The dog is a little dog, white and twitchy, and he has been trained well. He sits on a stool in his backyard and watches the garden day and night. It isn’t his job. No one told him to do it, but he is a dog and has a sense of duty he can’t shake.
His humans bring him inside on occasion, but the dog will sit at the door and whine and howl and scratch and destroy the carpets until they let him back outside. He feels so guilty about this that it has given him chronic indigestion, for his humans are perfectly good humans and don’t deserve such disloyalty. See? Even now, they demonstrate their kindness. They are bringing him a bowl of the special kibble, prescribed by the veterinarian. It is supposed to be good for dogs with stomach problems. They set the bowl down beside the dog’s stool. They pat him on the head.
“I suppose he must really like it out here,” says one of the humans.
“Maybe it reminds him of his wild ancestors,” suggests the other.
Neither of them says what they’re thinking because they don’t want to hurt the dog’s feelings. What they are thinking is that ever since they moved into this house, the dog has been acting strangely. They wonder for a moment if the house is haunted, or if the soil is contaminated, or some other such thing that a dog might sense and a human cannot. Then they laugh to themselves and go back inside.
The dog’s heart breaks. He wants to go inside with them and lay his head on their feet and sleep on the foot of their bed. But he is a dog, and he has a duty. The gray house’s garden is not right. The gray house’s garden is full of bad things.
The gray house’s garden is full of flowers that whisper and growl and entice. They are angry flowers. They are greedy flowers. But most of all, they are hungry. It has been several days since their last meal, and the dog knows they will try again soon. As always, he will try and stop them. He never stops to think that he will fail, even though he always does. For he is a dog, and he is full of hope.
So the dog settles on his stool and waits.
The dog’s name is Rabbit.
Rabbit wakes up in the middle of the night because he hears footsteps on the sidewalk. The footsteps are quick and uneven, like the owner of the feet is in a hurry but also unwell.
Rabbit knows that sound. He has heard it many times. He jumps off his stool and races toward the fence of his yard. There are many layers of sound in a dog’s world, and sometimes they can be hard to pick apart. For example, right now the dog is hearing the spider crawl through the grass and the owl waking up in the woods behind his house. He can hear his humans breathing as they sleep and he can hear a raincloud turning over in the sky.
He can hear many things, but none of them are as loud as the sounds from the gray house’s garden. They are the sounds of immediate danger, so they are like thunder in Rabbit’s ears.
They are the sounds of the garden waking up. They are the sounds of the flowers whispering to each other, and calling to the footsteps on the sidewalk.
Rabbit slips under the fence, through a hole he dug long ago and has cleverly disguised with an empty flower pot. He sees the owner of the footsteps, and he whimpers.
It is a child. It is a boy in his pajamas and slippers, and he smells like old baseball gloves and dirty socks, which is paradise to Rabbit’s nose. But Rabbit is not distracted. Rabbit is a very good dog.
He rushes toward the boy, his nails clicking on the sidewalk. He puts himself directly in the boy’s path and barks.
The boy skids to a halt. His eyes are wild and white. His smile is uneven and loopy. “What do you want?” he asks Rabbit. “You’re in my way.”
Rabbit does everything he knows how to do. He runs back and forth between the boy and the gate that leads to the gray house’s garden. He growls at the gate. He runs at the boy growling, trying to push him away.
The boy gets angry. “Go away,” he says, and he jumps over Rabbit, and Rabbit despairs. If only he weren’t such a little dog. If only he were a Rottweiler or a German Shepherd or even a Labrador. But he is only a tiny white mutt of a dog with big pointy ears that gave him his name.
He chases after the boy. The boy’s hands are on the gate! Rabbit bites his pant leg and tugs, and tugs. The boy turns, growling, and his face has transformed. It is sick with the garden’s power.
“I have to go to them!” says the boy, and he kicks Rabbit away, hard.
Rabbit yelps. The wind is knocked out of him. He watches from the sidewalk as the boy opens the gate and slips inside. He hears the boy’s sigh of relief once his slippers hit the soft wet dirt. Rabbit knows the boy’s nose is not sensitive enough to detect the scent of bones that wafts up from the dirt when the boy steps on it. The boy’s ears are not sensitive enough to distinguish the squelch of dirt wet with water from the squelch of dirt wet with blood.
Rabbit howls and howls, but the flowers only laugh at him. The daffodils bobbing in clumps on either side of the gate, the morning glories winding around the gate’s iron spikes—they are all laughing at him.
You’re too late, they say. Their voices are ugly. Their petals form wicked mouths, and their tongues are dark. When they breathe, the air fills with the scents of hair and fingernails and screams. For to a dog, even a scream has a flavor. You’re too late, Rabbit.
Rabbit shakes. He hates it when they say that. For he is always too late, isn’t he? And too small, and not smart enough, apparently. It is enough to give a poor, simple mutt a vast inferiority complex.
So he sits and watches as the vines wrap around the boy’s legs, and pull him down. He watches as the boy sighs and smiles and laughs, because this is just what he wanted. He wanted to come to the flowers. He heard the flowers calling him, and their voices were so beautiful. Rabbit hears the boy whispering it to himself: “So beautiful. So beautiful. Hello. Hello.” The boy is talking to the flowers as if they are old friends.
Their leaves burrow into his skin, and still he smiles. Their bulbs bend over him like heads, and their black tongues unfurl, and still he laughs.
It isn’t until the orchids latch onto his face, smothering him, that he begins to scream.
Rabbit makes himself watch, though he does grant himself the small mercy of putting his paws over his ears.
The next day, Rabbit doesn’t eat. He noses at his kibble and sits under his stool. He does not deserve to sit on his favorite stool today. He can smell the boy’s body as the flowers bleed it and chew it and pull it slowly into the ground. He can hear the flowers celebrating, hissing and laughing and complimenting each other.
They are very loud this morning. Children are their favorite, after all. Children, Rabbit often hears them saying, are the sweetest meat.
Rabbit’s humans leave for work. Rabbit can no longer listen to the flowers gloat and belch and clean the blood from their petals. He is beside himself with shame. He wanders through his backyard, whimpering. The poor boy, he thinks. The poor boy with his baseball gloves and his smelly socks. What will his parents think?
At the edge of the backyard is a fence, and beyond that fence is a field of tall grasses and some woods. Rabbit digs under the fence and comes out into the field on the other side and howls quietly to himself. He will continue to wander forever, he thinks. He will wander away until he finds somewhere he can actually be useful, or perhaps until he dies. Perhaps, he thinks forlornly, dying would be best. A dog who cannot help humans is no dog at all.
But then he hears footsteps crashing through the grasses. The footsteps are coming from the direction of the woods. Rabbit thinks this is curious, for he has never heard anything in these woods except for foxes and birds and snails.
Then he sees the girl. She is as young as the dead boy was. She is wearing a dress that is torn and dirty. She has a wild face and wild eyes, and her hair is full of mud and twigs. She does not move like a human. She moves like an animal, darting this way and that.
She runs toward the gray house’s garden. She is confused. She does not know where she is going.
Rabbit follows her, barking. He does not stop to think how strange this girl looks, or that he has decided to wander off and die. For he is a dog, and when it comes right down to it, he will forget his own problems and do the right thing. He runs and barks and thinks that he will bite the girl’s leg if he has to. A bite from a small dog named Rabbit will be better than getting eaten by flowers.
But the girl stops. She stares at him. She kneels down in the dirt and begins to talk to him, but she does not talk like other humans do. She talks in growls and clicks like an animal, and Rabbit understands her perfectly. He sits back on his haunches and cannot help but wag his tail. This girl is a strange one. He likes this girl.
“You’re saying,” says the girl, clicking and growling, her eyes wide, “that the flowers in that garden eat people?”
“Yes,” says Rabbit, barking. It is a serious moment but he nevertheless has trouble stopping himself from licking her face. He has never talked with a human before, and it brings him a joy not unlike the joy that comes from getting his belly scratched. “Yes, that is what I’m saying. The flowers talk to people. They trick them inside, and then they eat them. They like children best of all.”
“How do you know this?”
“I hear them talking to each other.”
“Ah.” The girl nods. “I didn’t know dogs could understand flowers. But it makes sense.”
“Of course. Dogs hear and smell and understand things much better than humans do, don’t they?”
“Much better indeed,” Rabbit says gravely.
The girl looks at Rabbit, and then looks around, and then pulls a thorn from her skirt. “Where are we? Could you please tell me?”
Rabbit does not understand. “What do you mean? This is the world. We are in it.”
“But it’s our world, isn’t it? Not theirs?”
“Who are you talking about?”
“This is the world where the sky is blue and the stars come out at night and things are all facing right-side up?”
Rabbit tilts his head. “Apparently the sky is blue. That’s what the humans say. And roses are red. They say that too.”
“Yes.” The girl’s face is strange now. “Roses are always red.”
Rabbit has been so distracted that he doesn’t notice it until now: “You smell funny. You smell not quite right.”
“I’ve been . . . away,” the girl says. She looks at the ground. She smells afraid. “I have been far away, in a place where the sky is black and the stars are falling and everything is upside-down.”
“Well, you are here now. My name is Rabbit.”
“A dog named Rabbit.” The girl frowns. “What nonsense. My name is Alice.”
When Alice says her name, Rabbit hears the flowers in the gray house’s garden stop gloating and boasting. He hears them turn their heads. He feels their silence and their fear.
That, he thinks, is odd. The flowers have never been afraid before.
“You should go home,” says Rabbit. He growls, because he thinks that will frighten her away. “It is not safe here. The garden, the flowers, they will hurt you. You are a child, and they will want to eat you. Go. Run away. Go now.”
Alice looks at the garden through her muddy hair. She looks angry. “They like children best of all, do they?”
Rabbit hears the flowers bending closer to listen. He hears them licking their lips. He hears the clack of their throats full of teeth. “Yes!” Rabbit is becoming afraid for Alice. He yaps and yips and runs around her feet in circles. “You must leave! Oh hurry, before it is too late!”
“Rabbit.” Alice picks him up. He stares into her dirty face. “I swore I would never go there again, once I got out this time. I swore it. But I think that I must. Because I think I know of a way to destroy this garden, these flowers that eat children, and if I know of a way, I must do it even if it scares me, mustn’t I?”
“What do you mean, go back there?” This time Rabbit does lick Alice’s face because that is the best way he knows to help a frightened human. “You mean to the upside-down world?”
“Yes. If I go back there, and I return with a great weapon, a weapon that can destroy that garden and those flowers, will you help me do it?”
Rabbit stops wagging his tail because he understands this to be a solemn moment. “I will.”
“It will be frightening,” Alice whispers. She is not looking at him. She is looking away, back at the woods. Rabbit is not sure if she is talking about fighting the flowers, or returning to the upside-down world. And he is not sure if she is actually all that frightened. Her emotions are confusing.
“All important things are frightening,” says Rabbit.
Alice nods. “Yes. Yes, you are of course quite right. Will you come with me and wait outside while I’m inside?”
That does not make sense to Rabbit, but he will of course follow her anywhere, this wild girl who talks like an animal, who smells like one and has been to an upside-down world. She seems more like a dog than a human, this Alice. Rabbit likes that. He trots beside her into the woods. They reach an ugly tree with a giant hole in its trunk. The air here smells strange, like Alice does. Rabbit puts his head on her bare feet and waits patiently while Alice cries beside the tree. She is scared, but she is also brave. It is a feeling Rabbit can understand.
Alice dries her tears on her muddy skirt. “This is the last time I will ever go back, ever,” she says, but Rabbit knows it is a lie. He can hear it in her voice. He can feel it in her heartbeat.
Alice climbs into the hole in the tree. She screams, and disappears. Rabbit sits in front of the tree, and whines, and waits.
When Alice comes back, she is even dirtier than before. She smells like salt water and metal and old stone. There are feathers in her hair, and her skirt has a belt now, and in the belt is a knife.
Rabbit jumps up and Alice holds him in her arms and shakes. She holds him too tightly, but Rabbit is happy to be useful again, and he is quiet until Alice stops shaking.
“Well?” says Rabbit. “Do you have it? Do you have the way to destroy the garden?”
“I have a way,” Alice says. Her voice is scratchy and tired and frightening. “It is probably not the way, and it might not be someone else’s way, but it is my way.”
“I understand. My way was to try and scare off the humans before they got inside the garden. But I don’t think that was the best way. But it was the Rabbit way.”
Alice looks at him with a funny expression on her face. “You are a strange dog.”
“And you are a strange child, but I like you.”
Alice smiles. It is the first time she has smiled in months, but not even Rabbit can know that.
“What is the great weapon?” Rabbit asks.
Alice sets him down and holds out her hand. In her hand is a seed. It is a large seed, and angry looking. It is black and red and spiky. It has left tiny bites on Alice’s palm.
“In some places,” Alice whispers, “there are flowers that are even worse than child-eating flowers.”
Rabbit whimpers. He senses that he is close to things that are too big and important for one small white dog to handle. “You mean, in the upside-down world?”
Alice nods. “And this is a seed of one of them. And we are to plant it in that garden, and let it grow and destroy the others.”
Rabbit is ecstatic. He jumps out of Alice’s arms and rolls around in the dirt. As usual, his joy is quick and gets the best of him. But then he thinks of something. “But if these flowers are even worse than child-eating flowers, and we plant this even worse flower, won’t the garden become even more dangerous?”
Alice looks back at the tree. She is still a child, but she seems much older than she was when Rabbit first met her. “No,” she says. “It will not. It will be a beautiful, tame garden for as long as this world is a world, and everyone will come to admire it, but it will never hurt anyone. We made a deal.”
Rabbit does not know who Alice is talking about. He does not want to know. He has no interest in this upside-down world that sounds so dangerous. He hopes there are no dogs there, but he somewhat vindictively hopes there are cats.
At the gate of the gray house’s garden, Rabbit is ready. He is growling to make himself feel fierce. Alice is beside him. They have a plan. Alice is beside him and her hand is on the gate’s latch, and in her other hand is the angry black-and-red seed.
The flowers are watching them. Their petal faces are watching the gate. They are hissing and spitting. They are beckoning and laughing. Alice. Alice. Alice and Rabbit. Try it. Just try it. We are not afraid of a girl and a Rabbit.
But they are afraid. Rabbit can sense that.
Alice looks down at him. “Are you ready?”
Rabbit wags his tail, and Alice smiles but also looks sad.
“You are a good dog,” she says, and Rabbit’s happiness overwhelms him. He almost turns over to show Alice his belly and request a nice scratch. But then Alice is opening the gate, and they are running.
It is Alice’s job to plant the seed. It is Rabbit’s job to protect her while she plants it.
He runs as fast as his tiny white legs can carry him. Lilies snap at him. Vines wrap themselves around his legs. Tiger lilies throw themselves at him, petals crashing into the ground. The petals smell like blood, and they attach to his coat like suckers. They hurt, but Rabbit does not stop. They do not stop him for long, these shrieking flowers that smell like dead children. He is a small dog, and he is too fast. Too fast for them to touch and too small for them to catch.
Alice is digging. Petunias are swarming over her feet and up her legs, and their voices are small and high like children’s voices. Such a sweet girl, Alice is, they sing. Alice is crying, but she is brave. Alice slashes at vines with her knife. And Rabbit is tearing at the flowers with his teeth and his claws, ripping them to pieces. There is blood on his white coat, but he doesn’t mind. Helping is what a dog does best, and he is happy.
“There!” Alice cries, and slams her fist onto the dirt. She has planted the seed. Her hands are covered in blood and mud and thorns. She finds Rabbit. He is choking in a bed of violets. They fill his mouth and his nose and his ears, and he is afraid, but then he sees Alice. She is crying and ripping the flowers from him, and then he is in her arms. She is saying, “Good dog, such a very, very good dog,” and Rabbit is wagging his tail even though he is hurting. Alice is running out of the garden, and he is in her arms.
The flowers are screaming.
Rabbit opens his eyes and sees it happening. The garden is thrashing and crashing. The garden is drowning under the weight of something new.
They are roses.
They are red roses, bushes of them, towers of them, and they do not speak but they do have teeth. They smother the other flowers so they cannot breathe. They rip the other flowers from the ground and tear their roots to shreds. Even though it is dark, and even though Rabbit sees the world in gray and only knows what color his humans say things are, he knows that these roses are red. They are redder than blood. They are dripping red.
When it is finished, the roses poke their heads over the fence and whisper, Alice, dearest girl, dearest Alice. We did what you said. Now you do what you said. Dearest darling Alice.
“Alice.” Rabbit is whimpering. He wants to say thank you, but Alice is hugging him too tightly. She is setting him on the porch of his house. She is ringing the doorbell and knocking on the door. She is crying and plucking the thorns from Rabbit’s coat. He feels that she is afraid and sad, but also that she is happy.
He hears his humans inside. They are waking, they are hurrying down the stairs.
“Alice,” Rabbit tries to say again, “what did you say you would do? What deal did you make?”
But then the door is opening and his humans are exclaiming things. They are afraid for him. Rabbit knows he will be all right, and he tries to tell them this by licking their hands. They are calling the veterinarian, and they are carrying him to the car. Rabbit feels their love so deeply that he almost doesn’t see her:
Alice, climbing over the fence and running through the field toward the woods. He hears her crying and he hears her laughing. He feels it when she climbs inside the tree. He smells her fear when she screams, and he smells it when she jumps, and he understands now what Alice said she would do. He understands that this time, the jump is forever.