The pale pink rabbit, some lost child’s toy, blinked at him from the kitchen chair. The blink was slow; contemplative rather than a response to the sudden illumination of the overhead fluorescents. Even if it had not blinked, fear would have risen upon seeing something in that chair, which had been empty when he had finished locking up the house before going to bed. Had it appeared just now, had it crept in while he slept, or had been there the instant he turned his back on the darkened room to make his way to his over-large bed? He felt the pulse in his neck flicking at the collar of the old shirt he wore to bed when the weather turned cold.
The pink rabbit nodded toward the other kitchen chair, the one with its back to the room, and the steady slowness of the gesture made it a command rather than a suggestion. When he hesitated, it nodded again, then became as still as it should always have been. Waiting.
He dragged his slippered feet across the room, tugged the chair out, its hollow chromed legs howling gently against the worn linoleum, and never taking his gaze from the toy, he perched on the brittle vinyl seat.
The rabbit nodded once. Satisfied.
When the silence had drawn tight around his chest and he felt it would be fatal to let more gather, he said, “What are you?” even as some phantom of recognition whispered to him.
The rabbit blinked again, pink terry cloth drawing down over black glass.
“I don’t have to take this,” he said. He put his hand flat on the cold laminate of the table, ready to push himself up and away. The shaking of his own voice gave him a clearer idea of how terrified he was than his own interior sensations.
Neither he nor the rabbit moved.
“Why are you here?” he asked, not caring that he was pleading with a stuffed toy.
The rabbit blinked, and when it opened its eyes again, it was looking not at him but at the door he had entered though. He felt warm air playing at the back of his neck, and flinched a little even as he registered a yellow glow which was swallowing up the dead white of the kitchen’s light. When the warmth and brightness did not increase for the space of a half-dozen shallow breaths, he slowly turned his head.
Beyond the doorway, where the hall to the bathroom and bedroom should have been, was a green meadow bathed in the sunlight of a late summer afternoon. At a distance far enough to take on a blue haze, a distance he should not have been able to see without his glasses, a row of trees nodded their shaggy heads in the breeze.
He stood, toppling his chair, the awful wonder of the vista halting the air in his throat and sending tears down his cheeks. He did not know how long he gazed through the portal before he took in a great breath, then let it out in a sound that could have been a scream or a shout of joy. He took a small, awkward step back, his thin legs touching the chill metal edge of the table. Startled by a sensation so at odds with what he saw, he looked behind him.
The rabbit stared up at him.
From the doorway, a voice. “It’s all right. Go ahead.” A woman’s voice; his first thought, that it must be his wife, was instantly denied by a memory of her still clear enough for comparison. The thought that followed, that it was his mother, also failed to hold when it spoke again. “It’s for you.”
He reached across the table. The rabbit’s little forelimbs were up, reaching out for him, just as they had must have been the whole time, since clearly a toy rabbit cannot move any more than it can blink. He gathered it up, and when he cuddled it to him it snuggled against his chest, just as he believed it had when his grandmother had handed it to him when he was two years old on that single long-forgotten visit to her.
Clutching the pink rabbit in a tight embrace, he ran out the door, kicking off his slippers as he crossed the threshold, his feet landing on soft thatch and clover, the long grass rising around him so that when he looked back once he could not see where he had come from. He did not care. He raced, laughing, with the boundless energy of a tiny child, toward the little house that sheltered, unseen but certain in his mind, behind that line of distant trees.
Presently, the sound of his laughter faded. Silence blanketed the meadow.
“I Held Your Heart Once” ©2017 Dirck de Lint. The story is developed from a writing challenge set by Chuck Wendig, which gave first and last sentences and the title.