by Sly Rabbit
© Sly Rabbit -- all rights reserved
"You guys are a lot of fun to hang with," I said again. "Really. This place feels right for me." God, how I hated sucking up their tailpipes. It was the only way to get into the Phi Alpha house, I knew; the lead rush chair made that absolutely clear. In fact that was the reason I was rushing Phi Alpha – Damon had made that absolutely clear to me, too. Having a friend in the higher-ups of the frat made my chances of getting a bid even better.
I needed all the help I could get.
We were playing through a Euchre tournament at the time. For those unfamiliar with the game, don't fret. If you're not a Hoosier, you probably don't know Euchre. The best thing I could probably relate it to is Spades on steroids, with a smaller deck and faster rounds. That, and the trump system makes absolutely no sense. For most it's just takes too long to learn, which is why saner states just don't play it. Yep, Euchre sure was a strange game...
And I was a strange college boy. SCABS turned out a lot of strange college boys, that much I knew. The college prep book said that those strange boys went to small schools where they would see a bit of sympathy from the crowd. That, and the small schools had better support groups for the victims.
I applied for a small school.
What a crock that book was!
My partner finished dealing, put the widow down, and smiled at me. "You're a cool guy yourself, Rabbit." He closed his eyes and grimaced. "I'm sorry. You don't _mind_ being called Rabbit, do you?"
"It's okay." No, it wasn't okay, but for a potential bid I was willing to swallow my pride. "That's better than a simple ‘hey you' or ‘dude.' I know I can't keep tabs on everyone here, either." My ears twirled to and fro, listening to the sound of the old, sighing house. Everything about it, from the simple architecture to the sharp smell of parties past, made me feel more comfortable. That, and the non-SCABS wouldn't smell my markings over all the other scent noise. That was a very good thing indeed.
"Your first week is like drinking from a fire hose." He nodded to me. I wish I could have remembered his name: Steve, maybe, or was it Sam? I couldn't keep them straight after person number fifty. Waffling my way through the names was a lot easier, anyway.
I passed on the up card and looked off into the hall, where two sihoulettes were moving around. My heart skipped a beat. The rush committee! They had gone off to confer a while back – discreetly, though by the fifth day I had learned to pinpoint the signals. They were looking for someone in the room.
In their hands was a small, white piece of paper.
A bid! Oh, how I wanted to just jump up and down, scream out to them, get the process over with. A bid! I was going to be a pledge-brother.
My heart jumped into my throat. I had to bit my lip to keep from thumping the ground with my oversized foot; that would give it away. I had to act natural, surprised, and calm over all else.
Thank God that my partner went alone; I couldn't play cards with the Rush coming to a head. This was it! This was my moment of acceptance! With a gleam in my eyes I watched as they moved closer, closer, closer to my table. The whole group!
It was going to happen!
One of them poked me on the shoulder; I nearly jumped out of my fur. "Aaron, we need to talk to you." Some of the people at the Euchre table winked at me, and I just put my hand down right there and then. They led me away from the table, away from the crowd in the lobby, and off into the Chapter Room in the basement.
It was a simple room, that Chapter Room. They tried their best to make it seem mysterious, though, and to a point it worked quite well. It would have helped if the candles were lit and the incense pots were burning; at the time the fluorescent lights did nothing for the solid oak table and newly-finished oak chairs, let alone the foreboding insignia on the wall. No matter; the stuff still had quite an effect on me.
"Sit down," the head rush chair said. "This won't take more than a moment, and then you can get back to your game. Simple?"
"Take all the time you want," I said. My limbs were weak with anxiety. I could feel my tail rising up against the tail of my shirt; my ears had long since stood up bone-straight, ready to take in any detail that came towards me. At least my rabbit paws didn't sweat...
The three gentlemen took their time, milling around behind the table, arranging papers, looking at each other and giving silent signals before they finally took their seats at the table. The left hand man pulled out a match and tried to light some of the candles, but the head man simply shook his head and the matches disappeared again. They looked around the room in tandem for a moment. Finally the central chair turned to my good friend and nodded solemnly.
"You do it, Paul." How kind of him, to give my friend the honor! I felt myself bubbling with glee, ready to accept the bid with a hearty handshake and a great big smile. Oh, it was going to be wonderful!
"Been a while since we've talked, eh Aaron?" Paul said with a dry chuckle. "Seems like a lot's happened since we last met."
"Just a bit," I said with a buck-toothed grin. The whole rabbit SCAB deal stunk on ice, but at least I had learned to keep good humor about me when someone else talked about it. It fit my personality; take something bad and turn it into a joke. It seemed to work for my friends just fine.
"Though I will say the fur does something for your face; it's a good look for you. Reflects what you're like on the inside: timid, sneaky, likable."
I blushed. "Thank you."
He opened his mouth to reply, but paused for a long sigh. "Aaron... this isn't going to be the news you wanted to hear. In fact, it's going to be kind of disappointing. Sorry."
My heart clanged in my toes. "I'm not getting the bid?" I asked in a soft, innocent voice. It was strained with the onset of a crying fit, a fit that every man learns to squelch when they're five years old but can never quite eliminate.
It seemed like Paul was in the same situation. "I don't want to say this to you, Aaron. I know what kind of a person you are. Most of the brothers think you're a great guy, but it just wasn't enough for them. You were dedicated, but it was too little, too late."
The man at the left shifted in his seat a bit, his focus somewhere else. When I tried to look into his eyes he would look to the door nervously. "I've been here for a fortnight, now."
"And we gave out our bids during the summer," came the head of the table in a cold and ruthless voice.
"He is right, to a point" Aaron added. "We were considering adding two more pledges to make up for our brothers traveling abroad. You were just----"
"Not the type for the house," I finished for him. "Don't worry about hurting me with the words; I've heard them many times before."
"It's out of my hands," Aaron sighed.
"A lot of things are out of our hands." I weighed the words carefully, so as to not come off angry. "And that includes human responses. I understand that your brothers are afraid of me, gentlemen. Many people are."
The head chair shrugged. "I guess we can't butter it up for you, since you've probably heard it all. The people here are just afraid of what could happen after being exposed to a new SCAB for such an extended period of time."
"That whole deal is one big myth."
Finally the left chair raised his eyes to meet mine, eyes that burned with some old hatred. "They don't want to take the risk," he said with a strained voice, "After seeing our friends, family, and others fall to the disease, there's no reason to take chances."
I looked to Aaron for support. His eyes were sad, sad globes set in a body whose hands were tied. I just wanted to scream!
"We brought you here for privacy," he continued. "We only say this because it had to be done. You tried hard, Aaron, and you managed to do everything right. Things just weren't meant to be." There was a long pause as he closed his eyes – tight. "This is not an easy conversation for anyone, bidder or bidee. This was the nicest and most honest way we could possibly do this. It is the best we can do."
"I understand." No, I don't understand! I did everything right! I sucked up to the frat brothers, made myself known to them, told them that I wanted to be a part of their life... what else could I possibly have done?
"Rush is over," the head chair continued, a bit more strength returning to his voice, "All the houses have given out their bids. After I'm done here I'll give the dean of students a ring, and start the process of getting you into a dorm. When we have your assignment the brothers will help you move in." He stood from the table, followed soon after by Paul and the now-crying left chair. "It is the least we can do for you."
I shook their hands with a weak smile. "Gentlemen, I thank you for hosting me during this rush week, and for being brutally honest when things didn't work out."
"You're welcome to come back any time," Paul said. I took his hand tightly in my paw. "Any time. If those GDIs get on your nerves you just come on over and we'll do something."
"Sounds great." We stopped shaking hands. I moved towards the Chapter Room's door with a little less bounce in my step. My tail had gone limp. "Right now, though, I'd like to go for a little walk – you know, collect myself and all."
"Take your time," the head chair said with a nod. "We'll be a while getting your room squared away."
"Wonderful," I said, but as the words left my mouth I felt a lapine wail coming right behind it. Before they could figure out what I was doing I turned and walked out of the room, making sure to avoid everyone on my way out of the house.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, really. With all the taboo surrounding the Martian Flu I was surprised that I even got into Wally College. I should have been happy taking whatever living condition they gave me – after all, a home was just a home.
But fraternities ran the campus.
A pain stabbed through my heart as the thought pulsed through my mind. I was out there to shake it off.
It was me, an open field, and a full moon to light the way. No one asked questions of me; when I walked I made sure to keep from making eye contact, instead taking solace in the jagged lines in the brick sidewalk below. And out in the field I could just cut loose and let my claws tear up the Earth. That's how I liked it, I guess; in that field I could juke and jive and run, run, run, free as a rabbit should be.
I was disgusted by the thought.
God, I hated SCABS! For me it was always being a day late, a dollar short, one step behind the crowd. My friends went to a steakhouse, and I ordered salad. My parents owned a dog, I lived in a shivering pile behind a locked door. Just when I thought I'd make something of my life SCABS comes and makes a mess for me.
They told me that I'd grow up to be something, they did. Every last one of those idiots stood up and applauded the bunny as he made his way down the aisle to accept his high school diploma. "That one," they all thought in tandem, "That one's gonna beat the Flu. He's too damn strong not to."
And there I was running around and sniffing at the delicious grasses laid out before me, dancing like a bunny with glee. I could smell a hint of sweet clover on the air; if only I could find that patch then all the not-nice thoughts in my head would drift away and I could just relax and settle into a nice cool burrow for the night...
No! I shook furiously and willed the vision to go away. Not this time! I wasn't going give in to that disease, damn it! I was going to be a success story.
That, or I was going to put up one hell of a fight while being dragged under.
Fate was fate, of course. Before I could let my instincts get a deeper toehold I bounced right back out of the field, ready to accept the lowest common denominator the school would offer, since I had no where else to run.
Trapped like a little rabbit, I was. The pain in my heart ached on and on, but at least I could keep a happy face about me as I walked back to the administrative offices to break the news."
"I'm really sorry to hear this news," the dean said again. I was tired of sympathy – hell, I was tired of _people_ -- but at that point I was just too drained to do anything about it at all.
Imagine: the kid everyone loved suddenly becomes cannon fodder for the upper echelon of social status. Joy! And they said college was a step _up_ for everyone; at least, that was before SCABS. That was so long ago.
My tail sank, thankfully; at least the lump below my shirt wouldn't show as much. I was considering belting it down, actually, and wearing a ball cap to smooth my ears down with. Maybe with a little makeup and some decent prosthetics I could pass for human, as long as I didn't meet up with any big dogs...
At least it made me feel better to know I was doing something about it. It gave me a sense of control.
"It's okay, Dean Salle." I shrugged my shoulders, sighing. "I've heard it so many times before it's just a part of my life now."
"And it shouldn't be." She shook her head: more pity, more pity for the poor rabbit it was. I wanted to slap it out of her and hop on down the hall, though the best I could do was sneer and just hope she'd stop coddling me soon enough. Seconds passed and she still shook her head, eyes closed and face screwed up with anguish.
I glared. She got the message.
She handed me a key. "You'll be in room 442 –just around the corner. Your RA says that your roommate is waiting in there for you – he was told about the situation in advance."
More precaution. Joy. I sneered and reached out for the keys, sandwiching them between my two paws. Sometimes I could grab objects, sometimes I couldn't – it depended on my state of mind at the moment. And at that moment I felt like a very, very venerable rabbit who just wanted to crawl up in a hole and cry.
I looked down the dorm hall with a frown. A dorm! I had heard the frat brothers badmouthing the GDIs at every open moment, talking about how they all kept their noses in computers one hundred percent of the time. They were like the black sheep of campus: no power, no tradition, just a bunch of individuals living with each other out of necessity.
I hated it. I hated a lot of things, yes, but I hated the idea of dorm life especially so.
When I turned around a second time, the Dean was gone.
On my own, then. She definitely got the hint. With a sigh I hopped down the hall, my claws tearing fibers as I ambled toward room 442. Residents on the hall slammed their doors shut as I came close, not that I blame them. I was the same way before the Flu graced me with its presence. When they weren't protecting themselves they were gawking at the strange meld of human and rabbit standing before them in the fur.
Par for the course, I guess. After a while you get used to being the center of attention, no matter of the attention is good or bad. At first you soak up the pity, then you live with it, and suddenly it's just out of your mind until someone forces you to accept their ‘kindness' and ‘generosity' with puppy eyes and a warm fuzzy in your heart. They don't understand that it hurts more than it helps, of course; I got along well enough on my own and don't really need anyone to help me along...
Other than in social affairs.
Let's not go there again.
It was a real prison of a place, the dorm hall. Each person had their own little living space, and from the looks of things they spent most of their hours glued to it. White cinder blocks and industrial plastic labels riddled the wall like any decent institution.
No brotherhood. No bonds. None of the promises fraternity life had. For two minutes I had been an independent student, and already I hated it.
And then I met Bernie.
Bernie struck me as a young kid, when I first saw him. His limbs seemed underdeveloped and almost twig-like, though they fit his short and spindly frame. In the face he still kept a lot of his baby fat under a light five o'clock shadow and moustache. A mop of curly hair bounced to and fro as he turned to look at me. I halfway expected the TV to be turned to Saturday morning cartoons, looking at my glassy-eyed, childish roommate.
"You must be Aaron," he said. He lept down from the loft bed in his—our—room and extended a hand. "It's nice to meet you." The hand was shaking; apparently this guy was as good with social interaction as I was.
No matter. I held out my paw and touched his hand, waiting for him to close around it. "My hand doesn't work like it used to," I explained as we "shook" hands, "Sometimes it listens to what I have to say, other times it's just a paw."
"No problem." He grinned. "Your fur is very soft, Aaron. You must take care of it very well."
I bit my lip and resisted the urge to cock my head in confusion. "Thank you. It takes care of itself, mostly; I don't have to do anything to it."
"That's nice." For a moment I could see spark of emotion in his face. Lust? Yearning? Despair? By the time I tried to look closer he put on a smile and the weakness was gone.
"It's not much right now," he said with a weak smile. "Most of my stuff is still waiting for me at home; I packed light just in case I rushed."
"Did you get any bids?"
"Quite a few." He grinned. "I even accepted one before turning them down."
"Isn't that illegal?"
"It's called de-pledging, and it's very bad practice." A small bark of a laugh issued forth from his lips. "But let's not talk about that. Martin's gonna get you a bed here soon, but for now we should get you moved in. What say?"
I took two more steps into the room. "Done."
"You don't have anything?" I could see smoke rolling forth from his ears, he was so boggled. The room was already a bit cluttered from all his stuff, and there was apparently more to come.
I smiled and started pacing the room, taking the scent in like any decent rabbit would. "SCABS hit me fairly recently, Bernie. I had a lot of memories that were better left behind."
"No little mementos? No piece of home? No nothing?"
"I do have one thing," I replied, grinning. "My mom gave me a check for the local mall; I'll buy school supplies there."
Bernie whistled. "Must be nice."
"It's okay," I replied, "Beats having to live with the past."
Bernie was riding the line of a guilt trip, I could tell. "Was it really that bad?"
"No. It was that _good_."
"Oh." The cold shoulder almost always did the trick, when I didn't want to talk about anything anymore.
This time, though, Bernie was going to be a stubborn little brat. He looked at me with fiery eyes and screamed, "But you can't just throw it away! The past can't be changed, but at least you can enjoy it----"
"Listen, Bernie. Life was going perfectly for me. I had everything I could possibly want: local fame, good family, better friends, a girl that loved me, cool attitude... everything. SCABS turned me into a monster, shattered my family, ostracized me from my friends, and strained my love to its breaking point. Nowadays I'm lucky if I can keep my human mind around for more than a few hours at a time."
I sighed. "Bernie, I don't want to make the first impression that I'm a heel. As things stand right now, though, I just don't want to delve on those memories. They hurt too damn much, when I think of what might have been."
"Being a rabbit sucks," I added with a sly chuckle.
"Depends on who you talk to, I guess" Bernie replied with a cryptic tone. "But for now I better be running. Classes start tomorrow, and I still haven't made a trip home! I'll be back in a few hours; in the meantime just make yourself at home. The bed should be coming soon enough; when Martin gets here just tell him to help you loft both beds."
"I don't have hands."
"Then he'll do it for you," Bernie replied, "No big deal. Just try to get comfortable, please? You look like a rabbit in the headlights!"
"Thanks, I think." And with that I watched Bernie take off down the stairs, his spindly legs almost coming out from under him as he ran on. As he disappeared into the stairwell I swore I could hear him squeal.
I walked out of the building myself shortly after Bernie. Martin had insisted that I go for a walk after he saw me. It seemed like everyone was very worried about me, all of a sudden, as if I were a fragile little kit that couldn't take care of himself.
That, or they were pouring on pity. One way or another I found myself walking alone, free to do whatever I wanted. And what I wanted to do was get out of the open, down and away into a tunnel system where I would be safe.
I know it sounds strange, but it's a rabbit thing. I learned to stop questioning it a few months ago.
The walk wasn't unpleasurable, mind you. Under any human circumstances it would even be classified as "nice." The only downer was that the belt across my waist hurt, but at least my tail wasn't so noticeable. With my ears under a cap and tail held close to my body I could almost pass for a human; in fact, with the getup people didn't gawk nearly as much. And that was one thing I was quite thankful for.
Yes, everything was nice and good until a dog came snarling around one corner. That's when I ducked out for the nearest building.
The Armory was my kind of building, I noted as I pushed open the antiquated doors. Almost immediately I found myself walking down stairs and into a maze of underground tunnels, with small rooms branching out on one side or another. If I had human arms that rotated freely I could have touched both walls of the hall without having to strain at all -- _that_ was sure a relief! If I found a broom closet I could even have quite a nice bedroom...
"Didn't expect to see you here," I heard a voice call out. Frozen in place I looked around for where it came from. A laugh shot out from nowhere. "I'm in the study, dummy. Look to your left."
Sure enough, Paul was sitting at a small cubicle set into a tiny room, his chair turned to look at me, smiling like the good ol' friend I knew him to be. Someone who knew me for me! Gosh, it was such a welcome change of pace. "This place is crazy," I said as I stepped into the room, "No one here seems to understand that I don't need to be treated like a sad puppy dog."
"Protection," Paul answered with one word. "Covering their ass so the ambulance chasers don't run them down. As long as they can say they tried to accommodate you then someone can't take them to the cleaners later."
"I see." The place looked and smelled like a basement room, I decided. There were no windows, the air was moist, and the lights above didn't cut through that feeling of burrowed darkness. In other words, I loved it.
I sat down at a cubicle with a computer terminal and started poking around the internet. "Nice place, here.
"I always come here; no one really knows about it, so you get some nice quiet time. I'm working on administrate stuff for the new pledge class..." He paused. "Sorry, forgot that was a sore spot for you. It's too bad you didn't get that bid, Aaron."
I rearranged my hat; the ears under it were cramping from the tight space. "No, please! Call me Rabbit. It's what everyone else insists on calling me, now isn't it?"
"Nonsense." He smiled. "They're just ribbing you, that's all. Roll with the punches and you just might start to enjoy it."
Fire burned in my eyes as I turned to glare at him. "I will _never_ enjoy this, Paul. Ever. It is simply not for me."
"It's not for anyone." He sighed. "But hearing that phrase from a victim and friend's mouth puts a lot of my doubts to rest."
"Yeah." Before I could probe any further his train of thought shifted. "Say, remember the last time went to the Oriental Buffet?"
I chuckled. "And you ate five pounds of ice cream? How could I forget?"
"I was so miserable the next day!"
"At least you weren't in the milk chugging contest later that night!" I laughed, louder this time. "I still have the video of us all vomiting after half a gallon."
"I saw that," Paul said with a weak smile, "good times."
"Good times," I echoed. Good times they were, when I was human. Great times came when you weren't worried about predators, dominance and submission, territory, and all the other instincts that make rabbithood so near and dear to my heart. I knew that Aaron was still in me, hidden under layer after layer of twisted, mangled psyche. I imagined him swinging a jar of moonshine, drunk off his ass, trying to numb the pain of what may have been.
Paul looked down to the papers on his desk, back to me, and then back to the desk. "Private places are good for private talks," he said at last. "Would you like to know why you didn't get the bid?"
I frowned. "I don't know... do I?"
"Wouldn't matter one way or another." He plopped a small folder down in front of a chair at the table. "Have a seat, Rabbit."
I hopped over, sat down, and Paul opened the folder for me. "There's a list of all the officers in the fraternity, coupled with a list of their activities and organizations. Look it over."
He leaned back in his chair as I read – slowly, since my lapine eyes didn't see detail very well. I held it close and looked through the list one line at a time. If only I had my page magnifier, it would have been much easier!
Paul took notice as I grunted, frustrated. "If you want, I can read it for you----"
"Give me a second!" I may have terrible eyes, but I'd be damned before I had more help. Everyone wanted to do everything for me anyway.
"Take your time."
Halfway down the list my eyes started to tire; I still didn't know what he wanted me to see. I tried to waffle my way through the motions: "Look, I know your fraternity is full of great people and all----"
"Stubborn bastard." He ripped the paper from me, held it at arm's length, and began reading. "Here's your quick ‘n dirty version. The president, vice president, treasurer, and rush chairs are all active in one of the most controversial groups on campus: Humans First."
Ice flowed through my veins.
"No one had the nerve to tell you," he said as evenly as possible. "In fact the responsibility kind of falls on my head, since they nominated me to break the news to you. I just didn't have the courage."
"And you knew all along?"
"That, and more." He sighed. "I'm sorry, Aaron. Honest. If I would have known this happened to you I would have turned down the invitation cold – it would have meant de-pledging to keep National happy, yes, but I would have stood up for you nonetheless. Now, though..."
"Vice president of the local force, I fear." For a moment I saw a sliver of remorse in his eye. When I tried to respond, though, his face went callus. "I didn't do it for human rights, Aaron. I did it to keep this college safe. The fewer SCABS we have here, the less chance of the disease spreading."
"That's a lie----"
"That's what National is saying. And if National says it, I have to follow it."
"They haven't proven the correlation between being around a SCAB and catching the Flu."
"And yet they can't disprove it!" The edge to his voice cut right through my vulnerable mind. I just wanted to crawl into a hole and shiver away the words. "Face it, Aaron; this Martian Flu has only been around for—what, ten years? The human race still knows jack shit about what they're dealing with, and it's gonna stay that way for a long time."
"This is blatant discrimination," I said, voice cold and hard. "You know it, I know it, and I bet the Dean would love to know it----"
"_The Dean knows!_" Paul slammed his fist on the table; the dull thud resounded through the room. "Don't you get it, Aaron? Everyone knows that precautions are being taken, more so now since the epidemic is on the wane."
"Then why did you let me even try to Rush?"
"It's a safety blanket for the college. After all, they wouldn't want you walking with your money, now would they?" He laughed. "Usually we don't have extraneous circumstances like this come up; the SCABS are just tossed into the GDI pool and left to their own devices. It works out that way."
Okay, so I was cornered. What could one human-turned rabbit do, anyway? "What now?" I asked in a low voice. "What in the hell do I do now?"
There was a long pause as Paul thought; I could tell this was tearing him in two. On one hand he had his friends, the other his duty and personal safety... what a pickle! Finally he spoke: "Lay low. I'm tolerant of SCABS because I know they're victims; lots of others just think it's God showing his wrath or penance for mighty Sins. Find some good friends and stick out college together in the most low-key way possible." He looked to the ceiling and added, "Get through college, get your diploma, and get on with life."
"Live like Mister Cellophane."
He patted me on the shoulder. "Good boy. Just keep that mentality and we won't have to tangle, hmm? Now go get yourself moved in; school will eat you alive if you're not prepared. And a good house with good neighbors makes for a well-rounded, ideal college student!"
It was a nice campus, Walton was. There was a sort of homey cheer to the old brick buildings, the groves of sage-like trees standing over the students as they move from place to place, a climate that wasn't too warm or too cold. If I weren't so worked up I could probably have been relaxed by the picturesque place.
I wanted to kill him.
Sometimes I wish I could still say that halfway seriously, since now it's more a matter of submission. Paul thought of me as food, a latent part of my mind screamed, don't mess with him. Just hide away in some cozy little burrow and hope he doesn't try to chase me down; I'd be happier that way...
I still longed for the Good Old Days, by and by. It was so much simpler then! Sadly I could only remember a few years of pre-Flu life; I was so young then. There was just something nice about having the security of humanity.
And rabbits sure do love their security.
As I walked I assed under the school's flag, a simple blanket of white laid under Walton in red block letters. For a moment I just sat and stared at the small item of tradition, sighing. Years upon years of passed-down ideals, and I was going to miss out on it. SCABS had taken it away from me.
"You learn to love it," a voice came from nowhere. I leaped into the air, turned on a dime, and found Martin walking up behind me. "Wait until it snows here. Red brick and white ground covers the place in school spirit."
"It must be wonderful."
He seemed deaf to my words while looking at the flag. "The white represents purity," Martin said with a low, serious voice. "It is what the college is built on. The red represents our will to fight for what we believe in."
"I've done my fair share of fighting since this took hold." Sighing, I turned and started to loaf away.
Two steps later I heard Martin jogging after me. Damn. "So how'd college treating you so far? You enjoying it?"
Apparently this guy didn't know when to quit. In one quick hop I planted my feet and turned to look at him. "I have been mentally tortured by a disease that left me minus one human body. My one-time friend is now a part of the group that wants me gone. I'm going to go into a dormitory, lose out on the chance to be in a frat, and forever remember that I was a day late and a dollar short."
Martin clapped me on the shoulder. "You're making it sound horrible!"
"It's just a culmination."
"Right." There was a short pause. "You'll find that the independents are good guys, Aaron. You may not have a house or some sanctioned bond with your buds, yeah, but it's great anyway."
"But don't they run this campus?"
"Maybe." He grinned. ‘But who cares? The ones in control are usually heartless bastards anyway. Look what they did to you!"
"It's self defense."
"Self defense my ass." He pointed to the dorm hall. "Let's go and get your move-in over with." There was something about the way he said it, something that lit warning bulbs in my head...
"What's the deal?"
"You don't want to know."
Martin sighed long and hard. He jogged up to the door of the hall, held it open for me, and followed me up the stairs. "You get used to the walk," he said once we were in the stairwell.
"That's not what you're afraid of." I could smell it, too; he had some anxiety. It was heavy on the air around him. "Spill it."
My RA stopped at the next flight of stairs. When I turned he looked at me coldly. "You're Bernie's fourth," he said with an even voice. "He's not exactly the most... shall we say... normal person around here."
I had to laugh! "Martin, you're talking to a human rabbit here."
Okay, he had my interest. "So is he going to hate me?"
"Not at all. What I'm afraid of is that he'll _like_ you too much." With that he jumped ahead of me, a light bounce in his step. All I could do was follow and hope like hell that he was just blowing smoke in my eyes.
Bernie wasn't around, apparently. Martin said that he was probably making another trip down to his car below. All the better, I thought; at least this way I'd get a chance to settle in before getting to know this freak better. I opened the door to 442 – my room, I kept impressing upon myself – with a heavy sigh and a heavier heart. This was it; no turning back, no good string of fate to pull me out of this hole. I was stuck with the dorm and the roommate I knew simply as Bernie.
Oh, how little I knew!
The door opened into a visual starburst of bright, bold colors. Every surface, from the poster-laden walls to the carpeted floors, had some powerfully bright color to catch your eye. What a pad! It was such a change from the prison cell I had left earlier! Why, for a moment I even _liked_ it...
Then I took a closer look at the décor. Rabbits! The room was covered in wall-to-wall rabbits! Bugs Bunny playing on the TV screen. Bunnies hopping from poster to poster. Hyzanthine on printed bedsheets. A laptop with Bigwig stickers plastered over every surface. A plugh Woundwart looking over the dresser and most of the desk. Hazel shirts in the closet-hole, both versions of the film in the video rack... God, Richard Adams would have been _proud!_
I, on the other hand, was not amused. "Is this some sort of sick joke?" No response. Sneering, I reeled around to the doorway and poked my head out. "Well? Are you guys getting your jollies off me, or what?" Down one end of the hall I glared, half-expecting someone to pop out, doubled over in laughter.
"Looking for something?" I whipped around to find Bernie standing right beside me. God damn! I jumped so high that I knocked my head against the doorway; before I nursed it I was sure to dip down and pick my hat from the ground with my two paws. As I dropped Bernie didn't stoop to help me out; instead he waited patiently for me to resituate my cap and regain my composure.
"You okay?" he asked at last.
"Fine." He politely made his way into the room, smiling. "Why didn't you give me a hand there?"
"Rabbit instincts," he said simply. "If I would have stopped down and helped you it might have triggered a panic attack. Rabbits like their space, when it comes to strange people."
"Why that's----" absolutely right. He knew about rabbits; maybe he had a pet as a kid, or bred them with 4-H in elementary school. I wasn't going to ask.
I halfway expected him to probe further on the thought, but he simply dropped the suitcase on the floor and proceeded to unzip it. "You like the hutch?" he asked.
"It's... unsettling, I think. But that's only because it's such a maelstrom of color."
"It's the bunny thing, you mean." His shoulders bounced with a few pulses of laughter. "I wouldn't say that I'm surprised." Unzipping the bag, he pulled out a few more rabbit shirts and what had to be a sleeper. Strange, yes, but when I saw the puffball of a tail poke out from under the sleeper's folds it all made sense.
I stood in the middle of the room, jaw agape, watching him unpack his bag with an uncommon zeal. There was simply no way.
"Take off your hat and stay awhile!" he cheered, "I bet your ears are starting to cramp from being holed up in there." They were, of course; I pulled off my cap, sighed, and suddenly I felt tension fall away from my body. It was as the cap had been a heavy weight on my head.
He kept happily going about unpacking, not noticing my shocked face. This kid was dead on the mark when it came to my needs! "I guess I'll sit down," I whispered, then collapsed onto the bed.
"Good. I thought you were never going to get comfortable." He didn't even turn as he talked, he was so engrossed. "If you think it would help I'd also suggest letting your tail loose from that belt; I'm sure it isn't comfy at all."
"Okay." Off came the belt, and my tail sprang back to life. For the first time that day I was able to breathe deeply and relax.
Only when I had everything loosened up and out in the open did he turn to talk to me. "The décor grows on you, you know. Especially when you're not so terribly worried about what others may think of it."
I grinned. "Sounds like we're two of a kind."
"So..." I paused. "So you're not going to give me any sort of pity? No ‘we're going to accommodate you because you're weak and feeble' speech? You're not going to do the same thing everyone else thinks they need to do?"
I leaned back into my chair, smiling. "Then we're going to get along just fine."
Don't get me wrong; I didn't mind being the center of attention at all. Sometimes it's even nice, when I'm down and in need of a pick-me-up. It's always pity given with the best of intentions, too. They just want to help.
But it's not very good for the hardcore do-it-yourselfer, as it is.
Bernie helped me settle into the dorm without making mention of the rabbit thing. It was all for the better; it was about time that I have some time to just ignore that SCABS happened and I was stuck right where I didn't want to be. For once I got to relax and enjoy life a little, when Bernie was around.
We were alone; no one wanted to come around us, it seemed. I assumed it was because of me. It was guilt that I couldn't run away from – ruining someone else's college experience is hard to run away from – and the day before classes started I decided to set the kid straight.
It was a long night in the dorm room; Bernie was watching Watership Down and I was working on his laptop. "You're doing me a great favor, Bernie," I said, the words awkward on the otherwise quiet air, "Really you are. You didn't have to stick around me like you did."
"It's all right." He turned down the volume on the TV, faced me, and sighed. You're fun to hang around with, Aaron. Really."
"I'm sorry for ruining your social life, Bernie. If you want to go and enjoy your friends, go on. I'm just holding you back."
"Ha! I didn't have a social life to begin with. You're about the closest to a friend I've had since I started here at college."
"But we've only known each other for a few days!"
I sighed. With a wardrobe and room like his, it was no wonder everyone stayed away. For me it was kind of like looking into a gigantic mirror, or maybe flipping through a model magazine. But from a human angle it was just strange and odd and unsettling and curious...
"What is this all about?" I blurted, and immediately clasped my paw over my mouth. "I mean..."
"No, don't apologize." The glow in his eyes seemed to die away. "You have every right to know, being my roommate and idol and all."
My jaw dropped. "Idol?" How did I go from being a useless SCAB to someone's dream?
"Well..." he blushed. "No offense, but it's not your personality. Though that's top-notch, from what I've seen so far. Really it is!"
"Cut to the chase."
"Okay." The red color to his cheeks only grew darker as he opened up the bottom drawer of his dresser. "You'll have to just imagine some of it, since I haven't had time to prepare."
I nodded. "Take your time." He only took a few more moments looking into that drawer; when he was ready he took a deep breath and turned to face me...
But it wasn't Bernie.
I mean, it was Bernie's face and all, but his face was covered in small details that caught my eye. A latex appliance featuring whiskers and a pink nose now covered most of his face. He smiled weakly, and I could see two false buck teeth hanging over his lip. With a light chuckle he pulled a headband from the counter and slid it onto his head.
"The Easter Bunny," he said acidly. "I just call myself Bernie Bunny, usually. It's not very original."
"No no... Bernie Bunny is quite unique. Really." I stifled a laugh – so this was why he was a bit of a recluse, huh? "I'm honored to meet such a nice bunny as yourself."
"The pleasure's all mine." He half-smiled, sighed, and the fire in his eyes died a little more. "You're just saying that; in reality you want to laugh. Go ahead."
"Confused, maybe, but not laughing." My voice stayed steady. "You just threw a whale of a curveball at me, and I'm still trying to digest it." After all, it isn't every day that your roomie has a closet hobby _this_ far in left field.
He laughed. "Better than most say. Quite frankly I was ready for you to storm out of the room in disgust; it's what usually happens when I bring out the mask, if they've made it past the room's décor."
"I've seen stranger things." As I said it I smoothed my ears out, smiling. "So don't worry about a thing. Let's just go and get some dinner..."
"You may want to stay seated for a little while longer."
I raised what used to be my eyebrow.
"Well..." He paused. "It's like this. The rabbit thing isn't just a little dream; it's my lifetime goal. I'll only be truly happy if I am a rabbit, Aaron. I know that deep down in my bones. That's why I have all the rabbit decoration."
If I would have had half a thought still cognate in my brain I might have opened my mouth to speak. As things were it took effort to even breathe. Bernie's stone gaze told me there was more to go, though, so I just tried to take a deep breath and brace for impact.
"I know this sounds strange, Aaron, but I have a perfectly good reason for having you around. First I get to be as close to my dream as humanly possible. Second, I may even get lucky and catch the Flu myself."
He was smiling again. "Let's go get some dinner, Rabbit!"
We didn't talk for the rest of the day – that's not to say that Bernie didn't try – but there was too much of that spooky factor in the air. My only friend on campus was a bona fide freak – and he was proud to know another freak such as myself. Hate to the left of me, circumstance to the right – and here I am stuck in the middle with him.
It was dinnertime. The two of us sat at the same round table, silently pondering each other over our food. In his eyes I could see a gleam of envy – maybe even hero worship. And on his timid lips sat a million questions and a million more things to share, vocal gems that my stern gaze kept at bay.
Yeah, it was sort of heartless. Coming from a rabbit it could even be considered blasphemy, if you took a human's warped interpretation of a rabbit to heart. We were kind and loving creatures who never harmed a soul.
Being on the bottom of the food chain makes saintly behavior a piece of cake.
The silence dragged on and on. I picked at a salad whose greens were wilted and dead – can't expect much of dorm food – and Bernie was doing the exact same thing. Mimicking his idol? Or was he preparing for what may happen?
Something about my gaze spurred him to speak. "I'm willing to take the one-in-a-million risk," he said in a voice so quiet my rabbit ears were hard-pressed to hear, "If it means I might be a rabbit, I'm willing to lay it all down."
Crazy. Insane. He wanted what I hated to the point of personal sacrifice, both physical and social. And yet I couldn't put him below me on the social ladder. What irony!
We picked away at the salads for a little longer, deep in thought. His eyes continued to scan me over, heedless to what I may think of it. It was as if he was truly touched by my visage, no matter how much I wanted him to think otherwise. Wandering eyes from around the cafeteria pierced the stale air and seemed to soak into my fur, making it heavy and tiring to wear.
"Who died?" came a voice. I flinched, turned, and found Martin leaning to set his tray on our table. "Mind if I take a seat?"
Bernie nodded without looking up from his own greenery. "It's yours."
"Thanks." He plopped down in the chair, turned to me, and picked a plate from his tray. ‘I asked the cook if he had any fresh veggies in his drawer... all he had were carrots."
"Oh." I looked at the orange things with contempt. Why did everyone assume that rabbits loved carrots? Frankly, after being offered carrots so many times I was pretty sick of them.
"I hope I didn't offend you... I just assumed you'd be a vegetarian. You _are_ a vegetarian, right?" I nodded. "And that salad looks really, _really_ nasty..."
I was a proud rabbit, but hunger definitely has a way of stopping pride cold. "Thank you," I said, taking one of the carrots between two useless paws and smiling weakly. The carrot was of decent quality, relatively fresh and very sweet-tasting. I devoured it in three bites.
"Hungry, I see." He smiled. "Guess you have to eat a bit more when you don't eat meat."
"Rabbits are rabbits, even when they don't want to be."
"I guess so." Another long pause at the table. "So you and Bernie seem to have hit it off."
"In a matter of speaking."
"Supply and demand strikes again!" Martin laughed long and hard and alone. "You two were made for each other."
Bernie looked up from his salad. "He wants my body, I want his. It's a mutual relationship."
"That works for me." The stale, stiff air seemed to thin out, even if only slightly. I breathed a bit easier. "But I'm not just here to chew the fat. Aaron, there's something you should know."
The air thickened up once again.
"I'm assuming you've acquainted with Humans First, Rabbit."
"All too well."
"And I am also assuming that you know about Paul's... affiliation with the group."
"Old news," I sighed. "Get to the point."
"You probably despise him after hearing that," he continued with a heavy tone, "I know I would. But I think you deserve to know more than what Paul lets on to you."
"I'm in his chem class," Martin continued, "We're lab partners. And from what I've heard he's kicking himself for joining that organization since finding out about your condition. It was a snap decision."
I raised an eyebrow. "Better than not having a decision."
"You should consider yourself lucky; Paul's had some bad experiences with SCABS. His sister----"
"Is a rabbit?" Bernie snapped.
"Is dead." The words were cut short. "Her trachea snapped after shrinking to half its size. The doctors could do nothing about it."
"Her name was Molly," I said, voice detached. "We were good friends back in the good ol' days." I held back the fact that she was my first kiss, and that she was the first naked woman I ever saw in the flesh. That would have been too much to handle, too many fine memories stripped away by the Martian Flu...
Protection, Paul had said. Suddenly it made sense.
"Maybe you could talk to him," Martin said at length. "If you're careful about how you pick your words, you might be able to help him understand things better. I mean, you both lost Molly to the same disease, right? Maybe you can find some common ground and bury the hatchet!"
"There is no hatchet, Martin. We're still on good terms."
"Like brothers in the Civil War, I guess. It can't be helped."
I wiped my muzzle with my paws and stretched my toes. "Guess so. Right now, though, I need some time to think."
"Grieve. Whatever." Frowning, I stood from the table and hopped away, knocking over a chair on my way out. I didn't turn back; I wouldn't turn back even if the great mystic Cure itself had formed in the wilted salad I had left on the table to rot. It was my time to be alone.
SCABS is a bitch, if you haven't gathered that already. Every time I looked in the mirror I saw a lucky bastard that didn't deserve it. Molly was going places, just like I was; when I left she was getting ready to take a tour of the nation with a dance group. I had wonderful little daydreams of her: smiling, laughing happy little daydreams that made my days as a rabbit a little easier. And within the span of a moment the daydream died, forever lost to remorse and regret.
The one who loved her, who shared every intimate moment and deepest passion, now he was to blame.
It wasn't fair.
I was thinking about her in the chemistry lab. I thought about her a lot, those first few weeks. Bernie said that I just needed to let it go, but it seemed that he didn't understand how the rabbit suit he so envied was just a spin-off of her own deathbed.
We were staying late, Bernie and me. He was my lab partner for the course and we had missed a previous lab because I overslept. The professor treated it as no big deal, sat us down in the room, and went about his own business. And while we worked we still managed to have fun...
"Hold your rod closer." My fingers were working well that day, so well that I could actually hold a glass stirring rod between my thumb and forepaw. The chemicals settled in their test tubes over on a rack while we wiled the time away in time-honored fashion.
"Should I turn the burner up?" I asked. Bunsen Burners were no excuse for a campfire, I knew, but we made do with what we had to work with. The glass rods had been sharpened to a point, and the side pocket in my bag was open to s'more ingredients.
"You've torched five mallows already; what do you think?"
"Touche." We went on in silence, trying to imagine we weren't hunched over a tiny gas burner in a room that was only a few degrees above freezing, toasting marshmallows and trying to make the best of a not-so-hot situation.
Time crawled by. The professor stayed at bay. It was me and Bernie, Bernie and me, the both of us caught in a vacuum of a lab where no one dared intercede. Now I will say that there were people I would rather have spent my time with – having a person idolizing you isn't my idea of a mutual relationship – but at least he was better than some of the alternatives.
And brother, were there some _bad_ alternatives.
Bernie broke away from our little powwow to check on our experiment. “ten more minutes on the egg timer,” he said, sighing. “This is taking forever without the right tools. Why didn't Professor Garrett give us a desicator, anyway?”
“Seems to be our leitmotif.” Bernie chuckled lightly. “I'm a junior in a freshman level chem class, and my own habits have turned me into a social outcast. You catch SCABS and waltz into college, wearing my only dream, and yet you end up in the same boat as me.”
“Let's not call this body a dream,” I replied softly. “It may seem nice on the outside, but it isn't worth the trouble.”
My friend nodded a silly but solemn nod. ”I'll keep it to myself, sorry. It's just hard for me to watch, that's all.”
“It's harder to live it.”
”I bet so.”
More silence. Bernie reached into my bag, grabbed the last marshmallow, and tossed the bag to the trash can. He missed. Neither of us stood to pick it from the floor. Bernie just propped his chin on one hand and stared into the red, oxygen-starved Bunsen Burner's flame. “Yeah, penance. It always seems like the good guys pay it, you know? One second a guy is just minding his own business, holding on to his own dreams and hoping against hope that they may come true one day. The next moment that guy's up against the ropes and everyone is closing in, fists balled and ready to lay on the beating.”
I nodded. “That is far, far too true.”
“Why did you want to join a fraternity, Aaron?”
Oh. That was… a surprise. “Why do you want to know?”
“Call it curiosity.”
“You're starting to sound like a cat.” We shared a split second of laughter, then I joined him in watching the flame lick it way towards the ceiling. “It's not that hard to figure out, really. I wanted the brotherhood associated with a fraternity.”
“And you were willing to join based on one week of mad-dash rush tactics?”
He was right, of course. Freshman didn't really know what they were getting into, other than the fact that their peers said it was a great thing to do. “What choice did I have?”
“I hate the rush system here,” Bernie replied coldly. “It's like they throw all the freshmen into a mine field blindfolded and expect them to make it to the other side happy and in one piece. You don't know the school dynamic well enough to make an educated decision, and they won't let anyone tell you that dynamic until it is too late to do so.”
“So I noticed.”
“It's a damn shame, that's what it is!” He pounded his fist against the table, nearly knocked over the burner, sighed, and sank into his lab stool. “I de-pledged Delta Alpha my freshman year, once I found out the dirty little secrets. We had… some differences of opinion.”
“They wanted me to throw away all my rabbit stuff as a show of ‘loyalty,' the bastards. I tried to explain it to them in the most levelheaded way possible and yet they still called me psychotic and childish!” I could see the beginnings of a tear in the corner of his eye. “I told them what I wanted. I told them my dream. I _trusted_ them with information I hadn't even told my mother, just because they were my pledge-brothers! And yet…”
“And yet they still burned you.” I held the glass rod in the fire until it glowed cherry red. “You told them everything and they just passed it off as lunacy.”
”Inspired lunacy, they called it. Said I wasn't fit to be a man if I didn't want to be human. My pledge-brothers' initation involved playing cruel jokes on the rabbit-boy on top of their normal duties. I was fed carrots at morning, lettuce at lunch, tossed salad at dinner, rabbit kibble for dessert…” He closed his eyes tightly and the tear came free. “I _hated_ it so.”
I put a paw on his shoulder as he collected himself. What assholes! To take a man's dream and belittle it so was nothing better than a playground bully in elementary school. It was just wrong: oh so wrong!
Then again, I was the one wearing ears and a tail. I'd call that a “lucky miss” if I ever saw one.
“I'm sorry that those things happened,” I said at length, “but there are still some things that don't jive in my mind. For example, do you really still want to be a rabbit if people will react that way?” I paused, then added, “They will, too; trust me on that.”
Bernie's eyes pierced me, the pupils flashing bright with intensity beyond comprehension. “More than anything, Aaron. If it ever happens to me I'll make sure that life goes well for me, complete with good friends and great support groups…” His jaw gaped.
“No!” Suddenly he was up on his feet, bouncing around like a child ready to go out to recess. “I've got it, Aaron! I have the answer!”
“And what is that?”
“People on this campus hate SCABS and their sympathizers, right?”
I smoothed down my ears at the sound; on a subconscious level I just wanted to blend in once again. “I thought that was just the ‘Humans First' group on campus.”
He shook his head. “They're everywhere, Aaron. For every one person in the group there are three more who eat up their little speeches and rallies. Sorry to say, but you won't find much help here.”
“But that's where we can _change_ things!” He paced from one end of the lab to the other, his hands bouncing as if they were trying to pull the thought out of his body. “What if we created a support group for people like you?”
“And what about you?”
He ignored the question. “We could create a group of friendly faces, a great place to live and learn and have a wonderful time with our college lives. It could be wonderful, Aaron; simply wonderful!”
“What kind of group are we talking about, here?” I asked with a frown etched on my face. I had seen the hopeless dreamer type too many times to be swayed by such lofty ideas. “I mean, if you want to make up for the crap SCABS have to go through you'd have to spend almost all your time with them----“
“That's the answer.” He thundered towards me with a wide smile on his face. “That's the answer, Aaron! It's so simple!”
“What's the answer?”
“We start a fraternity.” My jaw dropped. He jumped up and down, laughing, smiling, carrying on. “You're a genius! All we have to do is get a National fraternity house to support us, maybe get some help from the college… we could do this within the week, if we wanted to! I have six grand sitting in my dorm account, you have six grand sitting around; we could rent a house in the area until things get off the ground, and when we're ready build a place of our very own.”
“That sounds awfully simple.”
“That's because it is!” He ran up beside me, put his arm around my shoulder, and started leading the conversation with an outstretched hand. “Think of it. We could have the single greatest support group for SCABS of all kinds: inanimates, anthromorphs, cronomorphs, gendermorphs… all living under one roof in a sort of commune. We'd really have a solid connection – better than any other fraternity on campus.”
“You sure ‘we' is the right pronoun?” I said.
“Sure! I'll be the rush chair.”
“You aren't a SCAB.”
He grinned. “I'll blend in, believe you me.” I sighed and tried not to dismiss him, though it was mighty tempting at the time. “Omega Pi! That'll be our name. We'll be the best damn support group for SCABS there ever was. We'll have _brotherhood_ -- not that canned, tradition and commitment crap, but the real deal. And when our fraternity works out, more will come. And from there…” He had a dazed look in his dazzled pupils.
I stared for a moment longer, and suddenly he jumped up and screamed. “What are we waiting for? We better hurry up this lab and get home. There's a mighty amount of work to be done!”
Later that month I met up with Paul again. He was studying in the same room in the Armory, the room that had the musty-peppery smell of an old house's basement and just about as much charm. I was on a walk trying to get away from Bernie's excessive planning and politicking; it was just a bit too much for a simple rabbit like me to take in, much less make heads or tails of. The Armory just seemed like a nice place to go just to take in the musty scents and feel secure like a bunny in a burrow -- that is, until I saw Paul in the study room.
It wasn't that I hated talking to Paul. Fact is I was kind of excited to see him just sitting there, so that I may have sat down and traded stories about the good old days. When he called me over, though… let's just say that I wasn't looking forward to facing him. At all.
“Have a seat,” he said with a calm, almost patronizing tone. I complied without saying a word. For a solid minute he arranged papers, moved things around, clearing table space until he had nothing between the two of us. Only then did he recline back into his chair and look me in the eye.
I smiled weakly. “You rang?”
“Sorry for the wait,” he said at long last, “I just had to mark my place on that paperwork. It's a real bear of a job, you know.”
“Never had the chance to try it.” I put just a little bit of sting into the words as I spoke them.
“I'm surprised you even acknowledged me, actually.” He shook his head. “After what I've said and done to you I'm not sure if I could be so forgiving.”
My eyes were cold and devoid of any emotion. “I try to be more forgiving; it's a very good trait for a human to have.”
“Human.” He hung on the word for a long time. “Yes indeed, it is a very admirable trait. You were always the sort to live and let live, and that's why I like you so much. You always manage to be better than your fellow man.”
“Except for now.”
“Not so fast. Humans are animals too, and we have our own shortcomings. That makes us equals in my book.”
“I'm so honored,” I said with a sneer. “That's why you're still running a society whose concept of equality involves lynch mobs and a destruction of civil rights.”
Paul sighed. “It's all for the good of humanity, Aaron. Keeping things separate will help control the Flu.”
“Then why are you talking to me now, huh?” I tried to point at him, but ended up just shaking my paw in his face. “Why in the hell are you risking life and limb to chat with an old chap? You'll catch it and die too, if I'm to believe what you're saying.”
The room's musty air tensed; my ex-friend cleared his throat and sat up in his chair, sweat forming on his brow. “Look, I'll make this short and sweet. You and I, we're both gentlemen in our own ways.”
“Sure you don't want to change that statement?” I shot back.
“Gentlepersons, whatever. I was trying to be respectful.”
“The time for that is long gone.”
We stared at each other for a long moment, each eyeing the other's resolve with a hunter's discretion. “You are kind enough to forgive and forget, and I'm kind enough to lay my cards out on the table. We're both very kind, very amiable gentlemen.”
I wasn't amused. “Get on with it,” I snapped.
“I just want you to know that this has absolutely nothing to do with you as a person. This is business.”
“My heart bleeds for you.” I rolled my eyes. “This is going to become personal real fast, Paul. Real fast indeed.”
He sighed. “If it must. I will tell you, though, that Bernie went to the Intrafraternal council concerning Omega Pi proposal. Hear about it?”
“Bernie made mention of some meeting today; he's been hard at work on this whole Omega Pi thing for some time now. I just try to stay out of it.”
“The proposal was rejected.” Paul grinned a sadistic grin. “The council's vote was unanimous; your budget requests will not get sent to National.”
“Bernie doesn't need a national fraternity to back him,” I replied coolly. “If it comes down to it he was talking about renting a house off-campus for a few years, like a field test. There's no need for him to worry about getting your permission.”
“But you won't be a sanctioned fraternity.”
“If that's by the standards you seem to hold so true, it may even be a good thing.”
Paul snapped back, more than a little shocked.
“That's right, Paul; your little buddy-buddy ideals are crap. I think you've grown up to be a fine asshole, and fuck anyone who says otherwise. My congratulations.”
“It doesn't matter what you think of me,” Paul said after pausing to digest what I had said. “I'm only here to make sure you don't end up on the wrong side of this war.”
“A war, now? When did college become a war?”
“If Omega Pi manages to get off its feet, you might as well start digging trenches. I'm telling you this for your own good, Aaron.”
“Do you know your social reputation is being ruined by Bernie?” He leaned in close. “I've heard it. They're starting to make jokes – some are even taking bets on whether or not the two of you are… well… together.”
“I'm not gay.”
“Rabbits are known for their prolific reproduction, you see. It only follows logic to say that.”
“That's a terrible thing to say!”
“I need to fill that role of ‘asshole,' don't I?” He smiled wide. “You have to stop Bernie; it's for the sake of the college, the fraternities… and most importantly yourself. If he gets things rolling you will be forever ruined. You hear that? _Ruined._”
“By whose definition?”
Paul gritted his teeth. “Just do me that small favor, okay? Tell him to just give up on Omega Pi. The council has spoken, and as such he won't get any help from the school. It's over.”
“He'll take it off campus.”
“Then stop him from taking it off campus!” Paul banged his fist against the table. “Damn it, Rabbit, don't you have the sense to see that this is going to be a disaster? This support group is going to be more like a group hell, once you move in!”
“I'm sorry, I don't see a disaster on my end.” With that I stood from the table. “I'm sorry, Paul. I'd love to help, but -- oh, how did you say it? -- ah, yes: my hands are tied.” And I walked out of the room.
What a rush! I took the stairs five at a time as I bounded up and out through the Armory's heavy wood doors. People stared at me, laughing and screaming in the crisp autumn air, but I didn't care. For the first time in a long time I felt like I belonged, like I was where I belonged.
I had a purpose!
God, how wonderful it felt! I was ready to take on the world head-on. Being a SCAB was no longer a nuisance, it was a blessing! It was all I could do to hop, hop, hop, my ears flapping in the breeze.
SCABS sucked, but I was going to help change that. It may have been hard. It may have been dangerous. But I was going to change that.
I turned back to the Armory and pointed both my paws to the basement window. "You're going down, asshole!" I bellowed. I listened to my voice echo across campus for a moment before adding, "This SCAB will _not_ take no for an answer!"
"Shut the hell up!" came the response from one of the frat houses in the distance.
"I will cope, and I will show them all what a SCAB can truly do." I said it in a tone no louder than a whisper, then repeated it with a little more authority. Pride made my heart swell with pride, swell to the point where pain and pleasure mixed into one anxious ball of energy that begged to come out...
"What got into you?" It was Bernie walking towards me, quizzical look in his eyes. He was carrying a large stack of papers that looked like loan documents.
I grabbed his shoulders so tightly that he dropped them to the ground. "Never mind me, friend. We have to get this house up and running."
Bernie's eyes widened. "But the Intrafraternal Council said that you were under threat of reprimand if you were to try to start any sort of movement----"
My glare pierced the thought. "The Omega Pi house will stand. If that means that we need to take out loans and move off campus, then so be it. And if you're in need of members, Rush Chair," I winked, "Then consider me a possible pledge candidate. I'd be a great addition to your wonderful frat."
"Consider it a bid, then." He beamed. "I apologize for not having the official bid cards made out yet."
"I accept." We hugged, people stared, and for the first time I didn't care that my hat had fallen off and my long ears were there for everyone to see. "We're gonna make a change here, Bernie; you'll see!"
"It starts with people like you and me, learning to change ourselves. From there we can change the fraternities, the college... hell, even the world! There's no reason we can't dream big, y'know."
"Change the world." I sighed. "It sounds like a lofty goal."
"It's just like anything else; we take it one step at a time." There was a long pause as he picked his folders and papers from the ground. "Pack your bags, Pledge; we're moving out within the week."
I had just made a deal with the devil.
There was something really special about throwing away what was left of your social life on a crazy dream, like jumping off a bridge with no parachute and just hoping that something will catch you at the bottom. That's what I felt after Bernie and I hugged for the first time.
Then again, I had nothing to lose. Being a rabbit SCAB gave me surprisingly few options to work with when I looked at it. Looking at the double-wide mobile home with Omega Pi painted on the front door I could have counted my opportunities on one paw.
Bernie later explained that the hug was a furry tradition, much like a hi-five is to high school students. He said that it was just normal to show such affection around other furs. And I will admit that it was... nice. Yes, nice. That's it.
We put down our suitcases so that we could admire it from the front sidewalk. "Sure is amazing," Bernie said. "To think that this was our dream."
"Your dream. I was just a good excuse to go through with it."
"Right." He chuckled. "You're lucky that you don't have much to yourself, Rabbit... it is okay that I call you 'Rabbit,' correct?"
I smiled and let my buck teeth show. "It is now. I'm Rabbit, you're Bernie Bunny. Sound like a plan?" We hugged again. I still wasn't quite comfortable hugging Bernie, but he seemed to just feed off the energy. I didn't want to offend him, after all he had done for me.
"This is our hutch now. Don't ever forget that. This our pride and joy, our safety from the storm, our haven..."
And right then and there a long piece of siding crashed to the ground.
"It's a bit rough around the edges, don't you think?" Indeed, the place was worse for the wear. There were some bad fraternities on campus -- mostly from spilled alcohol -- but this took the cake. Omega Pi's house looked as if it had been used and hung out to dry for many a year now.
"Indeed. The place was originally a part of subsidized housing in the area; no one took care of the place. I got it for free after pulling a few strings, so we at least have a roof over our heads for the next year." He walked over to the house and kicked it once, hard. "If we survive one year of this the Dean will override the Council's ruling and get a national fraternity to shell out the dough for a house proper. Sound good?"
A new house, huh? I was game. "One year, then. I'm sure it won't take that long to clean up inside. A little paint, some nice floor pillows----"
"It'll clean up real nice," Bernie admitted. "I admit it isn't the Ritz, but at least it's our own."
"Yeah." He opened the door and I was assaulted by the smell of rotten eggs and mold; it would clean up, I told myself. I could hear the carpet crunching as Bernie tossed his bags onto the floor and tried to turn on a light, which flickered for a moment and snapped back off again.
My friend looked left, right, then just started laughing. "We're gonna need help."
"But we're here!" He spun around while looking to the ceiling. "If I didn't have the connections I have we'd be up the creek without a paddle."
"And those would be?"
"A lawyer for a father," he replied nonchalantly. "A lawyer willing to help his son's first attempt at legal action, proud to have a son so ready to follow his father's footsteps. When I said that I was working towards starting a fraternity he jumped right on board and got me all the paperwork and references I needed."
"Sounds like a good guy."
"And he told me that if I let a single SCAB in he'd disown me."
My jaw dropped. "Quite a lie you told there."
"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
"Depends on what tree you fall from." We didn't trust any furniture in the house, so for the moment we plopped down on the luggage and tried to ignore the smell.
"We better call a cleaning service." A lump of vomit threatened to charge out of my throat even as I said it, but it seemed like Bernie was too far off into his own world.
"Later. Right now, we're just gonna sit down in our living room and relax." With a small grunt he stood from the suitcase and walked over to a small wall, upon which he drew what would eventually become our fraternity's symbol. 'This is our house now, Aaron. This is our house of equality forever and ever amen."
I went walking again that night; I was hungry, and the vegetation around campus was actually pretty good. When I mentioned the delectable smells to Bernie he had convinced me to give grazing at least one try before I knock it. Of course that meant waiting until later evening so that I wouldn't be ridiculed – like it would have helped – but I was out smelling the air for some dinner.
Not long after I began looking, I found a nice, mature patch of sweet clover to cut my teeth into. With that I hunkered over like a real rabbit, brought my lips to the heavenly-smelling stuff, and took a tiny bite.
God, it was wonderful!
Like a stupid kit leaving his mother's side for the first time, I wasn't paying attention to anything else as I ate and ate the sweet-tasting clover. In fact, I didn't even see Paul bearing over me until he nudged my backside with a knee. Hard. “What was that for?” I yelped as I fell over to the ground. It was a perfect Charlie horse; I couldn't even move my leg!
“You did it,” he said in a low voice. “I told you to stay out of this, but you kept right on going ahead full speed. Weren't my hints enough to keep you away?”
I shook my head. “Bernie's a very likable soul. When he started talking of Omega Pi I found myself compelled to help him.”
“You wanted the attention.”
I stood up and faced him, glaring into his eyes. “I wanted the comfort, damn it!” If I would have been so inclined, I could have nibbled the hairs off his nose without moving an inch. We were that close.
“Comfort?” He laughed. “Molly wanted comfort, too. She just wanted to live, and you ended up with her good luck.”
“I didn't want her to die.” I said the words calmly, evenly. “If that were the case I would have brought a knife to her throat and ended it all there. Do you think I'm _happy_ being a rabbit?”
“I think you're trying to be.”
My eyes narrowed to slits. “And what if I am?”
He sighed. “Happiness is very hard to find these days, my dear rabbit. Doubly so if you're a SCAB with too much luck on his side. I've tried being nice to you. I've tried warning you on what may happen. I've tried to show you how you could live a simple, happy life without throwing everything into turmoil.”
“And I ignored all your advice.” I smiled wide and let my buck teeth shine in the dusk's last light. “Pity, that.”
“There will be war, Rabbit. There are already groups dead set on keeping you down, and their plans are downright nasty.”
“And I care because…?”
“I was simply warning you.”
As the words left his mouth I took a step back. “Warning me? Paul, you have been all talk for the past month. It's always warning this, don't do that, lay low or else things may get hairy… And you know something? I'm tired of it.”
“So you would be willing to take this small, peaceful college atmosphere and smash it all to hell.”
I had heard enough; without even looking at Paul I bent back down to my patch of sweet clover and mumbled, “If I have to do so, then so it shall be.”
“God help us all,” Paul said, then he turned to the buildings behind and screamed, “He's all yours.” And as he faded off into the distance I could see shadows start to poke their heads out from seemingly nowhere.
The were all marching toward me. As they walked I noticed a menacing slump to their gait, a slump that showed malicious intent. And, as I watched them pull baseball bats from small duffels they carried on their shoulders, my cheery day went down the toilet in a matter of seconds.
“Paul!” I hissed, but he was long gone. I guessed that he was hiding in wait for the fireworks. Damn him! The crowd seemed to grow with each passing second; every time I looked up from my clover patch I could see another head, hear another baseball bat sing as it was bounced on the mobs' hands.
I tried to act cool. Maybe they would go away if I didn't start running. Just maybe…
“It's hunting time!” came a loud cheer. When I looked up the crowd was thundering toward me, bats swinging in the air, a sea of black against the dying day. They hissed and growled and yelped like a pack of wild dogs, taken completely by pack mentality, a mob of uncaring, unthinking beasts who were beyond sympathy or reason for their actions. Almost immediately my blood went cold and instinct took over.
What did I do? I ran, of corurse. What would any self-respecting rabbit do?
Through the corner of my eye I could see the mob pick up their pace. Behind them laid a torrential scene of overturned benches, smashed windows, trampled grass, bodies that didn't keep up with the mob and fell under their anxious feet. I could smell blood and vomit wafting on the nighttime breeze; the vile scent pushed me onward, driving me past tired, past exhausted, past thinking.
I was a rabbit trying to survive.
“Go back to your burrow!” I could hear the leader scream, though his voice was nearly drowned out by the rest of the crowd. “Leave this college for the real men, and go home to your carrots and kits!” The words barely registered at the time; my feet were still pounding, pounding, each footfall another bound further away, each sniff of blood and vomit redoubling my instinctual need to dart and dash to and fro in an attempt to throw the mob off…
And suddenly they were gone.
“Gods! What in the hell are they doing to you?” A light shined in my eyes. “You look like you've swallowed a whole bottle of adrenalin, child. I can't see your eyes through this glaze!” The man turned off his light and walked away; only then did I recover well enough to see who he was.
“Officer!” I screamed, “Officer, they were trying to kill me! They had bats and lots of people and they were chasing me around and----“
The policeman turned to me, frowning. “You're on a private campus, son. Because of your condition proving that this was actually a malicious attack will be difficult if not impossible. They could have been just having fun with you, and you took it a step too far.”
“But I didn't!”
“I know, boy.” He sighed and pulled a radio from his pocket. “This is car twelve-eleven; I have a rabbit SCAB here who was chased off campus by a mob. I think they were trying to cause him harm.”
Some static followed, and suddenly the radio beeped. “Car twelve-eleven, this is HQ. Proceed as usual; we can't do anything about the mob if the SCAB is a rabbit; there's no decent evidence.”
My jaw gaped. “But---“
The radio continued. “Recommend citing the mob for disturbing the peace, break the mob, and inform campus security. Send ‘em all home, twelve-eleven; there's nothing more we can do.”
“Roger.” And the radio went silent. The officer turned to me with a heavy face and said, “I can't do anything for you, son. You're living on a private campus for one, and because of that I can't really arrest any of them for the rules they've broken.”
“But they tried to assault me!”
“Nothing came of it but one scared rabbit,” he replied sharply, “And that's not enough to get a warrant on. Best I can do is go in there and break them up.”
“And that means I'm stuck.”
“Fraid so.” He sighed. “I really feel sorry for you, son; really I do. My own kid is becoming a kangaroo right now. It must be tough to live a decent life, when so many people hate you…”
My face was cold, emotionless. “Please, don't be sorry.”
“I see. I do suggest, though, that you look into an alternate school. I hear the government is starting a colony system; maybe you could go work there, be the bridge between full-morph SCABS and humans, and they'll teach you on the job? It would be a much more accepting atmosphere than this.”
Give up. He wanted me to roll over and give up! Some deep-down portion of my mind even thought it was a halfway decent idea – probably that sense of better judgment that was always half-drunk in the corner of my mind. Maybe it would be better, my better judgment whispered, maybe it would be better to find the path of least resistance and let the disease choose my life's direction for me. It would sure-as-hell make things easier…
No. Damn my better judgment, but I couldn't just give up! “Sir, are you done with me here?”
“Other than a name and address for a report, yes.”
“Then my name is Aaron Crowd,” I stated, “And I'll be right over there in Omega Pi's house if you need me.” I gritted my teeth as I walked back onto campus, my resolve doubled and my mind fully prepared for the shit to hit the fan.
And the shit would hit the fan, let me tell you.
It was a late night in Omega Pi. Flurries were swirling around outside and inside; many of the windows had been busted in, and the duct tape on the vinyl was starting to come loose. Bernie put down towels to soak up some of the moisture, even though trying to save the carpet was pretty useless considering its presently moldy state.
I was bundled up in a myriad of cheap comforters and quilts, trying to stay warm despite the frosty chill to the indoor air. We had a kerosene heater trying to pick up some of the slack our house's insulation was now incapable of taking care of, and the furnace in the back was clanking away with the effort of keeping the place above freezing. Our TV didn't even want to work right; we used half a roll of aluminum creating the most elaborate antenna known to man, and still we could only get the local infomercial channel. Between Bernie and I laid the remnants of some Lo Mein noodles upon which I could see ice crystals forming.
At least my tea was still steaming, I thought as I brought the mug to my lips. I had a pot sitting right by the heater.
Off in the distance I could hear the sounds of a party gone wild, carefree screams and pulse-pounding dance music, cheers and jeers for the man sucking from a beer bong—average college fanfare. Nothing special. Nothing I wanted to be a part of.
As I lounged in my own private fraternity house, frozen to the bone and watching Jeremy Foreman sell high-tech grills on TV, I realized that my pride was all one big lie.
Bernie was dressed up in his rabbit jumpsuit, of course. It was made of funfur that seemed to trap heat like a thermos, so he was pretty darn comfortable with nothing more than a light afghan. “It's too bad that we lost those windows today,” he said nonchalantly, “That's the third set this week. What did they throw this time—a rock? Maybe a brick with one of those empty threats?”
“Not quite.” I nodded toward the table. “Pellet gun. The BB caught my eye when I looked to the center of impact.” Not like I would have missed it, given that it was just shy of a musket ball. Someone had meant for that to do some serious damage; my guess was that their modified gun didn't account for cold CO2. At the very least they didn't fire a muzzle-loader…
Then again, it might have been nice if they had. We'd at least have a reason to call the police then. Assault is a bit more serious than vandalism.
Bernie looked over to the table, back to the window, and frowned. “That's the fourth one this month. How much did Dean Simms say we were covered for?”
“Unlimited, if I understand correctly. Apparently the college accepted that this venture may have some extra costs involved.” The TV started to fuzz out again; sneering, I grabbed a footbag from the side of my cocoon and launched it at the screen.
“Give it time,” Bernie said in his soothing motivational voice. “We'll out-last them.”
“If we don't die of exposure first,” I said. I leaned back on the kerosene heater a big more and warmth shot through my spine. How wonderful the heat felt!
Bernie wandered over in my direction. “Look, there's no use in us sitting in opposite corners of the room. Let's at least try to keep this heat centralized, hmm?”
I didn't like it at all – Bernie was an okay guy, but when push came to shove I preferred him to be on the other side of the room. Maybe it was my conscious mind's way of battling rabbit instinct; I don't think I'll ever be sure. Desperate times (and desperate cold!) call for desperate measures, though. “Okay, come on over. There's enough room on the heater for both of us.”
“Thanks.” He jumped from the understuffed beanbag he had occupied and leaned up right next to me, his back touching mine as he settled onto the heater. “I'll pay you for my half of the heater when my dad talks to me again, honest!”
I wasn't going to get compensation for the heater, in other words. “Just make sure you keep your deal on the kerosene; I can handle the heater's price tag.” His stuffed tail was poking under the heater and touching my own; it made my skin crawl. He actually _wanted_ to be in my shoes!
“You're such a wonderful friend!” He snuggled me then. I still didn't like this whole snuggling thing; he seemed to always get the better end of the deal. For a while I tried to tell him to stop but his sheer persistence was enough to make me give up. It was a lot easier to let the guy hug me and get the whole mess over with as quickly as possible…
He didn't let go of me this time. When I realized he had latched on for the long haul I turned to him with a glare. “Cold?” I asked with the slightest snip to my voice.
“Just a bit. You don't mind, do you?”
I shuddered. “Does it matter if I say ‘no'?”
“Can I just have a few minutes, please? I just need to warm back up.” Of course it didn't matter. Bernie didn't care that I was holding my arms tightly to my body, shivering inside. He was just looking to snuggle and show affection.
“Your fur is wonderful,” he continued without heed. “I'm amazed it's stayed in such good condition, considering the crap it's been through.” He ran his fingers through the fur on my shoulder; for as sick as the gesture was I couldn't help but enjoy it a bit. It was a nice gesture, after all…
“It doesn't change the fact that Omega Pi is falling apart at the seams.”
“Maybe not.” He stared at the vinyl-covered window. “But at least we're making progress. Just wait until Spring Rush; I'm already starting to get a trickle of interest e-mails.”
“SCABS that heard about our efforts through message boards,” Bernie continued. “They're making the trip up to look at the facilities and stay over with us. We'll make believers out of them, and all the rest of the stuff will fall into place.” He rubbed my fur again; I wanted to push away, to tell him off and go back to being cold and alone in the House, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. He was just so innocent when he was lying there!
He was going to get more members, sure. But there was one question I still had to ask. With a quizzical eye I turned to Bernie and said,“They think there are two SCABS here already, don't they? You're parading around on those support boards and recruiting…”
“Benny Bunny strikes again,” he said with a smile. He was so close to me I could feel his chest vibrating with the voice. “And if everything works out it won't be a lie by the time they get here.”
I sighed. “So that's it.” Bernie turned to look up at me; his face had found its way to my chest during the conversation. “That's the reason you took the effort to charter Omega Pi, hmm? All this time I thought there might have been some honest sympathy for our cause, but I see it now.”
“What in the world are you saying?”
“You want to catch the Flu,” I continued while frost on my breath bounced off his eyes. “I'm here, you're here, the environment weakens your immune system, and you keep insisting on being so damn close to me. You want to jump right into this little dinghy of torture and agony, don't you?”
Bernie nodded his head and sighed. “I told you before; you must not have listened all too well. I told you that I envied your body, and wanted to be in it at all costs.”
“Which explains the rabbit costuming,” I added.
“Not quite. That's a… rather different interpretation of things.”
“And what would that be?”
He leaned forward, close, closer, his breath hot against my whiskers and his eyes full of the deepest, darkest blue I had ever seen. I felt his hands press down on my body in a region that was a bit too close for comfort. “I guess I shouldn't be ashamed of it—I'm sure you'd rather have honesty, after all. Your body is rather… inviting to me.”
“Yeah yeah, we've been over that: you want to be in my body.”
“Not like that.” His hands slinked down further as his face grew long with lust. “I want to do more than that for you.”
“Dear God!” With my gigantic feet I gave him a shove that knocked him two inches into the kitchen's partition wall. Sheetrock crumbled down as he fell, aghast. “What in the hell were you thinking, Bernie?”
“I was thinking about you.”
“Don't, then.” The bastard had tried to feel me up! Sure, I didn't mind getting that sort of attention sometimes, but that was as long as the attention had boobs and a slot to stick the tab in. To think that this little fink had the nerve to befriend me, invite me on his half-crazed quest for fraternal freedom, made me trust in his ideas to the point that I sacrificed all personal safety to further the cause… Suddenly it just felt wrong; oh so wrong! My mind reeled with different ways to kill the man: bludgeon him with steel drainage tubes, light him on fire and toast marshmallows over the corpse, freeze him out in a house not meant for living… the list went on and on. How _dare_ he! “Bastard!” I screamed out, “You perverted sonofabitch! What gave you the idea that I swung that way?”
“I just thought that you'd be like the bunny of my dreams,” his voice still had this otherworldly quality to it, as if he were sucking his pituitary gland for all the pheromones and hormones left in his reserves. I'm sure to a man so inclined it may have sounded sexy.”
But to me, it just made me laugh. And I laughed hard; by the time Bernie had recovered enough of his wind to stand up I was doubled over in fits of laughter. “You're insane!” I chirped, “You're absolutely, positively, off-the-rocker insane, you know that? You think that the world works just the way you want it to because Bernie said so and nothing can change what Bernie says. You think that life is going to be one big bowl of peaches and cream, and God just gave you the only spoon. And you got me believing it too, damnit!”
“No. You're obviously in need of serious help, Bernie. Very serious indeed. Suicidal tendencies are not to be taken lightly, especially with Martian Flu.”
Suddenly Bernie's demeanor changed; I could see fire light in his eyes. “And what if I am crazy? What if I'm nothing better than the man walking the streets of town in a ragged trench coat and fingerless gloves, holding a sign and a blind man's cane? Yeah, that Bernie is a twisted one, all right; he's gone plumb nuts with his hopes and dreams. I wonder when he'll settle down and grow up a bit…?”
I wanted to say something, but Bernie had shut his eyes and ears to the world. I could see veins start to web their way across his forehead.
“And you, Aaron! I thought you'd at least _understand_ me. I thought you'd be able to sympathize with my needs and wants. But no, you're no better than the rest! In the end I'm all alone after all!” He balled his fists and scowled, inching closer and closer, his foul breath and perverted features filled with the determination of a sex-starved maniac.
I unwrapped from the covers and set them down---slowly. “Bernie, calm down. There's no reason to be upset over it; we can just forget this all happened and try to get on with life.”
“I can't forget, Aaron. Not now. You're just a hollow shell. You've let this disease bore you out before you even thought about letting the good stuff in! And I can't forget you that.” He let out a blood-curdling screech and lunged for me…
But before anything could come of it I slashed at him with a forepaw. The next I knew Bernie landed in a heap and a warm, sticky fluid was starting to congeal on my fur in the chilly night air.
I hate apologizing.
In reality I didn't need to say word one to Bernie. By rights I could easily have filed charges, torn open his wounds with litigation, and spit into them with personal lawsuits for cash settlements. I could easily have taken Bernie for all he was worth, especially when Bernie admitted what he had done in the police report.
Trusting kid, he was. Stupid, but trusting. You had to admire honesty like that, even if you do think it was about the dumbest thing to do in such a situation.
And that's why I had to apologize.
I had holed up back at the dorm hall for the night; it was warmer, and after what Bernie did I felt a little uneasy even closing my eyes in his presence. I had every right to be.
He did so much for me, even if it was on a false assumption. It's the least I can do to let him know I appreciate what he was doing, let him know that I'm willing to bury the hatchet and get on with life. Rather, I was willing to try; tragic experiences are hard for a rabbit to forget, after all.
It was snowing, the kind of fluffy white snow that seems lighter than the air itself. My feet crunched in new-fallen snow, snow that hadn't quite covered heavily trodden paths in Omega Pi's front yard. It sure had been a spectacle, that much I knew.
My hand wouldn't work the door; I had to sandwich the knob between my paws and twist hard, which caused the door to squeak something horrible. Almost immediately I heard a voice from inside shout, "Who's there?" After that I heard the sound of a bullet being chambered.
"I'm not taking any more hazing!" he screamed out, "You frat boys can get your jollies off someone else."
"It's me, Aaron!"
There was a pause. I heard the pistol's mechanism click once as the bullet de-chambered. "Come in," Bernie said softly. His voice seemed flat, devoid of the life and lift that made my friend the kind of friend I loved.
Liked. The friend I liked. God, I hated sexuality!
The living room was dark and cold; so was the attached kitchen. I looked around the corner to find a single light coming from the bathroom. "Come on in," Bernie said flatly. "It's decently warm in here. We can share the heat, as long as you're comfortable sharing the same space."
"That was a mistake. Let's forget about it." I turned the corner to find Bernie in his rabbit jumpsuit, face buried in a hand mirror. He didn't even seem to notice that I was there, save that he carried on conversation with me. Maybe he had been speaking to his own demons earlier. Maybe he really was crazy.
And if he was, who was I to judge? I was the one covered in fur. For a moment it was all I could do to swallow hard and clear my throat. "Bernie," I said, voice strained and weak, "Bernie----"
"Don't." The barking command stuck out like a sore thumb to the feeble tone he once had. "You have no reason to apologize, Aaron. None at all. I made a stupid decision on a one-in-a-million gamble that you may enjoy it, and it blew up in my face -- rightfully so, might I add. I was obsessed with your body and wanted to have it no matter the cost."
"But I didn't have to slash you like that."
"Maybe, maybe not." His shoulders shriveled for a split second. "You did what you had to do, and had every right to do so. In fact, you have every right to walk out right now, if you want to."
I wanted to just smile and say what Bernie wanted to hear; he was fishing for it plain enough. I wanted to forgive and forget and try to show him the truth of SCABS. I wanted to save him from my own fate. And yet... and yet I had to make him sweat a bit, just to sate my mean streak. Call it an Alpha male thing. "So why should I stay?" I said with a flat tone.
"Because we can make this work." He put down the mirror. "I ordered some new stuff, Aaron; it should do wonders for the fraternity. They say there's strength in numbers, you know..."
He turned to face me for the first time. I should say "he" loosely, for I didn't find myself staring at the snot-nosed, dream-riddled little kid I once knew. What I saw was a indiscernible mixture of human and animal, rabbit nose and human lips, scarred cheekbones and faux fur. I would have screamed if it weren't such a damn good rabbit face. Why, he even looked... real.
"It cost me a fortune," he said. I noted that his rabbit "features" moved appropriately as he spoke. "I had all the parts custom-made for my face. My new fursuit and ears should come in the mail sometime later this week; with those, you won't even recognize me."
I didn't say a word. I _couldn't_ say a word, really; the shock had a hold of my throat. I was staring at what was basically a mirror image of my own face, and for the first time I didn't scowl in horror.
"Hopefully this will take care of some of your problems."
"You're in a lot of trouble, Aaron." He stood and looked me straight in the eye, careful to keep distance between us. "I've heard some rumors."
"The fraternities are getting restless about Omega Pi," he continued. "I got my hands on a petition set forth by a special sect of the Intrafraternal Council, and you aren't gonna like what it's about."
"I can hardly wait to see." He nodded towards the dresser, where a small manila folder was waiting for me. As I walked over Bernie seemed to be leaning over an invisible fence, afraid to move closer and yet desperately wanting to bury the hatchet and get on with our relationship.
Friendship. Yes, friendship. And it would never be anything more.
"You may have to sort through some pages; I just copied the whole kit n' caboodle. Look for the page with your name on it." I didn't have to look far for that; it was sitting on the top of the stack. From the looks of the copy the edges had been yellowed and folded over, as if the paper had seen a good many hands. It read: "The undersigned hereby wish to recommend Aaron Crowd for treatment at government-funded sites by using his school funds to pay for all expenses required----"
I stopped. My heart stopped. My mind seemed to bathe in liquid nitrogen.
"It's a Colony," Bernie said. "They'll keep you in a cage and suck away what little money you have to offer. I've seen them on the news and sometimes when my dad was prosecuting a Colony case; they're two steps up from hell, and a step down from slaughterhouses. You don't want to be there."
For a second I had to stop and try to suck in a deep breath. Once I had air I managed to nod slowly at Bernie's suggestion.
Bernie's shoulders fell with despair. "I know you don't think much of me right now. Not that I blame you; I was in the wrong to even take that kind of a chance. I destroyed any chance of being a good friend with one stupid move, and I am sorry for that." His eyes hardened. "But I know that if I stay in fur for the rest of the year, join in your sorrow and your pain, be a part of something I know you wish you never had to bear, maybe we'll be able to fight this off."
My heart skipped a beat. "What was that?"
"I've seen the defense work before," Bernie said, smiling. "One SCAB under stress seems insane and in need of support. Two SCABS living in the same house, paying the same bills, attending the same classes--especially two pledge brothers--seems more like a support group. The case will get dismissed without much effort from a good attorney like the ones I have up my sleeve."
"And you'd do this for me."
"I tried to get in your pants, and you tried to cut me down the middle. I'd call it even, but just in case I'm gonna try my darndest to make it right. If that means I have to suffer the same fate as you then I'm in."
I knew he was going to enjoy living as a rabbit; I wasn't born yesterday, after all. He'd get a thrill I'd never know from having this chance. What could I say, "No, you can't live your dreams?" "I don't need your help; I'd rather suffer alone...?"
"God love you," I said to Bernie, "even if I do think you're out of your mind."
He smiled and offered a hand, which I took with a proud smile. "To see some things," he said as we stood frozen in the moment, "Requires that you step out of your mind and just go with the flow. Some people call it trust, and it seems to be very hard to keep."
"Maybe we'll find that trust sometime," I replied wholeheartedly. "Maybe, somewhere along the line, we'll find that elusive, all-to-important thing and make it bloom. And maybe, once we have it in our hands, we can spread it to the rest of the world."
"One person at a time," Bernie said. "And I'll start with you."
Okay, so I'm a sap for the "changed man" routine. On one hand I found myself thinking that Bernie was just working his way in for another shot. On the other I thought that misery loves company, and Bernie would be sure to get his fair share over the next few weeks, and maybe doubly so because he's simply dressing the part.
Rumors were spreading like wildfire. According to the crowd we had wild animal sex every night, complete with bondage harnesses and other toys that looked sleek and shiny in the mind's eye. I just gave up trying to tell them otherwise; the second I denied one thing another would pop up, more dastardly than the last.
Presently the rumor mill had reached equilibrium, with Bernie and I simply bonded as life partners with fringe benefits. For the most part we stayed together -- after all, it's harder to mug two rabbits than one -- and most everyone else stayed away. At least it was easy to find quiet study space.
The snow was falling heavy, then. Bernie and I were walking back to the House after a late-night study session. He was in costume, of course; I rarely ever saw him out of it, save to shower. The man under the mask started to feel like a distant memory.
"Nice night," Bernie said with a grin. "I like it when it snows at night; the streetlamps make you feel like you're in a tiny snow globe." Around us the snowflakes fell with dazzling colors, a prismatic light show privy to him and I alone.
And it was nice. For a moment I could close my eyes and just imagine Bernie to be my good school chum, instead of a relentless bodyguard and friend willing to share my torture. In that world he had never even thought of making a move on me, was always curt and friendly, the kind of buddy you could always count on to do the right thing at the right time.
Bernie took in the night air with a long sniff. He sneezed violently. I watched in horror as his nose fell clean off, revealing a gaping patch of white skin under his once furry face. I gasped out of reflex; it wasn't normal for my rabbit friend to simply turn white...!
"It's only a mask," Bernie said as he ducked down to pick up his nose. "I'm a little under the weather right now. A little more Pros-Aid on the back here and it should hold just fine. I'll take care of it right now, in fact." He walked toward the house and waved me on.
"Just a minute. I want to stay out a bit longer."
I pointed up to the sky. "Didn't you hear? Mars is supposed to be the closest to Earth that it will be in years!" It wasn't quite a lie, just a fudging of the truth. I did truly want to see Mars, though it wasn't priority one. Priority one was staying out and relishing the chill winter breezes for just a few moments longer in complete and total solitude.
Call it Zen. Call it craziness. I didn't honestly care.
I felt his eyes searching me over. "You sure you'll be all right out here alone? I mean, if you want me to I can wait..."
"No, no!" I shook my paws. "Please, don't worry about me. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself."
"It's not you that I'm afraid of."
I shook my head. "They won't do anything brash, Bernie. Things have been quiet for the past few days, remember? They're probably working on some new petition or something. Honestly, you worry too much. I've got four rabbit's feet on my side!"
"You win. I guess I'll see you back at the house, then?"
"Without a shadow of a doubt." We shook hands and then he disappeared into the eddies of snow beyond the streetlamp. I found myself a nice bench only a few yards away, brushed it off, and laid with my back to the bench. I knew that the snow would stick to my fur and become real cold real fast but I didn't honestly care. I just wanted to take a deep breath and relax and enjoy the moment...
Shadows swirled around me.
I shot up immediately and looked around. Nothing. My mind loved to play tricks on me -- it was a rabbit thing. With that on my mind I laid back down to resume looking for Mars above.
The shadows flitted again. I closed my eyes and tried to drive it out of my mind. "Dreams," I told myself, "I'm imagining it. I'm just being paranoid."
That's when I felt the hands come down on my arms.
It all happened too quickly for me to fight back; before I could even gasp the hands had shoved a gag into my mouth and were trussing up my legs with steel cabling too tightly to kick loose from. I felt bodies collapse down onto my arms, making any sort of movement next to impossible.
Trapped like a rabbit! My eyes went wide with fear as I felt them tying me down, trapping me. I was powerless to stop them! My leg tried to thump the ground but it only resulted in the steel cable digging deep into my foot.
All around me I saw black ski hoods and black-clothed men, each one leaning over me and snickering. At my head stood a very tall man, stocky and powerful, the very image of a hunter overlooking his prey.
The gag was slowly pulled from my mouth; there was no worry that I'd bite them since the leader had his boot planted squarely on my forehead. "Well well," the tall man said. "He looks a little scrawny, but I reckon there's a good hunk of meat on those bones. And dad said rabbits are small game!"
I wanted to snap back a retort, but my capacity to talk was completely gone. Words, ideas... everything was cinched up in a tight ball of fear. My heart tore against the arteries that held it in my chest with each powerful, erratic beat. In my eyes the black-clothed men could see fear--that much I could tell from their reactions. They stood over me like the Reaper over a man whose time had finally come.
There came a long silence as I lay there, my extremities suffering from a sort of warm prickling sensation that came when blood flow was minimized. Each breath was a struggle; each time I blinked -- when I did manage to blink -- felt as if it could easily have been my very last. These people had knives. They had a taste for rabbit blood. They were going to cut me open and truss me like a Sunday dinner.
I was going to die.
"Cat got your tongue?" The tall man chuckled again. He leaned close and I caught a whiff of whisky drooling down from his lips. "Pity, that. Some intelligent animal you are. Why, look! Things go to pot and suddenly pow! You're gone." He laughed. His cronies laughed. The boot on my head turned this way and that, and ice crystals permeated with dirt found their way into my eye. I didn't even try to blink it away.
One of the men at my feet leaned forward. "Can we start already?"
"Yeah," said another. "Let's get this done before I have second thoughts about the whole thing."
The "boss" relaxed his foot and sighed. "I guess so... you guys just don't know how to have fun, you know that? Our friend here was being such a nice listener!" Suddenly I felt one of my legs being brought down to one side of the bench, far enough for me to feel the thick concrete bench rubbing against the middle of my calf. The boot on my head pressed down doubly hard, and the people at my arms cinched my arms close to my chest.
I heard a heavy object whoosh through the air.
My world was white with pain! Stars danced across my vision, but through those points I could see the glint of a new sledgehammer pulling away from what was left of my leg, blood dripping from the front face. Below my kneecap I only knew agony and intolerable suffering -- there are simply no words in the English language to describe it. I listened to small chunks of gore -- my once-powerful leg muscles -- plop onto the snow.
I let out a long, powerful lapine wail. We rabbits only do that when we're terrified or dying -- or both. In any other scenario I would have fought the instinct to the bitter end, but with that kind of pain you just can't make any decisions of your own.
The sledgehammer reached for the sky again, and its wielder braced for another swing. I closed my eyes and hoped that death would come quickly.
"Wait!" The boss screamed. He removed his boot from my forehead but I didn't have the power or gumption to move. What good would moving do me if one leg was shattered and the other purple from the tourniquet of a steel cable? I could only watch on through my dazzled vision as the boss reached into a small satchel.
"My dad and I used to do this to hunt down coyotes," he said. I wouldn't know that until later, for my mind was completely and totally off as he spoke. In fact, this all comes as an afterthough. All I could think about at the time was the pain and the feeling of being trapped and the certainty of death that was coming down upon me. Even when I felt the rope snake its way around my gigantic ball of pain once called a leg I couldn't even do as much as prepare for what was going to happen next.
The boss took a few steps back; I listened to his soppy boots crunch in the snow. "It works like this, fellas. If we want our little bunny to call out for help, we just give a little tug on this rope here..." He tugged, and suddenly I saw stars again.
I wailed, louder this time. The pain burned like sin!
"Give it a try, guys. When he stops screaming we can break another and play with that for a while."
"Um..." came the soft response.
"What is it, chicken?"
The soft voice gained a little volume. "I can't do this, Nick."
"I told you not to use my name," boss hissed.
"I know, but I just can't bring myself to torture the poor guy. Aaron's had enough."
"You'd let the bastards win?" I felt the rope jerk in his hands, and I screamed again. "These SCABS took my brother's life away. If he stays, I may catch the Flu too. What would my mom do if her both her babies were dead...?"
The voice firmed up. "Let it be, Nick. We've gone too far."
"I will _not_ let it be!" I was afraid that this tug would rip right through my leg, he pulled so hard. "This bastard's going to pay for my brother, with or without your help! And if you want to turn chicken and run, that's fine with me..."
There came a bright light. I thought I was dying, until the crowd froze like deer in headlights. Off in the distance I heard the chambering of a pistol, and further still came the wail of sirens. "Freeze!" I heard a familiar voice shout, "Put the rope down and keep your hands in the air. You are all under arrest for aggravated assault." Even when the rope hit the ground I could still feel a lick of pain shudder through my body, though I was still convinced that I was dying.
And in that strange state between life and death I managed to shout out. "Officer!" I yelled, "Officer! It's Aaron Crowd!"
The voice came back firm. "I know, son. I told you I could only intervene when things got physical, didn't I?" I could hear a small bark of a snicker. "And here I am. There's an ambulance on the way, Aaron; hang tight and we'll get things taken care of for you."
It was a long night at the ER; I drifted in and out of consciousness as they put me back together. The doctors told me that should have died that night, easy. If Officer Lanic wouldn't have been running a special patrol by campus when he did they said it'd be one hour, maybe two tops before I closed my eyes forever.
And I know I should have been a bit shaken -- mortified, even -- that it came so close. Maybe the whole rabbit deal was keeping me from feeling a large bit of the terror. All that mattered was that I had survived to live another day at Omega Pi. It's funny how that works; all that I cared about was making it through the year at the college.
I was alone, when it came down to it. There were plenty of people standing firmly on my side, but when push came to shove I found myself squarely on the wrong side of the line and only air standing at my side. The only man -- I use that term loosely -- staunchly set on my side had his own agenda and his own ideas to chase down. I was the loneliest, friendliest rabbit you may ever know.
They released me from the hospital after only two days with crutches and a pinned-up leg. When I got there Bernie had been kind enough to make me a bed in the living room, and when I was settled in he brought out a relish tray for me. Most notably he didn't hug or otherwise approach me in an uncomfortable way, which was enough to bring a grin to my face. Then again, it could have been the once-over that someone had given the house. I didn't quite care at the time.
Bernie handed me a whole stack of Dean's excuses over the meal. "Take your time," the sticky note on top said. "There's more at stake here than your own education." She signed with her first name. At the bottom of the stack was a copy of a labor request form; apparently she would take no more chances with me.
I finished reading with a weak grin, and Bernie just laughed. "They're serious about us staying--that is, if you're up to it."
"Bernie, I'm here. There is no turning back now."
He grimaced. "But your leg..."
"My leg will take time to knit and the exposure still has me feeling kind of puny." As I spoke I ran a hand over my crutches. Bernie had tried to hide them behind the chair after he led me in to no avail. "Frankly, I don't give a damn. As the Dean said there is much, much more at stake."
"It's high stakes for us all." Bernie let out a long sigh. For the moment he could have denounced me as an unspeakable evil; my mind was focused on the carrots in the relish tray. Why was it always carrots that tasted the best? I'm sure it was about as stereotypical a scene as you could possibly imagine; one bunny munching on carrots, one hero-worshipper looking on with a makeup mask and false buckteeth...
Bernie let loose a monster of a sneeze, a sneeze so powerful that it launched his prosthetic nose clear across the room. "Damn cold," he mumbled as he stood up. "I can't keep that thing on for anything now."
"You should see a doctor," I said.
"And possibly miss out on my chance?" He snorted, walked over to the nose, and bent over to pick it up. "You know I can't do that, Aaron."
"Because you might miss your chance to become me?"
"Well----" He paused, sighed, and reapplied his nose with slumped shoulders. "I'm sorry, Aaron. That was a cold and callus thing of me to day. SCABS has caused you a lot of pain and suffering, and to you it seems like I'm running blindly into a firestorm."
"You could say it that way."
It seemed as if Bernie were torn for a moment, his eyebrows furrowed in deep consideration. "And you're absolutely right, Aaron. I'm running right into the trap like a blind fly being led to a spider's web. If there were any way -- _any_ way I could take your place, I would in an instant. I want to be you that badly."
I sneered. "And so that's why you so wholeheartedly took up the cause? Is that why you're going all high and mighty on me, so you can have a better chance of getting your dream?"
"Maybe, in a subconscious way, that's exactly what I'm doing. I feel so much happier when I'm _in cognito_," he flipped his floppy ears from one side to the other, "and I honestly want you to feel better about yourself. You're a soul worth brightening, Aaron. Even if it means that we go through hell together, it's worth every minute."
"And if you _don't_ become a bunny?"
He shrugged. "Maybe I'll catch the Flu and die. Sometimes I think it would be better that way, you know. At the very least it'd be easier, if not cheaper, than living in the world today."
"Maybe." What else could I possibly say? Bernie and I were like city boy and country boy; he wanted one angle and I wanted the other. And as long as that were the case we'd just be two little boys walking the same danger-ridden path out of necessity, hoping that eventually all the pieces would fall into place without anyone getting hurt.
It's always nice to have rabbit's feet on hand all the time, I thought as I greeted the next Scholar-folder walking through our door. It was such a lucky break that we were even around to welcome the prospective students, let alone net a few SCABS looking for the right fraternity for them! Bernie was working on changing the music CD in our house's stereo, and a few people were already starting to congregate around the kitchen's finger food trays.
I waited for each one at the door, making sure to apologize as the security guards pat-searched them just outside our doors. It was a necessary precaution, I made sure to tell them that. We couldn't risk it again, since next time my luck may run out and there'd be more than a broken leg to worry about.
The first thing every prospective student saw as they walked in was a large display set on a fold-out table in the living room. There stood blueprints for our permanent house, a house that would cost at least a million dollars. A few people were already eyeing it from the kitchen. The building was set to house forty, maybe even fifty brothers in comfortable, adaptable rooms. Laid out in front of the prints were a number of brochures outlining every possible SCABS housing problem and the solution the house would take.
It was happening.
Bernie came storming in, a buck-toothed grin shining forth from his face. I barely recognized him when he had the suit off, anymore; Bernie was an honoree rabbit in my heart -- even if he wasn't mugged on campus.
I could walk on my cast after the first week; in fact, I had insisted on it so that I could be there for the prospective student's rush. And it _was_ a rush, I had told Bernie -- we had Bid cards sitting in our bedrooms, cards which could be given to anyone as an open invitation to join the House.
We also agreed on the conditions required to be in Omega Pi: any SCAB and SCAB sympathizer was given a bid, no questions asked. It was unfortunate that the wood-engraved rules sign hadn't come yet, for the first rule written on that charter said exactly that.
"Make yourselves at home," Benny chirped from the other end of the room. He sneezed, but managed to keep his nose on with one finger. He was working around the cold, but it was gradually getting worse. I begged him to see a doc; he wouldn't hear of it.
Then again, I probably should have left this college months ago, back when I heard about Humans First and Paul gave me the warnings. I was one man fighting an army, like Rambo hidden in the undergrowth. Bernie was my double agent on the inside. Everyone else had their guns pointed at me, ready to fire.
It would get worse. It would get worse until something snapped. Okay, so "snapped" may be the wrong word for it, especially with my leg in the shape it was in. The situation would boil over and someone was going to get burned.
I felt destiny rumbling deep down in my heart, throb under my cast, and pulse in my whiskers and long ears. Someone was going to get burned, all right. And that someone wasn't going to be me.
Bernie shut the door behind our last house guest -- a zebra-morph who never seemed to stop smiling. He had his bid clutched tightly in one hoof, and a pledge pin in the other. As soon as the zebra was well out of the range of our porch lamp's sight my friend let out a whoop. "Five pledges, Aaron! We got five pledges tonight!" He was hopping up and down with glee. "This house is going to work!"
"It just might," I said. I couldn't help smiling a little bit. Bernie was right, of course, and he had every reason to celebrate. This was his baby, his best chance at becoming what he longs to be. If that means that these SCABS might have a home on a college campus, well, maybe I was just being a little to harsh when I condemned him for his selfish ideas. You know what they say: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Bernie was doing a fine job even if he had all the wrong ideas.
So I was using Bernie. How could you blame me? I think it's about time I used someone else, I say. And once you got past the whole sexual idolship thing he was actually a likable guy. I saw great things for us in the spring; when we had a food budget I'd get some quality vegetarian foods, and we'd cook some smash-bang-up meals. Then there'd be the transfers, the people who couldn't wait to get in the door...
God! It was just so exciting to think about! A shudder of delight went coursing through my spine and the grin only grew wider.
"You sure are happy today," Bernie said. "Feels good to have a promising future for a change, doesn't it?"
"I guess," I said. The words tickled my heartstrings as they left my throat. "Though I'm still stuck in a mobile home with a man crazy enough to live full-time as a rabbit SCAB, with a contingency of people out to get me..."
He nodded to the security guards outside. "Your leg will heal, and that will be the last of the problems. You're in the clear, Aaron. And your sacrifice will go down in history books for years to come."
"Let's not forget about the tireless friend who made everything possible..."
"Of course, we'll leave some details out."
"History books never lie."
"They do when the newspapers have libel threats shoved up their ass," Bernie said with a grin. "My father may hate me, but he does have quite an affinity for my surname. Tarnish on me is tarnish on him." He chuckled for a time. "You know, the Times just called and asked about what they can and cannot print; I left out the story of my scar. That okay with you?"
"You read my mind."
"Natch. It's the least I can do for you, after _that_." He shook his head, looked to the sky, and stifled a scream. "God, Aaron! I was an idiot!"
"And don't try to tell me to be easy on myself, either" he interrupted. "You know damn good and well that I deserve to wallow in it."
I sighed. "If I were to be perfectly honest, yes."
He nodded. "I understand completely." I was starting to get tired of standing -- my poor broken leg had hardly received rest since the whole rush started -- and with a strained effort I worked my way back to the couch. Bernie followed from a safe distance.
"It wasn't always this way, you know." He pulled a chair from the kitchen and pulled up to my "throne," as we had been known to call it. "Back before the plague I was... well... normal." And this came from a man wearing a bunny suit? I had to stifle a laugh. Despite this, Bernie went on. "I was able to control my dreams with laser precision. When I wanted to be in la-la land, I simply had to close my eyes and I'd be there, with all the dreams and aspirations that were just out of the reaches of reality. It was there that I frolicked, grazed, lived my life as the rabbit that I knew I was, deep down."
He grinned. "And a mite bit crazy, I'll admit. It was like a dream that just wouldn't quit; for a while I just wished that I could at least be of the wrong gender; then I could actually do something about my discomfort. But no matter what I tried the dreams kept coming back, haunting me, asking me to never give up hope."
"And the Flu hits..."
"That's when things clicked," he said in an almost shameful voice. "I knew that people like you existed, lucky bastards that you are. My heart felt as if it would burst, with all the happiness it held. There was hope for me yet, I had thought! Each time I coughed I checked my skin for fur -- still do that today, in fact."
"And have you got anything?"
He shook his head. "I just have a gut feeling, Aaron. This is the one. It's going to happen sometime soon, maybe even tonight."
"I suppose I should exclaim, 'That's wonderful!' and give you a cheery hug. I apologize if I let your expectations down."
"I never said you'd like it," Aaron said. "And you have good reason, too -- look at your leg. Things are going to be better now, Aaron. You and me, we're going to go down in history as success stories."
"You dream too big," I said.
"And maybe I do. Maybe I'm trying to imagine the world as one big bowl of peaches and cream, its paths all easy street, and its perils mere trifles. It's possible, after all, that every dream I ever have will eventually come true. Why not try to make them as pleasant as possible?"
I stared openly at the man hiding behind the rabbit face. His eyes were grave and set with honest and gentle determination. "You've thought a lot about this, haven't you?"
"When you're the bane of social contact you have a lot of time to think," he said, grinning. "You should know that yourself."
"Touché." We sat for the longest time like that, neither of us wanting to move for fear of spoiling the moment. I looked over his face, covered in black grease makeup, the latex's nose's slits pulsing with each breath, his wide, considerate eyes, eyes connected to a smiling mouth by a long, darkened scar. We had a mutual relationship -- maybe even friendship -- that was strong enough to keep us under the same roof.
And he had a dream.
It hit me rather suddenly; I was watching his eyes wander toward the leftovers in the relish tray and the pieces fell into place. Dreamers are so few and far between nowadays, with the Flu settling in as a steady presence. There was fear aplenty and death to spare; there was hatred and anger everywhere ---- and yet this dreamer survived with a bright heart and a brighter soul. It was a soul misguided in places, I'll admit that outright, but at least he had the courage to dream and dream big.
I took in a deep breath. "The suit looks nice, Bernie. Really it does."
His wandering eyes focused onto my own, deep band brown and penetrating. "You think so?"
"Yeah. I think you really blend in; the form suits you. I don't even recognize you without it on, it fits so well. For all I'm concerned my best friend is an honoree rabbit."
There was a sparkle in his eyes; I knew it was a tear. "You mean that."
"From the bottom of my heart." I felt tears coming to my eyes, now that the words were starting to flow. I felt warm and flushed all over my body. "And, though we had some rough spots, I'm proud to say that I'm your friend. And together we can make this happen."
"Will be the best damn fraternity ever." I was beaming now. Bernie had nothing else to say, but he did open his arms wide. We hugged, but for some reason it didn't have the same strange feeling attached to the come-on he placed on me only weeks ago. We were friends. We were rabbits. We were proud.
The gesture seemed to last for hours, though in reality it was only a few seconds before our show of affection was broken up by the sound of snowballs pelting the front door. We broke contact and sprinted toward the windows, where we looked out from under the guard's arm to find a single man standing in a wife beater tank top. He was waving his arms and laughing.
"Must be drunk," Bernie said.
The front door opened just a crack, and one of the guards poked his head in. "He wants you to come out and play," the guard said.
"Yeah!" yelled the man, still jumping up and down. I saw that he wasn't even wearing shoes. "There's a big snowball fight out on the mall, guys! Come on! Let's throw politics to the four winds and just have a blast!"
We looked at each other, then to the guard, and back to the jumping idiot who was far underdressed for the weather. The snow was still coming down in troves, I noticed; the stuff that was already on the ground was probably old enough to pack. From the crack in the door we could hear joyous voices, laughs, cheers, jeers, and people yelping out in sheer glee.
"It's been a long time since I had a good snowball fight," Bernie said. His eyes seemed captivated by the carefree man out on our lawn. "We used to have snowball fights in high school all the time."
"Then go have some fun!" I said. "Don't worry about me; the guards will keep me safe. You run along and jump into the action; me and the guards will be right behind you."
"You sure you'll be okay here without me?"
"If you don't leave now I'll give you a scar to match your first," I said, smiling. "Now get your cotton-tailed ass out there!" I pointed to my nose. "And if you lose the latex somewhere along the line, I'll pick up the tab for a new one. I want you to really cut loose!"
"You better believe it!" And with that he was off like a shot, laughing and cheering and scooping up his first snowball as he turned the corner to the wide open mall. I couldn't help smiling as I limped my way outside, flanked on each side by a guard toting pistols and truncheons, my friend crazy with the promise of simple social interaction.
After all, nothing is ever quite as fun as a snowball fight.
"Hurry up!" Bernie screamed after me. Snowflakes from above were already starting to make his makeup run, helped by the constant onslaught of loose snow on his person. Ice crystals made his fur shimmer in the lamplight sifting down from above.
The snowflakes touched my fur but never seemed to soak in. I tasted the sweet, clean Midwestern air with a broad grin. What a wonderful night it was for a fight, I thought to myself, what a wonderful night to be out and alive indeed!
Snow seemed to sparkle and glisten as it sailed through the air. Most of the snowballs were coming loose; the stuff was too new and too dry to be of much use. Just below that new layer, I knew, was some real good fighting snow that hadn't been ruined by a deep freeze. Once things got underway I was sure they would start digging for good snow and the real fun would begin.
I hobbled forward while laughing, cheering, and shouting encouragement to Bernie. "Show 'em what Oh Pi is made of!" I said at one point, and he turned around to wave an affirmation.
The snow really started to fly then. I listened to Bernie laughing as I hobbled towards the mall, listening to the echoes of laughter and cheers. Bernie's voice seemed to drown out all the rest, though. I could see his hand shivering a bit -- cold fur mittens are never good -- but when he had a handful of snow it just didn't seem to bother him anymore.
I looked at his rabbit suit, his rabbit ears, his rabbit body. It fit him. This is what he deserved to be.
"Get 'em, Rabbit!" I yelled to him. He stopped for a split second. Though I couldn't see his face I'm sure we shared a warm smile for that moment, when the snow seemed to freeze in mid-air to give us peace of mind.
The cheering and laughing died away.
It felt very quiet suddenly, as if someone had popped the fun-loving ambience. The people in the mall seemed to act in a cold, organized fashion as they pulled back toward a well-tromped spot in the grass. When they ran back toward Bernie their hands were full with ready-made snowballs, and the real pelting began.
And, as the snowballs rained down upon Bernie's head, a small pile of stones started to form at his feet.
"Take cover!" I screamed out to him, but before he could think it out a snowball glanced off one side of his eye. He crumpled like a limp doll.
It was then that the security guards decided to jump to action. I felt my right-hand man sprint over to Bernie's side, weapon drawn. My left hand man covered me with his own body. Between the two I could see Bernie laying on the ground, eyes closed, a thin trickle of blood falling form his face and forming inside the prosthetic which had peeled away from his face.
I dropped the crutches and ran over, pushing my guard out of the way. Pain shot through my leg as I even tried to put weight on it, though, so I ended up hopping over on the other. "Bernie!" I screamed out, "Bernie! You okay?" The snow around him was dyed crimson now, the bleeding was so severe. They had busted his scar -- my scar -- wide open. He laid in a swirl of white and crimson, peace and war, good and evil.
The fraternity boys looked at one another with a puzzled eye; apparently they hadn't seen me ambling up earlier. "That's the rabbit!" one of them said.
"So who is...?"
"I don't know," came the first. "But I hope he's not... you know..."
"We were just supposed to scare the rabbit."
They looked at each other, back to the still-growing crimson stain on the snow, and ran. My second guard followed close behind while I leaned down close to Bernie.
His eyes were starting to cloud; I patted the uncut side of his face with a paw to keep him with me. "We're getting help," I told him, "The security guard is going to radio for an ambulance. You just have to stay with me a little longer and we'll get you to a hospital and---"
"Don't bother," he whispered. The eyes clouded a bit further, and he chuckled again. "I went out with a bang, didn't I?"
It took a moment to realize exactly what that meant, and when I did I wanted to slap him across the face. "No, Bernie! You're _not_ going to die here. You're going to live and learn and get all the recognition you deserve for putting your ass on the line. We're going to make this work, Bernie! You and me! Together! Come on, buddy, fight it! Fight it for me----"
"Make it work for me." He closed his eyes and was quiet.
The doctors told me that the stoning hadn't killed Bernie. An assault like that should have been a textbook case in the ER. Exposure, on the other hand, was deadly when given the right conditions. And for a sufferer of the Martian Flu the conditions were ripe indeed. Apparently, his body was weak from the onset of SCABS. Had those punks not performed such a needless and heartless assault Bernie would have started to transform with definitely lapine DNA.
Damn them for ruining a dream!
I knocked on the Fiji house's front door later on that week. When the freshman came to the door to answer it he backed away without saying a word. It was a long while before Paul ambled his way down the stairs and to the door. His eyes were haggard and bloodshot, and I could tell that he was only holding them open by the steaming cup of coffee in his hand. "You look well," I say as he leans his head out the door.
He pointed to my cast leg. "You aren't looking too hot yourself."
"You wanted it to happen," I said, ignoring his response. "You wanted Bernie and I to fail at any cost. You were even willing to even allow personal harm to come to me and Bernie both, just to get your point across."
"I was not a part of either of those mobs," Paul replied simply.
"Bull shit you weren't. Why else would you be subsiding on coffee?" The papers held in my backpack crinkled a bit as I shifted my weight from my shattered foot to my good foot. The wound was healing slower than expected.
"Maybe you should be more careful about paperwork." It was then that I swung my backpack form my shoulders, nose twitching with the thrill of the upper hand. There, held in a small, unassuming manila folder, was the agenda sheet for the last Human's First meeting. At the bottom of the page were plans for the demonstration, from the fun-loving atmosphere to the snowball-covered stones.
Paul tried to glare, but the expression only came off tired. "We didn't want to kill him."
"So you're looking for an out. Makes sense to me; if I were responsible for manslaughter I'd want all the alibis and defense attorneys in the world. If I were you, I'd put another pot on the boil; Bernie's dad's a crack-shot lawyer, and he'll make sure that _someone_ pays for this." I flashed him my buckteeth and raised my eyebrows. "I'll make sure he hears every gruesome detail."
"At least you were successful, right?" I turned my back to him. "You wanted Omega Pi to fall apart at all costs. Bernie's dead. You pushed and you pushed and now he's cold in the morgue, face still crusted with blood for forensics to sample and overview.
"I hope it was worth it, Paul." I hobbled off with my head held high, though tears were blurring the path ahead.
I felt terribly empty and cold inside. Bernie was two weeks dead. Omega Pi's lousy excuse for a house remained untouched for those two weeks, and I spent most of my days crumpled up in the broom closet with a blank mind. My cast was too stiff and my fur too itchy. I had a bottle of sleeping pills that I ate like candy.
The house was empty. It had always been empty, I realized; neither Bernie or I had much of anything to keep in the House, since most of my old roommate's décor was stored away and awaiting unpacking. It worked out well in the end, though. I didn't have to pack anything to send back to his parents since it was already neatly put away.
Maids and college workers ducked in and out of the house like popcorn, fixing this and cleaning that. Very few even noticed or paid attention to me, thankfully. One that had tried to clean out my closet had even been so kind as to keep her jaw shut and move on to the next room without disturbing me. I probably looked to be a mess, with mats in my fur and saliva trickling down my mottled muzzle. My eyes felt heavy and swollen from crying.
Beyond my closet I could hear the bulldozers and back hoes working incessantly. It should have been music to my ears, the music of Bernie's success. I hated it.
The school sent the on-staff psychologist to talk to me, once -- or maybe it was twice; my memory of the time is about 50/50 -- but when she tried to make me talk I was catatonic, completely lapine. I couldn't bring myself to say hello, help me, fuck off... nothing. The words would come when the time was right, I thought. And that time came on a warm winter afternoon, between final exam periods across campus, in a time where my leg was still atrophied to the point of deformity and my gait too weak to walk without the use of at least a cane.
Business suits, professors, students, and thousands of cheering supporters were waiting out in front of Omega Pi for me that morning; I had forced myself to groom before the dreaded day came, so that I could at least be presentable. When I stepped out they cheered and paraded me to a muddy, well-trodden building-to-be on campus, where a pair of scissors and red ribbon were awaiting my arrival. It was a breach of etiquette to cut the ribbon so early in the construction process -- it would be another year before students could inhabit the new house -- but I just wanted it out of my life.
It wasn't that I hated Omega Pi; if anything I owed it more than I could ever pay. There were just too many bad memories and missed opportunities for me to stay around any longer.
Martin had the car ready and idling just to the side of the little podium, with my paltry store of stuff in the back. He had offered to give the speech in my name but I had refused; this was something I had to do for myself.
For Bernie. We started this dream, and I'd be damned if I saw it end out of our hands.
The crowd's applause died as I took the microphone into both paws and adjusted it to my lips. In the back I could see a contingency of fraternity men: some solemn, others glaring, and still others beaming with absolute pride. Behind them stood a small group of orange jackets; I couldn't bring myself to meet their eyes for fear of what those killers may show.
I'm sure Paul would have wanted me to acknowledge him. In his cell block, he had written in a letter to me, attendance would be voluntary. He was trying to bridge the gap between the two of us, somehow.
It wouldn't have mattered if he swore himself to my servitude; it didn't change the fact that Bernie was dead.
_Bernie was dead._
I felt like crawling back into the house and crying for a few minutes longer, but the job at hand pushed me onward. I had but one thing left to do for this college.
"Gentlemen and Ladies," I began. My voice was hoarse from disuse. "I will try to keep this short, for fear that I may not make it through anything longer. This house deserves more, but under the conditions given it is the best I can do." Silence. A few gawkers on the front row turned to each other to whisper something.
Forward motion, I told myself, keep forward motion or lose composure. "To many of you I may seem like a hero, some being of powerful will that had a dream and a mind stubborn enough to hang on for dear life. To everyone I must seem a monster of human will. To this point, I fear that I have a confession to make. I am no hero."
Tears, sniffle, wipe my nose with a paw. Must keep going. "A true hero would be courageous enough to stand tall upon the crux of victory, and guard his keep to the bitter end. I regret to inform everyone that I will no longer be attending this school and hence will probably not even see the interior of Omega Pi's new house." Whispers rippled through the crowd. A small circle of fraternity men pumped their fists, and I just wanted to jump down and claw their eyes out.
"There was only one hero here," I continued. "He didn't have long ears, or a puffy tail, or the slightest hint of fur to call his own. Bernie -- and I shall call him Bernie Bunny, as he would have liked it to be -- he was a boy with a dream. He wanted to be me, he wanted to live my life, no matter what sort of pain it would mean for him.
"This whole fraternity idea was probably dreamed up with that very goal in mind. He wanted to be a bunny, and he was very, very close to doing so in reality. In reality that should soil and ruin the Omega Pi name, turning it into a sham, a former shadow of what it should be. I'll be the first to admit it; when I first realized his motives I thought he was just going to use me.
"I trusted him, folks. And he made me believe in the vision. This is the house that Bernie built. It's not much to look at right now, but soon it will be the very house that a select few of my classmates sought to destroy." For a second I paused, just so that I could look around, trying to drink of the dumbfounded faces among the crowd. I looked over to the police tape surrounding the mall, tried to place where Bernie's body must have once laid. And where I looked I only saw the greenest patch of grass, grass that had grown stronger because of the severest trauma.
"The future is upon us, Gentlemen and Ladies. There's no stopping it now." I cut the ribbon. As applause roared through the campus I quietly hobbled my into the car and thundered off into the setting sun, racked with the saddest tears of a job well done.
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