by Sly Rabbit
© Sly Rabbit -- all rights reserved
I’m convinced: when the evil people in this world buy the farm and ask Satan why he tortures them so, the answer’s going to be “I had nothing else to do.” Nothing good comes from that phrase. Nothing. How do I know this? I had nothing else to do when a certain masked bunny came along and broke my heart, nay two months ago.
And, now that I’ve spent two months moping around my tiny excuse for a house, I once again have nothing else to do.
I checked the address on the yellowed envelope again, just to make sure. The neighborhood was one of those places where law rested on the tip of a pocketknife carried by a renegade mugger, looking for an easy mark. Most of the buildings were boarded up, and those that weren’t rested quietly in their cozy, stainless steel bars. In front of me was a tall-ish building whose paint peeled away in long folds and whose sign listed so far to one side that I thought it a quick gust of wind would blow it right down on the sidewalk.
“I had nothing else to do,” I said to myself. If I were a smart little bunny I would have stayed at home and kept it that way, as my eyes ran down the empty streets. If it wouldn’t have been a handwritten invitation I wouldn’t have even bothered, even.
Strange how that works, no? There’s something about people taking the time to handwrite a letter that makes it really special. You can run your fingers along the page backing and feel where the pressure of the pen worked its groove. The paper feels flimsy and old, like a piece of hand-me-down clothing.
And for some reason it’s captivating.
Maybe Satan handwrites his invitations, too.
The addresses matched, damn it all. At that point I would have taken New York’s Chinatown over that hell-hole. As I moved closer I realized that the wood reeked of mold and dry-rot, to the point that some parts of the wall were beginning to compost.
“Musical opportunity,” I said to myself. That’s what the letter promised, at the very least. And – once again, having nothing better to do – I jumped on the opportunity.
A loud honk shook me back to the real world; my taxicab driver was still waiting to collect his fare. I paid him off with tip, and he replied with a simple “Thanks, Buster.” I get that a lot. It must be the blue fur dye that never quite bleached out. That, or I’m imagining things.
Okay, for those readers who are keeping score: I’m Austin. SCABS graced me with a bunny body. Genetics graced me with bad eyesight. Love graced me with a perfect woman who would never date me. Fate graced me with the chance to develop the worst case of stage freight ever known to a performer.
And yet here I am, standing in the valley of the shadow of death, ready to jump head-first into what was destined to be another graceful failure in God’s Greater Plan for me.
I guess I had nothing better to do.
The door to the Marlin Theatre came open with a loud creak; when I stepped inside I felt slightly relieved to see clean carpeting and a decently-furnished lobby. I looked around at the various posters – all hand-drawn – which served as a testament to this theater’s long legacy. I sat down in one of the overstuffed lounge chairs, leaned back, ignored the fact that I was squishing my tail, and relaxed.
Voices echoed through the room as I let the door come to a close: happy voices, I noted, complete with fits of laughter and joyous squeals. It sounded heavenly, especially to a rabbit who hadn’t heard much more than CNN and worried people calling on the telephone.
“Come on in!” a voice yelled out, “We’re all on stage.” I didn’t want to go on stage. I was more than happy to lounge out in the main lobby, take in the slightly stale air, and just say that I at least came out. That’d keep Joe off my back next time he called, at the very least.
Yes, I’d just sit in my little chair and take in the ambience for a while longer, I thought. That’s when I looked back down at the handwritten invitation and sighed. “I’m on my way out!” I yelled, jumping from my seat with a faked zeal. I had to fake a lot of things nowadays; without that touch of acting my friends would probably hound me every day until I bucked up and started enjoying life. I was a fine actor, in that way.
And yet I was too afraid to perform on stage, since the big-ears-and-tail fashion hit me.
I had nothing else to do!
Marlin Theatre wasn’t anything to write home about; I should tell you that right off the bat just so you aren’t expecting Radio City or Carnegie Hall. In its heyday it probably saw the smaller traveling Vaudeville acts, in that magical time when a night on the town meant taking in dinner and a live play. Damn fine times, in my opinion; I hate going to movies, but live performance just makes the air sing with a wonderfully intimate energy. It’s a damn shame that places like the Marlin have to scrape together cash to get by.
I stepped into the theatre itself and found it to be quite smaller than what I expected – and that wasn’t much. I guessed that it could possibly seat a hundred people, maybe a hundred and a half if they were sold out wall-to-wall. To either side of the stage gigantic organ pipes shot up to the sky; just to the side of stage I could see the top edge of a _very_ nice organ. The stage itself felt naked and incomplete, since the curtains were drawn so as to reveal the back wall, where black paint only covered what needed to be covered and emergency exit doors stuck out like metallic sore thumbs on the otherwise sacred and magical place one knows as a stage.
I’m a big fan of seeing the hidden secrets of a place, though. As a kid I was the rascal who would open every door in hopes that he’d find adventure. If I were still a kid this would be a exploration dream come true.
I suddenly realized that the crowd onstage was laughing. When I looked to them a flashily-dressed man squealed at me: “You going to join us, or what?”
Okay, so when I get off on a thinking tangent the real world goes bye-bye for a while. I blushed under my fur as I walked toward the stage, trying to smile and look like I was at ease. I wasn’t. There were ten blobs milling around on stage behind the flamboyant man up front, and I had no idea as to who or what they were – visual impairments strike again.
Then someone spoke the magic words that sent my heart a-fluttering: "That's the third rabbit today!" That was all I needed to hear; with a fluttering heart I ran down the aisle and cleared center stage with a single bound, nostrils flaring, trying to pick them out of the crowd. For all I knew they could just be in costume, like the lovely lady back at that costume party. But hope springs eternal.
And I didn't have anything better to do.
As soon as I stepped onto stage I found myself in a real motley crew of freaks, from lions to tigers to bears to children to women dressed as men... you name it, it was probably on that stage. They welcomed me with a gentle nod and a wave, and their mannerism casually said that formal introductions would just come later.
The flamboyantly-dressed man approached me with a big grin on his face. "Pleasure to have you, Austin... it is Austin, right?" I nodded. "Fantastic. I'm glad to see that you came out; the introverts are usually the ones you really need on your show." He meant to say rabbit -- I could hear it rumbling just behind his lips -- but beyond that the sentence had a lot of hidden meanings in it.
Part of me -- the part that loved to take on a challenge on the stage -- liked where the conversation was going. The other part wanted to curl up into the fetal position and run away to rabbit land, where exposure is gone -- or the times are very few.
"Ralph Callaway," he said after a moment's pause, and then offered his hand. I wanted to take it, but all I could do was touch his palm with my paw and wait for him to grab it. I couldn't make my paw grasp down. I was that nervous. "I'm the owner of the Marlin and director of 'Double Feature.'"
"Pleasure to meet you." I kept a smile on my face as we talked, even though my mind was totally blank. I didn't know what "Double Feature" was about; mind you, I read the pamphlet a few times and looked up the songs on the internet, but that was in a different state of mind.
But I wouldn't let on. Yeah, that's the ticket. I'd just follow the leader and hope no one noticed.
Ralph looked deeply into my eyes. He was well-groomed -- borderline dapper -- and had a face that, although it suffered from a few wrinkle lines here and there, probably went over quite well with the ladies. After a time he leaned back and said, "You have no idea what it's about, do you?"
I was like a rabbit caught in a bear trap.
But Ralph only laughed. "That's okay, Austin. There's not much to the show, anyway. The audition process is based on singing talent alone----"
"Singing talent," he said again. "You were in Four Quarts, weren't you?"
"I'll be damned," I mumbled to myself. Having a reputation can be _quite_ nice. "So...?"
"You're just the person I need to stand across from my other lead."
"You mean just the rabbit," I said, sighing.
"To be frank, yes." He grinned. "Barring a vocal audition, I'd like to cast you in right there."
"But I've never acted before."
He laughed long and hard. "Who said we needed actors? This is a musical cabaret, son. Roll with the punches and you're gonna love it."
The auction process didn't go a shade over five minutes; before it could go terribly far my co-star stepped into the room, pointed, and simply said "That's the rabbit." It was a done deal. We shook hands -- er, paws -- and I was officially a starring role on "Double Feature."
Oh, the others kept auditioning reguardless -- the director wouldn't let on that the roles were filled. After a bit, though, the conversation started to turn to backstage work and other non-stage positions, which many of the applicants jumped on.
Quite frankly, I would have gone for backstage work. At least I wouldn't have to deal with people.
The last time I had problems performing... man, it's hard to remember past the ears and tail thing. I mean, the rabbit thing naturally made performing damn near impossible and all, but before that it's just hard to remember. I think it was high school or something. Yeah, that sounds right. We were dancing some dorky song n' dance number in show choir -- "Keep the Candle Burning," I believe was the name -- and I just felt like shriveling up and dying when we went out to perform. I felt embarrassed to even be up there dancing those cheesy moves and singing those cheesy lyrics.
But the crowd applauded. That was all I needed.
I don't know... I guess performers have a personality all their own. We -- though I use the term loosely, for rabbithood kind of stole it away from me -- hold within ourselves a real gem of humanity, a small but powerful force that puts the sparkle back into a person's eyes.
We get a kick out of that one, especially; that's when you know you've done a good job.
If you really want to see performers at their best -- especially song and dance people -- group them together and put them into a dance setting. Within moments you'll find them acting like idiots, singing along with the songs, everyone dancing until they're blue in the face and not caring what anyone else thinks. It's entertainment; it's what we do; it's what we love.
God damn it, I miss it so!
I missed it so, I should say. I had a role in a production; in the next few weeks I'd have enough song and dance to last an average human being for at least three years, maybe more. Of course, that pivoted on the fact that I make it through the performance schedule without shriveling up on stage like I did with Four Quarts.
My money was on shriveling, but I was too stubborn to just give it up and save myself some trouble. Being hardheaded is a blessing and a curse.
I left the audition that day with a packet (no, a _book_) of music and a part tape. For the next week it was all I listened to, and by the end of that week I could remember every nuance of that cheesy MIDI melody, inside and out...
Okay guys, I been trying to be semi-serious, borderline Fitzhgerald-esque with this -- give it some dignity and all -- but that isn't gonna work. As I used to in kindergarten: "One, two, skip a few... ninety-nine, one hundred!"
The first real practice was a read and sing-through of all the pieces. When I walked in I found that everyone had taken to opposite corners of the theater, sitting anywhere and everywhere where they could be far away from everyone else. No one waved, said hello... nothing. It was like walking into a graveyard. SCABS could make a loner out of anybody, I swear; it's a damn shame.
Myself, well... I had been lonely for too long. With a deep breath I strutted forth, head on a swivel, looking for any semi-familiar face to sit near. It didn't take long, though, for my nose pointed me in the direction of a kind rabbit in the fourth row. He was the lead I talked about earlier, before I skipped a few; when I started walking toward him he seemed to snap out of his little trance and wave, patting the seat beside him. "Come on, Austin!" he said, his voice resounding in the silent room so loudly that my ears rang.
"Hopping joint," I replied, though my voice was a lot softer. He laughed softly and with a sparkling timbre that broke the ice _just so_. That was one of Ren Mitchell's star qualities, I guess; he had the golden tones that made you want to listen to him. He could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman wearing white gloves, and leave the woman thinking she got a steal of a deal.
As I sat down he cracked open his music binder to the contents page and smiled. "Look familiar?" I nodded. "Well, looks like we're going to be seeing a lot of each other. Name's Ren Mitchell."
"Austin Crowder." We shook hands. There was no reason to really introduce ourselves like that; I knew him, he knew me, and we knew more through each others' smells than a thousand words could have said. We did it because it felt proper. We did it out of pride. We did it to feel more human.
And we shared that insight with nothing more than a quick eyebrow raise and a gentle smile.
Ren didn't skip a beat. "Small group we got here: ten cast members total. I think we're on a tight budget."
I nodded and flipped through my packet. "Some of these numbers are gonna be spread mighty thin."
"Ralph'll make sure that it sounds good." He did the eyebrow raise again. "Trust me on that one."
"You could say that." He leaned back in his chair. "I've been keeping my ears to the ground, is all. This is the first role I've landed in a half-year."
"I see." We took a moment to take in the place, smelling the dry-rotting, musty crown molding, watching as paint slowly peeled away from the proscenium columns, heard the old curtains crunch and rustle as they swung this way and that. It was a dump.
And, if my experience in performing was any indication, it was going to be my home for the next few months. At least I wouldn't be lonely.
Besides, I had nothing else to do.
The door at the back squeaked, and as I turned back I found myself looking at a tiny raccoon in overalls. He carried himself with a proud gait and a focused look on his face. At the same time, though, I could see the sparkle in his eyes that just screamed imagination and bewilderment, the two luxuries of which kids have plenty to go around.
"They're all SCABS," Ren said matter-of-factly. "Every last member of this cast is a SCAB -- all ten of them."
He pointed to the peeling paint on the wall. "Budget seems to be a wee tight around here."
"I hear Ralph puts on a good show anyway." Ren laughed that golden laugh again. "It sounds like a joke, doesn't it? What do you get when you take eight animorphs, two gendermorphs, and a chronomorph into a broken-down theatre?"
"That makes eleven."
He pointed to the boy. "That 'kid' counts twice."
"Welcome to the real world." He took a deep breath as if he were going to say more, but before he could one of the side curtains pulled away to reveal Ralph, all smiles, a loud orange button-up shirt making him stick out like a construction sign He shuffled out onto stage with his arms waving, satin pants catching the house lights, making him shimmer like a beacon. "Come on now!" he squealed, "We can't have you all out there at the ends of the Earth, now can we? You're _stars_. Get up here and act like it!"
No one moved.
"Now now..." the man looked like a fairy, the way he shuffled to and fro. "We've got plenty of chairs here by the piano. Now bring up your folders and have yourselves a seat so we can get started!"
There was a community groan as we complied. Not two seconds after we moved Ralph calmed down and said in a simple voice: "About time. I wasn't sure how much longer I could keep that up."
So we had a real comedian on our hands. Great.
We took our seats around the piano as Ralph plucked out a few chords. "I assume you've all looked over your music -- that'll help expedite matters. Let's warm up and get this show on the road, hmm? We'll start with some lip buzzers..."
I should just say that, if you ever want to look at a singer seriously ever again, never watch them warm up. From lip buzzing we went to sirens (swing from the highest note in your register to the lowest and back again) to stupid phrases like "momma made me mash my M&Ms" while acting as if they were the most important things we had ever done. The voice needs warmed up just like any other muscle in the body, after all, even though the methods are pretty crazy.
After about five minutes of idiotic drills Ralph finally stood from the piano. "Okay! So we have one, two..." his fingers ran along the two rows of people. "Nine. We're missing an alto somewhere..."
Suddenly the doors at the back came bursting open, and I found myself looking at a blur of blonde fur. "Sorry I'm late!" a very female voice screamed out. I squinted at her as she bounded up to the stage, trying to get a feel for what she probably looked like, hoping she would move closer…
And when she finally did come within my twenty-foot focus range I realized I was looking at beauty personified. When she flipped her floppy ear out of her face and sighed I had to force myself to pull my eyes away.
“I hope I’m not being too much of bother,” she said. As the words left her mouth they left a glistening smile, the likes of which could melt any man’s heart, given half a chance. When she looked over to the two rabbits on the end of the singers’ arc she must have thought of me a a giant cod, with my mouth hanging open and eyes popped clear out of my head… Yet she just nodded and winked to me.
“They’re all SCABS,” I reminded myself. I wouldn’t find a kind lady hiding under a dream bunny’s disguise. In the eternally useful analogy of baseball and dating, I had the chance to knock one out of the park.
Let’s just say this: I hoped like hell she was single.
Ralph stepped over to her, took her paws into his own hands in that oh-so-artsy-fartsy way, and let out a gentle chuckle. “As long as you’re here, Sandy, that’s all that matters. Take a seat over there by your co-stars and we’ll get started.”
Sandy. Oh, what a wonderful name Sandy was! I whispered it to myself a few times, just to see how it felt in my mouth. It had mystique; it had boldness; it had a silent power that made me feel as if I could rely on her for whatever I needed…
Sandy also had a certain warmth, the realization of which only came after she took the chair closest to me, making it so that our legs couldn’t help but touch. “Austin, correct?” I nodded (there wasn’t much else I could do, being in the shellshocked state I was in) and before I could do anything else she wrapped her arms around me.
“I’m sorry about what happened to you at that party,” she said. “I am – was – one of Janice’s good friends, and she told me the whole thing. What she did was _terrible_.”
She was right, I guess. I wasn’t thinking very clearly, what with a female-smelling rabbit clinging to me so tightly. It was about as close to someone as I had been for a month, at the very least. It felt very good indeed to be that close once again.
The moment was broken by Ralph clapping his hands and approaching the group’s little arc. “Okay, folks! We’re going to start with the theme from ‘Grease’; just sit and sing the first time through, then we’ll talk blocking and dancing. And… from the top!”
We finished our chorus practice in two hours, give or take -- it was just a quick sing-through minus all the time-consuming cleaning that we'd inevitably end up working. From there we were split off into smaller groups and sent forth with tape players and backup tapes of our solo numbers, so that we could have a chance to run it through with whoever we wanted to run with.
Myself, I paired right off with Sandy. With a suave smile, bright, shining eyes, I gave her the romantic, "Let me take your hand in mine" sort of gesture that was sure to make her heart melt into my hands. And, from what I could tell, she was eating it up.
That, or she was laughing on the inside. I've never been _that_ good a judge of character, after all -- especially when it came to women. Not like they made it easy; women are to men as quantum mechanics is to a kindergartener or Shakespeare to a native Spanish speaker.
Of course, that didn't mean that I had to act confused in the slightest. No, in fact I'd be quite the opposite. "I guess we'll be spending a good deal of time together," I said, my demeanor all smiles and suaveness.
"I couldn't think of anyone I'd rather spend it with," I said tenderly. Yeah, that's the ticket. Chicks really dig that one.
It seemed to hit home pretty well; she giggled and turned away, blushing under her sandy brown fur. "You're too kind, Austin."
"You'll find a lot of nice things about me," I said.
"And maybe, if I spend enough time with you, I may even find some tactfulness under that thick skin." Ouch. I backed away, sighing. "That's better, Tiger." With that she went about setting up the tape player and her music, giving me the cold shoulder with a quick flick of her tail.
"I'm terribly sorry," I said after a second's silence. "It's one of my problems, I guess; I get a woman in my sights and I just lose all sense of reason."
"You're lonely." She said it without even looking; if she would have she could have even seen my mouth gape. "I bet that's the problem. Well, Austin, I can tell you this much: you are not the only one. Some of us just can't blindly trust the first person we meet, see. You're pretty lucky there."
"Maybe." I sighed. "It usually leaves me burned."
"Could be worse." She laughed an uncomfortable bark of a laugh. "But that will have to wait for another time, when we have some time to relax and enjoy ourselves..."
"I could the two of us going out for coffee sometime," I replied simply, quickly. "My treat."
She smiled. "Nice try, but I'd rather test the water first. How about we hold off until after the first dress rehearsal?"
"I can live with that."
"Good. Consider it something to look forward to." And with that she flipped the play switch on the tape and buried herself in her music. She was hiding a giddy smile and a light heart, I could tell.
And that's when it hit me: I had just got lucky.
The practices sucked.
Hold on, I should be more specific. The performers sucked, and sucked badly. After a while the directing crew began to expand to include voice coaches, dancing coaches, and so many other helpers that it scared me a bit. I had been in musicals and performances before, yes, but up until then I hadn’t seen this much support for a small production.
After all: we had ten performers. The director-to-performer ratio often touched two to one, sometimes even more. The chorus numbers became tedious nightmares of blocking and repetition, where we would often sing one line for hours on end while dancing the same move, until everyone on stage could do it while blindfolded and hopping on one foot.
That’s not to say that I don’t like dancing – quite the contrary. But when I have to repeat a simple step-turn while singing “I saw my problems and I see the light” for ten minutes straight I start to get bored.
The small group numbers, on the other hand, were a blast to practice. Ren apparently had enough of a reputation to take control of our solo numbers. And, since he and I both were good musicians, we could really move along at a good clip. Most of the time we were cleaning, experimenting with blocking, playing off each other like actors that had known each other for years.
Sandy was no small marvel, herself. When we sang together I could really play off her emotions and make the lyrics really sing. We had a few simple duets from "Little Shop of Horrors," where I got to do my best Rick Moranis and she got to be the defenseless little woman at my side -- and, needless to say, I liked it.
No one said it at those practices, but I could tell that there was one theme running through our minds: “Other rabbits really _do_ exist, and they're good people."
And what good people they were!
Our Green room practices kept me coming back for more, time and time again. We just managed to have a great time with ourselves. Sometimes Sandy would pluck away at the piano -- she was one hell of a player, might I add -- while Ren and I sang whatever came to mind. When we got tired we'd flop down a gigantic pile of fur and munch on the leftovers of a relish tray from the pre-practice meal, talking about nothing in particular.
Yes, past the chorus numbers life passed in a wonderful and dream-like way. It wasn't until the dress rehearsals that reality managed to catch up with me.
It was a Friday night.
I remember that above all else, because Sandy and I had tentatively planned the date on that night. Ralph had said that there was a possibility of rehearsal that night, of course, but Sandy had agreed to take a chance in hopes that we'd get the night off.
While I got dressed for our first number my mind ran over tens of thousands of possible date scenarios, places in which my debonair style would melt Sandy's heart, leaving her to fall into my arms. She was quite a catch, as you'll find out as this little spiel goes on; quite a catch indeed. If the musical were never to be performed before a live audience I would be happy, as long as I had Sandy's number.
I guess Ren was worth the price of admission too. And Ralph. And the rest of the crew, if I stretched it a bit.
But I was definitely digging Sandy.
We blocked ourselves out on stage for the opening number -- an exercise in ingrained memory more than anything else, for our opener was one of the most practiced numbers in the chorus rehearsals. Some nights we'd practice the moves until the early morning, at which time Ralph would roll out cots so that we could get a better start in the morning.
No one minded, of course. We were a rag-tag group of SCABS -- there wasn't anything better to do, as things stood.
Anyway, we all stood behind the curtains, all wearing a rendition of the forties' leather jacket getup, gelled back headfur and ears, a perfect picture of a time when fast cars and drive-ins ruled pop culture. And, as we stood in place silently waiting for our opening cue, I ran the words to my solo over and over in my head.
I had been in the same situation before, see. I tried to tell Ralph that letting me start the whole show was a bad idea in and of itself, but he insisted. "You've got the voice!" he said as I tried to tell him otherwise, "Just go out there and sing your heart out; that's all you gotta do. Go out and enjoy yourself."
I nodded. It was so easy in theory, after all; sing a song, get applause. Action, reaction, stimulus-response; after all, it worked for Pavlov's dogs, didn't it? Why couldn't it work for me too?
Because I'm a scared little rabbit, and my only courage comes when I need to admit it.
Nonetheless, I stood proud behind that curtain awaiting that first note. Maybe it was going to be a simple thing; after all, we practiced this number for hours on end. All I had to do was let my body go on autopilot and try to ignore the fact that I was standing out in the middle of a wide open space, exposed for the whole world to see, all alone...
That's when the first note hit. As soon as I heard it my body froze in place, while the rest of the cast spread out as we practiced. My stomach churned as the measures ticked away until my entrance: five bars, two bars, one bar, one note.
Nothing came form my throat.
The music seemed tinny and empty, in that big and cavernous room, especially without a lead voice to move it along. The band below played on without me, the cast danced their moves, but I just stood frozen in place, my mind doing the motions and my body refusing to move an inch.
For ten agonizing measures I stood out there, frozen in place, surrounded by silent dancers and a backup band without a lead. It was embarrassing. It was terrifying. It was an affirmation of my place.
When the music came to a stop and I was dragged off stage, I realized just how much I hated it. It was at that moment that I came to realize just how fargone I had become.
It was that moment that I made my decision.
I always wondered what it'd be like to disappear.
Death’s not something you can ignore, especially when you’re a rabbit. If I had my ‘druthers I’d think of death in the Latin American tradition: as a joke. Diego Rivera did more for Mexico by making them laugh at death than cable TV has done for American mush-minds – he helped them let go of their dignity.
Come to think of it, rabbitdom takes a lot of that dignity from your body, too. After all, it was my rabbit instincts that made me freeze before I could even begin, destroyed my “show must go on” attitude, thereby throwing fifteen years of stage experience and intuition into a shredder, tossed the bloody remains into a toilet, and flushed it with a careless flick of the wrist. It was those long ears and cute, puffy tail that had torn all that I held dear from my person.
It was the rabbit’s fault, I told myself, that damn rabbit was the reason I was waiting around an empty Merle Theatre, my oversensitive nostrils taking in the foul stench of rotten wood and peeling paint, eyes stinging from tears and throat tight with suppressed sobs.
Yes, that was the reason Austin was going to disappear.
Ralph stepped out from behind the curtain, all smiles. He whistled as he walked from one end of the stage to the other, flipping switches and tidying up piles of props as he went. I stood at the back of the theatre, patiently waiting for him to acknowledge me, secretly hoping he would just fire me on the spot so that I could get on with life.
Or get it over with. I still wasn’t sure.
He continued to twitter to and fro. I cleared my throat and still he didn’t notice me. I took a step forward and cleared my throat, only to be ignored again. I took another step forward, cleared my throat, and knocked on the nearest chair, and he finally raised his head.
When his eyes met mine, there were devoid of that sparkle. “Come now, Austin. If you’re going to talk to me you’re going to be a man about it, not a rabbit.”
“That is how you want to be treated, right?’ his glare pierced through me. “If so, consider this a slap to the face. You needed one.”
“You didn’t seem the type.”
“I can play a bad guy if I have to,” Ralph said, with a wink. “But I can be nice, too. Pull up a chair and we’ll talk. Like men.”
I covered the rest of the way between me and the stage with a few hops; in the meantime, Ralph set up the piano bench and a folding chair in the middle of the stage, where a single can light shone down. Beyond that tiny circle of light sat a void of darkness: open, exposed, dangerous darkness.
As much as I wanted to turn tail and run away, I kept going.
“I figured we could try to set an appropriate mood,” Ralph said as I stepped into the light. Almost immediately the world around faded to black as my eyes adjusted to the flood of light. “I’ve always been a fan of the one-on-one, limited lighting scene. There’s a sort of mystique to it, don’t you think?”
“I can’t do this musical,” I blurted.
Ralph sighed. “Not one for small talk? Darn. I was hoping you stayed around to keep me company while I cleaned up. It was a good first dress rehearsal, all told. You all should be proud.”
“I didn’t even perform.”
“First time jitters,” Ralph said with a smile.
“I’ve been in theatre for fifteen years.”
“But have you done so as a rabbit?” Ralph said, but immediately apologized. “I’m sorry; would you prefer ‘man-rabbit’? I can do that, if you wish.”
“Just call me mud,” I said with a snicker.
Ralph put a hand on my shoulder. “We won’t have that kind of talk here. Before you can say another thing, you have to point out something positive about your performance today.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Remember that you’re on my payroll,” Ralph said.
I sighed. “Okay. I made it through the first measure without flipping out.”
“Is that an improvement?” I fidgeted in my seat, and he nodded. “Okay, so we just have to make progress one measure at a time. Tomorrow we’ll put you out on stage to just dance the moves, then we’ll let you sing----”
“You’re not getting the point.”
“----If that doesn’t work, we can make a side stage for you, as a confidence builder. Or we could go and do some streetside stuff – all chorus numbers, mind you, but it’d be enough to get your confidence up.” He was leaning halfway over his piano bench as he said the words. “How’s that strike you?”
“Look, I know you want to help me and all, but…” I let my shoulders sag. “There’s no good reason to even keep me on the show. I’m a risk you can’t take. Hire an understudy to take my place.” I waited for Ralph to nod in agreement, to give me a handshake and a send-off…
But Ralph didn’t move. “You will perform in ‘Double Feature,’ Austin. I can see in your eyes that you want to do it; all you have to do is overcome a little fear. That’s all.”
“There’s no reason for me to stay here.”
“If I insist that you stay, that’s reason enough.” He smiled. “Now go home and get some rest; I expect to see you here bright and early for tomorrow’s practice.”
“And if I don’t?”
“I send Sandy after you.” He winked. “And let’s just say that, from one performer to another, hell hath no fury like that woman’s scorn.”
I flinched. “Point taken.”
“Good boy.” He stood from his piano bench and offered his hand. “Don’t worry about anything, Austin; this will work out in the end. Trust me.” We shook hands, and suddenly I realized that I had been suckered right back into the lead role, for better or worse.
Deep down inside, I was ecstatic.
Sandy took me out for coffee that night.
I never drink coffee; the stuff's supposed to be murder on a lapine system. Besides, what's the point of drinking the charred waste of some dry, bitter old beans? Before you can even start to drink you have to saturate the stuff with flavoring -- creamer, sugar, more sugar --- and each sip leaves you with a puckered face and the want for water to wash the whole thing down.
But I let Sandy order two coffees, and I kept up with her sip for sip. If she would have raised a glass of Drain-O I would have knocked it back all the same.
It was a quaint little place, that café. It was so quaint that I forgot about the name. Put me within two hundred feet of it, though, and I could tell you by the smell. The air had the pungent aroma of coffee lanced with the must of antiquity, like those mom-n-pop establishments that become fleeting memories of childhood, romances past, lazy summer days and long summer nights.
We sat at a second floor table perched over a bay window, so that we could watch the world go by outside. It was dark; we couldn't see a thing past the soft reflection of the café in glass, distorted and superimposed on the black void beyond. The chairs, surprisingly enough, were comfortable even by rabbit standards, with open backs to accompany tails and stitching that didn't tear your fur out each time you resituated on the cushion.
The chairs smelled nice, too; that was more important than anything else. It could have open tears and lint balls crawling all over the fabric and I'd still love it, as long as it smelled right.
For the first few minutes it was enough to just sit across from her, taking in the aroma of a good cup o' joe, and letting my mind record every little detail of Sandy's body. I let my mind lose itself in her bright blue eyes, eyes that pulled me in and held on tight, engaging and enchanting all at once. She held her mug with dainty paws, her mannerisms polite and a mite bit sexy. She smiled a gentle and subtle smile after every sip of coffee; whenever her cup touched her lips I would just stare and wait for the beautiful gesture to shine through. Her fur shimmered as she moved, I noticed; it seemed to move with her like a good silk gown, making my eyes and mind dance with delight. A Rex rabbit, she was, and oh what a wonderful Rex she came out to be!
"I love this place," Sandy said at last. Her voice rang out like bells on the café's rich air. "It's the cornerstone of this neighborhood; without it the slums would eat this city block alive, just like they did with the Merle."
I nodded. It was best not to say anything, lest I put my foot in my mouth. And mind you, that would be a _mighty_ big foot.
"It's too bad, too. Theater is becoming a lost art; the public doesn't want to make a night of watching a performer sing their heart out on stage. I hear it all the time: 'I'd love to come see you, Sandy, but money's tight. I can't afford to spend twenty bucks on a ticket, ten on dinner and five more for parking.'" She let out a bark of a laugh. "And why should they? You can get this stuff for free on cable, after all."
I sighed. "It's not the same."
"Try telling that to your average Joe." Sandy shook her head and somehow managed to keep an aura of beauty, despite the sadness in her eyes. With a shrug she nodded toward the bakery counter. "Max is working tonight; in a bit he'll probably come up and wait on us. Order anything you want; I'm buying."
"You really shouldn't----"
"Oh, but I insist." She winked at me. "After all, we are on a date."
She leaned in close, eyes wide with expectation. "Try me." Ralph's warning came to mind at that very moment, and I just nodded in affirmation.
"What is there to get here?" I asked in a neutral voice.
"It's all on the menu down there."
"The one behind the counter." She stared at me as if I were an imbecile. "What are you, blind?"
Okay, so I've heard that one before. I've heard it a lot, come to think of it. That doesn't mean it still can't hurt. With a heavy sigh I looked deep into her bright, blue, innocent, fun-intending eyes and said, "I'm closer than you'd think. Could you read them for me?"
Her face turned sour. "Oh God, Austin. I didn't mean to offend you. I mean, I didn't know..."
"No one knows," I finished for her. "I'm the stubbornest damned blind man you'll ever meet, Sandy. If I weren't feeling so bad I'd probably have just listened in on what other people were ordering and choose something along the same lines."
"It's better than being coddled," I said coldly. "But I've asked you a favor. Would you do me the pleasure of spotting?"
"Certainly." And she started reading the menu items straight through. Spotting: that was my name for it. When you ask for someone to read far-off signs for you at least once a day for your entire life the act sort of deserves a name. Spotting, for me, is like tapping out, like giving up on my stubborn need to be independent and – dare I say it -- normal.
But now I’m dating a rabbit and still managing to find someone within my species. So much for normal.
Nothing sounded good to me, I thought as I listened to her run through the list. Nonetheless, when Max dropped by our table I asked for a coffee cake. He and Sandy went off on a little tangent, talking about the little things that good friends talk about. I just kept my mouth shut and patiently waited for Max to leave.
“I’ll introduce him later,” Sandy said. She was laughing about something Max said – an inner joke, I believe. “You’d like him.”
She had no idea what I would like or not like, I thought to myself. Absolutely no idea at all. "Why'd you bring me here?" I asked over my mug. I watched as my breath carried wisps of steam off into the café's smoky atmosphere.
“Because we had a date?” She was smooth, that was for sure; there was just enough edge on the words to make it cute. And, as the words rolled off her tongue, I realized I was hanging on her every word.
I thought it was the guy’s job to be suave as all hell.
There’s no reason I couldn’t _try_ to be that debonair little man, I thought to myself. With a little chuckle I sipped my mug and “savored” the bitter taste before replying: “My dear, you and I both know that there’s more to this.”
“Oh?” She grinned. “Do tell.”
And that’s when my mind went blank.
“Well…” I started, the word feeling like molasses in my mouth. "You're a very nice young lady, and I'm sure you're very well off and all..." I choked. "Well, I mean that you're probably mentally stable -- not meaning that you could possibly be wacky, of course -- but ----"
"Does it have to be about me?" Sandy asked. "If you'd prefer it could be about you. I'm flexible."
"No, no!" I leaned back and put my paws out in front of me, waving them frantically. "Dearest heavens, no!"
"Interesting phrase," she replied, winking. "Sounds contrived, almost like you've got something to hide."
"That's what rabbits do best."
"That's why I can see right through you." She beamed. Our pastries came out then; we spent a few seconds to ourselves, nibbling away at the little sweets with a sinful smile on our faces. My doc said that I could eat anything I could eat as a human without risk of dying, but some foods would make me sicker than a dog the next day. Two of the big culprits just so happened to be cakes and coffees; as I ate I felt as if I were telling my rabbit side to go to hell.
I liked it.
Sandy finished off her little biscotti with the third bite; when it was gone she put down her napkin and leaned toward me. "Now, we have two possible choices for this date. One: we can sit here and stab at small talk for a few hours, learn nothing, and come away with each of us thinking that the other is stiff and shallow."
She shrugged at that. "We can just skip the subtleties and make some real progress. Pretty simple, no?" A woman of action. I had a gob-be-damned woman of action on my hands. And to think I considered such a beast a contradiction of terms!
"I like how you think," I said. I could feel the dimples in my cheeks deepen as I said the words. "and I think we can narrow this conversation down in one way and one way alone."
Her eyebrow rose an inch. "And what would this be?"
"You go first." I took a big bite of my coffee cake in the most spiteful way possible.
I grinned. "An efficient one, no less."
Sandy leaned back in her chair, giving me a free chance to see her beauty stretched out to it's full glory. "You're funny, you know that? You may be all take and no give, but funny nonetheless." Her gaze drifted to the far wall. "I don't know, Austin. Ever feel like you're giving your blood, sweat, and tears for something that no one cares about?"
My heart skipped a beat as memories of Four Quarts came back to my mind. "You have no idea," I replied to her. My mind still churned those awful, awful nightmares on a daily basis, facsimiles of a scene I'd rather die than remember in full. To think that I was performing when only a month ago I ran off stage like a scared little child...
"You okay?" she asked. Before I even realized what she was going she had her hand on my shoulder, and her eyes staring into mine worriedly.
I let out a half chuckle as she stared. "Sure, Sandy. Why do you ask?"
"Because... your eyes..." she sighed. "Doesn't matter. I'm sure it was just a memory."
"I guess so."
She let out a curse. "We sure are socially inept beasts, aren't we? I mean, look at us. You're sandbagging some deep emotional pain, and you refuse to bring it out. It'd be great to get this stuff off my chest, but I just can't bring myself to say a damn thing! What in the hell is wrong with us?"
I grinned. "I don't have an answer for that question, but I think I may know something that could help."
She sneered. "And what would that be?"
Before she could protest I leaned out of my seat and sidestepped the table. From there it was a simple matter of leaning forward, reaching out with open arms, and taking her into my embrace. I waited there for what felt like an eternity, feeling her body tense up with surprise, listening intently for the sound of her breath, which stopped when my fur touched hers. She felt warm in my arms; it was the kind of warmth that made a heart flutter, turned minds to jelly, gave a man the strength he needed to tackle any and everything in his way.
And, with a little half-laugh, half-sigh, she wrapped her arms around me tightly. We stayed like that for an eternity, my paws rubbing her back, her paws rubbing mine. I felt her heart beat through her breast, fluttering against my chest, giving me strength where I thought all was lost. I rested my head against her shoulder, and my long ears flopped over my face as my body went numb with the warm feeling of acceptance.
As we hugged, I felt wetness form on my shoulder. Not that I could complain; I left quite a puddle on her shoulder, myself.
Practice fell into a predictable rhythm after a while; Ren and Sandy were more than willing to practice in a separate room with me, and Ralph was all too understanding of my situation. For all I expected them to, not one snide comment came from the cast
Then again, I didn't really talk to many cast members outside of Sandy and Ren. It comes with the whole "I'm scared out of my wits to perform" thing, I guess; when I talk to them they talk about the musical, and my mind just freezes up. I don’t _try_ to think about it, mind you, but sometimes... well...
I hate stage fright with a passion.
Ren seems to have no problem performing; in fact, for all intents in purposes he's a veritable performance machine. Every move, every tiny facial expression, every note that pours forth from his throat is smooth like butter. Watching him on stage is like watching poetry in motion. And, just when you think he may start to get boring, his versatility shines through and suddenly he's a different character entirely.
He always acts happy on stage... well, I shouldn't say act. Ren _is_ happy on stage; you can see it in the way he carries himself, the sort of detail you can't quite act. Add that to the fact that Ren is a genuine nice guy and you have one damn fine man.
Quite frankly, I'm jealous.
He would often walk to my house after our weekly run-throughs (sin my numbers). It was safer that way; a lone rabbit in this modern world is just asking for trouble, what with all the predators and muggers and other nasty people just waiting around the next corner. I always felt better when I was with someone else -- call it instinct -- but Ren had something more to offer me.
Ren was a friend.
More importantly, Ren was a friend of Austin the rabbit. He wasn't with me out of pity, or because it would be rude to break relations with a man just because he grew a coat of fur; Ren was just there for Austin, simple as that. He was the acquaintance I never thought I'd have, someone who understood me from the first day...
Then again, we had only known each other for about a month. And our conversations hadn't stretched beyond the musical and our little walks. Considering how much we practiced, though, that was a large stretch of time indeed.
We had practically lived with each other for weeks on end, stuck in a musty old theatre for long and boring practice sessions, and we didn't hate each other yet. From my experience with musicals I'd call that quite an accomplishment.
We were walking to my house, same as we did most every night. There was a dense layer of fog that draped over the world, leaving us alone in the middle of the street. It was just cool enough to be comfortable: not too warm, not too cold, just wonderful late autumn night weather.
We were on the final stretch toward my house; as we moved, I started taking to hopping. When Ren stared I just said "It's more comfortable, sometimes. Hopping entertains my lapine side, and helps to keep it out of the way." Then, with a half-grin, I added, "After all, I'm not nearly as lucky as you are."
He grinned. "I groom myself just like a rabbit would, night after night. We all have our own ways of dealing with it."
"And yet you manage to carry yourself without fear."
"Oh, that?" he shrugged. "I'm just good at ignoring my better judgment; if it were up to my right mind I'd be as scared and timid as you are."
My heart skipped a beat. He knew the secret to beating the rabbit in me! "How do you overcome it?" I asked, almost stumbling over my own words.
Ren shook his head and looked off into the distance. "I slap myself."
"Yes." He pantomimed the motion, his paw rapping his jawbone with a loud thump. "What you do is give yourself a couple of really good shots to the jaw; they clear your head up real nice-like. Then, before your rabbit instincts can cinch back down on your brain, you get out on stage and start singing. Then performance adrenalin takes over."
"Yep." He patted me on the shoulder. "That's what works for me, Austin; for you, it may be something entirely different. Maybe you need to vomit, or go outside and get some fresh air -- I've even seen a performer who flips the crowd off before every performance."
"Gives them the finger?"
"Helps him relax," he said with a shrug. "I just don't ask, sometimes. I've got my performance routine down pat: that's all that matters."
I nodded. We walked for a few blocks in silence. After a time, I finally jumped back in with a question: "What did you do for a living, Ren?"
"I'm sorry for assuming," I said. "I didn't mean it to sound bad. I just thought that... well, the musical is such a large time commitment..."
"Of course." He sighed. "I was going to be a teacher."
"What a masochistic idea," Ren said with a grin. "Teaching requires more patience and natural ability than most professions, and yet we get paid terribly for our service. Myself, I was told that I was smart enough to go make a decent living."
I laughed. "Sounds like we have a lot in common."
"You gotta do what you gotta do." Ren snickered. We turned off the sidewalk and onto my porch at that point; as I stepped onto my porch Ren turned with a heavy sigh and started walking.
"Hold on!" I screamed after him. But he kept walking on and on, out of my sight and into the fog beyond.
The show had more than it’s share of problems, I noticed. Most of the ballads fell flat any time we sang them, at which time Ralph would just shift to another song as if it weren’t a big deal. I’m worried about those numbers; ballads are the songs people remember. I don’t want them remembering something that sounded like shit.
Ralph just keeps saying that it’ll all work out in time. He’s right – I’ve been in more than my fair share of musicals-by-the-seat-of-your-pants – but that still doesn’t mean I have to like it. I’d prefer to get all the songs nailed down before putting on a performance, but that’s just me.
Practice seemed strained, too. The group had naturally split into these cliques: you had the gender and age regressed morphs; you had the predators; you had the equines; you had the rabbits. We got along just fine when we had to. Once the chorus numbers were done for the night, though, we’d all split off and do our own thing.
I did bump into the kid raccoon on one of Ralph’s “take five” breaks. (“Take five,” he says, never saying if it’s five minutes or five seconds.) We were sitting in the front row, water bottles held tightly in our paws, looking up at the stage.
“It’s looking better,” I said in my kid-friendly, overly excited voice. He didn’t seem to take offense to it, thankfully; something about his expression even said that he _enjoyed_ being treated as a kid. “The stage crew’s been working late to touch up the paint and such.”
Mark – that was his real name. Back before SCABS he was a chemical engineer working a nine to five at Lily. Thanks to memory regression that was all just a strange dream, something that would be adventurous and fun, the kind of job every little boy would love to have. He had no memory of being anything successful – may never have a memory, if SCABS freezes his body at this age. He may live the rest of his life in a nine-year-old world where life is one big game.
I envy him.
Everyone here knew him as Kyle. Kyle the kit. Kitcoon. He was our little boy, the one exception to the clique rule. _Everyone_ spoiled him, be it with friendly chitter or candy or little gifts or what-have-you. And he was cute enough to deserve every little bit of what he received.
“It doesn’t smell bad no more,” the coon said.
I made a big act of sniffing the air. “That’s right! I bet you they fixed up the wood real nice. The audience will love it.”
“They will?” He looked at me with big, wide, sparkling eyes. “Do you think they’ll like the show, Austin?”
I lied. “Absolutely. We’re going to be a real hit, Kyle. People will love it all.”
“You think they’ll like ‘Dog eat Dog’?” That was Kyle’s number. He was so damned cute when he was performing it, you could almost forget that it was written for Les Miz, one of the most depressing musicals to ever grace the stage.
In all reality, Kyle’s act was this Double Feature’s ace in the hole. “Like it? If they don’t give you a huge ovation, they’re either deaf or dead.”
I winked at him. Little boys loved it; it made them feel included on a big secret.
“Great!” He giggled a kid’s giggle. “Mommy thinks I’ll do well, too, but mommies always think you’re going to do well. That’s their job.”
“It is?” I laughed long and hard. Kids say the darndest things! “Who is your mommy, Kyle?”
He pointed across the stage to the gendermorph, beaming. “She said she’d be my mommy. She said that she needed someone to love. She’s nice.”
“I bet so.” I said. As we watched Ashley shifted her weight from one foot to another, scratched herself, and let loose with a belch. A real lady, I thought to myself, but stopped the train of thought before it could get any further. Ashley was still learning the finer points of woman hood.
She was learning how to be a woman.
Kyle was learning how to be a kid again.
“She says we need money. She says I’m doing good on stage.” He looked deep into my eyes. “You think she’ll let me keep doing this? I really, _really_ want to!”
“I’m sure of it,” I said with a big grin. “You’re good at this, you know.”
“Yeah. And, between you and me…” I leaned in close – boys love secrets – and whispered, “I’d say you’re the _real_ star of the show, but let’s keep that between you and me.”
“Wow!” Yeah, I was spoiling him again. It was hard not to spoil the kid, he was so damned cute and loveable. “That’s so cool! I’ve never been the star of anything before, Austin – really, I haven’t! I wanna be a star and have a limo and get my picture taken, just like the real ones! Then people will talk to me like I’m all growed up!”
“It may happen, too.” I wasn’t lying about that, either; he had the cute looks and the general chipper attitude that would make a good child star. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in small commercials within the year, with TV or – dare I say it – film in the near future. He lost one good life and fell into another.
There was a long silence between us before Kyle shifted in his seat, his bushy tail flipping around as he moved. “Mommy keeps me safe,” he said, as if we had been talking about it the entire time. “I’s not scared when she’s there with me.”
“Oh really?” I just went with the flow and let him talk; no reason to say “She wasn’t always a she” or any other number of harsh words I could possibly have thrown out there, just to make myself feel a little less down and out. Better to let the kid talk his little head off until we were called back on stage for the next run-through of “All that Jazz.”
“She takes care of me,” Kyle said simply. “When I didn’t have a mommy, I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. She keeps me safe and happy.” Then, as an afterthought, “She even leaves the night light on for me when she tucks me in.”
“Sounds like she’s good at scaring off the boogeyman,” I replied.
“She’s the only one that can!” He took a deep breath as if he were going to say more, but before he could continue Ralph called us back up onto stage. I fell in behind Kit, watching him bound around like a kid in a candy store. He’s just a kid – a lowly little kid! – and yet he manages to end up with confidence, optimism, good friends, and more than I could possibly ever dream of.
Damn it all, I was _jealous_.
Sandy and I practiced long into the night.
We had two duet numbers on the show, her and me. Earlier that night we had practiced “You’re the One that I Want,” a song from Grease with a real slick beat. Ralph has us running the thing over and over again until the live instrumental combo was in perfect sync with our every nuance – in other words, we worked until the number was smoking hot.
And it wasn’t the only thing that was smoking, mind you; if I were still human I’d have been dripping with sweat. As it stood I was panting madly, listening to the frantic of sound of blood flowing through my ears in a desperate attempt to give off most all the heat in my body. It was never enough to really keep me cool, though, so much so that I thought we were performing in a steam room, and by the end of the number I found myself gasping for breath under my performer’s smile.
Thankfully, there was plenty of water and mist fans located offstage for that very reason. I had a lawn chair pulled right up to the fan, and whenever I had a chance Ralph wanted me to sit right there and cool down. “That heat can sneak up on you,” Ralph kept preaching, “When you’re out on stage you forget about your better sense and do some really stupid stuff. We can’t afford you passing out in the middle of a number.”
He was right, of course, but after the repetitions he put us through I didn’t really feel as if I could screw up on stage. Every step, every note, every song cue was ingrained deep into the fabric of my mind, so much so that I could stop thinking and my body would keep performing.
So Ralph knew exactly how to treat a rabbit performer. It seemed like he had a lot of successful experience, gauging by Sandy and Ren. They ranted and raved about his abilities day in and day out.
The cast had already gone home. Ralph had retired to his private office (“Emphasis on the private,” he always said) and left us to finish working out the details to “Suddenly, Seymour.” The song was a fun little duet, simple and yet very transparent, requiring Sandy and I to blend extremely well if we wanted any hopes of the song going well.
We wanted to get a feel for the number’s performance, so Sandy ducked into the costume closet to dig up our clothes for the number. I ended up with a white dress shirt and a sweater vest, topped off with black horned rim glasses and khaki slacks that hiked well above my ankles.
But she… Oh, my. She came out in this plain little blouse and conservative denim skirt, the kind of thing you’d expect to see on a staunchly independent career girl running errands in the big city. It made her look empowered yet fragile, goal-oriented yet sensitive – compassionate, even. Her ears were slicked back and hidden under a poofy, red, curly-haired wig that gave her profile a unique edge.
She looked at me with big, glassy eyes that seemed deeper than eternity. She was in love. My heart skipped a beat, then two beats.
"Pity we don't get to do this more," she said with a half-grin. "You'd make a great Seymour, and I'd make a great Audrey. Not so?"
She was in character.
I winced. "Yeah, you're right. I kinda wish I could be someone else out here. Might make things easier." I whished she wasn’t in character. I hoped she wasn’t in character.
"We should have done a real musical."
"It's not our call," I said in a flat voice. I hoped I didn’t sound dejected.
"Right." She stepped daintily out to the front edge the stage, managing to look strong and venerable at the same time. “Henry’s gonna spot you through most of this number,” she said in a soft voice. “You’re going to sing to the crowd until I come in, then you sing to me.”
“That’s what we’re here for,” she smiled. “Let's have some fun and do roleplay. I’m Audrey, you’re Seymour. You’ve been a loser all your life, I’ve never been with a real gentleman before. We’re suddenly realizing what we have going for us.”
I smiled. "So we get to play a little make-believe. I'm game." To me, nothing was more fun than assuming a character in a musical. When you stepped into the theatre you lost your identity and became that person. People referred to you by your stage name. You responded to them in your character's voice, your character's attitude, everything. For those fleeting weeks you _became_ someone completely new, be they brave, timid, powerful, weak, interesting, dull... anything.
It was otherworldly. It was also the greatest escape of reality known to man.
"Let's tell a story," Sandy said as she walked over to the little CD boombox upstage left. "You enter stage right; start there, do whatever comes naturally, and we'll fix the rest later."
I nodded. We practiced to a part tape, as much as I hated it. Part tapes had all the driving power of a matchbox car. You had to work _really_ hard to get a song to sound good when you had a computer plucking out the notes for you. When it's all you have, though, you just have to make do.
The introduction played, and I found my way offstage. When I came back on I was Seymour, and I was confronted with a crying Audrey across stage right.
I ran to her, nervous arms ready to hold her. Then I started singing.
The world fell away.
Ballads -- book songs -- have that effect on me. Before I had a chance to get nervous, before I thought about what I was doing, I was doing it, acting and moving with the music: letting the music move me, I should say. With a wan smile I lifted her chin so I met her eyes, singing my first verse softly, firmly.
She turned away to respond, and before I could think the music moved me to the corner of the stage. "Tell me this feelin'll last forever,"I sang, "Tell me the bad times are clean washed away."
"Please understand that it's still strange and frightening," Audry responded, "for losers like I've been it's so hard to say.""
We sang the chorus and drifted toward each other, meeting at center stage. Electricity coursed through the air as our bodies made contact, my arm slipping around her shoulder, her arm slinking around my waist. Our other paws met and laced together as best we could, and our cheeks touched as we sang the sweet coda.
"With sweet understanding, Seymour's your man!" we finished together. The Part tape ended. Neither of us moved. I tried my best to remember to breathe, only to find that I couldn't. My heart pounded out of my chest and my saliva tasted metallic.
We stood that way for a long, long time, not thinking to move. We didn't want to move. We wanted to savor that moment for all eternity, even as the part tape moved on to the next song.
After a long, blissful silence, Audry turned to me. "I'm glad we met each other, Seymour," she said. Her eyes were glassed over with tears. Real tears. Joyful tears. Ï've been looking for a man like you in my life, someone who is willing to keep me company when the nights get long, someone who can hold me when it feels like the world's coming down on my head. I want someone who will be there. Ï want someone to love."
""Ï don't want to be alone either," I managed. Butterflies fluttered in my throat.
"Ï want you, Austin." She stepped up onto her tip-toes and planted a soft kiss on my cheek.
"Audry... Sandy..." and that was about all I was good for. I unlaced my hand and wrapped my arms around her, holding her tightly. She felt warm in my arms: warm, strong, and supportive. She had me. I had her. We had each other. As the thoughts coursed through my mind I held her tightly, tighter than I've ever held anybody, tears of joy streaming down my face.
Applause came from the theatre floor. "Bravo!" came Ralph's powerful voice, "You've put on a truly marvelous performance. That blocking will work just fine. You're a damn fine actor, Austin, when you put your mind to it..."
"Ï wasn't acting."
"It's okay to cheat every once in a while," he said, smiling. "Now get home and get some sleep. This number's blocked and ready for the stage. You've done a nice job today."
"Right, boss." Sandy and I looked to each other, eyes bright and happy. We walked out of the Merle hand-in hand.
She wouldn't let me take her home. I couldn't blame her; it's not often you fall head-over-heels in love over a song. When we reached the Merle’s lobby we turned to each other and kissed. The air sparked with romantic electricity for a split second, my heart fluttered madly, and before I could try to savor the moment she pushed away. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but this is just happening too fast. It’ll take time to get used to… well… a man in my life. You understand, right?”
“Absolutely.” And I wasn’t lying, either. It was even hard for me to digest what my heart was screaming—strange, for a guy who usually jumps headlong into a snap decision—but I could definitely see where she was coming from. I held her chin up with my paw as I told her, “As long as one of these days I can have you standing by my side, I’ll wait for all eternity.”
She just laughed. “You really go over the top on those lines.”
“What can I say? Under my manly skin, I’m really a hopeless romantic. There just hasn’t been much chance to get those pathetic lines out of my system. Forgive me?”
“Well…” Her left ear drooped slightly and she half-grinned. “If you wouldn’t have said it, I would have probably gone one step further.”
“I’d say we’re going to get along just fine,” I replied. She held my cheek in her paw and smiled that terribly cute smile once more, and then she was gone. My heart ached; I didn’t want her to leave alone. If I had my way I would have promenaded with her all the way to her house, arm in arm, two lovers under an autumn night sky…
But she needed time to think. Thinking, I guessed, probably involved calling every female relationship she knew and blabbing everything about Austin Crowder, from his lovely voice to that strange tint of blue that’s still hanging around in his fur.
I made a mental note to bleach the rest of the dye out that night. Originally I had meant to let it wear away—after all, who would be watching?—but Sandy changed that whole dynamic.
Sandy changed everything.
Only when I knew she was out of earshot did I leave that lobby. I waited because I knew that when I went outside I’d explode with glee. Sure enough, as soon as the doors opened I jumped four feet into the air, paws pumping, my face hurting from smiling too big. I laughed. I cried. I cheered.
A girl. I had a girl to call my own. There was a little bounce in my step as I walked down the path toward home, suddenly not minding the fact that this was a bad neighborhood. Walking turned to hopping, I was so happy, and hopping eventually turned into quasi-dance steps, little three-step turns, the sort of thing someone does when they’re genuinely happy.
I had a good friend.
It had been so long, I thought to myself. So long indeed since I had a close relationship to share all my problems and joys with. Sure, I had my fair share of good buds in my life, but they were just that: good buds. They were never close enough to warrant sharing my deepest secrets to. I’m one tight-lipped sonofabitch, in that way.
I had a lover.
My mind kept turning over these wonderful images, images of starry nights and brilliant dawns, chilly nights where Sandy and I stayed warm by sharing our body heat, nights upon which we’d talk the night away. I imagined our children, girly as that may sound; we would have two--maybe three.
Ren would be damn proud of me, I thought. What a treat it’d be to see his friend finally get something to go his way! I’m sure that he kept track of me at his wonderfully quaint little house, watching with his wife in hand, cheering me on in his thoughts and prayers…
I heard a low moan from one of the side streets.
Looking around, I knew I should have just kept on walking. The buildings still showed signs of recently-overpainted graffiti and some pretty blatant vandalism – definitely not a nice neighborhood. If I followed that sound I could be trapped, hurt, mugged, killed… anything.
The moan came again. It sounded familiar. My mind split right down the middle even as I stood there, looking to the street and the alley, the alley and the street. My heart tried to pound itself into two different beings right where I stood.
When the moan came the third time, alarm bells finally went off in my head. “Ren!” I screamed out, “Ren, hold on! I’m coming!” A thousand scenarios ran through my mind: Ren laying in a pool of his own blood, stripped and bruised by muggers; a long and sickly blade shoved into his stomach to the hilt by a Humans First advocate; gnaw marks on his legs where a dog chewed the tendons loose… I shuddered to think of what could possibly be happening, my heart racing faster than my body, desperately trying to get to him.
The moan came again. “I’ll save you!” I screamed. My toeclaws clacked on the asphalt with each bound. The sound came closer and closer, grew louder and louder…
And then around the next corner I found a dead end.
I cursed under my breath. He had to be here! My nose had a strong lock on his scent; that much I knew for sure. Somewhere, laying in this sewage-laden, foul-smelling hellhole laid Ren, wailing away. For all I knew my friend was dying.
I couldn't find him!
I made a few quick turns as I screamed out his name over and over again. I looked for signs of blood or change on everything: the dumpster on my right, the fire escape on my left, the drainage spout and grease waste on the opposite wall... He was nowhere to be found. My own rabbit instincts were calling out to me, screaming into my ear, telling me to get the hell out of dodge. Only the gut-wrenching image of Ren dying cold and alone kept me in that alley.
"Don't be dead, Ren" I screamed out, "Please, don't be dead! You're the only hope I have left!" I meant it, too; Ren had everything I didn't. What I had lost he still kept in spades. If I could only use him as an example, learn from his ways, become a better rabbit... why, I could be one hell of a performer and more!
My ears perked up as the moan came again, long and painful. It gave me just enough directional sense to realize that the sound was bumping off a wall. Of course! Within seconds I had pinpointed where the sound was coming from; he was hidden in a small building on which one window had been smashed in. He had taken shelter from the long night.
Smart bunny, I thought. Smart bunny indeed!
"Hold on a bit longer, Ren" I said as I hopped toward the window. "Help is on the way." In my mind I started to visualize all the first aid steps I may possibly have to use on my friend, trying to get them ready if the opportunity presented itself.
The opportunity never presented itself.
Inside that window I saw a shivering, huddled mass of fur so dirty that I nearly doubted that it was really Ren hiding under it. He showed no signs of damage -- a little dirt and a little grime, but no actual injury -- and seemed to be sleeping without terribly much pain.
Yes, sleeping. The rabbit was sleeping in that hell-hole of a dead-end. Go figure.
"Ren!" I screamed out to him. "Wake up! What're you doing out here all alone in this dump?"
"Ren?" I asked again. "Ren, answer me! You shouldn't be here---"
The pile of fur suddenly collected itself and lunged. Terror flashed in my head a second before the rabbit had his two claws pinched on either side of my throat, the motion smooth as if it were instinct. I choked off one breath before he leaned close and hissed, "This _is_ my home. If you want it, you have to get through me."
I did a double take. "Ren! Ren, this is Austin! Calm down, please!"
"Austin?" the claw dropped from my neck as the realization dawned over him. Before he could say another word he flung himself off into the bowels of the building. I caught a flash of his face as he ran; it was a mixture of panic and fear.
Myself, I had enough sense to call for a cab. Then I had my breakdown of panic and fear.
It was morning before I could think clearly again. I had spent most of the night huddled in my broom closet of a bedroom, balling my eyes out. He was so ugly and horrible when he stood there -- ugly and horrible and pathetic all at once. I wanted to vomit when I saw him huddled there, paws hiding his eyes, body writhing with agony.
When I finally came to I ran right for the phone book and looked for Ren's address. There was none.
It couldn't be.
There was no way that this could be. He was too good to be out on the street. Ren was a man's man, dammit! Ren was a jack of all trades, the kind of guy who people would point to and say "that guy is going places in his life." He's an example to rabbits everywhere as to what you can achieve with life. He was a real go-getter, a success story in the making, a talent that burned bright enough to light up the night sky. I could see him going places in his life, giving SCABS the cold shoulder, and turning the world into his oyster.
He was my last ray of hope.
Suddenly I felt very cold and alone. I called Sandy's house -- she gave me the number last night before I found Ren -- but she had already left for the Merle. "I'm meeting with the tailor," her voice secretary system said to me in a flat, pre-recorded voice. Then came the ever-standard beep and static that accompanied a recorded message. I wasn't due for a good two hours at the very least, and that was if I felt like being an overachiever.
No one seemed to mind when I came in a little early, though. No one was even really there to greet me, even. Only one soul occupied the main stage: a small, brown lump of fur that leaned heavy over the piano on stage, face buried in one arm. In front of him laid a piece of sheet music lit by a stand light. Beyond that laid darkness in all directions, save the sliver of day light I let in by opening a single lobby door.
"No rest for the wicked," I said while letting the lobby's light shine on in. The fur jolted and came to life almost as if on command. "Long night for you, Ren?"
"It was a decent night before you showed up," he replied with a half-grin. "You screwed it all up."
"Right. And that's reason enough to threaten my life on a miserable little street corner you just happen to call home?"
"It's hard to survive out there."
I shrugged and let the matter drop for a moment. "So how do you clean up after a night on the street, anyway? You always seem to look nice when you come in."
"Showers and laundry at the 'Y.'" He gave me a weak thumbs-up sign that looked odd with his overgrown furry paws. "It's free as long as you're willing to give some time back in return -- you know, community service and all."
"The old YMCA, huh?"
He shrugged. "It gets the job done, I guess. Now shut that door; you're letting the November air in."
"As if that would stop a draft in this place."
"It helps." It wasn't about the draft, I knew, but I was kind enough to let the door shut behind me as I hopped up toward the stage. He seemed far too concentrated on the sheet music laid out in front of him to notice me moving up toward him; it was as if he didn't want to talk about it, blow me off, and hope that life could go on as usual.
"Must be nice to get out of the cold, after all" I said with an icy tone. "I hear it gets really cold on the streets this time of year."
He scanned the top line of his sheet music with a scrutinizing eye. "Maybe so. I just come in to do some composing before practice starts; helps calm the nerves. Would you like to hear a sample?" I nodded, and he broke into a soft piece of jazz that felt as if it had been ripped from Vince Gerrauldi's coffers. I didn't mind it; Ren played it smooth as silk.
"This Bosendorfer has a wonderful tone. Ralph really takes good care of it... makes it real playable." I had to agree with him; the piano seemed to sing as he worked his magic, spinning the sound, making the lyrical phrases and haphazard chord progression flow beautifully.
I was always envious of a piano player, let alone one who was a rabbit and still had some semblance of manual dexterity. Ren did a fine job with his four fingers and thumb, unlike my meaty and unyielding paw.
"What's it called?" I asked. "The song, I mean."
He laughed and played a little arpeggio. "It doesn't have a name. This song didn't exist up until a few seconds ago; I'm not looking at the music anymore."
"So you just play what you feel."
I whistled. "You're a damn lucky man."
"You don't mean that at all."
"Of course I do."
"Which explains the sneer on your face," Ren replied. "You might as well pull up a chair and take a load off; this may take a while. I assume you want to know the why, don't you?"
I didn't even justify that with a reply; without a sound I went backstage and returned with a small stool. When I returned Ren was still hard at work on the piano, his gaze fixated on some far-off point. He seemed serene and calm, like a condemned man who has come to terms with his sentence.
"It really doesn't make sense," the rabbit said to me, "None of this makes sense. You, me, Sandy... we're all one big fucked up little anomaly of the universe. We're rabbits with a side of humanity. Keep that in mind and the rest of this will seem relatively tame by comparison; it's how I manage on a day-to-day basis."
"Quit stalling," I said. The words were icy.
"Ah, I see you're still a fan of the direct approach. That's good to hear; I lost my curtness when the long ears and tail decided to take charge in my life. You have to fight to keep that attitude alive in this world."
I glared at him.
"But I digress. You saw something that deserves an explanation, to say the least, and yet I'm just sitting here tickling the ivories and shooting the shit." He played a quick little melodic passage on the piano as he said it.
"Practice will be starting soon."
"That it will." He continued to play, reguardless.
With a scream I jumped from my chair and slammed the cover shut on the piano, nearly lopping his fingers off in the process. "Let me simplify things," I said with a half-smile.
"You mean business."
"You haven't seen anything yet."
His eyebrows raised a twitch. "Point taken."
"You want the whole story, or the Reader's Digest version?"
"Anything!" I threw my arms in the air. "Just give me a damn explanation!"
"All right." He leaned back on the piano bench, stretched his ears, wiggled his large rabbit toes for a moment. "I shouldn't be making you wait, anyway; it's awfully mean of me to do that to you. Best to out and tell you everything so that we're on a level playing field, on even terms, fully knowing what is going on..."
I leaned in close. "Tell me why in the hell you were out on the street that late at night."
"That's a long story----"
"You want to know."
"What was your first clue?"
He laughed. "You aren't going to like the answer, you know."
"I don't like being led along, either."
"Okay. Don't say I didn't warn you." He took a moment to collect himself, take a deep breath, close his eyes, loosen the tension that had formed in his shoulders and legs as he had been putting off the inevitable. With a deep sigh he opened his eyes and raised his face to meet mine, steely and weak all at once. His mouth opened for a split second before the words came to bear:
"I live there."
For a moment it was all I could do to breathe. Ren lived on the street? It was like saying the Pope had a boyfriend! This was a rabbit----a man-----who could do no wrong in my book. He had everything going for him, every talent to his name, every opportunity laid out before him and waiting for him to reach out and take it. Here was a guy with a chance to have the world in his hands.
And he lived on the street!
"My wife lost her life to the Flu," he continued, the steel in his gaze slowly melting away to show the pain waiting just below the surface. "She died of it about a week before I started changing, myself. They threw me into a colony, threw her into a coffin, and threw our assets into the insurance company's coffers. By the time I fought my way out of that hell-hole my bank accounts didn't exist."
"That's illegal," I said. I was sure he already knew that, but it made me feel better to make the observation. It was fraud -- a safe fraud for the culprit, but a fraud nonetheless. What did I expect him to say -- "You know, Austin, you just might be right!"? Of _course_ he knew it was illegal.
And it seemed that Ren had heard that response enough times to let it slide by. "I tried to appeal my case many a time," he said in a soft, cold voice. "Every time I went to the authorities they asked for some form of photo ID, convenient for them. My case never got past the paperwork."
"So take it to court."
"The agency's HQ is probably in Aruba right now, by my guess. I heard they drained quite a few SCABS coffers while the rules kept the ball in their court. When -- if -- their case ever comes to trial, I'll just be a statistic. A number."
"But that doesn't stop you from having a home," I said.
"You don't think?" He laughed long and hard. "You'd be amazed how hard it is to get replacement identification, especially when the very building blocks of your identity get torn away by the disease from hell. And, in the modern world of property rental and ownership, any tiny bit of legal discrimination is clung to like a life preserver."
I shook my head. "You're going about it all wrong, you know. I've landed a nice house. Sure, the payments are a bit high, but it's a roof over my head. I'd think that a smart, multitalented guy like yourself could possibly float something like that..."
"But I have no one and nothing in my corner," Ren finished for me. "It sounds good in theory, Austin; I know how it must seem to you. And at one point I would have even agreed with you. Once you've had my share of failures, though, you just learn to let reality run its course."
"So you live on the street."
"Unless I can squat a building, yes. You get lucky sometimes and run into an empty building free of alarms. I just go inside and curl up, find a nice place to rest for the night." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "For a time I had a burrow in the city park -- a _real_ burrow -- but the city called in an exterminator to smoke me out. Smoke me out! It was as if I were nothing more than an animal!"
"You dug a rabbit's burrow in a park."
Ren laughed a quick bark of a laugh. "Touché. It's getting harder and harder to tell human from animal anymore. The lines are getting mighty thin, don't you think?"
It was a cute little waffling tactic. I wasn't about to let it work. "You could take handouts. Go to social services, tell them your story. They could give you subsidized housing, a lawyer to help you file bankruptcy, welfare to get you back on your feet."
"And then what?" Ren stood from the stool and paced slowly across the front of the stage; he made a careful and conscious effort not to hop. "So I get out from under the crap for what, a year? Two years? Having a job would be fun, all right -- nice, even. But what happens when my sanity comes back into question? How long do you think it'll be until those Colony people come calling again?"
"That was sudden."
"I'm not going back," he said with an indignant snort. "Even if I have to do odd jobs for the rest of my life and live like a street rat, it'll be worth it. If I were out in the world it'd only be a matter of time before they come knocking on my door, warrant for my commitment in their hand, ready to take me away again."
I hopped up beside him and put a paw on his shoulder. "I don’t know about all that, Ren. You are a very talented person. I'm sure they'd realize that and just leave you alone."
"I'm a hazard." He threw his hands up into the air. "You're a hazard. Being a SCAB is a hazard. Wait until _you_ put in your application -- you'll see! No one wants to take a chance on the rabbit, especially one who has been in the Colonies." He said the word with revulsion, as if forming the vowels were like eating a chunk of rancid steak. Myself, I didn't know what those "colonies" were like -- apparently, I didn't want to know.
But Ren still needed help.
Ren needed my help.
Ren needed me.
"Come on, now" I said with a happy tone. "Cheer up, look bright. Even if you sit there and pour over what you can't do, it's not going to stop the world from turning. We're going to start fresh."
His shoulders jumped with a chuckle.
"Really! Let's start with a clean slate: no guilt, no lamenting, no wishing for days past. We're going to start with what we have going for us and go from there."
"No, I'm an optimist." I grinned. "There's a difference -- slight, but it's there. You learn to look on the bright side when you've been handicapped for all your life."
I tapped my eyes. "I haven't driven a car for five years -- and I've been a rabbit for two. Live with a retinal degeneration disease all your life and your outlook on other things start to look really rosy... but that's another story. For your story, though, we'll start simple. You seem to be a master of theater and music."
"Have my B.A. in it," he said with a snicker. "Too bad the degree is worth jack shit, to most employers. Some crap about the reputation of my college."
I winced. "Okay... Do you teach?"
"Here and there," he replied. "I gave lessons in college to help make ends meet: piano, vocal, some guitar here and there. My degree says I could run a high school choir and teach all their music classes, if anyone were to treat the thing as anything more than a frilly piece of paper."
"And you like teaching?"
He winked at me.
"Okay, so that's an option." I rubbed my chin for theatrical effect as I churned the data in my head. "As for housing, are you willing to take on a roommate?"
"You know, someone who lives with you and shares the rent." My mother always said be cautious of strangers -- she swore by the idea, even. I couldn't believe I was going to do what I was about to do.
"Then maybe you'd be willing to move in with me." That was it. Ren could be a thief, a cheat, a murderer... anything. I was going to open my world up to him, just like that.
"You don't want me."
"I want someone to face this world with," I corrected him. "As it stands I can't pay the rent and utilities, and the place is big enough to feel really, really lonely with no one around. If you're willing to pull your weight, I'm willing to pull mine."
"Do it together, in other words."
"Yes." I beamed. "We'll face this world together." About that time the rest of the cast barged in, thereby shooting the delicate moment all to hell. Ren didn't have a chance to say yes, no, screw you... nothing. In his eyes, though, I could see a bright sparkle that hadn't been there before.
I knew from that moment that I had a flatmate and friend all in one.
Sandy and I took a little outing together. We liked the idea of an outing; it didn't sound so stereotypical of dating couples. We were an item, for all intents and purposes -- ever since "Suddenly Seymour" we were inseparable -- but it still was a bit embarrassing to hear everyone else gossip and conjecture about our love life. And now... well... we were going out.
Opening day was only two days away. Two days! My body turned to jelly any time I tried to think about it. Even though I couldn't avoid the idea totally -- Ralph pounded the idea home in every rehearsal -- I preferred to simply ignore the fact that my audience of empty chairs would soon be filled with warm bodies. When I tried to envision the real deal I saw their faces, ghostly in the dim house air, mere silhouettes of doubt mingled with a little bit of humor...
"You okay there?" Sandy asked. "You've been letting your head drum on the window for two miles now."
Yeah, that was my nervous habit in a car. On longer trips I'd just lay with my head against a window and let the road do what it will. It was better than feeling carsick, I knew, but when she asked what I was doing I pulled my head from the cool, refreshing glass. "No, I'm okay" I told her in reply. "Just thinking, that's all."
"It's best not to think too hard about it."
"The musical." She laughed. "Oh God, don't tell me you thought I wouldn't figure _that_ much out! Austin, your best bet is to just forget that you're even going to perform on Friday."
"And I avoid that by...?"
"You avoid it by letting me take your mind off it," she said with a grin. "We're going to have lunch out, then I'm giving you a little surprise."
I shrugged. "I still don't see why I have to go out when I could have just stayed home. It's more comfortable there."
"God, Austin, you're such a rabbit!" She giggled a joyful giggle, took my hand in hers, and smashed the accelerator as we bolted on the highway. Deep down inside I was terrified of this screaming death trap, but as long as I had Sandy there I'd do anything.
Anything. I said it like a mantra. If that sinks in, I thought to myself, this musical just might have a chance of working.
"You're letting the rabbit side of you choke your performing spirit," she continued on, as if this kind of conversation was just old hat, how's-the-weather kind of chatter. "We all see it. We know you're strong enough to break it on your own, given time. But, as you've been squandering that time trying to help everyone else around you, we're reaching crunch time."
I gave her hand a squeeze. "And you're saying that my efforts were in vain?"
She blushed under her fur; it was hard to tell, but out of the corner of my eye I could see the cheeks darkening slightly. "Let's just leave that be."
"So you're saying I have a chance?"
"Well..." she considered it for a moment, "Let's see -- how does that old metaphor go? -- ah. You've hit a solid double, made it around first base, and you're making a bee line for second."
I grinned. "Can't always hit one out of the park."
"Not when I'm pitching."
"I like a challenge."
"That's good to hear." She idly went about checking her mirrors, the stereo volume, and then the time. That's when she pounded the wheel with both her fists. "Damn! We're running late!"
"And that's surprising to rabbits because...?"
"Can it." She swore again under her breath. "We should be okay, I think; the appointment book was pretty empty around your timeslot."
"Timeslot?" I gulped.
"Yeah. I set up an appointment for you -- give you the high and mighty treatment for the day. You terribly hungry right now?"
"A rabbit is always hungry."
I got a satisfying groan in reply. "That's it! We're moving lunch to after the appointment. Until then you can snack on whatever we have in the salon, if we have anything."
She looked to me, obviously flustered. I could only chuckle and add, "This is a very important date, then?"
"Okay, nix the snack."
"I'll be good."
"That's better." She hit the nearest exit and slowed down. "Though I do have to admit it was kind of punny."
Mary's Hair Salon wasn't much of a place. If you weren't looking for it you might miss its tiny sign and tiny storefront in the mass of strip mall specialty shops flanking either side of it. Somewhere along the way the place had been further cut in half, so that the most basic unit of storefront in the mall was shared with a mom-and-pop auto parts store. Between the two they had about twenty feet of storefront, probably less, and the sidewalk was so drab that my eyes wanted to pass right over it.
But it was clean. It may be drab and uninteresting, but it was clean.
"You get used to the view after a while," Sandy said with a half-smile. "I've worked summer jobs here for years. It's amazing we manage to stay in business, really; if we didn't have regulars we'd probably go belly-up in a week."
Things started to click as she opened the door for me and I got the first whiff of shampoo and fresh bleach. She had a surprise in store for me, all right... "Sandy? What are you planning to do to me?"
"Do to you?" She giggled. "You make it sound like I'm a medieval torturer. All we want to do is change your image a little -- you know, give you a little pep-up. And besides..." she took my paw in her own and studied it for a second. "You're still carrying around a tinge of blue on your fur. I assume it has a good story behind it...?"
I swallowed hard. "Could we save that for another time? It's a... bad memory."
"Oh." And the question was gone just like that. "Anyway, we'll need to dye over the blue, first and foremost. I hope you don't mind that I picked out a light brown -- something with a decent sheen."
"I'm not Rex rabbit like you," I replied sheepishly. She really did have wonderful fur, velvety and soft to the touch. SCABS blessed me with a coarse coat of loose, fluffy hairs. I didn't want to come off like one of those gaudy, poofy-haired, perm-wigged women you see working secretary jobs and such.
She laughed. "Don't worry about it; Kate's good at what she does. She'll make the dye job work for you."
"I'll trust your word on that. I just hope it doesn't cost me an arm and a leg----"
Before I could get the rest of the sentence out, she tugged on my arm. "You're not paying a cent! I've got this one."
"I couldn't." And I wasn't lying; I had seen the bills my mom brought home from the hairdresser when she got her hair colored. And to think that those bills paid for someone to dye only a _head_ of hair...!
"You will." She grinned evilly. "And you're going to enjoy every minute of it even if I have to tie you down."
"Can't argue with that."
"Damn straight. Now strip down and get in the washtub over there." I complied without complaint; I only wore the shirt and pants because it was the socially correct thing to do, and any opportunity to shirk them was like a free chance to feed the bunny side of my brain. No one seemed to even notice as I shirked off the clothes to reveal my fur, seeing that they were too preoccupied with catching up on gossip with Sandy.
Most of the women, I noticed, asked about me. I expected Sandy to shirk me off, but she waffled her way out of every question. Her ears even flushed as the questions grew more and more personal. I knew. They knew. She knew. This whole giggling innocence act was only a formality.
But I wasn't about to step in on a woman's tradition. If there's one thing I've learned over the years it's definitely to not comment on womanhood's idiosyncrasies.
Mary's Hair Salon tried very hard to cater to SCABS -- I'm sure Sandy had a large part in that. In a sectioned-off back room was a large washtub and grooming table, along with the regular standbys of a barber shop. Back in that room they could handle any and everything, as long as it could fit through the door or could pull up to the back, where a tall garage outbuilding looked to be able to cater to their whims. On the wall hung a plethora of different shampoos, bleaches, shears, scissors, combs, brushes, braiders, ribbons... ever hair and fur accessory imaginable had a hook on that wall.
Curious as I was, I knew better than to go snooping. Not that I had a chance, mind you; as soon as I stepped into the tub the ladies found their way back to me, Sandy in the lead, their sleeves rolled up and their smiles beaming cordially down to me.
Sandy turned on the shower nozzle at the foot of the tub and held her paw under the stream to check temperature. "I know this is an odd gift for a guy," she said, "but I think you'll enjoy it if you relax. This is what I'm good at. It'll give you a... new and different perspective. You'll feel like a new bunny."
"It sounds okay to me----" but the words died in my throat as a half-dozen hands began to gently run brushes and combs through my fur. Dear Gods, it was wonderful! My mind melted away into bliss as talented hands worked my fur, making it tingle with delight. They lathered me up and showered me down like a little baby, toyed with my ears, petted me like a household rabbit... but I didn't care. It just felt so wonderful to be in their care!
They shampooed me and rinsed me a good number of times -- I lost track at four -- until finally they pulled me out of the tub and over to a large grooming table. "I know you'd be able to get in the chair," Sandy apologized, "But our job will be easier if you're up here where we can get to everything.
"Sure." I hopped up with a dumb grin on my face. I didn't hear or understand anything she was saying, anyway; my brain turned to soup after one of those rinses. The table was cold enough to bring me back, though, and suddenly I found myself facing a concentrated Sandy.
"You look cute when you're working," I said softly.
"You always think I'm cute." She pulled the brush from between her buckteeth and held it to my face. "Might want to close your eyes, dear; we're going to start on the face and work our way down. This stuff burns like sin if you get it in your eyes." I closed my eyes and she started brushing a cool liquid into my fur. "This is your brown coat; it should take about ten minutes to set in. In the meantime..."
I kept my lips tight and mumbled, "Can I talk?"
"Sure. The stuff's starting to set in now. You can start by talking about you and Ren."
I groaned. "Word gets around quick, doesn't it?"
"I have my ways." She patted my cheek playfully. "So, out with it! What happened last Saturday? Word has it you stayed late with him."
"Well..." I considered telling her everything for a moment, but held back. Ren was a proud man, all right; what would he think if Sandy came up to him all apologetic about his life on the street? How would I be able to live in the same house with him if, because of me, all his closest friends suddenly decided to pity him? I couldn't say anything. I _wouldn't_ say anything.
"He's smiled more since Saturday," Sandy said. "I don't think he's living on the street anymore."
"Honey, I see him hanging around the coffee house all the time. You know that window is an unassuming way to spy on the street below." I felt her brush making strokes down my back. "You're going to have to get up on all fours, Austin. I know it's probably demeaning, but----"
"Anything for you, my dear." I bunched my legs under me and came to a rabbit-style sitting position. It wasn't terribly uncomfortable; in fact, I'd go as far to say that it felt natural. My limbs were a lot shorter since SCABS took my humanity away, and the joints seemed to settle just right when I plopped my tail on the ground.
Usually that annoyed me. That day, though, I was too relaxed to care.
As she brushed the dye onto my chestfur, I decided Sandy could have the full update. "He's staying at my house, now. We came to an agreement -- rather, I just insisted that he would have a roof over his head, and mine was the friendliest, cheapest one around."
"You did?" She squealed a girly squeal. "That's so _nice_, Austin! I'm proud of you!"
"You'd do the same too." I chuckled. "I warned him that it might get a little tight in the house, but it'll make the place cozy."
"And I'm sure Ren would be a great guy to live with."
"We have some house manners and ground rules still to work out, but it's looking to be that way. Rabbits always manage to get along pretty well."
"Giving of yourself, then" Sandy said. "You're going to have a new fur coat to match that new personality, Austin. It's a fresh start for you." She gave me a hug and a quick kiss, then went about replacing the dye she had kissed off. "You're my kind of bunny."
The fur job looked pretty damn good, I have to say. It made me feel like a new rabbit. Some of the people in the production didn’t even recognize me at the door – when you look outside of your species they all look the same, I know. Plain vanilla humans are getting harder and harder to differentiate as time goes on. I miss the subtle differences.
Not that the subtle differences mattered much when I was a human; with my vision I confused people all the time. It’s just getting worse as time goes on.
Opening day rushed up to meet us before I could even catch my breath; Ralph gave us the day before opening night off; when I came in the next day I almost came through the front door until I saw the line.
It spanned a city block, the Box Office line did. Along its length I could see bright, smiling, eager faces waiting to get in to the Merle. SCABS and humans both mingled in suit and tie, evening gowns, various formal garbs extrapolated onto animal bodies. They were all talking about “Double Feature”; I heard snippits of their anxious conversation from across the block. Either Ralph didn’t do will-call or this was going to be a real smash of a show; I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure of much of anything at the time.
I was too nervous to be sure.
At least I knew better than to plow right through them, lest I ruin the theatre magic. Instead, I took a long walk around the city blocks and dashed inside the backstage door. A disgruntled Ralph waited for me there.
“The front door was too crowded,” I said.
“It’s opening night! What did you expect, a ghost town?”
I grinned. “Want me to be honest with you?”
“You give yourself too little credit.” Ralph reached for my shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Nice fur, by the way.”
”It was Sandy’s idea.”
“No, it was mine.” He chuckled. “Now get dressed for the first act and warm your voice up: curtain’s in twenty minutes with or without you.”
“On the dot, then.”
“I run a tight ship on show night.” He glared at me. “So what are you waiting for, an invitation? Go get ready!” I bounded off and he gave me a little pat on the back on my way, the kind of thing a coach gives to his kid, or a dad to his son. And he had this funny sort of laugh: hearty and understanding, yet old and experienced.
It was… odd. Yes, odd.
I was bouncing off the walls backstage. I’m always hyper before a show; the adrenalin starts pouring into your veins when curtain draws near, and you just have too much energy to bear. It’s doubly true on opening night. When you’re done with your first show you can’t sleep for the rest of the night, if not the next two nights.
If someone could bottle up that special feeling you get from your first performance and sell it they’d become a millionaire overnight. That stuff’s better than sex.
Being a rabbit has a few distinct advantages, one of those being a great reduction in clothing hassle. I had a slip-on pair of black slacks with an elastic waistband and a leather jacket for the first number. It took me longer to find the damn outfit than it did to throw it on; all ten performers shared the same dressing room, and after squatting this room for three months the place looked like an absolute whirlwind.
The four cast members still had hair were lined up at the mirrors, their hair dryers and spray creating a veritable whirlwind of unbreathable, chemical-laden air. I had learned from a young age to avoid a woman armed with a pick and hairspray bottle, and thankfully SCABS had left me with a glorious replacement for the mop that had once covered my skull. All my fur needed was a little smoothing here and there, and I was ready to go…
“Austin!” Sandy hopped for joy and dropped the brush she had been dragging through someone’s hair. Thanks to her hairstyling skills she ended up knee-deep in the trenches. The smell of hairspray caked in her fur nearly knocked me out when she bounded over to hug me.
We shared a quick peck of a kiss amidst a slew of cast catcalls. “That spray come out?” I asked her with a half-grin.
“I hope so. My fur feels like a plastic mold now. I still can’t quite figure out how I dealt with this stuff before SCABS!”
“Join the club.” We both laughed, then we hugged again. I held her out at arm’s length to take a gander at the dress she was wearing. “You look good,” I said, still wearing that stupid grin on my face. I’m sure the cast would call it a “love struck” smile.
“You’re pretty snappy yourself.” She buttoned the lowest button on my black leather jacket, straightened out the lapels, and touched my nose with a fuzzy paw. “Momma always said I sure could pick ‘em.”
“I just get lucky.”
She kissed me again. “Maybe. You still haven’t lived with me. I can be rather… stubborn about things.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” We stayed frozen in a half-embrace for a moment longer, until the catcalls turned to complaints.
“I better get back to work.” Sandy winked at me. “We can save this for later.” And before I could even squeak out a surprised reply she was knee-deep in hair and styling spray once again.
Ren and I went to the green room to do vocal warm-ups. There wasn’t much conversation; what needed to be said between us had been said. Besides, Ren preferred to keep a businessman’s attitude about the stage, and I respected him enough not to break that tradition. His eyes were steely with resolve.
He didn’t want to screw up.
I didn’t want to run off stage in fear.
“Two minutes ‘til curtain!” Ralph’s voice boomed over the PA system. “Places, everyone!” I nodded to Ren. Ren nodded to me. We walked through the dressing room door, through the last minute thoughts and prayers in the hairspray-saturated room, and walked out to stage.
It was dark out there – extremely dark, in fact. Darker than most any other stage I’ve seen in recent memory. Just beyond the curtain I could hear people milling around their seats, settling in, getting ready for the show. Ren and I found our white tape-marks on the floor without saying a word… not like I could, mind you. Hearing the house buzzing like that had my blood pumping and my limbs feeling like Jell-O.
We stood there in silence, listening to the crowd grow. And grow. “Going to be a full house tonight,” Ren whispered, “I can feel it.” The rest of the cast started to trickle in, laying down at my feet, framing me in, setting up my opening solo number with real theatrical flair.
“I still haven’t done this for a large crowd yet,” I said softly. The floor mics wouldn’t be on for another minute, at the very least. As long as I kept it quiet the audience couldn’t hear what I was saying anyway.
I nodded to Ren, suddenly unable to speak. The crowd was starting to get really loud.
“Okay.” He thought about it for a second. “I think it’s time for one of my old traditions.”
“Flip the crowd off.” He raised his fists to the curtain, smiling. “Fly them the bird.”
“Just do it!” he hissed. I just sighed and went along with it, amist chuckles from the cast. “Come on, you all can do it to… Nice double deuce, Austin.”
“This… it’s fun!” I let out the breath I had been holding since I stepped out onto stage. I swung the finger around a bit longer. “Yeah, how do you like a rabbit telling you to screw off, huh? You like that? Yeah!”
“Good.” Ren dropped his hands. “You own the crowd. You do whatever you want up here, and they can’t do a damned thing about it. Remember that.”
I flashed him a thumb’s up sign as the house lights flickered their final warning. “Here’s to a good show.” The lights dimmed again, then faded away. The curtain opened and bright lights pounded down from the heavens. I was left alone in a sea of lights; my only harness to reality rested in the capable hands of an instrumental combo setting down a groove for my big moment.
Beyond the lights I saw sihulouettes of people, all staring at me. They coughed. They turned of their cell phones and pagers. They quieted down. They waited.
They wanted a good show.
The music hit my cue and I didn’t skip a beat; with a big smile on my face I strutted out from the cast’s pose and started working the stage. “I saw my problems and I see the light,” I started to sing, my body reverberating with every word. Every pair of eyes in the crowd keyed in on me. At least a thousand people were looking square at me!
I loved it!
My moment in the sun came to an end before I could really enjoy it; the chorus came in on “Grease is the word” and I found my way back into the group for the next five minutes of song.
But I was performing.
And what a performance I was going to put on!
From “Grease is the Word,” Sandy and I broke right into “You’re the One that I Want.” It was one of those songs that, when we capped off the last chord with the chorus, the house exploded in a maelstorm of cheers, yells, screams, and applause. We _smoked_ it.
I ambled through the rest of the first act without too much more to write home about. Ren and I did “All for the Best” from Godspell; other than that I step-touched my way through the other numbers just like the rest of the chorus. Not familiar with the concept? Just step right, bring your feet together, step left, together, right, together… repeat ad nauseum. It didn’t matter to me. I could have parading around in a giant rabbit suit and I’d still have gobs and gobs of adrenalin pulsing through my veins…
Oh, yeah. I _am_ in a rabbit suit.
At intermission we all went out into the lobby dressed as our favorite character. It’s a trick we pulled from a small-town production of Godspell – everyone goes out in character, and brings the magic of theater a bit closer to all the people in the house. It’s a pleasant surprise to have the characters come to life before your very eyes, I’m sure!
Sandy and I walked hand in hand like high school lovers. I was wearing my jacket and pants, and she was wearing her poodle dress from the opening number. When we talked to someone I put on a bad Elvis accent and she put on an innocent, squeaky clean voice. It was a fun bit of improvisation; five minutes into the deal, she started spinning this high school story about our senior prom that was saccharine enough to make it hard to choke back fits of laughter.
Two days before that I would have been a twitchy bundle of nerves, to say the very least. There were two explanations for my showman’s behavior: either I had fear licked or my brain was swimming in adrenalin. I wasn’t sure which I had going for me.
“Austin!” I heard a voice scream from across the lobby. I fought the instinct to turn my head and see who was calling to me.
“Austin Crowder!” the man came again. His voice was tinny, high-pitched, but carried a certain air of authority. My body fought my brain for control of my functions, I wanted to turn and face the guy so badly.
Sandy tugged on my arm as the man continued to yell out my name. She whispered into my ear: “We’re in a musical, not a musical play. You’re just Austin in character. Besides…” she nodded in that direction. “That’s Ralph screaming at you.”
“So it is.” Like my adrenalin-soaked mind would identify and attach importance to a voice like that. Sandy chuckled, and I stuck my tongue out at her. She gave me a playful slap on the shoulder, and we walked in the direction of the voice. Throngs of people shook our hands along the way – a simple “thankyouverymuch” was they wanted – but when we finally made our way to the exit door I realized I’d have to drop character for at least a little bit.
Ralph wasn’t hard to miss; he wore a highway-worker orange blazer and an over-the-top silk scarf around his neck. When we got close enough for him to talk normally, he simply waved us over. “Nice instincts,” Ralph said as we came closer, “I wouldn’t have used your name normally, but it was sort of important.”
I glared at Sandy. “Really, now.”
“She’s still the smart one.” Before we could share a laugh the joke was gone. “Austin, I want you to meet somebody. This is Phil; he runs the ‘Colonies of Shame’ website and a SCABS shelter about two hours away from here. I asked him to come see our show.”
The rabbit sort of appeared out of the blue; one second Ralph was alone, and the next I thought I was looking down at a ten-year-old boy stuck in the body of a rabbit. The way he stood looked uncomfortable, as if the joints weren’t meant to bend the way they did, but he seemed proud and confident in his business suit and cheerful demeanor. He smiled – a small smile, but a smile nonetheless – and offered a paw. “Name’s Phil. Pleasure to meet you.”
We started to touch paws until I dipped down and gave him a quick hug. It was terribly out of my on-stage character, but my rabbit side didn’t rightly care. A handshake simply does not work when one party has no thumbs to speak of. “Nice to meet you, Phil” I said.
He broke the embrace. “I wasn’t sure if you’d take well to a hug, being in the character you’re in. It doesn’t fit the whole ‘tough guy’ motif.”
“Even tough guys soften up for the good stuff,” I said. Sandy snuggled up tightly into my chest, and I did the tired old “look and the gun” pose for Phil.
“You’ve done a _great_ job with this production,” Phil said. “I’ll be frank: when Ralph asked me to come see it I was expecting much worse. This is damn fine stuff.”
I blushed under my fur. “We try.”
“Modesty’s overrated.” He looked me square in the eye. “Good thing to have, mind you, but not always a great thing. How are you getting along in life, Austin?”
Phil started sniffing at the air as he waited for me to respond. “Just an innocent question, is all. I’ve heard quite a few stories about you from Ralph here----“
“He’s not worth a thing right now,” Sandy said with a cajoling grin, “If it doesn’t deal with the show you might as well speak Yiddish to him.” Thank God for fast-talking women!
“I can see that.” He tapped the pocket of his suit coat lightly, and a card popped out the top. “Old magician’s trick,” he explained to me. “It’s a rubber band powered card dispenser. A sleight-of-hand artist made this one for me a few weeks ago. Saves me from having to dig around that suit pocket with my teeth for a business card.” He patiently waited until I got the hint and took the card sitting there.
“I’m a career counselor for SCABS like yourself. The card has my office number and address on it. If you need help finding a job after this run’s through, you feel free to give me a ring. After all, you’re going to need a sponsor to get into Vocational Rehab, seeing that you’re already straddling that visual handicap line.”
“So Ralph told you.” I tried to sound cold, but the words just bubbled out of my throat with an excited tone. Everything was falling into place. My jaw tried form any form of thanks but nothing would come out.
“It won’t happen instantly, mind you. If we started tomorrow you may still be a few months from settling down into work.” He nodded to Sandy. “But we could get you set up.”
“And Ren,” I added stonily.
“He’s on my list.” Phil’s smile dug a deeper furrow in his cheeks. “It’s nice to see you looking out for one another. You’re good rabbits, all of you. I told Ralph he couldn’t go wrong with rabbits – the more, the merrier. And to think he didn’t believe me!” The lights flashed, and Phil let out a small sigh. “That’s your cue. I’d tell you to break a leg, but with eight lucky charms between the two of you I think you don’t need to worry about a thing. Myself… I’m heading out. My bus leaves in five minutes.”
Ralph blanched. “You’re most certainly not going to leave yet!”
“I wish I could stay---“
“I’ll drive you home,” Ralph insisted. “And besides… I’m sure Phlox wouldn’t appreciate you leaving, especially with Austin and Sandy’s big number coming up! They’re going to bring the house down.”
I took a little bow. “Thank you, Ralph----“
“That’s provided that they get changed in time,” he finished. “Now go get ready for curtain; we’ve got a show to run!”
Right after intermission it was time for “Suddenly Seymour.” It was a rather… private number, convoluted as that may seem. Sandy managed to make it something really special for me, a certain feeling I don’t think I’ll ever share with anyone. Suffice it to say that, when I’m on my deathbed and waiting for death to come a-knockin, I’ll think back to this very number and feel like I accomplished something in my life.
The crowd, sensing something a deeper than the song’s musicality, brought the house down when we finished. It’s one of the reasons I staunchly believe that live theater is heads and tails above any recording; a performer can communicate with a flesh-and-blood audience much more effectively than he can ever do with a camera. It’s one of those existential things you have to experience, but once you do you know in your heart that recordings will never be the same again.
The cast was really smoking for that second act: no one missed a cue, every song was tuned enough to ring overtones _and_ undertones, and every performer went out with full intention of owning the stage. For a good portion of the act the audience saw solo after solo, some fast, some slow, but they were offered up in a rapid-fire fashion that didn’t get boring. The crowd lapped up every last bit of it like excited puppies.
Back in the green room, the cast could only pray for our final number.
“Bring on Tomorrow” never came together in practice. Ever. We begged Ralph to drop the number for anything – we’d sing themes to preschooler’s shows if it meant we didn’t have to do the damn song – but he was insistent. “It will work on stage,” he insisted over and over again. “You just have to trust yourselves.”
Trust or no, the song still sucked. Either the sopranos would sharp, the basses would flat, or the whole chorus would fall off the accompanist’s beat and turn the thing into a dirge. It was a number that involved everyone singing a solo, and quite frankly some of the performers were just not solo material. We all knew it when we lined up to go on stage; we said our sarcastic last words as we filed out to stage, fully prepared put on a smile and try to act like we were putting on a decent show.
We kept the blocking simple; when Kyle’s “Dog Eat Dog” number finished we all filed out into a choral formation behind him. He tacked onto one of the ends and the music started.
I steeled myself and listened to our transgender SCAB botch the first solo. The pianist did a good job of covering, I had to admit. When we hit the first chorus I didn’t even think we were doing half bad – still not up to the level of a professional performance – and I was even able to breathe easy when my duet with Ren came up.
We looked to each other as we sang the tender lyrics: “But this fairy tale land fades away as we grow – and we all have to say our goodbyes.” The sound started to buzz just slightly as the two parts weaved in and out of each other.
And when Sandy came in the heavy song seemed to lift itself off the ground. “And we now understand that this world that we know…” I joined in for a tenor descant, “Can be ours If we open our eyes!” Our two parts crossed through each other as we moved, and the song took life.
Suddenly the chords started to lock and buzz with energy. Why shouldn’t they? I stood with nine people in the same terrible boat, nine people who were learning to get along with life. They weren’t looking for pity, or handouts, or even a helping hand. They were looking for solutions. I looked over to my two new rabbit friends and my cheeks started to hurt from a grin that wouldn’t fit on my face.
The accompaniment died away.
We were alone on stage once again, ten voices ringing out in perfect harmony. As the sound rang out I listened to the woman I love, blended with the friend I found. I balanced myself with those that had cared for me, and made sure my voice was heard to those I myself cared about.
I closed my eyes as the chords started to thicken. “Bring on tomorrow,” I sang, “We can’t wait!” For a moment I swore I could feel the heavens growing closer, curious as to the sound, coming so close that I could reach out and grab a handful of Providence if I so chose. The chords crescendoed until the very support beams in theater started to ring the tone. God leaned over the heavens and smiled warmly as we hit the final ritard.
And when the last smash-bang, eight part chord sailed off toward the sky the crowd shot straight to their feet for a standing ovation.
I took my time cleaning up after bows. Everyone else seemed dead-set on getting out of there as quickly as possible, so they could go join any number of parties waiting for them. Even Sandy and Ren seemed pretty adamant on getting out and enjoying the nighttime scene; they all but threatened to drag me with them by the ears before they finally got the hint that I wasn’t interested.
They left with the understanding that I’d party double the next night to make up for what I was missing. Right. A rabbit’s not made for heavy partying – get togethers, maybe, but not parties.
Sandy and Ren are lucky like that.
Once they were gone I stayed in the green room for a moment more, scraped my feet on the ground a bit, listening for the lobby doors to shut. That’s when I made my move through the dressing room and out onto the stage. I stepped out to center stage and looked out on the balconies, noting how having the house lights on made the place appear smaller, homelier from this angle. The hot stage lights were turned off, which was a welcome change of pace since I wasn’t baking in my fur.
I closed my eyes, sighed, and pictured the crowd there again. They were on their feet, screaming, whistling, cheering. I held my arms out to them and the sound only grew. It continued on forever, a neverending stream of applause from an appreciatave crowd.
They were cheering for me.
I bowed, smiled, bowed again. The crowd continued to cheer. My heart swelled with pride as they roared on; this was my doing. I had given them my heart, and they loved it.
_They loved me._
“I had a feeling you were the spiritual type.” The voice cut through the crowd noises like a knife; I opened my eyes to find Ralph standing there, looking at me, grinning ear to ear. “You had to come back and feel it a second time.”
“I was just imagining.”
“Bull shit.” He took a step toward the stage. “The Merle’s a very, very old place, Austin. She has a lot of history to tell, a lot of standing Os to remember. You just felt a bit of that magic.”
“But----“ I sighed. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you otherwise.”
“You bet your ass.” He indindicated to the edge of the stage, nodded, and took a seat. I plopped down beside him. When we settled in Ralph leaned back until he was laying on the stage. “Man, I’m glad the first show’s over. I wasn’t expecting it to go that well. At all.”
“You expected it to flop?” I asked.
“Not flop so much as fall a little flat. Let’s face it; this cast isn’t a group of professional singers. There were mistakes – lots of them – but you all covered up really well for your level of experience.”
“I still don’t understand you picked us,” I said coldly. “There was no reason for you do an all-SCAB cast. I mean, you could have made it a gimmicky show – a ten-in-one freak show, maybe – but this was a pretty vanilla performance. There are a thousand starving college students in the area dying for a gig like this and yet you go with a ragtag group of Flu survivors.”
“Your point is…?”
I shrugged. “It seems like a mighty big gamble.”
“It’s all in the perspective.” He turned and jumped down into the orchestra pit with a little grunt. “Follow me.”
“I have something to show you.” He flipped a switch and gave the wall a little shove; it swung open to reveal a dark passageway. “Hurry up, before I change my mind.”
We weaved our way through an endless array of dark passageways, some so tight that I had to go into rabbit tunneling mode to get through. Every few moments Ralph would warn me about a stray bundle of electrical cords that invariably hit me in the face, leaving cobwebs where they landed.
Ralph finally stopped somewhere under the Green Room; my tunneling sense was sure of it. “The door’s a bit low here… I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that. You’re a rabbit; this is like a trip to Disney for someone like yourself.”
“Not a fair comparison; I would have liked it as a human.” It was the little boy in me; new, mysterious, secret places always held my attention. Even if it were a cubbyhole of an attic hidden in the back of a closet I was on it like a regular Sherlock Holmes. Being a rabbit only sweetened the pot.
I ducked down and slipped through the door while Ralph fumbled with the light cord. The place smelled sharp and musty, like the brick on the walls was crumbling as they spoke. The room felt like a time capsule from another century.
The light flickered twice and then cast a dim glow over the picture frames on the wall.
"Like it?" He walked along the wall, considering each picture with a wan smile. "So many memories…. It's like a time warp, to look back at them now -- like another life."
"Yeah," I said. He continued to chatter to himself as I studied the pictures for myself. Old and antiquated polaroids filled most of the frames. The professional pictures even looked a little tattered and light bleached when I studied them close. Through all of the pictures I could see a single face growing and changing: on my left was a young and powerful man posing for cast photo after cast photo; on my right was a man in his late years, balding, posing for charity event pictures with a performer's well-used smile.
"Who's the old man?" I asked.
He turned my shoulders to face his, then looked me straight in the eye. "Austin, that was me about thirty years ago."
I blanched. "Excuse me?"
"Take a look at this one." He pointed to one of the Polaroids at the bottom of the page, where the same old man leaned heavily on his cane and waved to the camera. "That was me at one of Radio City's 'Space Parties'; they were suppoed to celebrate the launch and progress of the Beagle II If I'm not mistaken, this was right after the probe's launch..." He pantomimed raising a glass to me. "Nowadays, some people would look back on that party and call it crazy -- not me, though."
I studied the picture with a blank look on my face. "You were so… old!"
"Seventy-three, in fact" he said matter-of-factly. "the so-called 'Golden Years.' Feh! Whoever decided to pen that name should be sued for false advertising."
"And I could have easily graduated in you high school class."
"I graduated high school in the 20th century, Austin. Oh, they were the Golden Years!" he laughed long and hard. "We still had most of the same problems, Austin. Differently presented, maybe, but life was still about overcoming whatever problems life threw at us."
Solemnly nodding, I kept looking at the picture with a closed mouth. He was preaching to the choir anyway, and I was still too dazzled to be worth anything in a philosophical discussion.
"I could have gone anywhere and done anything," Ralph continued. "At seventy-three I had quite a list of contacts begging me to come out of retirement and get back into theater. I was just too weak for the job."
"And SCABS turned it around."
"Best damn Fountain of Youth I've ever seen!" Ralph smiled and patted his cheeks. "The Flu took fifty years off my life, give or take a few. Fifty years! That's an entire lifetime of experiences to live a second time!"
"Amazing." But there were still questions -- tens of thousands of questions that ate at my brain. "So you could have any job you wanted?"
"I did do some directing work on Broadway for a while." Ralph wore a whimsical smile as he recollected the days. "Then I worked on some musical TV specials for a change of pace. Every time I turned around another offer was waiting for me… No, offers. I know it's plural because my agent auctioned my services off to the highest bidder."
"You're an important guy."
"A twentysomething actor/director with sixty years' experience?" He nodded. "Hell yes, I was important. Still am, really; this is my vacation."
"And on your vacation you want to run another show?"
"You're still missing the real beauty of this whole thing."
"I don't understand."
"SCABS gave me a new lease on life, Austin. I thank my lucky stars that the Beagle II brought that disease to this world every day. I just wanted to spread some of that joy to people who were less fortunate."
I puzzled over that for a moment. "So you ran a musical?"
He laughed. "Heavens, didn't you look at the set list? If I wanted to do a really smash-bang up musical I'd have done Godspell -- your cast would have filled the roles well. But no, I hand-picked songs for each of your personalities. Did you ever consider how convenient it was that your big numbers just happen to be about solving your troubles and finding your dreams?"
"And what about 'Bring on Tomorrow'? Did you see how it came together at the end of that show? It's because you knew, somewhere in your head." He chuckled. "It's a Double Feature, Austin! We warmed the hearts of two audiences, all at once. It's not often you get to do _that_ in the theater; I can safely say that from years of experience. You will _never_ work in this kind of atmosphere ever again."
"Because I don't have to."
"Exactly! You have Sandy, Ren has you… I knew it'd end up that way, mind you. I even thought that Sandy and you would make a nice couple -- good to see that my matchmaking skills haven't lost any sharpness over the years."
My jaw tried to work, but nothing would come out.
"I just ask that you always remember that standing O you got at the end of the show," he said solemnly. "I didn’t plan that, didn't ask for it, didn't pay the crowd to be that polite. That was all you guys. Remember and cherish that moment; it's the kind of stuff that'll make your heart flutter in good times and sustain your tired soul through the bad. Do you understand?"
"Good." He grinned and reached for the light cord. "I think we're done here; let's get you back upstairs and into street clothes; I know where the cast was going for dinner. If we hurry I can still get you there before they order -- after all, you've earned every right to celebrate." With that he turned off the lights on his past, then filed me out of the room and back out to the bright lights of the Merle, quiet, vacant, but still buzzing with the memory of the best damn standing ovation I ever received.
Indeed, I had earned every right to enjoy that night with my new friends and companions.
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