“How long’s it been?” Tommy asked. “Ten? Twelve years?”
“Thirteen,” Randy responded.
“City bin good to ya?”
“It ain’t bad. Just the old hustle and bustle.”
Tommy spit over the porch railing in front of the two men. It was white and wooden, sagging wherever a two by four wasn’t propped underneath. The paint long since peeled, cracked, and whisked away. The two sat side by side, swaying back and forth on a pair of rocking chairs that complimented the decaying railing. Matching .22’s lay across their laps. The porch was sturdier than the rail, even looked nicer as it lacked any paint other than a thin covering of white chips sprinkled like the first flurries of winter on its gray wood.
It was still autumn, barely. The leaves, mostly dead, lay on the ground turning to mulch from the November rains that had drenched Halbert, New Hampshire that year.
The screen door to the house creaked with the whine of rusted hinges. A woman no more than sixty with gray puffs of age dotting her hair, poked her head into the dusk air.
“You boys want a cup of cider? Bin mullin’ it since noon.”
“No thank you, Mrs. Gebson,” Randy answered.
“I’m fine, Ma,” Tommy said. “But if ya got a cup of coffee?”
“Give me a minute, boy. I’ll git you a cup,” Mrs. Gebson said. “Would ya like a cup as well, Randy?”
“No thank you.”
“Sure is good to see your face,” Mrs Gebson said from the doorway. “Thought you fell off God’s-gracious earth when you moved.”
Randy smiled. “Maybe I did.”
The screen door thudded shut, guided by the spring Randy always felt was too tight.
“How’s the city been?” Tommy asked. “You doin’ good out there?”
“It’s alright,” Randy responded. “It’s good. I’m learning sales reports. Keeps me on my toes at work and all.”
“You still working in that grocery store?”
“Yeah, a manager now. I run the organic deli department. They call me Randall. Can you believe that? Randall.”
“You never looked much like a Randall to me.”
Randy laughed. “Thanks. I don’t really feel like one. But it’s fun. Ya know. I like doing it, the ordering, the scheduling, the reports. It’s interesting enough.”
“Yup, sounds like a handful. I couldn’t get my head into it. Shoot, I’d prolly quit within two weeks.”
“Naw, you’d probably do better than me.”
“You say that,” Tommy said. He gave a laugh. “Couldn’t see myself doin’ anything other than what I’m doing.”
“What are you up to these days?” Randy asked.
The screen door creaked open. Mrs. Gebson walked onto the porch. A ceramic mug -off white with yellow daises painted on it- held in her hand.
“There ya go, boy.”
“That’s fine, Ma.”
“No more than an hour before I’ll have to turn on the porch light and invite every god-should’ve-smitten-bug in the county to the front door.,” Mrs. Gebson said as she looked across the backyard. Her eyes followed the silhouette of their forest until her gaze rested on Randy’s face. “You sure you don’t want a cup of that cider. I tol’ ya I been mullin’ it since noon. A real dandy. You ain’t goin’ get my cider in no fancy city, honey. Best have a cup while you can.”
Randy gave a quick smile. She always was a sweetheart. “You’re right,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take a cup.”
“Course I don’t mind, bin offerin it to you, ain’t I? You gone lost your sensibilities.” Mrs. Gebson headed to the screen door. She gave a quick look to the lawn in front of the porch, two acres of field, twenty-nine of forest. “Looks like a groundhog out there, boys. Best put the rifles to use.”
“You take it, Randy,” Tommy said. “Let’s see if you’re still the same horrible ass shot. Ma, remember when Randy shot out the mirror on the Ford?”
“Dang near strangled the boy,” Mrs. Gebson laughed. “Well go on, Randy, take your shot.”
Randy picked the .22 off his lap. The shadows of sunlight stretched across the yard in front of him, creating canyons of red and orange with green undertones. A spot of dark hobbled from canyon to canyon. It paused. Randy took aim. He pressed the butt of the gun tight against his right shoulder. He remembered the first time he had shot a .22 with Tommy. They were nine and Tommy convinced Randy the kickback from a rifle could take your arm off, dislocate your shoulder, shatter your collarbone unless you pressed the gun as far into your shoulder as you could. It had taken Tommy twenty minutes more to convince Randy to pull the trigger.
Randy gave a chuckle at the thought. Never guessed the lesson would stick. He closed his left eye, tilted his head to the right.
The groundhog hitched across a maroon canyon.
“Hoo boy,” Mrs. Gebson laughed. “You done scared the poor thing shatless. Probably runnin for some clean skivvies.”
Tommy gave a sip off his coffee. His head glided back and forth with the rocking chair. “Never was good at shooting. Don’t know why I took you out so often?”
“Oh, come off it,” Randy laughed. “I hit my fair share of stuff.”
“You talking about trees or dirt?”
Mrs. Gebson gave a hearty chortle. Her rounded body slightly hunched, she pulled open the screen. The metal wiring rattled as the spring creaked.
“I’ll be right out with that cider, Randy.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Gebson.”
“Ain’t no thing a t’all.”
She walked inside the house and was followed by the screen door slamming shut.
“What’ve you been doing for work, Tommy? Never really seemed much to do out here.”
“Not really, no,” Tommy agreed. “Never been much in Halbert. I just started raisin’ rabbits. Snowy white ones. Bin tryin to sell ‘em to kids or leaf watchers. A souvenir of the country.”
“You making anything off that?”
“No,” Tommy said. “Mainly been giving ‘em away to the Brattles and Smuthens kids down the street. Only sold one, so far, to a city biker. Guy was down driving the street with a bunch of his buddies. All had these beautiful Harley’s, midnight blues, chrome, raspberry reds. Gorgeous bikes. Ten of them. They came down this way, I was out doin a bit of leaf rakin’. Only been out for an hour at most.
“Well, this Biker, never caught his name, he tells me he wants a rabbit. Says he’s from New York City, him and his pals just biking for a weekend. He wants a country critter to bring home. Sneak it past his land lord, no pets allowed and all. Driving down the street, enjoying a goddamn fine day when he saw my sign., ‘Rabbits for sale.’ So, he stops. And he wants a rabbit.”
The screen door screeched open behind me. The spring sounded rusty, tighter than usual, but it had been thirteen years since the last time Randy heard it.
“Got you that cider,” Mrs. Gebson said. “Now, Randy, you try and tell me it ain’t the purdiest thing you ever did put on your tongue.”
Randy took a small sip of the cider. It was hot, burned the tip of his tongue.
“Little hot,” he said.
“Well, let it cool, boy. No need to be torturing your poor tongue.”
Randy smiled. “I’ll give it a minute.”
“Good, no need to be in such a haste. It’s gonna taste just as good in a few minutes. Prolly better, cause your poor tongue ain’t gonna be in agony. But I interrupted Tommy. I’ll git my chitter out of you boys’ way.”
“It’s alright, ma. I was just telling Randy about the rabbit that biker bought.”
“Oh, the poor thing,” Mrs Gebson said. “Well you boys enjoy. Holla if you want me to fetch anything else. I’ll be inside. Got to clean up the dishes.”
“Woodchuck’s still out there,” Tommy said. “Take another shot, Randy. Earn the dinner, boy.” He laughed.
Randy nodded. He placed his ceramic mug down. It was a twin to the cup in Tommy’s hand, just with purple lilacs instead of yellow daisies. A river of steam snaked into the sky, and Randy shifted his left foot, so as not to kick the mug. The .22 on his lap was picked up, butt pressed into his right shoulder. He tilted his head to the right, closed his left eye. Tommy took a sip of his coffee.
A slight chuckle.
“Oh, stop your laughing,” Randy said. “I haven’t shot one of these in years.”
“You just shot it five minutes ago,” Tommy said with a chortle. “Much to the same effect.”
“Did ya hit it?” Mrs. Gebson called from inside the house.
“Came close,” Randy hollered. “Near miss.”
“Near nothing, you mean,” Tommy jibed.
“Well you haven’t even taken a shot,” Randy said. “Who know’s whether you could hit it.”
Tommy took a sip of his coffee. The steam poured over his nose, across his cheeks.
“So how are you makin’ money?” Randy asked. “If the rabbit farm ain’t suppportin’ you, what is?”
“Don’t really need money, Randy. House is all paid for, been that way for seven years now. We got a good field of vegetables growing -corn, potatoes, rhubarb for pies, strawberries in the summer. Heat the house with firewood in the winter, and we got plenty of trees for that.”
“But bills. Come on, Tommy, everybody owes someone some money. You got an electric bill at least.”
“Largest one. But I put it to good use, got my electricity payin’ for itself.”
“Bout, I dunno. Ten years?” Tommy thought aloud. He turned to face the screen door. “Hey Ma, we get that computer ten years ago?” he hollered.
“Just ‘bout,” was the muffled reply.
“Well, took some money we had saved up from pa’s life insurance, and played some stock. Placed most in bio tech firms, hit it big with one. They made a product to keep your dick hard if you’re old, or impotent, or something. Sold like crazy. Made hand over fist in money. Pay the electric bill straight from that. Even have it deducted electronically out of my account. Haven’t seen that sheet o’ paper in at least five years.”
“You made it trading stocks?” Randy asked. “You’re bullshittin’ me.”
“In your free time, you just started raisin’ rabbits?”
“Why not, seemed like something to do this year.”
“I never woulda guessed,” Randy said.
“You want to see the pen I got for ‘em?” Tommy asked. “Just around back. I’ll show you Diamond.”
“The Biker’s rabbit.”
“How come it’s here?”
“Hey, Ma, we’re goin’ to the rabbit pen,” Tommy shouted.
“Best leave your guns. No need to trip on a root and shoot each other,” was the reply.
“I’ll keep Randy’s on the porch,” Tommy answered. “I’m going to see Diamond.”
He stood up from his rocking chair, .22 in hand. Randy followed, placing the gun on the ground as he stood. Tommy took a sip of his coffee then put it firmly down on the railing.
“Best to bring that cider. Ma wasn’t kidding about it being the purdiest thing you ever put on your tongue.”
Randy bent over and picked it up. He took a sip, scalding his tongue a second time.
“Stays hot for a while,” he said to Tommy.
“It’s a sign o’ quality.”
The two stepped off the porch onto the front yard. The red and orange canyons of dusk were gone, replaced with the grainy gray of night’s shadow. Thin shafts of silver moonlight dotted the ground, but clouds kept pools of it from forming.
Tommy led the way to the corner of the old farmhouse, he’d always called home.
“What happened with the Biker?” Randy asked. “How come you have his rabbit?”
“Well, he buys a rabbit. Diamond. He buys Diamond. This precious little piece of fur. Perfectly white ‘cept for one black ear. Midnight black. Darling little critter, personable to all hell.
“I sell ‘em to the biker for five dollars. Tell him to keep Diamond in good care. He bein’ a personable-to-all-hell rabbit and all. The biker laughed telling me he’s only gonna feed Diamond carrots imported die-rectly from France. Let him only drink bottled waters, purified and the like.”
Randy and Tommy took a right around the side of the house. Fifty feet in front of them, a wire mesh cage circled a village of hares.
“How high is the wire mesh?” Randy asked. “Looks taller than me.”
“It is,” Tommy responded. “Eight feet. Keep coyotes and the like out. Nothing worse than waking up, coming out here to feed them, and seeing some miserable coney all gutted out by some beast’s teeth. Makes me feel responsible. My keeping ‘em locked up and all.”
The two reached the outside of the cage. A handful of rabbits, no more than eight, were scattered about the pen. Tommy walked to the left of the cage. A small metal latch hung at chest level. He popped it open and walked inside.
“Best to hurry. Don’t want any mongrels gettin’ in here,” he said. “I’m telling ya, the look of a dead rabbit is just plain, old pitiful. Even worse when they don’t die, just get mauled and live. Crippled bunnies. Pitiful.”
Randy nodded, then stepped inside. Tommy closed the door behind them, clicking shut the metal latch.
“There she is,” Tommy said. “Come here, Diamond.”
He walked with his .22 slung through his armpit and elbow towards the rabbits.
“So how did you get Diamond back?” Randy asked.
“Well the Biker puts Diamond in his saddle bag, waves a farewell to me, and throttles his way into the sunset. Him and his group of buddies. Just take off. Have a good life and the like.” Tommy knelt down and placed the butt of the .22 on the ground, gently, with the barrel resting on his inner thigh. His right hand reached forward slowly towards a small, white bunny in the shadow of the cage’s supporting beam. The creature was tiny, shivering.
“Diamond. Come on Diamond.”
The bunny hopped once, forward. It fell on its face, then took seven seconds to stand upright again.
It only had one white ear, the other was a clogged blood stump. It matched the mangled stump where Diamond’s front right leg should have been. Tommy reached his left hand forward. He gently petted behind the bunny’s white ear. Diamond stayed still, quivering a bit.
“Jesus,” Randy said.
“Son of a bitch put Diamond in a damn, fancy saddle bag never meant to hold a bunny. He must have been from New York. The poor critter probably got flustered from the sound of the engines, and the speed they were moving. Four days after I sold her, she showed up on my door step, just the shape you see. How she avoided getting eatin’, or bleedin’ to death I’ll never know. Poor thing probably went through hell to get back here. Chrissakes her damn ear’s off. Far as I can figure, she jumped from the saddlebag and landed on gravel or pavement.” Tommy paused for a moment as he scratched the rabbit. “A mess,” he said.
Randy bent forward and stretched his free hand out. Diamond shrunk back without moving her legs.
“It’s ok,” Randy said. “It’s ok. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
His fingers touched Diamond’s fur. It was warm, soft, shivering slightly under his touch.
“Pitiful,” Tommy said. “Breaks my heart.”
He stood up, grabbing the .22 as he did so. Randy stood next to him. Diamond stared up, nose twitching side to side. It hopped forward, fell on its face again.
“Pitiful,” Randy agreed. He held the ceramic mug with purple lilacs to his lips. Tommy aimed his gun. Randy took a sip of the cider.
Diamond feel to the ground.
“Delicious,” Randy said after a moment. He took another sip. “Can’t get cider like this in the city. Purdiest thing I’ve place on my tongue in years.”
“Tell Ma,” Tommy said. He leaned over and picked up Diamond’s dead body. Blood trickled out of the bunny’s mouth, forming a small puddle on the dirt. “She’ll gloat for hours. Be talking ‘bout how she should enter it into the Halbert Autumn Cookbook.”
Tommy chuckled. “You be sure to tell her that.”
The two walked to the metal latch. Randy popped it open, while Tommy walked through with his mug, rifle, and Diamond, a steady drip of bunny blood trailing behind him. Randy followed then shut the wire mesh door behind, locking the latch.
“Hold my gun, Randy.”
Randy nodded and grabbed the barrel of the rifle with his left hand.
With his right, Tommy held Diamond by the scruff of the neck. In a single motion, he threw the dead rabbit towards the forest.
“Should keep some of those coyotes back tonight,” Tommy said. “I’ll take the .22 back, Randy.” Tommy chuckled for a moment as he grabbed the gun. “Randy, huh. Can’t believe they call you Randall. Never seemed much like one to me. Always been a Randy.”
Randy took a sip of cider and stared at the dead bunny sprawled on the forest’s shadowy shore. “I never felt much like one, myself,” he said.