by Frankie Barnet
All throughout my girlhood it was my primary ambition to be as dumb as possible. My father was a professor of mathematics who attempted to teach me algebra at age nine and preached discipline and rationality above all else. My mother was a reform Hutterite who cut her own hair. He once bought her a Costco membership for Christmas and she went only once, finding the experience gluttonous.
I had a best friend in this youth, a girl named Kelly who lived down the block. At her home I tried many foods for the first time: sushi, avocado, specialty cheese. I once saw her parents dancing without any music playing on my way to the bathroom while she and I watched It Takes Two in the basement.
Yet still, despite these differences in our home lives, Kelly shared my dream: to be weightless from a lack of knowledge. To float up and up and up. Away and free.
Our favorite thing to do together was to play a game in which we imitated two girls from our grade at school who were so dumb it was impossible. Their names were Stacey and Sasha. In addition to being idiots they were also sluts, a not uncommon pairing Kelly and I both coveted. “Like, totally,” we’d say, pretending to be them. “Like, oh my gaaaawd.” “Like, like, literally like.”
During the summer between ninth and tenth grade, Kelly and I walked through the river valley playing our game (“So oh my God, what did you, like, do last night?” “So I like literally boned Matt G. soooo bad!”) when we spotted an injured rabbit just off the path and decided to pick it up. Dumb, right? Just the kind of thing we, as them, loved to do.
“He could be, like, our baby.”
“Let’s take him home, like, literally.”
“Oh my God, because I’m pregnant, like, from boning all the time.”
“Totally pregnant, and I don’t literally know who did it to me.”
The rabbit’s leg was torn, the fur around the cut matted with blood. Not as grotesque as some of the things I’d seen in movies but bad enough that he could not hop away from us when Kelly reached for him and lifted him to her chest. He was a boy, we decided. Kelly put him in her backpack, and we walked back to my house and into the basement. He was our baby.
My parents’ basement was not only the largest open space in the house but an area my mother and father almost never entered themselves. It stayed cool even in the summer, and I often went down there just to feel the cold tiles against my skin, even laying my whole body down with my clothes rolled up, as naked as I could risk. On that day, Kelly and I took the rabbit past the TV set and into the defunct wood sauna installed by the home’s previous owners, a room my parents chose to use for storage. Piled on the wooden benches were boxes of my and my brother’s old schoolwork. I emptied one labeled “Dylan: Grade Four” into another, “Katie: Kindergarten,” and handed it to Kelly. “It could be, like, a crib,” I offered.
We took the rabbit out of the backpack and stared into his dark, glossy eyes. He peed on the bench. “Like, eww,” Kelly said in between her two voices.
Over the coming days we fed the rabbit lettuce and carrots from my parents’ kitchen upstairs but pretended that the food was hamburgers and pizza, ice cream, and skittles. We were the dumbest moms. We did not know anything.
“He needs a nap,” Kelly decided one day. She straightened her posture so that her imaginary breasts hung on display. She picked up the rabbit from the cardboard box. “I’m going to rock him to sleep.” And she started to sing, “Will the real slim shady?” Slow and melodically, “please stand up?” She knew all the words, swaying with her eyes closed and the animal pressed against her chest, breathing rapidly, his eyes darting around the room. The glitter she had begun only that summer to smear across her eyelids reflected the timid glow of the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. “Dr. Dre’s deaaaad.” In the corner of the room was a pile of rocks left by the old owners. What I understood was that underneath this they would have lit wooden logs on fire, then sat back on the benches to bask in the steam.
That summer, Kelly invited me to join her family on their road trip to Manitoba. Every year she asked and every year I was denied permission.
“I don’t want to go without you,” she would say. She said this every year, and every year I said I didn’t know how I would survive without her. “I hate Edmonton,” I said. I promised to beg.
“He is such a bad baby,” said Kelly one day to the rabbit. “He’s a slut, just like us. You’re a bad, bad baby,” she said to the rabbit in her arms. “You’re a slut and you showed me your thingy. Your big, hard, thingy, didn’t you?”
I can admit I found it strange to watch her play the game with him and not me. The game, I decided, was not fun to watch. Only to play. “Oh my, like, God,” I said to Kelly. “He’s, like, an insane baby.”
This was also the day that I first noticed the rabbit start to twitch. It is not such a big deal to twitch, I thought. And it was a small twitch, it was only a rapid blinking in his left eye. Still, I remember hoping for Kelly to notice before she left my house. If I noticed first I felt it would somehow be my fault.
“You’re my slutty baby,” she said. “Aren’t you?”
I used to spend so much time wondering, what are Stacey and Sasha doing this second? Are they together? I pictured them in a basement of their own, playing a game in which they imitated the two of us imitating the two of them, imitating the two of us, and so on and so forth, a loop nobody ever broke free from.
There were various reasons why I was not allowed to join Kelly’s family on vacation. Each time I asked, I never knew what refusal I was going to get. “It is too dangerous.” “It is too far.” “We do not know Kelly’s parents well enough.” “You are not a strong swimmer.”
On the days leading up to her departure, Kelly asked constantly what my parents had said and offered various rebuttals to challenge them. “Tell them my parents have cell phones and my dad was a lifeguard in college.”
I would nod along, though it was obvious to me there was no hope. It became frustrating that she could not accept this. “Have you asked today? You have to keep asking.”
How could she not understand that the answer would never change? Maybe I was smarter than her all along, a proposition which alarmed me. It was not pleasant to think about. Besides, I did not understand what was so special about this Manitoba place anyways. Did she not realize that between the two of us we could pretend anything we wanted?
The day before Kelly left with her family I went over to her house to say goodbye, and we sat on the floor in her room.
“I have to tell you something,” Kelly said. “I saw them.”
She said she saw Stacey and Sasha on her way home from the mall, walking down Calgary Trail.
“What did they look like?”
She said she didn’t know. Or maybe, it occurred to me, she was keeping it to herself. “We were driving pretty fast. But I saw them. I know it was them.”
She showed me the bag of new clothes her mother bought her from the mall: a top, another top. “This is for the lake,” she said, retrieving a two-piece bathing suit from the pile beside her bed. I felt the fabric between my fingers. It was soft and smooth, but the patterns were ugly.
“Do you like them?” Kelly asked.
“Yes,” I said. Even though they were ugly, I wanted them anyways, just in case. “What were they wearing when you saw them?”
“Oh,” said Kelly. “I don’t remember.” She paused, and we were both silent. “But probably . . .” Kelly heightened her voice. “Like, nothing at all.” She laughed. “Like completely naked, just naked, like, parading themselves down the road and everyone saw everything.”
We played the game twice during the time she was away. The first time was after I knew there was something seriously wrong with the rabbit. He appeared gaunt, though he couldn’t have been gaunt, could he? We fed him often. We fed him only fatty foods his entire time as a baby. And so I decided that it was not a big deal to twitch, our baby was probably just tired. Wasn’t it exhausting to be the child of an idiot?
When Kelly called, she asked me, “oh my God how is my baby and who have you been, like, boning?”
We exchanged a series of single syllable names: Matt, Josh, Brock. I told her our baby was happy and healthy. “I feed him from my boobs,” I said. “My, like, big, gigantic boobs.” This made us laugh. If I laughed any harder my mother might hear and shush me from her perch on the couch upstairs. I risked it. I laughed and laughed with my friend.
At first, the rabbit’s twitching remained the same—a sort of spasm where his head jerked back and his paws came together—almost like he was laughing. He could have been laughing, clapping at something that was funny. Who was I to know what the rabbit found funny? But it turned out that as soon as I became comfortable with one set of spasms, the spasms got worse. Soon, his hind legs and his mouth were taken over as well. He had two long teeth out of his top jaw and when he spasmed, his lips pulled back to expose them. He rolled onto his spine and pulsed three or four times, then rolled onto his stomach and lay motionless. The rabbit was very thin now. Every time I saw the inside of his mouth, it’s deep velvety red, I wanted to puke.
The rabbit became so sick it was disgusting. Crystals of pus hung off the fur around his mouth. I was going into the sauna three times a day to take him out of the box and feed him, but he was not eating. I did not even play the game around him anymore. I was myself. I said, “please.”
The smell was so bad that I began to fantasize my about parents noticing, that they would come downstairs and they would find him. The rabbit would have to go back to the forest, or worse and perhaps more likely, he would be taken to the veterinarian where he would be killed. I waited for this to happen and kept waiting.
One day we went over to my grandmother’s house for dinner, and I spent the whole time thinking, the rabbit will be dead by the time I get back to the basement. He has to be, he has to.
But when we got home I ran into the basement and the rabbit was not dead. So I sat in the sauna to watch him breathe slowly and shudder. I stayed down there for some time, thinking, now, now, now? What would it look like and how palpable would it be when it happened? I was worried that if I blinked I would miss it, though I wanted to miss it and blinked often. Maybe I would sleep down here, right in the sauna, though I did not. I carried myself up the stairs to my room, where I continued to wonder, now? now? now?
In the morning, I woke very early, before anyone else in the house. The rabbit lay still against the wall of his box. I meant to touch his leg but shook so badly I touched his ear. He was not moving and he was not warm. Next, I ran upstairs where there was no one. I found a garbage bag and some old newspapers to wrap up the rabbit’s body. In the sauna, I collapsed the cardboard box and stuffed everything into the bag. My parents, who did not let me do anything, were asleep. Likely, my mother would sleep all day, though I soon began to hear sounds of my father rising. I could hear his footsteps move toward the kitchen. I carried the garbage up to the main floor, where my father now sat reading a newspaper. He didn’t look up. “Good morning, Dylan,” he said, and I did not correct him. I was out the back door with the rabbit in a bag. I walked past the house where the dentist lived, the one who handed out toothbrushes every Halloween. Past the Millers,’ whose son jumped off a bridge, past the Wilsons,’ whose dog had three legs.
I went all the way up 76th Avenue to my old school and dumped the rabbit in a garbage can. I pressed him down among the beer cans and McDonald’s wrappers. Then I just stood there in the wind by the main entrance, where I had entered countless times, bright and hopeful; where I had exited many times, deflated and embarrassed. Above the door Trevor the Tiger gleamed valiantly, though I understood he no longer represented me. When I got home I went back into the basement without even thinking about it. It was just so much where I was used to going.
When Kelly called from Manitoba to play the game a second time she said that she had the house to herself because everyone else was water skiing. She didn’t have to go because she had her period, and I remember finding this so deeply embarrassing, that Kelly didn’t know it was still possible to go water skiing on your period, even when it had been the subject of so many tampon commercials.
“How is my baby?” asked Kelly. “I miss him so much I am literally dying.”
“Listen,” I said. “So I’ve been thinking.” My heart pounded in my chest, and I pressed my toes into the tiles so that they were white and bloodless. “It’s lame to play this game. I mean, Stacey and Sasha don’t even go to our school anymore.” This was true, because they lived on the other side of the university and were therefore zoned to attend Archbishop McNally, where neither of us would hear anything significant from them again.
I sat in my parents’ basement, waiting for Kelly to argue with me. To defend or prove me wrong about our special game. “No,” she would say. “It isn’t stupid. We won’t stop. I won’t let you.” She would pin me down on the floor of the sauna and declare through gritted teeth, be another girl! until I had no choice but to oblige her. And thus we would continue, different girls for the rest of our lives.
But she didn’t. All she said was, “Ok, if that’s what you want,” then changed the subject. We hung up after only a few minutes. I remained alone, in the basement, for some time.
In high school, I did my best to fail at all my classes. It was difficult, though I found my way by Christmas. But it made my father worried, so he made me sit with him after dinner, going over all my notes, which I found so excruciating. I became average, and after that most people left me alone. Kelly excelled in math and science and began to spend her breaks from school working the cash register at a convenience store her uncle owned on the lake in Manitoba. There were rumors she had a boyfriend there, though I never knew for sure. Her and I were not close. After that summer with the rabbit, we never talked the way we used to.
For a period, my life felt overpopulated by girls like the ones from our game: didn’t Dylan’s first girlfriend have a neck just like Sasha’s? And the girl who sat in front of me in French class who made a mean joke about my shoes, didn’t her hair shine in the exact way Stacey’s did? Later, another one of Dylan’s girlfriends who flirted with our father. Many girls who were laughing.
Once at a party, I felt so certain I saw Stacey my heart nearly stopped. But it was only a reflection, a trick of the light against a glass cabinet, so I continued my way into a bedroom with whatever boy I was with, lay down with him on the bed and began to wonder, as I often did, if sex worked for other girls the way it did for me. The slutty rush of heat that crept up your spine but never, ultimately, went anywhere—completed itself, I mean—because his hands were so clumsy it wasn’t like it was even you he touched, but some different girl entirely. I wondered if that was what Kelly went through in Manitoba. I imagined the lake behind her. But you cannot just ask that to a stranger. You cannot just go up to someone and ask, what kinds of things have you been pretending lately? Not to someone you hardly know.
Frankie Barnet is the author of An Indoor Kind of Girl (Metatron Press). Her work has appeared in journals such as PRISM International, Peach Magazine, The Washington Square Review, and Biblioasis’ 2017 Best Canadian Short Stories Anthology. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Syracuse University.