The jackrabbit crawled through a rip in the screen door the night Mandy left us, and six months after Dad died. It was a tiny, evil–looking thing, with ash–gray fur, yellow eyes, and missing its tail besides. I thought it was a rat at first, but Theodore took to it like it was a purebred puppy, and the feeling was mutual: that rabbit followed Teddy around like my brother was made of carrot. I let it stay. It seemed easier than explaining where Mandy’d disappeared to.
Our dad had gone up in flames. According to newspaper coverage of the wildfire, his crew got cut off when the wind turned. Dad unfolded his fire shelter, curled up inside it, then “succumbed to smoke inhalation and extreme temperatures.” I started working nights and dropped out of my senior year to pick up hours. Teddy started having nightmares ripped straight out of Bambi, thousands of baby animals fleeing a wall of fire that left blackened wasteland behind. Mandy started drinking. She didn’t know how to cope, is what I told myself. Her version of coping meant sleeping with some guy from Bixbee.
Mandy Marvel, ace of hearts and liar queen. Teddy’s momma, not mine. My brother and I took after Dad with our dark–freckled skin and red–brown curls; we looked more like each other than we did our moms. When I cornered Mandy on her way out of town, she grinned at me like a coyote. “Can’t expect me to look after you two forever. Get yourself a boyfriend and get the hell outta this sorry state.” The scornful flick of her sun–bleached hair took in our doublewide, the surrounding park, and the wide expanse of desert that devoured us from all sides. I watched her through the screen as she hopped into the cab of Bixbee boy’s green pickup, watched the cloud of dust spray up behind its tires as she tore herself loose. I don’t miss her, though I know Teddy does.
The night Mandy shucked us off, Teddy slept soundly for the first time in months, the scrawny old rabbit clutched in his arms. In my head I’d already named it Griefbunny, for the way it’d hopped right into my brother’s arms, nose twitching like it could smell the hurt on him, like it wanted to be close to where such pain lived. That rabbit creeped me out.
Next morning I asked Teddy what he planned to call his new pet.
“His name’s Elijah. He’s a jackalope.” Teddy glowered meaningfully at the rabbit’s head, to which he’d tied two branches of twisted juniper, their weight dragging the rabbit’s chin toward the carpet. The sticks did look just like antlers; he must’ve been up early, scouring the park for just the right twigs.
“Why’d you name him that?”
Teddy shrugged. “That’s what he said his name was.”
At least Griefbunny wasn’t dangerous, like some pets Teddy might’ve chosen—feral dogs or field mice or packrats full of diseases. The jackrabbit’s eyes were clear, its dust–brown nose clean and dry, its black–tipped ears flea–free. I decided to let Teddy keep the bunny, on the condition that he let me separate the two of them long enough to douse Griefbunny in dishsoap and soak it in the sink.
I scruffed the rabbit and hoisted but it scrabbled to get away, claws digging deep furrows into my forearm. I nearly dropped the bunny, but Teddy propped its hind legs so it could propel itself out of my arms and into the sink. There it crouched, glowering at me with yellow eyes. After that I took care not to get too close to the rabbit’s claws as I lathered it up with a soapy dishrag, holding tight its fake antlers to keep it at arm’s length. Blood welled from four long scratches down my wrist.
That evening I trekked across the park to the nearby gas station for the night shift, leaving Teddy home alone with an eleven o’clock sharp bedtime and a PBS telethon on for company. When I got home the next morning, so tired I could barely stand, Teddy was awake and waiting for me, jackrabbit bobbing beside him like a trained monkey. It looked like it’d grown overnight; the result of Teddy’s overfeeding it, maybe, or perhaps it’d dried fluffy.
“Lola! Wanna see what he can do? Jump, Elijah! Jump!” The rabbit did nothing, but my brother clapped his hands, as delighted as if it’d just executed a triple Lutz. “Fly, Elijah!” He picked up the bunny like he was burping the thing. I watched the rabbit’s leg slip below Teddy’s elbow. Its paw batted ineffectually against my brother’s hip and it made a pained retching sound, then leapt out of Teddy’s arms, shaking itself like a disgruntled cat. “Did you see that? He jumped and he flew. He does anything I tell him. Now make me a bowl of Rainbow O’s,” he directed the rabbit. “They’re my favorite. You’ll like them too.”
I poured Teddy a bowl of Rainbow O’s, but of course credit went to the magic bunny. That jackrabbit was already too big for its britches.
“Tell me about the jackalope who ate the moon,” Teddy begged. I had the day off and we’d spent the morning reading Watership Down to each other, but by 7 pm we were bored and there was nothing on TV. I needed a distraction more than he did. I’d just received our third warning we’d be evicted at month’s end.
“You always want that story.” Teddy asked for it five times a day, I swear.
“Because it’s Elijah’s favorite. One more time and I won’t ask again all night.”
The Jackalope Who Ate the Moon. One of Dad’s creations, an old favorite, except that I couldn’t remember it perfectly. Every time Teddy made me tell it, it drifted a little farther from the original; I hated the warped version it’d become. But Teddy couldn’t tell the difference, and it kept his mind off things, so I gave in.
“Once upon a time a jackalope cowboy named Sly sang songs beneath the moon, howling like a coyote to the tunings of his guitar.” I strained to hear Dad’s voice in my head, choose the right words, breathe where he would’ve. “He sounded so much like a coyote he called a pack to him. The coyote leader told Sly they planned to eat up his herd unless he brought them the moon.”
“Why’d they want the moon?”
“You know why. They wanted to howl during daytime.”
“Because with no moon, they couldn’t howl. But what about when there’s a day moon?”
“Do you want me to tell the story or not?”
“So Sly sawed off his antlers and he planted them in the ground, and he watered them with his own tears, for now he was only a jackrabbit. Overnight those antlers grew into a tree. He scampered up its branches, higher and higher, and as he climbed the moon grew larger and larger. By the time he reached the moon, it had grown into a massive watering hole brimful of moon–milk.
“Sly dove into the center of the lake. Now, rabbits are not meant for swimming, and he didn’t know how. Milk filled his mouth and lungs and he felt himself sinking. He was drowning.” Whenever Dad told this part, he dragged it out, made sure we felt Sly’s terror and helplessness as the blinding whiteness closed over his head. I disliked this part of the story, though, so I always rushed. It reminded me of what Dad must have felt at the end, hot air scalding his lungs, the roar of forest fire like when I put an ear below the bathwater, listening.
“Instead of panicking, Sly took a deep swallow of lakewater. Then another, and another. He drank that whole lake right up. Then he stood in darkness, in the heart of a deep night speckled with stars. His thirst was gone, but now he was hungry, so he began to eat the stars. They burned inside him, then poured from his forehead like fireworks, stretching up into two shining antlers. Sly’s still up there, stuffed full with the night sky in his belly. And coyotes howl and bark at him every sundown, begging him to spit up their moon.”
Griefbunny pawed an enormous ear with his back leg, so very much like he was scoffing at those silly coyotes that Teddy laughed, and I almost did too.
“You should make up a story about why your rabbit’s so fat.” I poked the flab of its side. Griefbunny’d been in the house a few months and was now the size of a collie, bigger than any rabbit I’d ever seen. I wondered what the hell my brother’d been feeding it. Radioactive Rainbow O’s?
“Nah, I want to play a game. Elijah made up a new one yesterday. You in?”
Teddy led us outside, then squatted down in the dirt behind our trailer, absently patting Griefbunny’s ruff. My brother could make up games and stories out of anything. A bit of reflective trash became space detritus; the tilt of a cactus wren’s tiny head, its way of communicating with humans; and deep within the pink blooms of saguaros lived tiny fairies disguised as hummingbirds. Teddy had a gift for tales, just like Dad. But that thought hurt, so I drowned it in the deepest part of the moon–lake where it couldn’t make trouble. “Sure,” I told Teddy. “I’ll play.”
“First you put your hands up to your head and make bunny ears.” He held fingers against his head, pointed up so they resembled a pair of long ears. “Then you say, bunny bunny bunny bunny. Four times bunny.”
“Why four times?”
“Because that’s the way you have to do it.”
“Then you tell him what you want him to turn into.”
“Like I say, bunny bunny bunny bunny jackalope bunny… and he turns into a jackalope.”
Griefbunny scratched its neck with a hind leg and the antlers tied to its head listed to one side.
“See? It works. Now you try.”
“Bunny bunny bunny bunny…” I couldn’t think of a damn thing. “Sad bunny,” I said. Nothing happened, but Teddy’s eyes widened.
“That was a good one. Look at him.” Griefbunny didn’t seem any different. Same old fat, nasty pet rabbit. “He’s sad because he knows Daddy’s out in the desert all alone.”
The rabbit’s pink nose pointed due south, toward Dad. Mandy, Teddy, and I had hiked beneath the setting sun until the bright lights of the trailer park disappeared behind us, until we could pick out constellations overhead. Then we’d opened Dad’s urn, gray matter and bits of bone borne away on a hot, dry wind.
“My turn.” Teddy frowned in concentration, squinching his eyes tight as he chanted. “Bunny bunny bunny bunny Daddy bunny.”
That was too much for me.
“I don’t like this game, Teddy. How is that bunny anything like Daddy?”
When Teddy opened his eyes they were watery, and I felt bad for having said anything. Just then, over Teddy’s shoulder, I saw two baby bunnies hop uncertainly out from behind a neighboring trailer.
“Teddy, look.” I pointed at the small gray shapes and they dashed behind a prickly pear, one, two, poof. “Wonder where the rest of the family is.”
“Maybe it doesn’t have a family. Just a sister.” His eyes were two dark waterholes so deep I couldn’t see bottom. Then Teddy scooped up Griefbunny and retreated into the trailer, the screendoor’s slam scaring off a whole passel of baby bunnies, their fluffy tails receding like flickering stars, white against the scrub brush.
Teddy’s pet grew fatter and fatter until my brother could hardly lift it. We waited for someone to come and evict us, me keeping both of us fed plus the bunny, which ate like a beast. Twice I’d come home to bare cupboards, Teddy having given his pet all our groceries. Yelling at the two of them helped nothing.
I watched that rabbit like it was already dinner. It would make a dozen meals for me and Teddy if I turned it into soup. How hard could it be to skin a rabbit? But it was a nuclear jackrabbit, a freak of nature, a giant circus bunny—its abnormal growth couldn’t be healthy. I considered cutting off its doublewide feet, four rabbit’s paws for extra–large luck. Except Teddy would never have forgiven me.
“Why do you like that bunny so much?” I asked Teddy. The rabbit was enormous now, the size of a colt, and a giant pain besides. It took up too much space. “You never dragged Mouser around the way you do him.” Mouser, our cat, had disappeared a few months after Mandy brought him home. We’d always assumed a coyote had eaten him. I had to get rid of Griefbunny, and soon. “Coyote got him” seemed like the best option, before the rabbit got so large even a pack of coyotes couldn’t run it down.
“I whisper secrets in Elijah’s ears and he keeps them for me. His ears are extra long for holding big secrets.”
“Secrets like what?” I asked. I kept secrets from my brother, sure, secrets so bad I couldn’t bear to guess at his. Secrets like we’re all alone out here and no one’s coming to help us, or I wish Mandy had burned up instead of Dad, or worst of all sometimes I wish Teddy hadn’t even been born, so I wouldn’t have to take care of anyone but my own selfish self. I hated myself for these thoughts. Almost as much as I hated Teddy’s freak rabbit. For its beady, ever–watchful eyes. For eating us out of house and home. For comforting my brother better than I ever could.
“If I tell you, they’re not secrets anymore.” Teddy sat down and pulled the rabbit’s nose onto his lap; it nuzzled his stomach. “But maybe he’ll tell you himself. Come on, Elijah. Speak.” The rabbit sat there, gnawing thoughtfully on Teddy’s sleeve with its massive buckteeth.
I couldn’t deal with any more of his nonsense. The rabbit was a nuisance and a pest, oversized roadkill–in–waiting. Our parents were gone, two moms and a dad disappeared like rabbits into a hat, and we were totally screwed. I was totally screwed. “They don’t talk, Theodore. Animals don’t talk.”
Teddy’s face fell; he looked positively betrayed.
“You swore you’d tell her yourself!” he rounded on the bunny. “Stupid lying rabbit.” He kicked Griefbunny and the rabbit shuffled sideways, too large to escape him in the confines of our living room. It stared at me with baleful yellow eyes. “Mom’s coming back soon. Elijah promised.”
“Teddy, stop making things up.”
“When’s she coming home, Lola?”
“She’s not.” I watched my stubborn brother weigh this information, brow furrowing as he decided whether to believe my newest story. “Mandy left you, just like my mom left me.”
He frowned at the rabbit, then at me, then back at the rabbit again, judging. Then he shook his head. “No. She’ll be home soon. And Daddy’s already home, out in the desert where we put him.”
Teddy tried to carry the rabbit off but it refused to budge; it was far too heavy for him to lift now. He gave up, gave it a shove, then stormed into the back room and flung himself onto his bed. I let him go. It was the first time my brother’d ever left me alone with the bunny.
I didn’t know what the rabbit was, exactly. My sadness or Teddy’s? The way we missed Dad, or the way Teddy missed Mandy? Did it grow bigger the more I ignored it, or the more Teddy loved it? I’d named it Griefbunny for a reason, and the name’d stuck no matter how many times Teddy called it Elijah. A parasite fattened on grief. Well, I didn’t want grief in our lives any more. We had to grow up and move on if we were going to survive.
I had no idea how to prepare rabbit stew, and although loosing the bunny into the wilderness freed me of blame, there was no guarantee coyotes would finish the job. So instead I took a bottle of Rid–X from underneath the kitchen sink, poured a bowlful of Rainbow O’s, and doused them in toxic liquid. Before I could second–guess myself, I’d set them down on the carpet in front of the rabbit. It sniffed them, nose twitching, then dug in, yellow eyes fastened on mine all the while. We stared each other down like rattlesnakes until the rabbit licked up the last Technicolor O. It didn’t take its demon eyes off me, even as I slipped out the door, already late for work.
I never sleep on the job, never, but it was like my subconscious knew what I’d done, and was pissed, and decided to knock me unconscious to tell me so. I woke up with my head on the register and the store clock reading 5 am. No idea how long I’d been out.
The nightmare had been too real. I’d grown antlers, was part girl, part mule deer. Running, running through the desert, with something terrible right behind me: a darkness wreathed in fire. When I glanced over my shoulder, I could see the darkness had Teddy between its flame–drenched teeth. It was shaking him like a dead pet. The antlers were so heavy they weighed me down; I ran slower and slower until the darkness consumed me.
I never leave work early either, but I was so rattled I called the manager and told him I’d gotten food poisoning. When he sleepily told me to lock up, that he’d be in at 6, I counted out the register faster than a robot could do. Then I ran home like the darkness had me in its sights.
I let myself in only to trip over a massive stick, the remains of Elijah’s latest pair of antlers. I marched into the back room ready to shout at Theodore—he was more than old enough to clean up after himself while I was out—when I realized my brother wasn’t in the trailer. Neither was the giant bunny.
What had I done? I imagined Teddy lugging the rabbit’s carcass into the desert. He’d drag it south, toward Dad. I grabbed a jug of water and headed out. The brutal heat baked me flat, though the sun hadn’t yet crested the mountaintop. Teddy had to be out there somewhere, and as soon as that sun reared its yellow head, I’d be racing against heatstroke to find him.
My mind sent me nightmare images of Teddy. Would he crawl on his knees like those terrible cartoons of men in the desert, dying of thirst? Would he tell himself silly rabbit stories until his brain began to bake inside his skull and he began babbling nonsense? Would he start seeing things? Oases, mirages? Had this been how Dad felt, alone in his aluminum cocoon, the searing heat coming closer and closer until it cooked him like meat? I pictured reddened skin charring to black and loosing itself from the bones. I pictured my brother, then my father, back and forth, until I wondered if the sun had melted the sense right out of my head.
I spotted the rabbit first. Elijah was big as a trailer now, its body blotting out the distant mountain. It lay lopped over on its side, long ears splayed in the dirt. As I came closer I saw its chest rise and fall. It was still alive—was larger than ever, even, its yellow eyes narrowed at me mistrustfully, as if it knew what I’d tried to do. Relief blunted my panic. Where there was bunny, there had to be brother. But where the hell had Teddy gone? Then I noticed the rabbit’s bloated belly, a distended sphere that jutted between its paws.
Elijah had eaten Teddy.
I ran at the monster and pounded my fists against its side as if by force I could get it to vomit up my brother like a poisonous moon. I tore out clumps of its patchy fur by the fistful, fluff falling to ground like a snowfall of ashes. I punched and kicked and fought but my rage made not a lick of difference. The jackrabbit didn’t so much as turn its head, just let me wear myself out until I sank to the ground, panting and hollow. Pressing my face into the bunny’s enormous flank, I inhaled its wild scent, embers dampened by desert rain. The rabbit’s heart beat a thrumming pulse beneath its fur, hummingbird–swift. Fear, helplessness, and regret twisted through my insides like a cyclone, and I howled.
Then I heard a muffled sound coming as if from someplace far away. My name, shouted from somewhere deep inside the rabbit. But the noise didn’t come from its belly. It came from Elijah’s ears, which were cupped in a fluffy, boy–sized cocoon. I set my back against the uppermost ear and pushed. Slowly, slowly the ears slid apart to reveal Teddy curled between them. His cheeks were pink and streaked with tears but he was otherwise unharmed.
“I wanted to visit Dad.” Teddy hunched his knees up to his chest, turning his back on me. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
I wanted to yell at him but I was too busy being grateful he wasn’t dead. Instead, I scooched him over, and he obligingly wriggled to the black–tipped edge of the ear so I could tuck myself in beside him, both of us nestled in downy gray softness. I wrapped myself around him and he tensed like a wild thing, then relaxed into my arms. We lay there like a pair of spoons for I don’t know how long. I could hear the snuffling sounds of him crying but pretended I couldn’t, and he did the same for me.
The rabbit shifted, draping its other ear over top of us like a fire shelter. I patted the softness beneath my palm, gently, as if it were a normal bunny. I hoped it felt the apology in my touch, which meant I shouldn’t have and thank you and we’ll be living with you for a long time. Darkness blotted out the dawn as the rabbit’s ears stretched large enough to enclose us both, their interior cool and protective as one of Daddy’s ghost stories, one that ended in happily ever after. “It’s gonna be okay,” my brother whispered to me in the velveteen blackness. “Elijah promises he’ll be smaller tomorrow.”