Aphelion Issue 237, Volume 23
March 2019
 
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Rabbit Stew

by Kit Ahn




Ben McCaffrey was born Benjamin Lim to two geniuses. His mother was a scientist and his father was a professor of philosophy at UCSD, where he pondered the great questions of the universe and ethics. According to legal documents, Ben was homeschooled by his mother, Eva. She was mildly paranoid after her husband Jung-hoon’s trip to Canada, where she’d witnessed his death. He’d been standing on the side of Niagara Falls, peering off the edge when he slipped. It was a freak accident, apparently. The railing should’ve been stronger, it shouldn’t have given away as he slammed into it. Jung-hoon went straight off the cliff, somehow managing to bounce off a jagged rock and turn the water below crimson. The tourists screamed as his body landed in the falls and disappeared.

The Canadian authorities found the corpse, vowed to invest in stronger safety measures, and moved on. Benjamin was kept in his mother’s care, much to the chagrin of Jung-hoon’s family back in Korea. They protested, claiming that Eva was a murderer who was incapable of taking care of her son. The press grew restless, publishing articles splashed with big block letters: DID EVA MCCAFFREY KILL HER HUSBAND? Reporters flocked to the courthouse, shoving cameras and tape recorders into Eva’s face. In return, she put on a show, complete with mascara running down her face and Benjamin clutched to her chest. “I didn’t kill my husband,” she sobbed. “I loved him so much. Why would I kill him?”

The judge was a widowed mother herself, so she took pity on Eva. Benjamin’s interrogation was low key and proved nothing-- he answered questions with one word answers and continually glanced at his mother for approval. The public thought he was well spoken, the prosecutors insisted it was all rehearsed. In the end, it didn’t matter. Eva was given full custody of Benjamin, and was even granted permission to change his name.

She pulled herself together for the solid month she was trailed by the press. An agent reached out, asking for a reality TV show. Eva refused, and filed a lawsuit. Each morning she went to her lab with perfect posture and her head held high. When she picked up Ben from daycare, she made a big show of coddling him and whispering I-love-you’s into his ear. It was perfect. Too perfect.

Jung-hoon’s funeral was held privately in Korea. Eva went alone, leaving Ben at home and coming back two days later. The press did not probe-- they had long moved on to the story of a man who had burned down his own farm after a night of heavy drinking.

Knowing she’d been forgotten, Eva took Ben and moved up east. She bought an old farm with a rusty metal door and a tree growing through uprooted kitchen tiles. According to the state of Maine, it was not fit to be inhabited. But there was no fuss when Eva converted the garage to her lab and nailed the wooden planks of the staircase back together. She designated a single room for Ben’s room, then promptly forgot about it and left him in the attic with a molding mattress and rotting desk. Her lab was the greatest priority, and Ben could probably take care of himself.

The moving truck brought a single freezer into the house. It was at least six feet high, and built like a meat cooler. When one of the workers tried to open it, Eva slapped his hand and shouted for half an hour. Reluctantly, they left it in the garage and asked politely for her to never hire them again.

Eva dragged the freezer into her lab with unholy strength, then went out and bought three hundred sixty-five TV dinners, fourteen boxes of cereal, and sixty plastic jugs of water. She stashed them in the kitchen, gave Ben basic instructions, and kissed his forehead. “Eat three meals a day,” she said. “Don’t burn yourself on the oven, use the microwave instead. If you ever run out of anything, let me know. But only bother me if you have to. And never leave the house. Understand?”

Ben looked at her and said, “Why?”

“Mother has to work, Ben.”

“Where’s Father?”

“I told you, he’s dead. When he fell, the rocks split his skull. He drowned in freezing water and his own blood. For seven hours, his body floated around Niagara Falls. When the authorities fished him out, we got to see him. Remember?”

Ben hesitated as he took in this information. His wide brown eyes made him look like a little doll. Then, he nodded. “I miss him.”

“Don’t miss him. He won’t be gone for long. Now, Mother’s going to go work. Be quiet and be good.”

Ben obeyed his mother’s instructions as carefully as religion. He kept his head down and spent most of his time walking circles in the attic. He recited the ABCs until his brains turned to mush, he taught himself to read chapter books, he lay on the ground and made up equations and numbers, he wrote books in his head and read them aloud to no one in particular. Every morning he woke up and ate a bowl of dry cereal, then bustled around the house cleaning and thinking of ways to spend his time. Once a month or so, he poked his head into Eva’s lab.

“Mother?”

“Quiet, Ben, quiet. I’m working!”

He ran out of food before his sixth birthday, and tried to tell Eva. She muttered something about how busy she was, how she never had enough test subjects. When Ben kept bothering her, she groaned and slammed her head against her desk.

“Mother is working!” she shouted. “If you’re hungry, I’m sure there’s something lying around the house.”

The next day, Eva left him a sixty pound bag of dog food in the attic. Ben ate handfuls of it, then threw up for hours. He staggered to his feet, wiped his mouth, and headed downstairs. His mother’s purse sat on the dining table, where it had been since the day they moved. Carefully, Ben took her wallet out and tucked it into his pocket. For the first time in a year, he opened the front door and stepped outside.

After that day, he bought his own food. Eva didn’t notice, and sometimes Ben wondered if she ever ate at all.

Occasionally, he’d find her collapsed on the floor of the lab, her arms slick with blood all the way to the elbows. Dead mice lay all over the ground, a skinned raccoon sat headfirst with its eyes stuck in Eva’s hair. Other days, she stood for hours in front of the freezer, reciting equations and formulas under her breath. Eva worked in quick bursts of energy, often disappearing for months at times. She stopped keeping tabs on Ben, who in turn stopped keeping tabs on his mother.

On Ben’s fifteenth birthday, Eva sat perched over a dead squirrel, holding a radio in one hand and a TV remote in the other. Her dark, blood-flecked hair had been pulled into a ponytail. Instead of a lab coat, she wore sweatpants and a rumpled t-shirt. The graphic read: Property of Niagara Falls.

Ben smiled at her. “Guess what day it is?”

“A day for experiments,” she said, and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. It left a smear of blood on her porcelain skin. Eva had aged quite awfully, and her entire face appeared to be sagging downwards. Her eyes were somewhat manic, darting back and forth constantly. “I need a test subject,” she said. “I need a better test subject. I need an ear, I need an eye, I need…”

Eva turned up the volume on the TV remote. The radio turned on, and the squirrel instantly sat up. Its organs hung out, and its face was blank. But it sniffed the air, and scurried forward. Instantly, Eva grimaced. She slammed a fist on the squirrel’s head, and it went limp.

“Why the radio?” Ben asked.

Eva looked down at it, and narrowed her eyes. “You ask too many questions, Ben. I’m not a teacher. Your father was.”

“I still miss him.”

Eva stiffened all over, like she’d been shot. She dropped everything she’d been holding, letting the squirrel landed on top of the remote and the radio clatter to the ground. “Don’t miss him. There’s no point in it. He’ll be back soon, you know. I’m going to bring him back.”

Ben made a soft note in the back of his throat. He had grown since Eva had last cared to see him-- he went shopping on Sundays with whatever money he could scrounge up, and had renovated the attic into a somewhat habitable zone. With soft features and an easy smile, he was the polar opposite of his mother. At the supermarket, the cash registers knew him as a shy boy who never answered questions.

“It’s my birthday,” Ben said softly. “People do things on birthdays. They uh, get cakes and have parties. Can I have a party?”

“With who?”

“With you. And my friends.”

“Friends?” Eva said, and laughed. She wiped her viscera covered hands on the front of her white apron, and raised a thin eyebrow. “You’ve been making friends? Have you been leaving this house?”

He took a step back, and stared at Eva’s feet. “I… I need to go shopping. Every week or so. I just head down to the Market Basket on Boston Road, and buy some groceries. The cash registers are really nice.”

Eva grabbed a chisel off a desk and snapped it in two. “Every week?”

“I need to eat. You… you don’t really shop.” He wrung the fabric of his shirt and his hands nervously. “Sorry. I didn’t want to bother you, and you never listened--”

“You never told me.” Eva snapped.

“I did-- Listen, Mother, I’m really sorry.”

Eva narrowed her eyes, and her entire body tensed like a cat ready to pounce. But suddenly. whatever had snapped inside of her seemed to dissolve away, and she smiled.

“Good.” Eva proclaimed, then stood up straight and examined one end of the chisel. When Ben turned away, her voice and face softened all at once. “Ben, baby. I’m not going to hurt you. Come here. I love you, and I’m sorry I never listened. Come here.”

Ben took a hesitant step forward.

“I love you,” Eva cooed. “You’re my son, how could I forget that?” She smiled gently. “Give Mother a hug, Ben.”

Willingly, Ben came into her arms. Eva held him for a moment, running her clammy fingers through his hair and dropping a kiss on his cheek. “It’s your birthday,” she said. “How could I have forgotten? We’ll have a special dinner tonight. I love you very much, Ben.”

Eva set the table and put a whole roast chicken in the center. A salad sat next to it, along with a casserole. “Sit down,” she instructed. “Eat.”

Warily, Ben sat down. He stared in awe at the food in front of him. Eva cleared her throat, then piled his plate high. She smiled at him the entire time, her teeth glistening like sharks. Then she watched as he picked up his fork and speared a piece of chicken. He took a delicate bite.

“You have your father’s eyes,” Eva said. “Really, you’re the spitting image of him.”

When Ben didn’t reply, she shifted awkwardly in her seat. Finally, she reached under the table and pulled out an old cardboard box.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Eva opened the box to reveal a white rabbit. It was a small thing, with black eyes and matted fur. “I have a present for you. But you’ll only get it if you do me a favor.”

Ben stopped eating. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “What is it?”

“The favor?”

“No, no. The animal.”

“It’s a rabbit, Ben.” replied Eva. “It’s for you. It will… it will keep you company. And if worst comes to worst, I can have some rabbit stew.”

Ben ran his fingers across the rabbit’s fur. “He’s mine?”

“Yes. But I need a favor.”

“What favor?”

Eva smiled at her son from across the table. “Nothing much, Ben. Nothing much.”

She reached back into the same cardboard box, and drew out a needle and some thread bundled together in a clear bag. On top, she placed a knife. “I need an ear, Ben.”

Ben’s eyes widened. He reached up and tugged at his left earlobe. “Will it hurt?”

“It’ll be a small pinch,” whispered Eva. She reached forward, and cupped Ben’s cheek. The back of her cold hand was splattered in blood and distorted by scars. Ben leaned into it, his face lighting up with happiness. “Nothing compared to what your father felt. But you love me, don’t you? You love me and you trust me with your life.”

“I love you and I trust you with my life,” Ben echoed, and closed his eyes. Eva took the blade and pressed it against the top of Ben’s ear. He made a noise of protest in the back of his throat, and Eva shushed him.

“It’s okay, darling.” she said. “It’s okay. Mother would never hurt you. She loves you, remember?”

In one swift moment, Eva pressed down on the blade. Ben gasped in pain as half his ear came away. Blood gushed onto his white shirt and all over Eva’s hands. Before he could struggle, Eva hacked the rest of his ear away. “There!” she announced, and dropped the ear into the bag. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Tears pooled in the corners of Ben’s eyes, and began to stream down his face. Eva frowned. “Are you crying, Ben?”

“No.”

“If those aren’t tears, what are they?”

“I don’t… I don’t know.”

“Mother wouldn’t make you cry. She loves you.”

“I know.”

Eva began to stitch the wound shut, using thick black thread. She pulled it angrily and relentlessly, paying no attention to Ben’s gritted teeth and body tight with pain. He tugged the needle away and his mother sucked in a breath. She slapped his hand away. “It’s not done yet,” she said angrily. “Remember, I gave you a rabbit. You owe me a favor.”

His delirious mind spun in wild circles-- for a second, it was Eva stitching and then suddenly it was his father, as young as the last time Ben had ever seen him. “Benjamin,” his father said, and reached out to touch his face.

His hearing came and went. Everything hurt and everything was white-- the same snow white of his new rabbit. So despite it all, he smiled.


*****



He woke up with the sun shining on his face, and found that he was still sitting at the dining table. Eva was long gone, and there was nothing but a pool of blood to show he hadn’t been dreaming. For the first time in ten years, Ben had sat down with his mother and talked. They had been mother and son for half and hour, and Ben missed it with the rhythm of his heart.

The rabbit was on his lap. It had a little pink nose that twitched and two velvety long ears. Neither its fuzzy body or uneven eyes were perfect, and any seasoned breeder would have pointed out the obvious malnutrition and inbreeding. But Ben decided that he loved it. He picked it up and whispered, “Rabbit!”

His throat was hoarse and rough, and his head throbbed steadily. Ben reached up and touched the spot where his ear used to be. His fingers met only a desperately aching spot of blood drying over stitches.

He nearly fell off the stairs on his way to the attic, where he covered his wound with a clean white bandage. Heavily, Ben sat on his bed. He watched with dazed eyes as Rabbit hopped back and forth and sniffed at his bedsheets.

Ben thought over his deal with Eva-- a rabbit for an ear. It was a good bargain, he decided. He wouldn’t be lonely again, not for a very long time.


*****



The kitchen was empty, Ben would have to go shopping. He headed to the front door to find it boarded up, along with the windows and every other possible exit. The lab was open, and a single note lay on the operating table. Gone searching. Go play with your rabbit.

For days, Ben taught Rabbit tricks, stroked his soft fur, and whispered into his ears. At night, he listened to the strange silence echo through the empty spaces in his mother’s lab. As the days grew longer, he drank from the bathroom faucet and lay on his bed. Hunger gnawed viciously at his stomach, and kept growing thinner.

He tried to get himself to eat some of the dog food. It was old and ant infested-- his stomach rebelled and his brain wouldn’t let him even touch it. Rabbit didn’t seem particularly interested, either. Ben scoured the kitchen for anything potentially edible, and found nothing.

He found a leather belt lying around the house. Eagerly, he cut away the metal parts and boiled everything else. Both he and Rabbit chewed the soft leather for as long as they could.

Whatever Eva put on the door was nearly impossible to break. From the lab Ben found an axe that refused to break through the door, and shattered when it hit the boards on the door. Ben collapsed to the ground, starving and despairing.

If worst comes to worst, I can always have some rabbit stew.

Ben shook the thought of his head, and returned the axe to its spot on top of the freezer. “Rabbit,” he said solemnly. “I would rather die than let anyone cook you.”

Rabbit sniffed the air, and twitched his whiskers. Ben smiled, and rubbed the top of his head.

He continued his search in the back of the lab, where he found a cage of mice. They were crowded in the corner of a cheap wired cage, all skinny little things with teary ruby eyes. Ben wondered if they’d ever been fed.

He located a bag of their food behind a cooler. The label read: LABORATORY RODENT NUTRITIONAL PELLETS. PROVIDES ALL NUTRITION NECESSARY. FEED EVERY DAY. Beside the words were photos of hamsters, mice, and rats. He shook handfuls of feed into the cage, and tried some himself. It wasn’t too bad, so he stuffed his pockets full of it. Rabbit devoured as much as he could before Ben moved on.

He opened a small cooler next to the cage. The first thing his eyes landed on was a rabbit head that winked at him. Horrified, he slammed the door shut. Then, he peeked slowly back inside. Hearts. Mouse and rabbit heads. An arm. Someone’s foot. Nothing Rabbit could eat.

He moved on to a table full of test tubes. One had a little grasshopper in it, suspended in a deep blue liquid. There was a human ear growing out of its side-- Ben’s ear. Self consciously, he reached out and touched the empty space where it used to be.

The grasshopper swam in a ditzy circle, and locked eyes with Ben. Rabbit would turn his nose up at that, so he let it be. Besides, he and the grasshopper had something in common. Timidly, Ben waved at it.

The grasshopper did not wave back. The world was a disappointing place.

Next, Ben headed to the freezer Eva had lugged all the way from their old house. Unlike the equipment in the lab, it showed no signs of rust and was polished smooth.

He opened it cautiously, to find nothing but a frozen body. It was a young man, with his face frozen in a scream. Ben reached forward and wiped the flaky ice off the man’s nose and eyes.

He froze. He knew those features-- they were nearly identical to his own.

“What are you doing, Ben?”

Ben whirled around. Eva stood behind him, still holding her suitcase in one hand. Her eyes were tired, but dancing with a manic light. Her white dress shirt was dirty and caked with clumps of flesh.

“Looking for food,” he said slowly. “For Rabbit. I thought you were gone.”

“I went looking for a test subject. But everyone outside of this house-- everyone out there is garbage. I can’t use them, you know. I require a certain level of perfection.”

“Rabbit and I are hungry, Mother. Is there anything to eat?”

“Rabbit,” Eva echoed. Then she sighed. “Do you know who this is, Ben?”

Ben swallowed. “My father. He died at Niagara Falls. I thought he was buried in Korea.”

“I thought you were smarter.” Eva said quietly. “I kept the real body-- his family has one I found at the morgue and put in Jung-hoon’s coffin. I’m doing an experiment with your father. It’s a never ending one. I want to bring him back, but rewire his brain first. He loved me, you know. But he didn’t love my research, and I couldn’t have that. I couldn’t-- I still can’t.”

“Oh,” Ben breathed.

“You won’t tell anyone about this, will you?”

Ben took a step backwards. He shoved his hands into his pockets, and nervously worried his lower lip. There was some strange ambition glinting in Eva’s eyes. “I… I don’t have anyone to tell.”

Eva grinned at him. “Can I be sure of this? What about the people from the supermarket? You’ll keep this a secret from them, won’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have scientific evidence, Ben?”

Her words were harsh and expectant, yanking Ben into sudden panic. He backed up against his father’s frozen body, wrapping his arms around himself. “What do you mean? I… I… I can promise, I can…”

“I’ve found a test subject.” Eva said slowly. She reached forward and grabbed Ben by the shoulder. He struggled against her, blindly kicking and punching. Viciously, she took a fistful of his hair and pulled him towards her chest. “Ben,” she snapped. “If you scream, this will hurt more.”

Ben shut his mouth and went limp.

“Good,” Eva praised. It’s okay, Ben. It won’t last long.”

As she spoke, Rabbit pushed against her foot. He was a wide-eyed thing, well-loved and trusting. Eva’s lip curled in disgust.“And it looks like I’m having rabbit stew tonight.”



THE END


2019 Kit Ahn

Bio: Kit S. Ahn is a student residing in San Diego. She lives with her family and her dog, Cosette.

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