The Rabbit Hutch
In the 1950s, Harry Harlow performed a controversial psychological experiment in which he separated baby monkeys from their mothers and placed them in isolation for months. The effects included: mental distress, depression, aggression towards self and others, and obliteration of social instincts. Animal rights supporters’ outrage led to the criticism of solitary confinement for humans in prison — if the effects were this debilitating for monkeys trapped in a cage, how then can humans cope with the same conditions? On a larger scale, the past year (2020) has introduced large swaths of Earth’s population to governmental lockdowns due to COVID-19. Though much of the world has since reopened, we have been faced with the reality of isolation and its trade-offs when it comes to contracting COVID-19. “The Rabbit Hutch” grapples with the effects of social isolation and the desire for freedom despite what might be waiting for the narrator outside of lockdown.
Carrots. I bought too many carrots this time. I should have stocked up on tomatoes, or beans and potatoes — but no, just carrots today. I watch the delivery man, from behind the glass of my viewing area, shining hard in his black suit as he piles the boxes up high. Tinned carrots, a whole carrying box full of tinned carrots. That’s weird, he knows that’s weird. I don’t need to see his face, hidden as it is behind the elongated mask of the Key Worker, to know he thinks that’s weird.
Last month it was potatoes, and the one before that pickles. All weird, all stuff that the news says I don’t need. But I bought them anyway. Why shouldn’t I choose what I buy — it’s the last freedom I have left.
Now the regular stuff — bread and soya milk. Cereal, though a few too many boxes to be considered normal, but what can I say I really like my coco puffs. Water, bottled, and tea — my only real vice anymore. I’d been trying to quit the cigarettes when the first lockdown began, my mother had been insistent. If I was to ever get her permission to attend the uni I wanted, that was her condition — if you want to take risks with your life, let it only be one way. And honestly, I wanted that place at Oxford more than I wanted a nicotine high — at least that was what I told myself when I threw away my entire stash.
I could do this, I could quit cold turkey — and once the government had shut down the factories during the third lockdown, I really didn’t have much of a choice, on anything anymore.
‘Are you happy with your order, Owner of this Living Area,’ he doesn’t look at me, he doesn’t need to — I’ve already ticked yes on my phone. Taking his carrying boxes away, after dumping their contents in the middle of the visitor containment area, he steps out into the hallway and the door seals behind him. That’s the last time I’ll see anyone real this month.
I used to have the key to that door. I used to be able to leave whenever I wanted to — I can’t anymore.
I take my time packing the food away, it’s the only new thing I’ve seen since…since the last food delivery. Soya milk — I’m allergic to milk, so the powdered stuff is out of the question. Pasta, lots of pasta all piled up as high as I can make it. Jars of stuff I don’t even really like anymore, pickled onions and gherkins, mayonnaise, jam, marmalade, peanut butter. I even bought a jar of marmite. I’ve always hated the stuff, it was my brother who loved it — but I’ve always bought a jar of it and I can’t stop now, even though…well, it’s not like he’ll be eating it anymore.
Twenty-five jars in all, all shoved away at the back of the cupboard. I won’t be needing them anytime soon, I won’t be needing any of this crap anytime soon. No more fruit, fresh anyway, they banned that — too much risk of infection from the pickers. No veg either, same reason — same reason they banned anything. Same reason they banned the sun and going outside. Same reason I’m here inside the rabbit hutch, same reason we do anything anymore.
This month I stocked up on stock and vegetable protein powder, so that should do for most of it.
And then we come to the carrots, in the end it always comes down to the carrots. I’ve no room anymore, my cupboards are packed and there are too many tins of them this time. But never you mind that, it’s not like I’m storing them in the kitchen anyway.
I never used to bother with the work-out programs. I mean what’s the point if you’re never going to do anything? But lately it fills up the hours better than even the clicking on the screen.
Then start it all again.
Ridiculous, I never would have bothered with this…this farce of activity before, but well…maybe anything is worth a look at least once. I prefer the stepping rituals anyway, but they’re not on until Saturday and even then, only for half an hour.
Sometimes I don’t even bother sticking with the proper routines they give us to…well, in theory, keep us fit while we wait out the decade inside our homes. Most of the time I just pick a random bit of classical music and run in place till it’s finished. Today I picked Beethoven, one of the few pieces that hadn’t been banned…yet. But that hadn’t felt enough today, so here I am — lunging in place.
God I must look like an idiot, one of the very few times I’m glad that I am so entirely alone.
Now stretch, and bend, and stretch and bend.
I should switch this off. Go do something productive…but my job doesn’t start till two and well…what else is there anymore? So, I shut off those nagging voices in my head and watch the pinched-face lady in the purple leotard jump around on screen.
I follow, I obey, just as they want me to.
By the time it ends I want to say that I don’t feel tired or weak. That I don’t kneel down panting and gasping on the floor, but who’s here to tell that pile of trash to? I fall and I pant, and I try to pretend the reek of my own sweat doesn’t make me sick.
I don’t know why I even bother washing it off, it’s not like anyone is ever here to complain.
When I was a kid my parents had jobs, real jobs, real work. My old dad worked at a construction site…I think…or maybe it was a factory job, I can’t really remember anymore. He had to leave the house for it, I remember that at least. My Mam designed websites for a living, she stayed home and worked on her computer. An idiot would say I do the same thing, but that’s like comparing painting something to staring at the wall wating for something that doesn’t exist anymore to dry.
I work on my computer, just like everyone else in this plague-fucked world of ours. I answer quizzes on my computer, polls and gouges that the old government wants us to answer. Just yes or no really but sometimes, I sit in front of that blinking computer screen and think how funny it would be if I could answer something else instead.
How much exercise do you do in a day? Too little or Too much.
Not much that they need to know about.
What is your favourite kind of surprise? Mandated or voluntary?
The one’s that never happen. The last surprise I got was the lockdown and that’s lasted thirty years so far.
Do you rely too much on tinned food?
No, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever eaten it.
Masks are a vital component for the UK’s survival strategy? Yes or No.
It depends what you mean by survival strategy? If you mean to keep us good and scared in our boxes than yeah why not. You’re supposed to wear those thin plastic strips of nothing all day, they’ve even started making sleep masks for the busy person at night. What busy person, you killed them all.
I never wear a mask, no one ever sees me — so why should I? The only time I even pretend to is when they bring me my tins. I don’t care if there are molecules in the air that could get me sick, sometimes I think I want to die. I want to keel over and stop moving. Because why go on living if this is all there is.
In my dream, my nightmare and my fantasy I say that — but in real life I’m not brave enough for that. So, I just tell them what I know they want to hear. I’m a monotonous drone, and for my dancing shoes’ sake that’s how they should always see me.
And that’s how the story goes.
There’s a ding when I reach the last question and a little whizzing sound, which means the money from the government has gone into my private bank account. Basically, the only thing that is private anymore. A hundred pounds for seven days of answering their mind-numbing, dumb questions. And tomorrow I’ll start all over again — maybe I’d make quicker money if I sat in front of this computer for longer but I can’t bear it anymore. My chest feels tight, and my breathing can’t slow and I feel all dizzy and flushed.
Must have been something I ate, oh wait I haven’t eaten today…maybe that’s it.
Pasta, god I love pasta. I remember my mother made the best pasta on the whole street. Homemade, she made the thing herself and then her sauce oh my…whatever. We don’t get homemade sauce anymore; we could try but the ingredients would be just too expensive. Tomato puree has been banned ever since it killed that one guy in high office, or at least he choked to death while eating something that was made out of it, so same difference. I could have tried tinned tomato but no, no those are too important…for other things.
But tuna’s fine.
It’s bland and it’s slimy but…for a last meal, it’s fine enough.
I’m not really that hungry anyway, I only make myself finish the whole plate just because…well…you know. Best to keep the strength up.
Twenty bites with each mouthful.
After my tenth year stuck in lockdown, I started playing games with myself. How many bites can I take before the thing just dissolves in my mouth? How many steps to the kitchen? How many steps from there to my bedroom? How many jumping jacks can I do until I pass out? A hundred, that’s the answer, always a hundred and then I hit the floor. A bunch of crap like that, I was never a reader…and anyway they started banning books soon after I started playing my games with myself. Now it’s twenty years later and what can I say, I’ve grown bored with those games. Bored of the shows on the telly. The news they pump in between, I’m even bored of looking at my own face.
Bored of life. Bored even of the thought of killing myself. I started imaging it…what was it? A decade ago, now, I had just turned thirty-seven, I think. I remember I was holding a knife, making a honey and cheese sandwich, when the thought popped into my head that I could just run that knife over my wrists and it would all be over.
No more money.
No more treadmill.
No more counting steps.
No more hutch.
I think it really dawned on me then that this was never going to end. I was going to remain in this small, sterile, four room hutch until the day I keeled over and died. So why not speed up the process? I remember I even brought myself to cut the skin, but I couldn’t go through with the rest.
I planned other scenarios though.
In my head, I could never risk looking them up online…they monitor us on there too thoroughly now and I wanted my death at least to be entirely private. Enterally of my own making. I could take too many of the sleeping pills they prescribe us at night. But no, the bottle is automated and only lets me take a few at a time. I could store them, but I’m not sure I could bear the sleepless nights leading up to the great overdose.
I could drown myself in the bathtub, a thought that occurs to me every single night I lie in it. It’s too shallow, the house always runs it for me too shallow. I could request a deeper bath of course, but then it would need to know why and I don’t know, can I really lie to a machine? Would it be easy to do? I’ve never had the guts to try before and now, I’ve no time to do it anyway.
No time to do anything at all.
I think long ago, before they locked us up — before the separation of the family unit, I used to love to dance. I don’t know why anymore, I guess it made me feel whole. As if when I was standing still, or sitting down at a desk there was part of me missing, part of me squashed behind the order, and it was the right thing to do.
Now there is no right thing to do.
Now there is nothing to do at all.
So, when my automatised clock strikes twelve past three again — I dig out my old tap shoes, that hardly fit me anymore and I dance. I dance because, why not? Who’s going to look? Who’s going to snigger at the freak who misses his ques, or can’t turn on a beat.
Tap. Heel. Toe. Tap.
Click, click, click, goes the hollow wooden floor and we’re all dancing. No one here but us rabbits in the hutch and we’re all just dancing.
I twirl and I spin — though I don’t think that was part of any of the old tapping routines I learned when I was a nipper.
Shuffle, step. Shuffle, step. Tap to the music of the old dead composer and never look back. When the urge to kill myself, a thought I let myself indulge in most of the live-long day grew too much for me to chew or think or breathe anything else, I came here. This was supposed to be my bedroom, there used to a bed in here too. A king-size extra comfy foam bed, but I got rid of that. Don’t ask me how, you won’t understand. I got rid of the dresser too and moved the desk into the TV area. It’s easier to work with it if I have something blaring on in the background anyway. I ripped up the carpet and rolled up the rug and now there’s just floorboards. Shiny and hollow, with such good acoustics for my tapping.
Heel, toe, heel, toe — step shuffle and splits…on second thought, no maybe I won’t do that. I injured myself last time I did that and I need to keep in full working order for tonight.
Don’t ask, I can’t tell you — gotta show when the right time comes.
Dinner is bland and boring. But then it’s always that so why am I complaining? It’s good to have a nice warm meal — probably the last I’ll ever have, if I’m to be entirely honest with myself. So, for that fact alone, I try to make myself like it, but that reasoning didn’t work the tenth year I’d been stuck in this small, four-roomed box, why should it work on the thirtieth?
Four rooms to start out.
Just a kitchen, with a visitor alcove for the delivery man.
A bathroom that no longer lets my water burn me anymore.
A TV room.
And a bedroom that I turned into a dance studio. At least on paper I did anyway. I got rid of my bed down below, so when I get too tired to stand, I usually go sleep on the sofa in the TV room. Or if my back is aching and I’m feeling a wee bit more adventurous, I go and sleep on a thin cushion in my dance studio.
It sounds a lot sadder than it actually is. If I lie real still and press my ear down to the floor, I can hear all the other rabbits below me running around in their burrow. But that was last night, and tonight…tonight I’m not just going to lie on the floor and do nothing. I’m going down to join them, and nothing not even the ticking of the clock or the buzzing on the TV is gonna stop me this time.
I wait till a quarter past two at night. All the lights have gone off in the bathroom, finally, and the TV has been dead for hours. The kitchen is too far away to really matter but I wanted to make sure, so I didn’t go through to my dance room till half past one. The lights will be on again at a little before five and then everything, every camera, every bulb will be awake. Except the nighttime cameras of course, but thanks to a glitch in the inner clock of the apartment those are only on for an hour each night.
I don’t have much time.
I fling my cold blanket off and slide onto my belly. From there I scuttle towards the old crooked floorboard. I’ve stayed awake so long these last few nights, just staring at it, memorising its split and its curve that I don’t even hesitate when I reach it. I latch my fingers around where the split in the wood is and pull. A quick popping sound and the thing comes away.
Once that board’s gone then come the others, until I’m sitting at the edge of a hole in the floor, and all I have to do is fall down and I’ll be free.
I don’t fall for long thanks to whoever put my old foam mattress under the hole. I lie there and breathe — feeling that soft material under my back for the first time since I put it down here is like heaven. That place in those old fairy stories my mother used to tell me, the ones she heard from the old man in the black dress.
But I can’t do this forever. I have to stand up. Thankfully I’m not a short man or reaching the lip of the hole in the floor would be extremely difficult. I reach over its side and grab the planks of wood I ripped away so cleanly. They have to be put back in place, over my head this time.
I expected them to make a clicking noise, something solid and provable that I wasn’t ruining everything. That I wouldn’t die when someone, maybe the delivery man, or whomever they sent to check on me when I didn’t show up on any of the cameras in my home, fell through the floor because I hadn’t put the planks back right. But there’s nothing like that, I just fall into complete blackness instead of bathed in the blinking lights on my wall.
That lack of light falls somewhere between terrifying and almost comforting — they’ve never let us have that before, but I don’t dare stop to appreciate it. There’s just no time anymore. I fall to my bottom again, and roll off the mattress and into my pile of canned carrots.
They fall on me, but I don’t care — I’m so close now.
Just behind the cans is two switches, one for the light and the other, well the other is to call them. All those feet I listened to at night, while they were running through this burrow carrying off my tins.
And here come the rabbits.
I don’t look at their faces. I don’t let myself feel the creeping joy that their mere presence invokes within me. We’re not done yet; we’ve still got to pile the carrots into their shopping carts.
Alright, I’ll admit it, I might have gone a bit over board with the carrots this month, but what can I say…I was excited.
Now pick up the mattress, and lift it into one of the flat carts and off, off we go. Away down the tunnel that runs underneath my block of hutches. I’d never realised before when I heard them thump, thump, thumping on my bedroom floor how lucky I really was. I lived on the ground floor, not high up in the air where no one of moral virtue could reach me.
On and on we go and with each step we take, I can breathe all the better. I can think, I can imagine, and I can even begin to hope.
Because, as I step out for the first time since I was seventeen, I feel the sun on my face — I realise that I’m not a rabbit. Not a caged animal anymore.
I’m just me.
I’m just Peter.
I think I’ll stop thinking now, stop talking to you.
Because you don’t need to see the light at the end of the burrow to know it’s coming.
You lucky bastard.
Charlotte Burnett is a 25-year-old, Dyslexic, High-functioning Autistic woman who lives in Scotland. She has previously had short stories published at literary journals such as the Write Launch and Coffin Bell. She is currently studying for an Open Degree focusing on Psychology and Creative Writing with the Open University.