“I don’t think you should do that,” Ava says. Jane laughs.
“Why? It’s not like it could get more dead.” Jane pokes the rabbit’s guts with the end of a stick. The rabbit is small and its fur is an oaky brown, about a hundred shades darker than Jane’s platinum hair. She’s blonde, but she wasn’t born that way.
“Diseases,” Ava says, pushing her sister’s arm away from the animal. Jane swerves and holds the stick over Ava’s head. Jane is sixteen, and Ava is fourteen. Ava knows there’s no stopping her.
“Rabies,” Ava says.
“Rabies,” Jane says, eyes squinted. Ava imagines those eyeballs ejected from her sister’s head and sliding slick into the sea, rolling outta this town like Springsteen. Fragile and gooey, coated in sand and dirt, bobbing with the current.
The rabbit’s belly has swollen, bloodless slits down it’s middle. The soft parts, clean pink sacks leaking white, spill onto the lawn. The hind legs are mangled and strung off of the body, hanging by glistening tendon threads.
The rabbit lays stinking at the foot of their back deck. It’s the third dead one they’ve found this week. The rabbit’s head and front legs are perfectly intact, the fuzzy face peaceful, like the porcelain figurines that their mother keeps in a glass cabinet.
When Ava and Jane found the first dead rabbit, they buried it and didn’t feel too bad. They have a public school understanding of food-chain mechanics, they know that nature is a dangerous place for small animals.
When they found the second carcass, identically slaughtered, Ava cried while Jane buried it. Do you think it’s life was so great, anyway, being that small? Jane said. What a waste to be born a rabbit when you coulda been a big-boned Grizzly or a humongously-dicked stallion.
The appearance of the third rabbit has increased Jane’s curiosity and Ava’s fear that a predator is lurking. Their mother would say that twice is a coincidence and three times is fate. But they know she only uses this line to justify asking a small yellowing man, who had thrice been behind her on line at the liquor store, on a date. Their mother and that man, Ken, are now a couple.
Jane doesn’t want to bury this rabbit. She wants to keep it, to examine it closely. But there is no time now, their mother will be home soon. Jane says there’s a shoebox full of junk in the back of her closet that they can keep the rabbit in. Jane points to the rabbit and says, this is what’s important now.
The girls’ bedroom has only one closet, which is Jane’s. When their mother moved them out of their father’s house and into this one, the first thing she did was drive to the Home Depot and buy Ava a free-standing collapsable wardrobe. Their mother shoplifts from the high-end boutiques in town. Ava’s collapsable wardrobe is filled with heavily patterned Lily Pulitzer dresses that have holes in the hems where the plastic security tag was MacGyvered out.
The second thing their mother did in the new house was make Jane flush her pet goldfish, Shark, down the toilet. It had been a gift from their father, a fisherman, before the divorce.
“He’s just a goldfish,” Jane pleaded, Shark flipping in her cupped palms.
“They’re all just goldfish,” Their mother said. “I’ll get you a dog—a good animal with strong bones.” Shark was flushed and there has never been another mention of a dog.
Ava holds her breath while she kneels, reaching for the shoebox. Her sister’s closet smells like a barn. The shoebox of junk is in the very back. Inside the box is a splint from a years-ago broken finger, four baby teeth, and a handful of used, tied-off condoms. Ava brings the box outside to her sister.
Jane has gotten a snow shovel from the garage and scooped the rabbit carcass onto it. When she sees Ava come out of the house, she calls for her to hurry; wrists ready to snap. Ava holds the shoebox under the snow shovel, and Jane lets the rabbit slide off into the box. The rabbit is heavier than Ava expected, and wetter. It’s toothpick ribcage reaches towards heaven. The bottom of the box sags like a frown, a greasy stain spreads, the cardboard start to pill. Jane takes the box from her sister and slides it under the deck, where there’s two feet of dark space between the wood and the ground.
“We’ll keep it there till we think of something to do with it,” Jane says.
The girls’ mother is throwing a barbeque to celebrate her two-month anniversary with Ken. She likes any excuse for a good time. When she gets home from work, she begins to decorate the small yard. She pulls pink tissue-paper streamers from a K- mart bag and throws them over tree branches.
In the kitchen, their mother makes herself a drink. She pours vodka and lemonade into a plastic cup. When Jane takes it from the counter and drinks it down, their mother says nothing, just makes herself another and asks the girls to help decorate the lawn. Ava feels an understanding pass between her mother and her sister, an almost imperceptible filament made of something she can’t stand.
Jane rips foot-long sheets of red streamer into tiny pieces, scattering them around the yard like confetti. Ava wraps purple around the ever-damp wooden railings of the deck.
When they’re done, the yard is a rainbow stew. Their mother smiles, proud. She sweeps the deck and polishes the small black charcoal grill. She tops off her drink, then Jane’s. She sets out silverware and plates on the deck table, using the space between the first joint and the knuckle on her pointer finger to measure the inches between each setting. If there had been more time before the guests were to arrive, Ava thinks, their mother would get on her hands and knees and polish every blade of grass on the lawn.
The girls get dressed for the party. They both wear denim skirts but Jane rolls hers up at the waist so it’s shorter, and their mother watches. Their mother tells Jane that nobody has fun shooting at an east target.
Guests start to trickle through the open back fence, walking lightly across the grass and placing small offerings on the table—bottles of screw-top pinot grigio and yankee candles. The girls greet people on the deck, friends of their mother’s with lipstick-ameared boozy mouths who ask them the same things over and over.
Jane pinches her sister and whispers, “look at Grace.”
Grace is their neighbor. She is over four hundred pounds. She almost always has to be sitting. She says she has osteoporosis of the knees. Their mother says it’s really because all that weight can snap your bones. Grace’s plate is piled high with the appetizers their mother had set out: watery potato salad and bacon wrapped clams and toaster oven jalapeño poppers. Grace sits down at the table and begins to eat, the first and only guest to do so. Ava wishes she could spend the whole night watching Grace eat.
“I’d rather be dead than fat enough to snap my own bones,” Jane says.
Amongst the other guests are Laura from the Walgreens bakery and her husband, who has brought a Margarita machine. The Margarita machine is a big deal for everyone. They stand around the small blender and sip at cups of green froth. The women watch each other. Nobody wants to finish first.
Beth, their mother’s best friend, arrives with her husband, Frank. Everyone is quietly surprised. Frank never comes to these types of things, because he’s always busy, and everybody understands—he’s the most in-demand roofing contractor on the East End. Beth and Frank’s son, Drake, is a senior at the high school that Jane and Ava go to. Drake is well-loved in town: once he jerked off into a bowl at a house party and spoonfed his semen to a drunk girl like soup. He won their school’s community service award for teaching a kid with down syndrome how to skateboard.
There is talk that Frank sleeps in his truck. Jane claims she saw him once, parked in a hidden crevice between the old motel and where the beach’s rock ledge begins. He was sleeping, Jane had said, wrapped up in quilts in the bed of his Ford.
“Remember when you saw Frank?” Ava asks her sister, “Remember, in his truck?”
Jane sips her vodka lemonade and doesn’t acknowledge the question.
Ava doesn’t like Frank. His hair is too solidly black and gel-spiked for a man his age. His wife takes his hand and he pulls away. His white T-shirt is tight across his chest and his hard little nipples make Ava gag, like they’ve detached from his body and lodged between her tonsils. Snug around his wrist is a thin gold chain bracelet—something Ava has never seen a man wear. She wonders if maybe he’s secretly gay, if right now she’s uncovering something big. There’s something feminine about him that almost demands pity. But Frank catches Ava’s eye from across the yard and smiles at her, gives a small wave. She immediately feels guilty that he makes her uncomfortable. He probably doesn’t know his shirt is too tight; maybe his wife doesn’t get him new clothes. Then Ava is heavy with remorse. She wants to cut Frank a thick piece of cake. Ava is worried about this impulse in her, the nagging need to feed what disgusts her.
“What are you doing?” Jane asks Ava. “You’re staring at Frank.”
“No I’m not.”
“Would you fuck him?”
Ava slaps her sister on the meat of her upper arm. Jane shoves Ava into the sliding door.
The crown of her head knocks against the glass and her neck snaps back. Ava thinks about how babies are born with a soft spot in their skulls, and wonders what kind of retardation would ensue if that spot never hardened. Ava touches the back of her head; she can already feel a lump forming.
“You started it,” Jane says.
The girls’ mother opens the sliding glass door from inside the house. Ken is standing next to her. Nobody saw him come in. Ava figures her mother must have told him to come around the front of the house instead of the back gate, so they could make an entrance together. She feels a hot anger move through her, imagining her mother planning these details.
Quiet falls over the yard, and everyone looks at the girls’ mother and Ken. Their mother’s lips are the color of a ripe nectarine and her hair is piled on top of her head. Ken, who is a few inches shorter than their mother, wears khaki slacks with loafers, scuff-y. The girls’ mother holds one of his hands, his other is deep in his pocket.
“Thank you all so much for coming,” their mother addresses the guests. “Anniversaries are important.”
When the sky gets darker, the girls’ mother begins to barbeque. She grills chicken breasts and rib racks and fish wrapped in foil. Guests gather around as she grills, chatting with her and offering to help, but she waves them away. The girls sit in chairs off to the side of the deck and watch Ken. He is standing alone by the big tree on the edge of the yard, smoking a cigarette and staring into the woods.
“He’s so fucking weird,” Jane says, dipping two fingers into her cup. She puts the fingers in her mouth and sucks. She says the alcohol helps heal her bloody cuticles. Ava agrees about Ken. He hasn’t spoken to anybody since his entrance with the girls’ mother. In the past two months he’s been dating their mother, the girls’ haven’t heard his voice at all. He doesn’t enter the house to pick their mother up for dates, just sits in his car in the driveway and waits for her. He has never spent the night, though the girls’ mother has been stealing more expensive underwear lately—nets with little bows.
When their mother is finished grilling, guests fill their plates and sit down around the metal table. They toast again, and begin to eat. Ken sits between the girls’ mother and Ava. He is silent, and Ava watches as he cuts his chicken breast into small, identical cubes. He eats by spearing one cube onto his fork at a time, and dipping it into a small pile of mustard in the middle of his plate. While he chews, he puts his fork and knife down and places his hands in his lap. Then he swallows, and starts the process again. Ava can smell his smell, like rubber and mint. Ava wants to go to his house, slip into his bathroom, and then lock the door. She wants to uncap his aftershave and sniff the nozzle, to hold his bar of soap in her hands and feel where it’s been rubbed smooth. She wants to look in the mirror of his medicine cabinet and try to see what he sees. Ava tries to catch his eye, but he doesn’t look at her. The girls’ mother places her hand on top of his, and he leaves it for a moment, before shaking it off to spear another cube of chicken.
Jane sits next to Frank. On Frank’s other side is his wife, Beth. Jane and Frank are both eating ribs, tearing at the meat like wild cats competing. There is a cherry tomato seed on Beth’s upper lip.
“Drake’s prom is coming up,” Beth says, putting down her fork. “He’s graduating with perfect grades. We’re so proud, aren’t we, Frank?” Frank strips a long string of meat off of the rib he’s holding and chews.
“There’s so much coming up for him, right Frank?” Beth tries again. This time, he nods.
“How exciting,” the girls’ mother says, and sits up in her seat. She says she can’t wait until her daughter’s proms. Prom dresses, she says, what an important decision.
A guest asks who Drake’s prom date will be, and a smile begins in the corner of Beth’s mouth. She waits for quiet before she answers.
“He’s taking Lila Gorsik.”
The girls’ mother slaps a hand over her heart and looks at Beth like she wants to climb inside her. The other guests coo and smile with softly cocked heads. Jane rolls her eyes.
Lila Gorsik used to be the best swimmer in the county. She made the varsity swim team as a freshman and was captain as a sophomore, which won her a profile in the newspaper. Her butterfly stroke was a miracle, everyone said. A fish born in a girl body.
During her junior year Lila was promised a full scholarship to Stanford, and everybody knew about it. Lila’s parents, neither of whom had gone to college, threw a block party to celebrate. Last summer, Lila and some friends took her father’s fishing boat out for a party on the water. After drinking six beers and snorting a Xanax, Lila uncharacteristically crashed the boat into the pier at full speed and was thrown from the vessel, hitting her head and snapping her neck in the process. Everyone talks about the way her head jutted sideways, like it couldn’t fit, like her body was rejecting it. Though she wasn’t there, Ava imagines Lila looked like Shark the goldfish before he hit the toilet water, twisted and desperate to be back where he could take a new breath. Lila survived her ordeal, but now she has a motorized wheelchair that she controls with a straw that goes into her mouth. The wheelchair moves depending on her patterns of inhales or exhales. Lila has a nurse on hand at all times to weave thick tubes through her. Ava knows that Lila’s nurse will have to accompany her and Drake the prom. Ava can’t imagine how awkward that will be, to bring your nurse on a date.
“What an amazing son you have,” the girls’ mother tells Beth. She calls him a saint. She shakes her head, amazed.
“It was Drake’s idea,” Beth says. “And of course, he had other options.” Beth looks up at the guests through thinning ginger eyelashes.
“Of course he did,” the girls’ mother says, gaining momentum, “he’s such a handsome boy. He could have his pick of the litter. But you raised him so well. You really did.”
“We’re a very close family.” Beth touches Frank’s bicep. Frank drops a now-clean rib onto his plate.
By the time the guests start to finish up their dinner, the sun has set. The only light comes from the candles scattered around the deck, and the stars. It is the time of night when the mosquitos hunt.
The guests sit around and talk and drink more until one of them says they have to get going, and then they all do. They bring their plates into the kitchen, and help the girls’ mother wrap leftovers in foil and scrape serving platters clean into the garbage. They drink more while they’re cleaning.
Jane disappears, but Ava stays outside, where it’s quiet. The lawn is dark, and Ava slides her sandals off to feel the grass under her feet. It’s downy and damp and she glides across it like an ice skater. She almost glides through a small, dark, heap at the edge of the yard and she stops herself short, falling onto her hands and knees in front of the thing. She sees it—the dark wet tubes, the phantom tissue of a long ear, the glint of pearl bone. Ava is almost face to face with it. She gets up, fast, and goes to find Jane.
Her sister is not in the kitchen with the rest of the guests. Beth—who is finishing the last inch of red wine from a bottle and knotting garbage bags—stops Ava and takes her hand.
“You are such a pretty girl,” she says. Ava thanks her.
Jane is not in her bedroom or in the bathroom. Ava even checks the outdoor shower. She walks around to the front of the house, to the driveway where the guest’s cars are parked in a neat line, waiting. Ava catches a small movement near the cluster of trees and tall bushes on the side of the front yard, and moves closer towards it.
Jane and Frank are almost naked in a small patch of flattened beach grass. He has Jane pinned up against a tree. She is wearing her bra, and Frank is wearing his socks and shirt, and the rest of their clothes are twisted around their feet. Ava stands at a distance, silent, holding the bushes open like a curtain. Frank’s hand is wrapped around Jane’s throat and he’s squeezing hard. Light glints off the gold bracelet straining around his thick wrist. Jane gurgles softly and keeps telling him harder, harder. Ava can’t believe how close they are to the house, to all the people inside. She can’t believe that the proximity isn’t enough to keep things safe.
Ava goes back to the deck, where she sits until she hears her mother wish everybody a safe drive home, until she hears the cars pull out, one by one.
Jane comes through the gate, and sits next to Ava.
“I found another dead rabbit,” Ava tells her.
“Guess what,” Jane says, “I know something important. It was all lies. Frank told me that Drake wanted to take someone else to prom. Beth made him ask Lila.”
Jane nudges Ava, waiting, but Ava says nothing. Jane stretches her arms out in front of her and cracks her knuckles. The little gold bracelet is on her wrist now. It slides down her arm, almost to the elbow.
“Beth told Drake that if he took brokeback Lila to prom, she’d buy him a new truck.” Jane yawns and says she’s tired and going to bed. She stands up, wobbling.
Ava is relieved that nobody wants to touch her, but she also wants to be told important things.
A moment later, the girls’ mother comes out onto the deck, Ken behind her.
Her mother touches her fingers to her temples and says she’s had too much wine. She asks Ava and Ken if they can clean up the yard. She hands Ken an electric lantern and kisses his flaky cheek.
“Go around and pick up trash,” she says, and then goes inside. Ken looks at Ava for real for the first time. He shrugs.
The two of them work silently, picking up damp streamers and old napkins. Ava is thankful that Ken doesn’t talk, doesn’t ask her questions. The moon is milky in the sky tonight, like vomit on velvet.
After a while, Ava hears a low growl, and sees a quick, shadow-movement, punctuated by squeals that scrape her eardrums. She hears a throaty call. Ava drops her garbage into the grass.
When she looks up, Ken is standing over her, the lantern up by his face. Ava points to the movement and the noise, and Ken sees it too.
“Stay back,” he says, and walks up to the shadow, the lantern out in front of him. He gets close enough, and then they both see it.
It’s a feral cat, skinny and grey with white paws. Its eyes burn wildly yellow in the lantern light. The cat’s teeth are deep in a rabbit’s neck, but the small animal is still alive, paws flailing, joints popping and straining.
“Stop it,” Ken yells at the cat, swinging the lantern at it. The cat starts shaking the rabbit back and forth, faster and faster.
Ken lifts the lantern up and pulls it down through the air, hard. It connects with the cat’s head, and there’s a crack like the earth breaking apart, like volcanoes and cliffs, like a dropped plate. The cat collapses on the lawn. The rabbit, barely alive, drags itself away with its front legs, back into the woods.
Ava sits down in the grass and starts to cry. She cries for the cat’s bones, for how easily they broke.
Ken goes to her and crouches down. He presses his fingers lightly against her spine.
“Don’t cry,” he says. “Come on, Don’t cry.”
Ava looks at him.
“It’s sad,” Ken says. “I know it’s sad. But what else could I do?”
Alexandra Kessler received her MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. She received her BA from The Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. She was awarded two summer fellowships from the Kratz Center for Creative Writing in 2013 and 2015, the 2014 Lizette Woodworth Reese Award in Fiction, the 2016 Ross Feld Award, and the 2017 Lainoff Prize for Fiction. Her work has been published by Fiddleblack Press, Spartan Lit, Burrow Press, Joyland Magazine, and others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.