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I climb down a few rungs, feeling as if I'm forgetting something. "Jenifer," I say, "what about the ferrets?"
"You say something?" Jenifer calls up.
"We forgot about Wickerbat and Cash! I've got to go back and get them." I start back up.
"I wouldn't worry about it. They always seem to find you on their own." Jenifer's voice is muffled.
"I'll just be a moment." I struggle to climb over the rim of the spinning fortune teller. As I fall off the edge, I think I hear Jenifer exclaim, "Oh, look at this."
I run behind the statue where the elevator had previously deposited us. When was the last time I even saw the ferrets? Or that other rabbit – Hoppy, was it? I mash the call button. A notice on the wall reads "In case of elevator, do not use stairs." Some sort of joke, I suppose, but I don't get it.
The sliding doors do not open. I get anxious about Jenifer descending that ladder into darkness, away from me. I have no idea what's going on, or where I am. But I think about how I opened that wheel of fortune, when I'm sure I've never seen it before, and my fur stands on end.
The elevator does not come. I read the notice again, reversing it in my head. If there is no elevator – and there isn't – is it okay to use stairs? I close my eyes, walk around a corner that is also not there, and land flat on my face on the lowest steps of a staircase.
Still rubbing my nose, I look around. I'm in a garden. Junk abounds, but there is a bench, and a little table, and it seems the most natural thing in the world to sit on the bench and think about nothing.
After a while, I notice two small wooden boxes on the table. I pick one up, turning it in my rabbit claws. The box doesn't seem to open, but has a little brass label: Wickerbat. The air chills. I snatch up the other one, knowing that it, too, will have a label, and what that label will say.
"Oh, my little ferrets," I whisper. Blood thunders in my ears, and I rest my head on the table. Perhaps I even sleep.
Later, there is a swish of fur. I open my eyes. Sideways, I see something black and blurry and too close for comfort. I jerk back.
A black cat sits on the table, smiling coyly at me.
Bones are painted on the outside of its fur. It has the most beautiful green eyes I have ever seen. And it speaks: "Remember me, at least?"
A groan drags out of me.
The cat's smile drops. "They told me you were broken, but I didn't realize how badly." It leaps from the table to the bench beside me. I shrink away. I don't know whether to look at it, or at the box – a third one – it has left on the table.
Trembling, I reach for the box, but I can't for the life of me think why I am afraid. I read its little brass plaque: Salem, 2002-2019. "You, too?" I say.
The cat nods. "You've been gone a long time."
I look away, watch wind ripple through the leaves of the trees that line this garden. "I don't know where I am, I don't know what’s going on, and I don't know what to do!" Finally, it occurs to me to ask, "Are you a ghost?"
Salem smiles again. "The question we've got to ask now is whether to get you out, or to take you further and deeper in. The usual answer might be to follow the white rabbit, but when you are the rabbit… well."
"And why the hell am I a rabbit?" I wail.
"No idea. You never had rabbits at the house, just ferrets and us cats."
This prompts two different memories to surface and I clutch at both. "Cats – plural?"
Salem nods. "My sister's still waiting for you, but she can't type very well."
I shudder to think of Salem's sister using a computer, regardless of typing skills. The other memory slips away. Damn.
I ask, "If we get me out, as you say, will I be human again?"
"Can't say. Thing is, though, there are people waiting for you further in, that need you."
Jenifer for one, I suppose. "And you?"
Salem stretches, long and luxuriously. "You can think of me as your own personal Cheshire."
Somehow that's not very comforting.
+ + + + +
One end of the garden is a sort of cluttered grotto. I dig with a shovel I have found. Salem watches with his huge, luminous eyes as I place the three crematory boxes in the hole and bury them. "Will this be a problem for you?" I ask.
He shrugs. "Shouldn't expect so. You know cats go pretty much where we please." He pauses and his eyes slit up. "Except out the front door," he muses. "You always complained when I did that."
I have no idea what to say to that. I look at the sad earth mounded at my feet and whisper good-bye. My eyes sting and tear up as I head for the exit to the garden.
By the time I reach the bottom of the stairs I have a raging headache. I rush over to the fortune teller wagon with its great wheel, but no matter how I tug or push or pull or spin, I can't get it open. Jenifer has gone on ahead of me and I seem to have no way to follow.
Nor, I now notice, has Salem followed me.
The cacophony in the mess hall is deafening. I keep my ears plastered down in a vain attempt to muffle the din as I concentrate on a tin plate before me.
Someone thwacks the back of my head. "Oy!" a particularly bulky bench mate bellows, "I said to PASS THE SALAD!"
It's all salad here: tossed, Caesar, cobb, spring greens. I hand over a serving dish at random – looks like arugula with balsamic, or maybe dandelion leaves – and hunker over my own meal. I'm sure it's a plate full of nettles.
I'm lined up with fifty or so other draftees. The instructor stands in front of a cardboard wall painted to look like stone and demonstrates how to walk around a corner: he very clearly takes a step to the right and vanishes. There is no corner.
My ears twitch.
Someone nearest the end of the wall segment dares to peer around the edge and announces, "He ain't there!"
"Back in line, grunt!" the instructor barks from behind us.
The poor sucker who broke line scoots into position as the instructor strolls back to the front. "Now." He points to another hapless trainee. "Walk around that corner."
One by one my fellow conscripts approach the wall, step right, and smack their fuzzy muzzles. This just has to be some bizarre hazing ritual. My ears itch worse than ever as my turn comes. Except… same as the other time, I know the corner that isn't there and walk around it.
I'm in an empty hallway. After a not-so-stunned split second, I split.
I bolt, about three long leaps, before I am tackled. I land hard, with the instructor on top of me. He takes a hard grasp on my ear and drags me forward. We're back on the training ground. The others gape at us.
"Mouths closed, backs straight, ears up," the instructor bellows. "Atten-shun!"
We all stiffen. "Sir, yes, sir!"
We practice all afternoon. Well, not me; apparently, I'm a flight risk and am sidelined to a bench. But by mess time about half of us have successfully walked around that non-existent corner and the instructor is pleased. He announces that tomorrow we'll begin working with apertures.
"Any questions that can be answered in thirty seconds or less?" he asks.
I raise my paw. "Sir. What are we training for, anyway?"
Everyone – instructor and fellow draftees – stares at me in disbelief.
"Why, to be an Easter Bunny, of course."
To me, "aperture" is a setting on my camera, but we aren't working with cameras. Of course not.
Instead, we spend the morning with carrots dangling above our heads. Our paws are tied behind our backs. Our task is to jump and bite the carrot. And of course, the more we miss, the more the carrot bounces and swings around and the harder it is to catch.
It all looks like a game at a kindergarten party, except sillier, because we're all rabbits.
Still, we're all pretty good at it. The instructor has assistants to run around constantly tying new carrots in place. We keep on jumping and missing, leaping and biting. I'm getting kind of full of carrot.
There's got to be more to this exercise, right?
An assistant ties a new carrot in place. Is there something…? I leap, bite, miss.
Grr. I use an ear to shade against the sun. Definitely something. I leap again, snagging the carrot, but I also see into something else.
Then the instructor is yelling, "Get her out of there!" and someone has grabbed me by my feet and pulls. I fall with a pop and a thud.
Yeah, I've done this before. I've definitely had a lot of practice falling.
I am not sure why I feel so restless here in the realm of Delphi.
I have finished my task. The underground tunnels are secure and their denizens safe.
But it is more than simple ennui plaguing my thoughts.
I feel drawn somewhere. An unfinished task in another dimension is begging my attention.
Is it Grim? Is she awake? She slept for so long I had given up hope.
I need to find out.
And I need something to help me dimension-hop.
And a new outfit.
Alarms ring and panicked rabbits scramble from their bunks. It's way too early in the morning for this, especially after last night's party celebrating the completion of bunny boot camp. The fermented carrot juice was disgusting, though, so at least I am spared the hangover the others seem to suffer.
We brush our fur, comb our whiskers, and line up for roll call. Unseen birds are just beginning their pre-dawn song as the instructor hands out the last badges of our new employment: an enamel pin identifying us as official Easter Rabbits.
To my delight, I am also awarded a beautiful hat in recognition of achieving highest marks in class. It hides my bent ear quite nicely.
"Map," the instructor calls.
"Check!" we respond.
"Wood samples and cream cheese."
"Check!" I have no idea what this last item is for, but I have it.
"All good. Off you go!"
Twenty-three newly minted Easter Rabbits leap around the corner into Spring.
My new outfit is genius.
What better way to infiltrate a universe populated by rabbits than dress up as a rabbit?
Of course, I am vehemently opposed to wearing fur (and will lecture the rabbits about it when I get there) so my cunning disguise involves crepe paper, fuzzy slippers, cotton wool and an old TV antenna perched upon my head.
Dangling carrot earrings complete the ensemble.
I am ready to begin my life as a rabbit.
I make my rounds through a town that appears to be devoid of inhabitants. I'm carrying a large sack of balloon animals. I do have to be careful with my claws, but I'm glad the balloons aren't heavy. Some of the other rabbits are carrying sheep or even horses.
I am now keenly aware of the dimensional threads that weave through the fabric of the universe. On the other side of this thin veil is a throng of players who toss carrots in the air. It is my job to pop through with impeccable timing to snatch the carrots and replace them with a balloon animal.
When my sack is empty, I return to the main staging arena. Rabbits who did not qualify for field work are sorting all the Faberge eggs, bird houses, candy, and other tchotchkes for distribution.
It's all rather chaotic. I can see why there is a high turnover among Easter Rabbits, and why the higher-ups (briefly I wonder about those higher-ups) have to resort to a draft to restore ranks.
The sheep keep getting into the candy. Butterflies, while pretty, are hard to corral without damaging them. No one wants to carry the dolls (creepy) or basket bunnies (seriously creepy). The fish just plain stink.
And we have to do this for twenty-nine more days.
I circulate through the Castle empty-side with balloon animals until I run out and return to the staging arena. I'm waiting for a new supply of balloons when one of my fellow Easter Rabbits pops in, staggering and choking dramatically.
I politely look away, but the rabbit filling my sack nods knowingly. "He must have encountered one of those pickles."
"Pickles?" I ask.
"Yeah. Someone on the playing side has been throwing pickles instead of carrots. It's a bit of a shock when you aren't expecting it, apparently. Whoops!" A balloon giraffe bursts in his paws, and he reaches for a lion instead.
"Hmm, not something I've run into yet." Pickles might be an enjoyable break. I'm getting tired of all the carrots.
"Stay safe," says my balloon artist as I flip my sack over my shoulder and head out again.