Loneliness Can Be a Forest
When Preston opened the zipper to the tent, all he found was Caleb’s rabbit and an empty backpack. He wanted to find more—he wanted his son and tears and the comfort of packing up. Preston sat cross-legged in the middle of the tent, zipping the flap closed so the rabbit couldn’t escape. He sat and breathed in the warm plastic air and the musk of the animal.
When he first saw the tent, just past the thick maples that followed him from the edge of the house, he thought of how tired Caleb must be. The location was hours away from the back yard, and at the top of a significant slope. It was a good spot for camping, which Preston was not unhappy to be proud of. His son had found a good spot to camp, and that was something he’d tell Caleb after he yelled at him and took him home in silence. After Caleb cried and Preston yelled at him, he’d let his son know what a good place he had set up the tent; in the break between the forest, at the top of a hill.
Before he opened the flap to see the rabbit and backpack, he called for his son. He didn’t say his name as a question, because it couldn’t be a question—it was a statement. Caleb would be inside the tent and he’d be sore and tired. But he wasn’t in the tent, so Preston sat down in the middle of it and thought about his son coming to this spot sometime the night before. How he probably kept the rabbit in the backpack as he set up the tent in blackness. How he ignored the scratching coming out of the backpack until he was finished and could let his pet go free inside.
During that time—when Caleb left their home for the forest—Preston was out at a bar. He had a date, which was rare enough to allow the justification of leaving his ten-year-old son alone in the house. He checked to make sure Caleb was asleep and the door was locked. Preston got in his car and thought about his son sleeping alone in the house before breathing out the parent’s guilt and driving into town. He told himself it was too late to call a babysitter. He whispered to himself that he’d only be gone for a few hours.
When he woke up the next morning in his date’s bed, he made the right kind of excuses to leave. He made excuses that didn’t sound like he was imagining his son waking up to an empty house, which was hard to explain without sounding like he was horrible.
When Preston got home, he waited for his son to jump down the stairs. He walked into his son’s room when that didn’t happen. Preston went to the backyard, where he saw the rabbit cage was open and empty.
He walked into the woods on a hunch. He walked into the woods because his wife would have told him to walk into the woods. She would tell him, if he called her, that she was talking to the lawyer about custody changes. So he didn’t call her. Instead he went into the woods and found the nearly empty tent.
Sitting in the tent, watching the rabbit hop closer to him with some sort of familiarity, Preston pushed his fingers into the earth beneath the thin material that made up the floor. He felt the plastic stretch with his fingers into the clayish ground, tearing from his fingernails as he pushed as hard as possible. He felt the wetness of the covered dirt. He felt the coolness of the earth. Preston thought about his son sleeping on the backpack—maybe pulling the bunny in for warmth.
The tent was an impulse buy the first weekend he had his son back. He picked Caleb up from his mother’s house and drove him to Walmart for all the candy and snacks he wasn’t allowed to have at home. When they walked through the camping aisle, he threw it into the cart with a broad smile. Caleb smiled, too—at the unexpectedness of it, maybe. Preston never thought of buying a tent for his son, but after seeing his mother stare him down from the front porch, Preston felt like it was a necessity. He grabbed one that could fit them both inside, gray and blue panels with a built-in rain fly. He thought about buying a lantern flashlight, too, but they both got so excited by the idea of the tent that he pushed his cart to the front of the store to check out.
The tent was easy to set up, and Caleb had it almost complete by the time Preston got back to the living room. He wanted to watch movies from inside of it, so Preston moved the TV to the floor and filled the tent with blankets and pillows. They made it halfway through Superman before Caleb fell asleep. Preston couldn’t remember seeing the credits the next morning when he woke up with a sore back.
Now back in the tent a week later, he wondered if it kept the frost off of his son, how much heat it trapped. He unzipped the flap to get back outside, zipping it up enough to keep the rabbit in. The pet didn’t move once he stepped out, and it didn’t move when Preston walked around the tent pulling grass to throw back in through the flap in case his son forgot to feed it.
Preston called for his son then, loud and drawn between the C and the B in his name. He called for him in each direction and thought he’d look like he was chanting part of a ceremony. He did it again when he heard nothing but the rabbit moving around.
Before leaving the tent, Preston took his driver’s license from his wallet and stuck it into the ground in front of the entrance. He turned away from the tent and walked into the woods. He assumed he could make widening circles around the tent and eventually find his son, who was probably somewhere close by, goofing off in the woods. That’s where he would find him, he knew it. He had to.
Preston walked into the woods far enough that the tent was just out of sight, and turned right to walk a distance. He thought about his date last night and how his son must have been angry when he woke up to find a note from his father. He walked and thought of the woman’s lips and how much his ex-wife would make a big deal out of all of it, which was right to do. He remembered to look for signs of his son in the dirt and broken branches. He wondered if Caleb thought to bring any food with him.
When he made a second turn right and began walking, Preston came across a broken sapling. He kneeled at it because that’s what people do in movies when they find something like that in the woods. He looked around it for snagged clothing or blood or anything, but it was just a broken sapling that pointed away from the way he was walking, so he turned to follow it. He called out for Caleb again.
The forest was thick and shielded from sunlight. He felt cold stealing its way into his skin despite it being June. Preston’s shoes were wet; he felt his socks getting damp. He tried to look past the trees in front of him, but the leaves were just coming in and walls of green blocked him from looking further than a few feet. The forest was quiet and lonely, he felt like he was interrupting something, which made him quiet despite knowing he should be as loud as possible for his son.
When he heard the scream—high-pitched and horrifying—he didn’t immediately think of his child, which later confused him. He thought of the rabbit, of course, because that’s what rabbits sound like. They sound like babies might, hitting the part of the human eardrum that makes them freeze and expect the worst is happening. He broke from his set pattern and ran directly towards the scream, assuming it was the rabbit in the tent, assuming it involved his boy.
It took more time than he expected. The rabbit’s scream only happened once more when he was running through the forest, and the second scream was much shorter. When he reached the tent, he was on the opposite side of the front flap. He ran around the tent to find the flap was opened. There was only a little blood inside, maybe as much as could fit in a shot glass. There was fur pulled out and left near the backpack.
He kneeled in front of the flap to pick up his driver’s license. He looked inside. He saw a dirty outline of a paw, maybe a fox’s, on the floor of the tent.
“That’s what happens out here,” Preston heard himself saying. He said it like he would to his son when he had to explain the rabbit was dead. He said it like he would to the police that he’d call when he got home, or to his ex-wife.
“That’s what happens out here.”
MATTHEW KABIK’s work has appeared in WhiskeyPaper, Pithead Chapel, and Structo Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @mlkabik or visit his website to get a full list of publications: www.matchstickcircus.com.