The sun was going down on the Delta, turning the water a sluggish, brownish red.
He finished lacing up his combat boots, trying not to notice how Chito and Little John got quiet. Hell, he knew what they were thinking; nobody had to say it. With a flick of his wrist, he settled his helmet onto his head and picked up his M21. He was himself again. A stranger with a loaded weapon.
“Keegan,” the two men said, nodding. Neither wished him luck.
He paused on the raised landing of his hooch as the last rays began to fade and moonlight took over. From here, he could see most of the other huts and the men who claimed them as home, but nothing he saw affected him like the transition from the day’s sunlit reality to the night’s ghost-like clarity. He grasped his dog tags like a rosary before descending the steps, one at a time, quietly, confidently, till he made contact with the earth. Head lowered slightly, eyes straight ahead, he walked to the edge of the compound and disappeared into the brush.
Sights and sounds registered automatically. Important things, like the shadow flitting through his peripheral vision two trees over and to his left. Or things of no consequence, like his jaws clamping down to move in agitated rhythm.
Teeth grinding. It started at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, when the Viet Cong bombed the air base every fucking night. Like others, he conditioned himself to sleep during the bombing and to control whatever emotions threatened to overtake him the next morning. Like finding out which of his buddies had been blown to pieces.
The dentist tried to convince him that if his teeth were filed down, he wouldn’t be able to grind them in his sleep. The base shrink backed him up, adding catchphrases like “you’ve got to learn to compartmentalize” or “things you push away in the daylight can haunt you at night” and “stress can surface in all kinds of ways.”
So they filed his teeth down. It didn’t make a damn bit of difference.
The shrink suggested that he “get out more” and “get to know his buddies.” He didn’t want to know ’em. You make friends, and the next thing you know, pieces of ’em are scattered on the ground and all you’re left with is a name on a casualty list, an empty bunk. No thanks. He’d go it alone. The hunt was different. If you buy it, you buy it. Nobody gives a damn.
And he did get out more. Every night in fact. It didn’t improve his social life, but he sure felt better.
Halfway through a cynical smile, Keegan stopped and dropped. Voices, carried on the wind. Vietnamese. At least three. Slowly, he raised up to get a better look. No one in sight. Not yet. He stood for a moment, listening until the voices faded in the distance. When you’re alone, you’ve got to pick your battles. Two, and you have a chance. Too many, and you’re dog meat. It’s hard to take multiple prisoners back for interrogation purposes. One’s easier to handle. One’s all you need.
He waited, hunkered down, sweating, waiting to see if the soldiers were circling back or were gone for good. Something flagged his brain, like turning down the corner of a page while you go piss. An earlier thought. About nobody giving a damn if you bought it? Yeah, that was it. Hell, a lot of things bothered him lately, like the shit the news anchors and reporters were shoveling out about what the hell they were doing in Vietnam. If those guys were right, and America couldn’t win the war, then what was the point? He stood, lowered his weapon, and faded into the trees. Don’t think. You’re not here to think. Focus on the trail. Walk, watch, listen.
Besides, 56 more days and he was history. At the air base, he could buy a miniature gong from a mamasan and strike it for every day left on his tour, every fucking night, just to remind the other bastards his time was nearly up. Some of the guys started gonging at 100 days out and drove everybody nuts. Yeah, that’s what he’d do. Except his ass wasn’t at the air base anymore. It was crawlin’ through the underbelly of a jungle, looking for prey. It was what he did, and he was good at it. Or so he’d been told. Still, some nights he’d rather stay in the hut and beat Chito and Little John at poker, and just leave it be.
He thought about going home, but what the hell was he going to do stateside? A few weeks of R&R and he’d be expected to act like a normal person, whatever that was. All the war protesters could yell at him like they did on the news, and tell him what a jerk he was, fighting for his country. To hell with them. His life was here, now. They didn’t matter. Not even those waiting for him back at the hut.
Keegan figured Chito was cool with his being a sniper. Being from the Barrio in Los Angeles, killing was nothing new to him. They joined gangs and packed weapons by high school. Matter of fact, he’d asked Chito once if he’d like to go on a midnight run, but all he got was a strange look. He didn’t ask again.
He’d never ask Little John. What good could a gung-ho flagwaver who’d joined up to do his patriotic chore be to him? Shit, he was so “book smart,” you could smell the fear on him. The learned graduate still looked at Keegan like he wasn’t quite human. But in Keegan’s eyes, Little John was the nobody. Just a short white dude with a girl back in the States who did best to help him hang on to those stars-and-stripes-forever, midwestern, conservative, holier-than-thou values. Flag-waving might work in Iowa, when they weren’t busy peeling potatoes. But Nam wasn’t Iowa.
Less than half a mile to the “watering hole.” Halfway between a pond and a creek. Keegan had stumbled across during one of his midnight wanderings. Chito and Little John knew about it, but neither of them would come this far into the brush, not without a whole company and a damn good reason.
He glanced at the moon and kept moving. Little John and Chito would be getting up when he turned up at dawn, leaned his weapon against his bunk, smoked, and crashed. They both knew to keep it quiet if they stayed in the hut. Maybe they’d be out on patrol when he got back, one of those “search-and-destroy” missions, military-speak for “find people and kill them.” He liked having the hut to himself.
And he liked hunting alone, even if everybody called him a rogue. He didn’t care.
Sometimes, he came back with a prisoner. Sometimes, he found nothing to hunt. One shot, one kill. Short and sweet.
And night vision made it all possible. A scope that got him “up-close and personal” with the enemy. He used it a lot, telling himself he needed it in case his M21 jammed, which was highly unlikely. After all, he kept his weapon as clean as the rest of his body. Cleaner.
Keegan traveled as far as he could on the trail, then scaled a hill and settled his 5’11” frame onto a ledge jutting out from the trees. He crawled forward until he had a clean line of sight over the rim, making sure the shadows of the trees concealed him. The water hole was in range, 110 feet away. His body settled in against the rock, his eyes and mind cataloguing everything that moved or made a sound. Now that the initial hush of dusk had settled, the animals were coming out to forage and to kill.
That was the kind of reality he lived with. Not the “folks back home” in their rocking chairs out on the porch, smelling the honeysuckle and listening to crickets rub their hind legs together. He had no folks back home. It was a long way from northeast Texas to southeast Saigon. And no southern pines growing tall and proud, which was fine with him. It’s hard to hide in a pine tree.
Keegan thought about draft dodgers, the trust fund babies heading off for college so they could protest The War and The Establishment while daddy’s money paid for everything, the protesting as well as the college degree. It pissed him off. He hadn’t protested. He’d volunteered. Hell, the farthest he’d ever been from Texas was southern Oklahoma, and he’d always wanted to see something of the world. So why not let Uncle Sam foot the bill?
He’d enlisted. And his wife had filed for divorce. Fair enough. Said he was crazy. Uncalled for, but not the first time. It was his one chance to travel and see different things, to know what was out there. Made perfect sense. His wife disagreed.
Thanks to ROTC in college, he managed to land a cushy job at the Air Base handling incoming cargo, personnel, visiting dignitaries. Great job. Not too demanding. In his off-hours, he went into the village and got food, jewelry, clothing, drugs, anything he wanted at a damned good price. He and the other officers who shared a hut had a “mamasan” who did all the cooking and cleaning for less than minimum wage. Things were good. Then some fool found out he could shoot a rifle and hit whatever he aimed at. Bam. He was “volunteered” for sniper school. But the targets weren’t birds, rabbits, or squirrels. They were other creatures. The kind that come alive at night. The kind that shoot back.
Something flickered on the north side of the water hole. A reflection? Leaves? No. Keegan knew a rifle when he saw one. Muscles tightened, he slithered back like a snake, recoiling deeper into the trees. He rested his weapon gingerly on the rocky ledge. A quick glance at the sky. No clouds. Ideal.
His hands were clammy, but he denied the urge to wipe them on his fatigues. His stomach lurched like he’d eaten a bad burrito, but it was always that way before a kill.
Breathe. Focus on the mission. He remembered the first time he’d ever fired a rifle at a shooting range and realized how impersonal cold-blooded murder could be. The rifle did the killing, not the person. It had a personality all its own. The bullet was indifferent, separate, unlike a knife. With a knife, you could feel the entry, the flesh, the muscle ripping away, the blood warm on your hands. A bullet flew on a preordained trajectory until it hit home, and that was that. End of story.
There was another movement in the shadows, about twenty feet to the left of the initial flicker. He could make out the wood of the enemy’s rifle being held at the ready. Somebody was skirting the watering hole. Keegan’s body tensed. The movement stopped. The enemy stepped cautiously out of the shadows, looking around, unable to see him up on the ledge. He pressed his lips together, wanting to curse and spit and slam his hand against a wall somewhere.
It was a woman. A fucking Vietcong woman carrying a rifle. She didn’t even have a helmet on, just a damn Ching Chong hat, one of those woven bamboo things hanging down her back from a cord, like a farmer who’d just stepped off a rice paddy. But she held the rifle like a close friend as she checked the perimeter, her long, black hair shining in the moonlight. He brought up his weapon and centered her in the scope.
At maximum magnification, her eyes sparkled when she glanced up and looked around, catching the moonlight. Her shoulders relaxed, like she thought she was alone. Safe maybe. At least for the moment.
He took his time with the scope, targeting points on her body from habit as his night vision took him on a journey across her shoulder, down her arm, to a little hand clutching her own. A little boy stepped out of the undergrowth. Keegan jerked back from the scope for a moment. A woman and her son.
They were still the enemy.
The little boy could grow up to be another Viet Cong. Or one of the “innocent children” used by the VC to lead American soldiers into an ambush or a mine field.
A breeze ruffled through the trees as the woman let go of the boy, reached for a canteen from her belt, and bent down to the pool of water to fill it. Keegan tried not to think about the boy, just like he tried not to think about Alicia, his own little dark-haired girl, somewhere back home in the sole custody of his ex-wife.
He squeezed the thought from his mind. Whatever he was to do needed to be done, and quickly. His finger curled tighter on the trigger, his military training striking a cadence he tried desperately to step in time to. It wasn’t him doing the killing. It was the bullet. It was the rifle. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t personal. It was Vietnam.
His finger edged off of the trigger while conflicting thoughts waged war in his head. She was armed, capable of shooting him without thinking. Which made it okay to kill her, to kill them both. Keegan started to sweat. He watched the boy drink some water from the canteen. He decided to kill them when they were through drinking. Yeah, that was it. He would kill them after they were full of scummy pond water. That way, when the bullets went through them, only dirty delta water would pour out of their bodies. Not blood.
You couldn’t actually see blood. Not at night. It took the cold light of dawn to reveal the dull, reddish brown color. Creatures of the night, like him, didn’t die in the dark. They just lay there till daylight. Till their blood turned brown.
That’s it. Focus on the kill. His M21 carried 7.32 mm bullets. He pictured them in his mind, propelling slow-motion down the bore where the rifling gave them a beautiful spin all their own and sent them home. His M21 was the best weapon for sniping, and with his ART on 900, the night was his. Nothing could touch him. Nothing could even get close. Nothing.
The boy had finished drinking. His mother reached out with her hand to brush his hair back from his eyes. Keegan remembered doing the same thing to his daughter’s hair, once, a long time ago. He jumped as a VC soldier crashed through the trees just a few feet from the woman and boy. Now there were three of them, and two rifles. He froze on the ledge, hidden but ready. Watching the soldier strike a threatening pose, but not shoot. Why not?
Keegan steadied the scope, taking in the drama below. What the fuck was going on? The woman reached for her rifle, and the VC kicked it away. The boy ran to help his mother. The soldier knocked him to the ground. It was eerie. No yelling, no screaming. They knew the enemy was all around. Hell, the enemy was already there.
The scene came alive in the moonlight as the woman struggled, already pinned down, her captor slapping her into submission, laying his weapon aside for the moment, but within reach. He obviously didn’t see the woman as a threat, or maybe he was just stupid. Was he honestly going to try and rape a woman in the middle of a war-packed jungle with patrols everywhere?
Keegan’s training surfaced. This wasn’t covered in sniping class, but he knew exactly what he was going to do. Instinct. He didn’t even think about it.
In perfect calm he zeroed in on the left side of the VC soldier’s head and fired. He knew the bullet would go right through the flimsy little helmet, which it did. The VC froze in a sitting position, then slumped off of the woman and onto the ground. The woman lay there, shaking and confused. She lifted her head and glanced at the dead soldier. Then scrutinized the trajectory, turned her head, and scanned the rocky embankment. Smart woman.
When her eyes held steady with his own, Keegan knew she had spotted him.
She glanced toward her rifle. Too far away. She looked at the ledge, waiting.
Keegan’s hands shook. He laid the rifle next to him. The woman half-crawled toward her son, glancing up at the ledge, unsure of what had happened and why he hadn’t taken her out as well. Keegan wondered the same thing. Why would he save her from being raped and then blow her away? She was the enemy, right?
Before he could find an answer, he heard gunfire in the distance. His training told him to get the hell out, but another war waged within, a battle between time and circumstance, death and duty.
He knew why he’d hesitated on the landing back at the hut, surveying his kingdom before he’d allowed the jungle to swallow him. It was a gift. a special talent for killing, and it set him apart from the rest. Without is, he was one of them. One of the herd.
Still, he hesitated. And he knew why. He knew, but he didn’t want to look it in the face. Truth was like that. It wasn’s always earth-shattering. Sometimes it was a quiet, empty thing.
He didn’t want to do this anymore.
He was tired of the killing.
He wanted to awaken in the morning to eggs, toast, orange juice, coffee, and his daughter’s hands around his neck, telling him she loved him.
His time was up, and he wasn’t ready.
It was a truth that had built up inside him with every life he had taken with a single shot to the head or heart, knowing he had pulled the trigger. He was a paid assassin. And they didn’t pay him nearly enough.
He wanted to feel.
He wanted to live.
He wanted to matter.
From this tiny seed of self-realization, Keegan did something that went against logic, against self-preservation, against everything in the book.
He stood up.
It wasn’t to scan the perimeter, so he didn’t both lying to himself. The shot he’d fired would bring others, and he was vulnerable. Out in the open like the woman. The strange thing was, he no longer cared. He looked down from the ledge. She looked up from the river.
And they knew.
She was his witness. The one person in all the world who would remember him, but not as a killer. That’s why he wanted her to see him, to see him as he really was, so she could describe him to her son one day. Tell him about the enemy who had saved them both.
The moment passed as quickly as it had come. Keegan lowered his rifle. He watched as she bathed her son’s face with water, then helped him to his feet. She said something to him, a whispered warning carried on the breeze to where Keegan stood.
“Yên tĩnh,” she said. “Kẻ thù là tất cả xung quanh.”
Keegan knew just enough Vietnamese to know that she had told her son to be quiet, that “the enemy is all around.” Something turned inside Keegan’s stomach at those words, some kind of ungodly regret he couldn’t explain.
The wind came up; moonlight flickered through the trees. She was still looking up when she grabbed her rifle, swung it in his direction, and fired. She’d moved so fast, he didn’t have time to think. He barely had time to fire his weapon in reply, even as he felt the bullet from her rifle whistle past his left ear and bury itself in a VC soldier directly behind him with a thudding sound he knew so well. She hadn’t been aiming at him. He turned.
The VC soldier was going down, twitching in agony and blind-firing as he fell. Keegan gasped as one of the stray bullets hit him in the chest, exploding with a pain he had never felt before. He dropped his weapon and fell onto his hands and knees, fighting for every breath. It wasn’t supposed to hurt like this. Not a bullet. Not like this.
If he could just make it back to camp. If he could just-
The knife got him in the lower right back. The wounded soldier had crawled the last few feet to make sure of his kill, and the force of his hatred toppled them both over the ledge and into the undergrowth below. Keegan cried out as the soldier fell across him, grunting as the soldier’s weight drove the cold, dull blade in even farther, where the pain changed into one of searing heat that set his intestine on fire. There was a god-awful pressure inside him now that wouldn’t stop. His right hand was trembling against the foliage. He was done. The acrid taste of sweat mingled with the metallic taste of blood filled his mouth.
No time. No time. Can’t die yet.
Something he needed to do.
He tried to push the soldier off, but his arms no longer functioned. The effort left him dizzy and disoriented. Then the weight lifted. The woman was there, pushing and pulling, but without success. He saw her favoring one arm and struggling to free him with the other before calling to her son to come and help. Together, they rolled the soldier off him.
Keegan gasped at the pain radiating down his side. Blood gurgled up into his throat. Through fading vision, he lifted his eyes, looking up at the woman as she examined his wounds. The bullet wound in his chest. The knife wound in his lower back. The blood.
Her Ching Chong hat was gone, and her dark hair fell across her face as she bent over him. She had used the thin rope from the hat to hold a makeshift bandage of leaves against the wound in her right shoulder, but she was alive. Her rifle was at her feet. He had missed his target. He had shot her in the arm, but thank God, this time, he had missed her heart.
His right side was going numb. He looked at the woman and tried to speak. A gurgling sound came out.
The boy glanced down at him. Unlike his mother, who had saved the life of the enemy and shot one of her own to do it, there was no horror or pity in his eyes. He just looked, then checked the perimeter again. He had seen it all before. Was he the same age as his daughter? Shit. His daughter. Tears escaped Keegan’s eyes and flowed down to mingle with the dirt and blood.
Keegan spit blood out of his mouth. Too much blood.
“Tôi không biết!” he whispered as the darkness took him. “Tôi không biết.”
I didn’t know.
I didn’t know.
She bowed her head in understanding, then raised it one more time, her tears reflecting moonlight. It was the last thing he saw as the light faded from his eyes, eyes that would later be closed by trembling hands. The same hands that would hesitate, then gently remove his dog tags.
They found his body at daybreak. The weapons were gone. Two Viet Cong soldiers lay dead. The woman and child were nowhere in sight.
Keegan got to go home a little earlier than he had planned. They called him a hero. They said how good he was at what he did. That he had done what he had to do.
(Night Vision won First Place in the 2015 Writer’s Digest Fiction Contest, Thriller Category)
He stumbled down the steps of the Metro bus, catching his ears in the folding doors. Embarrassing, to say the least. Of course, he’d never had a great sense of direction, even as a young man. And Peter Jefferson Goodbody wasn’t young anymore, nor was he aging gracefully.
He was, quite simply, lost.
A Metro bench called to him from beneath a shade tree, and he padded over, his floppy feet making a shushing sound on the pavement. He hooked his cane on the wooden slats, turned a blind eye to the graffiti, and sat down, adjusting slightly for his cotton tail. The attempt to cross his legs—no small feat in a head-to-foot bunny rabbit costume—brought chuckles from several passers-by. A few even checked the area for hidden cameras. Fools, every one. Now, if they could tell him where his daughter lived, they’d merit a prize. A huge one.
Why was it he could remember things that had happened fifty or sixty years ago, but not what happened an hour ago? He clearly recalled donning his costume and heading out to his granddaughter’s fifth-birthday party, but now he couldn’t remember how to get there. It was his own fault, his stupid pride in being self-reliant, that had brought him here and left him stranded with no clue where he was headed.
A great idea—surprising his only granddaughter and managing it all on his own. Nobody fussing over him, no paying other people to do what he had done all his life, and done quite well, thank you very much. His daughter had graciously offered to have her husband come and get him, but it turned out Donald what’s-his-name had to work late. Thank goodness. One more patronizing look from that duck-face excuse of a husband, one more, “Oh, God, it’s the old person again” look, and Peter Goodbody would be sorely tempted to get a gun, whether it was duck-hunting season or not.
Studying the Metro sign triggered nothing, no memories. Think logically, Peter told himself. He had gotten off at FM1960 and Walters Road in front of the WalMart, just like he was supposed to. But that’s where he drew a blank. Should he go right, or left? Damn it! He remembered writing it down, but where had he put it?
He emptied his bunny pouch of its contents. A twenty and two fives, a lovely pocket watch he received when he retired from the railroad six years before, and an obnoxious police whistle his daughter insisted he carry on his person, especially when leaving the house. No driver’s license. But then, he didn’t drive. Not anymore. Failing eyesight had taken care of that, which was why he had a monthly bus pass. A credit card? Never used one. Cell phone? Didn’t want one. But he remembered what his daughter had said about the twenty and two fives.
“Look,” she’d told him, “if you’re going to be stubborn about it, at least take a taxi. Please, Dad? And allow plenty of time. It starts at eight o’clock.”
He checked the time. His pocket watch said seven-fifteen.
Why was he so early? And why on Earth would they hold a birthday party for a little girl that late at night? Oh, that’s right. Duck-man had to work late. So, have the party without him. Hey, there’s an idea.
Peter Goodbody didn’t like arriving late to make an entrance, though a six-foot-tall bunny rabbit would definitely make an entrance of one kind or another. That’s okay, as long as his granddaughter was adequately surprised and eternally grateful. After all, grandfathers were entitled to all the unwarranted praise they could get, right?
He smiled beneath the long, fake whiskers. Then, he frowned. He couldn’t take a taxi. Not without an address. What good would that do? No, he’d just have to muddle through on his own.
Once everything was back in the bunny pouch, he looked around for some kind of diversion, spying a newspaper left on the bench. Crossword puzzles were supposed to help the brain to focus, right? He opened the paper to the want-ads section—he’d never cared much for crossword puzzles.
It was common knowledge that an older person’s mind wanders at times, but lately it seemed his thoughts traveled in tangents rather than in a straight line. Not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. He preferred to think of it as something akin to a “stream of consciousness,” where one thing just naturally led to another, then another, then another. Misdirection, perhaps. But definitely not wandering.
Peter turned the page and continued scouring the newspaper. It helped sometimes to put whatever he was trying to remember on “the back burner” and let it simmer a while. Then, when he least expected it, voila! There it was. A mind trick extraordinaire. It was magic. Like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
A hat! He pulled his top hat from off his head and looked inside. No address, no piece of paper, nothing. He returned the black velvet stovepipe a little sadly, positioned it carefully between the giant ears, and returned to his reading, giving his mind sufficient time to work.
A homeless person settled onto the other end of the bench, ran a misshapen forefinger across his scraggly beard a few times, then glanced at the sky and sniffed the air.
“Think it might rain, come evening,” the vagrant muttered in a shaky voice, pausing a moment before turning to the rabbit.
Not knowing whether the man sought confirmation or conversation, or both, Peter lowered the newspaper, struck what he hoped was a thoughtful pose, and nodded slowly up and down, as if considering the possibility of rain. Then, obeying an uncontrollable urge, he twitched his whiskers. The man’s eyes opened wide for a moment before he backed off the bench and staggered away. But what he had said lingered in Peter’s mind. The sun was going down, and rather quickly. As far as he knew, rabbits weren’t night creatures, but other things were. He decided to walk as far as the WalMart store. Though it was set back from the major street, there would be lights and people there, and maybe he would see something to help jar his memory.
He remembered where his daughter and granddaughter had lived before, but after the marriage to the duck person, they’d moved. Again, he’d written down the new address and phone number, but where had he put it? He’d even been there once. Or, had he? His mind called up images of blue shutters and a rose bush, in front of a white brick house. Yes, he could almost swear to it.
Of course, if worse came to worst, he could just go home. Or could he? Oh, God. Now he couldn’t remember where he lived. Wait a minute. Something Station. It started with a “C” —was it College Station? No, that’s where his sister lived. His daughter’s new house was different. There were some apartments on the left, a little back from the main street, before you got to the first light, or was it the second light? The subdivision was named after a tree. Maybe he’d recognize it when he got there.
He sighed, retrieved his cane from the bench, and hobbled down the street. A bunny rabbit costume. Complete humiliation. But who could resist those lovely brown eyes and that cute little smile—not his, by any means. Oh, no. Those were his granddaughter’s choice of weapons, and they kept him completely spellbound.
Along with her favorite stories from that collection by what’s-her-name. Something Pot. Oh dear, he hadn’t thought about that in a great many years. No, no. Back up a tangent or two. What were we talking about? Oh yes. His granddaughter, and how she loved bunnies. So a rabbit it is, he thought, even if it tends to bring smiles and laughter and more than a few giggles when viewed from behind. What’s a bunny costume without a cotton tail? Though he wasn’t crazy about it, not in the least. He could feel it swinging back and forth when he walked.
By the time he approached the convenience store, Peter’s thoughts had journeyed several tangents to the left, to wondering why they didn’t make magic pills to help people remember things. Not the so-called miracle drugs advertised on endless commercials, but something that actually worked. They had pills for everything else, so why not that? He had tried over-the-counter memory boosters, natural herbs, computer mind-games, all of which had done nothing as far as he could tell. If only he could walk into a store and get a memory pill to go.
Which led him to a rock group from the 70’s called Jefferson Airplane and the song, “White Rabbit.” What an era that was, when “one pill made you smaller and one pill made you tall.” And “the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all.” Wasn’t that the truth! The only pills he was allowed these days made his blood pressure go down or made him want to urinate. Oh, dear. He turned his thoughts elsewhere, quickly.
He couldn’t smoke, couldn’t drink, couldn’t take Viagra (so he couldn’t do that anymore,either). All the rewards of living to a ripe, old age. All he had left was his morning coffee. Coffee! Caffeine! Of course—it always jogged his memory.
Smiling in anticipation, he caught his reflection in the window and stopped for a moment. Such huge ears. His own ears were pretty large, but nothing like that. They didn’t use to be large. How could a person’s ears get bigger and their hearing get smaller? None of it made any sense. The only good thing about getting old was that you finally reached a point in your life where you didn’t have to please anyone but yourself. He had read that in a magazine somewhere, or was it in a song? Anyway, he wholeheartedly agreed. No more having to please your parents, your teacher, your professor, your boss, your wife—not even your dog. You could pretty much do as you damned well pleased, like being late to a birthday party.
He felt better, but only for a moment. When had it become so dark? The bright lights of the store window hurt his eyes, even behind the white fur and long eyelashes. But he waddled inside and got his coffee to go, along with some raised eyebrows from the man who worked the cash register. Bet they never saw rabbits that size in Zimbabwe.
Just outside the store, he noticed a young lady-of-the-night just starting her workday. She laughed in a nice, accepting kind of way, a way that warmed his heart. He nodded respectfully, careful to rest his cane on his arm and walk as though he didn’t really need the thing. Still, he was surprised when she came right up to him and tweaked his whiskers, a simple act which, for some reason, excited him, though he couldn’t actually feel it. It just felt like he could feel it.
She moved in closer, looked up at him with dark, almond-shaped eyes, and spoke in an alluring whisper.
“I’ve always wondered if what they say about rabbits is true. Now, I don’t know who you are behind this cute little bunny costume, but I bet I could make those big, furry feet go pitter-patter all night long.”
It didn’t help that he caught a whiff of some come-hither perfume that carried with it just a hint of class. The luscious scent caused his nose to wiggle in a delightful way. He finished the coffee in several gulps, and nervously wiped his whiskers.
Sometimes, at least lately, caffeine tended to make his heart race, but this was an emergency. Besides, his heart was already racing. It only started calming down when she laughed deliciously at his awkwardness and walked away into the night.
Peter remained a while in the half-light of the convenience store window to get his bearings, to make sure the caffeine was going to be beneficial instead of detrimental, and to let other parts of him calm down as well. When he was himself once more, he decided to continue his search down Walters Road. The caffeine hadn’t brought anything to the forefront of his mind, like where he had written the information about his daughter’s house, but he was confident it would happen in its own good time.
He stepped off the curb, walking with rather high steps to compensate for the costume and the huge, padded feet. On he went, in his own floppy way, contemplating the lovely creature he had just met. So much so, that it came as a shock when a very different creature, not so lovely, stepped out from the shadows.
His first thought was, “How absurd!” Yet there he was, a guy who looked to be high school age or early college, out to get what he hadn’t earned. A young man without the sense God gave a goose—and he was about to rob the Birthday Bunny.
In the time it took for Peter to sigh and shake his head in disbelief, he saw the flash of a knife and heard the demand for money. The audacity of this adolescent trying to rob an old man! But why was there hesitation in the young man’s voice? Why was he nervous?
Of course! The punk didn’t know he was an old man! He had no idea who or what was behind the rabbit costume! It explained the uncertainty he sensed in the young man’s body language. The fool may have assumed the cane was a prop, part of the costume, and for all he knew, an action hero could be inside the rabbit suit!
Peter felt a surge of power. It could’ve been the caffeine, but he didn’t have time to ponder the point. His heart was racing again, in a strong, sure rhythm. He could tell the kid was more scared than he was, so he decided to have some fun. He held up both rabbit paws and then trailed down one bunny arm with his right paw in a “See? Nothing up my sleeve!” attitude, much as a magician would do when putting on a show. He had always wanted to do that! Then he sneaked the twenty-dollar bill from the well-hidden pouch, as if it had appeared from thin air, waved it around for effect, and offered it to the hoodlum in a grandiose gesture, taking his top hat off as he bowed. The young man snatched the twenty, then hesitated.
Not wanting to start a conversation, and to keep from giving the little punk his pocket watch as well, Peter tilted his head to one side, crossed one leg over the other, put his hat back on, and rested both hands on his cane in a genuine th-th-th-th-th-th-th-that’s all, folks! The would-be robber gave a puzzled half-laugh, looked at the spectacle before him in an odd, somewhat bewildered fashion, backed up a few steps, and ran like hell.
It was too late to use the whistle, but it was reassuring to have it.
The performance over, Peter leaned against a telephone pole until he could breathe normally again and get his heart rate down to a tolerable level. This sort of thing had never happened to him before—at least, not a robbery at knife point. He remembered being scared back in Vietnam, the first time hed killed a man face-to-face. A little knife was nothing compared to an AK-47 pointed at your chest. Still, he had been a much younger man back then, or “back in the day” as the youngsters said, not knowing what year it was, much less what day.
His knees trembled a little, and he leaned heavily on the cane as he made his way back to the convenience store. He considered calling the police, then thought better of it. Who would believe a grown man in a bunny rabbit costume? Besides, the perpetrator of the crime was long gone by now, probably straight to the drug dealer. Maybe whatever drugs he got would enlighten him to see the error of his ways. Yeah, right. Maybe one day, when he grew up, the young man would write about his experience. After all, it was believed by many that Lewis Carroll had been high when he wrote Alice in Wonderland. The funny pipe, the Red Queen, the mushrooms, the pills. Very suspicious. And that cat, the one that kept fading in and out—what was that about?
Having grown up in the drug-laden 60’s and 70’s, Peter Goodbody wondered for a moment exactly how mind-altering the drugs of the 1800’s could have been, those in Lewis Carroll’s day. After all, Alice in Wonderland had become, and still was, a classic, right?
And what was that French saying from that same era, about things changing but staying the same? Whatever. Isn’t that what youngsters say now? If that’s all they could come up with, he felt sorry for them. No imagination. No creativity. No oomph. All headed nowhere, and not a clue how to get there. It is what it is—but only if you lack the courage to change it.
Hell, back in the day (there it was again), there were a lot of people doing drugs, but just as many who were naturally high. They called it being high on life. Didn’t need any freakin’ pills. Like the song said, “If you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re gonna fall—”
Isn’t that the whole premise behind social media? To feed your head?
“There’s a lot to be said for a mind that wanders,” Peter said aloud, “and for a generation that survived long enough to welcome their grandchildren into the world.” He brought his thoughts back to the present where he could deal with them.
The caffeine was kicking in—either that or adrenaline from the robbery. It happened so quickly. But he couldn’t seem to react to it. The whole thing seemed unreal, even though he knew it had happened. It was the possibilities of what could have happened that scared him, now that the whole thing was over. Oh, yes. What might have happened was very real indeed. He could’ve been killed, and it would’ve been over in seconds.
How horrible, he thought, taking a deep breath. How brave he’d been! Or how foolish. It had to be the costume. Of course. There’s power in anonymity. No wonder people wear masks to commit evil deeds, like human sacrifice, bank robbery, terrorist attacks. No comparison with a bunny costume, granted, but it gave a person an undeniable power. Yes, that was it.
He was sliding down his own private stream of consciousness and having a glorious time of it. Who would have dreamed there could be anything menacing about large ears, big feet, a top hat, and a vest—
He smiled beneath his bunny nose and slipped his hand into the vest pocket. Eureka!
There was the paper with the address and telephone number of his daughter’s house. It was there all along! How silly of him. He entered the convenience store and explained what had happened to the man behind the counter, who allowed him to make a call on the store phone.
Who would refuse a giant rabbit?
Peter Jefferson Goodbody stepped outside to breathe in the cool night air and wait for his ride. As it turned out, he was only five blocks from his daughter’s house. See? Incredibly close, and he’d done it all on his own! He rehearsed the scenario in his head. He’d tell his daughter he couldn’t take a taxi because he was robbed. Then, he’d relate the entire episode. That would show them Peter Goodbody could take care of himself!
He twirled his cane, whistled through his dentures, twitched his whiskers, and took out his pocket watch. The words from Alice in Wonderland echoed through his mind: “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!” He was indeed quite late, and for a very important date, but it had been one incredible, magical night, and he was ready for anything. He was young again, as if a giant hole had appeared in the middle of the parking lot, and he had jumped right into it!
How did it feel?
Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall!
(“White Rabbit” won “Honorable Mention” in the 2017 Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest and was included in the e-book anthology of winners for that year.)