When we get nervous we turn into white rabbits. We get put into a white room.
Sometimes it doesn’t happen all at once. I can tell I’m getting nervous when whiskers poke out on my cheeks, when my ears stretch-grow under my hair, pointing upward and swiveling like radio antennae. I know it’s happening when I can hear pencils sharpening three classrooms over, when I can smell the cafeteria on the first floor of the school frying bacon on the burners. But usually it starts in my heart. For me it does. It’s a spilling of rice grains, or a necklace of firecrackers, or my heart is full of mousetraps – that’s what it feels like.
Sometimes it does happen all at once – one moment I don’t understand who Ulysses S. Grant is, and I see the word TEST on the whiteboard, and I write in my assignment notebook in red bubble letters over and over and then poof, I’m a white rabbit with a red pen clenched in my teeth, and I’m seeing the world out the sides of my head.
I say “we turn into white rabbits” because it happens to a lot of us here. The School for Gifted and Nervous White Rabbits. When you graduate, you’re supposed to have mastered it – you’re supposed to have gripped your kicking, squirming heart and held it shut like a compact. Your heart is supposed to be solid as a turtle shell – with the soft thing hidden within. If you can’t control it, you don’t graduate. You can’t leave until you’ve gone years without turning into white rabbits.
The thing about the white room is: it’s awful. It’s designed to dissuade you from using your power. The power to turn into white rabbits. In the white room you panic. You don’t know how many other white rabbits are in there, but it feels like the walls are all muzzles, and behind the muzzles are teeth. I have teeth too and I use them, running buckeyed and brainless through the room, teeth barred, a foam of white fur in my mouth. The floor is soft with the fur of white rabbits. Sometimes we’re shedding and sometimes we’re tearing into or torn. The walls are white-rabbit white, the ceiling is a rectangle of sun, so blinding there are no shadows. There is nowhere to hide.
I feel like I will never graduate. Sometimes I turn into not just one white rabbit, but many. The more nervous I am, the more white rabbits I turn into. I slide down the hallways, scatter through doorways, trying to escape the white room but they catch me, all of me, white-gloved and white-suited in this hallway of mirrors and glass.
Once in the white room, I close my eyes. You’re not supposed to do this as a rabbit – it’s very dangerous as a rabbit to close all 3 of your eyelids, to pull the wooly one down. We learn about all this in school. We learn about our rabbit teeth growing into painful points, about the sensitive pads of our feet, about how we are poor swimmers and territorial lovers – all the things we learn to dissuade us from becoming white rabbits. I am trying. I have been told to breathe and so I am trying it: breathing. I am trying to picture the ocean, trying to feel like I will not be a failure forever, even though I cannot picture what that looks like. I imagine foam. I imagine a seagull scooping me up. I try to picture being buried underground, my fur decomposing, my little white bones. I try picturing how quiet it is down there with the tree roots.
This is the only way I know how to not turn into white rabbits. I think of my little white bones and I think of the roots of plants and the soundlessness of earthworms and of a place without teeth. I close my eyes and I stop my feet from running and I think: one day I’ll be bones. Even if I’m always white rabbits, even if I learn to control it: I will end up bones. I’m okay with ending up bones.
My sister doesn’t turn to white rabbits. My sister turns to lions. My sister turns to lions and sometimes my sister, she eats white rabbits. She has promised to never eat me, that she would recognize me by my smell, that she knows the difference between my white rabbits and the white rabbits she likes to eat.
She goes to a different school, of course, The School for Gifted and Angry Lions, but she is the type of student who scales fences in a single bound. She is the type of student who causes mischief and vandalism, or that’s what her school calls it when we are missing white rabbits, when our attendance steeply drops in the night.
In between our schools is jungle. In the jungle is where the wild children live.
We can hear them through our windows. It isn’t safe out there. The wild children turn to animals and never turn back. They don’t want to go to school. They don’t want to turn back.
In the jungle, the boys turn into snakes. The girls turn like a wish into thorns, into thistle, into a Venus flytrap. The boys turn into vultures and the girls turn into cats, narrow and yellow-eyed. Don’t go into the jungle they tell us at the School for Gifted and Nervous Rabbits. GO INTO THE JUNGLE they bellow and stomp at lion basketball games, lion football games, lion pep rallies. At the School for Gifted and Nervous Rabbits, we play Scrabble pretty competitively. We learn printmaking. We iron. We have salad-tossing competitions where the whole school goes mad.
One night a lion appears in my room. I had been running around as white rabbits because, see, the thing about me is I don’t just turn into rabbits when I’m nervous. I turn into rabbits when I’m giddy. I had been racing around my bedroom carpet at top speed, so quickly I charged up with static. When a lion appears through the window weeping, when a lion I know is my sister, even though I try to calm down and use all the techniques, I’m still a rabbit, and when our noses touch I shock her.
Is it weird seeing a weeping lion. My sister is only supposed to turn to lions when she gets angry. I never get angry, and so I never turn to lions. Maybe you’re supposed to turn to slugs when you get sad, but this is no slug. This is a lion with tears round as pearls, this is a lion with long cry-lines flattening the folds in her mane. She has a mane like a male lion, and it is as orange-gold as a canyon. I reach my rabbit paw up to her eyes. I have to do this side-ways so I can see her, sideways, so I know if her jaw is going to clench around my neck. I’m nervous, so I guess I’m white rabbits. I lift a paw, pet her cheek.
What’s wrong, Lion? I ask.
Rabbit, she says, I hate myself.
You hate yourself?
I hate myself, says the lion turning to more lions. She says, I can’t do anything right. I’m always lions. I’m always angry.
My rabbit legs are shaking. There are at least four lions in the room, circling me. I focus on the first one, the one that’s right in front of me. You are a great lion, I say.
You think I’m going to eat you. My own sister thinks I’m going to eat her.
I think everyone’s going to eat me, I say. I’m always scared.
She says, I’m always angry.
I say, I love that you are angry. I wish I were like you.
She picks me up in her lion jaws, her jowls wet with tears. She picks me up by my torso, so she can feel that rattle-can heart of mine, the little self-detonator I keep in my chest. Went she jumps from the window, the rest of her lions scatter.
She carries us to the jungle between our two schools. With one paw, she digs me a burrow. She drops me down and I bound into it, digging hard to make it longer, wider, deeper, closer to the roots of the earth.
Melissa Goodrich is the author of Daughters of Monsters (Jellyfish Highway Press). This story was written in collaboration with Dana Diehl’s “The Boy Who Turns to Toads,” which you can read at Necessary Fiction now. Melissa’s stories have appeared in Passages North, Gigantic Sequins, PANK, Artful Dodge, The Kenyon Review Online, American Short Fiction, and others. Find more at melissa-goodrich.com.