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Published: 30 April 2024.

by Gerry Gaffney

Line drawing of a rabbit

I'm very grateful to Brian Sullivan who told me the original version of this story in Washington DC in 2013, and who assures me that it is true.

Moving to Phoenix was a big deal for us, but we got lucky, in particular with our neighbours, the Lees. John and Mary and their kids were a plug-and-play match for our family. Our daughter Emily is the same age as their little girl Pearl. Their boy Jason is a year older than our Mark.

Our families have a lot in common. Importantly for us, weey attend the same church, St Francis Xavier. Not that I'm a very religious person, but I value the sense of community.

We quickly developed a good relationship with the Lees. We were sharing school runs, watching out for deliveries and so on.

We also got in the habit of having dinner pretty much every Thursday or Friday at one house or the other. We do a mean Texas barbecue. And the Lees, both having a Chinese background, do a very different style of cooking, which we all enjoy.

A typical get-together was one Friday evening in March. We were at the Lees, sitting out on the verandah and having home-made dumplings and Qingdao beer (for the adults). Emily and Pearl were both preparing for their First Holy Communion, so they were comparing notes. The boys were eating pizza and playing console games.

We'd brought our dog Arthur with us. Arthur's a gentle animal, getting on a bit, and spends his days soaking up the sunshine, lying with his big head on his front paws, thinking.

Since they met Arthur, the Lee kids started pestering John and Mary for a dog, but they were resisting. As a sop, they'd bought a rabbit. Pearl named him Flopsy. They kept it in a hutch with some straw and a spring-loaded door.

At some point in the evening Pearl got Flopsy from his hutch in the garden and brought him onto the verandah. To our surprise, Arthur seemed very agitated about the rabbit, baring his teeth and growling. I asked Mark to take the dog home and close the gate, which he did willingly enough.

When we got home that night, Jen said to me, "It's time you fixed the hole in the fence."

There was a hole in the fence between our house and the Lees'. It was pretty small, and you could hardly see it. But behind the hedge in one spot a few slats had rotted and given way. Jen had been on at me for a while to fix it, but it was way down my to-do list, and I told her so.

"Look," she said, "before I was just worried about Arthur getting through into next door's yard and escaping. But now I'm a bit worried about his response to the rabbit."

I laughed. "I can't see our Arthur posing a danger to any living creature."

This was true. Arthur was a big softie. His claim to fame as a guard dog was the time he overturned a stone to show a door-to-door evangelist where our spare key was kept.

"He's doing the Lord's work," said the evangelist.

We moved the key to a new secret location.

But Jen persisted, so I promised I'd promote the chore and get onto as soon as I could. It would be a minor job, I'd already picked up a few pieces of recycled lumber. All I really had to do was nail them in place.

A few weeks later, we went to Mass for the girls' First Holy Communion. We met the Lees outside the church before we went in. Pearl seemed a little out of sorts.

"Is Pearl okay?" I asked John.

Before he could answer the parish priest came up to us and we started chatting to him before entering the church, and I forgot about my question.

Everything went well and all the new communicants looked happy and maybe just a little smug.

Afterwards, John and Mary invited us to visit Mary's sister with them. Jen thanked her but said we didn't want to crash a family get-together. They drove off, and we walked the short distance home, chatting and enjoying the beautiful day.

When we got home Emily went to her room to change out of her special dress, and Mark disappeared into his room. I was unloading the dishwasher when I heard Jen shriek from outside. I rushed out to the back porch, where Arthur sat sedately, a dead rabbit by his side.

I think I went white. Whiter.

"I told you to fix that fence. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what are we going to do?"

"We'll just have to tell John and Mary the truth. Pay for a new rabbit. Maybe we can get one the same and their kids won't notice the difference."

I felt guilty but it wasn't the end of the world.

"On a Sunday? In Phoenix?"

"I guess. I'll just have to fess up."

Jen looked at Arthur and the rabbit.

"Bad dog," she said.

Arthur stopped wagging his tail and hung his head.

"Okay, I'll tell you what we're going to to," she said. "Take the rabbit in and clean it up, it's covered in dirt from Arthur dragging it around the place. Then put it back in its hutch. Tragic unexplained rabbit death."

"Are you crazy? That's a terrible suggestion. It'll be a shock to their kids."

"Not as much of a shock as knowing their neighbour's dog killed it. Also, I don't want them to think that Arthur is a killer dog."

"Even if he is?"

"Especially if he is."

I started to say something but she cut me off.

"This is all your fault anyway, so just do what I tell you. Take the rabbit into the laundry. And for God's sake don't let our kids see it. We're lucky John and Mary have gone to her sister's. That means we have a bit of time to fix it up."

I took the poor deceased rabbit into the laundry and put it in the big sink. I rinsed all the dirt and soil off it. Then Jen gave me the dog shampoo and I washed it.

"Get the hairdryer."

I got the hairdryer and we dried it off. It took a while. Flopsy looked more respectable now, though still dead.

"Should I trim its nails?" I asked, trying to lighten the mood. Jen ignored me.

"Take it and put it back in the hutch. You can't go round the front, they've got that door cam thing. Go through the hole in the fence."

"You're kidding me."

"No. In fact it's a little bit of justice that you have to do that, given that none of this would be happening if you'd fixed it in the first place."

Jen checked that the kids were still in their rooms, and then I snuck over to the fence, got down on my hands and knees and crawled through, trying to make sure the rabbit stayed clean. I pulled down the hutch door and gently placed the rabbit on its straw. I felt like Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible." I tried to arrange it so that it looked like it had an un-traumatic death. Luckily there were no apparent teeth marks. Arthur must have broken its neck quickly. I let the door of the hutch spring closed.

Then I had a brief panic attack because I couldn't find the hole in the fence from the Lees side. I passed it twice before I spotted it. That was good, I thought, it probably meant that the Lees didn't even know it was there.

Back in the laundry Jen looked at me.

"You're covered in dirt. Take off your trousers and shirt and I'll put them in the wash."

I felt like a criminal in the movies who tries to get rid of the forensic evidence by doing an emergency laundry run.

I hope I never murder anyone, I thought, because I really don't have the nerve for this sort of thing.

An hour or two later we heard the Lees' car drive up to their house. Jen and I looked at each other. Nothing happened.

But a few minutes later there was a commotion. Screaming and shouting.

"We have to go over," said Jen.

"No way."

"Good neighbours don't just ignore noises like that."
"Good neighbours don't cover up rabbit murder."

We went over.

Down the side of their house all four were gathered near the rabbit hutch. Pearl was screaming at her father. "You buried him alive! And now he's dead!"

John was trying to restrain her as she was beating at his chest.

Jason just looked stunned and Mary was sobbing.

"What's wrong? Can we help?" asked Jen.

"The rabbit is dead."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," said Jen. My wife is a natural at looking innocent. If I ever do murder someone, I'm going to make sure she's my accomplice.

It seemed to me that the carry-on was a bit of an over-reaction. They'd only had the rabbit for a couple of weeks.

Mary went on; "I don't understand what's happened. We found him dead in his hutch yesterday morning and Pearl was very upset. But John dug a little grave down the back near the fence and we had a little ceremony. Pearl seemed to be coming to terms with it pretty well. It's her first experience of death.

"But when we came home today it was back in its hutch."

She was distraught.

"It looked like someone dug him up and cleaned him and put him back in his hutch. Unless Pearl is right and we really did bury him alive."

She started to cry loudly. Jen hugged her and patted her back.

Jen pointed her dagger eyes at me and I realized I was going to have to take the fall.

"Listen," I said loudly, to get their attention.

They turned to look at me.

Copyright © Gerry Gaffney 2024