After the carefully neutralized scents and sterilized surface of the government facility he had been staying in, coming home was almost overwhelming to Aaron. The van he drove in from stank of metal and fast food and countless agents who had been there before him, and even with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning roaring from the dashboard he could catch the changing smells of the city outside. He stared at Cold Spring Lane as it grew winding and treacherous; the van’s suspension was tested by the inescapable potholes.
Familiar territory looked strange after nearly half a year away from it. Or maybe his way of seeing things had grown stranger; he could keep one eye on the side streets the van was turning down while keeping another eye on the interior at the same time. He watched the people on the sidewalk stop what they were doing — leaning against walls, or chatting with friends, or pushing shopping carts down the block — to stare as he passed. The van was supposed to be somewhat inconspicuous, but in this neighborhood a shined-up black van with tinted windows and antennae bobbing on the roof was sure to attract attention. He imagined word spreading through the neighborhood as he got closer to home, tried to see if lights turned on inside the houses as he went by. Surely, people would know something was going down by now.
He blinked and looked away from the window. He took a deep breath. He focused on the sound of the van’s engine, the scents inside the car, the feel of his fur against the soft cloth seats. The case worker said that he would likely have different thoughts now, instincts looking for a reason to be. No one was sure just how much inside Br’ers had changed, but the consensus was that undergoing such a drastic physical transformation had to have seriously rewired the brain in ways that might never be understood. Since almost none of them had stepped foot inside a psychiatrist’s office before then, there was no telling what conditions had been with them before the change and what had developed after.
To Aaron, that sense of wariness was familiar. He always had one eye on an escape route, and that hadn’t changed now that he was a giant bipedal rabbit. He just got better at finding the angles and accounting for small details. Even though he had never felt more anxious, or maybe more aware of his own anxiety, he felt better equipped to deal with it. It wasn’t a problem; it was smart.
“We’re here,” the driver said. The van rolled to a stop, and Aaron instinctively looked at the house they were in front of. It was a semi-detached home with a chainlink fence around it, long but narrow with a tiny porch crammed with old, rusting furniture. The grass in the little plot of a yard was wild, but there were islands of dark, rich earth bordered by thick white stones. Tiny flowers struggled to remain upright there, splashes of yellow and pink and white that stood out against the flaking whitewash on the walls, the cracked concrete of the walkway, the dirty grey paint of the stairs.
The flowers were new. Aaron wondered if his mother needed a project to distract her from what had happened, if this was her way of burning off her anxiety. Whenever she was dealt a blow, something would get fixed or upgraded. Home improvements were signs that she wasn’t handling something well.
Aaron noticed his heart beating faster as he got out of the car. The agent — dressed down in khakis and a polo shirt that did nothing to hide the military precision with which he picked up the luggage — walked through the gate and up to the porch like it was his house. It took Aaron several deep breaths to get up the nerve just to follow.
He had no idea how his family would receive him. The case worker said that it would be an adjustment for everybody, that it was bound to be awkward for a few days while everyone adjusted to the new normal. But the case worker had no idea what she was talking about. There was no adjusting to this. It was never going to be normal.
“Well, here we are,” the agent said as Aaron joined him on the porch. He watched the white man look around the porch, scanning lightly over the trash bags next to the broken rocking chair, the empty beer bottles on the old patio table, the food dish on the floor with ancient nuggets of dried out cat food. The man’s scent changed slightly, and the corners of his mouth turned down. Then he rang the doorbell.
The front door opened immediately; Aaron’s mom must have been standing right there. She stared at him with wide eyes, then looked at the agent. She looked shockingly small and frail; had she always been that short? That thin?
“Ma’am, I’ve brought your son home.” The agent clasped his hands behind his back as he jumped right in. “Aaron has been cleared for release to the general population, but if you have any trouble at all please call the number in your information packet.”
“O…OK,” was all she said. She remained frozen to the spot.
The agent simply nodded, then turned to Aaron. “Good luck, son.”
Thank you, Aaron signed. He lifted his whiskers in a close approximation of a smile, then watched as the agent briskly walked away, got into his car, and drove away. He turned to his mother and his heart skipped a beat when he saw the way she stared at him.
They stood like that for what felt like forever. She must be wondering if she should let him in, Aaron thought. He was wondering if he should stay. Whatever this place was, it wasn’t home any more.