would be gone. He would have no one to hang out with after school.
“You know,” Ted said. “The one about the horse in Korea was pretty damn good.”
Henry smiled weakly.
They fell back into a mutual silence.
Ted rolled down his window to let in some air. Crickets chirped in the grass, and the swings drifted in the wind.
Then they drove home.
Andrew Phillips is currently an MFA fiction candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. He received his bachelor of arts in Creative Writing at Susquehanna University. “The Rabbit Matchmakers” is his first published short story.