by Phil Geusz
©2008 Phil Geusz

Home -=- #18 -=- ANTHRO #18 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-
This story takes place in Mr. Geusz’ Lapism setting. Previous Lapism stories include
Drama Class, Full Immersion, and In the Beginning, in Anthro, and Schism, in TSAT.

-= 1 =-

   “Cut!” Sully declared, slicing her hand through the air the way she always did when a shoot had gone particularly well.
   “All right!” the cameraman agreed, smiling and nodding. Clearly he thought we’d done outstanding work. Not that I particularly cared about his opinion. Cameramen weren’t part of the regular production team; they were assigned from a pool as required. I couldn’t even recall this one’s name. “In the can, baby!”
   But, I had to admit, sometimes even a pool cameraman could be right about things. This was going to be a killer segment! For once Kent, the news correspondent whose reputation it was my job to make, had earned at least a fraction of his bloated paycheck. He was still scowling mournfully as I rose from my old and battered but very lucky camp chair. “That was dead on,” I reassured him. “You emoted well.”
   Kent’s frown faded, and for a moment just the ghost of a smile flashed across his craggy, rugged, camera-beloved features. Then he was scowling again. “Maybe we should do another take?” he suggested. “Are you sure the bloodstains are going to show up? I mean, I’ll look silly as hell if they don’t.”
   I sighed and shook my head. Despite his rugged looks, my correspondent spent three afternoons a week closeted with his shrink, quivering in terror at a hundred imagined threats to his future. No matter how much Doctor Smythe and I tried to reassure him, it never really took. At age forty-seven, he’d already been married six times. That was quite a record, even for the entertainment industry. “It’ll show,” I reassured him, looking down at the rust-brown dribbles that we’d used to wrap up our special report on the Lakewood High shootings.
   “You’re goddamn right they’ll show!” Sully agreed, snapping her bubblegum in a way that might have been girlishly appealing if she weren’t pushing sixty. “I used a Number Eighteen filter, so they’ll sure as shit come out with a little electronic enhancement if all else fails.” She smiled at Kent. “Quit worrying so much, Kent. You’re in good hands.” I frowned, but said nothing. Sully was one of the best technical shooters in the business, and rated nearly as high in the eyes of the upstairs types as I did. The veteran cameraman clapped me on the back, hard. “Geniuses, we are. Abso-friggin’-lute geniuses.” Then she elbowed me in the ribs. “I mean, who but a genius newshound could’ve found those stains to begin with?”
   “Amen!” the nameless cameraman agreed. He turned to face me. “That was one hell of a find, Boss.”
   I smiled and looked down at the ground. A gut-shot teacher had taken cover under the hedge, and bled quite a bit before she’d died. Afterwards too, most likely. Luckily for us, the cleanup crew had missed some of the stains. They’d done a good job, I had to admit. A lesser journalist might never have found even the slightest trace of authentic gore. But, I’d studied the police-map of the crime-scene, and knew where to look. Once you’d covered enough shootings, you learned the little tricks of the trade. “Well…” I said, looking up again and meeting my crew’s eyes. “Guess what?”
   “What?” Kent demanded, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
   “If it bleeds…” I declared, spreading my arms wide.
   “It leads!” Sully and the cameraman agreed, facing each other and joining in an impromptu, musicless dance.
   “For sure!” I agreed, nodding and smiling myself. I turned to Kent, who remained stubbornly miserable. “Come on,” I urged him. “When have I ever been wrong? Tomorrow night, six o’clock, nationwide. Your big fat phizz on the tube coast to coast, sombrely informing the nation about another kid’s life gone bad. Another senseless tragedy in the Heartland.” I cocked my head to one side. “Isn’t that what you’ve been working for all this time?”
   “Yeah,” he agreed shortly, looking down at the pathetic little half-scrubbed bloodstain. “I suppose that it is.” Then he shook his head and sighed. “You sure that’s a wrap?”
   I looked down at the ground again, then shook my own head. Who could understand Talents and their unfathomable artistic souls? Meanwhile, Sully and the cameraman ceased their little dance. “Yep.”
   “Good,” he agreed. “I’ll be heading home, then. Back to Dayton. They owe me a couple days off.”
   Back to your shrink and his safe little couch, I didn’t say aloud. “All right,” I agreed instead. It was one of the little fictions of the news industry that the correspondents were in charge of news-teams in the field. We producers made it a point never to break the illusion, until the correspondents’ fame and reputation grew to the point where the lie actually transformed itself into truth. Then, of course, they usually fired us. But, them was the breaks; it was the price we producers paid for being born without even the tiniest shred of acting ability or camera-appeal. Instead, people like me had to struggle along on mere smarts and hustle. “I’ll flash this to New York, and they’ll piece it together however they want it. I bet we get a full five minutes, though.” I smiled again; a five-minute lead was worth smiling over, by god! “If they need you for background or voiceovers…”
   “Right,” Kent agreed. He knew the drill. Camera footage and six-o’clock lead stories came first, time off a poor second. “I’ll be around if they call.” And, without another word, he was gone.

-= 2 =-

   “It looks great!” Marge purred as she sat and ran our footage on the big computer monitor on her desk in New York; modern life was full of miracles, when you thought about it. Here I was, rolling down the highway in the back of a camera van in the middle of a Midwestern wheat field, transmitting images even faster than they could be watched. Back in the day, we’d have had to rush to an airfield and charter a plane to convey the same information. It would’ve taken hours, instead of seconds. And before that, I’d have been hauling around glass plates in the back of a wagon. No matter how our tools evolved, however, the heart of the business never changed. Marge’s eyes left the screen for a moment and met mine over the video-link. “I can’t believe you found authentic bloodstains.”
   My chest puffed out a little. “It’s a nice touch,” I agreed modestly.
   “Lead story material, most likely,” she continued, shutting off her display. “You and Kent and Sully are one of our best teams. But this time, of course, you had special insight on the story. That’s why I sent you, you know. Instead of anyone else.”
   Special insight? “Well, I’ve found usable bloodstains before…”
   Marge closed her eyes and sighed. “I meant Gary Junior. Your boy.” She shook her head. “I mean… Didn’t you even think about him while you were covering this… monstrosity?”
   I looked away. “He’s a little young for high school.”
   My supervisor frowned. “He starts his freshman year this fall. I just saw Stephanie, and she was telling me all about it.” Her head titled inquiringly to one side. “You really didn’t know?”
   “Well…” I answered. My ex and I weren’t on exactly the best of terms. About the only nice thing she ever had to say about me was that the checks arrived on time. And as for little Gary, well, he and I had gone to the zoo the last time I’d seen him. Or… no, it wasn’t the zoo. It’d been the circus, but we had to leave early so I could chase down an urgent interview. He’d cried and cried…
   High school?
   “Anyway,” Marge continued, clearly disappointed that I’d not tapped the source of inspiration she’d been counting on, “it’s damn good footage regardless. Kent works well with you, unlike anyone else I’ve teamed him with. He has a lot of potential, if handled properly.”
   “Maybe,” I agreed. I’d made that mistake before, committing my career to a single Talent. Then he’d gone and changed networks, conspicuously failing to bring me with him. It’d taken me five years to work my way back up to running to my own team. Like it was my fault that he’d gotten a better offer elsewhere?
   “Maybe,” Marge agreed, tilting her head again. It was a little annoying when she did that. But at least you knew that the wheels were turning. “I think that this report you’ve turned in is almost too good for a lead. There’s at least ten minutes of solid material here, really A-1airworthy stuff, I mean. If we worked at it, we could probably find another five minutes worth of background on the shooter. Who he was pissed off at, for example, and why.”
   I nodded. “But who can devote so much air-time to a podunk school shooting? We’re network, not local.”
   “I’m thinking of something more,” she said slowly, turning away from the phone’s camera pickup and leafing through the stacks of paper on her eternally overloaded desk. “Like, maybe a half-hour special report over on our in-depth-coverage channel.”
   My eyebrows rose and my jaw dropped. I’d never, not even once… “But…”
   “A counterpoint-type dealie,” she continued, still searching through the piles of paper. “You’ve just covered what happens when a kid goes wrong. There were what, fifteen dead?”
   “Fourteen,” I corrected her. “And a vegetable.”
   “Whatever. Everybody reports on that end of things. But how often do we cover kids not going bad?”
   I looked off into the distance. This, I realized for perhaps the hundredth time, was why Marge’s salary was twice mine. “Might work,” I agreed. “It’d be novel, sure enough.”
   “I just had something here,” she muttered. “It was a printout I made…” Suddenly she found what she was looking for and pounced like a cat. “There!” my supervisor declared. “That’s it!”
   “What?” I asked, unable to wait any longer.
   “The opposite of a school shooter,” she answered, displaying a coffee-stained sheet of printer-paper. I leaned forward and squinted; the van’s display wasn’t all that good and the coffee didn’t help any, but the picture seemed to be that of a… a...
   “It’s a Lapist,” Marge confirmed, grinning. “This is from a podunk paper. The bunnies bought some land in Kentucky last year, and are trying to put together a summer camp.” Her grin widened. “The week after next, they’ll be starting their first session. How much do you want to bet they’ll let us cover it?”
   “I don’t know,” I replied reluctantly. Everyone wanted to do stories about Lapists; there wasn’t a more photogenic creature in existence than a man-rabbit. “They’re notorious for being publicity-shy.”
   “You let me worry about that,” Marge answered, her smile widening. “I have an uncashed favor to call in.”
   “Right,” I agreed, though I still had my doubts.
   “In the meantime,” she continued. “You might want to read that Lapist book they’re always rattling on about—The Book of Peace, I think it’s called. And study up on the history of the movement and such.” Her smile faded. “If I can get this approved, and if you can pull it off…”
   “Yeah,” I agreed again. Marge didn’t have to explain further; a half-hour special would be the biggest thing that had ever happened to me. And to Kent and Sully too, I supposed.
   “Anyway,” Marge continued, after seeing that her point was made. “This one could be big, Gary. The chemistry feels very, very right to me.” Her eyes went cold and narrow. “Do not screw it up.”

-= 3 =-

   So, two weeks later I found myself deep in Kentucky’s back country, driving a rental car down a two-lane highway that had once been important but was now bypassed by the Interstate. It was early June, the sun was out, the birds were singing, and…
   …little Gary was sitting in the passenger seat alongside me, eyes hidden behind dark glasses and his head turned stubbornly to the right, staring out the window. Just as he’d been doing ever since I’d picked him up at the airport in Franklin.
   “This sure is pretty country, isn’t it?” I asked for maybe the third time in as many hours. But, as before, Gary didn’t so much as twitch. “Lots of trees and such.”
   “Yeah!” he might’ve responded brightly. Or even, “There’s trees everywhere! This is boring. When can I go home?” But, instead, there was only the icy silence.
   “Look!” I said, trying again and pointing to an odd conveyor-like structure on a hillside. “That’s part of a coal mine, I think.” Once again, however, my only answer was silence. I sighed, then sort of slumped back into my seat. Gary was almost fifteen now, long-limbed and clumsy and, according to a note I’d gotten from Stephanie at the last minute, terribly self-conscious about the fact that his voice was changing. That was silly, I knew; the big voice-change event was nothing for a growing boy to be ashamed of! But still, maybe that was why he didn’t want to chat. So, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt one more time.
   “I’m really glad you agreed to come with me to this retreat, Gary,” I explained, smiling as if all was well in our world. “It’s going to be all about manhood and what it really means, with an emphasis on father-son relationships.”
   For the first time, Gary responded a little. His head swiveled halfway towards me, then turned back to the passenger-side window.
   “I think it’s going to be good for us,” I continued hopefully. “I mean, I know that—”
   “Can it,” my son replied, his voice cracking just as badly as his mother had predicted. “We both know that the only reason I’m here is because the bunny-fags wouldn’t let in anybody who has an underage son unless they bring the kid, and they wouldn’t make an exception for you. Though, Mom says, you tried like hell.” He sighed. “You’re pathetic. All you care about is your TV stuff. And I didn’t agree to nothin’. Mom made me come. Or I wouldn’t have.”
   My mouth formed a thin, hard line. Back when I’d taken Gary to places like circuses and zoos, he hadn’t sassed me! “You…” I snapped back. “You…” But before I could find the right words, Gary spoke again.
   “There’s a truck stop up ahead,” he said, pointing at a billboard. “And I’m thirsty. Are you gonna buy me a soda, or do I have to use the money Mom sent along just in case you’re still as cheap as she remembers?”
   “I…” I began again, but once more the words wouldn’t come. Instead I slowed down and swung our rental into the Four Sixes Fueling Center.It was a dirty, shabby run-down outfit, clearly left over from the good times before the new Interstate had been built. Even out on the parking lot, I could smell the bathrooms—Jesus Christ, what a reek! My stomach lurched; apparently out here in the sticks, no one knew what a urinal cake was. “Gary,” I said as I threw the car into park, “I don’t think—”
   “I’ll be right back!” my son interrupted before I could offer to take us a little further on down the road in the hope of finding someplace better. “Just wait here!” Then he was up the two concrete steps and inside.
   Fuming, I closed my eyes and let my head fall onto the seat’s backrest. Gary was right, of course. The bunny-fa-—Lapists, I meant—hadn’t been willing to let me in without him. They’d been polite with me, but no matter how hard I pushed, they wouldn’t give an inch. “I’m sorry,” someone named Bluepine had told me over and over in his thick Canadian accent. “Our religious practices simply are not subject to compromise. Certainly, they’re not subject to compromise during our very first session. If I had my way, you wouldn’t be invited at all; clearly, someone somewhere is exerting considerable leverage. However, I’ve been overruled. Bring your boy, or don’t come at all. It’s entirely up to you. Besides, you might even have a good time together, eh?”
   So, I’d been forced to beg Stephanie to let me have Gary for a long weekend. Much to my surprise, it hadn’t been much of a struggle. “Look,” she said over the phone. “You and I work for the same company; there’s no point in even trying to keep secrets. I know what this is all about, and on the face of it I think it’s one of the most selfish things you’ve ever asked for. But…” She sighed. “I’m worried about him, Gary. I think he needs something that I just can’t give him, no matter how hard I try. He’s gotten surly and his grades are down. Way, way down. Plus, he’s been getting into fights, and hanging around with kids that I don’t like at all. Nothing I’ve tried has helped. So, even though I know full well what this is really all about, I’m going to send him with you even if he screams to high heaven, which I fully expect him to do. On the off chance that, just maybe, it might do the both of you some good.”
   Gary seemed to take forever in the truck stop. Or maybe it just felt like forever because I was so worked up? I waited a little longer than I normally would’ve, just to be sure that I had reason to be concerned. Then, wishing I had a gas mask with me, I opened up the car door and headed inside. Sure enough, Gary was waiting in the checkout line. “I have to use the bathroom,” I explained to cover the fact that I was checking up on him; it almost wasn’t a lie.
   “Whatever,” he answered, his voice a flat monotone.
   “Right,” I agreed, though no reply was really called for. There was a stained, battered sign above the back wall of the building that said Rest Rooms This Way, though with the stench being what it was I could just as easily have followed my nose. The sign led me down a short, narrow hall; I had to pass a muscular young man dressed mostly in piercings and cheap tattoos along the way. If his primary goal in life was to make himself appear to the world like a jail-bound failure, he’d made most of the right choices. Why anyone would willingly choose to stand in a place that smelled so bad, I hadn’t a clue. He eyed me carefully, then stepped slightly aside to allow me by. “Excuse me,” I said politely, though I’d filmed interviews with more respectable-looking serial killers. He said nothing, but glared angrily. Then I was past him. The hall ended in a sort of misshapen ‘T’, with the restroom doors paired closely together on the right and a small semiprivate room on the left. This area was filled with brightly-flashing video-games; another wannabee thug was playing one of them. A third young man, this one with notably more expensive tastes in piercing-hardware and tattoos, sat in a sort of lounge-chair with a similarly-adorned girl sitting in his lap. He too glared at me as I fumbled my way into stink-central, but said nothing.
   Geez, I muttered to myself as I did my business as quickly as I could. I thought that you only found shitholes this ugly in the big cities. Maybe I can come back and do an expose someday. “Crime in the Country”. Or “Farmland Felons”. Something like that, anyway.
   If these goons let me out of here alive, that is...

-= 4 =-

   I did make it out alive, despite my moment of doubt. Unhurt, even. Gary was waiting for me in the car, tennis shoes kicked up on the dash. He was sipping his soda and, miracle of miracles, smiling a little. Because of this, I decided not to chide him about scuffing up the rental car; it wasn’t mine, after all.
   “Maybe this weekend won’t turn out so bad,” my son opined about ten minutes down the road from the truck stop. “Maybe everything’ll be all right.” His smile widened. “I mean, look at all the cool trees, and the birds and stuff.” He shook his head. “Who said the country’s all shit?”
   “That’s the spirit!” I agreed, again diplomatically choosing not to correct him. He might be using bad language, but at least he was cheering up. Adolescents were like that, I knew; subject to sudden mood-swings. In fact, soon he was doing more than just talking; my son transformed himself into a veritable motormouth.
   “Look at that cool blue truck! And up there, on the hill! I bet that thing’s an old water tower; it’s funny-shaped. And, damn! I’ve got a shit-stain on my shoe!” In no time at all he was rattling away a mile a minute, about this, that, and every other thing under the sun that attracted his attention for more than a few milliseconds, all of it accompanied by a silly grin. Sometimes he even laughed and giggled; when he did, if I looked closely enough, I could still make out traces of the little boy I’d once watched chortle at the clowns.
   The Lapist summer-camp was easy enough to find; the bunnies had erected plenty of signs. Many of them had been adorned with fresh flowers and hand-lettered signs that carried messages like ‘Welcome, Lapists!’ Clearly these add-ons were the work of local people; by the look of things, the new summer camp was probably the largest single cash-injection the area had seen in many years. One rabbit in particular, however, seemed to come in for extra attention—someone named Bluegrass Spelunker. Nearly half the signs were meant just for him. ‘Welcome home, Bluegrass,’ one of them said, and I finally put two and two together. He must’ve been a local convert. Probably a rare thing indeed; Lapism was still almost purely a Left Coast phenomenon.
   “We’re going to have to get footage of that sign,” I explained to Gary, mostly because no one else was present. “And maybe a couple of interviews with people who knew this Bluegrass character before he got himself changed. It’s good local color.”
   “Blue!” Gary exclaimed. “I’ve never seen the sky so blue!”
   Soon we were through the one-horse burg and back on the rural highways again. This time, unfortunately, we were stuck behind a little convoy of five cars going just under the speed limit. Mumbling curses, I swung out on a long straight stretch and floored the rental, intending to blow past them all. But then at the last moment, I realized that the little group was travelling together, led by a group of four scooterists who were obvious rabbits. I slammed on my brakes and tried to fall in again behind the last car, but it was too late. The convoy was already slowing to make a left turn into what was, according to the sign, Camp Oaktree. So instead of passing I was sort of stuck with my butt hanging out in the oncoming traffic lane until the last Lapist car eased by, the rabbit-ear wearing driver shaking his head at me in disapproval. I gulped and fell in behind, while Gary laughed and slapped his thigh in glee. “You fucked up!” he declared, the first words he’d directly addressed to me since we’d left the Four Sixes.
   “I did,” I admitted through gritted teeth. Then I reached down under the seat and pulled out the fake ears and tails that my son and I should already have been wearing in order to help us blend in. “Now, put these on.”
   “Sure!” he agreed, instead of arguing like I’d figured he would. “I’m a bunny-fag! Whee!”
   “You’re going to be polite,” I countered, once again letting the foul language issue slide. It was so much easier, letting things slide. His mother could straighten him out later. “Polite to the very nice people who’ve invited us here to have a good time, and to let me film them.”
   “Whee!” he declared again, making fake paws out of his hands and making hopping motions. “Whee!” But at least he didn’t call our hosts bunny-fags again. Which was enough of a win for me; I’d been reunited with my son for less than half a day, and already I was eager to be rid of him again.
   “Come on,” I urged. “Give these people a break. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve learned about them, these past few days.” I gestured at the neatly landscaped greenery all around us. “I know it looks ridiculous on the surface, but there just might be something to this rabbit-stuff. Lapists have the lowest crime rate of any religious, ethnic, or social group ever studied. That goes for drug-use and alcoholism, as well. Their kids are almost always on the honor roll. Where there’s a significant Lapist population, they practically define the honor roll, Changed and Unchanged alike. Meanwhile, the parents earn almost three times the national average, though that might be because only the well-heeled can hope to afford the Change. One group of Lapists has formed a closed enclave out in the Nevada desert; almost a thousand of them.” I shook my head in wonder. “Not only have there been no crimes—not even a parking ticket!—but no one has even called the police in almost seven years. In fact, no one’s ever called the police there, except to invite them over for coffee and such.”
   “Fire the cops!” Gary chortled; he was developing a bad case of the giggles again. “Get rid of them all!”
   I sighed. “I’m being serious, now. These Lapists… They hate publicity. Actively do everything they can to avoid it, short of dropping out of sight altogether. Yet their movement is growing and growing fast, where most other faiths are shrinking. What is it that they’ve got that no one else does?” And how can I capture it on film? I didn’t ask aloud. I shook my head and looked at my son. His eyes were all red and puffy, I noticed; he’d removed his sunglasses to rub them. “Do you have allergies?” I asked. “If so, your mother should’ve sent along your pills!”
   “No,” Gary answered, immediately putting his glasses back on. “They just itch sometimes, is all. The doctor says it’s normal.”
   It didn’t look at all normal to me. But there wasn’t time to ask any more questions; the gravel road we’d been following suddenly forked, and a sign directed us to follow what was clearly the newer, more recently graded route. A single chain was stretched across the original roadway, and I craned my neck as we passed it. There was a large weed-covered, gravel parking lot, and beyond it what looked like the ruins of a burned-out old store. Almost immediately, our newer road opened out into a similar but much larger and better-maintained parking area, already half-filled with cars. At the far end a crowd had gathered, mostly made up of Changed Lapists. They broke into cheers and leapt up and down in place as the convoy pulled up, then mobbed the scooter-bunnies before they could even dismount. I scowled for just an instant; what excellent footage to miss! Then I noticed our network van parked on the far side of the lot, with a long-lensed camera mounted on a tripod alongside. As near as I could tell, Sully was already on the job. “Bless you, kid,” I murmured gently.
   “What?” Gary asked, taken aback.
   “Nothing,” I answered, my voice cold once more as I swung the rental into an open slot. “I didn’t mean you.”
   “Oh,” he replied, sounding vaguely disappointed. Probably he’d been hoping to sass me again, I figured.
   “I’ll pop the trunk so you can get your stuff,” I answered, opening my door and climbing to my feet. “I have to see some very important people first, and then I’ll make sure you get settled in.”

-= 5 =-

   As the head of a major network film crew, I was used to having people go out of their way to make me happy. My own staff did exactly that when I stopped by to greet them. Kent hadn’t arrived yet, as expected, but Sully was popping her gum and playing with her lightmeter and chattering away about how perfect a backdrop the rolling hills made. Paulie Michaels met me and shook my hand, too; I was careful to be nice to him, even though I didn’t like him very much. He was my special assistant for this project, which meant that he was really going to be performing many of my own duties while I was busy going through the motions of attending the retreat. Paulie was considerably older than me, and specialized in covering wars. World peace having broken out at the moment, he was available for other work. “I’ll take good care of you,” he assured me. “I understand what’s at stake here, and I promise not to joggle your elbow any more than I can help.”
   I nodded reluctantly; after all, it wasn’t Paulie’s fault that the Lapists had set up such ridiculous conditions for the shoot. The whole situation made me nervous; it wasn’t usually my job to appear on camera. And with Little Gary acting up the way he was…
   Suddenly I realized that I hadn’t seen my son in quite a while. I stepped around to the other side of the van... and sure enough, there he was, sitting on his suitcase by the side of the car, wearing his sunglasses and looking bored. “Geez,” I muttered to my special assistant. “I hope I don’t like as stupid in these ears as he does.”
   “Actually, you look worse,” Paulie assured me, clapping me on the shoulder in a fatherly manner. “Much worse.”
   “You’re pegging the dork-o-meter,” Sully agreed, pointing some gadget or other at me.
   A few minutes later, Gary and I were standing in line at the registration desk, located just inside a large rustic-looking log cabin of a dining hall. The place was brand spanking new, yet somehow also conveyed a genuine sense of antiquity. The walls were sprinkled with mounted heads, antique rifles, fishing gear, and even two whole canoes, mounted on their sides. We were behind a Changed father and unChanged boy of about seven, and ahead of a wholly-unchanged gaggle of fathers and sons so mixed up with each other that it was impossible to work out who belonged to who. The little boy in front of us seemed welded to his father’s paw; he was clearly nervous about being in such a strange place so far from home. Meanwhile, the kids behind us laughed and giggled and capered about; “This is gonna be so cool!” one of the ear-and-tail wearers declared. “I can’t wait for the archery contest! I’ll win for sure!”
   “I wanna go hiking!” another declared. “With Dad and Uncle Dave! Can we go today?”
   “Maybe,” one of the adults answered, smiling nearly as wide as the boys. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
   “Aww!” the kid replied. But you could see that he wasn’t too terribly disappointed; soon he was capering and giggling again with the rest.
   Then Gary piped in. “How long are we gonna hafta wait in this stupid line?” he demanded.
   I frowned slightly. How come my boy didn’t want to go hiking with me? Not that I had time anyway, what with all the shooting still to be done. But… “There’s no one at the counter,” I replied, explaining the obvious. Then I gestured outside. “They’re all still greeting the scooter-bunnies.”
   “It’s taking them forever,” Gary growled.
   The rabbit in front of us turned around, then cocked his head to one side. “That’s Silkfur,” he answered, as if that one word explained everything. “With Berry, Digger, and Bluegrass.”
   “Really?” one of the men behind us replied, eyebrows rising. He turned to look. “I’ve never had the pleasure.”
   That’s Digger?” one of the boys asked. “The dark brown one? I’ve heard that he’s so cool!”
   “Yep!” the rabbit in front of me reassured the young man, smile widening. “Why not go out and say hello?” He gestured at his son. “I’d be out there myself, but Akkad here is a bit shy.”
   “Let’s go!” one of the boys declared.
   “Dig-g-g-ger!” another cried out, tearing off to meet what was clearly a Lapist celebrity of some kind. I frowned and tried to remember whether I’d read anything about him or not. Silkfur, I knew of. He was the acknowledged head of the Church, in the informal Lapist sort of way. He and I had an interview planned for Saturday evening. And Bluegrass was the name from the welcome-home posters. But… Berry? Digger?
   “And we haven’t met either,” the rabbit in front of me continued, still smiling and extending a paw for me to shake. “I’m Datepalm Recordkeeper, from Seattle. And this is my son Akkad.”
   Gingerly, I shook the proffered appendage. It felt soft, clean, and strong. “I’m Gary Johnson,” I replied. “And this is my son Gary Junior.” The rabbit extended his paw again, and after a notable hesitation my boy shook it. The bunny looked quizzically at me. “I’m with the film crew,” I explained, reaching out and clasping my son’s shoulder. “That’s our van you saw out on the lot. We’re not really, ah… I mean…”
   “Of course,” Datepalm replied, bowing courteously. “I understand completely.” Still, he seemed to pull back into himself a little, and inwardly I cursed. Was I going to meet with this reaction all weekend long? “Perhaps this time together will do the two of you some good regardless.” Then, politely, he turned back around to face the empty counter and snugged his own boy close to his side.
   “Geez!” Gary complained again, louder this time. “How long—”
   “Not much longer,” a more familiar voice declared as an unusually tall rabbit stepped through the front door and around behind the counter. It was Bluepine Rover, I knew from his thick Canadian accent, and I’d done just enough bunny-research to recognize from his size, shape and summer coloration that he was morphed with a snowshoe hare. «Not many Lapists were hares; experts had been arguing for over a century about how closely rabbits and hares might or might not be related, and there was rather a split in the Lapist community over the issue. Moreover, since Lapist transformations were only permitted due to the fact that the Supreme Court had judged them to be central to the Lapist faith, the legal system had been forced to weigh in on the debate as well. In the USA, the judges eventually ruled that hares were not rabbits and therefore were off-limits to Lapists. Apparently, however, Canadian courts were more open-minded.» “I just had to pay my respects to Silkfur, was all.” He looked my son directly in the eyes. “Silk and his family have come a long, long way, after all. From the Coast. By scooter, all the way.” He shook his head, making the huge ears flop ridiculously. “Surely we can spare a little time to show our leader and his boys proper courtesy, eh?”
   “I guess,” Gary admitted, looking down and accepting the correction. My jaw dropped; I’d been expecting sass!
   “Good,” Bluepine replied, looking pleased. “Excellent, even!” He turned to Datepalm. “Your reservation number?”
   By the time Bluepine was done checking Datepalm and his son in, and then most unexpectedly embracing his fellow lapine like a long lost brother after the paperwork was done, it was our turn. The Canadian’s smile faded quickly as Gary and I stepped up to the desk. “I know you,” he said, before I could even offer our reservation number.
   I’d filmed many bizarre events in my career, and worked with all sorts of people. Usually, I’d learned, being honest up front paid large dividends in cooperation and support later. “Look,” I said, holding up my empty hands in a placating manner. “I’ve been reading about you people for days now. And the more I learn, the more I admire you.”
   Bluepine’s glare didn’t soften. “We don’t like publicity,” he answered. “Or flattery either, for that matter.” Then his eyes rose to the false rabbit ears atop my head. “Nor do we appreciate the abuse of our symbols.”
   I closed my eyes and sighed. “If you’d prefer, we’ll take them off. I wanted to blend in, was all. No disrespect was intended.” I reached up to remove the ears…
   …and just then a soft voice stopped me. “No,” it said. “Please, don’t do that. Not yet, at least.”
   I turned around, and there was Silkfur himself, looking just like his pictures. Except, of course, that he was much shorter in real life. “Sir!” I replied, turning around and half-bowing. “I didn’t see… I mean…”
   Just then three younger male bunnies came up behind him. Like Silkfur, they were dressed in dusty, road-stained biking gear. One, the shortest, still had his Rabbit-skull-adorned helmet on. “It didn’t get any cooler here while I was away at school,” he declared in the local Appalachian accent. “Not one danged bit!”
   “Yeah,” a chocolate-brown bunny agreed. He was a bit taller than Silk, clearly very athletic, and would’ve been extraordinarily handsome had it not been for a half-ruined ear. Despite this flaw, instantly I knew that I had to get him on film. There was something about him; I wasn’t sure quite what, but I had the feeling that if I were to look up ‘charisma’ in the dictionary I just might find this young Rabbit’s picture. Perhaps I could conceal the damaged ear with careful camera work? His helmet, which he was carrying under his arm, featured a flaming carrot. “I’m not looking forward to coming back for my grad work. At least, I’m not looking forward to the hot-weather part.” Then he looked at Gary and smiled. “Hi! Who’re you?”
   My son’s sunglasses couldn’t hide how wide his eyes had gone. Apparently the charisma-thing worked for him, too. “I… I… Gary,” he finally answered.
   “Way cool!” the brown bunny answered him. “I’m Digger.” He looked my son over appraisingly, scowled slightly, then turned to me. “And you?” he asked.
   “I—” I began, but Silkfur interrupted me.
   “He’s Gary Johnson Senior,” the elder Rabbit explained, returning my slight bow. “Our honored guest from the media. The one I told you about.” He looked at my son and smiled. “We’re so pleased to have you with us.”
   “And we’re pleased to be here,” I answered for us both, doing the nervous half-bow thing again. One kissed the Catholic Pope’s ring, I knew. But how did one properly salute the Pope of the Bunnies? Wriggle one’s nose? I looked back at Bluepine, then pointed at my fake ears. “I… Uh… He…”
   “Right,” Silkfur agreed, smiling at my discomfiture. Then he turned to Bluepine. “I think he ought to leave them on,” he suggested. “If he wants to, that is. We claim to learn from the form. Why shouldn’t outsiders have the chance to learn as well?”
   Bluepine scowled. “I think it’s mockery,” he replied. “If I were him, I’d certainly take them off. He’s not a sincere convert, eh? He doesn’t even claim to be!”
   “Neither was my grandfather when he first put on his ears,” the third young male Rabbit pointed out. This one had white fur, and his helmet was painted a very rich and beautiful blue that perfectly matched his eyes. On the back was a large red caduceus, and below that in small letters ‘Doctor of Genetic Engineering’.
   “But everything worked out for him eventually,” Digger pointed out.
   “I still think you ought to take them off,” Bluepine grumbled, looking me in the eyes again. Then he handed me a room key. “You’re in Cabin E,” he explained. “Go out behind the dining hall, and head down the path. ‘E’ is the last building on the left.” Then he looked down at my son, and handed him a key. “You’re in ‘C’, he continued. “Follow your father, then split off to the right. It’s next to the tennis court.”
   “Hooray!” Digger declared, grinning at Gary. “You’re going to be in my cabin!”
   “Good!” Gary blurted out, smiling. Then he remembered where he was and that Digger was just a bunny-fag, and wiped the eager expression from his face. The white Rabbit’s head tilted first to the right and then to the left as he examined first my son and then me from head to toe. But he said nothing.
   “Sure thing,” I agreed. Then I looked from the still-unhappy Bluepine to Silkfur. “But—I mean—The ears and tails. Should we take them off or not?”
   “I don’t know,” Silkfur replied, looking into my eyes. “Should you?”
   “What does your heart say?” asked the very short bunny, the one I’d decided must be Bluegrass.
   “I…” I stuttered again. “I don’t… I mean, I don’t want to offend…”
   “Heh!” Bluepine declared, smiling for the first time. Then he looked down at Gary. “Son,” he asked. “Do you want to wear that silly stuff all weekend long? Seriously, now.”
   He looked around the room, his eyes lingering noticeably on Digger. Then he gulped. “I… I mean… Maybe.”
   “Then maybe you should wear them.” He turned to me. “And you?”
   I gulped. “I think it’s the polite thing to do, yes.”
   “Then you definitely ought to wear them,” he declared. “In which case I was wrong about you, and I apologize.”
   I looked back and forth between Bluepine and Silkfur. Finally Silkfur shrugged. “You haven’t studied much about Lapism, have you?”
   “I’ve only had two weeks,” I pointed out. “I did read excerpts from your Book of Peace.”
   “Heh!” Silkfur declared, shaking his head. “That’s probably less useful than you imagine.”
   Then Datepalm chimed in. “We Lapists don’t have many firm and fast rules,” he explained. “Certainly not about trivia like ear-wearing. We haven’t been around long enough, for one thing. Besides, old Sweetgrass hated mindless bureaucracy above all other things.” He smiled, displaying his overly-large incisors. “Wear them or don’t wear them in good faith. And in good fellowship as well, now that you’ve discussed it openly with us and we know that you’ve given the matter proper consideration. That you’re sincere in your choice, in other words.”
   “It’s completely up to you,” Digger agreed.
   “Yep,” Bluepine confirmed. “Now that I know you’ve thought things through, and that you’re on the up-and-up in the matter.” He smiled too. “See? We’re easy to get along with after all, eh?”
   “Perhaps you ought to think about it in your cabin,” the white bunny suggested. “Where you won’t be holding up the registration line?”
   “R-right,” I agreed, still stammering a little.
   Then Digger turned to Gary. “Go pick yourself out a bunk,” he suggested. “I’ll be along shortly.”
   “Cool!” my son replied eagerly, sounding about five years younger than he had during his whole time with me. Then he went dashing off like a child, completely having forgotten that he was supposed to be sullen and angry.
   And, I couldn’t help but notice, his ears and tail remained firmly in place.

-= 6 =-

   Bluepine might’ve been under the impression that I’d give the ears-and-tail thing due consideration, but the truth was that I didn’t have time for much in the way of introspection. I had potential shooting sites to check up on, a schedule to modify according to what I was learning here on the ground, equipment issues to deal with… All in all, the simple fact was that I couldn’t afford to take two minutes to call Stephanie and let her know that her son had arrived safe and sound at Camp Oaktree, much less sit around and ponder what was to be found in my heart-of-hearts regarding a patently silly religious practice. So I assigned the Stephanie-call to Steve, our college intern, the moment I returned to the van, and forgot about the ears entirely. That was the secret to success in my profession—being able to prioritize, and judge what could be delegated and what could not. “All right, people!” I declared, clapping my hands for attention as I approached the production van. “Let’s get this shoot underway!” I sat down at my beloved little desk and fired up the video monitor. Instantly it glowed with picturesque mountainscapes, images of Camp Oaktree’s entrance gate and the outsides of the major buildings and, best of all, several fine shots of the signs greeting Bluegrass home. “We need to interview this guy,” I explained to Paulie, who was sitting sort of squished in alongside me. “He’s not just local color. He’s also in tight with the Lapist hierarchy, somehow.”
   “He’s practically been adopted by Silkfur’s family,” Paulie replied. “Or at least that’s what they tell us in town. Berry and Digger—those two are Silkfur’s natural kids, I found out—treat him like a brother.” He scowled. “No one will say anything on the record, though.”
   Sully nodded. “Yeah,” she agreed. “The story is that he used to own this land. There was some kind of cave on it, and he saved someone’s life after becoming a Rabbit…” The older woman shrugged. “So he’s a local hero, all right.”
   I shook my head. “Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad you pursued this angle. But… Couldn’t you get any of it on film?”
   “Not a word,” Paulie replied, shaking his own head in sad agreement. After all, he was a seasoned professional in his own right. Then he looked me directly in the eyes. “It’s amazing, Gary. Absolutely amazing. Usually when you show up in Hicksville with a camera, everyone and their brother wants to be on TV. They’ll say anything, just for air-time. But here, the minute you bring up the Lapists…”
   “It’s like they’re a cult,” Sully offered. “Except that they control the minds of everyone around them, too.” She shook her head. “It’s more than a little spooky.”
   I thought about the way the Rabbits had looked repeatedly into my eyes back at the registration desk. It’d felt as if they’d been gazing right through me, so that I couldn’t hide anything from them. Lapists could be spooky, all right. But still… “‘Cult’ is the wrong word, I think,” I said after a moment. “You can’t properly call anything a cult if the members are actively encouraged to think for themselves. Though you’re right in that they have a powerful effect on the rest of the community.”
   “They’re cute,” Paulie suggested. “Child-like, in appearance at least. Maybe that’s why everyone wants to protect them?”
   “Maybe,” I allowed, thinking back to the Lapists’s practically non-existent crime stats. Then I shook my head and sighed. “But… That’s not the story line here, right? We’re contrasting these guys and their little sub-culture with the mainstream. How their society produces honor-roll kids, while ours breeds school-shooters. That’s what we want to showcase, even if we have to fudge a little.”
   “Right,” Paulie agreed, though it was clear that he still had his doubts.
   “We could spend weeks on this project and still not do it justice,” Sully observed, shaking her head again. “Special report after special report. If only the bunnies were more open.”
   “And if only pigs had wings,” I pointed out, “they could roost up on the fences and not have to lie around in the mud all of the time.” I sighed and shook my head. “We’ve got just this one weekend, people. And I’m going to be tied up for more than half of it wasting time with my kid. Let’s do what it takes to get it right!”

-= 7 =-

   Running a news crew was my entire life. It was also the only thing that I did well. But, the job being what it was, there couldn’t be much time for anything else. Indeed, the only time I was really happy was when I was in charge and making decisions. I had plenty of decisions to make that particular day, and didn’t really want to be in the other place that I was also committed to appear. So, perhaps, it was understandable that I got a little carried away in the production van and forgot to keep an eye on the time.
   “You say Kent’s not due until eight?” I demanded. “That means we can’t do any real shooting until tomorrow.”
   “He was due at eight,” my intern replied. “But his plane’s late.”
   “Christ,” I muttered, checking my watch. “That means I can’t sit down with him for another… Holy cow!”
   “Wrong species,” Sully interjected; she’d stuck her head in for a moment to consult a camera manual. “That’s India. Here, it’s ‘Holy bunny!’”
   I looked daggers at my number-one techlady, then stood up in the cramped little van and stretched. “I’m late for the father-son dinner,” I complained. “Almost an hour, already. I hope there’s something left to eat.”
   Luckily, there was still plenty of food to be had in the cafeteria, even though everyone else seemed to be finished. Silkfur was addressing the entire population of the camp as I loaded up my plate with sweet potatoes and asparagus and some sort of meatless jambalaya. There was animal flesh to be had by those who were still of the omnivorous persuasion, but Bluepine had warned me before the fact that the scent of the stuff would linger on my breath. “We Rabbits try to be polite, of course,” he explained. “After all, we used to be omnivores, too. A lot of very sincere converts continue to eat steak right up until the Change, and no one thinks the less of them for it. But the scent will linger on your breath, and some Rabbits are nauseated by it. Especially young kids.” I planned to do as many interviews with Changed boys as I could arrange, so my whole crew had been doing the meatless thing for three days now. Even Little Gary was complying, I noted with approval as I slid in beside him. He was busily munching on a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.
   “You missed the introductions,” my son hissed to me as I settled in. “I had to cover for you.”
   “I was busy,” I whispered back.
   “Yeah,” he replied. “Uh-huh.”
   “Working!” I exclaimed. I’d have said more, but Silkfur chose that moment to point me out.
   “Ah!” he declared, smiling and nodding in my direction. “Here’s the special guest that I was telling you about. Gary Johnson, in charge of the film crew. He’s here with his boy Gary Junior.” Everyone applauded, and I stood up to bow.
   “We insisted that Mr. Johnson attend with his son,” Silkfur continued, “in order to make certain that he has a chance to understand what we’re really all about here. So that a true, fair picture might emerge.” He smiled again “We just finished introducing ourselves and talking about some of the things we enjoy doing with our sons, Gary. Care to join in?”
   Everyone was staring at me. “I… Uh…” I looked down at Gary Junior, who was gazing up at me just like all the rest. Suddenly he seemed very childlike and vulnerable again; perhaps it was because of the angle. “We went to the circus once,” I explained. “And sometimes we go to the zoo.”
   Little Gary’s features hardened, then he looked away.
   “The zoo is nice,” Silk agreed, nodding encouragingly.
   I looked down at Gary again. What? I wanted to ask. But, of course, I couldn’t. “Oh!” I added at the last moment. “He sends me stories sometimes that he writes. They’re, like, play-newscasts. I used to call back and talk to him about them.”
   “Yeah,” Silkfur agreed, his smile less forced. “Gary was telling us about how much fun it was when you did that together. He said that it meant a lot to him.”
   I looked down at my boy, who was staring wordlessly into his plate. That had been important to him?
   “It’s something special,” Silk continued, nodding his approval, “when a boy and his father can share a creative interest.” He tilted his head to one side. “He said that one day, he hopes to go to journalism school.”
   My mouth opened, then closed without a single word escaping. Gary? Journalism school? “I… “ I stammered. “I…” The simple fact was that my son hadn’t sent me a play-newscast to read in several years, not after I’d found myself all tied up with work and hadn’t gotten back to him a few times in a row. That had been during the darkest days of my career, just after my first Talent had found himself a new network, and… and…
   Everyone was still staring at me; it was clear that more was expected. “I’d be very pleased if he did,” I agreed. The words sounded a little lame, even to my own ears, so I reached down and placed my hand supportively on Gary’s shoulder. But he sort of half-twisted and shrugged his way out of my grip. This was the second time he’d done that; the first had been while waiting for his luggage at the airport. It was irritating, but not something to be addressed in front of a large crowd. “You can be sure that I’ll help with the tuition!”
   “Yes…” Silkfur agreed; somehow, his smile seemed pasted-on again. “Well… Anyway, everyone, it’s time for the very first Lapist Father-and-Son Retreat to really and truly begin!”
   “Hooray!” everyone in the room except my son and I declared.
   “Tonight we fathers will be holding special small-group Discussion Times,” he explained, “while the boys and their cabin-counselors take advantage of the last of the daylight to hike up onto the ridge. There’s a little outdoor theater where there’ll be a movie, and then Bluepine will lead them back home in the dark.”
   “You’ll see glow-worms!” the snowshoe-hare declared. Bluepine was an ex-forester, I knew, and well qualified to lead any sort of nature-walk. “Dozens of them! And, if we’re lucky, owls and raccoons and bats and maybe even a bobcat! All the creatures of the forest night!”
   “That’ll be cool!” a young voice not far away declared.
   “Way cool!” another agreed. I looked at Gary, and sure enough even he looked slightly interested. I was glad; certainly, I’d never seen a glow-worm!
   “Then it’s early to bed for the morning activities,” Silkfur continued. He smiled again. “Three cheers for Camp Oaktree!” he declared.
   “Hooray!” the others cried. “Hooray! Hooray!”
   “Hooray!” Digger agreed from the back of the room. “All right, kids! Come meet out back, and I’ll lead you to the trailhead!”

-= 8 =-

   Moments were always wasted whenever a group of any size broke up and reformed, I’d learned long ago. It was just as well for me that this was the case; my rapidly-congealing food was still untouched. I did my best imitation of a steam-shovel as the Lapists aimlessly ambled about here and there, and a young Rabbit of perhaps fourteen stood patiently at the end of my table, waiting for me to finish up so he could complete his tour of KP. I smiled at him and took extra-large bites so he could be off with the rest of the hikers, then uneasily drank some water at the fountain. My belly was making all sorts of unsettled rumbling noises, and I was already beginning to appreciate that wolfing down so much highly-spiced vegetarian jambalaya so quickly might not have been the wisest possible course of action. But what was done, was done. I gulped down two extra swallows of nice cold water to quench the fires to come, then sighed and stood upright.
   When I did, Silkfur was waiting for me. “Hi,” he greeted me warmly, smiling and extending his hand to me again.
   I smiled back and shook it, but said nothing.
   “You’re going to be in my breakout group,” he explained, his smile fading. “So, I just wanted to make sure that you’re prepared for what’s on tap.”
   “Lapists normally hold Discussion Times twice a week,” I replied. “Traditionally, it’s done on Wednesday and Sunday, though the days aren’t fixed in stone. Wednesday is for family groups and maybe a few close friends in someone’s home, and on Sunday all the Lapists who’re able try to gather together somewhere in a large group. You also hold special additional meetings from time to time, like during this retreat-thingie. Sometimes you discuss the Book of Peace and how it relates to your lives and the world around you. Or, you might cover other pressing issues.” I smiled. “This is hardly top secret material, Silk. I’ve done my homework.”
   “I’m sure you have,” the head of the Lapist Church replied. “But…” He gave me that spooky, penetrating Rabbit-gaze again. “Sometimes, especially at an affair like this, a Discussion can cut very close to the bone. We value honesty very highly indeed, and…”
   I smiled again, then held up my hands palms-out. “Don’t worry,” I answered. “I know that my boy is going through a tough patch, and I expect that you folks have been around the block enough times to see that there’s some tension between he and I.” I smiled wider. “In fact, I should also level with you and let you know that he’s not doing very well in school lately. I’ve read enough about Lapism, and have seen enough of the good, healthy kids running around here today, that I’m genuinely hoping all of this might rub off on him a little. Help him see where he went wrong, in other words.” I pointed up at the fake ears I still wore. “You gave me the option of taking these off. And Gary too, for that matter. Both of us are still wearing them. In my case, at least, the respect is genuine. I think it is for Little Gary, as well.”
   Silk titled his head first to one side, then to the other as if something baffled him. Then he shook his head and sighed again. “I have to continually remind myself that you’re not a potential Rabbit,” he explained. “It changes everything about our relationship.” Then he smiled again. “But, you are indeed a most welcome guest.” Silk turned towards the parking lot. “I have to go get something off of the bikes,” he explained. “Please tell Datepalm to go ahead and light the fire. I’ll be right there.”
   Datepalm hadn’t waited, I saw as I made my way back to Cabin ‘E’. A thin finger of smoke was already extending itself skyward from just behind the cabin. Since I knew that Silkfur was going to be a minute or two late himself, I took the opportunity to slip inside the cabin and grab the jumbo bottle of antacids I never went anywhere without from my bag. My stomach was rumbling pretty much continually, and it felt as if the bonfire in my belly were considerably more advanced than the one just beginning to burn out back.
   I hadn’t really had time to look the cabin over earlier in the day; I’d just thrown my suitcase atop the bed with my name on it and gone rushing back to the production van. I was still in quite a hurry, but wanted to drink more water as well. So I stepped quickly into the bathroom I was sharing with three other fathers…
   …and found myself staring at the mirror above the sink. The glass had a holograph burned into it, so that glowing letters seemed to hover in the air in front of me.
   “When we choose to walk through a human-filled world as Rabbits,” the holo read, “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 thought to myself. That’s powerful stuff. The words kept spinning around and around in my brain; how long had it been, I wondered, since I’d found time for anything more profound than an interoffice memo? College, probably.
   Then I shook off the spell, gulped down my water, and headed out back. I didn’t have time for philosophy; Silkfur was on his way, and Discussion Time was about to start.

-= 9 =-

   “Silk’s probably right behind me,” I explained to Datepalm as I strode up to where perhaps half a dozen other Retreat participants sat clustered around the still-young fire. “He asked me to let you know.” Twilight was well underway by now, and whatever kinds of bugs it is that screech in the trees during Kentucky summer evenings were out in full voice. Someone had provided lawn chairs so that we didn’t have to sit on the ground, but two of the Lapists were doing so anyway. I chose a seat and eased it a little further back away from the flames than most. It was far too hot for a fire, in my opinion, though I hadn’t been asked. Presently Silk emerged from the gloom, carrying a battered old notebook of some kind tucked under his left arm. Everyone rose.
   “Now, now,” Silkfur protested. “Sit, please. You wouldn’t do that for anyone else. It’s wrong.”
   “It’s not wrong,” Datepalm countered, his face expressionless. “Even though you’re correct—we wouldn’t do it for anyone else.”
   “But that’s not what we’re here to talk about tonight, I bet,” an Unchanged Lapist agreed. “So, let’s hold that Discussion another day.”
   Silk shook his head, then sat down. As one, everyone else did the same. “Another day, we most assuredly shall Discuss this.” Silk promised. “Sweetgrass wouldn’t have tolerated such nonsense for a moment, and neither will I.”
   “Yes he would have,” Datepalm countered. “Because he couldn’t have done anything about it, any more than you can here and now.” He tilted his head to one side. “People need a little ceremony in their lives, Silk. In part to show respect to those they admire.”
   “Whatever,” our group leader declared, shrugging. “Like you said, it’s up for Discussion another day.” Then he took a long moment and simply stared into the fire. “I’m afraid you’ve made me forget where I intended to begin.”
   “At the beginning, of course,” a rather heavyset, dignified Rabbit replied. He had dark brown fur, lightening to tan at the paws and ear tips. He nodded at the notebook. “What’s that, Silk?”
   “Something very special, for a very special occasion,” our Discussion-leader replied enigmatically. Then he looked around and met each of our eyes. “I asked for this bonfire especially for this little meeting,” he began softly. “In fact, that’s why we’re in such a large cabin, even though there’s not enough of us in this group to fill it. Because ‘E’ was the only building with a fire-pit, and I wanted a fire.” He paused and smiled, then tossed a small stick of wood into the flames. Almost immediately, a sweet smell arose. Sassafras! “Why,” he asked slowly, after taking in the scent with obvious pleasure, “do you suppose that I wanted a fire so badly?”
   There was a long silence. “I don’t know, Silk,” Datepalm replied eventually.
   “Nor I,” the brown-and-tan Rabbit, whose name I still didn’t know, answered.
   Silk smiled. “Because of something that Sweetgrass used to remind me of with great regularity. Practically every time we Discussed something, in fact.” He tossed another hunk of sassafras into the fire. “‘We’re mostly still human,’ he’d tell me, over and over again. ‘We Rabbits tend to forget that; in fact, we actively try to forget it. But we’re well over ninety-five percent like everyone else. Don’t ever, ever forget to take that into account when you’re trying to come to grips with something’.”
   The fire crackled and popped, as the rest of us sat in silence, thinking about what Silk had just said. “So,” Silkfur continued eventually. “I wanted for us to have a fire, because we’re men far more than we’re bunnies—Changed and Unchanged alike. And men sit around fires to talk. It’s an old tradition, going back at least hundreds of thousands of years. Maybe even a million; I’m no anthropologist. But certainly long enough that it’s a basic part of our culture. Of our identities, even. Our technology has been shaping our souls for a very long time now.” He tugged theatrically at his left ear. “This is just the latest example, and quite likely not the most profound.”
   “So…” the brown-and-tan suggested after another long silence. “Tonight, you want us to think as men?”
   “We already do!” Silk countered. “We think as men every day. That’s precisely what I just got done explaining. We all think and behave and experience life as men, far more than as Rabbits.” He smiled. “But yes, tonight we’re talking about something more fundamental than ears and fur and tails. We’re talking about a human activity even older than sitting around a fire.”
   “Fatherhood,” Datepalm sighed. “And its attendant problems.”
   Silk smiled. “I reckon.” Then he rolled back and clasped his long, lapine legs to his chest. “All the other breakout groups are much larger than ours. Have any of you figured out why?”
   This time, I spoke up. “I… Er… Well, I sort of assumed that one else wanted to be paired up with me. Because of the TV-stuff.”
   “Oh, no!” Datepalm countered. He pointed at Silk. “Our friend here more than makes up for that! We all hoped to be part of his group!”
   “I thought it was the TV-guy too,” the Unchanged Lapist who’d spoken up earlier agreed. Then he nodded to me. “No offense, mind you.”
   “None taken,” I replied.
   “Then… Why?” the brown-and-tan asked.
   “Because…” Silk replied, smiling sadly as he returned to his previous crosslegged posture. “…all of us in this group have failed as fathers. Every last one of us, me included.”
   There was a long, stunned silence. “Silk!” Dateplam protested. “My… My son Barry… But not you!”
   “No way,” the Unchanged Lapist agreed. “Your sons are two of the finest young Rabbits in the entire Church.”
   “And look at how you took in Bluegrass!” a new voice added, that of another Unchanged man. “Sure, he was legally an adult. But everyone knows that kids still need parenting well into their twenties.” He shook his head. “It was a good thing, what you and Sundew did! A fine thing! Some of the best parenting I’ve ever seen!”
   “Don’t say such things about yourself,” the brown-and-tan declared. “We simply won’t hear it!”
   Silk stared into the fire, looking very sad. “I am a failure,” he said softly. “By the only measure that really matters.” He looked around the fire again, meeting everyone’s eyes. “You’ve all seen Digger’s crippled ear, haven’t you?”
   Everyone nodded, including me. Indeed, I’d wondered why he hadn’t had it fixed long ago; it wasn’t like he didn’t know any good gengineers.
   “He never talks about it anymore. Not to anyone,” Silk continued, now looking off into the dark forest. “I only ever brought it up once, and then only to ask his permission to bring it up here, tonight. He agreed, though it clearly wasn’t easy for him.” Silk turned and met my eyes. “I will ask that this be kept confidential.”
   Everyone nodded, and I spoke aloud. “It’s off the record,” I agreed. “My word of honor as a journalist. Which you know is good.”
   “I do know,” he agreed, nodding formally. “I did my homework too, or else you wouldn’t be sitting here with us tonight.” He looked away again, then licked his whiskers nervously. “Digger’s ear was ruined,” he continued, “by a short-range shotgun blast. He was holding the gun himself. It was a failed suicide attempt.”
   There was a collective hiss of exhaled breath. “Digger?” Datepalm asked.
   “Everyone loves Digger!” one of the Unchanged added. “Everyone! He’s got such a bright future ahead of him!
   Silk nodded his head, dislodging a tear which streaked down his cheekfur. “Everyone loves him now,” he explained. “But, this wasn’t always so.” He sighed and gazed into the flames. “Digger was a little shit, once upon a time. He did drugs,” Silk admitted. “Ran with a gang. I suspect there’s even worse that he still won’t admit. I failed as a father and… and…” His voice broke. “If Blueberry hadn’t saved him, my boy would be dead!”
   There was another long silence, while Silk quietly wept and Datepalm, who clearly knew him better than the rest of us, hugged him gently.
   “I didn’t know,” one of the others finally whispered.
   “I’d never have guessed,” a second added.
   “My god, Silk!” This time it was one of the Unchanged. “I… I mean, we…”
   Finally Silk calmed himself, then smiled gratefully at Datepalm and waved him away. “I knew that he was having problems,” he continued. “I was fully aware that something was extraordinarily wrong. And yet, what did I do? Just the ordinary things, I fear. I talked to him, which got me about as far as talking to a brick wall. I talked to his teachers, talked to his principal, talked to his brother… But, it wasn’t enough. If it hadn’t been for a lucky break, he’d be dead.” Silk’s face screwed up again. “Dead!”
   It was a long, difficult struggle, but this time Silk didn’t break down. “I failed Digger,” he continued, “by the only measure that really matters.” He looked around and, for the first time in a long, long while, met everyone’s eyes again. “You’ve failed as well. Or else, at least, are in the process of failing.”
   There was a long, long silence. I shifted uneasily in my chair. Silk might be a failure as a father, yes, though if he’d never said anything about his son’s past I’d never have known it. In my book, he was being needlessly harsh on himself. But by what right—
   Before I could complete the thought Datepalm spoke up. “You all know about Barry,” he said softly. “It’s no secret, seeing as how it was in all the papers. I don’t have to say any more.” He met Silk’s eyes. “Guilty, as charged. It’s the biggest part of what made me become a Lapist.”
   Silk nodded, then spoke aloud. “For those who don’t know, ’Palm’s older son Barry is in prison. For murder.”
   Datepalm winced. “He’s guilty, too. No question of it. Got hopped up on drugs one night, argued with a friend over something stupid…” He looked down and shook his head. “So much promise, so much potential, so much love. All to end up serving life without parole. I was trying to start a business, and didn’t spend enough time with him.” He shrugged, his internal agony clear to everyone. “Then I lost almost everything on the legal bills anyway. And after that, the rest of my first family.”
   My jaw dropped, though in the darkness no one could see.
   “My son’s a thief,” an Unchanged man said. “I’ve tried again and again to break him of it, but… Thank god he’s young, so I still have time.” He too looked around the fire. “It’s why we’re here.”
   And so the stories continued, one by one. One father had once had alcohol problems himself, and now his son was drinking. Another admitted to having hit his boy, just as his father had hit him. A third’s son was in alternative school for general indiscipline. Until…
   …suddenly, everyone was looking at me. I turned from face to face, baffled. I’m not part of this, I wanted to explain. I don’t participate in events. I just film them and put the hurting and the suffering and feelings in the can, where they belong, for everyone else to feel. As vicariously as I feel them. What I never, ever do, you see, is to...
   And yet the eyes stared on. For just a moment something surged inside in my chest, something powerful and overwhelming and warm, something that felt better than anything else I’d ever known in my life, the same feeling that’d overcome me when Little Gary, warm and wet and still squalling, had been placed in my arms the very first time and I’d looked down into Patricia’s tired, loving eyes, and…
   Then I found the lid, as I had so many times before, and slammed it firmly into place. “This is fascinating!” I heard myself saying, as if from a long way off. Slowly I stood up and stretched. “Thank you so much for letting me share this! Certainly, our team’s report will be all the better for it.”

-= 10 =-

   Silk’s mouth fell open, but no words came out. Then he met Datepalm’s eyes, who tilted his head slightly to one side, and shrugged so slightly that I might not have noticed if the gesture hadn’t made his ears bobble. Then Silk shrugged as well, and looked up at me. “Well, Gary,” he said slowly. “We haven’t quite finished yet, actually. Though, if you want to go…”
   I scowled, then sat back down in my lawn chair. “Oh,” I replied lamely. I must’ve been blushing like a young girl; my cheeks were practically aflame with embarrassment. I’d let myself get emotional, and as usual my brain had shut down as a result. “I’m terribly sorry. It was just… You warned me that this would be powerful stuff. Perhaps I should’ve listened.” Now I was back in my safe zone, being professionally polite and accommodating, without any of that emotion nonsense mucking up my thought processes. It felt much better.
   Silk smiled and nodded slightly, as if satisfied after all. “I should’ve been clearer,” he offered. Then his smile widened, and he pulled out the little notebook. “It’s all right; I needed sort of a breakpoint to bring this out anyway.”
   Everyone was staring at the beat-up, worn out old thing; Silk held it up so that we could see better. I was craning my neck a little, trying to read the lettering, when the brown-and-tan bunny, whose name I’d have known if I’d been at the introduction ceremony, turned to Silk, eyes wide. “No!” he whispered. “It can’t be!”
   Silk grinned like a long-eared Cheshire cat. “Yep!” he declared. “It is.”
   I craned my neck further forward. Just barely, in the flickering light, I was able to make out the title. ‘Book of Peace’, it read.
   Datepalm stared at the Book, turned to glance at Silk, then resumed his staring. “Please tell me,” he said, his voice soft and tightly controlled, “that you didn’t carry the original Book of Peace all the way from California to Kentucky in the saddle-bag of your scooter.”
   “Of course I didn’t,” Silk replied, and Datepalm’s ears fell in relief. “It was under Berry’s seat. My bike didn’t have any room left for it.”
   Suddenly Datepalm was angry again. “You—” But he bit off the rest.
   “Look,” Silk explained, still smiling. “You’re the one who puts so much store in relics and ceremonial, not me. This Book has been copied in every detail; if anything were to happen to it, nothing important would be lost. We’d make copies just as good in every way as the original. Material objects are ephemeral; the ideas are what really matter. Mere ‘stuff’ is meant to be used, for the good of all. As things stand, Berry has a story he can tell and retell for the rest of his life, a story that might, at least a little, make up for how his grandfather died before he could really get to know him. And…” He raised the Book again. “Now you have a story to tell, too. Is that so bad?”
   Datepalm opened his mouth again, then changed his mind and shut it.
   “Anyway,” Silk continued, his smile fading but never entirely vanishing. “This is the original, rough-draft version that started out as a diary. The Book evolved over many years; Sweetgrass was still revising the thing right up until the day he died. It could never be perfect, he knew. But, he was determined to try. This version, in fact, is very different from what most of us know today. Much of what Sweetgrass later collected into coherent chapters is scattered all through it, a lot of the sentences are clumsy and awkward, and there’s even a bunch of personal stuff in it, where he bitched and moaned about this and that in his daily life—after all, this was a diary. And yet, it starts out almost exactly the same way as the final product…” Silk looked around, as if to see that he had everyone’s attention, then pulled a little flashlight out of his pocket, opened the Book, and began reading.
   “‘Every day is a new beginning. The sun rises, the birds sing, and to each and every man, woman and child is granted a miracle, the opportunity to start anew. To discard the past and put it behind them, to put aside old attitudes and bad habits, to declare sincerely to themselves that, from this point forward, things shall be different. And yet, it seems to me that few people ever avail themselves of the opportunity. They prefer instead to crawl on their bellies through the accumulated filth and refuse of a lifetime, desperately clinging to the miserable existence they already know because the idea of change is so terrifying.
   “‘I’m lucky, I suppose. I was forced to change, to embrace the new and different, or else die in such misery of the soul that I cannot even begin to express it in words. And, having been forced to change, I’ve resolved to change radically, to make a clean break with my past, to learn and grow in ways that neither I nor perhaps anyone who’s ever lived before me have been privileged to experience. I resolve to seek truth, to embrace wisdom, and above all to fill my heart with joy. I resolve to live, in other words. Rather than to die as slowly as possible, which seems to be the ambition of most of the human race.
   “‘It’s amazing, really. Here I am, experiencing my first day in my new body, and I feel sharper and stronger and… It’s hard to find a word, but perhaps ‘purer’ will do. Everything of importance lies ahead of me, not behind. I am powerful and strong. Things are good, where before my life was filled dominated by sickness and evil.
   “‘And throughout far too many of those years, the key to the future was lying ignored at my feet. Every morning the sun rose, the birds sang, and the world was filled with promise. But I didn’t reach out and grasp the daily miracle; indeed, I buried my head lest I catch a glimpse of painful, agonizing hope.
   “‘Why was I such an idiot? Because, like so many others before me, I couldn’t admit I had a problem, or that I needed to grow. LESSON FOR THE DAY: Sweetgrass, you’ve been a damned fool. If you ever want to stop being a fool, you have to learn to admit and acknowledge what’s wrong in your life. Because you can’t even begin to address a problem, until you first accept that have it.’”
   There was a long, appreciative silence. “I see what you mean about the wording changing,” the brown-and-tan said.
   “Yeah,” Datepalm agreed. “But somehow, I like this version better.”
   “Sweetgrass was a wise old coot,” Silk agreed. “Cantankerous, but wise.” He closed the Book. “The lesson’s relevance to our Discussion Time is obvious.”
   “Yes,” one of the Unchanged muttered. He was gazing deep into the fire, as if the solution to some mystery lay there.
   “I have a serious problem,” another agreed. “And, tomorrow is a new day.”
   “Exactly,” Silkfur agreed, climbing unsteadily to his feet. Apparently, one of them had gone to sleep. “It’s going to come mighty early, too. With considerable birdsong as accompaniment, too. Or so I’m told.” He smiled. “The staff will put out the fire. Let’s hit the hay.”

-= 11 =-

   Silkfur was right about the birds. They made a terrible racket, beginning about four-thirty in the morning. This might not’ve been so bad, except that my stomach, as predicted, had spent much of the night rejecting all things even remotely associated with vegetarian jambalaya. I must’ve gone through four rolls of toilet paper, sitting with clenched teeth in the darkness. It lasted for what felt like, and might actually have been, hours. I spent the time staring at the holographic message burned into the washroom mirror, the one that explained what it meant to become a Rabbit. It made a nice night-light, I decided. One that made you think about other things besides how your guts were currently working so hard at twisting themselves inside out.
   So, I wasn’t exactly joyful when we men of Cabin ‘E’ arose long before dawn to get dressed, eat breakfast, and take our boys fishing. Fortunately the dining hall served slices of fresh melon and oatmeal; I couldn’t have handled anything more substantial. Because of the fact that I was so tired and therefore stumbling around so badly, I was just about last through the line again. When I found Gary, he was almost half-done with breakfast…
   …and so was my Talent Kent, who was seated alongside him. “Hi!” Kent greeted me, half-rising to his feet. “Sorry I missed you last night; my plane was delayed.”
   “I know,” I replied, nodding and trying to force a zombie-smile onto my features. “It’s all right. Nothing to be done about late planes.” Then something dawned on me. “They let you in? To the Camp proper, I mean?”
   “Oh, yes!” Kent replied, nodding. He was eating oatmeal too, while Gary had found cold cereal. “These people seem quite eager to please. In fact…” My Talent lowered his eyes. “I caught most of your Discussion Time last night. It was an accident, really. Sullie loaned me a pair of night-vision glasses so I wouldn’t trip and fall in the dark. They had sound-enhancers built into them too, and, well...”
   I nodded. “You overheard? I mean…”
   “Wasn’t it wonderful?” Kent gushed. “I’ve only rarely ever seen…” He shook his head. “I have a therapist, you know. And see him quite regularly.”
   I nodded dumbly.
   He shook his head, clearly still dumbfounded. “I do group therapy, too. But… That was simply amazing! Most people lie, or try to gloss over their troubles, or blame everything on everyone but themselves. By the time the session is over, you’re feeling sick of both humanity in general and the rest of your group in particular, because they’re so pathetic and you’re so pathetic too for being one of them. It’s all negative; you’re hurting more when you leave than when you arrived. But…” He shook his head again. “‘Every morning the sun rises and the birds sing’,” he quoted. Then he looked me directly in the eyes. “No lies, no misdirection, no reliance on an impossible deity, no mystical evasions. Just unlimited hope for the future, if you’re willing to work for it. Good God, what a breath of fresh air!”
   I stared blankly at Kent for a moment; he was normally even sadder and more cynical than I was, his entire personality built on a whiny sort of self-conscious inferiority complex. Yet here he was, making firm, definitive, and above all positive declarations.
   The silence dragged on for a long moment. Then Little Gary spoke up. “We saw a barn owl last night,” he offered.
   I paused for a moment, not sure what to do. So, I employed the standard reporter’s tactic of asking a follow up, in order to gain time to think. “Did you?”
   “Yeah!” my son gushed, smiling. “Bluepine said they used to be endangered around here, but are recovering now.” He tilted his head to one side, then smiled again. “Someone thought they might’ve heard a bobcat. But I don’t think so.”
   “Was it a long hike?” I asked, playing for time again.
   “About two miles,” Gary answered, still sounding bright and eager. “And boy! We saw so many glow worms—”
   “I can imagine,” I interrupted, realizing my son had nothing important to say; there were only so many hours in a day, and Kent and I had business to discuss. Besides, my son and I would be spending all day fishing together, while the crew filmed Kent here and there around the camp explaining precisely what a Lapist was to an audience that pretty much already knew.
   “Yeah,” Gary replied, the light in his eyes dying again. But, this time it didn’t fade out so abruptly as usual, or even so completely. “Thanks for eating breakfast with me, Dad,” he said as he picked up his now-empty bowl to take it back to the kitchen. “It was very nice.”
   My eyes widened; clearly, this place was having a positive effect on Gary already. “We’ll be spending all morning together,” I reminded him.
   “Yeah,” he said again, staring down at his sneakers. “I know.” And then he was gone.
   When I turned back to Kent, his eyes were hard. “Why didn’t you let him tell you about his hike?” he demanded.
   My eyebrows rose. “Because we have important, urgent business together, you and I,” I explained. “And only so much time to conduct it in. Did you happen to bring the shooting schedule with you?”
   My Talent’s eyes narrowed again, then he stood up and shook his head. “Gary Johnson,” he said slowly, “You’re a fine news producer. You’ve been good to me and to my career. You’d do anything for a co-worker. Nor do you lie, cheat or steal that I know of. And, according to your ex, you pay your child support on time. In a lot of places, that’d be enough to make you a good and honorable man. But…” He gestured all around us. “Here, the Lapists claim, there’s a higher standard.” He shook his head again. “You went to that Discussion Time, listened to all those hearts pour out so much pain, and yet…” He looked away. “Here, there is indeed a higher standard, sir, one that the rest of us seem to have discarded. By this higher standard, you are not a good and honorable man. In fact, by Lapist standards, Gary Johnson, you’re a revolving son of a bitch!”

-= 12 =-

   A revolving son of a bitch, Kent had called me. I studied his retreating back carefully. My Talent was prone to these little outbursts; in an hour or so, he and I would be pretending this one had never happened. A revolving son of a bitch… It was a very odd turn of phrase, though quite an effective and memorable one for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom. Long ago, I’d heard him refer to a highly-unloved previous team-leader as a ‘whirling’ son of a bitch. Perhaps the phrases were related? Or, more likely, they were simply common expressions in the old-time 1940s literature he was always reading, phrases whose time had come and gone. Just like so much else from that era had come and gone; powerful family ties, communal disciplining of children, an unshakable belief in the future… I sighed, then went to find Gary.
   It didn’t take long, even in the predawn twilight. He was standing off to one side of the rapidly-growing group of kids, holding an old-fashioned cane-pole in each hand. There was a slim plastic tackle-box tucked under his left arm, and some sort of live-bait container under the right. “Dad!” he cried out when he saw me. “I’ve got our gear!”
   I scowled slightly; most of the other kids were carrying much-more modern rods and reels. “Why didn’t you get us rods like those?” I asked, pointing at the nearest example.
   “Because Bluepine asked me if we’d ever used anything like that before, and I said no.” His brow furrowed. “I know I haven’t. I wasn’t so sure about you…”
   I smiled patently, then patted my son on the head. “I’ve been deep-sea fishing, miles offshore,” I explained. “Or, at least, I’ve filmed other people deep-sea fishing.” Then, gently, I removed the cane-poles from his hands. “It’s a snap. You keep the tackle and bait, and let me take care of this.”

   Two hours later, Gary and I were fishing together as father and son, standing side-by-side in the bright sunshine. Sure, most of the rest of the group had been fishing for rather a long time by then, and many had even caught a fish or two. But at least we were finally fishing, I reminded myself. That was the important thing. There were no longer big snarls of monofilament line lying tangled all around us, our hooks had worms properly affixed to them, and my thumb’s bleeding was down to a trickle. It was just as well, I supposed, that they’d given the few available boats to the youngest kids first, so that we had to cast from the bank. Heaven only knew how much worse things might’ve gone had we been afloat when we tried casting that first time...
   “You have to release the button at precisely the right instant,” Bluepine reminded me as he handed me the pole. My worm was now safely about forty feet from shore, dangling beneath a nice red and white bobber. The Canadian had explained the same thing to Gary Junior just after casting for him, too. “Give it time; you’ll get the hang of it.”
   I nodded, looking beyond Bluepine to where Datepalm’s seven-year-old son was sending his hook and bobber soaring across the lake without the slightest difficulty. It looked so easy… “Right,” I agreed, nodding soberly.
   “If the bobber goes all the way under,” he continued patiently, “that’s a bite. Only halfway, and the fish is just nibbling, eh?” He smiled. “This pond is brand-new,” he continued. “It was dug especially to be part of the camp. I was already working here then, and studied the bottom before it was filled.” He pointed to several spots. “There, there and there. That’s where we anchored some deadfall trees to provide deep cover. You’ll notice the others are catching more fish in those areas.”
   I nodded. “But you’ve placed us all the way down here at the other end!”
   He smiled again. “And, you’ll notice, I rigged your hooks to ride deep. There was a natural sinkhole, you see, right about where you’re fishing. So, it’s the deepest part.”
   I nodded as if the information meant something to me.
   “And,” he continued, “when we stocked up, I made sure to order some extra-large catfish.” He turned and smiled at Gary Junior. “You’re probably too late to win the ‘most fish caught’ contest. But, there’s still ‘biggest single fish’. Be extra-patient, and who knows, eh?” Then he excused himself…
   …and my son and I were alone again, just like we’d been in the car the day before. Though, this time, there was no dashboard for him to kick with his sneakers.
   “I’m sorry,” I said finally, as much to break the silence as anything. Staring at a bobber, I was quickly coming to appreciate, could be very boring indeed. There was absolutely nothing for either of us to do but… talk.
   “Wasn’t your fault,” my son replied, after a very long time. “I’m sorry I jerked the rod at the wrong time and sank the hook so deep into your thumb.”
   “Don’t mention it; Berry did a good job digging it out. Though it’s just as well that he happened to have some novacaine in his medical kit.” Another long, silent time passed. Across the pond, first one and then another camper landed a fish. Though, as Bluepine had predicted, they were both small ones. At any other summer camp, we’d fry and eat them. But not here, of course; instead they all went back into the water after being officially recorded for the competition. I watched glumly, thinking about what a nice alternative fresh fried fish would be to, say, extra-spicy vegetarian jambalaya.
   “Did your dad ever take you fishing?” Gary asked presently.
   “Of course not,” I answered. “I’d be a lot better at casting if he had.”
   My son laughed, and belatedly I realized I’d said something funny. So, I laughed too. Bluepine had wanted so badly to curse aloud at all the tangles in our lines…
   “Why not?” he asked, when we were done.
   I sighed, and stared out at the motionless bobbers. Fishing pretty much sucked, I decided presently. Not only was it painful and boring, but you couldn’t just get up and leave when the conversation grew awkward. “He was busy,” I explained at last.
   “Busy?” Gary asked, staring intently out over the water.
   “Yeah,” I answered. “He had to work overtime. Dad was a millwright, you see. A very important man at the factory.”
   “Really? What does a millwright do?”
   “Fix things,” I explained, remembering back to when I was young. “Seven days a week, twelve hours a day most of the time. Sometimes he took Christmas off, but almost never the whole day. Because if he did, someone else would get the triple-time.” I smiled softly. “He used to promise my sister and I that we’d go to Disneyland and buy the shelves bare with everything he earned. But somehow we never did.”
   “Wow,” Gary whispered. “He worked really hard.”
   “Yeah,” I agreed. “He had to, to pay off his new trucks and Mom’s new Cadillacs and for when they put your Aunt Beth through rehab. Especially the second time; that cost extra.” I shook my head. “Plus there was the house. We lived in one of the nicest places in town. Though we were always getting second mortgages on it, to pay for Beth’s lawyers so she wouldn’t have to go away. Dad got so pissed at me whenever I let the grass grow too high. He called me lazy, when that happened. Said that my sense of values was all messed up, that I should have pride in where my family lived.”
   “I wish I’d gotten to meet him,” my son whispered.
   I sighed and shook my head. Dad had died of a heart failure at forty-eight, just a year before he was eligible to retire and at the end of a week where he’d been on the clock for over a hundred hours. Not that he ever would have actually retired—someone else would’ve gotten all the overtime, after all. But still, it was sort of sad. And Mom had died in a car wreck two years later, her blood-alcohol-content well into the illegal zone. “All his co-workers came to the funeral, or at least all those who could be spared at one time. Even the plant manager dropped in for a few minutes.”
   “Wow,” Gary answered. Then he turned to face me. “You work all the time, too.”
   “I have a career,” I explained. “And what I do is very important.”
   “Just like your father.” He looked back out at the bobbers. Mine seemed to twitch for a moment, then went still. “Digger says that boys often end up being a lot like their fathers, in the bad ways as well as the good. He said that one thing a young man has to try and do is avoid falling into the same traps, because it’s likely that he’ll find himself especially vulnerable to them.” He met my eyes again. “I wonder how hard I’ll work?”
   “Plenty hard,” I assured him, smiling. Somewhere deep down inside me, the lid was coming off again and I was starting to feel, but this time for some reason it wasn’t quite so painful. It almost felt good, even. Natural, like. “You’ll work just as hard as both of us before you did, and earn lots of money!”
   Gary sighed and lowered his head. “Dad…” he began. Then he shook his head and started over. “Digger says that some people have a Rabbit inside of them, but others don’t. And that it’s wrong for those who don’t have one to try and become Lapists regardless. That’s why they refuse to proselytize. Do you think that maybe I might have a Rabbit inside of me?”
   I smiled. This was something I’d figured might come up. Boys were easily-led creatures, after all, and anyone could see that Digger was a very compelling individual. “Well,” I said slowly. “I think that’s something that you have a very long time to try and figure out on your own.” I met his eyes. “Don’t you think that it’s kind of silly, maybe even a little babyish, to make yourself over into a half-rabbit and change your name to something no normal human would ever take on and cuddle with other bunnies in broad daylight?” I nudged his ribs with my elbow. “Come on, Gary! Think of what your friends would say!”
   He blushed, then shook his head. “I guess,” he said slowly, “that I’d just have to make new friends.”
   My eyes narrowed. Was my son seriously considering…
   “Mom said that Lapists were good people,” he continued. “Maybe even the best people. And, now, I think that she might be right.” He shook his head. “I understand where you’re coming from—they do seem to be total dorks at first. But… That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? Because the Lapist kids are doing so well?”
   “Yeah,” I admitted. “It is. But…” Suddenly, Gary’s bobber twitched again; this time, it went almost halfway down.
   He didn’t notice. “I don’t want to waste my whole life working at some soul-killing job just to make myself feel important when I’m really not and earn money that I don’t really need!” my son complained. He took his left hand off of the rod to point at me. “You might be happy with—”
   “Gary!” I cut him off. “Your bobber!”
   “Oh!” he exclaimed, looking out across the water. “Oh!”
“Set the hook!” I ordered. “Like Bluepine showed us!”
   His face a mask of concentration, Gary yanked hard on his pole. It immediately bent over double, and then the reel began to buzz.
   “What’s that noise?” Gary demanded, leaning back against the tug on his pole; whatever was on the other end, it had to be many times larger than the little fish we’d seen being caught on the far bank.
   “Look!” I heard a distant voice cry; it was the brown-and-tan rabbit I’d sat with the night before, whose name I still didn’t know. He was pointing at Gary. “Look, everyone!”
   Then, suddenly, my bobber disappeared as well! “Holy crap!” I exclaimed, feeling my own rod come alive in my hand. “Another one!” I yanked to set my own hook…
   …and Gary suddenly looked frightened. “No, Dad!” he cried. “I felt that! Your line is tang-”
   Then Bluepine came bounding up, the first time I’d ever seen a Lapist on all fours. He was much faster than I’d imagined. “Keep the tension on!” he ordered Gary. “Above all else, don’t let him have any slack!”
   ’I’ve got one too!” I declared. Now my reel was buzzing as well, and I could see that it was automatically letting line out under tension. It wasn’t nearly a loud as Gary’s had been, though. For that matter, his wasn’t very loud anymore, either.
   “You too?” he demanded.
   Now the reels quit buzzing, both at exactly the same time, and Gary was beginning to crank his fish shorewards. “I’ll wait until yours is in,” I offered bravely. Then I hit the little button that let more line out, to give my son more room to maneuver.
   “No!” Gary cried. “Don’t!”
   “I’m helping you!” I snapped.
   Just then both our rods went slack…
   …and a monstrous, fat-bellied and bewhiskered fish rose almost entirely out of the pond, then belly-flopped in an explosion of noise and motion. It was huge
   And, it was gone. Both Gary’s pole and mine hung limp.
   “Wow!” I said into the long, pregnant silence that followed. “I wonder which of us was hooked to that one?”
   “I was!” Gary screamed, throwing his rod down to the ground in anger. “It was my fish! But it got all tangled up in your line. That’s why everything was happening all together, like.”
   I turned to Bluepine, who first looked down at the ground, then nodded. “You shouldn’t blame yourself,” he began. “I missed it, too. Even experienced fishermen—”
   “You screwed it all up!” Gary screamed, his fists balled in rage. “Like you screw everything up!”
   “Now, Gary,” Bluepine began, as I stood with my mouth hanging open. “This time, it honestly wasn’t—”
   “He’s an awful father!” my son interrupted in a full shout, tears streaming freely down his cheeks. “Just awful! Digger said to give him another chance, but look what happened!” He turned back to me. “I hate you!” he screamed. “I hate you more than anyone I’ve ever hated in my life! And I don’t want to be like you! No one ever would!”

-= 13 =-

   I almost went after Gary, almost dropped the useless rod and reel to the ground and chased after him with everything I had. I’m not an awful father! I wanted to explain, just an ordinary guy who doesn’t really know what to do or have a clue as to where to begin. But instead of chasing my son down, as my heart demanded, I listened to my brain and let him go. Just like I’d once let his mother go, instead of following her out the door and telling her how much I loved her and begging for one more chance. “He’ll get over it,” my brain assured Bluepine, as my ripped, bleeding heart wept in agony. But that was okay; my heart would get over it, too. Eventually. “He just needs a little time alone.”
   “Of course,” Bluepine replied, picking up Gary’s pole. He was being very careful not to meet my eyes, I could see. “Of course.”
   It was probably just as well that Gary and I finished a little early; I hadn’t been in touch with the crew all morning and now I had a little time to kill. So, I strolled out to the van to see what was going on. When I got there, everyone was gone except for the intern, Steve. “Hi!” he greeted me cheerfully in between bites of an egg salad sandwich.
   “Hi yourself,” I replied as I swung easily up into the big door in back. I smiled, too; it felt good to be back at work, competent and in charge. My heart never felt torn, while I was at work. “Is the crew out on a shoot?”
   “Yep. I’m just minding the store.” He flipped a switch, and the main screen lit up to show what was coming through the camera-feed. Kent was standing by the side of the trail leading to fishing pond, scratching his head and studying a script. Obviously, he was between takes. And…
   “He’s wearing ears!” I observed, marveling. Kent was obsessively afraid of appearing silly on camera; I’d asked him to consider Lapist garb back during the planning stages, so that we could have something custom-tailored. But he’d rejected the idea out of hand,
   “And a tail, too!” Steve added, shaking his head. “Pinned on. He just showed up wearing the stuff—never said a word to anyone.”
   “Miracles never cease,” I responded. Then Kent put the script down, awkwardly adjusted his ears, and composed himself for a money-shot.
   “Lapists,” he began, “don’t actually eat fish. But they make excellent fishermen nonetheless…” I watched carefully as my Talent explained that Lapists considered fishing and other family or group activities to be the most important parts of their lives. “The Book of Peace,” Kent continued, “claims that a life spent entirely in pursuit of material things is wasted, that personal growth and a rich emotional life are the true measures of success. While the Church doesn’t look down upon wealth—indeed, its members enjoy an average income well above that of the average American—its teachings emphasize that, to recycle an old saying, money can’t buy happiness.” Kent smiled his most fetching smile. “And, only a fool would ever try. In their opinion, nothing but sincerity and an open heart can pull that particular rabbit out of its hat.”
   “Cut!” Sully cried in the background, and I felt a stab of jealousy deep in my chest.
   “He… He nailed it!” I exclaimed. “Dead-on, perfect! He’s got confidence, good stage presence… One of the best shoots he’s ever done!” Without me! I didn’t add.
   “He’s on a tear like you wouldn’t believe,” Steve confirmed. “I mean, I’m, like, just a kid. But…”
   I nodded silently. Even an intern could tell. For the first time, I could see the stuff of greatness in Kent, the kernel of potential that my boss Marge had always assured me was there, even had especially chosen me to nurture into fruition. And, suddenly, he had bloomed. But… But…
   “To be fair,” Steve added, “that was his second take. Your kid came running through the first time, bawling his eyes out.” The intern looked at me oddly. “He flipped off the camera. With both hands.”
   I sighed and watched as the picture suddenly swung down the path, stabilizing on Datepalm and his son Akkad approaching hand-in-paw. Both of them were smiling, but the youngster was practically aglow. “I caught seven fish!” he declared proudly, unprompted. “With my dad!”
   “You did?” Kent asked, improvising beautifully. Usually, improvisation was his weakest suit. He lacked the confidence to pull it off. Clearly, however, today was somehow different.
   “Yeah!” Akkad declared, with an absolutely-to-die-for gap-toothed grin. Please, I whispered to myself. Please, Datepalm, sign a release so we can use this footage! So far, all of the Lapists had demanded that their faces be blurred out. They’d wanted their fur-patterns blurred as well, until we convinced them that this was simply not feasible. “I caught seven big fish!” He spread his arms wide, to show how big they were.
   “Wow!” Kent agreed, smiling encouragingly. “Do you do stuff like this with your dad often?”
   “Yeah,” he agreed. “All the time!”
   “Our family plays in a mini-golf league,” Datepalm explained, for the moment shedding his standard-issue Lapist camera-phobia. Perhaps he was as won over by the cuteness of his boy as everyone else? “And T-ball, too!”
   “Dad’s a coach!” Akkad agreed, nodding hard. “The bestest coach there is!”
   Datepalm looked down at the ground and smiled, but said nothing.
   “ But… doesn’t this take a lot of your time?” Kent asked. “I mean, you have a career, don’t you?”
   Suddenly ’Palm’s features hardened in a way that I didn’t think a Rabbit’s could. “It takes most of my time,” he explained. “I had to sell my accounting firm. Now I do consulting from home, when I get around to it.”
   Kent’s eyebrows rose. “You’re an accountant, then? A CPA?”
   Datepalm nodded. “I specialize in servicing small energy-related companies. So does Akkad’s mother. My wife, Rosebloom Tallyfinder Rabbit.”
   “I presume that’s very lucrative.”
   ’Palm looked down at the ground again. “In purely monetary terms, yes.”
   “Hmm,” Kent replied. “That’s interesting. Wouldn’t you be further ahead to put your boy in day care? Or even hire a nanny, and go back to work full-time? Let the nanny take care of the mini-golf, in other words, while you and your wife concentrate on maximizing your earnings? You’d be much richer, wouldn’t you?”
   Datepalm continued to stare down at the ground. “There are many forms of return on investment,” he said at last. “And many varieties of wealth. Thank you, but no thanks.” He reached down and gave Akkad a little squeeze; the child giggled charmingly. “Rose and I have decided that we’ll spend our time servicing this account first. We’ll just have to find a way to live on what we can make in our spare time. Somehow, we’ve always managed. In fact, we think that we’ve lived all the better for it. Less affluently, certainly. But far, far better.” He smiled and squeezed Akkad again. “It’s better to be a good father than to own a Mercedes any day of the week.”
   “Somehow,” Kent replied, lowering his microphone. “I suspect you’re right.” Then he smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Rabbit. Thank you very much indeed.”
   Datepalm cocked his head first to one side, then the other, looking Kent over very carefully. “If you’d like to talk more about Lapism in private someday,” he said slowly, “it might be arranged.”
   My jaw dropped; overnight, my Talent hadn’t just bloomed, he’d grown into a towering redwood! So much confidence, such penetrating follow-ups! “Has anyone checked his coffee?” I demanded.
   “Huh?” Steve asked, not getting my joke.
   “Maybe he started taking vitamins,” I muttered, sitting down at my desk and bookmarking the just-shot footage for priority-zip to New York so Marge could see that we were on the job. Then I went through Kent’s other bits…
   …and was absolutely blown away! He was hot, hot, hot!
   Just then Paulie, my special assistant who usually specialized in war-coverage, popped in. “Gary!” he declared. Are you seeing the same thing that I am?”
   “Damn right!” I muttered, watching a segment where Kent explained how the Supreme Court had ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Lapist Change was a legitimate religious ritual so that it remained legal after all other human-animal hybrid work had been banned. It was old news, but Kent was making it come alive, aided by the Lapist fathers and sons dutifully walking around in the background.
   “You’ve done fantastic work on this shoot,” Paulie said, clapping me on the shoulder. “You’ve especially got an eye for camera-angles. And, the narrative you crafted! It follows the story-line perfectly.”
   I nodded mutely. Yes, I deserved part of the credit. But…
   “And Kent! My god, man! I worked with him two years ago, covering the Montreal rioting. What a ball of quivering nerves he was! You’ve done wonders for him.”
   “Maybe,” I acknowledged, though I was already beginning to suspect that the true credit belonged elsewhere. Then I checked my watch. Lunch was coming up soon, and I had some special preparations to make. We fathers were each going to do a short presentation on our careers and professional accomplishments, so that our sons could learn a little bit about the adult world. “You’ve done pretty well yourself, Paulie,” I assured my helper, clapping him on the shoulder exactly as he had me. “It’s not easy to shoot to another man’s vision. I’m damn grateful for your help.”
   “You made it easy,” he replied, smiling. “Brilliant work, Gary. Simply brilliant! And it’s a good thing, too.”
   “Why?” I asked, pausing halfway out the van door.
   “Because we’re not going to be able to film this afternoon,” he explained. “Haven’t you heard?”
   “No,” I answered, growing angry. “Did the bunnies welsh on their agreement?”
   “Oh, no!” Paulie answered, throwing up his hands. “Nothing like that! There’s a line of storms coming in—bad ones, they say. Our agreement says that there’s to be no indoor filming except for your interview with Silkfur—that’s tomorrow. But everything’s being rescheduled indoors because of the storms, so...”
   I scowled. “Damn it!”
   “We’ve got plenty in the can,” Paulie reassured me, quailing a bit before my very-evident anger. “Good stuff, too. And there’s still tomorrow morning. It’ll be okay.”
   “Head into town, then,” I decided, making a snap decision. “We came here to film, not to sit around counting raindrops. Remember that background I wanted on that local Rabbit? Bluetick?”
   “Bluegrass,” Paulie corrected me.
   “Him,” I agreed. “Go get me some local color, if we can’t do anything else. All right? Improvise.”
   He smiled and extended his hand to shake; I accepted it. Paulie, I suddenly realized, was a lot more capable than I’d given him credit for. Perhaps someday we’d work together again? I certainly hoped so.
   “Improvise,” he agreed. “Gotcha.” Then he pulled out the team-leader walkie-talkie I should’ve been carrying. “Alright, crew!” he declared. “Stand by for a brand new plan!”
   “Does this new plan include lightning bolts and gusty winds?” Sully demanded in her usual sunny tone. “Judging by the sky, it’d better!”
   Suddenly, I felt my load lighten. Sully was a real trooper. Sure, the fishing trip had been a bust. But at least the important stuff was going to be just fine. “I’ll see you later,” I declared as I climbed down from the van’s rear door. “I’ve got some more father-son stuff to take care of.”
   “How’s that going?” my assistant asked.
   “Not as well as the shoot,” I admitted. “Gary was pretty disappointed with this whole camp-thing, the last time I saw him. But, hey! He’s just a kid. He’ll bounce back and have some fun. Right?”
   “Right,” Paulie agreed. “After all, they always do!”

-= 14 =-

   “I’m sorry about the weather,” Silkfur’s voice said from behind me as I stepped away from the news van. “If it were possible for me to permit indoor filming, under these circumstances I would do so. But it was a group decision. One that I cannot overrule alone.”
   I spun around on my heel; Silk was standing there, with his son Digger alongside him. The elder Rabbit wore an armband in preparation for the father-son lunch, much like the one that was awaiting me back in the cabin. I gulped; I’d been very proud of mine, which carried a brief synopsis of my achievements as a telejournalist and little emblems representing the several minor media awards I’d won. But Silk’s… I’d expected him to wear something indicative of his exalted position in the Lapist movement. Instead, his was marked Lieutenant USCG, and bore a tiny replica of the Navy Cross. It was far too late for me to pretend I hadn’t noticed—I tried to speak, failed, then finally the Rabbits took pity on me.
   “Dad once killed a whole slew of drug smugglers,” Digger explained.
   Silk shrugged, then looked down at the ground. “The medal really wasn’t for me. I was the only survivor of the boarding party, you see. The award was presented in order to honor the sacrifices of the others.”
   Digger shook his head, eyes glowing with pride. “That’s bullshit, Dad,” he said in a friendly tone. “And you know it.”
   “I don’t like to talk about it,” Silk replied. Then he shrugged and sighed. “In any event, that’s not why I came to meet you out here, Mr. Johnson. Nor to warn you about the storms, though perhaps I should’ve made certain you got the word sooner. Sorry about that.”
   It was my turn to shrug. “De nada.”
   Silk smiled politely, then his face sort of went blank. “I… Er…” He turned to Digger. In the not-so-great distance, thunder rumbled.
   “Yeah,” the chocolate-brown rabbit agreed awkwardly, his own features blanking. Absently, he stroked his ruined ear. Then, with a sudden motion, he reached into his pocket and produced a little black cube, wrapped tightly in plastic. “Do you know what this is?”
   I nodded. “An illegal drug,” I answered. “The street name is ‘stink’. Real popular with the younger set.” My eyes rose to meet Digger’s much-larger brown ones. “Nasty, nasty stuff. It got its street name because when the final formulation work is done, the fumes smell like a backed-up toilet.”
   “It still smells that way,” Digger assured me. “To a Rabbit’s nose, at least.” He pocketed the drug, then looked down at the ground. More thunder rumbled across the sky, and suddenly a cloud passed in front of the sun. The temperature felt like it dropped twenty degrees, just like that. “In fact,” he said slowly, “it stinks so bad that I never thought anyone would be dumb enough to try and bring any here, where there’s gengineered noses wandering around all over the place.”
   I shook my head sadly. “So he’s addicted and stupid both. What a loser!” Then I looked at Silk again. “Are you trying to show me that Lapists have problems, too?”
   The head Lapist shook his head, then tore absently at the gravel with his toe-claws. “Mr. Johnson,” he said slowly. “I’ve been very patient with you. But… can you really not see where this is going? Or are you willfully blind?”
   Digger added. “Insensitive to the point of cruelty, yes. But…” He shook his head again before continuing. “I found this tucked down inside the left ear of a stuffed deer-head above your son’s bunk. It was well-hidden—I’d never have tumbled to it, without the odor to show me the way.”
   My mouth opened and closed wordlessly. Gary? On drugs? My Gary? “No,” I answered, as soon as I could speak again. “It’s impossible. Flat-out impossible. Not my son. It is simply, absolutely not possible.”
   “He was very red-eyed when he arrived,” Digger pointed out. “That’s a symptom. And, he seemed… Excessively stimulated.”
   Not half as stimulated as he was during the ride in, a little voice whispered in my left ear. And that truck stop had smelled like… “No,” I replied, shaking my head again. “It just can’t be. I refuse to accept that my son…” Then I remembered a useful little something from my sister’s legal travails. “Anyone could’ve put that… that garbage there!” I countered. “There isn’t any binding proof that it belongs to him!” My father had repeated that dozens of times, whenever anyone brought up his daughter’s first trial. It had shut people up, all right.
   “Not that I could take to court,” Digger acknowledged, his eyes narrowing. “Though no one here had mentioned involving the police. Yet.”
   “Is that a threat?” I demanded. “Maybe that’s your stink, eh? You’ve taken illegal drugs, haven’t you?”
   Silk stepped forward a little, placing himself between his son and me. “I really don’t think this disgusting... uh... material belongs to Digger,” he said softly.
   I inhaled, intending to argue some more. Then I remembered how critical tomorrow’s interview with Silk was going to be, and forced myself to relax. “I’m sorry,” I said, raising my hands in surrender. “I’m sorry, all right? I shouldn’t have said that. Really, I shouldn’t have.”
   A little of the fire faded from Silk’s eyes. “No,” he said. “You shouldn’t have. But I’ll write it off to you being upset.”
   I nodded, then turned to Digger. His eyes were still smoldering, full-force. “Really,” I said. “I was over the line. But… anyone could have put it there.”
   Digger looked down for a moment. “That’s why users keep it in a hidden but unlocked place like that to begin with,” he said softly. “So they can claim that someone else is responsible for it.” He shook his head again. “This is getting us nowhere. How much more do you know about stink?” he asked.
   “That it’s making a big pile of money for all the wrong people,” I said. “And that it’s designed not just to be addictive, but to be as addictive as possible.” There was more thunder, then a large drop of rain plopped to the ground next to my left foot. A chilly breeze arose out of nowhere. It was growing darker and darker.
   Digger nodded. “Users have to dose up about every twenty-four hours, or else they go into withdrawal. It’s quite painful, withdrawal is. So much so that users will do virtually anything to get another fix.” He shook his head. “There’ve been violent robberies, senseless murders, you name it.”
   “If that stink does belong to your son,” Silk continued, “well… We think it’s probably been close to twenty-four hours.’
   Then Digger reached into his pocket and pulled out three more black cubes. “And,” he continued softly. “I suspect I have his entire stash.”
   “I see,” I replied, looking off into the distance. Suddenly I began shivering; my heart had turned to ice, though the cold wind hadn’t grown any worse. “I just filmed a school shooting,” I finally said, seemingly apropos of nothing.
   “I know,” Silk replied, looking at me as if I’d lost my mind. “It must’ve been very sad.”
   “It was,” I replied, nodding. “The shooter was just a few months older than Gary. He killed and maimed over a dozen victims, including himself. And…”
   “And?” Digger prompted.
   “It turns out that the kid was a stink addict. No one noticed, not even his parents.”

-= 15 =-

   Digger took me directly to Gary’s cabin. It was raining even harder by the time we got there. When we arrived Berry was waiting for us. “He hasn’t been back,” the white Rabbit declared. “Though…”
   “Though what?” Silk demanded.
   Berry frowned. “There was a noise at the window. All I saw was a blur. It might’ve been him, seeing if the coast was clear. I thought about going and checking, but if I left the deer-head unwatched…”
   Silk grimaced as if he’d just tasted something unpleasant. “We should’ve left you a helper,” he muttered. “I’m sorry, son. Apparently, we still have quite a bit to learn about running a camp!”
   Then Bluepine came ambling up, raindrops glistening in his fur. It was coming down pretty hard now. “You paged me?” he asked. “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long, but I’ve come up missing a camper. In fact, I was just getting ready to call you.”
   Silk frowned again. “Gary Johnson Junior, I suppose.”
   Bluepine blinked his large eyes, then looked at me. “Yes. He ran off crying a little earlier. I thought it might be better to leave him in peace for a bit.” He looked down at the ground. “Obviously, I was wrong.”
   Silk sighed, then patted ’pine on the shoulder. “We’re all learning too slowly, I fear.” Then he turned to Digger. “Show him.”
   The brown bunny pulled out his handful of cubes, and Bluepine winced. “Jesus,” he whispered softly. “I learned about that stuff in counseling school.” He turned towards me, then looked resolutely away. “Is he due?”
   “We think so,” Silk replied. Just then there was a brilliant flash outside, and a very loud clap of thunder. “Close,” he observed.
   “And getting closer,” ’Pine observed. “In fact—” Suddenly the arctic hare’s radio emitted a series of loud, piercing tones.
   “Shit,” Silk observed, his paws forming fists.
   “This is the National Weather Service,” a synthetic voice began. “At 12:42 PM a funnel cloud was indicated by radar…”
   “Damn!” ‘Pine cursed, once the voice finished reciting its litany of woe. Camp Oaktree was now under a severe thunderstorm warning, a flash flood warning, and a tornado warning. There was also hail and damaging winds in the area. “We’ve got to get everyone into the storm shelters!”
   “But,” I protested. “What about Gary?”
   “Right,” Silk agreed. He turned to Berry. “Fill in for me with the main group. Go get everyone underground, nice and calm and easy. Make up something plausible to explain why I’m gone; I don’t care what. We’ll square it later. All right?”
   “Gotcha,” Berry agreed. “Be careful, Dad!” Then, without asking a single question, he was off.
   Then Silk turned to Digger. “You used to go scooter-riding around here with Bluegrass, right?”
   “A little,” he agreed.
   Silk nodded. “There’s a back road into the camp, isn’t there? That goes up into the hills?”
   “Yeah,” the brown rabbit replied. “And he just might’ve headed that way.”
   “Go get Bluegrass,” Silk ordered. “He knows this area better than anyone. You two go search that road.” Silk looked away. “Keep your eyes on the sky as best you can. Don’t take any more chances than you absolutely have to.”
   Digger nodded, then tilted his head to one side. “You either,” he replied after the briefest of pauses. Then he hugged his father and was gone.
   Finally, Silk turned to Bluepine and me. “We’re going down the main road,” he said, his voice still soft but authoritative. “Town’s in that direction. And that’s the only place he’ll know of where he can get more stink.”

-= 16 =-

   Four minutes later the three of us were sitting in Camp Oaktree’s solitary official vehicle, a battered old Jeep that predated the institution itself by a considerable margin. It ran well enough, however. Certainly, it was well up to the crawlingly slow speeds we were able to achieve in the raging downpour.
   “I’ve never seen it rain so hard,” Bluepine observed as we inched our way out the camp’s main exit and onto the main highway.
   “I have,” Silk replied, frowning. “During Hurricane Paul. At sea.”
   ’pine nodded. “At least this can’t last long.”
   Then, unexpectedly, things grew worse. The rain turned to hail, and suddenly the air was full of plummeting stones the size of golfballs. SlamBamWham! The Jeep was pounded as if with dozens of fists; the windshield shattered, and a couple of ice-chunks penetrated the soft-top and ended up in the floorboards. “Jesus!” Bluepine whispered. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
   Silk grinned. “You don’t get much real weather in Canada. Except blizzards, of course.” Then his features hardened. “Bluegrass and Digger are out in this. On scooters.”
   There was a moment of silence, broken only by the falling ice. “At least they have their helmets,” ’pine observed. “And their armored jackets.”
   “Yeah,” the other Rabbit agreed. “But Gary’s got nothing at all.”
   Presently the icefall stopped, and Bluepine slipped the Jeep back into gear. We continued to inch along, due to the road being covered with hailstones. It was still raining, but not nearly so hard. There were huge puddles everywhere, small lakes almost, looking very strange with clusters of round iceballs bobbing around on top. The light had a very odd quality about it as well, one that I’d seen a few other times after unusually severe storms. It made for good filming, but wasn’t exactly the kind of thing a news team ever could count on. No one said a word; the silence was broken only by the crunching of ice, the beeping and booping of Bluepine’s weather radio as the storm moved on to the east, and the stubborn growl of the Jeep’s motor. Presently we crested a hill…
   …and there was my news van, parked at the bottom with the camera out and running.
   “The bridge is washed out,” ’pine observed. “Look! The creek is halfway up onto the superstructure, eh? I’ve never seen it half that high!”
   “But why would they be filming that?” I demanded. “Those stupid—”
   Then Silk interrupted me. “Get us down there!” he ordered. “Now!” Bluepine didn’t ask questions; instead, he did what he was told and gunned the motor. The Jeep slewed this way and that across the iceballs, but somehow the Canadian kept us between the ditches.
   It was only when we were nearly there that I realized that my son was standing out in the middle of the raging torrent, cold water up to his waist, holding onto a girder for dear life.

-= 17 =-

   We piled out of the Jeep the instant it stopped in a tangle of fur and flesh. I began to run towards my son, but almost immediately something grabbed onto my belt and yanked me back. “Oh no you don’t!” Bluepine declared. “That’s sure death.”
   I turned to try and yank myself free, but then realized that even though I was only twenty feet away from Gary, it might as well have been a million miles.
   “Gary!” Kent cried out from the news van, looking anguished. “Your boy!”
   Duh!, I wanted to scream. Instead I kept my mouth firmly shut.
   “The winch!” Silk declared suddenly. “The Jeep has a winch!”
   “Right!” Bluepine replied. “I’ll put the cable around my waist…”
   “No!” Silk countered. “I’m trained for rescue work! You…”
   But even though the two Rabbits were practically shouting in my ears, I heard no more. For now, Gary had turned and was looking directly at me. His face was streaked with blood and grime, which showed up all the more due to the chalkiness of his flesh. “I hate you!” he declared. “This is all your fault! Why did you bring me to this stupid place, anyway?”
   I took a short step forward, mindful of the rushing water now tugging at my ankles. It was rising very quickly; already, the tires of the news van were half-under. “Gary!” I ordered. “You just hang on. Silkfur is going to come and pull you out!”
   “I don’t want to come out!” he bawled. “It hurts so bad, inside!”
   “We’ll take care of you!” I promised. Something was swelling up inside of me again, the same something I’d felt while sitting around the fire and thinking of the night Gary had been born. It hurt. Bad. “Just as soon as we get you off the bridge we’ll get you to a hospital, and they’ll give you something to help you with—”
   “Aaaargh!” my son howled, bending over nearly double at the urging of whatever internal agonies he was suffering. Addicts deprived of stink, I knew, would do anything to get another fix. Literally anything. “Oooooow!”
   My own gut heaved in sympathy. “I’m sorry,” I said, standing helpless as Silk hooked the winch-cable around his waist and Bluepine paid out cable and Digger and his friend were taking who knew what kinds of risks on their scooters and Berry was telling the rest of the Rabbits reassuring lies, all because of the foulness and dysfunctionality that I’d carried into the Rabbits’ lives. My god! I was a revolving son of a bitch after all! “I’m so sorry!”
   Just then, a police car topped the rise on the far side of the valley, siren wailing. Behind it was another. The help that Bluepine had summoned earlier was finally appearing.
   “No!” Gary sobbed. “No!” Then he turned to face me. “You fucking bastard! You narced me out!”
   “You were missing!” I explained. “We were worried!”
   “I’m not going to rehab!” he screamed. “I’m not! I’ve heard how terrible it is, not having stink!”
   “Don’t—” I began. But I got no further. Because just then, Gary smiled the nastiest, most evil-looking grimace I’d ever seen in all my days. “I hate you!” he declared.
   Then, still smiling, he let go of the bridge.

-= 18 =-

   It was reflex, really. If I’d had time to think, I probably would never have done it. But Silk was all hooked up to the winch, Bluepine was cursing and fiddling with the controls, and my news crew was too far away to be of any help. So, I plunged forward and into the raging stream, chasing after my son.
   Well, not chasing, exactly. Almost instantly the rushing waters knocked my feet out from under me, so that what I was doing could be more accurately described as tumbling helplessly in the same general direction. I went head over heels and spun on every possible axis, hitting my head and everything else on boulders, snags, abandoned junk, all the myriad items that populate a typical Kentucky rural stream bed. Sometimes the flow calmed a little, so that I could distinguish my upside from my downside long enough to snatch a little air. But, mostly I tumbled. And, at one point, I struck my left elbow a terrific blow. It shattered into what felt like, and probably was, a million pieces. I howled in agony, but the flooding water didn’t care. I tumbled and spun on, just like before.
   Then, the stream widened and calmed, so that I was able to hold my head up for more than a second or two at a time. “Gary!” I bellowed, cradling my bad arm as best I could. “Gary!”
   “I fucking hate you!” a familiar voice screamed.
   I flipped over onto my back and kicked towards the sound. Presently I bumped into something warm and soft. “Get away from me!” it screamed. “I want to die!”
   “So do I,” I murmured, reaching towards the voice with my good arm. I almost managed to make the grab, but he twisted away. I was getting sick of that, I decided. He’d been slipping through my fingers all weekend long, it seemed like.
   “You’re such a dumbshit!” he declared, more conversationally this time. “Can’t you see that we’re both gonna die, now? I was fucked anyway; once you get seriously hooked on stink, it’s all over for you. Everyone knows that. But you…”
   “I love you,” I replied.
   “No you don’t!” he answered, trying to kick away. But, this time, I finally managed to snag him, then maintain my grip.
   “I do,” I insisted. “Even though I’ve been a total idiot.” The water was speeding up again; I looked downstream and saw that we were coming to another bridge. This one was a bit higher than the last; the deck was two or maybe even three feet above the water. The roadbed was still dry, but underneath…
   I knew full well what kind of junk accumulated under rural bridges. Rusted out cars. Boulders. Washing machines. Whole trees.
   “I love you,” I repeated. “I’ve been a fool, and I’m sorry. And now there’s no time left at all.”
   “You… You…” Gary sputtered, his eyes wide and childlike. “You…”
   “I do,” I declared. The bridge was almost on us. I spun us around to face it, and gripped my son as best I could with my single good arm. “Now, you grab on when I lift you.”
   “But…” my son spluttered. “But…”
   For once he had no time to give me any lip. Gritting my teeth against the agony, I heaved my son above my head as high as I could, driving myself deep under. He snagged onto something—the bridge deck, I hoped—and was ripped away from me…
   …as I was sucked down into the swirling darkness underneath.

-= 19 =-

   I was pretty accurate in my estimation of what sort of nastiness awaited me under the bridge. Almost immediately something ripped into my right leg and spun me around, so that I was heading bass-ackwards downstream. Next I hit something hard and smooth and unyielding, which first knocked the breath out of me and then bounced my head high enough to allow me to inhale a replacement. Then something long and tough and slender, probably a tree-limb, scraped down my back, worked its way inside my belt, and pulled my trousers down around my ankles. There they lodged on my hiking boots, leaving me flopping about at what was in effect the end of a short rope. I writhed to the left, but the only effect was that the millrace-flow spun me like a top. Then I writhed to the right, and spun the other way. Then I tried to bend over against the current to free my feet, but it was impossible. I wasn’t strong enough, even if I could’ve done it with only one good arm. All I could do was revolve, revolve, revolve uselessly, until finally the water won and I died.
   It was a perfect end for such a son of a bitch, I decided. Utterly and completely perfect. Kent sometimes had such a way with words…
   Drowning wasn’t such a bed way to go, I decided as the animal part of my mind continued to kick and spin and fight. It was peaceful, even beautiful in a surreal sort of way. The sun was shining on the surface of the water just a couple of feet from my nose. It flickered and dappled beautifully through the water; apparently, against all odds I’d almost made it through to the bridge’s other side. Well, I’d given it a good run, at least. That was reassuring to know.
   Then, my hopes of a good death were shattered as something slammed into my groin; the impact was absolutely terrible, probably delivered by a large log. I screamed in agony…
   …then got to watch as my precious last breath went bubbling up into the sunlight. Reflexively I inhaled, filling my lungs with filthy creek-water, then tried to gag that up as well. But, there was nothing to replace it except more water.
   It’s all right, a familiar voice whispered to me as the sun grew fainter and the log continued to grind into my crotch and I gagged and silently screamed. It’s all right, Gary, You’ll be with me, now. There’s plenty of work needs to be done where you’re going.
   Dad? I asked, in watery words.
   There’s all the overtime any man could ever want, my father explained, slowly materializing in the gathering darkness. No one steals your overtime, here. You don’t ever have to go home! There’s an endless line of machines to fix and crimes to do news reports on, and the demons laugh and laugh and laugh when they hand you your big check at the end of every week!
   No! I screamed again. Somehow, the water I was drowning in reeked of sulphur. No!
   Oh, yes! Dad replied, smiling with pointed, reptilian teeth. Oh, yes indeed! You’re a real chip off the old block, you are. If I belong here, so do you. His smile widened. Son, how come the grass isn’t cut? Aren’t you proud of the house you live in and the money I work so hard to make? Aren’t you proud of who you are?
   No! I screamed again. I hate you! As if from a thousand miles away, I felt my legs going limp and still. I always hated you, and I always will! I screamed in Dad’s face. You never had a moment for me. But I loved my boy! Right at the end, at least, I loved him and he knew that I loved him. That’s more than you can say!
   Dad thought that was funny as hell. He raised his face and laughed, laughed, laughed, as everything grew darker and darker and darker…
   …until, just before total blackness set in, my pants finally ripped free from whatever was holding them and sent me spinning once more downstream.

-= 20 =-

   “…so I’ll be out of rehab in plenty of time to go back to school,” Gary explained from the side of my hospital bed, his eyes bright and shining. I was fresh out of intensive care, and my son was still on suicide watch—a uniformed security officer stood respectfully against the far wall, right next to his mother. There was a bandage on Gary’s cheek where he’d needed several stitches, and his right wrist was in a cast. Still, you could take one look at him and see that he was clean inside again. Now that the docs had flushed all the nasty chemicals out of his system, the difference was like night and day. “I’ll have to take special pills,” he added. “Because the physical addiction is so persistent.”
   I smiled and reached out to pat my son on the head with my one good arm. “You’ll be fine,” I assured him. “We’ll take good care of you.”
   He smiled back, and didn’t flinch away from my touch. “I know, Dad,” he said softly. Then he looked away. “You almost died. And I… I…”
   “Hush!” I said, still smiling. “We don’t ever need to discuss that again. Not unless you want to, that is.” I looked away. “I was a pretty lousy dad.”
   “You were,” he agreed. “But not anymore.”
   “Never again,” I promised. “Never!”
   Then Stephanie stepped up alongside my bed. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said. “But it’s time for someone’s blood test.”
   “Aww!” Gary complained. Then he looked back at me. “Thanks, Dad,” he said softly.
   “Don’t mention it,” I replied as he turned to leave.
   “Could you…” Stephanie asked the guard. “I mean…” She looked awkwardly first at me, then at Gary Junior.
   “Sure thing,” my son’s watcher replied, smiling. Then she clapped Gary on the shoulder. “Come on, kiddo. There’s a big needle waiting downstairs with your name on it.”
   Then Stephanie and I were alone. “I…” she began, clearly at a loss for words. “I mean…”
   “I was a lousy father,” I repeated, for her benefit. “Year after year after year. And before that, I was a lousy husband. Letting you walk out of my life was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, bar none. I’ve been so wrong about so many things for so long that even now I’m still only beginning to grasp the scope of my stupidity.” I shook my head and sighed. “Don’t misunderstand me; I recognize that things are long over between us, and I’m not trying to rekindle old flames. You deserve better than that. But… I needed to tell you that I know I was wrong.”
   Stephanie inclined her head slightly to one side and smiled; it was the first time I’d seen her smile in ten years, and the expression pierced my heart. “Thank you,” she said softly. “For that, and for my son’s life, as well.”
   I shrugged slightly. “Our son. Never forget that. Our son.”
   “Our son,” she agreed, nodding. Then she pursed her lips in thought. “I was just with the counsellors.”
   I raised my eyebrows, but said nothing.
   “One of the things they suggested was maybe trying to do a few things together as a family. Especially since neither you nor I…” She colored. “Like dinner out, sometimes. The three of us. When you’re in town, I mean. Not busy.”
   “I’ll be there,” I promised. “You set the dates, and I’ll be there. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will stand in my way.”
   Then I noticed two more visitors coming up behind Stephanie. At first I thought both of them were Lapists, because of their big ears. Then I realized that one was my Talent. “Kent!” I greeted him as Stephanie, still a bit red-faced, excused herself to go catch up with Gary Junior. “Silkfur!”
   “Hello, Gary,” Kent greeted me, his slightly over-handsome features breaking into a half-grin.”
   “Hi,” Silk agreed, smiling as well. “How’re you doing?”
   “I ache a little,” I admit. “But I’m so damned glad finally not to have a tube rammed down my throat anymore that I hardly notice.” I smiled again. “I was glad to hear that Digger and Bluegrass are all right.”
   Silk nodded. “Digger wrecked his scooter trying to ride on the hail before it melted, but that’s what insurance is for. He wasn’t going very fast, so no bones were broken. He’s just a little stiff and sore, is all.”
   I nodded, then let my smile fade. “I owe you everything,” I said softly. The chief Lapist had personally pulled me out of the creek. “You shouldn’t have taken the chance.”
   “I didn’t take a chance, really, to be quite honest.” He shrugged. “I was hooked up to the winch, and never in more than knee-deep. Quite unspectacular indeed compared to your little… escapade.” He grinned like a child. “Just like I was trained to do, all those years ago. Of course, I’ll admit that mouth-to-mouth is much more challenging with a harelip.”
   I nodded. “Thank you regardless. And…”
   Silk’s ears perked up. “Yes?”
   I found that I could no longer meet his eyes. “I… I’m sorry that I brought poison into your lovely, peaceful camp,” I said softly. “Not Gary’s stink, though I suppose I mean that, too. But…”
   The Rabbit smiled again. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with your wife and boy,” he said softly. “We Rabbits don’t deliberately eavesdrop, but…” He rolled his eyes upwards towards his ears, then shrugged expressively.
   “Heh!” I replied, unable to take offense if I’d wanted to.
   “Well… I’m a Lapist, Mr. Johnson. Which means that I’m someone who has chosen what I believe to be a higher road, someone who tries to judge people and events in a broader, more revealing light.” He smiled. “Frankly I’d have to say that what a man brings away from our camp is one heck of a lot more important than what he brings to it. So, all in all, I consider the whole affair to be a great success. A little more exciting along the way than we might have preferred, perhaps. But a success nonetheless. Wouldn’t you agree?”
   I laid my head back on the pillow, unable to speak. Finally, I nodded.
   “Then let’s hear no more about it. Except I’ll add that redemption is always far more satisfying than mere affirmation. The fatted calf and all that, you know.” He laid a friendly paw on my arm; it was soft and warm. “Though we still have a little business to discuss, I fear.”
   I gulped. “Business?”
   “Yes,” Silk replied. He turned to face Kent and include him in the conversation. “I still owe you two an interview. When would be a good time for you?”
   I smiled up at the acoustic tiles on the hospital ceiling. “You’re still willing?”
   “Oh, yes!” Silk agreed. “We don’t actively seek out publicity, of course. But at the same time, we’ve no reason to actively shun it, either—not as long as we aren’t proselytizing, that is! I gave you my word, and I intend to keep it.” He smiled and clapped Kent on the back. “Besides, your team seems to be exceptionally open-minded for media-types.”
   Kent scowled for a moment, then spoke. “I’m converting, Gary. Don’t try to talk me out of it. For many more years than we’ve known each other, I’ve thought that there was something terribly wrong inside me. Now, I can see that it’s society as a whole that’s warped and twisted and has lost its way. Not me.”
   “I’d never for a moment dream of talking you out of it,” I replied softly. Then I extended my good hand. “Congratulations, in fact. You’ve always been a better man than I am, I suspect. Now I reckon you’re on your way to becoming a better one still.”
   Kent blinked, then accepted my hand and shook it. Clearly, he’d been expecting resistance. “But… I mean, my… Our careers!”
   “They’ll either flourish or they won’t,” I answered, shrugging. “Though personally, I suspect that the network would love to have a full-time Lapist reporter on staff. There’s nothing more photogenic than a Rabbit.” Then my brow furrowed and I looked at Silk. “I mean, if your people have no objection…”
   “I doubt it,” he replied. “Reporting the news is an honest and wholesome profession. Or at least in theory it is. We don’t hold honest professions against our membership.”
   “Reporting will be an honest profession when a Lapist does it,” Kent promised. Then he looked at me again. “But if I do have to leave…”
   I smiled. “You’re on your way up, to the biggest of the big leagues. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
   “You weren’t fine last time. When Alex quit to go to that English network...” Kent shook his head, making his fake ears bobble ridiculously. We’ll have to get stiffer ones made, I decided. First thing. That is, if—
   Then Kent continued. “You weren’t fine at all, Gary. Everyone knows it. Including you. So, I’m… Well…” His features firmed. “You made me who I am, Gary. You put up with all my whining and nervousness and trips to see the shrink, and brought out the best in me. Believed in me, when no one else did. And, if I’m to become a Rabbit, well… I’d like you to stay with me, come what may. As many of the crew as are willing, in fact. Unlike others I could name, I won’t be forgetting where I came from, or who helped me along the way.”
   There was a long, pregnant silence. Eventually, Silk broke it. “Forgive me, Gary. But I must point something out here.”
   “Yes?” I asked, still a bit in shock at Kent’s offer.
   “It seems to me,” Silk said, “that just maybe you had better fathering skills than you thought.” He looked significantly at Kent, then back to me. “Certainly, at least, the basic materials are there.”
   “Maybe,” I allowed, and Kent blushed.
   “Anyway,” Silk continued. “I need to attend to one last matter, then I’ll be on my way.” He shook his head sadly. “You never attended the Father-Son Achievement Lunch. Or the Father-Son Archery Tournament. Or even the Three-Legged-Race.”
   I shook my head. “Gary and I would’ve enjoyed them very much.”
   “You still can,” he answered. “Due to the extraordinary circumstances, the Camp Council is pleased to invite you both back to our August session. If you can make it, of course.”
   I gulped. “Well…”
   “Yay!” Gary cried out, bursting into the room with a brand-new band-aid on his arm. “Can we Dad? Huh? I want to try for that big old catfish again!”
   “Well…” I said, looking at Stephanie, who immediately nodded and smiled. There was still Gary’s rehab, of course, and I had no idea what my shooting schedule would be like, all the more so with the changes Kent would soon be going through. But still… “Of course we can!” I told my son. “Whatever in the universe could possibly be more important?”
   “Yaaaay!” he cried again, hopping up and down in place as if he just might have a Rabbit inside of him after all. Then Stephanie leaned over my bedside and hugged me, as Kent and Silk wrapped their arms around each other’s shoulders and sort of glowed. “Cut!” I could almost hear Sully crying out in satisfaction. “That’s a wrap!”
   But, of course, there wasn’t a news camera anywhere in sight. Just this once, that was perfectly fine by me.

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