In the Rabbit Cage
By J. A. Field
McHenry is on a community outing and is sitting at one of the miniature booths of an in-store restaurant enjoying his blue slush when a guy comes in with what looks like a backpack strapped over his chest. Way down in the backpack there is a bulge. The guy stops in the entryway, tilts his head into the backpack’s elasticized opening, lifts it back up and looks around. McHenry sees the guy’s eyes land on him, watches him head over. The guy’s a little older than he is—eighteen?—and his arms sticking out of his black t-shirt are really white, like he hasn’t been out of his house in a while. There’s no one else around, only the girl working the fryolator.
“Hey buddy, can you help me out? I gotta feed my baby and I’m not too good at getting her out of this thing by myself yet. Her feet get stuck.” The guy has another bag, white with yellow ducks on it, slung across his back.
McHenry puts his slush down, stands up. He holds the bottom of the backpack while the guy pulls the baby out. The pink fuzz of her sock brushes against his cheek.
“Will you hold her a minute while I get her bottle ready?” The guy starts to hand the baby to McHenry, then stops. “You ever held a baby before?”
McHenry shakes his head.
“Then would you mind sitting down first?”
McHenry sits on the edge of the booth seat, facing out, and the guy lays the baby in his arms. He’s surprised by how warm she is, like the bottom of a fresh box of pizza. She turns her head, waves her arms. Her fist thumps his chest.
“Okay, I’m ready.” The guy has the bottle set on the table across from the booth. He takes the baby from McHenry, sits in the swivel chair attached to the table, crooks the baby in one arm, picks up the bottle, puts it in the baby’s mouth. McHenry watches as the baby takes a long pull and locks her eyes on her father. He rubs the place her fist landed on his chest.
Sometimes when McHenry has to bring a load of trash out to the dumpster, he lifts the lid and the smell reminds him of his mother. The same smell of sour milk and cold grease rose up from the trash piled on the floorboards of the car they were living in when he was four. McHenry remembers sitting next to his mother for a long time the day she died, waiting for her to lift her head again. He can still feel the rough edge of the cigarette burn in the seat he rubbed his finger across, back and forth. He can still see her hair that fell like a sheet over the steering wheel. He grabbed a hank of it when the cops opened the door and tried to pull him from his mother. He clutched it in his fist. One officer had to hold him while another pried his fingers open. His scream cut the air when he felt his mother’s hair fishtail from his palm.
McHenry had only wanted what was his. In every foster home they tried him in, he refused to eat the family’s food, play with their toys, watch their TV’s, sleep in their beds. He sat cross-legged on their floors, facing their walls, waiting for someone he belonged to to come for him. He knew there was someone he’d called Pop; there had been a hand he’d held that wasn’t his mother’s. They would look for him. They would find him. They would come.
Finally his social worker had had to place McHenry in the group home, where there was no foster family, only staff. He stood in line for his food and slept in a bunk four to a room. It was a place for him to wait.
When he was six months away from turning eighteen, McHenry’s social worker came to see to him, to help him plan for what she called Independent Living. She asked him where he wanted to go, what he wanted to do when he left the group home.
“I want to find my family.”
“Your family? McHenry, we’ve talked about that. You know we don’t know where they are.”
He clenched his mouth, looked around the room, bounced his knee.
“You need a real plan. It’s getting closer! You need a place to live, a job. Or, you could go to school. There are some training programs. You could learn HVAC, or medical assisting. CNA. Dental hygienist—I think that one takes a little longer.”
“I want my family.” Eyes on hers, mouth set.
She took a deep breath, sighed. “Do you think there’s something we haven’t told you, McHenry? Do you think we’ve been holding out on you, that there’s some information about your family we’ve been waiting to tell you when you turn eighteen?”
He held her eyes.
“Well, there isn’t. I’ve gone through your file, all of it. There’s nothing there, there’s no information.” Her voice softened. “We only know your name because you told us. There was no paperwork in the car, it belonged to someone else. Your mom… The people the car belonged to didn’t know your mom.”
“She stole it.”
“Yes, I’m afraid she did.”
McHenry’s eyes shifted away.
“We tried, McHenry, we really tried. We sent your photo out everywhere, to police in every state. You were on the news! No one—no one ever came forward. There were a few calls, people who thought they’d seen you, but—it never led to anything, it never helped us find anyone. I’m really sorry, McHenry, but that’s the reality. You have to accept it. You have move on now, start your own life.”
McHenry was quiet for a moment, then stood so fast he knocked over his metal folding chair. “Fine. Find me a place to live.” He grabbed the back of the chair with both hands and slammed it back into position. He strode out of the room, went straight to the elevator, punched the down button. His eyes burned. He had hoped there was something they’d tell him when he turned eighteen.
McHenry had been at the group home so long the staff thought they knew him. They’d given him the job of unpacking deliveries in the storage area of the basement, and they let him work alone. Breathing fast, McHenry stepped off the elevator and turned toward the boulder that bulged from the foundation. Almost as tall as he was, it was out of all proportion to the others and looked like it had been sent rolling down the hill outside to crash through them. He reached above the boulder, into a crack between two smaller stones. His fingertips touched metal. He nudged the box cutter from its hiding place.
Whenever he had thought about where his family might be, McHenry had imagined cows. Black and white cows, like in a children’s book he’d seen once. A red barn, yellow chickens, a white fence. His grandma in a red plaid apron standing on a back porch shaking a rug out over a field of elephant-eye-high corn. His grandpa on a shiny green tractor, plowing rows straight as the stripes on the flag, one hand lifted in a wave to him.
McHenry weighed the box cutter in his hand. They hadn’t come for him. He had waited and waited and believed in them hard and they hadn’t come. He put his thumb on the box cutter’s release, slid the razor out. Had they ever even looked for him? Had they all gone outside one bright blue-skyed morning and just stepped over the sudden gaping sinkhole of him gone?
The air in the basement was heavy, compressed by the weight of the building, the children. McHenry breathed the thick air in, out. He slid the razor in, out. Sweat trickled from his eyebrow, moved down his cheek, touched the corner of his mouth.
They weren’t coming. They were never going to come.
In the middle of the floor was a new delivery, a pallet of boxes wound tight with shrink wrap. McHenry walked up to it, circled. In one place the wrap stretched across a gap between two boxes. He raised the box cutter, brought it down fast and hard, plunged it in. The balloon of hope he had carried inside him, the light globe in which the red barn, the white fence, the green tractor had floated all these years, popped when the box cutter’s razor broke the seal. He moved quickly around the pallet, slashing, slashing.
McHenry made a plan he didn’t tell his social worker. There was a girl in the group home who brought her tray to the table next to his whenever she saw him in the cafeteria, who peeked out at him from under her tangled hair, smiled at him with her lips chapped and bursting. When he had four months to go until his eighteenth birthday, he started taking her down to the basement. He pressed his lips to her crusted mouth. She wrapped her arms around his neck. He leaned her up against the boulder.
They found out she was pregnant two weeks before he left.
McHenry has an apartment, a job in the stockroom of the same store where he held the guy’s baby, a new box cutter he keeps in his tool apron. Every few days he takes the bus back to the program to see the girl, to watch her stomach grow big with his baby. The girl says she’ll come live with him and the baby as soon as she turns eighteen—she says it every time he sees her—and McHenry says okay, even though he doesn’t want her to. It’s two years away—he’ll take the baby and go someplace where she can’t find them. The baby is his. The baby is his family.
At night McHenry lies in his bed, hands behind his head, and imagines life with his son. He sees the two of them sitting at a kitchen table covered with a yellow and white checked tablecloth; he sees a wire basket of fresh eggs on the table. He sees his fork raised, sun glinting off the metal, a square of pancake perfect in its tines. He hears bright laughter, gazes at a face that looks like his, all aglow.
McHenry buys a pair of cow-shaped black and white salt and pepper shakers and puts them on his table. He buys a box of pancake mix, sets it on a shelf. He buys a plastic booster seat and buckles it into his son’s seat at the table. He buys the same white and yellow duck bag the guy had, the same things to put in it. He buys a pair of little blue socks and brushes them against his cheek. At night and on the weekends, he unpacks the bag, makes like he’s making a bottle, pats the empty air over his shoulder.
Four months before the baby is supposed to come, McHenry arrives at the group home and the girl isn’t there. Staff tells him she’s at the hospital; she’d been having some pains. McHenry wonders if this is normal. He has no one to ask. He doesn’t know what to do. He takes the bus home, then when he gets there he gets back on, goes to the hospital. When he gets there, they tell him the girl and the baby have been moved to the bigger hospital in the city.
The girl and the baby. The girl and the baby. All the next day at work he thinks the words. They’re separate; the girl and the baby are separate—his baby is born! He knows it’s too early, but he doesn’t know what that means. He wishes the guy would come into the store, so he could ask him. He tries to work near the store entrance, just in case he does. He’s jumpy all day, looking toward the doors.
After work, McHenry gets ready to go to the hospital. But he’s never been to the city on his own before. He’s only been on field trips, straight from the group home van into the museum and back again, all the kids wearing the same orange shirt, staff keeping them close. He remembers sirens, car horns blasting, two men facing off against each other on the sidewalk, their voices rising. He’s a little afraid of what could happen in the city. He hangs up his tool apron, looks at it a moment, moves his box cutter from the pocket of his apron to the pocket of his jeans.
It’s late when McHenry gets there. He stands outside the big hospital, the darkening sky raising the hair on his arms, watches the revolving doors, all the people going in and out. Inside, the light is so bright it cuts his eyes. He blinks and squints. Sweat prickles the back of his neck. The weight of the box cutter against his leg is a comfort to him. In the elevator, he puts his hand in his pocket, grips it.
When he gets to the maternity ward and tells them who he is, they’re quiet. One of the nurses asks him if he’d like to see the girl first. He shakes his head—he’s not planning on seeing her again. A nurse suits him up, takes him into the room with the babies, leads him to one of the clear boxes. When he looks inside a broken fan starts up in his chest, a high-pitched whine and clatter.
One of the foster families he had stayed with had had a pet rabbit in a cage in their backyard. The cage was set way out at the far edge of the yard, where the grass met overgrown weeds, and McHenry had often wandered there, far from the house. One day he had seen something in the cage that was red and veiny, like a tomato without its skin. What’s in the plastic box looks like what was in the cage.
McHenry swallows, looks down through the top. The head is long and squeezed, the ears unfinished. The ribs ripple the chest, their rise and fall uneven.
McHenry’s foster father had seen him at the rabbit’s cage and come and stood beside him. While they watched, the big rabbit had taken the red thing in its mouth and chewed. McHenry had looked so hard his eyes had dried out, and he had blinked and blinked, trying to make them work right again. His foster father had put a hand on his shoulder, explained that the baby rabbit was too sick to survive.
McHenry’s fingers twitch for the box cutter. This can’t be his baby. He doesn’t want it, he doesn’t want it. This won’t ever sit at the table, laugh, eat pancakes. This can’t be his family. He has no family. He will never have a family. He moves his hand into his pocket, puts his thumb on the box cutter’s release. He wants to move the razor in, out, in, out. He wants to raise the box cutter, he wants to plunge it into something, everything; he wants to slash the clear plastic box the baby is in. He has nothing. He is no one. He stands there in his yellow paper gown, his mask, gasping at the heavy air, alone, alone.
McHenry’s mind scrambles. He thinks of his mother, her head on the steering wheel. He thinks of the baby rabbit, lying wet and raw on the wire of the cage—what its mother had done to it. What its mother had done, the baby too sick to survive. He remembers the other baby, the guy’s baby. He feels the knock of her fist on his chest, the warmth of her on his lap.
McHenry’s breathing slows. He opens his eyes. He takes his thumb off the box cutter’s release, lets it slide from his fingers. He takes his hand out of his pocket, pushes it through one of the plastic sleeves in the side of the box. McHenry opens his hand. He reaches for his baby. He wants to know if she is warm.