by Phil Geusz
©2006 Phil Geusz; illustration ©2006 Cubist

Home -=- #4 -=- ANTHRO #4 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-
This is the second tale in Geusz’s Lapism setting. The first four Lapism stories—
Drama Class, this one, Schism, and In the Beginning—are all included
in the Anthro Press collection The First Book of Lapism.

= 1 =

   “Bluegrass!” Mom’s voice rang out loud and clear as I pulled my Stiletto up to the cave’s main entrance and removed my helmet. “Bluegrass! Hurry up! We have a tour waiting.”
   I nodded my head and gritted my teeth as I put my kickstand down and carefully allowed my high-powered electric scooter to lean over onto its support. My bike wasn’t much by most folks’ standards; it ran at sixty miles per hour tops, and even my best set of worn-out batteries were only good for fifty miles or so. But I’d paid for it with my own hard-earned money, and kept it in as perfect of a condition as I was able. No one else in my family had their own vehicle, unless you counted my step-dad Ernie and the Cavern’s ancient, usually-broken-down pickup truck. I rode my Stiletto year-round, sometimes so far away from home that I had to load my machine down with all the batteries I owned in order to have enough juice to get back again. “He’s here, folks!” Mom continued eagerly. “Just give him a minute to get his fur all brushed up nice and shiny for you, and he’ll take you on your tour.”
   “It’s about time,” I heard a customer grumble as I plugged my ride into its usual receptacle and brushed myself up a little, just as Mom had explained. The brushing was for my benefit, not theirs. It was a hot summer day, and I’d been riding fast while wearing nothing but an ear-holed helmet and a pair of shorts. It was dangerous to ride without proper safety gear, I knew, but I couldn’t afford a set of summer armor. And the winter stuff was simply too darned hot for Kentucky in July. Especially on top of fur!
   “Bluegrass!” Mom called again urgently, so I teased my head- and ear-fur roughly back into place, then made a few last discreet strokes around my tail as I put on my working smile and stepped through the door. “Bluegrass Spelunker Rabbit! There are visitors waiting for you!”
   “I’m here, Mom!” I answered, smiling and waving and displaying my oversized incisors as best as I was able. In point of fact Dad was supposed to be covering the cave tours, just as he was supposed to do on every Wednesday afternoon, so that I could go to my one-and-only college class and then have one evening a week off. But Dad wasn’t anywhere around that I could see, and since Mom had to watch the cash register, that meant that I was on-duty, like it or not. “Hello, ladies and gentlemen!” I began my spiel. “And welcome to Easter Egg Caverns! Sorry about the delay; I was just out at the henhouse checking on the marshmallow chicks!”
   There were nine tourists in the batch, two families that might or might not be traveling together. The kids giggled, as I’d hoped they would, and the ladies smiled real big. My tardiness was apparently now forgiven; it was pretty difficult, I’d already gathered in my few months as a Rabbit, to hold much of a grudge against a Lapist. One of the men began snapping pictures, and I made it a point to pose with each and every child even before we went back into the cave. That kept the customers happy, and happy customers filled tip jars full. It was hard to get used to, but I’d finally gotten it through my thick head that the first thing that the tourists usually wanted to see was me, up close and personal, since few of them had ever seen a Lapist before in this part of the country. Besides, it was my picture that adorned all the big highway billboards. “All right, then,” I declared when I’d decided that things had gone on long enough. Two tail-yanks was my quota from any crowd, and a certain eight-year-old boy had now used them up. “All right! If we could begin moving towards the cave entrance…”
   The rest of the tour sort of gave itself as I sat back and let the little robot in my head take over. Ours was a low-budget sort of tourist-cave; rather than being a deep near-vertical hole like the more famous Mammoth Cave, Easter Egg Caverns’ entrance was conveniently placed at ground level. Even better, our cave went back nice and level into an old river bluff. When my real father had opened it up for tourism about thirty years back, all he’d had to do was build a gift shop across the entrance, install lights and wooden walkways, spread out some gravel for a parking lot…
   …and buy a bunch of mechanical rabbits. “This is Jacob O’Hare,” I explained at Stop One, scratching the gray puppet behind the ear in a friendly way and then hugging him as if he were my brother. The Lapist people didn’t know it, but Mom had demanded that I be made as short as I now was so that I’d fit in better with the mechanical bunnies. “He’ll explain how Easter Egg Caverns provides free air conditioning for us!”
   “Hi!” Jacob replied right on cue, his cold skin coming alive under my touch; Jacob’s ‘on’-switch was at the base of his left ear, right where I’d scratched him. “My name is Jacob O’Hare, and I’m sure hoppy to meet you!” I kept right on smiling, even though I wanted to throw up as the mechanical lapine explained in his too-hoppy voice how the earth maintains a constant temperature, and how therefore with a big enough fan you could cool off even something as big and spacious as our wonderfully-stocked, bargain-filled, world-class gift shop, no matter how hot the summer sun was.
   “There’s our fan,” I explained, pointing at the big squirrel-cage unit with a mitten-paw. “And look! There’s Bunny-Girl waiting to show us the Jelly-Bean Wallpaper Formation!”
   “Ooh!” one of the tourist-ladies exclaimed as, using my other paw, I triggered Bunny-Girl’s automated spiel. Bunny-Girl wore a gingham dress with pink highlights to match her fur, but none of the other bunnies wore any clothing at all, except for me and my shorts. I wondered sometimes why the tourists never asked any questions about that, then filed the issue away for further study. If they ever did, then I needed to have a pat answer ready for them.
   “…tiny dwops of watah over miwwions and miwwions of yeahs,” Bunny-Girl was explaining, her eyes wide-open in simple-minded wonder. “Miwwions and miwwions!”
   Actually, I knew for a fact, it had taken my real father a week and five wheelbarrows full of concrete to ‘cweate’ the Jelly-Bean Wallpaper Formation. That, plus some highly-skilled paintwork. I’d personally helped repair it several times. “Isn’t that wonderful?” I crooned, placing my paws on my cheeks and aping Bunny-Girls wide-open eyes. “It’s taken eons for Easter Egg Caverns to become the wonder that it is today. So, as we move deeper into the cave, I’ll ask you to refrain from breaking off any of the pointy rocks that are hanging from the ceiling. They’re called stalactites, and are very, very fragile. Once broken, they will not regrow for thousands of years.” Besides, I thought to myself as I turned and led the group deeper underground, the more that you break off, the sooner Ernie and I will have to shut the cave down for a couple days and glue more fakes in. And we can’t afford to lose two day’s revenue!
Slyford T. Rabbit, so named because he had a wily, cynical Bugs-like voice and attitude, showed everyone Lemonade Creek, a Genuine, Real Underground River! Then Herbert Hare pointed out the way back towards the Deeply-Buried Gem of Kentucky, the World-Famous Easter Basket Formation, warning the more portly among the group to avoid the peril of Fat Man’s Squeeze and go around the long way. Every tourist cave in the world had a version of Fat Man’s Squeeze somewhere in it, I knew, yet the tourists never seemed to tumble to the fact that my father had not only carefully widened the path out of what had once been a tiny crack, but had then cemented some of the rock back in after going too far. Everyone laughed and giggled as they edged their way through, all except for the father of one group who had to go the long way down the deadly-dull Portly Passage instead. He didn’t seem happy at all.
   The Easter Basket was Dad’s masterpiece—or, more correctly, it was the masterpiece of an unknown and underpaid artisan somewhere in Mexico. Still, my real father had done quite a creditable job of cementing it in place, judging by the early pictures. It had been stolen twice since then, however, and smashed to pieces once. Each time the formation was replaced, it grew harder and harder to hide the masonry-work. So in recent years, we’d added a light-show and waterfall as a distraction. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I declared, my thin, high bunny-voice booming out as best it was able. “In the very next chamber lies our piece de resistance, the grand finale of our tour, and one of the Certified Natural Wonders of the Commonwealth of Kentucky! In order to preserve the delicate formations, we do not routinely keep this chamber lit, nor do we permit flash photography.” I turned around to the control box mounted to the wall, and made sure the little red indicator for the pump was lit up. “If you will simply follow me and keep one hand on the railing, we’ll all gather together inside the chamber, and then I’ll turn the lights on all at once.” I smiled and waved everyone forward with both hands…
   …and everyone lurched towards me except for the overweight, middle-aged, blank-faced women in front. “How will we know when the lights come on?” she demanded.
   My mouth opened, then shut again as I examined my customer carefully for any sign of visual impairment. Finding none, I chose to pretend that nothing had ever been said, though I filed the question away to share with my friend Digger later. He just loved stupid tourist questions! “If you’ll just follow me, please…”
   The platform in our main show chamber was designed to handle groups many times the size of this one; at one time, my real dad had entertained grandiose notions of people renting out Easter Egg Caverns for weddings and the like. Even though those days were long past, we maintained all of the scaffolding so that the tourists could wander about a little. But, for effect, I had to get them all clustered front-and-center in the darkness. “All right!” I finally declared, once I’d corralled all of the strays. “Here we all are! Prepare yourselves for the Easter Basket, and Lemonade Falls!”
   I threw the master switch with a flourish, and the yellow-and white spotlights flamed instantaneously into life, revealing the pathetic little fake rock formation that each and every one of them had parted with too much hard-earned money to see. “Congratulations!” the soundtrack began, over the melody of Stars and Stripes Forever. “You are now part of a small elite among the world’s teeming billions, a tiny group that has braved the perils of the deep in order to pay homage to…”
   It didn’t matter how cheesy the spiel was, I’d long since decided, since none of them ever seemed to hear it anyway. Instead, they ‘oohed’ and ‘aaahed’ appreciatively as the colored spotlights twirled about, making the misshapen colored eggs in the half-melted basket seem almost to be Easter-like. It took a little imagination to see an Easter basket in the Mexican sculpture, or perhaps even more than a little. Which was the genius of it all, really; everyone naturally assumed that a fake formation would be much better done, so no ever questioned a thing. And all the while, dozens of white mechanical Easter bunnies danced in every nook and cranny, while Lemonade Falls, which more closely resembled a broken sewer line than anything else I could think of, sparkled and glinted in the spotlights as it made its spectacular drop of twelve clear feet.
   “Oooh!” the stupid-question lady declared, a vacant smile pasting itself across her face. Reflexively she raised her camera and took a prohibited flash photo. I didn’t restrain her; it would have been both pointless and unsporting. Instead I smiled and circulated, answering more inane questions (“Is this all rock?” one boy asked me) and posing as requested for pictures with everyone beside the Easter Basket and the Falls. Then, finally, after much too long, the tourists decided that they had seen enough.
   “Thank you for a wonderful tour!” the fat man declared sincerely, slipping a ten-dollar bill into the tip jar displayed prominently by the exit. Such tips had once been all mine to keep, but the Caverns had fallen on hard times since those heady days. “You know, I keep seeing Lapists on television all of the time, but I’ve never met on in the fur until now.” He smiled and extended his hand; I took it and shook it energetically in very real gratitude. Ten-dollar tips were all too rare a phenomenon, especially since the Crockett Tunnel had opened and the main highway redirected many miles to the north. “Good to have met you, Mr. Rabbit, and I hope that you find true happiness in what you’re doing. I know that others disagree, but so far as I’m concerned Lapism is a good and holy thing. I’m proud to have met you.”

= 2 =

   No one else showed up that afternoon for a tour, but Mom made sure that my time was put to good use anyway. “Ernie’s in town, Jeremy,” she whined. “And you know how much I hate taking inventory all by myself…”
   I nodded and gritted my teeth again. Not only did Mom claim to hate doing inventory alone, but whenever she was forced to, everything came out all wrong and our orders were screwed up for weeks on end. “Where did you say Dad was?” I asked casually, putting down my Book of Peace and picking up a clipboard. Wednesday night was Discussion Night for Lapists, and since Digger had transferred to Kentucky United Theological University it was the one Lapist tradition I actually took seriously. There was supposed to be a Discussion Time on Sundays, too. But I had to work all day Sunday. Just like I was now having to work all Wednesday afternoon, it seemed, despite it supposedly being my one day off.
   “I don’t know exactly,” Mom replied, her eyes closing wearily. She reached down under the counter and pulled out a bottle of vodka. Next she trickled a shot or two into the cup of fruit juice she was always sipping from. Then she shook her head and looked down at the floor. “Probably, he’s over at Mulligan’s.”
   My face went hard under its soft gray fur. “Are they giving him credit again?” I demanded.
   “How should I know, Jeremy?” Mom countered. I was ‘Bluegrass Spelunker’ when there were tourists around, but plain old Jeremy when it was ‘just us chickens’. That bothered me somehow, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
   “He must be getting credit,” I growled. “After all, heaven knows that he couldn’t pay any other way.” I bared my teeth for a moment, probably looking totally ridiculous in the process, then sighed and began counting. There was no point in trying to control my stepdad Ernie, any more than there was in trying to make my stepmom Louise take her own inventories. “Seven Cavern coffee cups, black,” I began. “Four white. One box of thirty-five Cavern silver souvenir spoons, unopened. Fourteen loose…”
   It took four solid hours to count everything in the gift shop; located somewhere on the island of Formosa, I’d learned early in my childhood, was the largest schlock mine in the known universe. The thing had been vomiting forth its ‘Made in Taiwan’ contents for a century or more now, and yet showed no signs whatsoever of petering out. It was almost dark when I finished up the count, at the snowdome rack just to left of the main entrance where I always finished up Mom’s work for her. “Nine gold-plated ‘Easter Basket’ snowdomes,” I said aloud as Mom continued writing. “Four silver ones. Though how anyone could ever imagine it snowing in a cave is beyond me. And, last but not least, four Bluegrass-and-Basket snowdomes.” I looked down at the little plastic image of myself and shuddered in revulsion. Was I really that cute?
   “Right,” Mom agreed, frowning and looking just a little confused, as she always did when confronted with anything related to numbers. Then she shook her head. “I think we’re short again. We didn’t sell this much stuff since last week.”
   I closed my eyes and sighed. We’d been coming up missing inventory for several months now, particularly silver souvenir spoons. It was Mom’s job to prevent shoplifting, however. There wasn’t much I could do about it from inside the cave. “Oh well,” I mumbled, not really wanting to think about it just then. Then I looked at the clock. “It’s almost six!” I exclaimed.
   “Closing time,” Mom agreed, reaching under the counter for another splash of vodka. “Dinner time, too. At least Ernie’s still not home. We won’t have to cook for him.”
   I shook my head. “I won’t be home either, Mom. It’s Wednesday. Remember? The one day a week I’m supposed to be off work, so that I can study and go see Digger?”
   Mom frowned. “I don’t want to have to cook all by myself.” Then she looked past me, down the gravel road that led to the highway. “Look!” she exclaimed, nodding towards a cloud of rising dust. “That’s probably Ernie, this late. We can all eat together, like a family! You can shuck the corn, and I can—”
   “Bye, Mom!” I declared, running for my Stiletto and almost forgetting to snatch up my Book of Peace on the way out. Ernie was the last person in the universe I wanted to eat dinner with right then; the very idea turned my stomach. It was the work of only a second to unplug my bike and twirl the many-times-patched cord around its carrier, and then I was zooming across the parking lot, still getting my helmet settled just right on my head.
   “Jer-” I heard Dad cry out of his open window as I flashed past him. I didn’t acknowledge him in the slightest; human ears, I judged, would not have detected even the single syllable. Besides, I knew deep down in my churning gut, there was absolutely nothing good that could come of us speaking to one another just then.
   Route Three was always pretty much deserted by six in the evening, so I was able to make extra-good time. I was late, late, late and there was nothing whatsoever that I could do about it, save hope that Digger would be patient and wait for me. We’d only been holding Discussion Times together for a few weeks, and already I’d been held up at the cave three times. He understood my problems getting away, I knew. But still, I hated to impose on him.
   Roderick’s Country Store was located almost exactly halfway between Easter Egg Cavern and the main highway; by the time I made the sweeping left into their parking lot I was feeling a lot better about Mom and Dad and the missing inventory. “Bluegrass!” old Mrs. Roderick greeted me as I climbed down off of my Stiletto. She was always careful to call me ‘Bluegrass’, even though she’d been calling me ‘Jeremy’ for as long as I could remember. “Hank!” she cried out, raising her voice to a near-scream for the benefit of her half-deaf husband. “Hank! Bluegrass is here!”
   “Oh!” the old man replied from somewhere out back. “That’s wonderful! I’ll be right up!”
   Then Mrs. Roderick was standing out on the parking lot and hugging me as if I were a kid half my age, “How’s my very favorite bunny rabbit?” she demanded.
   I blushed under my fur, as I always did when she said that, and pulled away from the hug. The Rodericks were related somehow to my real mother, though I’d never understood just exactly how. My real Dad had liked them a lot, too, until he’d fallen off a ladder, hit his head on the hard Cavern floor, and died three days later. “Just fine,” I answered. “How are you guys?”
   “Old,” Mrs. Roderick replied, smiling easily and scratching me once behind my left ear. The Rodericks were the only people in the county, I thought sometimes, who didn’t seem to care either way that I’d become Rabbit. Some folks had told me I was sure to go to hell, while others laughed and pointed every time they saw me. But not the Rodericks. They didn’t treat me any differently at all. “Old, but happy. And that’s a good deal in anyone’s book!”
   I smiled real big at her, then plugged my bike into the outlet they’d added out front for me so that I could recharge. It had been really, really nice of them to do that for me; I was the only regular customer I knew of who had an electric vehicle. If it weren’t for them having put in the socket, I’d have had to stop and change my battery-pack on the side of the road whenever I went to see Digger. That took a very long time; the Stiletto’s batteries weren’t meant to be swapped out except when it was time to replace them with a new set. Then Mr. Roderick came walking up, carrying a bunch of fresh-picked tomatoes and dandelions in a little basket. My mouth watered instantly; it was dinnertime, after all, and I didn’t eat lunch on Wednesdays because of my school schedule. I’d planned on simply skipping the meal, but…
   “Are you on your way to see Digger again?” Mrs. Roderick asked. “If so, you’re late. Do you want to call him?”
   I’d had to call Digger last time too, and I was even later now. “Please?” I asked politely.
   “Sure thing,” Mrs. Roderick replied, smiling. “Come on into the house, Bluegrass. Make your call while I get this greenery all washed up nice and clean for you, and then you can sit and eat a quick little snack while your bike recharges a little.” Her smile widened. “It’s so nice when you come by, Bluegrass. The whole world seems to light up and come alive.”

= 3 =

   The Rodericks’ store was a prosperous enterprise indeed when compared to Easter Egg Caverns. Their private residence was located on the business grounds, just like ours was, but instead of it being a shacklike structure that had needed painting for a decade or more, the Rodericks lived in a neat brick bungalow that Mr. Roderick had built with his own two hands as a young man, and meticulously maintained ever since. He’d built the store as well, and over the decades had established himself as the man to see when it came to buying tools or obtaining practical advice about how to use them. He pretty much ran the hardware side of the General Store, while Mrs. Roderick ran the little grocery and craft shop. Because they sold mostly to locals like us, they hadn’t been hurt too badly when the highway moved. But even if they had been, I was certain, they’d have found a way to make ends meet. The Rodericks had known hard times, particularly when their daughter had been murdered back when I was just little. And yet somehow, instead of flying apart and blaming each other for everything, they’d simply grown stronger. I liked them an awful lot, even when they weren’t feeding me dinner.
   “Are you sure you don’t want any salt on those tomatoes?” Mrs. Roderick asked.
   “No, thank you,” I replied between bites. The juice was running down my chin and soaking into the fur; it would become a terrible mess eventually, but just then I could not make myself care. “I didn’t like salt on my tomatoes even before. And now, well… it would taste pretty bad.”
   “I see,” Mrs. Roderick replied, watching me toss back the calories.
   “I saw Ernie’s truck today,” Mr. Roderick commented eventually into the silence. “It was parked at Mulligan’s Saloon, at ten in the morning. And was still there at four.”
   I frowned; suddenly the tomatoes didn’t taste quite so delicious. “I see,” I answered eventually.
   “Aren’t you supposed to be off Wednesdays?” Mrs. Roderick demanded. “Today is your school day, isn’t it?”
   It was just as well that my plate was nearly empty anyway; suddenly nothing seemed very appetizing. “Yes,” I answered, pushing my chair back away from the table. I had finally saved up enough money to take one single solitary class at the Community College. It had taken me two years, and I had chosen Introductory English. Someday, I wanted to be a lawyer. It didn’t pay, however, to try and calculate how long it would take me to get ready to take the Bar exam at the rate of three credit hours every two years.
   “So who was giving the tours?” Mr. Roderick demanded, his eyes narrowing.
   I looked down at my plate, and in an instant Mrs. Roderick was standing behind me, hands on my shoulders. “Now, now!” she chastened her husband. “That’s none of our business!”
   “It is if Bluegrass here can’t go to law school!” Mr. Roderick replied, glowering at her. “I promised both Mary and Ted before they passed that I’d look out for their boy, and I meant it! If only Ted hadn’t fallen for that worthless Louise! And then her hooking up with the most miserable, two-bit—”
   “Edward!” Mrs. Roderick interrupted, her hands on her hips. “How dare you say such things in front of Bluegrass here!”
   “It’s about time someone did!” he countered, voice a gruff rumble. “He works his tail off, Bluegrass does. Carries the whole business. Everyone in town knows it.” Then he met my eyes. “You’re twice the man that your so-called father is,” he declared. “Even at your age. That’s why your credit is still good, where his is a joke.”
   There was a long awkward silence. Mr. Roderick wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, not really. And yet, what could I do? “Mom needs me,” I said at last. “And she sure seems to love Dad.” I pursed my lips, making my whiskers point every which way. “Or at least most of the time she seems to,” I corrected myself. “I’ll admit that I’d be glad to see him move along, myself.”
   “Well,” Mr. Roderick answered, shuffling his feet and looking away. “I always thought that you were a boy of sense, Bluegrass. I always did.” Then he got up, nodded a good-bye, and returned to his garden work.
   “He’s just worried about you,” Mrs. Roderick explained once he was out of earshot. Then she sighed and looked me directly in the eye. “For that matter, so am I. A little.”
   I nodded and looked away. “Sometimes I worry too,” I admitted. “I feel like I’m living my life for them, not for me. But what can I do?”
   “Not much, I reckon,” Mrs. Roderick replied, sighing sadly. “Not much at all. Except to get back on your bike and go see your rabbit-friend.” Her face brightened. “Tell you what, Bluegrass. Why don’t you hold your Discussion Meeting or whatever you call it here sometime? I’d love to meet Digger. He sounds like a nice young Rabbit, too.”
   “That’s a good idea,” I agreed, pushing away from the table and standing up to leave. “It means that he’ll have to come pretty far, but I’m sure that he’d like to meet you, too. And I can show him the cave afterwards!”
   “Good idea!” Mrs. Roderick agreed. “And if he wants to spend the night, he can stay here if he likes. I mean…”
   “Right,” I agreed, looking down at the floor again. My house only had three rooms, and one of them was the washroom. “We’ll see. I’ll ask him tonight.”

= 4 =

   Digger and I had settled on a nice little roadside park to meet at. It was about halfway between the Caverns and his university, right where Route Three met the big highway. There were several very nice little park benches, and the busy highway was right in plain sight. Two of the benches faced each other, and the first time we met Digger and I had sat there together and talked until almost midnight.
   Digger’s Stiletto was leaning on its kickstand out in the very front of the parking area, and it was already dark enough when I arrived that the little green strobe lights he’d mounted on it were flashing away, highlighting the bike’s wedgelike shape and low, high-performance windscreen. My own ride felt very old and decrepit indeed as I parked it next to its more modern sibling. Digger had all the good stuff on his Stiletto; an extra-wide rear tire, chrome highlights, a dual power-cell conversion, and best of all dozens and dozens of neatly-arrayed stickers that told of where he’d ridden and the groups he’d been with when he’d done it. ‘Kentucky-Barkley Dam Ride’, the latest one read. ‘The Best Dam Annual Scooter Ride in the Southeast USA!’ I smiled enviously as I dismounted and took off my helmet; I’d wanted to go on the Dam Ride since forever, it seemed like. Not only could I not get time off, however, but my scooter wouldn’t go far enough without a recharge. I couldn’t afford a decent single battery, much less a fancy dual-cell conversion.
   “How are you, Bluegrass?” Digger greeted me as I was locking my helmet up. “Boy! You should have come to the Dam Ride. It was great!”
   I smiled back. “Saturday and Sunday are our big money days back at the cave, I explained.” It’s not really a good idea for me take a weekend off.”
   “Yeah,” Digger answered sadly. “I guess that it wouldn’t be.” Then he smiled again. “Is the old battery I gave you any better than what you already had?”
   “Oh, yes!” I exclaimed, nodding eagerly. “And so is the front tire your Dad sent!” Digger’s dad was really cool, I’d already decided, even though I’d never met him. He rode a scooter too, a real old one that apparently had the same size wheels as a Stiletto.
   “Great!” my friend answered, flicking his ears in pleasure. One of them was pretty ragged, as if he’d injured himself very badly as a child and the wound hadn’t ever quite healed all the way up. “I was kind of worried about you, riding all over the place on that old bald thing.”
   “Aw,” I answered, clawing a little at the dirt. “It wasn't too bad, so long as it didn't rain.”
   Digger winced, apparently at the very thought of riding in the rain on my old front tire. Then he gestured towards our usual bench. “Well, Bluegrass,” he asked formally. “Care to get started?”
   I nodded, then frowned. “Diggs,” I said slowly. “I hate to admit this, but I didn’t get to study Chapter Two like I was supposed to. When I got home from school, there was a tour waiting for me, even though there wasn’t supposed to be. Then Mom needed help doing some other stuff, and, well…”
   The big chocolate-colored bunny smiled. “You’re hardly the first Rabbit to miss studying a lesson, Bluegrass. Don’t sweat it. The important thing about Discussion Time, my dad always says, is just being together and everyone taking the time to think about what’s genuinely important in our lives. Everything else is just window dressing.” He wrapped an arm around my shoulders in a friendly way. “Come on. Let’s sit and talk.”
   I nodded, even though part of me flinched away from Digger’s touch. It wasn’t that it was unpleasant; far from it! But touching and being touched felt a lot more intense, now that I was a Rabbit, and I still wasn’t at all used to it. This was especially true when it was another Rabbit that was doing the touching. They’d told me that it would happen before I’d been Changed, but like a lot of other things, I hadn’t really believed it.
   “Chapter Two,” Digger began as we settled ourselves down onto our respective benches, “is entitled ‘Why We Become Rabbits’.”
   “Right,” I agreed. This much I knew about Chapter Two, though that was about it.
   “So,” Digger asked, looking me directly in the eye. “Why did you become a Rabbit?”
   I smiled slightly in embarrassment, and kicked my dangling feet like a child. Rabbits were generally smaller than normal people, but Mom had made me too little, I’d long since decided. Not that there was anything to be done about it this late in the game. “Why did you become a Rabbit, Digger?” I countered.
   “Heh!” he laughed, leaning his head back and spreading his arms out along the bench’s backrest. “My Mom and Dad made the decision for me.”
   My eyebrows rose. “Really?”
   “Yeah,” he answered. “Me and my older brother both. They Changed us just a few weeks after we were born, so that neither of us can remember ever being anything but rabbits.” He frowned slightly. “I’m never quite sure if that makes us lucky or deprived.”
   I cocked my head to one side. “Wow!” I answered after a little while.
   Digger nodded. “My brother Berry is a natural, no question about it. It’s hard to imagine him as anything but a Rabbit. For him, it was absolutely the right thing to do. But for me…” His scowl deepened. “Well, maybe I did have to decide to become a Rabbit. Because for a while there, despite all the fur, I wasn’t one on the inside. Not at all.”
   “I know that being a Rabbit is supposed to be something special,” I said slowly after a little while. “It’s supposed to be a very special and sacred commitment.”
   “It has to be,” Digger answered. “Or else it’s just plain silly. We haven’t done Chapter Twelve yet, on what it means to be a Rabbit. But of course you know the famous quote.”
   I nodded as if I did; Digger recited it from memory anyway. “‘When we choose to walk through a human-filled world as rabbits,’ Sweetgrass said, ‘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.’”
   “Wow!” I whispered for the second time that evening. The honest truth was, I’d never found time to read the Book of Peace at all. Mom had gotten me all signed up to be Changed, and she swore on my behalf that I’d worn the ears-and-tail of the novice for two full years, much longer than most applicants, even though the first time I’d ever had them on was for the interview. Since there weren’t any other Lapists around to call me on it, her word had stood up. The Rabbit who’d vetted me seemed more interested in making sure that I understood the drawbacks and risks of Rabbithood than anything else; so far as spiritual matters went, all he’d said was that if I thought that I’d found a Rabbit inside of myself, that was good enough for him. We’d used a local hospital for the Change instead of traveling all the way out to the Bloomsniffer Clinic, even though it was more expensive, because Dad thought that they’d probably not ask so many questions. For once, he’d been right.
   “Wow indeed.” Digger smiled slightly. “A lot of us seem to have trouble achieving that ‘higher standard’. After all, we’re no better inside than the next man, despite the fact that we do turn the natural aggression knob down a few clicks as part of the Change. But, in the end, I think that what is important is the fact that we are trying to be something more, trying to achieve higher goals. That, far more than the fur and funny teeth, is what sets us apart from everyone else.”
   I nodded in agreement.
   “So,” Digger continued after a long silence, “I chose to become a Rabbit by remaining one, even though for a little while there I thought that the load would break me. Heaven knows I’m pretty crappy at some aspects of it; I got a speeding ticket just last week in fact, and the truth of the matter is that I’m guilty as sin. But when I go before the judge, even if I get the chance to beat the ticket on some sort of technicality, like if the officer who wrote it doesn’t show up or something, I’m at least going to admit that I’m guilty and pay my fine anyway. Why? Because I wear the ears and tail, the clerical collar that I cannot ever take off.” He smiled. “And you know what? The older I get, the less that I want to take them off. I’m coming to like maintaining a higher standard. So much so that I want to become a Lapist minister someday, and dedicate my whole life to Sweetgrass’s dream. To trying to improve upon human nature.” Digger’s ears spread wide in a uniquely lapine expression of wonder. “Who could have imagined it? Not me when I was a kid, I can assure you! I was a real self-serving son of a bitch! And miserable to boot!”
   I squirmed slightly in my seat, but said nothing. Becoming a Rabbit hadn’t changed me much at all, that I could see. There was little stuff, certainly; I tried not to ever disappoint little kids and such. And when people called me ‘Mr. Rabbit’, I always felt obliged to be extra-nice to them. Besides minor details like that, though, I hadn’t changed a bit.
   But then again, I hadn’t tried to improve myself, had I? After all, it had never really occurred to me that I should.
   “So,” Digger asked, looking me directly in the eyes. “Why did you become a Rabbit, Bluegrass?”
   I smiled vacantly, and said the first thing that came to mind. “To become a better person, I guess.”
   “Right,” he agreed, looking away. “Of course.” There was a long pause. Then he sighed, so quietly that I’d never have noticed it at all were I still a normal human. “Well,” he declared, rising to his feet. “I’ve got homework to do, and I’m sure that you have important stuff to do back at the cave…”
   My mouth opened, then closed. This was the shortest Discussion Time we’d ever had, and I didn’t want it to be over so soon! But then, I admitted to myself, I’d been very late. And hadn’t even done the required reading or meditating. So how could I expect Digger to stick around when he had other obligations? “All right,” I agreed sadly, hopping down from the bench. “But…”
   Digger’s ears pricked. “Yes?”
   “I… Uh… Digger…”
   He waited patiently.
   “Digger, I’d really, really like to show you the cave next week. Can you come to visit? I’ve got a neighbor a few miles away who can put you up; there’s no room at my place, I’m afraid. I won’t have to work! I promise, even! I’ll come straight from school to meet you. We can have our Discussion in the afternoon, then I’ll give you a personal tour when no one else is around.”
   Digger’s head tilted to one side, then the other. “I don’t have any classes on Thursday until late afternoon,” he said at last. “So, I suppose…”
   “Great!” I agreed, hopping up and down in place in excitement. It felt good to hop in place, I decided. It was certainly something I never would have done as a normal human. “Wonderful! And even though it’s my turn, you get to pick the topic for next week. What’ll it be?”
   He grinned. “Chapter Three, then. ‘Family, and What It Really Means’. Let’s keep going right on straight through the Book.”
   “Great!” I agreed, bouncing up and down like a little kid again. “Wonderful! I can hardly wait!”

= 5 =

   Things went pretty much as they normally did for the next few days; I did lots of tours, and eventually a smart-aleck kid did ask me about why Bunny-Girl and I were the only rabbits in Easter Egg Caverns wearing clothes. “Because we’re the only ones who can afford them,” I replied with a smile, and everyone laughed. They seemed to understand just how closely the answer bordered upon the literal truth. Still, things weren’t nearly as busy as they’d once been, and Mom was drinking more fruit juice than ever. Sometimes, when she was counting change, the customers would correct her.
   On Wednesday, I had an appointment with Mr. Everettson before school. His firm had done all of our family’s lawyering for several generations, and he and I had tried to meet every month or so ever since I’d graduated high school. My real Mom’s family had pioneered and settled a large part of the county, and she’d personally owned just over six hundred acres, including the cave. Her will had left it all to me, in trust until I was twenty-one. My birthday was only five weeks away now, and Mr. Everettson was taking special care to make sure I understood what needed to be done and how things needed to be taken care of. It was really nice of him; he wasn’t charging any extra fees. Mom and Ernie had planned to come along, but they both seemed pretty hung over. “Go away!” Ernie had moaned when I knocked on the bedroom. “For the love of God, leave us alone!” And Mom had just grunted. So I headed off into town by myself.
   “How are you, Je—I mean, Bluegrass?” Mr. Everettson greeted me as I stepped into his office.
   “Just fine,” I replied with my best smile, accepting his extended hand and shaking it. Mr. Everettson had always been especially nice to me and my real Dad, back when he was still alive. He made a lot more money than we did, and was much better educated to boot. Somehow, though, he didn’t put on airs or make other people feel inferior. He was a distant cousin of Abraham Lincoln, if the rumors were to be believed; certainly, he seemed to me to have a lot in common with the great man. “School’s going really well. I’m getting an ‘A’ so far!”
   “Excellent!” Mr. Everettson replied, his smile as wide as my own. He’d helped me pick out English as my very first class, it being the one most important for law school. “That’s wonderful!”
   I nodded and felt myself blushing. “I still remember when I was a little kid, and while you and Dad talked I’d sit and look in your books.”
   “Heh!” the lawyer chuckled. “Even back then, I knew that someday you’d take an interest in the Law. It was written all over your face.” Then his smile faded away. “Are your step-parents with you today?”
   “No,” I answered. “They’re, ah… sick.”
   “Right,” Mr. Everettson replied, walking around behind his desk. “Well… Have a seat, Bluegrass. We’ve got a lot to talk about today.” He frowned. “All the more, perhaps, since your parents aren’t here.”
   I sat down in the big leather chair and waited expectantly. The news would be bad, I knew. It always was.
   “Well,” the lawyer began. Then he cleared his throat. “Ahem. Well… Things aren’t looking so good, Bluegrass.”
   I nodded and waited.
   “Bluegrass, in acting as your trustee, I’ve been granted fairly broad powers of discretion. Both your family and mine have deep roots in this part of the world, and the long-standing relationship between our families has become something bordering on the official. Still, your mother’s will had certain stipulations attached to it that I have been absolutely obliged to follow for all these years. First, I have been prohibited from selling off any part of the property unless your life should be at stake. This hasn’t mattered much so far; we both know that your land isn’t worth a lot, save for the cave itself. It’s too steep to farm, too rocky to graze or grow timber on, and too remote for houses.”
   I nodded again; this was all true enough.
   “Second, your Mom specifically stated in the will that nothing was to be done that might interfere with running the cave as a tourist attraction. She originally wrote that, I’m pretty sure, to safeguard the interests of your father. That cave was his life’s dream, Bluegrass, as I’m sure you know far better than I. He can almost be said to have been a little nuts about it. Your mother loved your father very much, and she wouldn’t have done anything to hurt him, either. Besides, she believed in the dream, too, and wanted you to come into your majority with a thriving business waiting for you.” He sighed. “Sadly, things have not turned out as expected.”
   I pressed my lips together and waited.
   “Bluegrass, every month Roscetti and Associates sends me a statement, and every month I am shocked and saddened to see how badly your business is doing. There’s been an upsurge in revenue since you became a Lapist, as I’m quite certain you planned even if you won’t admit it to me. However, becoming a Rabbit is expensive, and all the more so since you had it done locally instead of at the Bloomsniffer Clinic, as I advised.” He sighed. “I approved of your taking out a loan for the Change, Bluegrass, even though in retrospect I probably should not have. On the one hand, if your conversion was genuine then I felt that your mother would probably have wanted for you to have this thing done. She put a lot of faith in people’s need to find their own version of happiness. And, alternatively, if it was strictly for business reasons…” He sighed, looking as if he’d tasted something nasty. “If it was strictly for business reasons, then it came under the heading of keeping the cave open and profitable, as clearly specified under the terms of the trusteeship. I’ve authorized business loans in the past to upgrade and repair your mechanical rabbits, after all. So how could I logically turn down another upgrade meant to create a living one?”
   I nodded slowly, and looked down at my big fluffy feet.
   “And business is up, as I said before,” Mr. Everettson continued. “But, not enough to counterbalance the loan payments. Especially since when you got the loan, you had to buy insurance as well. You’re actually worse off than ever.”
   I only had four toes on each foot now, I noted absently as I continued staring downwards. Each equipped with a useless little claw of its very own. I could barely wriggle these new appendages at all. It was very odd indeed, that I didn’t miss my old toes. In fact, I hardly ever thought about them at all.
   “Plus, the accountants are seeing all sorts of signs of bad management. Your inventory is disappearing, the cash counts are never right, and even your tool costs are on the rise. Tell me, have you noticed how many hammers Ernie bought last month?”
   I nodded my head, still not looking up. I knew, all right. But I couldn’t say anything. If I did, then Ernie would start screaming and Mom would take his side and no one would get any sleep at all. And, worst of all, nothing would change.
   Mr. Everettson nodded back. “Good. The upshot is this, Bluegrass. You need to shut that cave down, just as soon as you turn twenty-one. I’d suggest selling the land for whatever you can get and using the money to go to law school, or to any other kind of school for that matter. Put what’s left down on a nice house, and go start a family of your own, with new dreams and goals. You’re living in abject poverty, when you don’t have to. You’ve become a slave to your original parents’ dreams, when that’s the last thing they ever would have wanted for you.” He reached across his desk and lifted my chin with a fingertip, so that our eyes were forced to meet. “You need to find your own way, your own future. And, most of all, you don’t need to support your step-parents anymore, either. You’re the real owner of Easter Egg Caverns, not them. Just as you are the owner of your own destiny.” He flopped back into his chair and shook his head sadly. “I know that it won’t be easy, son. But I think you’ve got to be strong, and tell them to hit the road. They claim to love you, but here of late they’re stealing you blind.”

= 6 =

   Mr. Everettson might be a very smart man, I thought to myself as I left his office and walked down the block to where my Stiletto was parked. But he certainly doesn’t understand a thing about my family situation. I was in no position to shut down the cave; if I did, what would the three of us be doing for money ten years from now? Or twenty? Dad had made me promise to take care of Mom, right before he was rushed off for emergency brain surgery after his bad fall, and since she’d remarried taking care of her meant taking care of Ernie too, whether I liked it or not. Mom had always been good to me, never resentful or evil like other stepmothers I’d heard of. Sometimes, she’d even bought me birthday gifts. I’d given my Dad my word as his son, and there was nothing more to it. In fact, my promise had been the last words I’d ever spoken to him. It had been the very worst moment of my life, making my promise and then watching them wheel him away as he weakly waved ‘good-bye’ with his left hand. He never regained consciousness, as he’d somehow seemed to know would be the case. Then there’d been the funeral, and the burial, and all the relatives…
   My eyes were tearing up as I rounded the corner and made my way across the town’s free public parking area. It always happened when I thought about That Day. I’d loved Dad so much! And he’d loved me, too. There had never been the slightest doubt of it. My real mother, I’d never gotten much of a chance to know. All I remembered of Mom was a single image of her playing some silly pre-school game with me in the little meadow out in front of the cave. Everyone always told me how wonderful she was, and I knew that it must be true. But it was Dad that I really missed; he’d been gone for four years now, and nothing had been right with my life since.
   My bike wasn’t parked on the public lot; instead, because it was so small, Mr. Jenson let me pull it up on the sidewalk in front of his barber shop whenever I came into town. That way, I could plug it in for a quick recharge at the outlet under his electric sign. I’d offered to pay him for the electricity more than once, but he’d laughed and told me that on the day he couldn’t spare a few pennies for an old friend’s son, he’d come and collect. Dad had hired Mr. Jenson to work out at the cave when he was fresh out of high school, and didn’t know how to cut hair yet. The economy had been very bad then, and Mr. Jenson and Dad had become really good friends. He’d made a lot of friends, my Dad had. I was still sniffling and rubbing my eyes over missing him so much as I crossed the public lot…
   …and nearly walked right into the side of the Cavern’s pickup truck.
   “What in the world is this doing here?” I asked myself aloud, physically walking around the vehicle twice in confusion. The Cavern was due to open in an half an hour, and we did all our cleaning and such in the early mornings. Mom and Ernie hadn’t been feeling too good earlier. I could maybe understand if they had slept in a little, and maybe skipped the cleaning for a day. But when the tourists arrived, the lights had to be on and the doors open, or else they’d spend their dollars elsewhere. And we needed those dollars!
   “You looking for Ernie?” a gruff voice asked from close behind me. Startled, I spun around, ears high and eyes wide open. It was Joe Decherd, one of our town deputies. I’d gone to school with his son Jess. We’d been pretty good friends; he was in the Navy, now.
   “W-w-well…” I stuttered.
   “He’s in there,” Joe said, pointing down the street towards Mulligan’s Saloon. The deputy shook his head. “They’re not even open yet, but they already let him in.”
   I pressed my lips together, then nodded angrily. “I see.”
   “Mulligan’s attracts all sorts of unsavory folks,” the deputy continued. “Druggies, thieves, drunks, losers of all varieties. I wish the Town Council would shut it down.”
   Losers of all varieties, I thought to myself. Well, that pretty much describes Ernie. “I think,” I said slowly, “that I’m going to see if they’ll let me in, too.”
   Joe smiled. “Good,” he answered simply. “And I’ll turn and carefully look the other way for a little bit, so that I won’t have to see a minor go inside.” Then the smile faded. “It can get pretty rough in there, Bluegrass. If anything happens, don’t try to fight. Just run for the door, and I’ll be there in a flash. Got it?”
   “I’ve got it,” I agreed, lowering my ears, squaring my shoulders, and bunching my forepaws up into fists. “Oh, I’ve got it all right. Run like a rabbit. No problem at all.”
   Mulligan’s was probably the only public building in town that I’d never been inside. The door was big and much heavier than I expected; I had to lean into it pretty hard before the stubborn thing finally swung open. The windows were covered with thick, heavy curtains meant to shut out as much daylight as possible, and the air stank of piss and stale beer. Someone I didn’t know was wiping the long bar down. “We ain’t—” he began, before looking up and seeing what I was.
   “I don’t care,” I answered. “I’m not here for a drink. I’m looking for Ernie Hallow.”
   “Oh!” the bartender answered, smiling in the silly way that people often do when encountering a Lapist unexpectedly. “Ernie's in the back room, making a sale.” He indicated the direction with a thumb over his left shoulder. “Why don’t you head on back? He’s got some really good deals on hand tools. I bought a drill from him myself last week!”
   I smiled at the bartender and thanked him, then cut between two rows of tobacco-reeking booths. From there a short hallway led in the direction the barkeep had indicated; it was so badly in need of mopping that my foot-fur stuck to the floor in places. ‘Please knock!’ a little sign indicated. But I ignored it and simply threw the door wide open.
   “What…” Ernie demanded, blinking at me from over a brand-new, still-in-the-box chainsaw. “Jeremy! What are you—”
   I didn’t have to say anything. For that matter, I didn’t have to do anything. I’d come, I’d seen, and now it was time to leave. So, without speaking a word, I slammed the door, spun, and stomped out. I’d only taken five steps down the filthy hallway before the door exploded open behind me and Ernie came running out. “Listen!” he cried out. “Jeremy! I can explain everything!”
   Ernie was fast, but he was no match for me. I bent over and put all four limbs to good use, even though it meant soiling my handpaws so badly they would probably stink all day. Without a word I rocketed towards the door, only standing upright when I had to stop and swing the big, heavy main door aside. That took me several seconds to accomplish.
   And those same several seconds gave me all the time I needed to see and appreciate a large product display I'd missed on the way in; I'd been facing the wrong way. It featured all sorts of ‘Easter Egg Caverns’ merchandise, including two big boxes of silver souvenir spoons, all available for sale to the patrons of Mulligan’s Tavern and Grill at greatly reduced prices.

= 7 =

   My battery was so dead when I arrived at the Rodericks’ that I had to get off and walk my bike up most of the last hill. I was late again, as usual, though this time I’d left plenty early. Even the relatively good battery that Digger had just given me was nearing the end of its useful life, and was apparently degrading much more quickly than my other ones. What would I do when I had no batteries at all left? It was something I tried not to think about as I pushed the Stiletto up the last steep slope, grunting and groaning all of the way. At least my destination was at the bottom of a very long downgrade, so that I wasn’t huffing and puffing any more by the time I braked my bike to a silent stop, unwound the many-times-repaired cord, and plugged it in next Digger’s machine.
   “Hello, Bluegrass!” Mrs. Roderick greeted me as I wearily clambered my way up the front porch stairs. “How is your day going?”
   “Just awful so far,” I muttered. “But I hope it’s about to get a lot better.” I tried to smile, but failed.
   “Is school going okay?” the older woman asked, looking worried. “I know that you spend so much time working…”
   “No,” I answered tiredly. “It’s not that. Things are kinda rough at the cave right now, is all.” Though I’d been far too upset about what I'd seen at Mulligan's to pay proper attention in class, and if that continued I’d soon have problems on that front as well. Instead of focusing on the lesson, my mind had kept replaying over and over again a little movie of Ernie selling the Cavern's chainsaw. “It’ll all work out. Though it’s good that I can get away from things for a while. I need a little break, I think.”
   “Well,” she answered, “I’m glad that you’ve found such a wonderful new friend, at least. Digger is such a nice boy! And, you didn’t tell me that he’s studying to become a minister!”
   I felt my face flush a little. Digger had made it very clear to me the first time that we met, when I’d asked him what he was going to school for, that Lapists didn’t have ministers per se. While the Church did maintain a small staff of full-time clergymen, they didn’t preach any more than anyone else, or seek converts like Christian ministers or Islamic imams did. Instead, they quietly served as the focus of the of the Lapist community’s social support network, visiting the sick, counseling those seeking guidance, maintaining Lapist buildings and properties, and generally carrying out the non-spiritual (but still vital) functions of a church leader. I was certain that Digger had explained all of this to Mrs. Roderick just as he had to me, and was equally positive that she had chosen to not quite hear a word of it. Digger was becoming a Lapist minister, in her mind, and that was that. “Well,” I answered eventually. “At least you two seem to have hit it off pretty well. Where is Diggs, anyway?”
   “Out back,” she answered pleasantly. “He needed to make a phone call. Why don’t you head on out that way? Dinner will be in an hour or so; I’ve never cooked for bunnies before, so I sure hope that you boys like what I've come up with! I’ve got home-made asparagus pot pies in the oven, made to my mother’s recipe. And we’re also having cucumber salad, with lots of tomatoes. And pineapple cake for dessert!”
   My stomach rumbled, and I had to swallow twice in order to deal with a sudden rush of saliva. I’d been told that all sorts of things would change when I became a Rabbit, but actually liking asparagus still felt the strangest. “Great!” I replied, meaning it. “Thank you so much!”
   Digger was way out in back, well past the garden, sitting at a picnic table with his back to me. I couldn’t help but overhear his conversation as I walked up behind him. “…isn’t at all like the Board probably thinks it is, Dad,” my friend was saying. “Bluegrass honestly doesn’t have any idea that what he’s done is wrong.” There was a short pause, and I froze in my tracks. “I agree,” Digger continued. “Datepalm needs more training at the very least. He left Bluegrass totally out in the cold; no orientation, no Discussion Times before the Change… I don’t even think that he left Bluegrass with anyone’s name or number to call for help if he needed it. Date’s used to working on the West Coast, like the rest of us, where there’s plenty of support right close at hand. He didn’t even think about how Bluegrass would be stuck out here with no other Lapists to turn to. Even worse, he didn’t follow up on anything. Would you believe that Bluegrass doesn’t even seem to have so much as glanced at the Book of Peace?”
   There was another long pause. “No, Dad,” Digger replied eventually. “Even though you’re absolutely right, I still think that maybe Datepalm was right as well. There is a Rabbit in Bluegrass, deep down. I’ve met a few local people who know him, and not only do most of them think very highly of him, a couple have congratulated me on our Church's having won over such a high-quality convert. Although he’s terribly ignorant in our ways, he seems very hard-working and sincere to me, Dad.” Apparently Digger’s Dad had a lot to say this time, because the silence went on and on before my friend finally spoke up again. “Yes, Dad,” he said firmly. “I can imagine how the Easter Egg Cavern billboards look to the Central Board. And even how they must look to you. But I’m telling you, if you’d ever met Bluegrass in person yourself, you’d stand up for him just like I’m doing. I know that you would! He’s made a terrible mistake, but…” Digger lowered his head for a moment, then raised it again. “Look, Dad. Grandpa was the First Lapist, right? He wrote the Book of Peace. And why did he become a Rabbit? He was a young, divorced world-class gengineer with too much patent-money in his pocket, playing around with his lab-toys and hoping to get laid by girls who thought bunnies were cute. He wasn’t seeking anything resembling spiritual insight or wisdom; that was all just an accident. It wasn’t until he’d spent a few months actually living as a Rabbit, fully immersed in the new form, that he began to understand that there was far more to it than he’d ever bargained for. Or so people say; he never talked about it, himself." There was another short silence, just about long enough for Digger’s dad to agree. “All right then, Dad. If Sweetgrass himself became a Rabbit for all the wrong reasons, but then was so moved by the experience that he founded the entire Lapist movement, then why should Bluegrass, who also admittedly Changed for all the wrong reasons, not be given a chance to grow as well?”
   This time, the silence went on for a very long time before Digger spoke again. “Thank you,” he said, bowing his head. “Thank you more than you know. Hold them off for another couple weeks, and then we’ll talk again. If you were here, you’d know just how wrong it would be for us to formally repudiate Bluegrass. He needs the Church, and someday, I honestly believe, he’ll become a Rabbit to be proud of.” There was another short silence. “I will, Dad. Promise. Say hello to Berry and Mom. I love all of you, too. Bye!”
   For several long seconds I was too shocked to do anything but stand frozen in my tracks with my mouth hanging open. Digger was Sweetgrass’s grandson? His father is on the Central Board? And they were already considering kicking me out, when I hadn’t even had a chance to really learn much about Lapism or even be a Rabbit yet? What had I done that was so terribly wrong? I liked Digger so very much! And the Book of Peace made a lot of sense too. Or at least the parts I’d found time to read made a lot of sense. My head spun for perhaps a full minute before I finally shook out the cobwebs and stepped forward. “Hi, Diggs,” I greeted my friend shyly.
   He turned around and smiled. “Bluegrass!” he replied with genuine enthusiasm. “It’s good to see you! I was starting to get worried.” His arms twitched slightly, as if by reflex, then fell back by his sides as his smile faded slightly. “Boy! Does dinner smell good, or what?”
   I gulped slightly. I’d hugged Datepalm when I’d met him for my Rabbithood interview, because Mom had told me that if I didn’t, they probably wouldn’t let me Change. He’d been warm and soft and all that, but it had been nothing special. Lapists routinely hugged each other in greeting regardless of age and gender, I knew, and often even spent hours snuggled up close to one another like real bunnies, right down to a rabbit’s total disregard for male-female pairing. This was because there was genuine, actual lepus DNA in a Lapist’s genetic makeup, which made for very real behavioral differences between humans and Rabbits. I’d never hugged anyone since becoming a Rabbit; in fact, I hadn’t had much excuse for hugging anyone at all since Dad had died. Things hadn’t changed on that front just because I’d become a Rabbit. But now… The way that Digger’s smile had faded right in front of my eyes was what decided me. I didn’t want to lose his friendship, not at all! In fact, he was just about the only friend I had. If Digger felt that he needed to be hugged because we were both Rabbits, then that was good enough for me. It was just a matter of hospitality, I could see now that I was trying to look at things from his perspective. Perhaps I had been remiss. So I smiled in much the same way that Digger had, opened my arms slightly…
   …and was instantly glommed-onto by over a hundred pounds of soft, wiggly bunny! “Bluegrass!” my friend cried, as if only now that I was in his arms did he truly know who I was. “Blugrass Spelunker!”
   I squeezed back, and then noticed Digger’s distinctive scent filling my nose. Somehow, my muzzle had sort of automatically buried itself into his chestfur. I’d smelled him before, but never anything like so up-close and intimately. I felt my nostrils dilating as they greedily filled themselves with remarkably pleasant musk. “Digger!” I felt myself replying aloud, as the scent was burned far more deeply into my brain than any mere visual image ever could be. I’d never forget Digger’s scent! Literally never! “Brightmint Digger!” The hug went on and on and on, far longer than I’d planned. Datepalm had been right; physical contact was far more intense as a Rabbit. But he’d never even hinted at how very good it felt to hug and be hugged! How my new body needed to hug and be hugged!
   My heavens! It boggled the mind, imagining how nice it would be to hug a girl!
   “Well!” Digger said eventually, coming up for air. “That was very nice!”
   “Yes!” I agreed, before I could really think about it. “It certainly was! I didn’t… I mean…”
   “Hello, boys!” Mr. Roderick interrupted, calling out from the garden. “It’s almost time to eat! Come on in and wash up! But be sure to stop and pick a few nice, fresh tomatoes on the way in. There’s always enough time for that.”

= 8 =

   All through dinner Digger smiled a lot and chatted freely with the Rodericks, while I mostly sat quietly and looked down into my plate. The hug-thing had kind of overwhelmed me, being so unexpectedly powerful, though Diggs had clearly taken it in stride. I spent most of the time it took me to eat my cucumber salad wondering if somehow the Change had made me gay, but by the time Mrs. Roderick set out the asparagus I’d decided it wasn’t that at all. I didn’t want to make love to Digger, just rub up against him and smell him sometimes. That was Rabbity, not gay. And I was a Rabbit, that was for sure. I’d been wearing the ears and fur and everything for several months now.
   So why had it taken me so long to figure out that if I was a Rabbit, then hugging my friends was a perfectly normal, natural and healthy thing for me to do? Even something I needed to do in order to be who I really was now?
   And what else was I missing out on?
   Mrs. Roderick brought in the asparagus pie then, and derailed my train of thought entirely. Which was just as well, since I’d been trying to picture myself hugging Ernie and my stepmom, and failing utterly along the way. The pie was about a foot and a half square, five inches thick, steaming hot…
   …and didn’t appear to lapine eyes be nearly large enough to feed both Digger and me, never mind the Rodericks! It smelled so, so heavenly! “My goodness gracious!” Mrs. Roderick declared as she sat the pie down on the table. “I do believe I have our guests’ full attention.”
   Digger and I both nodded, too entranced to speak. Then the crust was opened, a large burst of fragrant steam puffed out, and then everyone was burning their lips on the wonderful, wonderful food, too impatient to wait for it to cool off. “I still like it better with pork in it,” Mr. Roderick observed after a time. “But this came out plenty well too, Nora. It’s delicious.”
   “Mom won more than one County Fair with it,” Mrs. Roderick replied smugly.
   “I can believe it!” Digger answered, eyes still wide and adoring. “I’ve never had anything this good before at a Lapist’s house, even! Can you give me the recipe? Please? I’ll send it in to our monthly magazine, so everyone can share it. With your name on it, of course.”
   Mrs. Roderick’s cheeks colored. “Well… Of course, dear!”
   I was shoveling my food down far too fast to allow for conversation; I’d never felt so famished in my life! Ever since my Change, I’d been steadily losing weight. I had figured this was probably okay, since I’d felt kind of soft and flabby when they were done with me. But… Digger was all soft and flabby too, I knew now that I’d hugged him. Was I supposed to be a little on the chubby side of things, as a Rabbit? Mom hadn’t made any effort at all to cook anything special for me, and I’d been getting by on the side-dishes of corn and turnip greens and the like that she and Ernie ate with their own meals. They’d been pretty bland and tasteless, except for a few things like asparagus that we didn’t eat very often. Plus, the butter on them had been pretty yucky. But how else did one cook veggies, anyway? I’d come to believe that Rabbits simply didn’t have much of a sense of taste, and didn’t enjoy good food properly. But how terribly wrong I’d been! This was the best meal I’d ever eaten in my life! “Breathe, son!” an amused Mr. Roderick encouraged me at one point during the main course. “Breathe!”
   By the time the pineapple cake came out, Digger and I were both pretty full; I couldn’t speak for my friend, but my own belly was a hard little lump sticking out under my ribcage. Still, each of us made room for a slice, and then Mrs. Roderick sent us off with a pitcher of decaffeinated sweet tea for our Discussion Time. I let Digger pick out a place. He chose the little picnic bench we’d sat at before. It was just sunset, the locusts were chirring away in the trees, and as we sat down a doe deer took a few hesitant paces out of the nearby woods and onto the Rodericks’ property, then lowered her head to feed. “This is much better than that roadside table,” Digger observed. “There’s no trucks roaring by, no one honking their horns… We can have a real Discussion here.”
   “Yeah,” I agreed. “And the food can’t be beat, either.”
   “Heh!” Digger agreed, patting his distended middle. “I’ll be dreaming about that pie for a very long time to come. Thanks for suggesting that we do this, Bluegrass. So far, I’m having a wonderful time.”
   “Me too,” I agreed, smiling and putting my chin in my hands. “I only wish it could be like this every week.”
   “Wouldn’t that be wondeful?” Digger agreed. “Though Discussion Times back home weren’t anything to be ashamed of. We usually did just family until Berry and I were both almost grown up, because Dad wanted to be able to spend all the time he needed to with us. Mom missed a lot of Discussions, because of her job, and so did I for a while when…” He looked sad for a moment, then went on. “Anyway, once we were old enough, Dad started having a small group of friends over every Wednesday night, and we tackled the really tough issues together. Whether or not it’s right to Change people as infants, for example, and what does and does not constitute proselytizing. That’s when I really got interested in Lapism, and began to understand how important it all really was.”
   I tilted my head to one side. “That sounds really cool,” I said slowly.
   Digger nodded. “It was! Ordinary humans almost never worry about this kind of thing, see? But to me, finding the right and wrong of things is the most important part of anyone’s life. I think that maybe the very best thing about Lapism is that we encourage people to look at the big issues, and to figure out where they stand on them. There aren’t any right or wrong answers, really, though if anyone were to decide against our basic principles it’s hard to see how they could keep on being a Lapist.”
   “And,” I said slowly. “If anyone does anything really, really bad, you publicly disown them.”
   Digger frowned. “It’s only happened twice so far,” he said, equally slowly. “Once, the Rabbit involved decided they were wrong, and rejoined the community. The other had herself made back into a normal human, and the Church paid for it.”
   I pressed my lips together thoughtfully. “You said you wanted to talk about family tonight,” I pointed out. “Chapter Three. And you know what? I actually found time to read it. This afternoon, in fact. After class. Usually I go home to study, but today I decided to stay at school and sit in the library.” Which was why my battery had gone flat and I’d been late, I didn’t add. It had needed the recharge stop. But I had needed to not-see Ernie and Mom even worse.
   Digger’s face lit up like a little child’s. “Really?” he asked. “That’s wonderful! What’d you think of it?”
   “It was interesting,” I answered slowly. “Sweetgrass had a real way with words.” I paused to think, pursing my lips. “I especially liked what he said about how the old saying that you can choose your friends but not your family only holds true for those with limited imaginations.” I looked up to meet Digger’s eyes. “Do you really consider all Lapists to be your brothers and sisters?”
   My friend smiled. “Kind of,” he replied. “Though I admit that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration. I’d be a lot more likely to loan my blood-brother Blueberry money than, say, my Lapist-brother Hackberry that’s had three cars repossessed that I know of. On the other hand, if Hackberry was really in trouble in some way, I’d do everything I possibly could to help him, and I know that he would do the same for me. Most Lapists actively enjoy each other’s company, you see. Which makes us sort of treasure and value each other in a very special way. Some folks on the outside say that it’s just because we’ve rewired our brains to automatically like other Rabbits, but I don’t agree. We also tend to very much enjoy the company of pre-Change converts, almost as much as that of true Rabbits. So I think that we’re all brothers and sisters because of the beliefs and values that we share and cherish.” He smiled. “Lapists are generally very nice and very open-minded people, you see. Even non-Lapists say so. We tend to be on the thoughtful side as well, and to care about ethics. Otherwise, we’d never be attracted to the Book of Peace in the first place. If you think about it, we tend to have a lot in common going in. It’s no wonder we get along so well, and develop such close relationships.”
   I pressed my lips together again. “My real family is dead,” I said at long last. “And I’ve never had very many friends. Especially since Dad died, when I was fifteen. I had to start giving cave tours then, every free minute. We nearly starved during the school year.”
   Digger’s eyes narrowed. “I’m very sorry,” he answered eventually.
   I frowned. “I really, really liked what I read this afternoon, Digger. Especially the part about being free to choose one’s family. But… But…” I sighed. “I admit it Diggs. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I heard you talking on the phone when I came up behind you this afternoon. I didn’t mean to—really I didn’t!”
   Digger’s eyes closed slowly, then re-opened. “And how much did you hear?” he asked eventually.
   Suddenly I was blubbering like a baby. “All of it, probably. About how I might get officially renounced by the Church, and how your grandfather was Sweetgrass, and how the cave’s billboards are making everybody mad, though I honestly don’t know why!” I lowered my head onto the picnic table. “Everything is so screwed up in my life! Everything! I didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, honest I didn’t! Especially not Lapist-people’s! And I wanted to study more before getting Changed, really and truly! But I’ve got a family to feed, and a cave to run, and…”
   Then Digger was sitting next to me and holding me. “It’s all right, Bluegrass,” he whispered. “It’s all going to be all right. I promise.”
   “How?” I demanded. “How is it all going to be all right? You don’t even know the half of it! My stepdad is stealing from me, more and more every week. My stepmom drinks. He drinks too, and maybe does things even worse. And I promised my Dad! I promised him that I’d take care of Louise! He loved her, even though she drank back then, too!” Then I was hugging Digger and wailing, wailing wailing like the world was coming to an end. Which was the honest truth of things, part of me was beginning to realize. My old world was changing and changing fast, into something totally new and unrecognizable. It had been changing ever since I’d become a Rabbit, I realized, though it was moving a lot faster now. Or maybe it was because I was becoming an adult, not because I was a Rabbit. It didn’t really matter much, I supposed. Either way, everything looked different now!
   “It’s all right,” Digger repeated again after a very long time, when my wails had finally died away. “I understand, or at least I understand some of it. Ever since I first met you, Bluegrass, I’ve believed in you. And while you’ve been very, very frustrating at times, I’ve never stopped believing. We’ll work through all of this together, one step at a time. When we need it, we’ll get help from the Lapists back home. I’ll even put you up in my apartment, if I have to. Because you’re my brother.”
   “Really?” I asked, pulling away from the hug and looking deep into Digger’s deep brown eyes.
   “Really,” he answered firmly, unwrapping his arms from me and scooting away. “And I promise you one thing, absolutely and unconditionally. So long as you’re honest with me, and keep making progress like you have tonight, the Lapist Church will not disavow you.” His face suddenly hardened, becoming all planes and angles. It was a little frightening. “They won’t. Or else they’ll have to disavow me right along with you! That’s the real meaning of family!”

= 9 =

   We decided to cut Discussion Time short, just like we had the week before, though I felt a lot better about it this time around. Whereas last time Digger had clearly been disappointed in me, this week I felt like a new Rabbit. I’d learned about hugging, about eating, about the Lapist family…
   And best of all, I’d learned that Digger really, truly was my friend!
   My bike was fully charged by the time we mounted up side-by-side to head for the cave, though I wasn’t sure with my crummy battery if I had enough power to make it all the way home or not. But I didn’t say anything because I’d never ridden with anyone before, and the last thing I wanted was to mess up the trip by having Digger worry when he didn’t need to. If my battery died I’d push my scooter, was all. It wasn’t like I’d never done it before.
   The ride was every bit as marvelous as I’d hoped it would be. I led the way down little country lanes that weren’t even on most maps, in order to both show Digger the countryside and keep my speed down, which would hopefully make my battery last longer. I showed him the old barn where the Underground Railroad had once stopped, the remains of a Prohibition-era still, and the entrance to a long-dead coal mine. For a time we rode right alongside an old Civil-War road, and I laughed and smiled as I pointed out where my real Dad and I had found five unfired minie-balls all lying together, where a soldier must have dropped his pouch on a long march. Because our bikes were electric, we didn’t spook the wildlife as we glided silently along. We saw turkeys, deer, and even a black bear off in the distance right before sunset. That impressed Digger a lot; he’d never seen one before, except in zoos.
   The cave was at the bottom of a long steep hill, which was a very good thing for me as my bike was almost totally dead by the time we got there. “Follow me,” I suggested as we crested the last rise. “I’ll take us in the back way, so we don’t have to see Ernie and Mom.” Then I goosed my throttle and used up just about my last amp, getting far ahead enough of Digger that I wouldn’t have to explain. I led him down an old dirt road, then pulled up at the cave’s emergency exit. “Come on!” I encouraged Digger as I dismounted and unwound my cord. “This is the cave’s back door. There’s a plug here, for the burglar alarm.”
   “Right-O!” he agreed cheerily, removing his helmet and then plugging in his bike as well. “But why do you have a back door?”
   “For safety,” I explained. “The government made us put it in, so people can still get out if something bad happens. Like, say, a rockfall. But you have to watch out for snakes on the stairs. They seem to love it here.”
   “Right,” Digger agreed, suddenly looking uneasy. “You go first then.”
   I laughed and turned on the lights, then climbed halfway down the stairs before stopping cold. “Damn him!” I cursed. “Damn Ernie all to hell!”
   “What?” Diggs demanded, his ears suddenly erect. “What’s wrong?”
   I shook my head in disgust. “Nothing major,” I answered sadly. “It’s just…” I pressed my lips together, trying to control my anger. “Someone tried to break in a few days back. People try it all the time, mostly teen-aged kids out looking for trouble. That’s why we finally ran a power line and installed a burglar alarm. They broke it trying to get in, and Ernie was supposed to fix it. He said that he’d fixed it, even. But look at what he did instead!”
   Digger came partway down the steps, clearly nervous about snakes. Then he peered at the big metal exit door. “He just welded it shut!” Digger exclaimed. “Why, that’s dangerous!”
   “Stupid, too,” I agreed. “If OSHA ever saw this, we’d be fined so heavily that, well… We’d have to close the doors permanently.” I shook my head again. “Ernie’s not just lazy. He’s stupid.” There was a long, awkward silence, then I sighed and we climbed back up to the top of the stairs. “We’re not getting in this way,” I said. “That’s for sure. But my bike isn’t going anywhere for a while, either. So let’s walk around front; I’ve got the key with me.”
   The cave’s entrance was directly across from our little house; I could see the blue glow of the television through the windows, and the cave’s truck was parked right beside the front door. Mom and Ernie were both home, clearly. So I pulled out my key and disabled the main alarm, then turned the latch by feel, not turning on any lights. “I really don’t want Mom and Ernie coming over here, if you don’t mind,” I explained to Digger. “And there’s nothing to see in the gift shop anyway. All we sell is a bunch of tourist crap, like you can find anywhere.”
   “Right,” Digger agreed, scowling up at our main entrance sign. It had a picture of me on it, smiling just as wide as I could. My incisors seemed almost to glow in the starlight. I felt myself scowling too, and feeling very small inside. There was something wrong with our advertising, I was beginning to understand. It was right on the tip of my tongue, though I couldn’t find the words just yet.
   Once we were inside, I led Digger by the arm through the schmaltz-maze, then down the ramp into the cave proper. Once we were down a level, I knew, our lights wouldn’t show at all. “All right, Digger!” I said. “Brace yourself! Here comes Stop Number One!” I flipped the switch in Jacob O’Hare’s ear, and he smiled and explained for the ten-millionth time all about our cave’s free air-conditioning system.
   “Wow,” Digger said politely when Jacob was done, though he didn’t sound impressed at all. Then we went deeper underground and listened to Bunny-Girl’s lisping spiel on the Jellybean Wallpaper. “Hrmm,” he said this time around, leaning over and examining the fake formation closely. Then looked up at the stalactites we’d replaced so many times, “Hrmm.”
   Then Digger looked me right in the eyes, and I had to turn away.
   I’d had that happen before, usually when a professional geologist made the mistake of taking our tour. They always knew the truth about the formations, though they were usually too polite to say anything. I’d always hated having to meet their eyes, regardless. Because they knew. Just like Digger seemed to know the truth, about so many, many things. He could see right through me, not just about fake rock formations, but about all the other fake stuff in my life. A lot of which I hadn’t even realized was fake, until he and his Book had made me really think about it. And, suddenly, I realized that I didn’t want to have to avoid Digger’s eyes anymore. There was something better out there than lies; people being honest with each other and living as brothers and sisters. As a real family, not the mockery of one I lived in. If we could choose our families, like Sweetgrass claimed, then I knew precisely what kind of people I wanted to have as part of mine. But in order to be worthy of such a family, in order to be accepted by and fit in with people who aimed to live by a higher standard, I had to adopt that ethic for myself.
   I had to start holding myself to a higher standard.
   My lies had never been meant to be harmful. I had always told the truth where it really mattered, or so I’d always thought. It was traditional for a roadside attraction to exaggerate, to stretch the truth of things a little. It was part of American culture; no jury would condemn me for ballyhooing the cave. Most people considered me to be honest enough, I knew, despite what I did for a living. Nor did most people really take their religion very seriously; had I become a Catholic or a Baptist and then skipped services or ignored Church rules, no one would have thought twice. Not even if they suspected that the real reason I'd changed faiths in the first place was because I'd thought it would be good for business. But Lapists weren’t ‘most people’. They clearly cared; quite a lot in fact. So much so that Digger had been knocking himself out for weeks on my account, trying to help me see what I so badly needed to see.
   I thought about my father’s life. It had been filled with lies, and had led nowhere. I’d loved him very much, and he’d been a good, decent man. He’d certainly loved and cared for me. But did he meet a higher standard?
   No, I had to admit myself, the creator of Easter Egg Caverns could not, and did not meet a higher standard. He’d been just a plain, ordinary sort of man.
   And who aspired to be ordinary? Certainly not me!
   Somehow, I was beginning to understand, I’d stumbled onto something very, very special by becoming a Rabbit and associating myself with people like Digger. But in order to live up to what I’d chosen to become, I had to stop lying.
   Right Now.
   Because I was a Rabbit, and it was expected of me.
   “The stalactites are fakes,” I heard myself saying as if from a great distance. “The Wallpaper is fake, the Basket is fake, The Underground River is fake, Lemonade Falls is a fake… Everything down here is fake.” I patted Bunny-Girl on the head. “Even the rabbits are fakes.”
   “I see,” Digger answered slowly.
   “Everything is a fake,” I repeated. “Everything! My whole life is based on lies. I have a fake family, a fake business, and now I’ve faked my way into a religion.” I turned to face Digger squarely. “It was my stepmom’s idea, granted. But I went along with it eagerly enough. I didn’t think it would hurt anyone, least of all me. We were going broke, and it looked like the only way I could save the business.” I looked down at the ground. “If I hadn’t been so lonely, I’d never have made time to meet with you every Wednesday. I really didn’t care about the Book, just about seeing you. It was because I needed Rabbit-company so badly, I understand now. It was my new body talking, not my heart. So I’ve been lying to you, as well. Your Central Board is absolutely right. They should disown me, after what I’ve done. I haven’t been a sincere Lapist at all. I never wore the ears-and-tail, never studied the Book In fact, I never imagined that anyone would care if I did or not.” I raised my eyes. “But instead of just letting things go, you sought me out. You cared whether or not I was sincere. It mattered to you.” I felt my eyes tearing up again. “And I’m so very, very glad that it did.”
   Then Digger smiled and opened his arms slightly, and instantly I was hugging him just as hard as I could, still crying my eyes out. “Oh, Digger!” I wept, slobbering up his fur something fierce. “For the first time since I can’t remember when, I feel free! I don’t have to tell lies anymore, don’t have to—”
   “Shh!” Digger demanded, suddenly going hard and tense. His ears were fully erect. “Do you hear anything? Like, say, a crackling sound?”
   It was probably more Rabbit-instinct, I suppose; in an instant I had ceased my weeping and was on full alert as well. “Yeah!” I agreed. And then my chest suddenly drew itself very tight around my heart. “And I smell smoke, too!”

= 10 =

   As one, we ran for the stairs; a fire is no joke at all when you’re forty or fifty feet underground. The smoke thickened all the way, until when we got to the stairs we finally ran into the flames themselves. The whole right side of the overly-wide staircase was engulfed…
   …and there was flaming liquid running down them, spreading the fire to the wooden platforms in the cave proper.
   In an instant I knew what was going on. “Ernie!” I screamed as loudly as I could, balling my forepaws into fists and practically levitating up the non-burning part of the staircase. “Ernie!”
   “Oh, shit!” my stepfather replied as I emerged into the flaming gift shop. He had a can of motor-fuel in his hands, and I’d caught him in the act of spreading it around. “Oh, fucking shit!”
   “Ernie!” I screamed again, too angry to articulate further. There was already a solid wall of flames between me and the door, and I wasn’t at all sure that Digger and I could make it out.
   “Shit!” Ernie declared again. Then he scowled fiercely and began pouring more fuel onto the floor. He had cans and cans of the stuff, mostly piled up in a big stack right next to him. “I didn’t mean for it to be like this, Jeremy!” he finally called out. “Honestly, I didn’t. I thought you were out for the night.” Then he snatched up a post card from a nearby display, lit it on a nearby flame, and tossed it onto the fresh pool of fuel.
   “Ernie!” I screamed out a third time, literally shaking my fists in rage. “You thieving bastard!
   “Oh my dear Jesus!” Mom screamed from somewhere near the front of the store; apparently she’d just heard my voice for the first time. “Ernie, is that Jeremy? Oh my sweet god!”
   “Shut up!” Ernie declared, looking over his shoulder. “Just fucking shut up, all right?” Then he scowled at me again, and picked up another can of fuel.
   “You can’t get away with this,” I screamed, dancing in rage. “You won’t!”
   “Shut up, Jeremy!” he replied, splashing the fuel as far as he could in my direction. “You just fucking—” Then it happened. Ernie played his stream of liquid just a little too close to the flames. It caught in mid-air, the flames ran back up into the can…
   …and the whole thing exploded right in his hands!
   Suddenly my step-father was a ball of flames. “Ahh!” he cried out, trying to beat out the flames on his chest with his already-burning hands. “A-a-a-a-h!”
   “Ernie!” I heard my stepmother scream from somewhere beyond him. “Oh my god! I’m coming for you, love!”
   Ernie took off running, blindly bouncing from aisle to fiery aisle and screaming, the sounds becoming ever more guttural and inhuman, while Mom shrieked and tried to get him to hold still so that she could come help him. Then her own screams started growing louder and more hysterical as my stepfather finally tripped and fell, landing right square in the middle of one of the largest puddles of flame.
   “Come on!” Digger finally said, tugging at my shoulder. “Come on! We’ve got to get out of here!”
   Ernie was still writhing and kicking and Mom was still screaming somewhere out near the cash register, but Digger was right. There was nothing further we could do, and clearly this was no way out. And by now the stairway was almost entirely in flame; we both had to scrunch right up near the railing to avoid being burned.
   “How do we get out?” Digger demanded once we were back down into the cave itself. The air was better there, though I didn’t imagine that would last very long. But, best of all, we couldn’t hear Mom screaming any more.
   I shook my head. “We don’t,” I answered. “Or at least, I don’t think we do.”
   He pressed his lips together, and looked up the stairway. Just as he did so, there was a sort of low-grade explosion; it felt almost like a punch in the stomach. Then a wave of burning alcohol came rushing towards us. Something had blown up! Digger and I danced away from the flames, then watched in horror as Jacob O’Hare, of the natural-air-conditioning speech, began to melt and flow.
   “We don’t have long!” I yelled over the flames. “All we can do is keep falling back, and hope that the fire department comes. But who knows how long that’ll take, as far out as we are.”
   “Right,” Digger agreed, clearly not liking it but unable to offer an alternative plan of his own.
   The smoke was growing very thick very quickly as we ran back past the Jellybean wallpaper, through the Portly Passage, and back to the Easter Basket itself. Even worse, the air was growing hotter as well. Digger tried to say something, but coughed instead. Then I tried to speak, and ended up coughing as well. I looked up to see how thick the smoke was; already, the haze was so thick that it hard to make out the light.
   But at least it was still lit, I realized suddenly. At least we still had power! “Come on!” I urged Digger, shoving him towards Lemonade Falls and then triggering the big pump. “Come on!”
   The water in Lemonade Falls was not naturally yellow; I usually checked the color every morning, and then added dye as needed. But the stuff wasn’t exactly clean or clear, either. It reeked of mildew and things worse after it had been sitting for a few days; we pumped it from a sump about fifty feet further back where the cave petered out entirely, and had no idea where the liquid originated from. “Maybe the flowing of the water will filter out the smoke,” I suggested as I ducked under the safety railing and waded out into the little pond that was the source of Lemonade Creek. Digger followed obediently. “It oughta help us stay cool, too.”
   “But it won’t put any oxygen into the air,” Digger pointed out as the slightly-slimy water rose first to our knees, then to our waists.
   “I know,” I answered, sitting down in the pond’s deepest point, a foot or so from the base of the falls. The water rose up to my neck. “But what else can we do?”
   Digger frowned, then pulled out his cell phone. “Not a chance,” I answered before he could dial the emergency number. “We’re underground, remember? And it wouldn’t work even if we weren’t, out here in the country.” I sniffed a couple times. “It’s working. The air is better here, near the water.
   My friend frowned, looking around for someplace to put his phone. Then he sighed, put it back in his pocket, and sat down alongside me. The device sizzled for a moment in his pocket, then was silent. “All right,” he said. “From here on in, I guess we hope the firemen arrive before the air runs out.”
   “I guess,” I answered, trying not to think about how Ernie and Mom had screamed so terribly. They had done a bad thing, yes; Ernie even worse than Mom. But still… I shuddered. Do people who die of smoke inhalation scream like that? I wondered to myself.
   The fire spread very rapidly, following the route down Portly Passage. The cave’s wooden decking was old, I knew, and had been painted many, many times. But still, the speed of the thing amazed me. The air grew smokier by the second; you could almost watch it. Digger began coughing again, then so did I. My eyes felt like two red-hot coals, and Digger was rubbing at his continually. He was trembling too, now. And his breaths were coming in short little gasps. “Ah! Ah! Ah!”
   “I’m scared too,” I whispered, reaching around to hug my friend. Even now, with the flames closing in, it felt good to hug another bunny, and Digger instantly wrapped his arms around me. “Scared as hell!”
   “We’re not going to make it,” Digger whispered in my ear. “Not like this. The air is going.”
   “I know,” I answered back. “But at least you showed me how to be a Rabbit, Diggs. At least I got to be a Lapist before I died, if only for one evening.”
   “Heh!” he answered. “But you never did show me all of the cave, Bluegrass. It was a one-sided deal; I’ve never been down Fat Man’s Squeeze.”
   “Heh!” I replied back in kind, squinting my eyes against the heat and the smoke and the flying ash and reflexively looking down the Squeeze. It was black as night down that way; the smoke would kill us in seconds if we tried to go there. And besides, it let out right into the middle of what by now must be a raging inferno.
   Then I noticed something. All the smoke was blowing in a nice, neat circular pattern, down the Portly Passage and up Fat Man’s Squeeze. The pattern, in fact, that our natural air-conditioning system blowers created. Well, that made sense. The lights were still on, weren’t they? Why shouldn’t the ductwork still be in place, too? And the blowers still turning?
   My mouth dropped open, then shut again. “Digger,” I said slowly.
   “What, Bluegrass?” my friend answered, his voice eerily calm and angelic. He clearly had made his peace with the idea of dying.
   “Digger, I think I may know a way out. It’s kind of crazy, but I don’t want you to ask any questions. I just want you to do what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it. Okay?”
   His ears came erect, then he pulled them back sharply. “Ow! It’s burning hot up there!”
   “I know,” I answered. “Believe me, I know.” I paused for a moment, then began undoing my shorts. “Take off your clothes,” I ordered.
   “Right,” he agreed after just half a second’s hesitation.
   “Put them all the way under the water, down to the coolest place you can find.”
   “Done,” he answered a moment later.
   “All right,” I continued, when I’d completed the same task myself. “On the count of three, I want you to sink yourself all the way to the bottom of the pond. Your headfur has to be totally, completely sopping wet for this to work, so you can’t just dunk and come up. You need to stay down a bit.”
   “Bluegrass,” he objected. “All the decking has burned away. We can’t run through the flames, no matter how wet we are. The floor would cave in under us.” He shuddered again. “I’d rather run out of air.”
   “We’re not going to be using the floor,” I answered. “I need for you to trust me. As your brother. All right? We might still get killed, but at least my way we have a chance.”
   Digger blinked several times, then rubbed at his eyes again. “All right.” Then he looked directly at me. “You’re a good Rabbit, Bluegrass. I trust you. And I love you, as my brother. Do whatever you think is best, and I’ll follow you if I can.”
   I tried to find words, but could not. And time was wasting. So, I just counted instead. “On the count of three! One… Two…

= 11 =

   It must have been heating up faster than I’d realized in the Basket Room, because the room-temperature water felt icy-cold on my head and ears. It was very hard to hold my breath even for a second; I was probably already short on oxygen, and the smoke made me want to cough so hard that my chest felt as if it was going to explode. Then I finally had to come up for air and I did so, choking and coughing my lungs out. A second or two later, Digger surfaced as well. “All right!” I ordered, as soon as he was done with most of his wheezing. “Grab your shorts and pull them over your head! Use them as an air-filter! Got it?”
   “Yeah!” he answered, pulling them out of the water.
   “Don’t wring them out!” I demanded. “Leave them as wet as you can, and follow me!”
   It took a lot more effort to get out of the Lemonade Falls Pond than it had to get in; I was rocky on my feet, and if I moved too fast I saw spots. It was the oxygen-thing again, I knew. Plus, when I tried to stand fully upright, it felt like I was sticking my head into the hottest oven in the world. It was just as well that both Digger and I were well-equipped to get around on all fours.
   The main inlet for our souvenir-store air was located just above the sump that we drew out creek-water from, way in the back of the cave. From that point, Easter Egg Caverns became just a crack so thin that even a child could not inch their way back any further to explore. But the Cave’s cold, clammy air originated from there, so Dad had placed our summer air intake as close to it as he possibly could. Fortunately the air-filter was held in place with clothespins; we used the wrong size, because it was a lot cheaper than the right one and worked just fine. I yanked the filter-cover off, and then tossed the filter itself down towards the fire as if it could somehow delay the flames for a second or two. Then, I grabbed both sides of the ventilator shaft, ready to pull myself in. “Follow me!” I ordered.
   Digger’s mouth dropped open, and his ear-linings paled under the cold fluorescent work-light. “I… I…” Then he tried again. “You can’t… I mean… We’ll bake!”
   “No we won’t bake!” I countered. “We’re dripping wet, our fur is thick as hell, and so long as the ventilators run there’ll be cool, breathable air flowing through the shaft around us! And it’s airtight! Yeah, it may get pretty hot in places. But have you got any other ideas?”
   He pressed his lips together, then shook his head. Some droplets of water showered off of him and his shorts, droplets that I was afraid he would sorely miss later. But there was no going back to the Falls for a refresher dunk. Already, the decking was beginning to burn its way down towards where we stood. “All right,” I said one last time, looking Digger steadily in the eye in an attempt to raise his confidence. “Here we go!”
   He smiled and nodded back, then gave me a thumbs up. Then, something jerked into motion behind Digger, and Stars and Stripes Forever began to play. The main switch contacts had softened and then soldered themselves shut, I realized, throwing the room’s entertainment system into action.
   My last sight of the Basket Room was of dozens of melting, burning, mechanical Easter bunnies, all of them smiling twisted smiles and dancing about in demonic joy.

= 12 =

   It was the vertical parts of the ventilator that were really difficult. We made it all the way across the Basket Room almost effortlessly, though the walls got a bit warm in places, and even the long slow slope up the Portly Passage wasn’t too bad. Dad had run the ventwork along the wall instead of the ceiling, so as to leave more room for fake stalactites. I fit in the shaft pretty easily, though Digger was a tighter fit. But still, we both had a fairly easy time of it, being Rabbits and therefore at least to some degree at home in tight passages. The air was even better than it had been at the base of Lemonade Falls, and there was no danger of getting lost. We made the journey in two, perhaps three adrenaline-stretched minutes at most.
   But the seven-foot vertical climb from Tour Stop One to the souvenir store proper damn near killed us! “I don’t have any good ideas either,” Digger wailed from just behind me as I stared upwards. “But the floor’s hot, Bluegrass! And getting hotter!”
   “Yeah,” I agreed absently, peering up the vertical stretch into the absolute blackness. Metal creates a very particular odor when it is heated over a flame, and despite the airflow from behind me I could detect the distinctive tang in the air. All four of my paws were in contact with the floor of the vent, and despite the thick layer of coarse fur that we Rabbits had instead of paw-pads to protect our feet, thick, coarse fur which in our case was still soaking wet, the surface was warm enough to hurt. We were clearly in the fire-zone, now. “And hot air rises. It’s only going to get worse.”
   “Well… Maybe you could stand on my shoulders?”
   “That’d gain me maybe four feet,” I answered. “We need ten. Got any more ideas?”
   There was only silence for a time. Then Digger finally spoke again. “How gengineered are you? Do you suppose that you could jump that high?”
   “Maybe,” I answered. “A lot of the gengineering stuff was free, you know. Part of the package. It doesn’t cost any more to make someone extra-strong than it does to leave them normal. So, they gave me the Rabbit muscles and such.” I thumped on the ventilator floor with a hindfoot. “This ductwork’s not all that solidly mounted, though. It might come apart if we try that.” I paused. “Can you jump that high?”
   “Oh, yes!” he assured me. “Berry and I used to play high-hop with the other Lapist kids at Bunny Camp every summer. I always won, even though Berry was older. He hated that, even though he’d never admit it.”
   “Hmm,” I answered, edging my head further out into the shaft. I didn’t like the not-metal smell, not at all. “Digger,” I said slowly. “I think the top of the shaft may be hot. Very, very hot. Right about where we’ll have to grab on if we do jump.”
   There was another long silence. “That’s not good at all, I don’t think.”
   “No,” I agreed, wondering for an inane minute how much fun I might have missed at Bunny Camp with Berry and Digger. “Well,” I said after a time, “I guess we’ll have to grab on anyway, and trust to the wet fur.”
   “If the shaft is so hot at the end nearest us,” Digger replied, “then what makes you think it’s any cooler further down?”
   “Blind faith,” I replied honestly. “That, and the fact that the ventilator runs down an outside wall a few feet further on. Eventually it goes through our main blower, and then it exhausts into the store, right by the front door.”
   “But… But that’s where the fire is!” Digger sounded confused. “Why would we want to go there?”
   “We don’t,” I answered patiently. “Our main blower is a big son of a gun, though. That’s why we still have good air in here. It’s probably fanning the hell out of the store flames, but the pressure won’t let the smoke suck back in. And, best of all, the blower itself is outside. Because it’s noisy.”
   “Ah,” Digger said slowly. “So all that we have to do is jump up, grab the hot sill, use it to lever ourselves up, crawl along a stove-hot floor for thirty, maybe forty feet, and then somehow make a hole in the blower housing and get out?
   “Pretty much!” I agreed cheerfully. “Wanna go back down where we were, and watch the bunnies melt?”
   “Oh, no!” Digger answered. “This little adventure here sounds like far too much fun to pass up.” His voice lowered. “Seriously. I don’t have any other ideas at all, and I promise that you’ll be the second to know if I should come up with any.” He patted me on the back. “Good luck!”
   It turned out not to be as bad for me as I’d feared. I was scared, plenty scared, and the improved air in the shaft had helped me to replenish my internal oxygen supply. I eased my way out into the vertical shaft, and stretched my hindlegs. “I’m going to make one trial hop,” I warned Digger. “Expect me to fall back. All right?”
   “All right,” he answered.
   I squatted down, then hopped hard. It was a clumsy, awkward hop, since I’d never really had very much time to get used to my new self. My second attempt would surely be better. Even so, I brushed my ears on the top of the shaft. “This’ll be easy!” I declared after landing, hard. The ductwork creaked and swayed. “Maybe it’s not as high as I thought. In fact, I’m going to try and push off from the back wall of the ducting, so that I don’t have to grab the hot edge. You might want to try that too.”
   “I will,” Digger promised.
   Then it was time. I re-wetted the sole-fur of all four of my paws from the dampest parts of me, then squatted down and leapt for all that I was worth! The sides of the shaft blurred by, marked by little lines of yellow and orange pinholes here and there where a seam wasn’t quite perfectly sealed. Just as I began to slow to a stop I kicked off the back wall and drove myself forward; the timing was perfect, and I ended up lying on my belly on the horizontal shaft floor. I sighed in relief and relaxed for just a microsecond…
   …until I realized my whole belly was sizzling and popping from the heat! “Ahhh!” I screamed aloud, leaping to my feet and hopping down the shaft as fast as I could. Ssss! Ssss! Ssss! I could hear at every hop, as the water on my feet flashed into steam. “Aaaaah!”
   The floor finally did cool down some, though never enough to become truly pain-free. I hopped from one foot to another, something very difficult to do in quadrupedal mode. In fact, still being a relatively new Rabbit who’d spent little time on four feet, I kept tripping over my own paws. “I’m all the way up, Digger!” I cried out at the top of my lungs. “The floor’s hotter than hell at the top, but it cools off about forty feet down. You can make it if you’re plenty wet! I’m waiting for you!”
   “All right!” I heard my friend answer faintly. “Here I come!”
   But something went terribly wrong. The shaft trembled much harder than it should have, and instead of Digger smoothly sailing up onto my level, he barely got his forepaws up onto the hot metal. Even worse, our little passageway began filling with dark, filthy smoke! “Aaah!” my friend screamed as he scrabbled for purchase with his mitten-hands. They sizzled and steamed and slipped. “Help me! The damn shaft fell apart when I jumped!”
   I was running for him in an instant, though it felt like I was walking on hot coals. The angle was awkward as hell and I needed all the traction I could get, so instead of reaching out and grabbing Digger with a handpaw I hooked my incisors in firmly behind his teeth and pulled for all I was worth. Then my own paws were sizzling and steaming, and I was screaming just like Ernie had. “Aaaah! Aaah!”
   “Let me go!” Digger urged, his words slurred and twisted from my grip on his dentition. “Let me go! You’ll never make it!”
   My paws felt like they were sunk into pots of molten lead, but I didn’t let go. Instead I heaved, and moved Digger forwards an inch or more. Then I heaved again…
   …and we were lying on top of each other, sizzling. “Come on!” I urged my friend. “Get off of me! I can’t move!
   Digger’s scrambled backwards, and then I turned around end-for-end and hightailed it up to where the floor was merely unbearably hot. “Just one more corner!” I urged into the rapidly-thickening smoke. “Just one more, and then we’ll be at the blower!”

= 13 =

   My memory had indeed been perfect, I congratulated myself as Digger and I crawled the last few feet towards our goal, sort of walking on our wrists and knees in an effort to spare our badly-burned paws. They were blistering already, I could tell, and swelling up something fierce. My handpaws were especially bad. But there was nothing to be done for them until we got out, nothing at all. And besides, now we had all the smoke and fumes again to help distract us from the pain. “It’s right up ahead,” I hissed. “Just around the corner, and…”
   But my memory had been wrong after all, I could see as we rounded the last bend. The fan housing was right where I’d though it would be, sure enough. The big squirrelcage, however, was on the near side, not the far side as I’d recalled. Somehow, we had to get past the fan itself.
   And it was still running!
   “Damn!” Digger observed, watching the big wheel turn. We would see it quite clearly; there were cooling slits in the housing, and our dusk-to-dawn security lamp out on the parking lot was set at just the right angle to illuminate things through them. “What is that, a twenty-horse motor?”
   “Twenty-five,” I replied glumly. “And we can’t shut it off from here!”
   “Is there anything we can jam it with?” Digger asked, beginning to bounce from foot to foot again. Being behind me, his patch of floor was a bit hotter than mine.
   I looked around. “Like?”
   Digger sighed and lowered his eyes, then coughed; there wasn’t anything, of course. Plus, the smoke was growing thicker and thicker! He adjusted his air-filter/shorts around his head…
   …and then his eyes lit up. “I have my multi-tool!” he declared, ripping the garment off of his head and digging into a pocket. He brought out a shiny, hard object with a flourish. “My multi-tool! I always carry it when I’m out on the scooter.” He fiddled with it a little bit, ‘ow’-ing a couple times as he hit especially tender spots on his forepaws, then smiled fiercely. “Wirecutters!” he proclaimed. “We have wirecutters!”
   I smiled back, then tried to take the tool from my friend. Instead, it slipped right through my grip. I bent over, and tried to pick them up. But I couldn’t. Obviously, I was a lot more badly burned than I’d realized. “Digger, I… Ah…”
   “Right,” he answered sympathetically. We traded places, though it was a very tight squeeze, and I immediately began to appreciate just how much hotter Digger’s piece of floor had been than my own. Instantly I was doing the quadrupedal-leg-swapping thing; if I lived long enough, I expected to get pretty good at it. The smoke was thicker, too, and pretty soon I was choking, hard.
   “This is a two-twenty fan!” Digger complained after a moment. “Three-phase! And it’s too dark to see which wire is which! I can’t tell green from black!”
   “I couldn’t either, when I was up there,” I admitted.
   “But…” Digger continued. “But… This tool isn’t insulated. I’m still wet! If I cut a hot wire—”
   “Then you’ll die!” I finished for him, shuffling my feet ever faster. “But at least it’ll be quick and clean! Can you think of anything else to do?”
   “No,” he answered after a seeming eternity. “I can’t.” So he reached the wirecutters around the big squirrelcage, picked a wire at random, and squeezed the handles. There was a sudden shower of sparks, and Digger came flying back into me as if propelled by a large explosion.
   “Oh, shit!” I screamed, nosing at Digger’s warm, limp body. “Oh, shit! Digger, are you all right?”
   Then he shook himself all over, and spoke. “Never been better,” he judged. “Just got tickled a little. But look!” He pointed, and sure enough, the fan was slowing to a stop!
   Digger was a bigger bunny than I was, but even he was able to worm his way into the squirrelcage once it stopped turning, up close to the external housing. “It’s nice and cool up here,” he reported. “And the air is better, too. I don’t see any signs of fire trucks yet. There’s not much light; I think the fire must not be burning very brightly. Probably producing more smoke than anything else.” There was a long pause, then I heard Diggs kicking at things. “The housing itself seems plenty solid, Bluegrass.”
   I nodded. The truth was, I didn’t have a clue as to how to get out. I’d never really believed we’d make it this far. “Tell me what you see,” I suggested. “Maybe that’ll give me an idea.”
   “Hmm,” Digger answered. “It looks, and for that matter feels, like the inside of a normal, everyday maintenance cover. But I can’t find any nuts and bolts. Or even any screws coming through anywhere.”
   “The cover definitely screws on,” I countered. “Four big ones! They take forever to run in and out whenever we lube the fan. Are you sure that you don’t feel the thread-ends of four big sheet-metal screws?”
   There was another pause, and I coughed again. Neither of us were coughing very hard anymore; I took this to be a bad sign, since the smoke was only getting worse. “No,” Digger answered eventually. “Not a damn thing.”
   I frowned. “Ernie just lubed that fan last week,” I complained. “There ought to be…” Then the lights went on for me. “Digger,” I said. “I want you to kick that maintenance panel as hard as you can. You got me? Just kick it.”
   “All right,” Digger agreed, his voice doubtful. “Give me a second to get a better angle…”
   Then wham! and suddenly light was streaming through the fan. “Why, it just popped off by itself!” Digger exclaimed. “I mean…”
   “You’ll find the screws lying on the ground,” I answered. “Just laying there rusting. Right where Ernie dropped them because he was too lazy to drive them back in, the dumb bastard.” I sighed and shook my head. “Hurry up and get out, will you? Please? I need some air!”

= 14—Five Weeks Later =

   “Happy birthday!” everyone shouted together when the song was finished. “Happy birthday!”
   “Happy Birthday, Bluegrass!” Mr. Roderick added after everyone else was done. “And to you, Digger! Many happy returns.”
   “Yes!” Silkfur agreed from his seat near the head of his son’s hospital bed. “Many happy returns!” Digger’s and my birthdays were less than two weeks apart, and we were sharing a suite until our new sets of paws were fully grown and ready to be sewn on. That would take another ten days, and both of us would still be giddy and out-of-sorts from the surgery when his birthday came rolling around. So the Rodericks and Digger’s parents had conspired to surprise us both on my birthday. I’d never had much of a birthday party before, and didn’t really know what to do or say. In a way, it was just as well that all four of my extremities terminated in useless, nearly-round balls of gauze; that way, at least no one would expect much of me.
   My burns, in particular, had been much worse than I’d realized. Not that Digger’s were any picnic. Before all was said and done, we’d both be out of circulation for another month or so. Getting grafts actually took longer than getting a brand-new full body, because in the case of a new body, at least large parts could be grown and kept in stock. Custom-fit extremities had to be grown from scratch, on an as-needed basis.
   I glanced over at my friend; he looked oddly childlike lying back in his white-sheeted bed, made for normal humans and thus a bit oversized for a Rabbit. He was smiling up at his dad, who was returning the expression with interest. Except for their two differing fur colors they looked almost like twins when they smiled; it was uncanny.
   “Hooray!” Berry declared, leaping out of his chair by the door. “Hooray! The cake is here!” And sure enough, the door burst open just then to reveal Mrs. Roderick and Sundew rolling in the biggest piece of baked goods I’d ever seen. It was chocolate on one side; the inscription in yellow read ‘Happy Twenty-One, Diggs!’ and there were twenty-one candles to be blown out. And, the other half was iced in the same golden color as my own fur, with an equal number of candles. “Congratulations, Bluegrass,” it read simply. I stared down at my half of the cake for a very, very long time. I hadn’t had a birthday cake since I could remember when…
   “Well,” Mrs. Roderick said finally. “Who’s to do the honors, since our birthday boys can’t cut it for themselves?”
   “Berry?” Digger asked, looking over at me and raising his eyebrows inquiringly.
   “Berry,” I agreed. Digger’s brother was in gengineering school, which was supposed to be terribly hard. This was the first time he’d managed to squeeze in a visit since our first surgery, and in some ways I could hardly claim to know him at all. Yet I already liked him very much. I looked up at him and smiled. “Would you be willing?”
   “Of course,” he agreed, standing up and accepting a knife from Mrs. Roderick. “I’d be honored.”
   “Only one piece each for the birthday boys!” Sundew warned Berry as he began slicing. “The medications they’re on will only stand so much sugar.”
   “Right, Mom,” he agreed. “They’re on quadruhelices, to keep the nerve-endings receptive.”
   “It’s all right,” Diggs answered. “I’m not very hungry anyway.”
   “Nor am I, really,” I agreed. I’d spent all afternoon finishing up my business with Mr. Everettson, and I was now the sole legal owner of six hundred useless acres, a burned-out cave, a mountain of unpaid bills, and a large insurance claim that the company was still investigating and refusing to commit itself over. My lawyer had told me not to worry, that the evidence was compelling and they were sure to pay eventually. But what if they don’t? I kept asking myself over and over again. What if they don’t? In that case I’d have to sue. Despite the fact that Mr. Everettson assured me that most lawyers would sooner settle out of court than try to make a Lapist look bad on the stand, I couldn’t help but worry anyway. After all, I didn’t have anything left unless the insurance came through; I’d lost my house to sparks from the main fire, and even my scooter was gone. It might have been funny at another time or place, but my Stiletto had burned up as well, the defective battery shorting out and catching on fire from the charging current. A second, totally unrelated fire at practically the same time and place! There had been a reason that the battery was failing so fast, but I’d been too blind to see it.
   Like I’d been too blind to see so many other things.
   I missed my Stiletto more than I missed Mom and Ernie. Silkfur and I had talked about that for a very long time, and he’d told me that it was okay for me to feel that way. I cried a lot while we talked. But still, I felt very, very empty inside.
   Mrs. Roderick spoon-fed me my cake while Sundew did the same for Diggs; both females seemed to take an inordinate pleasure in the proceedings. Then it was eight o’clock and visiting hours were over; I assumed everyone was going to leave. But I hadn’t reckoned on the fact that Sundew was actually a medical professional, officially consulting on our cases. Or, for that matter, that Silkfur was officially acting as my grief counselor. Just after we two patients finished up our cake, Digger was presented with a pile of presents. “Open them for me, Berry!” he asked his brother. “Please?” A hand-knitted sweater emerged from the gaily-wrapped packages, as did a new multi-tool and several other really nice gifts. I’d never seen anyone get so many presents, though I’d heard of such things, and it really made me feel warm and happy inside to see how much Digger’s family loved him. When Berry was finally done with the unwrapping everyone stood around his bed for a little while, smiling and laughing.
   Then, finally, Silkfur turned to me. “Now,” he said slowly. “It’s your turn.”
   I blinked, twice. “I don’t need anything,” I answered slowly. “Not really.”
   Silk smiled, again looking very like his son. “No,” he answered. “Of course not.” Then he shook his head, and spoke in more formal tones. “Bluegrass Spelunker,” he began, “Before I met you, I was prepared to not like you at all. Everything I knew about you indicated that you were probably a cynical young con-man trying to make a small-time profit at the expense of everything which we Lapists hold sacred and dear.” He frowned. “And then you saved my son’s life.”
   “Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “I got him into that mess in the first place! And…”
   “And nothing!” Silkfur countered in tones that brooked no disagreement. “We all know what happened, Bluegrass. Including the parts in the hot ventilator shaft. All of it. And from where we stand, you saved Digger’s life.”
   “Amen,” my friend replied softly.
   “For that alone,” Silkfur continued, “you’ve earned my undying gratitude, the gratitude of my family, and even though it’s probably wrong, the gratitude of Lapists everywhere for saving Sweetgrass’s grandson. But that’s not all.” The older Rabbit looked down at Digger, then looked back at me. “I understand that it’s no secret that Digger was reporting back to me about you; once the pictures of your advertising billboards came flooding in, the Central Board was forced to take an interest. He’d have looked you up and held Discussions with you in any event; you’re both Rabbits, after all, and Rabbits are scarce around these parts. But, because we were so suspicious of you, he reported back as well.” Silkfur looked down at the ground. “From his first meeting with you, he said that the situation was not at all as it appeared, that he thought you might have gotten caught up in something without understanding the harmfulness of your actions. I was under a lot of pressure to act and, frankly, I was on the edge of doing so. But I was wrong, and my son was right. Now that I know all of the facts, and even more now that I’ve come to know you a little, Bluegrass, I can see that I would have been far too hasty. You’re a fine Rabbit, Bluegrass Spelunker, and I apologize to you for all the ways that our Church shortchanged you in your conversion. The fault was ours far more than anyone else’s. Lessons have been learned, and steps taken.”
   Silkfur paused for a moment, but I didn’t know what to say. A quiet, squeaky “Thank you” finally escaped from my lips.
   “Anyway, you’re a Rabbit, Bluegrass. You’ve chosen to accept all Rabbits as your brothers and sisters, and we in turn have accepted you. ‘Blood is blood,’ Sweetgrass stated in Chapter Three, ‘and family is family. While the phenomenon are usually at least passingly related, of the two Family is by far the more important. We have the power to define our families, they need not define us. Love and devotion are earned, never owed, except between parents and immature children. Even there, if love and devotion must be commanded instead of occurring naturally, I would submit that the family unit in question is dead, most likely beyond any hope of recovery, and that the members involved, by placing bonds of blood above those of respect and love, are merely trying to preserve the illusion of life in a rotting corpse. They would be best-served to turn their focus elsewhere, quit pouring their very souls down a bottomless well, and begin anew. Real family is where you find it.’”
   “That’s what becoming a Rabbit is all about, for some people,” Sundew said shyly. She almost never spoke about the Book, Digger had told me, even though her father had written it. But when she did… “It’s about beginning anew on a cleaner, purer piece of paper. Dad certainly felt that way, I know. It turned his whole life around. Up until then, if he’d written a book it would have had to have been about fast cars and liquor, not inner peace, ethics, and the pathway to a higher moral plane. I certainly remember the old Dad, even if no one else does.”
   “Well,” I said slowly, laying my head back on the pillow and closing my eyes. “I’m certainly starting anew, that’s for sure.”
   “We know,” Berry interjected. “In fact, Lapists everywhere know. And we have a tradition about helping people when they start over, especially deserving people who’ve been wiped out by some sort of disaster that’s not their fault.” The suite’s door opened, clunked on something, then closed. “Aren’t you even going to look?” Digger’s brother asked at last.
   At what? I wondered. Then I opened my eyes…
   …and there was a brand new Stiletto sitting alongside my bed! My jaw dropped. “I… Uh… I mean…”
   Silkfur laughed. “I had Digger spec it out for you, though Berry added a touch or two since you’re both so short.”
   “You didn’t think of lowering the seat,” Berry pointed out to his brother. “Or of installing the second battery pack beneath the motor. It’ll be harder to swap out there, granted. But it’ll lower the center of gravity for a shorter rider.”
   Digger frowned for just a second, then laughed. “You’re right!” he agreed. “I didn’t.” Then he turned to me. “Next year, we’re taking the Dam Tour together!”
   Second battery pack? I had a new scooter with a second battery pack? And it was blue, too! Just like my old one!
   “We put in on it too, Bluegrass,” Mrs. Roderick explained. “My husband and I don’t drive so well anymore, you see, and we were kind of hoping that you might run errands for us and such.”
   “I…” I stuttered again. “But… Of course, I mean. But…”
   “At least until you get your finances in order, I mean. After that, you’ll probably be moving on to a bigger town with more Rabbits in it, and I can’t blame you. You’ll probably go to law school, too. But until then…”
   “What Nora’s trying to say,” Mr. Roderick explained, coming up behind his wife and wrapping his arm lovingly around her, “Is that we’re getting old. We’re going to be going in for gengineering soon; in fact, we’ve put it off far too long already. We were hoping that for a little while you could move in and help us around the store and such, once you’re feeling up to it.”
   “Yes!” Mrs. Roderick agreed. “Exactly! And we could hold Discussions every Wednesday night, if you’d like. I think that Discussions are a wonderful idea! Digger is welcome anytime too, of course, for a day or a week or a month. And, I promise to make more asparagus pie.”
   “Oh…” I said slowly, mouth watering at the memory. “You mean I’d have to eat more of that terrible stuff?”
   Digger looked at me and rolled his eyes. “Give it up, Bluegrass,” he advised. “You’re drooling like a starving dog. Everyone knows you’re faking.”
   “Darn!” I complained, shaking my head. “Well… I guess I’ll have to come and live there anyway, then.”
   Then everyone seemed to be hugging everyone else, even the nurse who came in to check on us when someone accidentally bumped into my call button. Rabbit, human, Rabbit, everyone came by and squeezed first me and then Digger and then each other, and each and every hug was a wonderful, loving embrace that I would remember forever and ever even though I couldn’t really hug back, water for an arid soul.
   And that night, I dreamt of my real mother and father looking down on my new family, and smiling in approval.

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