by S. J. Bass
It was much later in the day and Greg noticed darkness creeping up behind him. It had been hot until now, but he couldn’t seem to remember where the sun had been even though the sky had remained cloudless all day. Nobody looks at the sun, he thought, people go blind staring at the sun. Those were his mother’s words. The straight flat road that stretched infinitely ahead of him vanished into a slurry grayish black filled with wavy heat lines. Cars passed him by and suddenly a big-rig truck hauling building materials almost blew him off his heels.
He’d been standing alongside this road for what felt like thirty minutes, or maybe it was over an hour by now. He wasn’t sure of the exact time, but he was thirsty, this he knew. Each time his parched tongue licked the inside of his cheeks he tasted a terribly gross staleness. A few feet ahead of him, he could make out a green sign supported by two poles with white lettering. It stood between him and the cactus-filled wilderness off to the East.
An air-dried blanket of raw chill wrapped around his body. He shivered and hugged himself. Winged things flew high in the sky, but he could not perceive what the dark animate things were. Meanwhile he kept his right thumb pointing skyward. Glancing back at the sign, it read, “What on Earth are you doing?”
“I’m not sure,” Greg said aloud to the sign, hoping an answer would follow. Maybe one would if he waited long enough.
Abruptly, a vehicle screeched to a stop a few feet past him and hugged the road’s shoulder. It was a classic 1970 blue Yenko Nova coupe 350 SC–seeing this beast made Greg smile. He whispered under his breath, “My dream machine.” A two-door with eight desirable cylinders of magnificent grunt, this one had white-walled tires and a white top. In that moment he heard the driver yell out the passenger window, “You need a ride out of here?”
The driver sounded kind and inviting. This persuaded Greg to quickly move toward the door, open it, and slide into the passenger’s seat. Closing the door behind him, Greg placed a seatbelt over his lap and turned to face his new travel buddy while they gained speed to merge onto the two-lane interstate highway.
Greg’s mouth went half-numb. “You’re a rab…”
“I’m a what? OH! You mean, a rabbit? I completely forgot to warn you because you were especially excited to see my Nova.”
“Yeah. About that!” Greg started to shake a little bit from shock and amazement. Under his worn clothes, his skinny body lacked enough meat on his bones to fend off the increasing frigid air that blew into the Nova. This made him shiver doubly so. Music played on low, a song from Creedence Clearwater Revival—Bad Moon Rising.
“Yep, Walter’s my name, Walter Rabbit. And you are?”
Walter held out his furry white paw with pink pads and grinned at Greg with a human-sized rabbit face, but not human enough. Although, he thought, maybe this is a guy in a rabbit suit. But Walter’s grin–a half-odd and half-cute sort of smile–traveled past his teeth and into pink gums that turned darker around the edges of his mouth. Too real, Greg thought, it’s too real. This led him to stare into Walter’s red beady eyes. Demonic looking, he thought. The rabbit kept smiling while keeping his left hand locked on the steering wheel at ten o’clock. Straightaway, the whole spectacle frightened Greg, but what could he do? He was strapped in for the ride like a wingless bug sitting on a lily in a small pond surrounded by hungry frogs.
Eventually he introduced himself because it was all he could do. “I’m Greg,” he said as he held out a trembling right hand. Walter’s right paw gripped Greg’s. His soft fur invited scratches as if it were the head of a friendly neighborhood cat. After a firm handshake his stomach rumbled, and he realized how hungry he was. Hungry and thirsty.
Walter reminded him of Edward, a pet rabbit he once owned back in Louisiana before his mother had moved him and his sister to California. Before their cross-country move, she made him release Edward into some nearby woods because their new apartment didn’t allow pets. He knew that if his father had been around, he would’ve been able to keep it.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Greg. I really hope we can be friends.” With this, Walter placed his full attention on driving. His hands gripped the wheel at ten and two. Occasionally he glanced at Greg and studied his condition. After a few minutes, he turned on the heater. “Comfy now?”
“Yeah,” Greg said, still astonished a rabbit knew how to drive, let alone talk. His senses returned, giving him a need to break this unshakable awkwardness. “How can you talk and how did you learn to drive? Is the DMV giving out licenses to everyone now?”
Walter grinned. “I’ve never taken a driver’s test.”
Greg turned away to see what was outside his window. He thought all this was very strange.
Not taking a driver’s test concerned him. Walter seemed a capable driver, and, after having experienced his fair share of psychedelics at sixteen, which might’ve been yesterday–or maybe it wasn’t–seeing this human-sized rabbit wasn’t entirely unusual. Had he taken drugs lately? He concluded that he must have. The words, “just enjoy the trip,” slid through his frontal lobe.
Greg shook off his worries. “Where’re we headed?”
Waiting for an answer, he glanced at the backseat for signs of anything strange. Stranger than a rabbit who could drive of course–a dead body perhaps–but then he thought a giant bag of carrots would be hilarious. He peered at the floorboard behind Walter and blinked in disbelief. He did indeed see a large half-empty bag of organic carrots with a cute white rabbit on the labeling.
“We’re going home, Greg.”
“I don’t want to go home.”
“We’re not going to your home, we’re going to my home.”
“But, don’t you live underground?”
Walter frowned. “Rabbits don’t always live underground Greg. We only do that during the winter.” Walter went back to smiling.
Greg looked down at his feet. His shoes were disheveled with soles in need of replacing. “Sorry, I didn’t know.”
“You didn’t, and it’s all right. Because it’s not true.” Walter chuckled. “Yeah Greg, that’s right, I don’t live underground, never have.”
Nodding to show he understood–not that he did–Greg eyed the passing landscape. The hillside held a strange green and purple hue like the brilliant northern lights of Iceland. A breeze carried a scent of roses that filled his nostrils and with this perfumed air, the mental image of a woman crept into his mind. Faceless at first, Greg found himself caught in her delicate spell. The scent jump-started his memory to that of his mother. The thought of her made him frown. They had fought daily before he drove away from home with the hope of never returning. Leaving her yelling at him from outside their front door, Greg never cast his eyes homebound. He wondered how long had it been now? A year perhaps?
Staring outside, Greg eyed a desert scattered with cactus and rolling tumbleweeds. Winged things filled the air always, feathered, and otherwise. Greg rolled down the window. Extending his arm outside to feel the breeze, there was something about the way it curled and licked at his fingers.
Glancing up at the sky, new white-winged web-footed creatures replaced the dark feathered sort.
Walter turned to Greg. “We’re in bat country now, so be careful with your arm outside my window.”
Taking Walter’s advice, Greg retracted his right arm and rolled up the window until only a few inches remained. A shriek cried out past the Nova alongside Greg’s window. This startled him enough to flash a worried glance at Walter. The rabbit avoided his gaze and kept handling the Chevy. Unshaken, he continued past the screeching demons. Greg wondered to himself, was life always this way, or is this the end of times? Deciding life was always both, depending on the month, he rubbed his eyes hoping to wake up from this dream. Why are these white bats suddenly reminding him of a surgeon’s gloves?
“Almost there,” said Walter as he exited the highway. Meanwhile, an utterly dark night had descended upon the land with an odd quickness.
Greg expected him to live in a suburb with rabbit neighbors just like him. Walter parked his rumbling Nova in the driveway of a pale brown and green one-story house. Under the streetlights he watched neighbors walking down sidewalks. There were indeed a few rabbits, while others were humans. Some held hands.
“Follow me,” Walter said, “my front door is around back.”
Not wanting to be rude, but still cautious, Greg followed him with hesitation around the side-yard. Stopping at doors planted at the base of the house, Walter opened it and stepped down. Greg examined the opening and saw a short set of stairs leading under the house and into a dimly lit hallway.
His eyes widened. “So, you do live underground!” he said.
Walter turned to look at him from the base of the stairs. “So I do!” He motioned for Greg to follow.
He stepped down and a lamp came alive, giving Greg a clear view of old paintings and piles of books stacked all about the place. Peering into what seemed to be a living room, Greg was amazed at all the books piled in corners and on top of furniture.
“Please, take off your shoes,” said Walter while moving past Greg, “and place them by the door. I like to keep a tidy house.”
Not tidy at all, Greg thought. Removing his shoes, he exposed his socks. These were worn with holes, but mostly clean. He washed them at least once a day at service stations. After his car had broken down months ago, all he did was walk.
“I love how you have so many books. Are you a collector?”
“Not as such,” said Walter as he removed some books from two chairs and sat in the one wrapped with burgundy leather. “In fact, I don’t read this book anymore. The author hasn’t written anything truly new for most of this year. It’s always the same boring journey that goes nowhere.” He motioned for Greg to sit across from him in a white leather chair.
Greg eyed the chair for a moment. It was a bright white leather, unused it seemed, and it gave off a slight glow. He sat, and the leather arms of the chair were cold under his forearms. He glanced from painting to painting while Walter lit his fireplace. For Greg, these paintings held a familiarity, reminding him of his life. With the fire lit, Walter sat down again.
Greg asked, “Did you say, ‘this book’, as in just one book?”
Skipping over Greg’s observation, Walter stood up again. “Do you want a cup of green tea with toasted brown rice?”
The sound of toasted rice–brown or not–in tea seemed completely wrong to Greg, but he accepted the gesture without hesitation. Walter then disappeared into the kitchen where he could be heard filling a kettle.
From the kitchen, Greg heard him say “If you feel like turning on my TV, go right ahead.”
In a corner now lit up by the fireplace sat an old black-and-white TV set. It reminded Greg of the one his father once had. As his mother had often complained, “That abusive bastard never paid attention to anything else over that damn TV and his favorite shows.”
He left after Greg had turned nine. But as the years passed Greg concluded that both his parents instigated their raging arguments. His mother always claimed different after his father left for good. She told Greg their squabbles were all his father’s fault. Staring at the TV brought him to an angry place, urging him to smash it. Another moment passed, and a deep sadness replaced his anger. He started to cry softly to himself.
A whistle blew, signaling that the tea was almost ready.
While the tea steeped, Greg’s gloomy thoughts circled inside his head and turned into an F5 tornado. He knew he never wanted to go back home to the chaos, but for reasons he couldn’t figure out right now, he started to miss his mother. She was a banshee, always yelling at him for ridiculous reasons. She even slapped him around sometimes when he mouthed off to her. But she also hugged him when he was sad and had kept a roof over their heads. After he could drive, he thought he was a man. Now he’s seventeen, at least, he thought he was seventeen. His birthday had silently passed as if his life were a lonely insignificant ant, squashed in the dirt below some tall grass. He wiped his eyes.
Greg twitched in surprise, making him cough a little. So deep in thought, he hadn’t heard Walter approach him. Regaining his voice after coughing enough to clear his throat, he looked toward the Rabbit. “Yes, Walter.”
Walter handed him tea in a flowery golden-rimmed cup. Greg smelled and sipped his tea. “Perfect,” he mumbled.
“What’s that, Greg?”
“I love this tea,” he said slightly louder. “I never thought toasted rice in tea would taste so perfect.”
“It’s an exciting world out there and people miss out on wonderful things by staying lost.” Walter stared at him for a moment while sipping his tea. “You know, it’s not about what happens to us on the outside, Greg. But it’s the truth of who we are inside ourselves that matters most.” Walter paused and watched Greg sip his tea, “Where were you headed back there when I picked you up?”
“Anywhere but home.”
Walter raised a floppy ear, “Why Is that?”
“Home is hell to me.”
“I see.” Walter took one step toward the TV and clicked the switch. With the channel resting on a medical drama, he sat down while Greg wondered why the comatose patient resembled him, and how the lady crying over that patient appeared to be his mother, only with a kinder face than he remembered.
Greg shook his head. “Can you please turn that off?”
“Someday we all have to face the hard truths in our lives. But you don’t have to face yours alone. I’ll always be around to help.”
“I should go. I can’t deal with this right now.” But as Greg got up to leave his curiosity overtook him. He was compelled to ask a burning question. “How are you doing all this?” Walter said nothing, instead he pointed to one of the many books scattered about.
He picked it up and flipped to the last few pages. On those pages Greg read his last moments, racing away in his beater two-door Honda after that terrible argument with his mother. In his anger he misjudged a corner, lost control, and crashed his car into a large oak tree, miles away from home. This had sent him into a coma. He remembered wanting to die that day. Back then he had no friends, nobody to talk to, and he missed his father. But he didn’t want to die anymore. “I understand Walter, I want to wake up now.” With his hands trembling and tears in his eyes, he dropped the book and said, “Tell me how to wake up!”
Walter handed Greg the keys to his Nova and explained to him, “Listen, you take my car and drive to the end of the highway. There, you’ll meet a short man. He’ll let you take a hot-air balloon ride. But you’ll need this ticket.” Walter handed him a red ticket: good for one ride. “Ride that balloon until you reach a small dark hole in the sky. It’s just small enough for you to fit.”
“And then what?”
“Then you get your life back.”
With the keys in his right hand, he thanked Walter and said, “Will I ever see you again?”
Walter pointed towards the door, answering, “Only in your dreams. Or if you happen to take psychotropic drugs.”
Greg laughed, and without further delay he rushed outside the house where he got into the Nova. The surrounding night had turned an even darker tar black. He started the engine and gave the Chevy a little gas. The potential power rumbling underneath his butt and at his fingertips made him grin.
Backing out, he screeched off down the street. All roads were closed except the one leading to a two-lane freeway at the mouth of an overpass. Taking this road, he drove for what felt like two hours. Time was uncertain because his confused mental clock screwed with his perception of it. Alongside the road, signs pointed in the direction he was headed. Each sign read, “Balloon Rides”, with the stated mileage decreasing the further he traveled. Above him no moon shone, no planets glowed, and stars were nonexistent. The road never curved.
Greg’s eyes started to blink from exhaustion. He almost missed an end to the road. A reflective orange sign seemed to appear out of nowhere. Stomping on the brakes he skidded to a stop. Through the smoke it read, “Balloon Rides to the right”. This led him to a dusty unpaved road, and as he turned, bathed in headlights and red dust, a three-foot-tall man in a colorful Christmas sweater stood before him. Behind the Short Man was a blue and white striped hot-air balloon attached to a wicker basket that floated a few inches off the ground.
Greg shut off the Nova but kept the headlights on and stepped out.
“So, you’re finally ready to take the ride,” said the Short Man while scratching the back of his head. “Do you have your ticket?”
“Yes,” he said as he handed the Short Man the red ticket and walked past him toward the balloon. Stepping up into the wobbly open doorway of the wicker basket, he pulled his body inside and turned to face the Short Man. “What now?”
“Now you go up.” The Short Man closed the basket.
A tall blue and yellow tipped flame licked the air at the mouth of the balloon. The Short Man untied several weights and upon letting go of the last one, he smiled and waved goodbye. The balloon floated up into the sky, losing itself in the darkness. Eventually, a deep calm surrounded Greg, making the sky seem unreal.
When the balloon had lifted higher and nearer to the wispy clouds, an occasional white bat flew past him. Greg ducked behind his basket’s walls. Giving the flame more juice, the balloon gained altitude. More bats followed and continued to gather. They circled his basket only a few feet away, their albescent skin creating a gleaming white ring around his balloon.
Greg searched the sky for that small dark hole, but only a black sky misted by clouds met his hopeful blue eyes. “This is just great!” he yelled, “Where is it, Walter?” Desperate, Greg lashed out at the bats with his fists, but he couldn’t reach them. He yelled at them to go away.
The white hoard paid no heed to Greg’s demands. Quickly rushing the balloon, each white bat sank their razor fangs into the balloon’s ropes. He stared at their hungry beady red eyes and pink gums exposed by blue-gold flames. Each bat he knocked away was replaced with a fresh one.
They continued chomping at the ropes, easily cutting them as if their teeth were scalpels. Only a few thick threads remained attached. These snapped, and Greg cried out. Tumbling out his basket, he threw his hands up toward the darkest of skies.
When he awoke, Greg lay in a hospital bed. Outside the window, the night sky was a misty darkness filled with stars stuck in the ink of time. Rain fell in blustery sheets and thunder rattled the glass. Lights from life-monitoring machines gave him glimpses of the room. His body had changed into something unfamiliar–skin and bones from atrophy and a liquid diet, he realized. He glanced around and rubbed his eyes for more clarity in the dim. Fixating on a shadowy corner across his room, he thought he made out Walter Rabbit sleeping in a hospital chair. Greg sat up to get a better look. A pink-gummed toothy smile formed under the whiskers. But then, quick as a flash, it wasn’t Walter anymore. His mother! She was dressed in all-white, her blue eyes widened, and she beamed a smile at him – all pink gums and giant white teeth.
Greg’s door opened, and a nurse entered from the bright hallway outside his door. At first, she appeared angelic, with fluorescent light draping the entire outline of her body. She turned on the lights and all illusions vanished. “You’re finally awake! Welcome to the real world,” she said. “This might come as a shock, but you’ve been in a coma for the better part of a year.” She looked him over as if waiting for a response, but Greg only blinked. “Do you have any family? Because we’ve looked and had no response. I’m sorry that a stranger has to tell you this, but nobody came for you and I’m not sure anyone will.”