I originally wrote this in the early 90s, before I had kids. Now that I have two daughters of my own, revisiting this one was kind of hard. Still, it was one of my earliest published stories, first appearng in The Unknown Writer in 1998, and will also be included in my With the Wicked collection.
Roger Peterson, the man in the fluffy bunny suit, hopped purposefully down the sidewalk, a permanent holiday grin etched upon his papier-mâché head. Under his mask, he felt sweat trickling down his face, occasionally stinging his eyes and obscuring his vision, which was already regulated to what lay directly before him through the black wire mesh of the bunny’s mouth.
It was unusually warm for an Easter morning, and inside the stuffy suit summer had arrived early, bathing Roger in musky sweat mere moments after he put it on. However, he was in too-fine a mood to let it bother him. If one of those awe-struck children could see the man behind the rabbit, they’d have seen an even bigger grin than the one plastered outside, the genuine smile of a man who felt like the luckiest guy on Earth.
Inside the rabbit’s head, Roger’s breathing was heavy and labored, drowning out the sounds of the neighborhood. He barely heard the occasional passing car, the angry protests of birds perched in maple trees, or the squealing of excited kids running over to receive one of his special hand-painted eggs. His basket was heavy, making hopping difficult. With each jump, the eggs rattled and clacked together. But he was confident they wouldn’t break until the time was right, and with each approaching child, the basket became lighter. It wouldn’t be much longer until he was finished.
He’d brought twenty eggs in total, including one for himself, which he had taken great care to paint last night. Roger was no artist; it took him seven hours and a fifth of Yukon Jack to finish the job. The effort was well worth it, though, for they were beautiful eggs, brightly adorned with stripes and polka-dots of all sorts of different colors. They were much nicer than the ones his mother made when he…
…was a boy, before he was even in school, Roger would awaken on Easter morning in anticipation of the hunt in the backyard of their trailer home. The sun would barely be awake, and wasn’t quite warm enough yet to shake the dew off the lawn. His mother, knowing her son always woke up early on Easter, would be out in the yard even sooner, strategically stashing eggs. There were the usual hiding places, of course, like the old wine barrel where mom tried to grow tomatoes each year, or the Dr. Pepper thermometer that leaned against the side of the trailer. The thermometer used to hang on the front porch of the house they once shared with his father.
Roger grew to know Mom’s Easter routine, but he played along anyway, milking the event for all it was worth. He always started in the middle of the yard where Elvis, their friendly old basset hound, was tied up. Roger knew no eggs would be there because that was Elvis’ territory and everything in that ten-foot radius was his. He and his mother learned that a few Easters ago when the dog chowed down on nearly all of the eggs within his reach. Eggs, it turned out, didn’t agree with the dog’s digestive system and he farted all night, stinking up the whole trailer. But it wouldn’t be Easter if Roger didn’t start the hunt in the middle of the yard, skillfully dodging Elvis’ droppings - ‘doggy mines’, mom called them.
Most kids loved Christmas, but Roger loved Easter most. It was the holiday when his mom always smiled, laughed and took snapshots of him with her boxy little Kodak camera. Roger didn’t like Christmas, because Mom would shuffle sadly around the house in her bathrobe, spending most of the day staring at the television with a drink in her hand. Sometimes she cried, holding her only child in her arms and apologizing for not being able to afford a tree, for having nothing more to give him to unwrap than a cheap trinket from a second-hand store. Roger felt sorry for her, yet would get angry at her display of self-pity. It wasn’t the mom he knew and loved during the rest of the year.
But on Easter, she was happy. She was beautiful. She’d always throw on the yellow dress she once eloped in and fix her hair the way loving TV moms always did, then spend the entire day with him. After the great egg hunt, he’d eat a couple of eggs, then the two of them would plant themselves on the sofa and catch the Bugs Bunny cartoon marathon channel 12 showed every Easter. Roger absolutely loved Bugs Bunny, and would often mimic the famous rabbit whenever he said…
“…what’s up, doc!” Roger greeted in his well-honed Brooklyn bunny voice as he handed one of his eggs to a little red-headed kid. The boy giggled and tried to snatch a second egg from the basket, but Roger playfully side-stepped him, raising the remaining painted treasures out of reach.
“Sorry, doc,” he said. The papier-mâché head made Roger sound as though he were talking into a bucket. “Only one per customer. Gotta have enough to go ‘round, ya know.”
“It’s for my sister!” the boy cried defensively.
“Where is she, doc? Don’t she wanna meet the Easter Bunny?”
The boy pointed across the street. Roger had to turn most of his body in order to see where he was pointing. A little blonde girl, no more than four or five years old, stood in the middle of her front yard, staring back wide-eyed and open-jawed.
“She’s scared of you, Easter Bunny,” the boy added seriously.
Roger’s sudden laughter bounced around inside his rabbit head. “Afraid of me? I’m just a rabbit. Why, I wouldn’t hurt a single hair on her pretty little scalp.”
“She’s scared of Santa, too. Had a cow when my mom took us to meet him at the mall last Christmas.”
“Can’t say I blame her, there, doc.” Roger knelt beside the boy and placed a fluffy paw on his shoulder. “Tell ya what…you go tell your sister that, if she comes over, I’ll give her the best egg I got…one I’ve been saving for myself.”
The boy obediently nodded and darted back toward his house, checking the road for traffic before crossing.
Roger peeped into his basket and counted four remaining eggs, including his own. He heard muffled laughter behind him, and he turned to spot three kids scampering up the sidewalk ahead of their mother to greet him. This was turning out perfect.
He smiled behind his costume, then looked back across the street at the boy and her sister. She glanced over at Roger, then uncertainly back to her brother. After she slowly nodded, her brother encouragingly nudged her in Roger’s direction, ushering her the same way…
…his father ushered him into the back seat of the car and slammed the door shut. Roger shook rain from his hair and looked out the window at the grassy hill where Mom would spend eternity. He had hoped she would go to Heaven, but his Dad set him straight the night before. “Dead is dead,” he bluntly said.
Roger pulled a Hot Wheels race car from his pocket - the last thing Mom ever bought him - and mindless flicked the wheels as his dad’s new wife hurried into the front passenger seat and clicked on the radio. Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” drifted from the car speakers. Mom always loved that song.
“Dammit,” Dad’s wife hissed, checking her watch. “I think we missed the lucky number drawing.” She pulled the rearview mirror in her direction and produced a compact from her purse to fix her face, which was wet with rain.
Roger’s father climbed into the car, soaking and angry. “Why the hell couldn’t the funeral be indoors,” he groused, bringing the engine to life. “especially since I paid for the fucking thing.”
Roger felt tears threaten to sting his eyes, and he fought hard to beat them back. Dad hated seeing him cry. At mom’s eulogy, a single tear escaped his eye. A handkerchief was thrust in his face. He looked up to see his father staring into him, a single brow raised in disapproval.
“Wipe your face, son,” he quietly insisted. “You’re acting like a girl.”
There were only five people at the funeral, although Marcie, Dad’s new wife, didn’t really count. She had never even met his mother. Still, Roger was grateful she came because, even though he didn’t like her much, she usually managed to keep Dad’s temper in check. He hated to think what Dad would be like today if Marcie hadn’t come along.
The car rolled down the road leading out of the cemetery; Roger took at long last look out the back window. Through the rain, he could see two groundskeepers in heavy raincoats shoveling dirt into his mother’s grave.
I wish there was a Heaven, he thought gloomily.
Once again, he fought the urge to cry. Once again, he was victorious.
Dead is dead. Stop acting like a girl.
“Turn around, Roger,” his dad said. “Let Mom fix your hair.”
Tucking the race car back into his pocket, he silently obeyed as Marcie turned around with a comb in her hand, sitting on her knees and leaning forward to reach his head. His father playfully took one hand off the wheel to pinch her rear.
“Stop it!” she playfully giggled, swatting at him if he were a fly.
Roger didn’t know how much longer he could battle the tears.
“Look sharp, Roger,” Marcie said with a smile that never reached her eyes. “You father made reservations at the Doubletree for Easter brunch.”
“Yeah,” Dad snickered, his anger subsiding. “I’m so damned hungry I could eat a whole rabbit.”
Marcie slapped his shoulder and laughed. “You’re awful! You…
“…can’t eat these eggs,” whined the youngest of the three kids who had run up to him. Their mother, standing about ten feet behind them, was busy taking snapshots with her camera.
“Course not,” said Roger, staring down at the kids. “These eggs are special. The kind you keep with you forever.”
The oldest of the three, maybe seven or eight years old, examined hers methodically. “Is there candy in them?”
“Better than Candy. If these were real eggs, once you eat ‘em, Easter’s over. If there was candy in ‘em, once the candy’s gone, Easter’s over. With these eggs, it’ll always be Easter. It can be Easter forever, for however long that is.”
“I wish it was Christmas forever instead,” the youngest pouted.
“Christmas? Christmas is the sad time. That’s the time to watch TV, the time to cry, the time to wish your father dead-”
“Come on kids,” the mother interrupted, staring uneasily at the rabbit’s fake blank eyes. She grabbed the youngest by the hand and pulled him away. “We’ll be late for church.”
“Church?” Roger piped with concern. “Who died?”
The woman didn’t answer as she hurried her three kids away, all of them clutching their new Easter gifts.
Just then, Roger felt something tugging his fluffy cotton tail. He whipped around, ready to fire, then breathed a sigh of relief to see it was just the red-headed boy, who had returned with his little sister in-tow. She stared ominously up at him with huge unblinking eyes, her thumb crammed securely in her mouth.
“Hi, doctress,” he chirped, kneeling until his eyes her level with hers.
The girl stood rigid, too terrified to move. Her older brother giggled.
“Doc here tells me you’re scared of the Easter Bunny.”
She nodded, backing away a step.
“That’s okay. There’s no need to be afraid, but I do know how you feel. I was afraid once, too.”
The boy was suddenly incredulous as he scoffed, “The Easter Bunny afraid? What could the Easter Bunny be afraid of?”
Roger chuckled. “Doc, everybody gets afraid sometimes.”
“Not me!” Then the boy ran off to do a summersault in the nearest lawn.
Roger pulled his last egg from the basket and showed it to her. Of all the eggs he worked so hard on last night, this was his favorite; fluorescent orange with navy blue stripes. Painted in yellow on one side was ‘I’M A BAAAAD MUTHAFUCKA!’, and on the other side, ‘DEAD IS DEAD.’
“I do not want you to fear me,” he said. “I just want to help.” He held up the egg in one paw. “This egg is special. It takes away the fear. It takes away sadness. I was going to save it for myself, but I’d like you to have it. Would you like that?”
The girl nodded and took her thumb from her mouth.
“What’s your name?”
“Megan,” she replied quietly, lips curling into a tiny smile.
“Well, Megan, I’m done being scared. You don’t want to be scared anymore, do you?”
She shook her head. “No, Mr. Bunny.”
“Then give me a hug.”
Megan went to him. He welcomed her into his fuzzy yellow arms and pulled her close. For the first time in years, Roger felt tears awakening, but not in sorrow this time. His father wasn’t around anymore, so he welcomed them.
Suddenly, a few hundred feet away, in the direction the woman took her children, an explosion…
…rocked the hills to the south. Roger’s heart leaped into his throat. He whipped around, clutching his rifle, ready to fire.
“Calm down, Bugs,” Rico said, putting a hand on Roger’s trembling shoulder. “Fight’s over. That’s just our air support mopping up.”
As if on cue, a low flying jet roared over them, disappearing over some trees to the north.
“Come on, Bugs. Let’s torch this place and get the hell outta here.”
Roger looked beyond his friend to see other guys in his unit ushering locals out of the village, prodding stragglers with their gun muzzles. “Why do we gotta burn it down?”
Rico lit a cigarette, then held his lighter to the grass roof of the nearest hut. “Keep yer pants on, we’ll get humpin’ soon enough. Then we’ll get shitfaced and whore around ‘till morning. We earned it, I’d say.”
The fire spread rapidly. Within minutes the whole hut was in flames. Thick black smoke snaked into the sky.
“Beautiful,” Rico sighed, gazing upward.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Roger quipped, still darting his head around nervously. It was always the quiet times that scared him most. “There’s nothing beautiful about this.”
Rico gave a here-we-go-again roll of the eyes. “Don’t start up again, Bugs.”
“Rico, there’s nothing here. It’s a farm village.”
“Yeah, a farm village of American-hating murderers.” He searched the ground around him. “Where’s my fuckin’ helmet?”
Roger‘s jaw dropped. He loved Rico and would die for him, but sometimes his buddy could be so damned ignorant. “Village of murderers? I just watched Jennings blow a lady’s head off in front of her own kids. Who are the murderers here?”
Rico flicked his smoke away and stared hard at him. “Look, Bugs, we’re all scared shitless. I get an hour of sleep a night. I can’t take a shit most of the time, and when I do, it comes out like Niagara fucking Falls. You know why? Cause these motherfuckers don’t play Monopoly the same way we do. I don’t know if the next slant comin’ my way is a farmer or a walking bomb. I saw an old bitch cut a buddy in half with a fucking machine gun hidden under her poncho. So, if a guy like Jennings is a little overzealous, so what? Good riddance, I say.”
Roger heard Rico’s flag-waving kill-or-be-killed tirade before, and Rico was probably right. It was guys like Rico who survived shit like this; it was guys like Rico who kept guys like Roger Peterson alive.
“If you’re smart, Bugs, you’ll stop pumpin’ piss for these assholes and look out for number one, or you ain’t gonna live to see another cartoon.” Rico continued the search for his helmet while Roger watched him in silence. The only sounds were distant booming in the hills and the crackle of burning huts.
“Sorry, Rico. I didn’t mean-”
“Forget it, Bugs. Stop being sorry all the time. You can’t help what you feel.”
Roger tried to ignore the sick pang in his stomach. He hated making Rico mad, and always worried that the day may come when Rico would get sick of putting up with him. Roger knew he wouldn’t have lasted very long in this place without Rico. It was Rico who befriended him when the rest of the unit thought he was just dead weight. It was Rico who got him laid for the first time by a local hooker. At first, he thought his buddy would join the others by teasing his virginity. Instead, he set Roger up with the best girl in the brothel, even paid for it. Those were the best two minutes of Roger’s life, and he had Rico to thank for it.
Maybe Roger was sort of a pet project for Rico, who educated him in a way teachers never could, and watched over him after his father gave up. And he always displayed a level of patience for Roger that no one had since Mom died. The only time Rico ever got angry was when Roger started showing compassion for these people, especially the children.
Rico grinned when he finally found his helmet, lying upside-down in the mud next to a rusty water barrel. He had developed an almost superstitious attachment to that helmet. It was adorned with beer bottle labels and clever Ricoisms, such as ‘I’M A BAAAAAD MUTHAFUCKA!’ and ‘HAVE SOME HELL.’
Roger snorted, slinging his rifle over his shoulder. “Happy now?”
“Happy as a cat in a fish house…or is that a fish in a cathouse?” Rico cackled wickedly.
Roger smiled and shook his head. “What the hell does that even mean, man?”
Just then, they heard a rustling sound from behind. They wheeled around, unslinging their rifles. Out of some nearby bushes, two young girls came shambling toward them. Their clothes hung off their brittle bodies like tattered rags on a scarecrow. They had no shoes; mud squished between their toes as they ran.
“My God,” Roger gasped. “They look like they haven’t eaten in days. Parents are probably dead.”
“Give it a rest, Rico. We probably killed their folks.”
One girl ran to Roger, the other to Rico. Roger looked down at the child - she couldn’t have been more than five or six - his heart breaking as she clutched his leg. She smiled a toothless grin while tears carved rivers in the grime on her face.
“I’m sorry, kid,” moaned Roger, willing himself not to cry. He didn’t want Rico to see him acting like a girl. “I’m so very s-”
“Bugs!” Rico screamed. “They’re fucking wired!”
He turned to see Rico rolling around in the mud, trying to pull the child off his leg. Roger looked down at the girl hugging him. Only then did he notice the hand grenade fastened to her thigh. The pin had been pulled.
“Buuugs!” Rico roared, eyes threatening to burst from his skull as his helmet fell back off.
Then he exploded. The force of the blast threw Roger to the ground. Blood, mud and meat showered around him.
“Nooooo!” he screamed. “Nooooo!” Why did everyone he loved have to die?
The other girl still clung to his leg. She bawled as she tightened her grip. Before he could comprehend what he was doing, Roger ripped his Bowie knife from its sheath. Grabbing a fistful black, tangled hair, he yanked the girl’s head back and plunged the blade into her throat. Blood shot at him like a fountain. He twisted the knife, pushing it in further, until the tip busted out the back of her neck. The girl’s arms loosened their grip as life poured out of her. Roger let go of the knife, snatched up the tiny body and hurled it as hard as he could. She landed on her back, splashing into a puddle about ten feet away. Roger dove the opposite way and hit the ground, shielding his head to await the explosion.
Several seconds passed. It should have gone off by new. Roger cautiously raised his head. The girl lay lifelessly in the mud, staring vacantly into the smoky sky.
A dud, he realized in horror. Grenade’s a dud.
Gorge roared up his throat. He sat up, leaned over and spewed his rations onto the ground.
“I murdered her!” he wheezed. “Oh, sweet Jesus Christ, I killed her!” Wiping his mouth, he remained rigid on his hands and knees. He gawked open-mouth at the girl, then started sobbing out loud. He didn’t care who heard him.
The girl’s head flopped over to face him, the left half disappearing into the muddy water. Her dead, glassy right eye remained open, staring back accusingly.
“What the fuck are you looking at?” he slurred, strings of spit and vomit flying off his lips.
She didn’t reply. That dead right eye bored into him.
“Stop it.” Roger slowly stood, ignoring the mud that dripped from his fatigues. He unslung his rifle and clicked off the safety. “Stop looking at me!”
Blood from the girl’s neck turned the puddle purple. The eye continued to stare him down.
“Stopitstopitstopitstopit!” He fired away, pumping round after round into the dead girl. Her body jumped and jerked wildly as Roger…
…picked Megan up, cradling her in his paws. Screams filled the neighborhood as another grenade exploded a block away.
“What’s that?” Megan’s brother cried.
“Oblivion, doc,” Roger said calmly. “Sweet oblivion, where fear can’t follow. Life is pain, doc. Life is fear. But dead…well, dead is just plain fucking dead.”
Megan began to cry, squirming in his paws as another explosion vibrated the sidewalk beneath them. Roger rocked her gently, making soft shushing sounds as she bawled. “It’s okay, honey. I’m here. I’m here.”
He heard distant sirens as he plopped his butt on the sidewalk, keeping a tight hold of Megan. Her brother bolted away, screaming for his dad.
“I wanna go home,” Megan whimpered as she trembled in his arms.
“So do I, little one,” Roger said. “So do I. We’re gonna go home together, the way we should have before.”
Roger Peterson, the man in the fluffy bunny suit, shook the paw off his left hand, then off his right, making sure not to lose his grip on Megan. Her sobs grew louder, as did the approaching sirens. He stroked her hair gently, clearing it from her face.
“You and me, Megan…we’re gonna make things right.”
He held the grenade before her eyes, the sweat from his hand smearing the paint.
“Remember this trick?” he whispered before pulling the pin.
A police car roared around the corner and screeched to a halt. Roger clutched Megan tighter as two cops leaped from the car, guns drawn and leveled at his head.
“Dead is dead,” Roger said.
The egg exploded.
Copyright 2011, D.M. Anderson