The Perfect Prey by Rachael Cudlitz

The rabbit looks bored. From the dusty back window, I see its soft shape pulled into a  tight, hunched ball, furry feet poking through the wire grid at the bottom of the hutch,  comfortable, content, bored. Staring blindly through the metal screen, machining thin strips of  dried, sweet alfalfa into its mouth — with no clue to how the next ten minutes are going to shake out — this rabbit is the perfect prey.  

Grabbing the knife Emmet left on the window sill in the laundry room, I push open the  screen door and walk to the back, the knife heavy and balanced in my hand. Stepping  through grass thick with dew, my shoes soon soak with water squelching through my socks,  between my toes, under my heels. It’s a rookie mistake — should’ve worn flip flops. Then I’d just have to hose the blood off my bare feet.  

It’s been a while since I was the one marching out here to grab dinner, usually Emmet did  it. Said it was a man’s job. I’m out of practice. He isn’t here. I am. And dammit, I’m hungry. 

He said he was gonna be home three days ago.  

“Just a quick trip, Jess. Gotta see if Pete followed through.” 

Followed through with what he didn’t say. Just patted me on the cheek and walked out  the door. I should’ve known things were gonna sour the second I saw he’d left his knife behind.  Showed he wasn’t paying attention, his mind on other things. Taking off to go see Pete was a risky proposition, even if you had your wits in line. The man was unpredictable, rash,  thoughtless — heartless too. But Emmet, starry eyed, desperate to prove he was a better man and  worth my time, couldn’t be satisfied with our lives as they sat. He needed Pete and his promises  of easy money. No matter the risk or the cost.  

The first night I climbed into bed alone, I knew Emmet wasn’t coming back. Knew  whatever fortune Pete promised was exactly the kind my husband deserved: fool’s gold. But one  night gone does not a missing person make. So, patiently I wait, go about my day to day, and  pretend he’s coming home.  

I walk up to the cage. The rabbit stops chewing, glasses its eyes, pulls tighter into itself  and holds onto its breathing — trying to be invisible. It’s a brilliant tactic, going still, willing  yourself to become shadow, trick the predator’s eye and cheat death. Of  course, it only works if the circumstances are right. I flip the latch on the door, the rabbit  grunts and crams itself into the corner.  

“You got nowhere to run,” I say

Pete probably said the same thing to Emmet. Stood still, flipped a weapon in his hand, as I am doing now, while Emmet took wasted steps away, hands in the air fending off death like it was nothing but a shadow. Right now, I should be heading out to the Sheriff, let him know 

Emmet’s gone missing and Pete had something to do with it. Not that the Sheriff would give a  shit. He’d probably thank me for the good news and ask to buy me a beer. Bad ends for a bad  man, he’d say. Then he’d pat my ass because now I’m free, tell me I knew where he was if I needed  comfort. Asshole. 

My best bet is to act the good wife and do the circuit. Check Roadside, learn the last time  Emmet was in, visit the boys up at the foundry, check in with his boss at the processing plant, see  if anybody’d heard anything. Last stop would be his mamma’s. The woman is a viper and hates  my guts, but better to sic her on Pete, than the law. If she knew her baby boy’d gone missing,  she’d shake down the whole county ’til the last of his pieces came home.  

I reach into the hutch and grab the rabbit by the back of the neck. It cries out like a baby  pig — high and desperate. Rabbits aren’t like cats, they don’t go still when you scruff ‘em. They  know they’ve got one chance and kick their hind legs out, trying to get away. The claws are  sharp and dirty with piss — you get scratched and it’s guaranteed to fester. You gotta be steady,  be fast, or you’ll drop that thing and the rabbit’s won.  

Before my daddy took off for the last time, he showed me how to do all the killing.  “Jessica, your mamma don’t have the constitution to come out here and do what needs  doin’. But you? Naw, you’re more like me,” he’d said. “You’ll be fine.”  

I was eight and he was right — I was fine. The day he taught me, I stood a good ten steps  away while he pulled a rabbit out of the hutch, faced those strong feet away from him, and then  with a shush and a gentleness belying his intent, he clutched the warm, soft body against his  chest like you’d do a wailing baby. Once the rabbit calmed, he called me over and handed it to  me. 

“Here, take it. Hold tight, make it feel safe. That’s it. Now bring’er here on the block.  Don’t you worry it won’t hop off.” 

He placed his rough hand over mine and we moved as one to the rabbit’s shoulders, its  heart fluttering like a bird under our grip, and together we slowly pressed the animal to the wood.  Then he pulled the buck knife from the leather sheath on his hip and handed it to me. The handle  was a deer antler worn smooth by time and my daddy’s grip. It was heavier than I thought and  my palm was slick with sweat, it nearly slipped through my fingers.  

“Face that mean edge away.” His voice whispered into the curls of my hair and his breath  was sour with coffee. “If it jumps, you don’t want the business end of the blade kicking back on  you. Tip goes here, where the head and neck meet. Good girl. One quick shove and that’s it.”  

My father was a compassionate killer. Killing was a necessity not a thrill, and he always  took the animals when they were calm, making it quick. He never went straight for the throat.  Said that kind of brutality was without honor — bloodletting came later. 

I pull the rabbit from the cage, clutch it to my chest, and carry it to the block. My daddy  had lots of faults — the biggest being vaporizing into thin air — but in the business of killing he  did right by me. Emmet’s daddy liked to wring necks. It took me forever to break my feckless  husband of the habit. And even once he knew how I liked things done, after I showed him the  ease and kindness found at the tip of my blade, sometimes, when he thought I wasn’t looking,  Emmet would pick up a rabbit by the ears or a chicken by the neck and swing it in circles over  his head like a grade school cowboy. Reveling in the death, as if in the act of taking a life Emmet  had the power to save his own. 

He was impulsive and ambitious, foolish beyond measure, traits which explained his  moth-like attraction to the likes of Pete Symanski, another neck wringer and a man who ran in  the darker trades of our town like a shark. A man who fascinated my husband with promises of  easy money in defiance of the law and Uncle Sam. And a man who anyone with a lick of sense  would stay clear of, even if it was the end of days, and Pete captained the only ark.  

Placing the rabbit on the wood block and pressing lightly on its back, I think of laying  with Emmet just days before, as I once again I feel the flutter of another’s heart in the palm of  my hand. Slowly circling my thumb in the soft space between the eyes, humming notes from a  lullaby, I give the animal this time to settle. Time to not fear me. There is no need to rush once  we are staged for the inevitable.  

I know if I ever have children, I’ll make sure to teach ‘em that little trick — an added  touch of grace in the family business of killing. One more thing to take the fear away, one more  thing to make this okay. It’s a gesture I’m sure Pete never afforded anybody, especially someone  like my husband. And I imagine instead of being soothed and comforted at the moment of his  death, Emmet spent his last minutes desperately clawing at the ground, screaming into the abyss,  knowing he was done for.  

“Just a quick trip, Jess,” he’d said. “Gotta see if Pete followed through.”  

I gently pin the rabbit to the block and thrust my knife into its brain. Then I tie it upside down from the hook on the old metal clothesline and slit my dinner’s throat. Standing away from  the stream of blood, careful to keep my sneakers clean, I watch the rabbit bleed dry. A shallow  red puddle pools and then flows toward my feet, and I wonder — how much blood spills from a  man? And how far away must I stand to stay clear of it? 

Watching the rabbit dangle and spin on the cord, fur bristling against the wind, I hear my  father whispering once again in my ear: Take it. Hold it. Make it feel safe. Suddenly I know I  won’t check with the boys at the foundry or Emmet’s boss. I won’t call the Sheriff or Emmet’s  mamma. Instead I’ll strip the carcass, scrape the skin, fry up the meat and eat. Then, once fed,  and perhaps without grace or kindness, I will be a good wife and the killer my father trained me  to be. I’ll track Pete down myself.  

There is no need to rush. We are staged for the inevitable. The dead can always wait.