Here is my May instalment for the 12 Short Stories Challenge website. Word count this month is 1200 words and the prompt is ‘distinctive markings’. This story was inspired in part by the recent publication of the book The Tattooist of Auschwitz by New Zealand author Heather Morris.
Each morning before school, Max likes to hold Oscar round his rib cage and feel his heart beating against his hand. He feeds him his breakfast of carrots and lettuce leaves before putting his school uniform on, having learned that rabbits are pooing machines.
Max also likes to nuzzle up to Oscar’s face, touch his wet nose, and smell his straw-like scent, despite his mother Janet’s protest: ‘careful, he might bite if you get too close.’ Rolling his eyes, Max counts on his fingers how many months it’s now been since Oscar joined the family: on Max’s tenth Birthday eight months ago. And Oscar hasn’t bitten him yet.
When he’s at school Max often wonders what Oscar is doing back at home in his hutch in the laundry. Does he think of anything? Does he get bored? Has Mum remembered to check in on him? Fortunately Janet works from home, so Oscar doesn’t get lonely.
After school Max races home to let Oscar out for his exercise. At the same time, he talks to him about his day. He’s always amazed at how little he looks on the lawn, compared to when he is in his hutch in the laundry, which takes up almost the entire floor. There is just enough space left for access to the sink and washing machine.
Tuesday 13 June is Pet Day at school. Max has been looking forward to it for a while. He has never had a pet before Oscar. Janet refused to get one for him until he was old enough to look after it. ‘I’ve got too much to do already with my business, keeping an eye on Grandpa, and your Dad being away so much.’
Of course, Max didn’t really understand what was involved with caring for a pet until Oscar came home. He didn’t want a dog as he would have to walk it. And he was allergic to cats. Cleaning out the cage and ensuring there’s enough fresh hay, food and water is certainly enough responsibility for this 10-year-old kid who would rather be kicking a ball around the backyard or playing on his PlayStation.
Oscar has proven to be good company and a great sounding board for Max’s problems at school. Lately Max has been sharing his interest in the new girl in the class, Sophie. She is from Krakow in Poland. Mrs. Bainbridge the teacher put her next to him so that he could help her settle in.
Max looks up Google maps to see where Krakow is located when he gets home on Sophie’s first day. He thinks she is really pretty, but she doesn’t say much.
By the end of Sophie’s first week at school, Max is starting to worry about her being alone in the playground at lunchtime. He seeks counsel from Oscar, who twitches in reply.
‘Yep, you’re right. I need to do this.’
On the following Monday, Max tells his friends: ‘I’m not playing handball today, I’m going to go and talk to Sophie about Poland.’
‘Whatever. Go and see your girlfriend then,’ says Hamish with a smirk.
‘Don’t be silly. It’s not like that.’ The boys walk off; Max’s response goes unheard.
Sophie is studying her phone when Max approaches. When he is close she looks up. He notices that she has beautiful long lashes, just like Oscar. And almost the same colour brown eyes.
She moves along the bench a bit to make room.
Max is speechless all of a sudden, which is not like him. Usually he has a lot to say, according to his teacher. He then remembers his Dad commenting once that most people like to talk about pets.
‘I’ve got a rabbit called Oscar. He is grey all over except for his black ears, and a patch of white on his nose. I picked him as he kept looking at me from his big brown eyes. I could hear him saying: take me home.’
Sophie laughs. ‘Rabbits don’t talk. I have a cat.’
‘Oh. I’m allergic to cats.’
They both look at the ground in silence. Max can hear the familiar voices of his friends yelling to each other at the handball court. They seem far away.
He shuffles his feet. Their silence is broken by the school bell. They both get up.
Sophie looks up at him sheepishly. ‘I would really like to meet your rabbit one day.’
Max is lost for words again. Then finally announces as they walk into the classroom:
‘I’m bringing Oscar for Pet Day on Friday. You can meet him then. Are you bringing your cat?’
‘No. She’s still in quarantine for another week.’ There is sadness in her voice.
‘Oh. You must miss her. What is her name?’
‘Aniol. In English that means Angel. She is white all over, like an angel. And has blue eyes. One is darker than the other.’
‘Oh.’ Max is annoyed at himself for saying oh so much.
Pet Day goes fairly smoothly, though Max is worried that so many people want to hold Oscar. He’s not sure that his rabbit can cope with all the attention. He poos quite a few pellets when Mrs. Davis from the canteen holds him. Max thinks it’s her loud booming voice.
When it’s his turn to talk about caring for a rabbit he finds himself blushing. Sophie is sitting in the front row of the auditorium staring straight at him, not unlike Oscar when they first met, he realises later at the debrief on the back lawn at home.
On 1st July it is Grandparents’ Day. That morning Max’s dad Patrick comments: ‘there are so many activities on the school calendar it’s hard to keep up. Do you get any work done?’ He is grinning as he says it.
Max’s Grandpa is too frail to come to school; he’s getting over the ‘flu. Sophie’s mum brings Sophie’s grandfather in. He shows Max his markings from Auschwitz. He was 13 when they tattoed him with a number. He is now 87. The tattoo is very faded. Max has to look close. He can just make out the sequence: 98288. The old man’s skin is very wrinkled. He has a beautiful smile that makes Max want to smile back. Sophie says ‘his name is Jakub and he doesn’t speak much English. He came to Australia with us to live. I am named after his sister Sofia who died in the death camp when she was 15.’
As Max looks into this man’s rheumy eyes holding his granddaughter’s hand, he tries to imagine the horror he has seen when he was a few years older than him. He has been looking up Auschwitz and death camps on the internet, ever since Sophie mentioned the connection at lunchtime one day.
Max is lost for words again. Sophie squeezes his hand with her free one. ‘It’s ok.’
She kisses her grandpa on the forehead. ‘My mother says you can come over on the weekend to meet my cat. We will both remind you not to get too close.’
‘Oh’ is all he can muster for now.