The White Rabbit, by Tenniel DRAMA CLASS
by Phil Geusz
Text © 2001 Phil Geusz; illustration by Sir John Tenniel

Home-=-#001-=-ANTHRO #1 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-
This story (an earlier edition of which was posted to the TSA-Talk mailing list) is the first in Geusz’s Lapism setting.
The first four Lapism stories—this one, plus Full Immersion, Schism, and In the Beginning
are all included in the Anthro Press collection The First Book of Lapism.

-= 1 =-

   It was a damp and chilly morning at the school bus stop, but even so the weather was a welcome change from winter’s bone-freezing cold. Thunder rumbled occasionally in the distance; it had been raining off and on for two days and the ground was muddy and covered with puddles. But for the moment it felt very good to be out of doors. The trees were budding and already a single redbud down the street was beginning to flower into violet splendor. The birds were singing, the scent of new life hung everywhere in the air. I was feeling bright and full of energy. It was a wonderful morning!
   “I’m looking forward to it, myself,” Ray was saying for the hundredth time. “My father says that the Marines are going to make a man out of me for sure.”
   I nodded politely. “Are you working out every day like you said you would?”
   “Sometimes,” my plump friend said, looking down. “Sometimes. But I’m still gaining weight.” I nodded again as Ray polished his glasses nervously. “I can’t stay away from Burger Royale to save my life. Sometimes I envy you, you know. Most of the time, even. You eat salad all of the time, and never get tired of it.”
   “Never say never,” I answered with a grin. “Sometimes I get a real craving for a chocolate milkshake, you know. A big one.”
   “But you burn it right back off,” Ray countered wistfully. “I wish my parents had gotten me a gengineered body when I was a baby.”
   “You weren’t around when I was little,” I countered. “It was pretty hard in elementary school sometimes, being a Lapist. You can’t have the slightest…” But I didn’t finish the sentence; instead I perked up my ears and listened.
   “What’s wrong?” Ray asked, seeing me suddenly go stiff.
   “Shh!” I answered testily. The sound was just a distant stuttering roar at first, but it grew steadily louder and clearer until I was sure. Damn! “Quick, Ray! Take my backpack! I’ve got to go!”
   There wasn’t any time to spare, so I just dropped everything onto the wet grass and took off at top speed. Normally I can’t outrun a motorcycle, but this time I had the advantage of being able to cut across a couple of my neighbor’s yards. By the time the big bike arrived at my house, I was doing a pretty fair imitation of a speeding bullet and was just four houses down the street. My younger brother emerged from the front door casually, then saw me coming. “Digger!” I cried out. “Don’t you…”
   But it was already too late. My brother is almost as fast as I am, and probably will be even quicker someday. In three hops he was astride the bike, and the big Harley was already moving before I came up alongside. “Digger!” I cried out again angrily. “You know that you’re not supposed to—”
   “Aw, shove it up your candy-ass!” he answered me with a smirk. “Punch it, Tom!” And with that the helmeted driver opened his throttle wide, outdistancing me in no time at all.
   “Digger!” I cried out again. “Come back here! You’re on probation, remember?” But the bellowing exhaust swallowed up my words, and presently I quit chasing the Harley and stood up onto two legs to watch my sibling vanish over a hillcrest, long brown ears flapping in the breeze. “Digger!” I called out one last time, but it was far too late. He was gone, and might not be back for days. “Damn it!” I murmured under my breath. “Damn it all to hell!” It had only been a week since Mom had gone back to work, and already he was acting up again. What on earth were we going to do with him?
   My reverie was cut short, however. In the distance I heard another distinctive engine roar out; this time it was my bus climbing the same hill a block over! Damn Digger and all of his problems, anyhow! I was going to miss my ride to school, unless there was some kind of miracle. Angrily I dropped once more to my forepaws and pound-pound-pounded across the yards in nearly the opposite direction I had just come. There was a chance, just a chance, that I might make a successful interception at the subdivision entrance.
   I leapt fence after fence, once taking a terrible chance by passing within five feet of Mr. Kuttmann’s very startled Great Dane as she peacefully urinated in her normally calm and placid back yard. With hindpaws skidding in the mud I barreled around the last corner around the Welch’s shed just as the bus pulled up at the stop sign. I’d made it after all!
   “Yay, Berry!” cried all of my busmates as Mrs. Cribbs opened up the big door to let me aboard. I was breathing very hard after my two long dashes, and now I could feel linings of my ears growing warm in an embarrassed blush as well.
   The bus driver leaned way over in her seat and spoke in a low voice that only I could hear. “Brush yourself off, Blueberry,” Mrs. Cribbs said in a low, reassuring tone. “It’s all right. I saw Digger go by and then noticed that Ray was carrying your backpack. So I waited for you.” She smiled. “You did your best. And I‘m running a few minutes early today anyway. Take your time.”
   I nodded shyly. She wasn’t early, I knew, just being nice. The older woman lived two blocks down from us, and knew Mom and Dad pretty well. They played cards together sometimes. “Thanks!” I’d made a terrible mess out of my nice clean white fur in the mud and grass, and my forepaws were all soggy and dirty too from being run on. “Ray?” I called out into the bus. “Have you got my stuff?”
   My friend knew what I needed; he brought me my small travel brush and I worked out the worst of the guck while my driver and fellow students waited patiently. “There, son,” Mrs. Cribbs said kindly after I was done. “You look a lot better now. Hop on up, and let’s be on our way.”
   She meant it literally, of course. The bus entryway was much too steep for me to step up onto, but I’d quit being self-conscious about that sort of thing a long time ago. Or at least mostly I had. Carefully I grasped the railings in both mitten-like forepaws, hopped up three times, and then I was aboard and able to walk around and pick a seat like the rest of the kids. I chose the place next to Ray, as usual, and he continued on just like nothing had ever happened. “I’ll get to shoot machine-guns and throw hand grenades and ride helicopters…”
   I sighed and nodded. Ray had been talking about almost nothing but the Marine Corps for weeks. It came as a relief when he was interrupted by a tap on my shoulder. “Psst!”
   “What?” I asked, turning half around in my seat. It was Jay, from my Drama class.
   “Where was Digger going?” he asked. We played baseball sometimes after school, and he knew my brother a little. Up until a few months ago, Digger had usually played with us. But he hadn’t been very interested in stuff like that lately.
   “Who knows?” I answered, rolling my eyes. “Not where he should be. He’s been skipping school.”
   “The guy on the bike looked pretty old,” Keith pointed out. He was Jay’s very best friend, and some people thought that perhaps he was something a little more. “That bike must have cost a fortune!”
   “His name is Parks,” I answered in a low voice. “Zachary Parks. He’s a dropout, and maybe about twenty-two.”
   The pair sat silent for a moment. “Oh,” Jay replied eventually. There didn’t seem to be much else to be said, so I turned back around in my seat.
   “You’re really worried about your brother, aren’t you?” Ray asked.
   “Yeah,” I answered eventually. “Everyone is. I think he’s smoking dope and maybe doing worse, but I haven’t told Mom and Dad yet.”
   Ray whistled. “He’s only fourteen. That’s kinda young.”
   I sighed and shifted uncomfortably in my seat. School busses made no provision for bunny tails. “Can we talk about something else? Please?”
   “Sure!” Ray answered brightly. “You know, I bet you that the Marines would straighten Digger right out! My Dad would sure think so…”

-= 2 =-

   When we got to school, Mrs. Cribbs told me that she was going to call Mom right away from the bus’s cell phone about Digger, so I had nothing to do before class but make a routine stop at my locker. I took Drama first hour, which I always thought was a really nice way to begin the day. As usual, most of my classmates had already gathered in the oversized classroom, and two or three were busily setting up for the morning’s rehearsal even though the bell had not yet rung.
   “Hey, Berry! Celicia greeted me with a sunny smile. “You look a little tangled this morning. Run out of shampoo?”
   I smiled back at her. “No, just decided to do a little cross-country work to get the old blood flowing. But look at you! Split-end city!” Back in the seventh grade, Celicia had begun perming her hair into elaborate ‘dos, and had never stopped. The running class joke was that the only person in school who spent more time under a hair dryer than her was me. We’d kept the gag going for over four years now. “I think you may need professional help.”
   Usually my partner kept a straight face, but this time she out-and-out giggled before answering. “Well, you oughta know, Berry. You’re the big hare expert.”
   I rolled my eyes in mock surrender just as the morning bell went off; in any other class we students would have taken our seats and waited for attendance to be taken. But Drama was a pretty special sort of place, so we paid the bell very little attention at all. There were only thirteen of us, all hand-picked fourth-year Drama veterans. Presently all of us were sliding props around on the small mini-stage and donning costumes; we all knew what to do. I was just tying a necktie over my t-shirt when I noticed that Mrs. Lansing had joined us.
   “Here!” she was explaining to Jay as they maneuvered a backdrop into place together. “More to the left.”
   “Gotcha,” Jay replied. “Let me get it for you. This thing is heavy.”
   In no time at all our stage was set up as a miniature house. There was a bustle as if someone had stirred up an anthill, and then like magic we were all in our assigned places. Mrs. Lansing sat down in her front center seat, and suddenly it was time. “All right,” she declared, looking straight at me. “Let’s get started.”
   A special little thrill passed through me, one that I’d never known outside of Drama class. I was the Narrator, a far more important part in this particular work than in most others. I stepped briskly out to the podium, then swallowed and pressed my split upper lip closed just as tightly as I could. The work we were about perform was a true masterpiece, and didn’t deserve to be lisped through.
   There Shall Come Soft Rains,” I began soberly. “A dramatization of the short story by Ray Bradbury…” Suddenly our classroom was filled with life and magic. Clocks spoke in poetic rhyme, automated appliances cooked hot breakfasts and electric mice cleaned carpets in a kind of parody of normal home life. But meanwhile, it very quickly became clear, the real mothers and fathers and children of all the world were dead, dead, dead; achingly dead and gone, until eventually the house died too and all that was left of the family and of mankind was a single electronic voice reading a poem about life and its inevitable passing. As always, the tragedy of it all absolutely overwhelmed me. I was openly weeping by the time I reached the closing couplet, though my voice remained as firm as I could make it, and I had to gather myself for a moment before reading the credits. “Narration by Blueberry Longleaper Rabbit,” I finally finished, and then Mrs. Lansing was on her feet and clapping her hands off. Even more importantly, she was crying too.
   “Wonderful!” she gushed. “Just wonderful! You all should be very proud of yourselves! We’re going to knock ‘em dead at Assembly next Friday!”
   “Yay!” we all cried out in a chorus, jumping up and down and slapping each other on the back. Every single one of us had experienced the intense chemistry, had felt Bradbury’s masterpiece come alive as we recited our lines and played our parts in the greater whole. Mrs. Lansing was right, and we all knew it. We were going to knock them dead!
   A bell rang in the distance, but we ignored it. Drama class was scheduled to run two hours, so the bell really only marked our halfway point. Our teacher gathered us into a circle and critiqued our performances. Bill Whiteman, one of the electric mice, had stepped to the left when his motion ought to have been to the right. Jay had failed to center one of the backdrops properly. Celia had been late on a cue. And my voice, despite my best efforts, had sounded a bit strained during the final poem. “I know that it’s very hard, Berry,” the teacher explained. “I was crying too. But I could afford to cry, being out in the audience, while on stage you simply cannot. You need to work on that some more.”
   I simply nodded. She was absolutely right, of course. I was probably the least-skilled actor in the room; my interest was in stage-design, at which I was frankly not particularly gifted either. Mrs. Lansing had considered my tenor voice to be perfect for Rains, however, and so I was giving it my best shot. When we had finished with our critique session, there was still almost ten minutes of class time left. “I could let you out early,” our teacher suggested. “You did wonderful work today…”
   None of us stirred, and Mrs. Lansing smiled. “All right, then. Let’s talk about something special.”
   “What?” Joey Cohen piped up.
   “The Summer Play, of course.” She paused dramatically as everyone sat straighter and my ears visibly perked up. “As you know, traditionally we do Shakespeare. Several hundred people show up; the Summer Play is a big event around here. This year, however, I feel like we ought to do something different.”
   “What?” Celia asked. She was almost certain to have the female lead, whatever it was. Her hands were visibly trembling.
   Alice in Wonderland!” the older woman replied, and suddenly everyone was staring directly at me.
   My ears rose again, but this time in alarm. “Oh, no! I couldn’t possibly…”
   But apparently others did not agree. “Awesome!” I heard Celia crow as she pounded the floor in ecstasy. “Yes, yes, yes!”
   “I want to be the Mad Hatter!” Jay cried out in delight as he reached over and hugged me to him tightly.
   “And I want to be the Dormouse!” Billy shouted. He was very small for his age, as well as being unusually gifted in the silliness department. There was no doubt that he’d get the part, none at all.
   “But, but…” I objected weakly.
   “But what?” Jay answered for everyone. “It’s perfect! I hate Shakespeare, even if I get flunked for saying so. We’re the perfect class for Alice. Thank you, Mrs. Lansing!”
   “Yes!” everyone cried out, one after another. “Thank you, thank you!” Then the bell rang, and this time we simply could not ignore it, much as we would have liked to. For the rest of the day, we would be normal high school kids attending mundane, dull high school classes. It was pretty hard to take after Drama.
   “Aww!” we cried out in the ritual chorus, and then one by one everyone filed out the door. I tried to hang around until last so that I could talk to Mrs. Lansing, but Jay wasn’t having any of that, not at all.
   “Come on!” he cried out, grabbing me by the elbow and grinning like the Cheshire cat that he might very well soon portray. “We’re late! We’re late!”
   “Yeah,” I answered weakly. “I guess we are at that.” And with those words I let him drag me out into the bustling hallways.

-= 3 =-

   The rest of the school day was every bit as humdrum as I’d expected it to be. I took a calculus test, watched a bad movie in American History, and took a nice nap in study hall. At lunch I sat right between Jay and Celia, listening to them chatter endlessly about Alice as I sat and quietly ate my greens. “You don’t seem very excited, Berry,” Celia pointed out eventually. “Is something wrong?”
   “Well,” I temporized. “I get to play a white rabbit every day. It’s not like the part is going to be any kind of challenge for me. Besides, I’m really worried about Digger.”
   “Hmm,” Jay replied thoughtfully. “You’re such a natural for the part that I never thought of it that way. And I do hope that everything comes out all right for your brother. He used to be so nice!” Then they were off again, talking a mile a minute about their hoped-for roles.
   On the ride home from school, I learned from Ray all about why the Marines still officially preferred the older M-14 rifle to the more modern AR-15, even though the Army weenies had forced the Corps to go with the inferior weapon regardless of the fact that they were wrong. Then I was off the bus and home at last. When I opened the garage Dad’s car was inside, something very unusual. He was waiting for me in the family room.
   “Hi, Berry. How was school today?”
   “Not bad,” I answered, closing the door behind me. “Have you heard from Digger?”
   Dad’s face fell, and I noticed that the liquor cabinet was open. Neither Mom nor Dad drank very often except when entertaining, but when they did you could be sure that something serious was bothering them. “No, son. Not a word. I came home early, hoping that he might come back in the afternoon when he thought that no one would be home. The minute I heard the garage door opener I was going to nab him. But he’s still out.”
   I sighed and looked down. “He is so stupid!”
   Dad sighed too, and then he stepped over and paced his forepaw on my shoulder. “I’m very proud of you for trying to stop him this morning, Berry. You’re growing up to be a fine young rabbit.”
   I looked my father in the eyes; among we Lapists being referred to as a rabbit is a very high compliment. To us, the word has a far more profound meaning than to normal humans. “I’ve had a very fine rabbit to live up to,” I replied after a long time. “Dad, Digger isn’t evil, you know. He’s just…”
   “Shh, shh, shh!” my father hushed me. “We’ll talk about Digger plenty later, I’m sure. But today is Wednesday. Or had you forgotten?”
   “Of course not,” I answered. Wednesdays and Sundays were always devoted to religious study and family activities. Dad had been tutoring Digger and I every Wednesday night in our faith for as long as I could remember. “But I thought that tonight…”
   Dad smiled. “You thought wrong. I’ll not have your brother’s delinquencies affecting you any more than I can help it, Blueberry. It’ll be just you and I tonight; your mother is working late at the lab. Have you got any urgent school homework that you need to take care of?”
   “Not really.” I was a good enough student that I rarely brought any work home at all, except on long holidays.
   “All right, then. I’ve chopped you up some nice veggies; they’re in the refrigerator. There’s some really tasty melon juice in there too.”
   I nodded eagerly. Melon juice was my favorite drink.
   Dad smiled. “I think I’d like to work on chapter twelve tonight. Would that suit you?”
   “Sure.” It really didn’t matter to me. One chapter was as important as another.
   “Good. You read up and eat dinner, and I’ll see you at about… What, six o’clock?”
   “All right,” I agreed. On a sudden impulse I stepped over and hugged my father. “He’ll be all right, Dad. I know it. Digger is a smart kid, in his way.”
   Dad hugged me back for a very long time before letting me go. “I sure hope so, Berry.”
   “I wish Mom was here, though. Why didn’t she come home too?”
   “She’s a gengineer, son. There’s a procedure in process. She can’t just up and leave; someone is depending on her.” Somehow, though, my Dad’s voice sounded considerably less certain than his words would indicate. “Now you go and study your texts, Berry, and I’ll do the same. Then we can have a nice discussion-time together.”
   I nodded, then dropped my schoolbooks on the coffee table and visited the kitchen. Dad had picked us up some fresh celery, crisp broccoli, and had run a very nice head of cabbage through the shredder. We rabbits are not much on heating things up; I simply took a large bowl out of the cabinet and filled it to the brim. Then I poured myself a nice, tall glass of melon juice and took everything to my room where I could study in privacy.
   The Book of Peace was the primary philosophical work behind the Lapist movement; it had been written by a gengineer at the turn of the last century, right about the time that gengineering had really taken off and proven itself practical. Sweetgrass Bloomsniffer Rabbit had been the very first Lapist; he wrote the Book of Peace as a direct result of having his body reworked into lapine form. Sweetgrass had not sought out mystical insights through physical change, he explained in the introduction. Rather, he had merely wanted to try something new and was one of very few people at the time in a position to do so. But his experiment had borne fruits far beyond his wildest expectations. Once he had opened his eyes as a rabbit and seen the world through new and gentler eyes, he’d known instantly that the universe could never be the same for him again. As a rabbit, he strongly believed, he was a far better person than he could ever have been as a human. When the body changed, he reasoned, the soul could not help but change as well. Within a year the Book of Peace was written, and Lapism was born.
   I smiled to myself as I pulled my own personal Book of Peace down from the shelf in my room. It was hard to believe that my parents had allowed me to even handle this particular book when I was very young, much less put it through the kind of battering that any normal kid dishes out in the normal course of things. But my grandfather had given it to me personally not long before he was martyred, and had given another one just like it to my brother. I clasped the big volume to my chest and sniffed at it. Yes, his scent was still there, all right. It was far more distinctive and personal than any mere signature could ever be, was the scent-mark of Sweetgrass himself. My grandfather, some Lapists claimed, was the cleanest-smelling rabbit who had ever lived. I was very lucky to be able to remember him; poor Digger could not, I knew.
   Chapter Twelve was all about what it truly meant to wear a rabbit’s body; it was in some ways the essence of the work. “When we choose to walk through a human-filled world as rabbits,” my grandfather stated, “we are making a crucial statement about ourselves with every breath we take, a public statement that no one can possibly miss. We are dedicating ourselves to peace, to living our lives in search of purity of soul, and to seeking gentle and humble existences. Living one’s life in a rabbit’s body is the most sincere possible commitment to the ideals of peace and harmony. Moreover, because the wearing of a rabbit’s body is such an all-encompassing and obviously different choice of lifestyle, the rabbit is continually reminded by both himself and others that his actions need now be judged by a higher standard. The new body provides both the means by which improvements in human nature can take place, and a continual spur to achieve greater and greater heights of goodness.”
   Sweetgrass went on to explain why he thought that the lapine form was so ideal a choice for personal improvement. There were subtle personality alterations in any human/animal morphing, and he felt that becoming a rabbit steered these alterations in exactly the right direction to counter the worst of humanity’s vices. Even more, as he himself pointed out, the greater human society acted to reinforce these personality changes. I knew from my own experience that people expected me to be nicer and more polite than they did most other folks, and that they usually were more polite in return. Being a rabbit was almost like wearing a clerical collar that I could never take off, and would not want to if I could. Grandfather had been completely right, so far as I could tell. Rabbithood could improve one’s life enormously, and made personal growth far easier for us than for the mundane. I was still young, but already I could see the truth of his beliefs. In elementary school, my ears had been pulled and the other kids had teased me and made me wish that I was a ‘normal’ person. Nowadays, however, I lived among more mature humans. Among adults I was now an object of respect, almost a holy figure, just as Grandpa had foreseen. Never a figure of fun.
   I sighed and closed my Book; I was supposed to be meditating more than reading; like most Lapists, I had the work practically memorized. Becoming a rabbit was the luckiest thing that had ever happened to me, I now understood, and being a Lapist suited me just fine. Someday I would in turn follow in Dad’s footsteps. Even now he was reading the same tracts as I was, trying to help his son along the Way. Lapism wasn’t a religious faith, not at all. We claimed no mystic knowledge, and pretended to no divine revelations. Rather, it was a way of life, and at that a far better one than anything else out there so far as I could tell. Once a year we Lapists held a big get-together, and hundreds of us rabbits flew in from all over the world. For that single glorious week we were able to live almost wholly among others like ourselves, and the difference that it made was incredible. Everyone was so nice and thoughtful and considerate!
   I sighed. There was just one problem that I could see. If Lapism was such a wonderful thing, then how had my own brother Digger gone so far astray? He was not the only rabbit ever to go bad, of course. But they were few, very few. And far between. How had Sweetgrass’s own grandson come to be among the failures? I thought and thought and thought about it, but there was no answer that I could see. Eventually six o’clock came, and it was time for Dad and I to hold our Discussion.

-= 4 =-

   My father was still studying when I entered the family room, reading his Book while absently swirling a mixed drink in his right paw. “Oh!” he said, looking up. “It’s six already?”
   “Uh-huh,” I answered, plopping down on the floor at his feet. “Time flies when you read Chapter Twelve, doesn’t it?”
   “It surely does,” Dad agreed. Then he carefully set his drink aside and began the Discussion. “Just a little while ago, son, we were standing in this very room telling each other what wonderful rabbits we are. Will you tell me what you think it means to be a rabbit, Berry?”
   “Sure! It means being able to hop really fast, having fur all over, big floppy ears—”
   “Berry!” Dad interrupted with a smile. “You haven’t been six years old in a very long time now. Come on! Give me the kind of answer that I know you can.”
   I smiled back. “All right, Dad. I think that being a rabbit is the essence of goodness, more or less. It’s not about wisdom; we’re no more gifted in that department than anyone else. And I don’t think that it’s about being morally better than anyone else either. What I think it’s all about is tapping into the potential for goodness that lies within us all. Maybe we increase that potential through our change like Grandfather thought, and maybe we do not. I’ve been a rabbit for longer than I can remember and therefore can never know. But I’m quite sure that being a rabbit is all about tapping the potential inside of us.” I paused. “Dad, you converted as an adult, right before you married Mom. Do you think that you’re a better person now?”
   “Yes,” he answered without hesitation. “Absolutely. I only wish that I’d been as lucky as you, and could never remember having been anything else. Anything lesser.” His eyes closed for a moment, then he sipped at his drink before continuing. “When I fell in love with your mother, I tried at first to persuade her to give up the ‘bunny rabbit nonsense’, as I used to call it. But over time I began to realize that the very things I admired and loved her for the most were part and parcel of her rabbithood, just like her crazy dad was claiming. Getting made into a bunny isn’t cheap nowadays, and was even more expensive back then. But I took out a loan and did it anyway. I decided that I wanted to be a Lapist whether she married me or not. Though she did, thank god.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “Your Mom thought at first that I had myself changed just to impress her. Sweetgrass, though, knew me better than I knew myself. He was like that; it felt sometimes like he could look right through you.” Dad paused and smiled. “I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, Berry. But my mother’s maiden name was Hutchings. Your grandfather and I used to laugh about that sometimes.”
   I sat up and crossed my legs Indian-style. “Really?”
   He sipped at his drink again. “Yeah. It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? Anyway, there is only one acid test for anything in life, and that is whether or not it works out in the real world. I can tell you that Lapism worked for me. I know this from personal experience. For just about everyone who joins us, it works. Not that we Lapists are all angels, mind you. I know of a few rabbits who are frankly real sons of bitches. And others that are irresponsible losers. But man for bunny, I think that we come off very well in any kind of moral or ethical comparison that you’d care to make.”
   I thought about that for a minute. Thinking about things was encouraged during discussion-time, or at least it was in my family. “Why is it, then, that we are not allowed to proselytize? Why aren’t we trying harder to share this with others?”
   “Because your grandfather believed, and I agree with him, that Lapism is something that you have to find within yourself. If the potential to be a rabbit is there, then the person in question will seek us out and find us. We’re kind of hard to miss, you know. We stand out in a crowd; everyone knows we’re around, and where to find us. If the potential is not there to begin with, then trying to persuade someone to become a rabbit against their nature would be a terrible mistake; a crime, even.” He sighed. “I wonder about your brother sometimes, quite frankly. It is our way to make the change to rabbit very young whenever it is possible to do so, and I believe that this is a good thing for the most part. But what if someone just doesn’t have a bunny in him? Your grandfather agonized over this very question a lot towards the end. He was never really sure what was right when dealing with kids.”
   “A lot of people would stop us entirely if they could,” I pointed out.
   Dad nodded. “Thank heavens for the Bill of Rights. By the time that animal-morphing was outlawed, your grandfather already had his Book written and almost two dozen converts in hand. The Supreme Court saw things our way and therefore our labs stayed open when all the rest closed.” He paused. “I’m frankly not so sure that the normal humans aren’t right, in some ways. We Lapists have sought to become more gentle and pure. But back when I was your age, there were people getting morphed into all kinds of vicious and obnoxious forms just for looks or thrills or money. If becoming a rabbit is good for the soul, which I know it to be, then is it not reasonable that becoming a lion, say, would be bad?”
   That was something I’d never thought about before. “I wonder what Digger would be like if he were a lion?” I asked. “Would he be happier?”
   “I doubt it,” Dad answered after a long time. “Though sometimes I wonder. Your grandfather told me several times that he ran a little wild himself when he was young. Sweetgrass was arrested for grand theft auto at age fourteen. He was convicted, too. Not a lot of people know that, Berry. And even those who do rarely talk about it. It doesn’t mesh very well with his clerical image.”
   I blinked. “No, it doesn’t.”
   Dad sighed. “Adolescence is a time of rapid growth and development of the personality. In humans it seems that rebellion against authority is an important part of the process. Whether we like to admit it or not, we Lapists are more human than rabbit by far. You’ve had a few bad days yourself, Berry. And you’re still young enough that I expect a few more of them before all is said and done.”
   I blushed, remembering times when I’d screamed at Dad at the top of my lungs over what I could now see had really been nothing at all. I’d not put my father through that again, not if I could help it. He didn’t deserve to be treated that way.
   “But you’ve pretty much kept things under control. Whatever it was that you needed in order to grow, you’ve found it somehow. Digger, though…” Dad sighed. “Digger is looking in all the wrong places. I just hope that he comes out as well as your grandfather did. Though on days like today I have my doubts, I must admit.”
   We sat quietly together for a long, long time. That happened a lot during discussion-sessions, and it might even have been my favorite part. “Dad?” I finally asked.
   “Yes, son?”
   “I need to ask you about something.”
   “What’s that?”
   “You know how much I like Drama class.”
   “Right. I’m planning on coming to see you narrate Soft Rains Friday, by the way. I meant to tell you that sooner, but I wasn’t sure until now that I could make it.”
   “Really?” I smiled. “Is Mom coming too?”
   “No, she has another procedure to perform.” Dad looked very tired for a moment, then he was all concern again. “What is it that you need to ask?”
   “Well… They’ve decided on a summer play.”
   “Instead of doing Shakespeare like they always do, they’re going to do something else. Because of me, I think.”
   “Because you’re such a good narrator?”
   I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “No, Dad. They want me to play the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.”
   “Oh.” He winced, then was very thoughtful for a time. “I can get you out of this on religious grounds, you know. The school district has been very good about this kind of thing. I suppose your teacher—what was her name again?”
   “Mrs. Lansing. She’s a really good teacher, Dad.”
   He held up a paw. “I know, I know. She’s top notch, in fact, judging from what I’ve seen. But she probably is not aware of our doctrine on this sort of thing. We never abuse our rabbithood by trivializing it like that. It means far too much to us.”
   “She just doesn’t know,” I confirmed. “I’m sure of it. But Dad, there’s more. Everyone—everyone!—except me is just dying to do Alice now instead of some dumb Shakespeare play. You should have seen the way that the whole class jumped up and cheered. And all of them were looking right at me!” I stared down at the carpet again. “Dad, I don’t want to do this. But how can I disappoint everyone? Everyone will know that it’s my fault if we don’t do Alice now.”
   Dad cocked his head to one side. “Why can’t they put on Alice anyway, and let you do something else? Like backstage work?”
   “Because… Because…” I sighed. “Because I’m an artist, Dad. They’re right; having me play the White Rabbit, and for that matter probably the March Hare too, will absolutely make this play. It’s the justification that Mrs. Lansing needs to break the Shakespeare tradition. If I don’t play these parts when I know that I could do a better job than anyone else, then I’m letting the troupe down. And they’re my friends too, Dad.”
   “Hmm.” My father picked up his glass, stared at it a moment, then sat it back down without drinking any. “There certainly are good arguments on both sides of this one, Berry. There most certainly are. I don’t know that there are any purely right or wrong answers here.”
   “But… But what should I do?”
   “You’ll have to make up your own mind, son. I’ll support you fully either way, so long as you’ve thought things through. Adolescence is about growth, after all. I guess that you’re about to do a little growing up.”
   “Dad!” I said loudly. “What would Grandfather have said? This is important! I don’t want to put him to shame!”
   “Beats the hell out of me, son, to tell you the truth. This situation probably would have beaten the hell out of him too. He never asked to be venerated, and honestly never considered himself to be anything really special. The way his writings are practically worshipped today would not have pleased him. Most likely, he would have advised you to make up your own mind, like I just did.” He smiled lopsidedly. “Only you can decide this one, Berry.”
   I sighed and rested my muzzle in my paws. “I don’t want to make Lapism look like a joke. Honestly I don’t! But I can’t let my friends down either!”
   Dad reached out and touched my shoulder. “I know, son. Think about it, and then do the best that you can. In the end doing the best that you can is what being a rabbit is really all about, now isn’t it?”

-= 5 =-

   Dad and I watched television for a little while after Discussion time was over, and then around nine I went to bed. We rabbits need more rest than normal humans, especially during our teen years. It’s one of the few real drawbacks. I’d been asleep for what felt like a very long time but probably really wasn’t when Mom’s voice woke me up. “…and we’re likely to stay overloaded for a long time to come!” she was saying loudly, not quite shouting. “People are waiting a year or more to become rabbits. The only other clinic in the world willing to do this kind of work is terribly overpriced. You know that! I have real obligations at work, too! Important ones!”
   “I know,” Dad replied in a calmer voice. “I know all about it. And you being Sweetgrass’s daughter makes it even more important that you be there in the front lines. I recognize that, and accept it. But you’ve got to look at the other end of things too, is all that I am saying. Digger is in real trouble. And you’re not spending nearly enough time with Berry, either. It’s a miracle that he’s turned out to be such a good kid so far, what with all the mayhem going on around him. When is the last time that you were at Discussion Night? Have you ever even attended one of his plays?”
   There was a long silence. “Shit!” Mom cursed in frustration. Then there was a long silence. “There are only so many hours in the day, Silkfur,” she said finally. “You’re right, I know. But I’ve got such huge responsibilities…”
   Things grew very quiet then, and I was just about to go back to sleep when there came a scratching at my window. “Berry!” I heard my brother’s voice whisper. “Berry! Are you awake?”
   I was out of bed and at the window in a flash. “What in the world?” I asked conversationally, opening it up. “Why aren’t you—”
   “Shhh!” he interrupted, real urgency in his voice. “Have the cops come by?”
   “Not that I know of,” I replied, voice lowered. “I’ve been in bed, but I think that I’d have noticed if anyone had come to the door.”
   “Whew!” Digger seemed to deflate a little, as if he’d been very worried about something. “Open up the screen and let me in, willya?”
   “Sure!” If my brother wanted to enter the house via a window instead of a door, that was just fine by me. In fact, I’d have willingly knocked a hole in the wall, just so long as he was back in the house. The screen took only a moment to unlatch, and then my brother squirmed on through.
   “Thanks, Berry!” he whispered. “I appreciate it.”
   Carefully I sniffed at Digger. His fur reeked of dope and… Blood! “Digger! Are you hurt?” I reached for his left arm, where I thought the scent was coming from, but he snatched it away.
   “I’m fine! It’s just a scratch.”
   I sighed. “Don’t be stupid, Dig. If I can smell it this easily, you’re bleeding pretty badly. It needs to be looked at. Besides, Mom and Dad have good noses too.”
   With great reluctance my brother extended his arm out to me. I reached over and turned on the reading lamp at my desk. Sure enough, about halfway down the outside of Dig’s left forearm there was a great mass of clotted blood in his fur. “Yech!” I said. “I’m no doctor, but I bet this will need stitches.”
   “No!” he snapped, snatching his arm back again. “Mom and Dad can’t find out. Not ever!”
   I sighed. “Digs,” I began, then let my voice trail off. There was something else in my brother’s scent besides dope and blood, I suddenly realized. It was the stink of fear, not like what came from riding a carnival ride but real, acrid honest-to-goodness run-for-your-life fear. “It’s okay,” I said reassuringly, just like I’d heard Dad do when one of us got hurt playing games. “I’m not going to tell anyone or do anything unless you let me. All right?”
   He stared into my eyes intently, then decided I was telling the truth. “All right, Berry.”
   I smiled. “Good. Now, let’s get you into the bathroom and get this cleaned up.”
   Digger and I worked very quietly, as our parents were equipped with ears every bit as sensitive as our own. I used the emergency flashlight from the hall closet to work by. Mom and Dad weren’t talking any more that we could tell, just sitting quietly and watching television together. If we made too much noise, they would certainly hear us. “Owww!” Digs hissed as I poured antiseptic over his fur. “Fuck, but that hurts!”
   “Shh!” I cautioned him. “Be quiet!” Cleaning clotted blood out of dense rabbit fur is a real bear of a job, but Lapists get lots of practice and tend to keep the right supplies for the job convenient and ready to use. Digger’s fur was dark brown, and that helped a lot. It was much harder to get stains out of white fur, like mine. The wound proved to be small but deep. It looked like a puncture to me. The bleeding had mostly stopped, though there was still a little oozing. “You’ve been in a knife-fight, haven’t you?” I asked accusingly.
   “Shit!” he cursed again as the antiseptic penetrated deeper. “And what business is it of yours?”
   “I’m your brother.”
   “You’re a candy-ass,” he answered me, though his tone was far more kindly than the words themselves. “Stay out of this, Berry. This kind of thing… Well, it’s just not for you.”
   I sighed. “You’re my little brother,” I repeated again. “Did that Parks guy get you into some kind of trouble?”
   “No! Shut up, Berry. I’m warning you!”
   By then I was almost finished with the bandaging job. “I still think that you need to go see a doc about this. Or else at least let Mom look at it.”
   “No,” he answered me, looking down at the carpet. “I… I just can’t.”
   I nodded. “All right, then. I promised you that I wouldn’t say anything, and I won’t. But will you let me look at it every day or so? To see if it’s getting infected?”
   “Yeah,” he finally agreed reluctantly.
   I smiled, then grew serious once more. “Good. You know, you’re going to have to talk to Mom and Dad eventually. They’re worried sick about you.”
   For the first time, my brother looked slightly repentant. “I could go back out the window,” he said slowly. “Put on a different shirt, try and clean up my scent…”
   I wasn’t really sure if it was the right thing to do or not, but I knew that Mom and Dad really were worried sick about Digger. Anything that got the three of them back together seemed like a good idea. So I dug out the scent-killer spray and my brother found himself a clean long-sleeved shirt and we bustled away until he was at least presentable. My sibling would still be in very serious trouble, but not nearly so bad as he otherwise would have been. In a few minutes he was sitting astride my windowsill once again, looking at me with an odd expression on his face that I couldn’t quite identify. “Thanks, Berry,” he finally said.
   “You’re welcome,” I answered, surprising myself by meaning it. “That’s what brothers are for.” Digger sat there for just a moment longer, then he smiled and was gone. Hurriedly I closed my window back up, then threw myself back under the covers. A very long time passed, and I began to worry that Digger had lied to me and headed back out to wherever it was that Zach Parks took him all of the time. But presently the doorbell rang. Someone bigger and heavier then me hopped down the hall very fast, and then I heard Dad’s voice.
   “Digger!” he cried out in relief. “Thank god, son! Thank god! We were so worried! Come on inside.” Then Mom cried and Dad got all stuttery and it was only after all of that was over and done with that everyone lowered their voices and the hard questions began for my brother. I couldn’t make out individual words; our house was soundproofed much too well for that. But I fell back to sleep fairly certain from everyone’s tones of voice that Digger’s answers had not proven to be very satisfactory at all.

-= 6 =-

   For the next few weeks things actually returned to something resembling normal. Digger got grounded, of course, and he complained about that a lot. But Mom and Dad never found out that he’d gotten hurt. He went back to school without too much fuss, and even played baseball with Jay and I sometimes as the weather grew warm and the days longer. At first he grew nervous whenever a police car drove down our street, but in time even that passed and Digger went back to being pretty much the same brother I’d always known, save for the fact that he didn’t seem to smile very much any more.
   Soft Rains was a huge hit at Assembly, so much so that a visiting School Board member arranged for us to go on tour around the whole District. Mrs. Lansing was elated, even though this meant that we were going to get a late start on Alice. Our Drama class had been highly respected even before we went on tour, but now we were at the very peak of success. There was even talk of us performing at a few of the larger high schools outside of our immediate area. All of us were very proud of ourselves, but the best thing about the situation for me was that I didn’t have to make a decision about portraying the White Rabbit right away. We continued to perfect Rains every single school day.
   One Saturday Jay and I went to see Waiting for Godot, a play that he badly wanted to see. It was being performed at a small theater downtown, so Dad let me borrow the car. Keith was supposed to be coming as well; he and Jay were pretty much inseparable. But when I pulled up into Jay’s driveway and honked, he came out alone.
   “Where’s Keith?” I asked him as he settled in with his seatbelt.
   “Not coming,” he answered shortly. “Come on, we’ll be late!”
   We weren’t running late at all. In fact, I was a couple of minutes early. But I backed out of the driveway anyway and drove us down the street. “Is he at work?” Keith worked at a local fast food place on Saturdays, I knew. Though he’d planned to take today off.
   “No,” Jay answered gruffly. Then he sighed and seemed to melt a little. “We’ve broken up.”
   I nearly slammed on the brakes in shock. Jay and Keith, broken up? It was unthinkable! “What? I mean…”
   “He’s decided that he’s not gay,” Jay explained in a dead voice. “He told me not to take it personally, and that he still wants to be friends. But he said that he wants kids someday.”
   I slowly closed my gaping mouth. “A lot of people thought that you two might be gay,” I said eventually. “But…”
   “No ‘buts’ for me, thank you,” Jay said bitterly. “I’ve not the slightest doubt in my mind which gender turns me on. Neither did Keith, so far as I knew. He waited until he was sure, he said on the phone last night, and then he told me that he doesn’t want to see me for a while. That he wants to try and find a girlfriend.”
   The pain in Jay’s voice was terrible. “I’m… I’m so very sorry,” I said after a long time. “It’s not nearly enough, I know. But it’s all that I can say.”
   “I know,” Jay answered with a sigh. “It’s not anybody’s fault, I guess. Not even Keith’s. Still, it hurts so much!”
   Jay was openly sobbing before long, his forehead resting on the dashboard. I drove steadily on, feeling terrible for my friend but having no idea of what to do. Finally when we were getting fairly close to the theater and my friend was clearly still in no shape to face the public, I pulled off the highway well short of our planned exit. “We’re still ahead of schedule,” I explained. “I’m going to follow the highway from a side road and give you some extra time to settle down.”
   “Thanks,” Jay whispered.
   “No problem,” I answered as we pulled up to a traffic light. I’d never been to this part of town before; there were big factory buildings all around us and everything looked old and dirty. The air smelled bad, too. One smokestack was pouring out an oily-looking cloud, but otherwise everything seemed very deserted. Which made sense on a Saturday, I supposed. Eventually the light changed and I pulled onto an empty street. There was no traffic at all to speak of, and paralleling the main highway proved to be as simple as I’d planned. Jay was still weeping gently from time to time, but otherwise things seemed to be going pretty well.
   Until I began to hear jackhammers up ahead.
   “Damn!” I mumbled.
   “What?” my passenger asked, looking up with red-rimmed eyes. “What’s wrong?”
   “I hear road construction up ahead.” Sure enough, even as I said the words we passed the first orange warning sign. “Damn!” I murmured again.
   “It’ll be all right,” Jay reassured me. “If we’re late, we’re late.”
   “I know, but still…” I looked over at the elevated Interstate, but there didn’t seem to be any on-ramps in the immediate area. “Damnit!”
   “It’ll be all right,” Jay said again. “If we’re late it’s my fault, not yours.”
   I pressed my lips together in irritation, then relaxed to the inevitable. If there wasn’t any way around the blockage, then we would just have to go through no matter how long it took. “All right,” I agreed. “Let’s talk about the play for a while then, all right? Sort of to get into the mood?”
   Jay smiled then, as I’d hoped he would. “It’s going to be so cool!” he exclaimed cheerfully. “I’ve wanted to see this ever since I was a freshman!”
   I nodded and listened to him rattle on about Godot almost as badly as Ray did sometimes about the Marine Corps. There wasn’t much traffic, and the slowdown at the work site was not nearly so bad as I’d feared it might be. When we got up close to where the street was torn up, a flagger sent me off to the left onto a side street. We were going on a detour!
   The alternate routing proved to be a long one, running through a residential neighborhood filled with decaying four-family flats and broken-down cars parked on the streets. There was graffiti spray painted all over everything, and some of the designs looked suspiciously like gang symbols. I made sure that our doors were locked at the first stop sign, but otherwise everything seemed to be okay. Some folks stared at me, but I was used to that happening in places where I was a stranger. It was a natural enough reaction, really, and not something for me to take offense at. We were almost back to the main route before anything happened at all. And when it did, it was such a small thing that Jay didn’t even notice right away. I pulled up carefully to a badly graffiti-ed stop sign…
   …and didn’t move. “What?” Jay asked. “What’s wrong?”
   “Look!” I said, pointing at a dirty building with iron bars welded across all of the windows. “Over there!”
   “What?” Jay asked again. “I don’t see anything!”
   The driver behind me tapped his horn, but I ignored him. “In the parking lot at the tavern, off to the left. Look!”
   “Wha… Oh!” Jay said, suddenly understanding. “Wow!”
   “Yeah,” I answered in a near-growl. “Wow!” Not fifty feet away from us my brother’s friend Zachary Parks sat confidently astride his motorcycle, smoking a cigarette and smiling as if he had not a care in the world. Gathered around him in a loose knot were perhaps a half-dozen kids just about Digger’s age. Most importantly of all, I noticed as an icy fist seemed to clamp down inside of me, all of them wore blue hats and shirts. Just exactly like the clothing that my brother had worn, I suddenly realized, when I[‘d last seen them together.
   On the day that Digger had been stabbed.
   I sat and stared at Parks for a few more seconds, then the driver behind me honked again, more insistently this time. I waved to him in apology, then drove on across the intersection.
   “Oh my God!” Jay whispered. “I don’t believe it!”
   “Me either,” I answered through a tight throat. “What should I do?”
   “Keep right on going, Berry,” Jay urged me. “There’s nothing you can do here except get us into trouble, too. Just keep right on going.”
   I nodded and accelerated to normal speed; up until then I’d been seriously considering turning around and going back. “You’re right,” I sighed. “Damnit, why would Digger come all this way to get into trouble?”
   “Who knows?” Jay answered with a sigh. “Who knows?”
   In just a couple more minutes we were past the construction zone and back on the main route; by happy chance it turned out that the road we were already on passed directly behind the theater, so that we were able to pull directly into the lot and park without any delay. Jay and I rushed in and took our seats just the lights were dimming. “Wow!” I murmured. “That was close!”
   “Shh!” Jay replied. He took his drama even more seriously than I did.
   Godot proved to be one of the most profoundly depressing things I had ever seen, full of broken promises and futile speculation and twisted innuendos. I’d known that the work was going to be something of a downer, of course, but this particular troupe had made the work come alive in its entire nihilistic splendor. It was both overwhelmingly powerful and overwhelmingly ugly. “Geez!” I muttered as the lights came back up for the last time. “Oh, geez!”
   “Yeah,” Jay answered in a dead tone. There was an uncharacteristically sad note in his voice. “‘Surely he will come tomorrow.’”
   I shivered at the quote from the play we had just seen, and then the cast was parading out onto the stage. Most of the audience rose to their feet applauding, and then Jay and I joined them. Godot might have been a work of bitter sarcasm and barrenness, but the men and women in front of us had brought it to life in a magnificent fashion. “Hurrah!” I heard Jay cry out over and over again as he applauded, tears running freely down his cheeks. “Hurrah!” I’d never seen him so moved.
   We’d planned to go out messing around together after the matinee, but neither of us were really in the mood. Jay just wanted to go home. He was missing Keith and I was still sort of upset at finding out that Digger had been messing around with a gang. Even more, the sheer impact of Godot was weighing heavily on both of our souls. I dropped Jay off, then went home to catch up on schoolwork. All in all it was a very ordinary Saturday night. Mom was working, Dad chopped up dinner, Digger played computer games and I studied. Everything seemed very quiet and normal, right up until about nine-thirty or so.
   When an ambulance came tearing down our street.
   All three of us who were at home rushed to the living-room window to see where it was going, of course. It wasn’t every day that one of our neighbors had an emergency. And, being rabbits, all three of us got there in plenty of time to find out. The vanlike vehicle slowed as it came past our house, and for just a terrible moment I thought that it was going to pull into my friend Ray’s driveway. Then it rolled on past, however, and turned down the next street.
   “Oh, my!” Dad said as it disappeared from sight. “Do we know anyone who lives down that way?”
   “Just…” I began, but the words choked in my throat. Somehow I already knew.
   “Jay!” Digger cried out for me. “Jay lives down that way!”
   The three of us burst out the front door like shots from a gun; Dad first, then Digger, and me bringing up the rear due to the fact that I’d frozen up for a second or two at the windowpane. Mom was pulling up into the driveway just at that very moment, and I watched Dad peel off to let her know what was going on. My brother had a large lead to begin with, but as I rounded the corner behind him I could see that the ambulance had indeed pulled up in front of Jay Norton’s place.
   “No!” I puffed out. “Please, no!”
   “Come on!” Digger cried from out in front, lowering his head and driving his hindlegs even harder; Jay was his friend too, though not as close of one as I was. By the time we skidded to a halt in Jay’s driveway, we were hopping side-by-side. The front door was standing wide open, and the paramedics had already gone into the house. None of the other neighbors had arrived yet, though I could hear Mom and Dad’s claws scratching at the pavement behind us. Inside, someone was crying. It sounded a lot like Jay’s mom. For a long moment I stood on the front porch and fidgeted; should I go in or not, I wondered? Then I heard the crying again, and made my decision.
   “Hello?” I asked loudly with my head inside the door. “Hello?”
   “Berry?” It was Jay’s voice, though very weak. “Berry? Is that you?”
   I took this as an invitation and stepped the rest of the way in. The paramedics had their equipment spread out in the hallway, and I walked slowly in that direction. “Jay?”
   This time my friend did not answer. Everyone seemed to be crowded into the bathroom, so I stuck my head in as well. Instantly I regretted it; the room looked like a slaughterhouse. There was bright red blood spattered all over everything, almost as if it had been sprayed out of a hose. On the floor lay my friend Jay, naked and pale. His lower arms were as crimson as if he’d immersed them into a bucket of gore, and the ambulance crew was busily applying tourniquets just as quickly as they could.
   “Tell Keith it’s not his fault, Berry!” Jay said weakly. “Tell him that I want him to be happy with whoever he finds!”
   Then something popped on one Jay’s dressings and more blood jetted out. “Shit!” swore one of the paramedics. She looked up at me. “Get out of here, kid. We’re very busy. You need to give us room.”
   “Yes, ma’am!” I agreed, ducking back out into the hallway.
   “Berry!” Jay cried out again. He sounded very weak. “Tell Keith for me! Please!”
   “All right!” I agreed, backing down the hallway and almost bumping into Dad there. “I’ll do it!”
   “Thanks, Berry!” Jay cried out. “You’ve been a real good friend!”
   I felt Dad’s paw on my shoulder then; he was gently pulling me back out into the living room. Jay’s mom was standing there, hugging my mother so tight that Mom was clearly in pain. “It’s all right,” she was reassuring Mrs. Norton over and over again. “It’s going to be all right. There’s help here now. Everything is all right.”
   “What’s this about Keith?” Dad asked me.
   “I… I…” Somehow it didn’t seem right to talk about it in front of Mrs. Norton, not just then. “I’ll tell you. But later. Please?”
   He looked me in the eye, then nodded. “All right.”
   “Owwww!” I hear Jay scream from the bathroom, and his mother flinched terribly.
   “It’s a good sign that he can yell like that!” Mom explained eagerly, trying to distract Mrs. Norton from her son’s suffering. “It means that he’s not lost too terribly much blood yet. I’m a gengineer and not a medical doctor, mind you. But I deal with patients enough to know that it’s a good sign!”
   Mrs. Norton looked dubious at first, but then thought things through on her own and nodded. For the first time she relaxed her grip on Mom a tiny bit. “Sundew, I—”
   “Owwww!” Jay cried out again.
   This time his mother almost looked relieved. “I thank you so very much for coming.”
   Mom looked relieved too, and I began to realize that everything really was going to be all right. “Silkfur, I’m going to drive Annette to the hospital behind the ambulance, if she will let me—”
   “Yes,” she interjected. “Please! I’d be so grateful. I’m much too shaky to drive myself.”
   “Good,” Mom continued. “Could you please bring my car down while we’re waiting for the technicians to finish up in the bathroom?”
   “Sure, Hon,” he replied. “I’ll be right back.”
   Then Mom turned to me. “Are you all right, Berry? You look pretty upset.” She stepped over and caressed my cheek fur just like she used to do when I was small. It felt very nice.
   “I am pretty upset,” I admitted. “But I’ll be okay.”
   “Good!” Mom replied with a smile. “That’s my Blueberry!” Then she turned to my brother, who had been quietly taking everything in with wide eyes. “How about you, Brightmint?”
   “I’m fine,” Digger replied in his best “Aw, Mom!” tone. She was the only one who ever called him by his first name.
   Just then the ambulance men began rolling Jay down the hall, and Mrs. Norton leapt to her son’s side. He seemed even paler than he had been, and both lower arms were heavily wrapped in bloodstained bandages. His mother drew in a sharp breath. “Oh, my poor baby!” she cried as he rolled past her. “Oh, my little boy!”
   Dad arrived with the car while they loaded Jay up, and Mom escorted Mrs. Norton out to it in the brisk, businesslike manner with which she always greeted emergencies. “I’ll call later,” she said to Dad as they passed. “I don’t know when.”
   “Right,” my father agreed laconically. He nodded towards the bathroom. “I think that I’ll just…”
   Mom’s eyebrows rose, then fell as she understood what he had in mind. “Right. Good thinking!” Then she was gone. The ambulance roared off, and then Dad and Digger and I were standing alone in Jay’s house, still trying to wrap our heads around what had just happened.
   “Well!” Dad said at last, breaking the long awkward silence. “First things first. I’ll be right back.” He walked to the front door and I heard him talking to Mr. Waynesman, who lived next door to the Nortons. He was standing at the head of a whole crowd of concerned neighbors, who had been eager to help but a little slower in arriving than us rabbits. “It’s Jay,” Dad explained to him. “I’m not going to compromise their privacy, but I think that he’ll be okay. There’s no one left here in the house but my family; I’m going to do some cleaning and then lock up for Annette. Can you let everyone know that it’s time to go home? There’s nothing more that anyone can do right now.”
   “Sure, Silk,” he agreed. “If you folks are helping out then I know that Annette and Jay are in good hands.” Next he raised his voice into a harsh bellow. “Hello, everyone!” he cried out. “Hello! Please, gather around the end of the driveway and I’ll let you know…”
   Meanwhile, Dad slipped unobtrusively back inside with us. “Digger,” he said, turning to my brother. “Are you really all right?”
   He shrugged. “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”
   Dad sighed. “There was a lot of blood, son. I want to make sure that it didn’t upset you.”
   He looked down at the ground. “No, Dad. Blood doesn’t really bother me very much. Not anymore.”
   “Good. Hop on home then, if you would. Your brother and I need to talk for a little bit, and then I’ll send him on behind you. All right?”
   “All right,” he replied. In a flash he was gone.
   Dad turned to me. “Do you know anything about this, son?” he asked me from behind deeply penetrating eyes. “Is there something you need to tell someone?”
   I pressed my lips together, then took my own turn staring down at the floor. “I know why he was so upset, Dad. He probably didn’t tell anyone else. But I had no idea that… I mean…” Suddenly my voice choked up.
   Dad reached over and hugged me close to him. “It’s all right, Berry. I know that you didn’t think that this was going to happen. If you had, you’d surely have done something about it. I know that.”
   I cried on his shoulder for a little while before I was able to speak. “Dad, I’m not sure how much of this we can even tell Mrs. Norton. But Jay’s gay.”
   Dad nodded. “I’ve suspected that for a long time now, Berry. It’s not something that matters to me.
   “Or to me either,” I agreed. “But it sure matters a lot to him. He was okay with it though, I think. At least until today.”
   “What happened today?”
   So I explained about Keith and him wanting to get a girl, and how very depressing Godot had been, all the while Dad’s face growing longer and longer. “I think that I understand,” he said eventually. “I’ll let your Mom know. She’s at her best in emergencies like this. I think that they remind her of work.”
   I grinned weakly. “Yeah.”
   Dad smiled back. “Is that all that you know about this, Berry? Is there anything else?”
   “Not that I can think of,” I replied honestly. Then I nodded towards the bathroom. “Need help cleaning up?”
   Dad’s grin faded away. “No thanks, Son. With your white fur, it would be even harder to clean you up after we were done with the bathroom.” He paused. “The white was your mom’s idea, you know. I’m sorry for all the trouble that it’s caused you. I wanted to make you gray, like your grandfather.”
   I nodded and smiled. “I like being the way I am, Dad. A lot.”
   “It shows,” he replied. “It shows. Now, go on home and play video games or something with your brother. Neither of you should be alone for a little bit. I’m going to call your mother, then do the best I can with this mess here. I have no idea how long it’s going to take; if it’s too bad you two should go ahead and go to bed. Don’t wait up for me. All right?”
   “All right,” I agreed. “Good night.”
   “Good night,” he answered me. Then, for no apparent reason at all he hugged me again, extra-tight. “Son,” he whispered in my ear. “You can always talk to me. About anything. You know that, don’t you?”
   I blinked in surprise. “Of course I do. Why?”
   Dad sighed, then released me and looked down the hall to where scattered patches of Jay’s blood had been tracked out onto the carpet. “I just wanted to make sure,” he answered me mysteriously. “Very, very sure.”

-= 7 =-

   Digger was in his room when I got home; politely I scratched at the door.
   “Come on in, Berry,” he answered, and I did so. His bed was unmade, as usual, and the dirty clothes were plied in a corner. My brother was playing video games, and without asking I sat down on a beanbag and picked up the other controller. Digger hit reset, and then we were playing against each other.
   “I don’t know why Dad thought I might get upset,” Digger said after a long time. “It was just blood.”
   “Well,” I answered. “Jay is your friend.”
   “Yeah,” he answered with a shrug. “But he’s a fag. Fags always do that kind of thing.”
   Suddenly I got very angry. “Really?” I asked. “What makes you say so?”
   Apparently he didn’t notice the way I’d stiffened. “Well… Look at how he tried to do it; he slit his wrists, like a girl! And his supposed-to-be last words. ‘Tell Keith that it’s not his fault!’ Yeah, right! Who the fuck else’s fault is it supposed to be then? He’s not even man enough to admit to himself that he really wants to ruin his ex-lover’s life. What a total loser!”
   My jaw worked in anger for a few minutes, and my heart raced. “So, Jay’s a real loser, is he?” I finally asked. “A real fag loser?”
   “Uh-huh. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a nice enough dude. I don’t wish him bad luck or anything like that. I hope he gets better, even. But, yeah. He’s a fag and a loser.”
   My eyes narrowed. “So explain something to me, Digger. Why is it so much better when someone else puts the knife blade into you, instead of you doing it yourself? How are you any less a loser if you go out and poison your brain and your life with a bunch of gang and drug shit instead of having the balls to slit your own wrists at home and not hurt anybody else?”
   Digger’s jaw dropped. “I am not—”
   “The fuck you’re not!” I screamed, rising to my feet. “The fuck you’re not! I just saw your big bad friend Zachary Parks out on his bike today, with about a dozen kids your age slobbering all over him. It was on the corner of Tenth and Broadway, at a little tavern. Every last one of his little groupies was dressed in blue! So tell me, Digger! Go ahead and tell me how come you’re so fucking much better than Jay!”
   Digger’s jaw worked a little bit. “I hurt the other guy a lot worse than he got me.”
   “Oh!” I said in mocking tones. “Oh, I see. So you hurt somebody else even worse than he got you, and that makes everything all better. Did he die?”
   “No. I thought that he might have, but…”
   I remembered how terribly frightened Digger had been that night; now I understood why. “So it would have been even cooler if he had died in a fight over nothing? Being a murderer would have made you cooler than your fag loser friend Jay?”
   “God damn you!” Digger exploded, throwing his game controller to the ground. “What the fuck do you want from me? I quit running with them, didn’t I?”
   “You did,” I admitted grudgingly. “But you’re still a mess, Digger. I hear that you might flunk a bunch of classes.”
   “Yeah, and so what?”
   “Dad’s at his wit’s end with you, you know. So is Mom. We all love you, but none of us understand any of this.” I paused for effect. “You’re not being much of a rabbit, you know.”
   “Shit!” Digger exploded again. He picked up the game controller, then threw it down harder than he had the first time. “Shit, shit, shit! Do have any fucking idea of how sick I am of hearing about Lapism, Berry? How totally fucking sick I am of looking so fucking stupid and of having a fucked-up first name like “Brightmint?”
   “Digger, I—”
   “Digger! That’s right. Thank god that my middle name isn’t totally fucked up like yours, at least. Thank fucking god!”
   I looked at the floor and sighed. “So it’s all right for you to go and hurt other people and yourself too, just because you don’t want to be a Lapist?”
   “I… I… Fuck you, Berry! Fuck you, all right? Now get the fuck out of my room!”
   “Digger, I just—
   “Get the fuck out!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, leaping to his feet and flinging the door wide open. “Just get the fuck out, you candy-ass motherfucker!”
   I stood up slowly and went; clearly there wasn’t point in staying where I wasn’t wanted. A few minutes later, though, as I sat and tried to study, I could just barely hear my brother lying on his bed, sobbing into his pillow.

-= 8 =-

   Going back to school Monday morning was very hard; the bus stop crowd was unusually gloomy and silent. Even Ray wasn’t saying anything. Finally I tried to break the mood. “How’s your weight doing?” I asked my seat-mate cheerfully. “Still on schedule for boot camp?”
   He looked at as if I’d hit him. “I’ve gained seven pounds in the last two weeks,” he answered in a whisper. “And I haven’t really exercised at all. Just as I was about to make goal for once, I started eating like a pig. This morning I tried to do pushups, but I couldn’t do hardly any.”
   I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it. There really wasn’t very much I could say.
   “Dad is going to kill me,” he said. “I’ve been lying to him about running and stuff. He hasn’t seen me in over a year.”
   I pressed my lips together and thought as hard as I could. “Maybe you can get your induction date pushed back?”
   “I could. But Berry, the harder I try to diet the more weight I gain! I just can’t make myself into a fighting machine!” Putting things off would just make it worse.”
   “I’ve heard that they have a special diet for overweight people in boot camp…”
   “Not for me,” Ray replied sadly. “I’m way over the upper limit even for that. Dad is going to kill me.”
   I nodded and sighed, and then we waited in silence for the bus to come. When it did, I sat down in my usual spot in front of Keith. ”Hi!” I greeted him. “How are you today?”
   He looked at me like I was crazy, and suddenly I realized just how worn and haggard-looking he was. “Like shit,” he said in a dead voice. “And now everyone in the whole frigging world knows that I thought for a while that I might be gay. Thanks to Jay.”
   I sighed. “Keith, it’s really all right. What Jay did to himself was his own decision, not yours. You couldn’t do anything about it. And, to tell the truth…” I let my voice trail off, not sure if I should go on.
   “Yes?” he asked.
   “Well… The truth of the matter is that most people thought you were gay already. If that is a problem for you, then frankly you’re better off now than you were before.”
   “Ha!” Keith’s laugh was a single bitter syllable. “Thanks, Berry. I think.”
   I shrugged, then turned around forward in my seat. The truth was the truth, and I’d done my best. One way or another, he’d have to find a way to deal with it.
   “I’m hungry,” Ray moaned. “I skipped breakfast, and I’m hungry already. Oh, geez! Dad is going to kill me!”
   Even Drama class didn’t get off to a good start that Monday; everyone already somehow knew what had happened with Jay, and even though I wanted to safeguard his privacy it seemed that it was too late. Instead of leaping about our tasks, as usual, everyone formed into a huddle around me and pressed for details. I refused to talk about it, though, which made everyone madder and madder until finally the bell rang and Mrs. Lansing came in. Even she was not smiling, for once. Instead, her face seemed set and determined. “All right, class,” she called out. “Everyone gather around over here by the stage.”
   We all stepped across the room. “As I suppose all of you know by now,” Mrs. Lansing began, “Jay Norton is going to be out of school for some time. Perhaps even the rest of the year.”
   We all nodded.
   “This means,” Mrs. Lansing continued, “that some very difficult decisions need to be made. For example, George. You are going to have to be the voice of the oven in Rains Friday, on top of playing a mouse.”
   George nodded; he’d already figured that out. “Yes, Ma’am,” he replied with his usual quiet confidence.
   Mrs. Lansing sighed. “There’s a lot more to it than that, however. We only had thirteen students in Drama class to begin with this year, though I must say that despite your small size you’ve been the finest class that I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach. But I’m afraid that between the loss of Jay and the other delays we’ve created through our own success, producing Alice is going to be a bit too much of a reach. There just aren’t enough of us left, nor is there enough time for proper preparation anymore. I spoke with the principal last night, and she’s given me the green light to continue Rains in production right on through the Summer play. She also asked me to tell you that she cries every time she watches you perform it, and that you should be very, very proud of what you have accomplished. You are the very first Drama class in this district to ever go on tour, and that says a lot for you.”
   I felt an immense weight lift from my shoulders; for just a moment I wanted to leap around the room in joy. No white rabbit part! I would not have to make the decision between faith and friends after all! But as I stood up straight and tall and joyful, I realized that the rest of my classmates were devastated. “No!” Celia said after a moment. “We can do this, Mrs. Lansing. We can find a way!”
   “Minimalist costumes!” Joey Cohen cried out. “Minimal props! They’re traditional for Alice anyway. Except for the White Rabbit, of course.” He reached over and thumped me on the shoulder. “And we’ve got that one covered, for sure!”
   “We can write out some scenes if we need to,” George mused. “Like the Duchess and the pig baby. I never thought much of that one anyway.”
   “We can pull this off!” Celia stated again, pounding her fist on a bleacher-seat for emphasis. “We can! Oh, won’t you please let us try, Mrs. Lansing? Please?”
   Our teacher was somewhat taken aback. “Your grades wouldn’t suffer, you know. It wouldn’t be any of your faults that we didn’t—”
   “Piffle on my grade!” Sally Merchant cried out from the back. She was more of a singer than an actress, and was usually very shy and bookish off-stage. She read lots of Victorian stuff, which made her talk funny, sometimes. “Piffle on it, I say! Flunk me! Flunk us all! But I want to do Alice with a real White Rabbit. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime shot!” Suddenly her eyes glowed. “Jay would want us to go ahead, would he not?”
   “Yeah!” my fellow students murmured. “Do it for Jay, that’s right!” I felt my ear-linings begin to redden. Did it mean that much to them?
   Mrs. Lansing looked around helplessly for support, but found none. “All right,” she finally capitulated. “We’ll try and do Alice…”
   “Yes!” cried out my classmates in joy.
   “…but,” our teacher emphasized, “it’s going to mean an awful lot of hard work on everyone’s part. We’ll probably have to stay after school some days. And, just in case, I want to keep us sharp on Rains.”
   “That’s all right,” Celia said, rolling her eyes. “I could do the alarm clock in my sleep.”
   “Except that it keeps waking you up,” Joey Cohen pointed out. It wasn’t a very good joke, but at that time and place it went over beautifully. Everyone was bonded together in one common cause, everyone was working together, and everyone was pursuing a dream that was very important to them, in one way or another. We all laughed together
   Except for me, of course. To me, it seemed like nothing would ever be funny again.

-= 9 =-

   Ray continued to moan and groan to me on the bus about being unable to make his physical goals for the Marines, but at the same time he was going through the lunch line twice on some days. Kevin no longer had a seatmate on the bus, and I gave serious consideration to making the switch. But I remembered the good times I’d had with Ray before he’d become so fixated on the Corps, and stuck it out. He seemed to need a friend just then.
   “I’ll never make it!” he sighed on the way home. “Never!”
   “No,” I finally agreed with him. “You won’t.”
   “What… What do you mean?” he asked, turning towards me. Ray looked very surprised.
   “You’re not going to make it,” I repeated. “Face up to it. It’s just not going to happen.”
   “But Dad—”
   “Your dad is not the one going to boot camp,” I overrode him. “You are. Or not going, as the case may be.” I paused as my friend sat gaping like a fish out of water. “Ray, if you really wanted to be a Marine, you’d be able to turn down those cheeseburgers. Wouldn’t you?”
   “I… I…”
   “How long has it been since your father came to visit you?”
   “Fifteen months,” he whispered.
   “And you’re putting yourself through hell to become a Marine to suit him? Ray, anyone can see that you’re not really cut out for this. If you were, then something like losing weight would come easily. A Marine has to stay fit for his entire life. You’ve never been like that. You almost flunked gym class, even! Can’t you see what’s really going on here? You’re trying to live your life in such a way as to make somebody else happy. The Book of Peace…” I broke off, realizing that I was about to start proselytizing. “Anyway, I think that you ought go see your recruiter and make some changes in your plans.”
   “But… This isn’t any of your damned business, Berry! None of it!”
   Actually, Ray had made it my business by talking so incessantly about it for months on end, though I did not try to point this out. Finally I was getting tired of it. After all, I had my own problems, too. “All right,” I answered him. “I’m sorry, then. Let’s just not discuss the Marines any more then. All right?”
   “But nothing! It either is my business, or it is not. Right?”
   “End of subject,” I snapped. “It’s none of my business. We’ll talk about something else.”
   For once, I rode home in silence.

-= 10 =-

   Getting Alice together was a very big job; I dropped study hall to work on scenery, and others were rewriting our script just as quickly as they possibly could. It was going to be quite a challenge to put on Carrol’s finest work with only twelve in the whole troupe, and reluctantly we added in a quick segment of me reading Jabberwocky while dressed in my ‘Royal Herald’ gear to allow the others time for vital scenery and costume changes. I was not chosen because of my recent experience narrating Rains, rather it was because I was the only cast member who would not be madly changing clothes as fast as humanly possibly at that particular moment.
   Dad took my playing the Rabbit very well, as he’d promised he would. We spent a large part of a Discussion Time on it. “There are commitments to others and then there are commitments to yourself,” he had commented. “Sometimes conflicts of values are inevitable. The key is not coming up with the ‘right’ answer. Sometimes there really isn’t one. Rather true morality can be found in how you go about making your decision. You’re being true to the faith in the larger sense, Berry. Don’t worry about a thing. Knock them dead, and if any of our Lapist brothers or sisters hear about it and complain, I’ll deal with them myself.” Dad and I spent a lot of time talking on Wednesday nights during that period; Digger had suddenly announced one morning that he was abandoning Lapism and would not be attending any more Sessions. He didn’t want to be a rabbit any more, he explained. There was no rabbit inside of him. My brother had then solemnly given Mom back her father’s Book of Peace, and she’d cried and cried. It was quite a scene. After that she worked even longer hours than she had before. We hardly ever saw her.
   And even when we did, sometimes it was hard to know what was going on. One day when I came home from school I saw Mom’s car in the Norton’s driveway. Since Jay wasn’t being allowed visitors at the hospital and I hadn’t heard anything from him for days, I was pretty curious about what might be going on. I got off of the bus at Jay’s stop and then hopped over to scratch on the door. But Mom’s voice coming from inside stopped me; normal folks don’t soundproof their homes nearly as well as most of us Lapists do.
   “…could be done,” Mom was saying. “I’d need to talk to his doctor. And have full access to his medical records, of course.”
   “Thank you so much, Sundew!” Mrs. Norton answered. “And I’m sure that Jay will be grateful too.”
   Mom sighed. “We move special cases up the ladder all of the time. And this one’s pretty special, in my book at least.” She paused, as if sipping coffee. “Is he really sure, Annette? Really, really sure? Getting a procedure like this undone is even more expensive than having it performed in the first place. My own son…” Her voice broke off.
   “Now, now, now!” Mrs. Norton answered. I could plainly hear her steps as she crossed the kitchen to comfort mother. “Digger is just trying to find himself. Deep down inside he’s every bit as a good a kid as Berry is. You’ve really done a good job on him, you know. Give him time- fourteen is a very tough age to be a boy.”
   I stood frozen with my arm held up to scratch, unable to move. Mom sighed, then sobbed a little. “Yes, Berry is wonderful. Of course he is. But Silk gets the credit, not me. He’s the one really raising the boys, after all. And for what Digger is becoming, well, I deserve all of the blame. I’ve been there for him even less than I was for Berry.”
   “Your Clinic is a good thing, Sundew,” Mrs. Norton said reassuringly. “No one else could possibly take your place there; even Digger seems to know that. The world has to make allowances for special people like you. I mean, look at the good you’re doing Jay and I.”
   Mom cried some more. “Digger doesn’t want to be a rabbit any more, Annette! He wants to abandon the faith! And I have to ask myself if, when I changed him as a little bitty baby, did I hurt him somehow when I only meant to help him thrive and be happy?”
   There was a long quiet time after that, then Mrs. Norton spoke one last time. “Sundew, I am not of your religion. But when I first moved into the neighborhood and saw that Berry and Jay were going to be friends, I decided to read up on you people. At first I was very dubious; I thought that you were into some kind of bizarre cult and I almost made Jay quit playing with your boys. But your Book of Peace makes perfect sense, really. If Joseph and I had been rabbits, I find myself asking sometimes, would we have fought all the time the way we did? And even more, if I had made time every Wednesday night to sit down and talk with Jay about the things that are truly important, would he have… would he have… would he have…”
   Then both women were crying together, and I lowered my paw and snuck away without scratching after all. When women cry together, Dad says, it is best for we mere males to leave them in peace.

-= 11 =-

   It wasn’t long before I was riding next to Keith on the bus every day. Ray and I had tried to get back together a couple times after I’d laid things on the line, but it just hadn’t worked out. I was right, of course, and I think that’s what my friend found so unforgivable. Ray would never lose enough weight in time, and had not ever made a really serious attempt to do so. What I had not understood, however, was that being right didn’t matter very much in a lot of cases. Seemingly I’d hurt my seatmate’s feelings very badly indeed, and we just couldn’t get past it. One friend per life lesson looked like a pretty steep price to me, but that was exactly what I’d been paying lately. We didn’t even talk to each other very much at the bus stop anymore, where once we had actually been best friends. Sometimes I wondered what he was going to do when the big day actually came, but I also knew better than to ask.
   Alice took up more and more time for all us Drama students; had we been anything resembling rational individuals we’d never have made it. Mrs. Lansing had been perfectly correct about it being smartest for us not to even try to get a production together. Once word got around among the rest of the teachers about the magnitude of what we were attempting, however, they cut our troupe a lot of slack. All of us were graduating in a few weeks, and if we were up to date in a given class we were usually excused to go to the Drama room. I found myself spending almost all day there sometimes, painting and rehearsing and trying so very hard to get Jabberwocky down. A nonsense poem like that is the very hardest thing possible to do a reading of. The speaker must allow the words to trip off of his tongue with seeming abandon, while at the same time getting everything exactly, perfectly right. Carroll’s prose was calculated to a ‘t’, I soon realized, and even a single tiny hesitation could ruin it all. Even worse, I would have to perform the reading even as my fellow thespians dashed about like madmen behind me just a thin curtain away. The audience would be distracted, and so would I. There was no helping it, however. We’d added Jabberwocky into the performance because our only other choice was an intermission, which would have been even worse. However, I soon realized that mouthing “I’m late! I’m late!” was a mere trifle in comparison. My audience would remember Alice for many years, with any luck, while forgetting that my little time-filler had ever happened. But almost from the beginning, ‘Mimsy were the borogoves’ became my personal cross to bear. Mrs. Lansing never seemed happy with my reading, and she was all too right.
   I was very busy indeed with my play, but not too busy to worry about Digger. I’d hoped that he might get better once he quit being a Lapist, but instead he got worse. He never ran off with Zachary Parks again; I was beginning to think that the knife fight had well and truly cured him of being a gang-banger wannabe. On the other hand, however, he seemed to just sort of fold up into himself. He hardly ever left his room, and his grades didn’t get any better either. Sometimes I got him to come outside and toss a baseball back and forth with me. As near as I could tell it was the only exercise he ever got. One day I tried to ask him what was going on.
   “So,” I commented. “Have you decided on a new religion?”
   “Don’t need one,” he muttered as he caught my throw neatly in his glove. Digger had always been a better athlete than me.
   “Oh,” I replied. We continued playing catch for a while longer, then I asked another question. “Are you gonna get switched back to human?”
   “Yeah,” he replied easily. “Of course I am. I can’t wait.”
   “That’s expensive,” I pointed out.
   “I don’t care,” he answered. “Mom said that she and Dad would pay. That it was their responsibility. But I’ve gotta wait until I graduate. There’s not enough money in the budget until then.”
   I sighed. Mom and Dad had paid for four rabbit-morphings already. I knew that they made a whole lot more money than any of our neighbors, and I also knew that the reason we didn’t live in a much more expensive neighborhood was because of the payments. Dad had been very, very relieved when I’d accepted a full college scholarship for gengineering school. “It’s gonna be hard for them, I guess.”
   Digger shrugged. “They’re the ones that fucked me up, Berry. Why shouldn’t they pay?”
   There wasn’t any answer to that, really, so I changed the subject. “What are you going to look like?” I asked. “Are you going to make yourself like you would have been? With black fur just on top of your head and stuff?”
   My brother shrugged again. “Maybe. I don’t know. Probably more of a stud.”
   When the ball came back to me, instead of throwing it back I held onto it. “You know,” I said. “Honestly I just can’t imagine you as a normal human kid, with naked skin and stinky sweat and shriveled ears. It’s just not you.”
   Digger smiled. “Your brother, the ape.”
   I grinned back. “Seriously, are you gonna eat meat?”
   “Every day,” he swore. “Every goddamned day.”
   “Yech!” We played catch for a little while longer, then I spoke again. “Digger, for real. Why are you doing this? I don’t understand it at all.”
   This time my brother was the one to hold onto the ball while he thought. “Because there isn’t a rabbit inside of me,” he answered after a long time. “You know what the Book says, Berry. Some people just don’t have a rabbit inside of them.”
   “But… Digger, you’re as much a rabbit as I am! You love to run, you love to groom yourself, and up until the last year or two you had more fun at the annual Bunny Blast playing with the other rabbits than I ever did!”
   Digger snorted. “I’ll never go back to one of those lame things!” he answered me. “Jesus, but I was a loser of a kid when I was little!”
   I cocked my head to one side. “Digger, you were not a loser. Everyone loved you the minute they saw you, including non-rabbits.” I paused. “Some people even said that you reminded them a lot of your grandfather in the way you looked at things. That you were terribly wise, for such a young bunny.”
   My brother’s ears came erect, and his eyes narrowed. “Don’t you ever say that shit about me again, Berry!” he cried angrily. “Don’t you be trying to get me to change my mind, you candy-ass motherfucker!” With those words, he wound up and delivered a tremendous fastball dead at my face. I caught it cleanly, though the heavy impact made my paw sting. Then Digger threw down his glove and stomped off to his room, where he refused to speak to me all night long.

-= 12 =-

   School continued to be an unending frenzy of preparations for the Summer Play, with all of the resulting chaos taking place amidst an increasing realization that our life as children was coming to an end at long last. As the days grew longer still and spring finally exploded in earnest, I found myself savoring every moment. Yes, growth would be good when it came; it was time to move on. But my existence here and now was pretty wonderful as well, and I understood at a very deep level that this very special time in my life was never going to happen again.
   I felt a little bad sometimes that things were going so well for me when my friend Ray was clearly so down in the dumps. He needed to call his dad and tell him the truth, but he simply couldn’t do it. He wasn’t signed up for college, he didn’t have a job, he didn’t have anything at all lined up for his future. I’d heard rumors that he was talking about trying to find work in a grocery store or something, but no one knew for sure. The only thing that was certain was that he was eating more and more, and spending lots of time at home alone. He was running away from himself, I thought. His father clearly wasn’t the only one he couldn’t face; he was also hiding from the guy he saw in the mirror every morning. Once one starts running away from who he really is, the Book of Peace says, running becomes a very difficult habit to break. Several times I thought that he was going to speak to me at the bus stop, but he never did. If Ray ever changed his mind, I promised myself, I’d be there for him. Until then, he seemingly had to work things through on his own.
   Alice was scheduled to premiere on the last Friday evening before graduation. All of us Drama students were excused from class that day to get ready, as our preparations were far from complete and Mrs. Lansing had been tipped off by a theatrical friend that a real-life professional play reviewer was coming to watch us perform. He’d seen Rains and been impressed, it seemed. Celia and I hurriedly daubed paint onto a backdrop while at the same time rehearsing our lines. Meanwhile, as if that weren’t enough, Mrs. Ackerman, a home economics teacher that we’d drafted to help us out, interrupted me from time to time for costume fittings. My body is not quite human-shaped, though this doesn’t matter very much for the sort of loose-fitting clothing that we Lapists usually find most comfortable. However, my royal-herald costume was giving our tailor conniption fits. Mrs. Ackerman was growing steadily more frustrated with each attempt to make it look right, and I wasn’t getting much painting done. Nor was the dialogue practice going well.
   “Why, Mary Ann, what are you doing out here? Run home this moment, and fetch me a pair of gloves and a fan! Quick, now!” I said in my best elocutionary style as Mrs. Ackerman fumbled around with my tail. The costume had been designed for normal humans, and therefore made no provision for a genuine tail that was permanently attached to the costume’s wearer. Every time I moved, it seemed, my tail got wedged up inside the costume. This looked very silly, and was uncomfortable to boot. It didn’t help any that by the very nature of things my tail was located very close to certain other more personal parts of my anatomy; as Mrs. Ackerman manipulated the stubby appendage this way and that both she and I were doing our very best to ignore this simple and ignoble fact.
   “He took me for his housemaid,” Celia said, half-turning to face an imaginary audience as she continued painting away, never missing a brush-stroke. “How surprised he’ll be when he finds out who I am! But I’d better take him his fan and gloves—that is, if I can find them.”
   “Ow!” I replied as a misdirected pin pierced my behind. Celia looked up sharply, as if I’d mis-spoken a line. Then she rolled her eyes drolly and returned to character.
   “How queer it seems,” Celia explained to the imaginary audience as she both painted scenery and half-acted the role. “To be going messages for a rabbit! I suppose that Dinah will be sending me on messages next! ‘Miss Alice! Come here directly, and get ready for your walk!’ ‘Coming in a minute, nurse! But I’ve got to see that this mouse doesn’t get out, or else my cat will terribly upset!’” Celia was a joy to watch and work with. She memorized her lines in nothing flat, and projected feeling and power into every little gesture. A few weeks earlier she had been accepted at a major performing arts college, and all of us just knew that she was going to make it big. My biggest fear was that I might let her down somehow.
   Mrs. Ackerman clapped me on the back, then. “All right, Berry. I think that I’ve finally got this pinned up right. You go take it off now, and I’ll sew it one last time.” She sighed. “I hear that everyone thought your costumes would be the easy ones.”
   “Compared to a full rabbit suit, I suppose that it was,” I replied as I stepped backstage to the boy’s dressing room. I was back into my own clothes in a minute or two, and then handed my theatrical garb over to be worked on.
   “You stay right there!” Mrs. Ackerman admonished me. “Right there! I’ll be back in five minutes or so for another fitting.”
   I nodded and picked my brush back up. “Okay,” I agreed.
   “Oh, you foolish Alice!” Celia said clearly, moving on to our next interaction. “How can you learn lessons in here? Why, there’s hardly room for you, and no room at all for any lesson-books!”
   “Mary Ann! Mary Ann!” I cried out angrily. “Fetch me my gloves this moment!” I accompanied the last word with an imperious arm-motion…
   …and disaster struck. Just as I made my dramatic gesture, Joey climbed over the top of the backdrop with a bucket of green paint. My paw struck him just perfectly in the back of the knee, and his leg folded up under him like a card table. Desperately he lunged for a handhold and managed to prevent a fall. But the bucket of green paint tipped over right on top of my head.
   “Eeek!” Celia screamed, jumping back from the spatters. “Oh my god!”
   I leapt out of the way, of course. But even rabbit-reflexes have their limits. Blinded by the stinging paint in my eyes, I leapt forward instead of back and succeeded only in raining even more paint down on myself.
   “Shit!” Mrs. Lansing cried out, with real feeling. Our teacher was not in the habit of cursing in front of her students, not at all. But she had been wired very tightly all day and had clearly just hit her breaking point. “Shit, shit, shit!” Then she was on me with a rag, sopping up as much of the green as she possibly could. “Come on!” she cried out to my classmates. “What are you waiting for? For God’s sake, help me!”
   Then everyone was on me with rags and wet towels and anything else they could think of. Before I knew it I was wearing a towel and being push-dragged down to the gym. “Hurry up!” Mrs. Lansing was yelling. “We’ve got to get him into the shower before it dries!” I knew that everyone in the school had to know what was going on by then, but I didn’t really seem to care very much. When Mrs. Lansing got that way, you just did as you were told and that was all there was to it. They hit me with warm water, then cold, then hot. Then they tried soap and more soap. And to be fair, they did a pretty good job. Not a good enough job, however. Except for the parts of me covered by my shorts and t-shirt and one eartip, which luckily got missed, I was pretty much stained a blotchy light green.
   “Shit!” Mrs. Lansing declared again, throwing down a bottle of soap in defeat. Then she turned to Bill Whiteman. “Do you think that you can narrate Rains?” she asked him.
   His eyes grew very large, but before he could answer I interrupted. “Wait a minute!” I declared. “I can get this junk off. I know I can. You’ve just got to give me time. And let me use the special stuff that I keep at home.”
   Mrs. Lansing cocked her head way over to one side, and then tilted it back over the other way, examining me closely. “You’re green, Berry,” she observed. “Very green.”
   “I know!” I answered. “I can get it out; I swear that I can! It’s just tempera paint, after all. But I’ve got to go use the special rinse head my folks bought me, to get down under the fur. And the special veterinary shampoo, and the whitening powder, and…”
   Bill looked at me strangely. “You use more beauty stuff than a girl!”
   I made a nasty face at him, then turned back to Mrs. Lansing. “It’s after lunch now. Get me home and I’ll be back by five, I swear it! And I’ll be pure-white again when I get here.”
   Mrs. Lansing hesitated, then made her decision. “All right. I’ll drive you home myself. Come on!”
   She didn’t even give me time to blow-dry; in her defense, she probably didn’t even stop to think that I needed to do my whole body. My Drama teacher was so distracted by her last minute worries that she also didn’t seem to notice the stink of my wet fur or the way I soaked through my clothes and into her front seat. Fortunately, it was a warm day and I dried some in the sun. We made record time to my house, and then Mrs. Lansing barely waited long enough in the driveway to make sure that I got in before roaring off back to school to deal with the next Drama crisis.
   Time seemed to slow down very suddenly as the garage door shut itself behind me. I’d been living near the center of a tornado all day long, and now quite suddenly I was all alone in my nice quiet soundproofed home. The contrast felt a little weird at first, but was welcome for all of that. With deliberate slowness I set my books in their usual place on the coffee table and headed for the bathroom that Digger and I shared. I was still pretty damp, and the air-conditioning system made me shiver with cold. It would be very nice indeed to step into some nice warm bathwater, yes indeedy…
   I walked right past Digger’s room before my mind registered that there was a note on his door. Even then I nearly kept right on walking, since I was in a major hurry and uncomfortable to boot. But there was something odd about the paper hanging there that made me turn back. The writing was very small and neat, unlike the kind of scrawl that he usually left to tell us where he might be. When he bothered to leave us a note at all, that was.
   “Dear Mom and Dad and Berry,” it began. “I love you all, but have decided that it just hurts too much to keep on living…”

-= 13 =-

   “Holy shit!” I exclaimed, reading no further. “Holy shit!” I tried to open Digger’s door, but it was locked. “Digger!” I cried out, scratching madly at the wood. “Digger!”
   “Berry!” he finally answered me. “What are you doing home? Is it three o’clock already?” His voice sounded very strange.
   “Let me in, Digger!” I demanded. “Now!” This time there was no answer except the rustling of sheets and covers; clearly my brother was lying in his bed.
   “Digger!” I cried out one last time. But again there was no response.
   My whole family is gengineered, of course. We don’t get sick very often, our energy levels are always high, and we never, ever compete formally with normal humans at sports. Angrily I dropped down to the floor and braced my back against the hallway wall, then kicked once with both legs. Hard. Digger’s door didn’t just fly open; it shattered into splinters. Then I was on my feet and inside…
   …just in time, seemingly. For my brother had the muzzle of a beat-up gang-banger’s sawed-off shotgun under his chin, and his thumb on the trigger.
   “Stop right there, Berry!” he cried out. “Stop right the fuck there!” I froze in my tracks, and then Digger nodded. “All right, Berry. I don’t want you to have to see this. I didn’t want anyone to even know, until it was already too late. So you turn right around and go back out into the hall. Just wait there a few minutes, all right?” His voice broke. “I think that’s all I’ll need…”
   “Digger,” I said softly. “You don’t have to do this.”
   “The fuck I don’t!” He was breathing very rapidly, I noticed, and his pupils were pinpoints. “Berry, I can’t be a good rabbit and I don’t really want to be a normal human, either. I am so fucked up!”
   “You’re fourteen. That’s all that’s wrong.” I remembered my Dad’s voice telling me about how confusing adolescence could be. “It’s normal to be all fucked when you’re fourteen, Diggs. I was too.”
   “You were never fucked up!” he answered me savagely. “All I’ve ever heard all of my whole goddamned life is ‘Berry is so good; why can’t you be more like him?’ I’m sick of it, brother, sick to death of it! No one could live up to you!”
   I blinked. “Digger, I…”
   The young rabbit sighed. “Shit. I didn’t mean to say that. Honest I didn’t! You’ve been as good to me as any older brother could ever be. It’s me that’s fucked up inside, not you. Don’t you go thinking that this was your fault, Berry. It’s all my own fault. I fucked myself up. All right? I even admit it. Now go stand out in the hall.”
   Suddenly I was having a hard time seeing through tears. “Digger, I… I…”
   “Shit!” he cursed. “Goddamnit! Get out in the hall, Berry! It’s for your own good!”
   “No!” I screamed as if the words were torn from my throat. “Goddamnit Digger, no I won’t!”
   “Fuck!” he answered, rolling his eyes heavenwards. “Why did I have to be born into a whole family of candy-asses, with the king of all candy-asses for a grandfather?”
   “We are not candy-asses!” I screamed at him. “Goddamnit, I am sick to fucking death of you calling me that all of the time! And your grandfather wasn’t a candy-ass either! He was a fucked-up juvenile delinquent just like you are! Except he lived long enough to get over it.”
   Digger bared his teeth. “You’re lying!” he hissed. “You’re lying to me, Berry! You’ll say anything right now to keep me from pulling this trigger.”
   He was right to an extent, of course. I would say anything to keep him from pulling the trigger. But this was true! “Grandpa had real balls!” I taunted my brother. “He got busted for stealing a car, then did his time and got his shit back together for real, maybe more together than anyone else who’s ever lived. He’ll be remembered forever. But you, all you’ll get right is the fucked-up part. Once you’re dead, you’re dead and the book’s closed. You won’t have amounted to jack-shit!”
   My brother’s grimace grew wider. “You don’t know, Berry! You just don’t fucking know how evil I am inside!”
   “Oh, yeah!” I sneered. “Evil! I remember you the time we found the baby bird that fell out of its nest. You were so nasty that you took care of it for three whole months. And then there was the time that you found all that money in the purse and turned it into the cops. Were you seven then, or eight?”
   “Shut up!” Digger screamed at the top of his lungs. “I was just a little kid then! But I’m bad now! Twisted and bent and sick inside!”
   My mouth twisted into the king of all smirks. “Uh-huh! You’re bad enough to curl up in bed with a stolen shotgun and off yourself. That’s real bad, Diggs. So fucking bad that it almost looks fucking stupid instead!”
   My brother lowered the gun just a little bit. His eyes still looked crazy, but there was something else there now too. Something very, very ugly. “I oughta kick your ass, you candy-ass son of a bitch!”
   I slapped my chest with both forepaws. “Come on, baby!” I answered in the most insulting tones I could manage. “Is the poor little bunny-wunny not feeling good today? Aww, poor wittle thing has its feeling’s hurt…”
   “Aaaargh!” Digger cried out in incoherent rage, slamming the shotgun down on the bed for emphasis. In a flash I was on top of the gun, and trying to pull it away.
   “Fuck!” my brother cried out, realizing what he had done. Desperately he tried to wrestle the gun back, but I simply was not going to let go. For an endless time we struggled like madmen on top of Digger’s bed, our toeclaws ripping sheets and mattress alike into shreds as we desperately sought leverage. I was bigger, but Digger had a better grip. In the end I think that he would have won…
   …except that very suddenly there came a thundercrack like the end of the world. “BOOM!” the shotgun bellowed forth in the close confine of Digger’s bedroom. The pistol grip had been pressed tight up into my groin; reflexively I bent over double in pain at the terrible impact. For a very long time I laid there like that, unable to breathe, unable to think, unable to hear over the ringing in my ears, just barely aware that I was alive when I could very easily not have been. It took everything I had just to open my eyes for a second. The wall of Digger’s room had a huge hole blown in it, I could see right away.
   And just below it was a large spatter of blood.
   Somehow, the blood didn’t seem to matter very much just then. I was still having a very hard time breathing, and reality seemed very far away. It felt good to just lay still and not think, so that’s what I did. “Berry!” I heard someone call out distantly. It sounded like my mother’s voice, though it was very faint and distant. I shook my head vigorously to clear the hallucination, but it persisted. “Berry!” she demanded again, this time shaking me vigorously. “What in God’s name is happening?”
   Could it be real? “Mom?” I asked distantly. When I opened my eyes, she was leaning over me. She rolled me over gently, and the shotgun clattered to the floor. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “Oh my God!”
   “Digger tried to kill himself,” I muttered. “I’m all right. Just got knocked real hard.”
   “Oh my God!” she repeated again, looking up at the wall for the first time. “Oh my God!”
   I was still far too weak to stand; quite deliberately I let myself half-fall onto the floor, landing on top of the gun. Little knives of agony dug deep into my crotch when I hit the carpet, but I did my best to ignore them. “I think he got hit, Mom. Maybe pretty bad,”
   She seemed to recover a little from her stupor. Digger was all wrapped up in his quilt from our fight, and Mom began unwinding him. Suddenly she inhaled very sharply and drew her hand back from the bed. “Oh my God!” she whispered again.
   “I tried to take the gun away,” I began. “Honest I did—” But before I could finish she was gone, running down the hall to call an ambulance. I tried to move a little again, and for the first time was able to do so without wanting to vomit. Very, very carefully I picked up the shotgun and broke the action open, then laid the weapon under the bed and safely out of the way. Next, with tremendous care, I sat up on the floor and turned to face the bed. Digger was laying with his head right at my level, facing me. But one ear was missing and everything else was just a mass of blood. At first I thought that he was dead, and a new kind of pain flooded up in me. Then as I watched he inhaled once, choking a little on his own blood.
   “Mom!” I cried out. “He’s still breathing!”
   Instantly she was by my side and in control once again. “Don’t touch him, Berry. Head wounds are funny. He’s not bleeding all that badly, and the ambulance will be here in a couple of minutes at the very most.”
   I nodded, the motion causing interesting pains inside of me. “Are you sure that you’re all right?” Mom asked sharply, examining me closely for the first time. She wouldn’t take my word for it until she’d physically checked me over herself. There was a big powder-burn on my chest, but the skin underneath wasn’t affected; the flash hadn’t penetrated my thick fur. Then the ambulance arrived, and one of the techs half-carried me to my room. There I sat, able only to listen as the paramedics worked frantically. After a very long time they wheeled Digger off, and Mom stuck her head in.
   “Berry, I have to go with Digger,” she explained. I tried to stand up, but before I could do so she stopped me. “No, you stay here. Your Dad was already on his way home, and I’ve called him to let him know what happened. We don’t want you left alone right now. You just stay put, and Silkfur will be here in a few minutes.”
   “But… Digger?”
   “They think that he’s going to make it,” Mom said with relief. “His skull wasn’t penetrated, they don’t think. There’s lots of blood flow in a rabbit’s ear, and the wound looks a lot worse than it really is.” She paused. “I’m taking the note with me. Berry, I don’t know exactly what happened yet, but I do know already that whatever it was you did your best. You just lay there and rest; Dad will be home soon.” Then, before I could argue any more she was gone.
   There was no question but that I was in serious pain myself; with Mom gone I curled back up again and simply laid as still as I could. I may even have passed out for a little bit, because Dad startled me when he touched my shoulder. “Huh?” I asked moving a little too quickly to suit my new bruises. “Ow!”
   “Shh, son,” Dad said, pressing me back into bed. “I hear that you took a nasty blow to the groin?”
   I nodded. “Yeah. The butt of the shotgun was there, I guess. It feels like I got kicked by a horse. I left it under Digger’s bed, by the way.”
   He nodded. “Thanks. I was going to ask about that.” His face was somber. “There’s no news about your brother yet, by the way.” He paused. “I think we ought to run you in to the emergency room too. Just to be sure.”
   “All right.” If Dad wanted me in the emergency room, I would go to the emergency room. I wasn’t in much shape to argue about anything. “But could I have an ice bag first?”

-= 14 =-

   Digger had been admitted into the emergency area as well, naturally, and so Mom and Dad at least got to be together while we were taken care of. They took an x-ray and gave me some pain pills and a new ice-bag; as I’d expected there was nothing seriously wrong with me. But my brother was taking a long time regaining consciousness, and the docs were beginning to worry. After a couple hours had passed I was able to stand and walk around pretty easily, thanks to the pills and the cold, so I paced the halls a little bit to ease the tension. Every few minutes I would check in with Mom and Dad, then go off in a new direction. “Berry!” an unfamiliar voice called out during one of my longer laps. “Berry! I can’t believe it!”
   I raised my ears and looked down the hall. A very nice looking girl my own age stood there, clearly dressed to go out for the evening. She wore a rather formal-looking knee-length gown, and her hair and makeup had the appearance of a professional beautician’s work about them. I racked my brains, trying to think where I might know her from. Then I finally gave up. “Excuse me?” I asked politely.
   She giggled. “Berry, don’t you know me?” She did a little circle then, a bit awkwardly on her heels.
   There was something familiar about her, but… “No,” I replied honestly. “I’m afraid that I don’t.”
   “Well, you should,” she answered mysteriously. “We’ve known each other for years.”
   I just shook my head again. Then my classmate Keith, also dressed in formal evening wear, stepped up behind her. “We really need to get—” he began, but then he saw me too. “Berry?”
   “Hi, Keith,” I answered, still very confused. “Your date here seems to know me from somewhere, but I can’t imagine how.”
   Keith blinked, then looked at his girlfriend as if for guidance. “Of course,” she replied with a giggle. “Unless you mind.” He pressed his lips together in thought, then made his decision. “Berry, please, please, please don’t tell anyone else. But this is Jay.”
   My jaw dropped as the beautiful girl in front of me giggled again and made a little curtsey. “It’s my very first night out, Berry. Does your Mom do good work, or what?”
   Keith blushed. “I’m kinda glad that you couldn’t tell, really. We… I mean, I…”
   “Right,” I agreed absently. Then I turned to face my best friend. “I never even suspected that you might consider, ah…”
   “My!” she exclaimed with a big grin that was pure Jay. “People sure do hesitate a lot around me when they talk these days!” Then she grew more serious. “Honestly, Berry. It’s something I kept deep down inside. I knew that I wasn’t gay all along, though I said so all of the time. Being gay is a lot easier than being a transsexual, especially when your mother doesn’t have anything like enough money to fix the problem.” She smiled and pulled her date closer to her. “That’s why it hurt so bad that Keith wanted kids. Now, I can give them to him.”
   Keith colored. “If things work out between us,” he added cautiously. “A lot has changed.”
   Jay grabbed onto her date’s arm possessively. “Even if it doesn’t, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been before.” She looked into Keith’s eyes. “I love you, but I didn’t do this for you. I did it for me.”
   The moment lasted for a very long time, then Keith looked at me in an odd fashion. “Berry, forgive me for pointing this out. But we’re leaving in a few minutes to go see you star in Alice in Wonderland. And not only that, but you’re, ah… Green.”
   My ears and tail rose in alarm. So much had happened that I’d actually forgotten. “Oh my God!” I exclaimed, eyes wide in shock. “I’m late! I’m late!”

-= 15 =-

   I took off bounding down the halls just as quickly as was safe, and maybe even a little quicker. “I’m late!” I shrieked. “Oh my God! I’m late!” Patients stared and orderlies dodged out of my way, some staring curiously, but I no longer cared. I was late!
   When I came skidding into the Emergency waiting room, Mom and Dad weren’t there. I bolted on down towards Digger’s room, and slid in barely under control. My parents were at my brother’s bedside.
   “…sorry, Mom,” Digger was saying. He sounded very weak. “I got it when I was with a gang.”
   “A gang?” Dad asked, very intently. “You were in a gang?”
   “I haven’t been for a long time now,” he answered. “Honest. But I kept the gun, in case someone I know came after me.”
   Quietly I edged my way over to the bed. Yes, I was late. But there more important things in life than plays. “Hi,” I said.
   Digger looked away. “Hi.” We just stood there a long time like that, until on a sudden impulse I reached over and placed my paw on my brother’s shoulder. Then he placed his own on top of mine. “You,” he began slowly. His voice caught and he had to start again. “You are not a candy-ass, Berry.”
   Then we were all crying together and hugging and rubbing our cheeks together the way we Lapists do, until everything was right again and the bad moment had passed. Suddenly Dad started. “My word!” he exclaimed, looking at me. “You’re green, son!”
   I nodded. “There was an accident at school—”
   “I know! Mrs. Lansing called your Mom and I to come home and help you get cleaned up for the play. Which begins…” he checked his watch. “In forty-five minutes!”
   I nodded. “I’m very late!”
   “Yes, you are!” he exclaimed. Then he turned to Mom. “Dear…”
   “Of course!” she said. “Go! Digger’s going to be okay. I can stay with him. Go!”
   Then Dad dropped to all fours. “Come on, Berry!” He tore off so fast that I was hard-pressed to keep up.
   We made it home in record time, and I ran bathwater while Dad tried to calm my frantic Drama teacher over the telephone. Then I hopped into the tub and he began to work me over. “Damn this white fur!” he murmured as he lathered me behind the ears. “How many times have we done this over the years?”
   “Lots,” I agreed, trying to scrub the worst of the burned powder residue off of my chest. My various costumes would cover that part of me up, but it was itchy. “I really like being white anyway. It’s different.”
   “Yeah,” he complained. “It’s different all right. And I know why!” We labored in silence for a time, then it was time for a rinse. “Stand up,” Dad ordered.
   “Right.” He pulled the tub’s plug, then turned on the shower. I rotated under the warm water, then stood still for inspection. Dad cocked his head first one way, and then the other.
   “No,” he judged. “Not yet.”
   I nodded and sat back down. As Dad had pointed out, we had done this hundreds of times, mostly when I was little and had gotten into things. Then I was running more water and Dad was getting more veterinary soap. We repeated the wash, then rinsed again. “All right,” my father grudgingly allowed. “There’s still a few little spots, but I think that we can powder them.”
   “Great!” I answered with real relief. Curtain time was fifteen minutes away, and would already have to be delayed for certain since I was in the very first scene. Dad got my special rinse-head working, and worked it through the fur on my head, arms and legs. The rest of me would just have to make do, we both realized, since it wouldn’t show. Then I shook myself as best I could, and Dad used up every towel in the place blotting me off.
   “Come on!” he urged me as I hopped out of the tub. He had a blow dryer running in each paw by the time my tail hit the grooming-chair, both of them turned all the way up. “This is gonna be hot!”
   “I know, I know! Just do it!” He didn’t dry me all of the way; there simply wasn’t time. But the few wet spots that were left when he was done didn’t show. Or at least they didn’t show very much.
   We only had a half-can of whitening powder in the house, as it turned out. It wasn’t something that I used every day, not being particularly vain, but rather was only for special occasions. The stuff was pretty expensive, but Dad laid it on like it was going out of style. “Dad! Don’t use all of it on my head! There needs to be some left for my arms and legs!”
   He didn’t let up at all. “Your head is the worst,” he explained. “And it’s what people will look at the closest. I’ll do your arms next, then your legs and feet if there’s any left. You have to trust me.”
   I couldn’t answer or even nod, as by then he was doing my muzzle. Powdering is a maddeningly slow process, and one that simply cannot be hurried. By the time we ran out of the stuff I was just as glad it was gone. Dad had gotten all of me except the upper legs. “With any luck, people will blame the discoloration on the shadows from your costume. Come on, let’s go!”
   I started to pull on my shorts, but Dad stopped me. “No! Just wear the towel. It’ll be quicker getting into costume that way.” And then he half-dragged me down the hall to his car.
   Dad is no less a gengineered being than Digger and I, though it was easy to forget this since he didn’t often do anything particularly spectacular. All of us rabbits have far better-than-human reflexes, though, and it truly is quite safe for us to drive faster than normal people do. We don’t have any special legal permission to do so, however, and Dad was usually quite good about obeying the traffic laws. He could and did make exceptions, however, whenever he considered the cause sufficient. This was one of those times. By the time he slid our car sideways into the little no-parking zone beside the gymnasium entrance, even I was a little scared. I hopped out, and then Dad was off to find a legal parking space.
   “Look!” cried Scott Weber from behind the bushes. He was smoking back there with a couple of friends. “It’s Berry! And he’s late!”
   “Yes,” I answered politely. “As a matter of fact, I am. Gotta run!” They almost fell all over themselves laughing as I dashed inside and down the hall to the back-stage entrance. I didn’t see what was so funny, unless it was the towel I was wearing.
   Then I was among my fellow Drama students. “Berry!” Celia cried out in relief. She was already in full costume. “I heard about Digger, and—”
   “Get out of my way!” cried Mrs. Lansing as she closed in on me at full bore. “Celia! Stagehands! Get ready! Last call!” Then before I knew it she had pulled me off into a private corner and had me in costume, modesty be damned. Carefully she looked me up and down, fussing and adjusting here and there. Finally she placed her hands on my shoulders and looked me dead in the eyes. “Berry,” she said very slowly and distinctly. “I heard at least some of what happened from your father. Is your brother going to be okay?”
   I nodded. “It looks like it.”
   “Good,” she answered. “Now, I want to ask you something. Are you going to be okay?”
   “I’m a little sore,” I answered. “But sure, I’ll be fine.”
   “That’s not what I mean,” Mrs. Lansing said. “I mean, are you going to be all right out in front of all those people after what’s happened? If you’re not up to this, I can and will shut this production down.” She paused and looked deep into my eyes again. “Every one of my students is very important to me, Berry. Especially the ones in this particular class. I’d not trade all of the good critical reviews in the world for putting you out there on stage if it’s going to hurt you somehow.”
   I nodded. “I’ll be fine, Mrs. Lansing. And we’d better hurry. The show must go on. And we’re late!”
   My Drama teacher grinned wide, and then kissed my nose. “All right, Berry. The show must indeed go on. Break a leg!”
   Everything started happening very quickly again; Celia was hustled out to lie upon our mock riverbank, and someone pressed an oversized pocket-watch into my paw. Then the curtain rose, the audience applauded, and I hopped with great exaggeration out onto the stage.
   “Oh dear!” I said. “Oh dear! I shall be late!” Next Celia spoke her line, then I spoke another, and through the strange magical madness called ‘imagination’ somehow all of us traveled together to a wondrous place where little girls fell down rabbit-holes and mock-turtles talked and Red Queens played mad games of croquet using hedgehogs for balls. I even got through Jabberwocky in one piece, though a little boy in the front row asked his mother why I had green spots on my legs. Then the play was over and the house-lights went up and we were back our school gym again instead of Wonderland. Though I was still a rabbit, of course, and that was very nice. Everyone stood and applauded as we bowed over and over and over; every one of us knew that we had pulled off a miracle and given a truly memorable performance against the heaviest of odds. The sea of flashbulbs made my eyes hurt, but I was able to pick out Dad in the back, and then with a little more searching Keith and Jay sitting only a few seats away. Keith was standing and applauding, while Jay was actually hopping up and down in glee. She caught my eye and threw me a kiss, and I felt the linings of my ears redden a little in embarrassment. Even Ray was there, smiling and waving at me despite what had gone between us. The curtain fell then, though the thunderous applause had not lessened in the least. We all met in the middle of the stage and shared a big mass hug. “That was for Jay,” Celia said. “Too bad he couldn’t make it. He would have made a perfect Hatter. No offense, Joey.”
   “None taken,” Joey replied from under his huge bowler. “None taken at all. I wish he could have been here too.”
   The curtain call was wonderful!
   After that was over we had three cheers for Mrs. Lansing, and three more for the other teachers who had helped us out. Then it was time for us, still in costume, to go out and meet the audience. By previous arrangement, Celia and I stayed close together. Hundreds of photos must have been taken of us two in various poses, until finally the gym was almost empty and all that was left were the parents. I walked over to greet Dad, who had been waiting very patiently. He had a big smile on his face. “Hi,” I said greeting him.
   Dad, still grinning, rolled his eyes. “‘Hi!’, he says.” Dad took me by both shoulders and looked me dead in the eyes. “You. Were. Great!”
   I looked down at my toes. “Aww,” I said. “I kind of hesitated twice during Jabberwocky. And I missed a cue.”
   My father shook his head. “I don’t care. You were fantastic!” Then he looked past me, and I realized that Mrs. Lansing was coming up behind me.
   “You should be very proud of your son,” she said simply.
   “I am,” Dad replied. “I only wish that my wife and other son could have made it.”
   My teacher smiled, then scratched me behind my left ear. “I’m sure that they would have enjoyed the show. Berry has been one of the finest students I’ve ever had, right from the beginning.”
   We stood there for a moment like that, then I had an idea. “Mrs. Lansing?”
   “Yes, Berry?”
   “My brother Digger is starting high school next year.”
   “Yeah. And, um… Well, I know that you usually handpick your students. And my brother has been in trouble…”
   Mrs. Lansing nodded. “Yes?”
   “But… Well, I kind of think that he’s having trouble dealing with who he really is, and I know that this class helped me out a lot. Could you maybe consider taking him anyway?”
   She looked at Dad. “I don’t know…”
   My father turned to me. “He might not want to take Drama, son. It’s not exactly his style.”
   I shook my head. “Oh, he’ll sign up all right. If he thinks that he can get in. And he’ll be really good, too.”
   “What makes you so sure?” Dad asked.
   “Because he’s the best actor I’ve ever seen,” I answered. “He’s even got himself convinced that he’s somebody he’s really not.”
   Dad and Mrs. Lansing stood silent for a very long time, then they looked at each other again. “Well,” my teacher answered after a long time. “If he applies, I promise to consider him.”
   “Great!” I answered. “Thanks!”
   “Now,” my father said. “One more thing. I understand that there will be one more showing of this play?”
   “Right,” my teacher answered him. “Next Friday. Then I’ll start working on next year’s Fall Play, for the new class of seniors.
   “Excellent!” Dad replied. Then he looked at me. “We have one last chance, then. While you are still officially a kid. Your mother and I will be there. Together. I promise.”
   I shuffled my feet. “Aww, Dad! She really is awfully busy, and with Digger in the hospital now…”
   “Aww, nothing! She will be there. Moreover, I’m going to try and get some of her relatives to fly in as well. I want them to see with their own eyes that you were not disrespectful and that your playing this part was a good thing. Which it was, make no mistake about it.”
   “All right,” I agreed reluctantly.
   Dad nodded. “That’s settled, then.” He extended a paw to Mrs. Lansing. “Thank you, Ma’am. You are an especially fine teacher, by all accounts.”
   She dimpled and shook the proffered appendage. “You are most welcome. Berry was a genuine pleasure to teach.”
   Then Dad reached his arm around my shoulders. “I’m very proud of you today, son. Very, very proud. Are you ready to come home?”
    I looked around the gymnasium. Most of the rest of the Drama class was already gone, I realized. Scattered to the four winds for the night, as all too soon we would be scattered forever. I sniffed at the air; it was heavy with the scent of humanity. This gym had seen dozens of Summer Plays, I understood in my heart for the very first time, and had helped nurture dozens of crops of teens into young adulthood. Digger and I weren’t any different from anyone else, not really. Nor was Jay or Ray or Keith or anyone else. Each and every one of us had some kind of wonderful future to look forward to, probably a brighter and richer future than anything we could possibly ever imagine. The one important key was for us to never forget to be true to ourselves and what we believed in. For, I had learned, the moment you began building upon false foundations, things were certain to began coming apart at the seams. Dad had taught me that, I realized, though I wasn’t sure just how or when.
   “Yeah,” I said, looking around one last time. “I’m ready. In fact, I think that I’m ready for almost anything.”
   Dad smiled again, and right out in front of everyone he rubbed his cheek up against mine. “You are,” he said softly into my ear. “In fact, I am quite certain that you are.”
   And then, with our arms still tightly gripping each other’s shoulders, we walked together out into the warm summer night air.

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