by Nathan Pettigrew
My nightmares, while nothing new, were not entirely consistent. I could go months without being thrown into the terrifying scenarios of my unconscious mind that saw my Milky and Lola loose in the wild or in some alternate world where I was forced to gather them back to safety—always succeeding—always waking up right after and hurrying to make sure that both were alive and well.
Known in the animal community as a Florida White, Milky was an albino bunny with precious red eyes that would glow sometimes from certain angles. My sweet boy. My Bugsy Boo. His ears would stand whenever I entered the same room or at the sound of my voice if he happened to be sleeping. Only one of Lola’s ears would do the same. A lop-eared bun, her fur was smoky brown and beautiful with circles of white around her dark eyes. My baby girl. My Lola. She was the younger of the two by a year, but smarter than Milky and sneakier about getting her way. A diva.
I allowed the buns to have free reign around the house during most of the day but kept them locked in their large ex-pen next to the dining room while I slept. During the wee hours, whenever I woke up from having to save them, I would press and turn the dimmer switch above the ex-pen and find my fur babies side by side in meatloaf positions—“meatloaf” being rabbit lingo for when buns ball up to rest with their legs and front paws tucked under themselves.
Milky and Lola would touch noses when I reached down to pet their furry foreheads and backsides. They would grind their teeth when I stroked their ears at the same time—a thing rabbits did when relaxed and enjoying affection. Their calm state was contagious, allowing me to step out on the back porch for a smoke before returning to bed.
My wife Nassira was a snorer, but I could sleep knowing the buns were safe until the alarm on my phone would go off at eight a.m. I worked remotely for a nurse line, my shift starting at eight-thirty, but first I would unlock the ex-pen and feed the buns their breakfast.
Ecstatic, Milky would run circles around my feet while Lola would binky on the dining room carpet. A binky happens when buns are excited and jump in a sudden and spastic manner that sees them turning sideways before landing.
Breakfast for the buns was a spoonful each of pellets in mini glass bowls. I would clean their ex-pen while they ate, sweeping countless poo balls into a pan before refilling their water bowl from the jug. I would empty their litter boxes in the garbage and fill the back ends with fresh litter on top of newspapers to absorb their pee and stash the front ends with triple handfuls of hay—enough to last until I did this all over again before going to bed.
Their pellets were advertised on a red bag as Adult Rabbit Food, but pellets should be given sparingly, the correct diet for a rabbit being Timothy Hay—and buns should never be without hay. Some think a rabbit can survive on carrots and lettuce alone, when in fact this diet would kill a rabbit—and quickly. Carrots contain too much natural sugar to digest daily, and lettuce won’t fill a bun or provide the necessary nutrients. Carrots and lettuce are a treat at best.
As the nature of a rabbit is to constantly chew, I would sprinkle the hearth of the fireplace with blocks of compressed hay or Timothy Cubes for whenever Milky and Lola ran into the living room looking for something to sink their teeth into. Hopping on the fireplace, the buns were all about the cubes, ignoring the sofa, the pillows, and the wires to Nassira’s computer—all past victims to Milky and Lola’s chewing nature before I’d learned to leave out the cubes.
But their absolute favorite treats were heart-shaped barley biscuits, the biscuits like crack to the buns. I could get them to do whatever I wanted just by shaking the tiny green bag, watching them run from the fireplace to the ex-pen when I was ready to lock them up.
When begging for treats, most rabbits stand on their hind legs while wiggling their noses. Milky did this far more than Lola, but she was just as fast in diving for the biscuits when my hand went down.
During family time, the buns would meatloaf on the fireplace or sprawl out together while we humans found new shows to binge-watch. If Lola wasn’t relaxing or chewing on hay cubes, she was cleaning Milky’s ears—the first thing she’d done when they were introduced.
Nassira worked remotely for a health savings bank but volunteered at the Humane Society of Pinellas County on weekends and brought Milky home in the fall of 2012 when he was barely a year old. We adopted Lola that following summer when she was just a baby, and while Milky was indifferent to her at first, Lola took to Milky immediately, licking on his ears.
Still, she wasn’t always quick to join Milky on the fireplace. There were times when she would follow him into the living room and hesitate, looking in my direction. She would run back to the ex-pen before returning to the living room minutes later, still hesitant, still looking in my direction.
“I don’t get it,” I said to Nassira one night. “What am I doing? Or what does she think I’m going to do?”
I used to think that Lola was afraid of her own shadow, but Nassira made me aware of a different truth.
“You don’t know women, do you?” she asked.
“What are you talking about, babe?”
“She’s not scared, George. She wants more attention. Always running away so you’ll go after her.”
A revelation that forced me to pay closer attention to Lola’s every move. My baby girl made me work harder for her love than Milky did—that was always true, always obvious—to the point where I often wondered if she loved me in return. She didn’t beg as much for treats, didn’t run circles around my feet before breakfast or always reciprocate my affection unless during the wee hours after one of my nightmares.
Call me a sucker, but I gave Lola the special attention she was looking for. While Milky was content on the fireplace chewing on hay cubes, Lola would try to sneak into my office when I was working.
“She’s coming,” Nassira would yell from the living room, and I would close the door. Lola would then scratch the door and wiggle her nose in the crack beneath the bottom, wanting in. She loved my office for some reason—or so I had thought—but if she chewed on the wrong wire, I was down from work for the day. If I couldn’t get to the door in time, Lola would hide beneath the futon and refuse to come out. I would shake the biscuit bag to get her out, now realizing after my wife’s insight that the office was just my baby girl’s way of getting another barley biscuit.
The back of the bag said a rabbit shouldn’t have more than two biscuits a day, and two each was what I gave Milky and Lola before locking the ex-pen, but Lola had found a way to get more, and an awful thought crossed my mind: the extra biscuits might kill her, but better Lola than Milky.
My Bugsy Boo was selfish, would probably love the extra attention if Lola passed, but my baby girl lived for Milky, would have no companion or ears to clean and no other bun in the house to outsmart. Bonded bunnies will grieve when the other has passed—sometimes to the point of death—and I couldn’t see Lola surviving without Milky.
Come spring of 2020, surviving was on everyone’s mind. The coronavirus had spread around the world, and most of the country was under a lockdown. Asleep on an April night, I found myself in a sci-fi setting of some kind where I was on the deck of a pirate ship—minus the motley crew and skull flag—the sky above filled with at least a dozen full moons instead of stars. Milky and Lola were running circles around my feet—until the ship blew up—either from a shot fired on us or a bomb gone off from within. I swam until I reached the floating debris—long strokes. I felt a rabbit’s nails spread out against the back of my head, holding on to me.
Milky. I pulled him up with me, so happy and relieved to see him alive and safe before feeling a cold punch to my chest.
Lola was nowhere to be found—not in the water nearby or in the distance. Looking up at the many full moons, I knew she was gone, the blue universe in the background fading into black.
I woke up and hurried to the ex-pen to find Lola alive and well next to Milky. The buns touched noses when I reached down to pet them. Calm now, I stepped out for a smoke but felt crushed by a realization. I’d never failed to save both buns in my nightmares before.
“She’s fine,” Nassira said over coffee. “She’s going to outlive us all.”
Our ongoing joke during the pandemic: Lola’s going to outlive us all. We had other factors to consider if this virus failed to wipe us out. Nassira had thyroid and heart issues and suffered spasms and hot flashes. No health issues on my end, but my smoking left me open to a possible stroke, cancer, or asthma symptoms. Milky was an old man going on eight and showing his age. The average lifespan for a rabbit is ten years, and Milky didn’t binky as much or run as fast and even had trouble jumping on the fireplace without help. He’d lost control of his bladder, leaving a pee trail from the ex-pen to the living room. His vet chalked the bladder issues up to a urinary infection that antibiotics could heal, and proved correct, but I figured it was just a matter of time for my sweet boy and made my peace with his final days, loving on him as much as I could.
The lockdown in Pinellas had ended in May, but corona cases spiked again in June and the night of the 23rd was my breaking point. I bought a twelve-pack of beer, figuring it was just a matter of time before a second quarantine, and emptied every can. Annoyed and uninterested in my company, Nassira asked me to take care of the rabbits before I passed out.
My alarm went off at eight, and my head felt like it had been slammed into a rock. Slowly moving, I went to give the buns their breakfast, finding Milky and Lola side by side in meatloaf positions. I unlocked the ex-pen, but only Milky ran out.
Well, that’s new.
A tear had fallen from Lola’s eye, and both of her eyes were bloodshot.
She made a soft, sad noise, as if trying to speak to me.
On my knees now, I stroked her ears and kissed her forehead. “Lola?”
Another soft, sad noise. I ran into the bedroom.
“Something’s wrong with Lola.”
Nassira jumped out of bed and stayed with Lola while I called the vet.
“Not until eleven,” the receptionist said.
“That’s three hours from now.”
“Sorry,” she said. “That’s the only opening we have.”
“Whatever. I’ll take it.”
Returning to my Lola, I picked her up and put her down on the dining room carpet, trying to comfort her. I kept petting her, kept kissing her, saying it’s okay. It’s okay, baby.
She became irritated and moved away from me.
“I think she’s having trouble breathing,” Nassira said.
Lola’s soft noises became loud cries, like she was screaming at us.
I tried to get closer, but Lola ran and crashed into the open ex-pen door. Quickly getting up, she hauled ass into the living room and crashed again into the sofa. Trying to get up, she fell on her side—flopping on the floor like a fish.
Catching up and hurrying to my knees, I caressed her side and forehead, crying. Nassira was crying with me and speaking fast in Arabic.
I kissed Lola’s belly, and she sighed, exhaling her last breath. Her body had gone still, releasing fluids on the floor, her eyes drying up and staring at nothing.
My baby girl was gone, and I confused myself by smiling. Wiping the smile and tears from my face, I wrapped Lola’s body in a blanket and realized that my fleeting moment of happiness had come from knowing that her misery had ended.
Calling out sick, I couldn’t help sobbing, but my boss was cool about it, saying she had lost a pet and knew how gut-wrenching the experience was.
Nassira took care of cleaning the ex-pen, and Milky acted like nothing had changed, eating fresh hay.
PetSmart offered a service, Nassira said, where a third party cremated the body of a deceased pet before returning the ashes in a personalized urn.
“And you know this how?” I asked.
“The Humane Society,” she said. “Duh.”
“Right,” I said, smiling with tears in my eyes.
She made the call while I placed Lola’s wrapped body in a plastic container that I brought out to the backseat of Nassira’s Accord. Too hungover, I took shotgun.
“Lola was making a run for the office,” Nassira said at a red light. “She was always gunning for that office. Even up to the very end.”
She meant to make me laugh or smile, but I wanted to scream and broke down crying in her arms.
“Come on, George. It’s green, now.”
I backed off and used my shirt to wipe my eyes.
“What were you saying back there?” I asked. “You know. When she … ”
“To Him we belong, and to Him we return,” Nassira said. “It’s a prayer.”
Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” played on the radio, and that’s all it took for me to break again. I balled when hearing the birds in the background of the song and the beauty of the string arrangement.
On the back porch that night while sobbing and drinking myself into oblivion, I listened to the song and Stevie’s sad, sad lyrics on repeat.
Nassira found me, sat next to me, and wrapped her arm around me. “I miss her, too, George.”
We decided to leave the ex-pen unlocked in case the night became too lonely for Milky. I was scared for him, thought he might want to join us in the bedroom, and he did but had waited until first light, the scratching sound of his nails on the floor waking me up. I grabbed a pillow and blanket and got down on the floor with him. Milky put his front paws on the pillow and touched noses with me. I covered his body to his neck, leaving his ears exposed, and we cuddled until my alarm went off.
It became our morning routine. During family time, Milky would still hang out with us on the fireplace but formed a new habit where he joined us on the sofa and would grind his teeth while I loved on him. He ate up the extra attention as I had suspected he would, and he seemed to be hanging in there while I was doing the opposite.
Drowning myself in tears and alcohol became a nightly thing, but I couldn’t have imagined this pain, this overbearing guilt I felt for loving Lola so much more now that I could no longer see or feel her. If only I had the chance to touch her again, to show her how much she meant to me.
Smoking and listening to “Overjoyed” on repeat, I’d scroll through pics of Lola in my phone but doing this brought more pain. Pics were no longer snapshots of a moment, or a memory, but motion captures where Lola would move while I stared at her, as if still alive in my phone, and in my phone only.
“She wasn’t just a rabbit,” Nassira said, joining me on the back porch. “Lola was family. You’re grieving and it’s normal.”
“I had this—nightmare,” I told her. “Where the buns were in trouble, and—we were out to see on some kind of pirate ship that blew up.”
“My God,” she said.
“That’s not the fucked up part,” I said. “I was able to save Milky, but not Lola. You don’t think that—that maybe she knew somehow and was trying to warn me, do you?”
“It’s possible, George, but she’s gone to Jannah, now.”
“I hope so, babe.”
“I’m sure of it,” Nassira said.
She believed that every living being had a soul, her faith and love for our fur babies making it hard for me to not believe in God.
In some eyes, animals were the worst of His creations, as they’d fight and kill each other over food, territory, and sex—much like humans in my eyes. I believed that animals were the best of His creations, showing unconditional love and loyalty to those who cared most for them—again, like some humans I had known.
“Don’t you see?” Nassira asked.
“See—see what, babe?” I asked, sobbing.
“She doesn’t want this for you, George. You have to let her go.”
“Why?” I asked. “You think I’m overreacting?”
“No,” she said. “You loved her.”
“I did, Nassira. I really did.”
Lola was my baby girl, but she had ascended to a point in life that I hadn’t reached. Part of me wanted to join her, and I would in time, but my date hadn’t come, and I still woke up to Nassira snoring and Milky running into our bedroom for cuddling time on the floor.
Then I woke up after three one morning, thirsty. I got up and found Milky and Lola around the dining room table.
The buns hurried into the ex-pen, and I pressed and turned the dimmer switch above—again and again, getting no result. I tried to feel for Lola with my free hand, unable to find her. Panicking, I banged the side of my fist against the dimmer switch until I felt my baby girl’s nose touch the inside of my palm. She brushed her forehead along my fingers, allowing me to feel her again. I had missed this so much. I savored every minute while massaging her backside. I caressed the bottom of her chin and stroked her strong ear. Then I stroked both ears, wondering why Milky wasn’t there to touch noses with her.
I woke up again—this time for real. Nassira was snoring next to me, and I found Milky on the dining room carpet in meatloaf position. His ears stood before he ran to me. On my knees, I loved on him for several minutes before needing a smoke and leaving him with a barley biscuit.
Staring at the full moon outside, I exhaled my first drag, and smiled.
All I had wanted was the chance to touch my Lola again, to feel her and show her how much I loved her, and she had given me that chance.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Nathan Pettigrew was born and raised an hour south of New Orleans and lives in the Tampa area with his loving wife after sharing a close friendship as residents of Massachusetts. His stories have appeared in “The Year” Anthology from Crack the Spine, Stoneboat, and the Nasty: Fetish Fights Back anthology from Anna Yeatts of Flash Fiction Online, which was spotlighted in a 2017 Rolling Stone article. His story “The Queen of the South Side” was named Honorable Mention in the Genre Short Story category for the 88th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, while other genre stories have appeared in the pages of Thuglit, Switchblade, the Mardi Gras Mysteries and Mardi Gras Murder anthologies from Mystery and Horror, LLC, and at Bristol Noir and DarkMedia.com.
“Lola” was selected for our “Separation” theme about feeling disconnected. Read the rest of the stories related to this theme here.