by Caroline M. Yoachim
The second week of kindergarten, Mimi came home with a rabbit. Despite numerous mentions of the Temporary Friends project in the parent newsletter, I wasn’t prepared to see my five-year-old girl cuddling a honey-colored fluffball that was genetically engineered to have fatally high cholesterol and die of a heart attack later in the school year.
“I named him Mr. Flufferbottom.” Mimi told me. I glared at Great-Grandpa John, who’d been watching her while I finished up my shift at the clinic. He shrugged. My gruff maternal grandfather wasn’t my first choice of babysitter, but he needed a place to stay and I needed someone to watch Mimi after school.
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to name him, honey?” I knelt down and put my hand on Mimi’s shoulder. “He’s a completely biological rabbit, and this kind doesn’t tend to live very long.”
“Teacher said to pick good names for our rabbits,” Mimi said. “Besides, you put new parts on people, so if Mr. Flufferbottom breaks you can fix him.”
Replacement pet parts were readily available online, and the self-installing models could be put in by anyone who could afford the hefty price tag and follow simple instructions. But replacement parts defeated the purpose of the lesson — research showed that children needed to experience death in order to achieve normal emotional development. Aside from the occasional suicide or tragic accident, there weren’t many occasions to deal with loss. Schools were required to incorporate Temporary Friends into their kindergarten curriculum in order to get government funding.
The school couldn’t control what parents did, of course, but the parent newsletter strongly discouraged tampering with the damned death pets in any way.
“Mimi, sweetie, that’s not how it works this time — I know we get a lot of extra parts for Graycat, but your Temporary Friend is only until…” I tried to remember from the newsletter how long the rabbits were engineered to live. Six months? “Only until March, and then we’ll say goodbye.”
I expected Mimi to put up a big fuss, but she didn’t. She took Mr. Flufferbottom to the cage we’d set up in her room and got him some food and water.
Mimi didn’t say another word about Mr. Flufferbottom until mid-October.
“Mommy,” she said in her most serious voice, “I think we should order parts for Mr. Flufferbottom now, so we’ll have them ready when he needs them.”
“We talked about this, Mimi. Mr. Flufferbottom is a Temporary Friend. Do you remember what temporary means?”
“It means only for a little while. Like ice cream is temporary because I eat it or sometimes it melts.” Mimi frowned. “But Mr. Flufferbottom has lasted a lot longer than ice cream, and I think he should have parts because he is a nice rabbit and I don’t want him to die.”
“Of course we don’t want him to die,” I began, not sure how to explain something I rarely dealt with myself, “But death is a thing that just happens sometimes.”
“Am I going to die?” Mimi asked.
“Oh honey, not for a long long long time. Great-Grandpa John is still alive, and he is much older than you.”
“But he gets parts from the clinic.” Mimi said.
“If you need them, you can have parts from the clinic too. You’re young now, so your parts are still good.”
“So Great-pa John can get parts, and I can get parts, and Graycat can get parts,” Mimi said. “Why can’t Mr. Flufferbottom have parts? Don’t you think he’s a nice rabbit, Mommy?”
Mimi was often persistent, but I wasn’t used to seeing her quite this agitated. “Did something happen, Mimi, to make you worried about Mr. Flufferbottom?”
Mimi looked down at the floor. “Lizzy and I were talking to some first graders at recess and they said our bucket bunnies are going to die and then we won’t have them anymore.”
“But you knew that already, right? We told you at the start that the rabbits don’t live very long, that’s what it means for them to be temporary.”
“I didn’t know that I wouldn’t have him anymore once he was dead.” Mimi said. “I want to have him and have him and keep him forever and ever, like Graycat.”
Mimi had never shown much interest in Graycat, who was about 55 years old, and rarely did anything but sleep curled up on top of the living room bookshelves. In his younger days, Graycat had been quite the hunter, but now, despite his extra sensors and state-of-the-art replacement legs, he hadn’t pounced on anything for at least a couple decades.
“Graycat is our pet,” I told her, for lack of a better explanation, “Mr. Flufferbottom is a lesson.”
“Whiskers died today.” Mimi told me, without preamble, one January afternoon when I got home from work. “Tommy’s parents didn’t get him any parts and he died and they burned him in an incinerator and he died again.”
“He only died the first time, Mimi. They burned the body.” I tried to look at this as a learning opportunity. “Was Tommy sad?”
“Tommy was angry.” Mimi said. “He had to go home early for hitting. He did a lot of hitting.”
“Well, people react to death in lots of different ways,” I said, “but it was wrong of him to hit people, even if he was angry.”
Great-pa John came in from the kitchen.
“Of course he was angry. The whole project is ridiculous, giving you kids pets and then telling you not to take care of them properly.” Great-pa had fixed himself a sandwich, but he hadn’t gotten used to his new bionic eyes yet, and instead of lettuce he’d used some of the collard greens I was going to cook for dinner.
“The Temporary Friends lesson is supposed to teach kids about–” I started, but Great-pa John interrupted.
“I know what this is all about. Emotional development and learning about loss and yadda yadda whatever. I still have half my original brain in here.” Great-pa John tapped his head.
“But not your original eyes,” I snapped back, and instantly regretted it when his face fell. It was easy to forget what a proud man he was, and how hard it was for someone his age to adapt to so much technology. He knew death in ways that I never would. When he was young, the replacement parts weren’t that good. Sure there were limbs to help amputees walk, and pace makers and cochlear implants and dentures, but you couldn’t replace everything that broke. Back then, people died all the time. More than half of everyone Great-pa knew was dead.
“Sorry. I’ll go make you a better sandwich,” I said, taking the plate from his artificial hands. “You talk to Mimi about how things used to be. Maybe it will help her understand.”
To my surprise, I heard him start talking about Great-grandma Arlene, who had died back when the technology for replacement organs was still unreliable. I paused to listen, because I’d never heard the whole story. I’d always had the impression that Great-pa John had convinced Arlene to avoid the new technology because it was too risky.
He stopped talking when he realized I was hovering in the doorway, and I went to make his sandwich. Maybe talking to Mimi would help ease his guilt.
I don’t know what Great-pa said to Mimi, exactly, but it did wonders for their relationship. He got used to his new eyes, and together they built a fancy maze for Mr. Flufferbottom so he wouldn’t get bored. I questioned the wisdom of building entertainment for a rabbit who was doomed to die sometime in the next few weeks, but Mimi seemed happier to be doing something for her little fluffy companion, so I left them alone. Great-pa made no further mention of his long-departed wife, at least not when I was around, but he seemed more cheerful than I’d seen him for a long time.
Then one afternoon I came home from the clinic after a particularly rough spinal replacement surgery and found the two of them with their heads leaned over Mr. Flufferbottom. Fearing the worst, I rushed over, prepared to swoop a crying Mimi into my arms — but the bucket bunny wasn’t dead. He was hopping around the table, sniffing at the placemats.
“Great-pa helped me fix Mr. Flufferbottom,” Mimi said. “We ordered him medicines to help with his clestor-all, so he won’t have a heart attack after all.”
“Cholesterol.” I corrected her. “Go run and play while I talk to Great-pa, okay?”
“Can I take Mr. Flufferbottom?” Mimi asked.
She scooped up the rabbit and skipped off to the living room.
“She’s supposed to be learning about death,” I told Great-pa John firmly. “We already have a pet that doesn’t die. We really don’t need an immortal rabbit. Besides, the drugs are just stalling the inevitable.”
“Are you raising a child or a monster? Do you really think it’s good for them to learn that they should sit and watch their rabbits die and not do a damned thing about it?” Great-pa asked. “Some lesson that would be.”
Mr. Flufferbottom stopped eating. I couldn’t tell if the loss of appetite was a side effect of his medication or some other health problem. Mimi shadowed me every minute I wasn’t at work, constantly peppering me with questions about what we could do for her poor rabbit. “Great-pa doesn’t know what parts to order, Mommy. You have to help us.”
“I don’t know either,” I told her honestly, “I install parts at the clinic, but I don’t do the diagnosis.” I didn’t mention that I’d had to sign up for extra shifts at the clinic to pay for the cholesterol medicine they’d gotten, which could well be what was making Mr. Flufferbottom sick.
Great-pa John banged around our apartment, starting “home improvement” projects and then abandoning them unfinished. I told him in no uncertain terms not to tinker with the central computer system, but otherwise left him to deal with his anxieties by destroying small sections of our unit.
Mimi went to confer with Great-pa for a minute, then came back. “I want to take Mr. Flufferbottom to the vet clinic that Graycat goes to.”
I thought about what Great-pa John had said, about teaching children to passively watch their pets die. I thought about Graycat, who was alive, but was he really the same cat? I even thought about Great-pa John, who by now was mostly artificial sensors and prosthetic limbs and other man-made parts.
I didn’t know the answer, and my five-year-old daughter was looking up at me, hopeful that I would save her tiny fluffy friend. Did she really need to learn about death first hand? Would I be doing her a favor or a disservice if I let her sidestep one of life’s hardest lessons?
“No,” I said, “we can’t take him to the vet.”
It broke my heart to see the hopeful smile leave her face. I almost changed my mind. But even when the tears started to well up in her eyes, I held my ground. My daughter was supposed to learn the sadness of loss. Both of us would learn from this experience, and it would make us stronger.
The next morning, Mimi ran into my room with tears in her eyes. “Mr. Flufferbottom is dead, he’s cold and stiff and he won’t eat his breakfast.”
“I’m so sorry, honey. I know you loved that rabbit.” The words that I had practiced in my head sounded false and empty. I hugged Mimi tight, then we went to her room together to get Mr. Flufferbottom.
Great-pa John was there, standing over the cage. He was clutching something in his hand, an artificial part, I think, although I couldn’t see it clearly. He was scowling down at the lifeless rabbit.
“Did you find the right part, Great-pa?” Mimi asked.
He held out the tiny object he was clutching, a self-installing replacement liver. “I don’t know if this would have helped, but it’s too late now. Even fancy parts won’t bring back the dead.”
“Can we try? Mr. Flufferbottom didn’t eat his breakfast. I don’t want him to die hungry.”
To my horror, Great-pa put the tiny artificial liver on top of the dead rabbit, and activated the autoinstaller. The tiny organ set to work installing itself, shaving the fur and sterilizing the skin before making an incision and burrowing into the rabbit. We’d have to sell the liver used now, and while they were technically re-usable their value decreased dramatically. More shifts at work, for a rabbit that was already dead.
The liver completed its installation, but immediately began beeping to indicate an error. A few minutes later, it reappeared and clung to the rabbit’s skin and waited for further instructions. I picked it up and set it to clean itself for repackaging.
“Sorry, kiddo,” Great-pa said. “We did everything we could, right?”
Mimi nodded. “Is he with Great-ma now?”
Great-pa smiled. “She’d have liked that, my Arlene. A cute little fuzzball to keep her company. If there’s something after this, maybe they’ll find each other.”
Amazingly, both my daughter and my grandfather found comfort in that thought. I picked up Mr. Flufferbottom and set him gently in the trash incinerator, along with his uneaten breakfast. We stood in silence while he burned to ashes, and when it had finished, Mimi went to the living room and found, of all things, Graycat.
She picked him up from the bookshelf, and petted his artificial fur. He made a mechanical purring noise. He wasn’t her temporary friend, but he was warm and soft and comforting, and he let her bury her face in his fur and cry.
About the Author
Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places.
About the Narrator
Caitlin Buckley has been voice acting for just a short time, but talking funny for her entire life.