It was too late to do anything by the time I noticed that there was a fox running away from Fluffernut’s cage. I swore under my breath, and then quickly looked over at Annie to see if she had heard. She was sitting on the overstuffed couch holding a bowl of Cheerios in her lap, completely absorbed by the television. I wasn’t sure what she was watching; it was loud and frenetic, like everything meant for children. Her most recent obsession was Phineas and Ferb, a show about a boy and his British cousin getting into trouble. Annie liked to hum along to the songs. She would wiggle back and forth on the couch, mouthing the words even when she didn’t know them. I had let her dress herself that morning, so she was adorned with a tiara, her rainbow striped knee high socks, a green tutu over a pair of jean shorts, and a sweater my best friend Candice had knit for her that was embellished with two cupcakes. She looked like a mental patient.
I sat down on the piano bench and pulled on my shoes. Best to take care of it right away, I thought. I had never wanted the damn rabbit in the first place. What I had failed to realize was exactly how persuasive a six year old girl can be. Annie had waged a campaign the likes of which couldn’t have been matched by Coca Cola or Progressive. Pictures of rabbits with little hearts drawn all over them had appeared everywhere in the house: in my bed; in the shower; shoved in every drawer of the kitchen. I had no idea where she found them all. She had begged, latching on to my leg and clinging like a leech, bombarding me with facts about rabbits. When I finally caved, she did three laps around the house, stopping to squeal for joy in each room. Of course, as soon as we got Fluffernut, Annie lost interest and I was stuck taking care of what amounted to a vicious, bitey little Gund animal.
I grabbed a trash bag and my gardening gloves just in case, and stepped into the early morning sunshine. It was a bright fall day; the air was crisp and smelled like expectation. It was the time of year for cider and pumpkin pie and campfires. Not the time of year for introducing your daughter to her first experience with death.
I approached the cage hesitantly as if Fluffernut would return from the dead like Bunnicula. The wire of the cage was ripped apart on the bottom and I winced when I saw bits of white fur clinging to the edges. I leaned over and peered inside. The cage was empty. Thank god for small favors. I shoved on my gloves and reached my arm in; waving it around inside to make sure that somehow the rabbit hadn’t hidden in a corner. Nothing doing; Fluffernut was decidedly gone. “This rabbit is no more,” I said to myself in a terrible cockney accent. Just in case, I wandered around our garden, hoping not to stumble across the grisly corpse of what had once been my daughter’s pet.
Satisfied that Annie wouldn’t inadvertently come across a murder scene, I went back inside. Annie was still glued to the television. She had eaten maybe four Cheerios in the time I was outside. I decided to let her finish her show before I said anything. She glanced over at me and smiled, then went back to her show. My heart broke a little bit for her.
Finally, the credits came on and a I grabbed the remote, turning off the television before she got sucked into the next show.
“Annie-bean, I have to tell you something,” I said. I patted the couch next to me, inviting her to slide over. She immediately looked wary. She carefully placed her bowl of Cheerios on the coffee table, only spilling a little bit of milk, and then cuddled up to me. Poor kids had a rough year, I thought, so have I for that matter. I tried to choose my words carefully.
“Annie, Fluffernut is gone sweetheart.” Like ripping off a band aid. Annie looked puzzled for a moment, then panicked.
“Where?” She demanded, pulling back from me. I let go of her.
“Well, sometimes rabbits go away and can’t be with us anymore. Fluffernut’s in a better place now.” My tongue felt thick in my mouth. I was not handling this well.
“But he’s going to come back, right?” She said hopefully, gripping her hands together.
“No, sweetie, I’m so sorry.” She let out one loud heartbroken wail and dropped her face into the couch. The tiara fell off and clattered onto the floor. I could hear her snuffling so I rubbed her back. Suddenly, she sat up straight and fixed me with a look the likes of which I never hope to see again.
“Is Daddy gone like Fluffernut?” She croaked out in anguish.
“No!” I said, pulling her onto my lap. “No, no, no. Daddy lives in Albany. But you’ll see him again very soon.” I had shown her Albany on a map when Steve and I first split up. It struck me as funny suddenly, the idea of Albany being some kind of murdered rabbit heaven.
“Can I talk to him?” She asked hopefully.
“Of course,” I said. “Go get my phone, you can practice dialing again, okay?” She nodded, wiping at her eyes with sleeve.
For all our differences, I knew that Steve was an excellent Dad. We’d probably made the marriage work two or three years past its expiration date just because we both loved being parents so much. It had killed us both when he’d had to move three hours away, but after a year out of work he’d finally landed a Managing position at a new cloud communications company and couldn’t pass it up. I didn’t want to uproot everything to move somewhere else for my ex-husband.
Annie had dialed the phone and had apparently got a hold of Steve. After first asking repeatedly to make sure he wasn’t gone forever, she crept stealthily into the kitchen out of earshot. A little while later she returned and handed the phone to me; then ran off. I could hear her jump onto her bed down the hall.
“Steve,” I said, holding the phone to my ear.
“So Fluffernut bit the big one, huh?” He asked, a teasing note in his voice. Unlike me, he had been steadfast in his anti-rabbit stance, finally telling me it was on my head if we got one.
“Fox got him,” I replied, trying to sound more cavalier then I felt.
“Holy crap, really?” Steve asked, momentarily thrown.
“Yeah. I lucked out though, no mess.” I paused. “How are you?” I asked.
“I’m good. Busy. You know how it is.” The conversation was starting to feel strained. “Listen, is she going to be okay?” He asked. “She seemed pretty upset.”
“I think so. She’s had a tough year for a six year old. She just got it into her head that if Fluffernut wasn’t coming back then you wouldn’t either.”
“Gotcha,” he said. I could picture him running his fingers through his dirty blonde hair like he always did when he was on the phone, the edge of his shirt tugging up a little.
“This sucks,” he said.
“I know,” I said, “But it’s the right thing for both of us.”
“When’s the next visit?” he asked, and a tiny knot of irritation hit me. That was Steve. Couldn’t remember the important things.
“Next month. You get her for two weeks at Thanksgiving,” I said.
“I knew that,” he responded automatically. We were both silent for a moment.
“Okay,” I finally said, “I should check in on her.
“Right, yeah. Give her a kiss from me. Tell her I love her,” he said. Another pause. “Goodbye.” He clicked off.
“Goodbye,” I said to the dial tone.
Later, I rapped on Annie’s door, then pushed it open a crack. She was fast asleep on her bed, snoring lightly, cradling Banana, the stuffed rabbit Steve had given her when he left, to her chest. I slid into the bed next to her, pulling her Sponge Bob Squarepants blanket over both of us. She rolled over and snuggled into my chest, and I buried my face in her hair.
“I miss him,” she said quietly. I wasn’t sure if she meant her father or the rabbit, and in that moment it didn’t matter.
“I know Annie,” I said, squeezing her tightly. “Me too.”