Whiter than the whites of her eyes and softer than a cloud, his nose was a damp pink upside down triangle, wobbling nervously. Someone had brought him in for show and tell. As they passed him around, their small hands were reverent, tongues peeking out of parted lips, eyes afraid to blink. His name was Domino.
When it came to Lea’s turn, she held him up to her face. He wriggled between her hands, a warm, alive thing. She felt his delicate ribs under the flesh and fur, thin bones interlocking like puzzle pieces, protecting some squirming secret within.
Lea ran one finger along the tracks of his backbone. Coccyx, sacrum, lumbar, thoracic, cervical, she recited silently. Over a hundred and twenty muscles in the human spine; how many in a rabbit’s?
They had learnt about nerves and cartilage and skeletons in Biology, but this was something different. She felt where bone met tendon in his taut hind legs, the way his ribcage gave way to a sagging, tender belly. She fingered his ears, folded like leaves, and then, taking one between thumb and forefinger, she pulled gently.
“Come on Fishy,” someone whined. “Hurry up. You’ve had your go.”
Lea passed Domino on, a sharp stab of loss prickling as the soft mass left her hands. She watched as her classmates cooed and stroked and cuddled. A tiny flame seemed to burn within her.
At recess Lea crept back into the empty classroom. She picked her way through errant backpacks strewn across aisles, chairs pushed back from their desks haphazardly, cardigans and scarves lying pooled on the floor.
When she slid the door of the cage open, her movements were silent as a cat. Cradling Domino once more, she felt again how flexible his ribs were. A birdcage in a fairytale, wrought of wispy tarnished gold, curving gracefully around an invisible treasure.
She felt the strength in her own small fingers, and she squeezed. Gently at first, as if testing the firmness of an orange. As Domino squirmed, the flame in her belly flared, purple and hot, and she pressed harder, harder still.
He was still struggling when the bones snapped, his black beady eyes bulging like tadpoles. The blood ran hot and fast in her veins, a ball of white emotion expanding in her chest. She squeezed harder and harder, even after everything was loose and crunchy and Domino was still, even after her fingernails were tipped with red.
Finally the heat subsided. Lea could hear her own breathing, the thump of blood in her ears. She could hear shouts and laughter from her classmates down the hall, where they sat in the cafeteria with their bowls of iron-enriched spinach and eggs. In a flash, Lea saw how Betty would cry, the rest of the class looking on in horror as she cradled the cold, stiff ball of fur in her arms. Maybe some of the others would cry too.
She imagined owning up to it. Waving her rust-coloured fingernails in Betty’s pretty freckled face. How Betty would stop crying, her porcelain eyes wide with fear. They’d stop calling Lea Fishy, fishy fish fish fish. The rest of the class – all secretly jealous of Betty with her tight golden curls and menagerie of furry living things – would cheer, rise up and crown Lea their queen.
A door slammed somewhere in the building. The heavy thump set Lea’s heart pounding again.
There would be no cheers. She would be labelled a Potential Threat, like dark-eyed Dennis Feldstrom, who tripped a boy while playing tag one day. Despite the mandatory protective pads, the boy had managed to scratch his shin and his parents threatened to sue. Dennis Feldstrom disappeared. The whispers had it that he’d been transferred to a school for sub-100s, somewhere in the outer boroughs.
Lea stroked Domino’s matted fur, trying to take in what she had done. He is dead, she repeated to herself. I did it. I made him into this cold and sticky thing. She waited. But there was nothing.
The ceiling fans circled like birds of prey. On the whiteboard was a list of adjectives the class had written, something they did for every show and tell session. Halfway down the list, in Lea’s handwriting, was the word Pink. Their teacher had cooed, said something about his cute little nose, but that wasn’t what Lea had meant. She’d meant the hidden insides of his paper-thin ears, the hot, invisible flesh beneath the fur, the web of skin between foot and back leg that was only revealed mid-kick.
Lea closed the door of Domino’s cage. Walking over to her desk, she pulled out a brown, neatly folded lunch bag from her backpack. Out went the kale chips and nutribars, in went Domino, head first.
There was no one in the hallway. The thumping of her heart seemed to echo down the empty passage. She felt sure that at any moment, a teacher or classmate would come out of hiding, fingers accusing, voices raising the alarm. Her sweaty hands gripped the paper bag more tightly.
She passed like a ghost down the hallways, moisture gathering behind her knees, bangs clumping. The dumpster was out back. As she lifted the creaking lid, Lea wondered if she should say something, like she’d seen murderers do in movies. He was a good rabbit, and always liked being cuddled, something like that. But the thought of his snuffly mouth and velvety fur kindled the same flame as before, a strange knot of heat that made her want to kick and scream. She flung the bag above her head and into the dumpster.
Because she’d left the cage door open, everyone thought that Domino had escaped. All afternoon they combed the hallways and cupboards, crawling on hands and knees to peer under desks, calling his name as if a rabbit were capable of responding.
Lea went along with it, nervously at first, sure that the deception showed on her face. But once she realised no one suspected anything other than poor Betty’s carelessness, Lea went about the charade boldly, calling louder than anyone and inspecting the back of the classroom so thoroughly that her knees turned black with dust.
When her mother picked her up from school that day, Lea was in high spirits. She told her all about Domino and how mysteriously he’d disappeared, how furry and docile he’d been. She said she hoped he hadn’t been run over by a car and that he’d found a nice garden to live in, one full of lettuce and tomatoes. She asked her mother if rabbits went to heaven, like dogs. She talked and talked and talked, stopping only when, on the way to the car, they passed the dumpster.